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I'll take a set of oars over an outboard

I don’t know why I wrote a column on outboards.

I hate the darn things. I’ve never owned an outboard that I trusted, that didn’t let me down. Wait a minute … maybe it wasn’t the outboards. Maybe the problem rests with me.

Mike Saylor

The only time I’ve had success with outboards was going offshore with friends when I was a kid. We’d leave City Island, N.Y., in a 14-foot boat powered by a low-horsepower outboard — I don’t even remember the make — and we’d go into the Atlantic to watch the big ships come into New York Harbor. We had no charts and, occasionally, we had a Boy Scout compass. We’d get well out of sight of land and sometimes end up in fog. We always made it back without a problem. Talk about luck.

Since that time, my experiences with outboards has gone downhill. Even our powerboat, with its electric-start 40-hp Evinrude, took several tries by me before catching but, in truth, it did start. To avoid aggravation, my wife, Lou, would usually start it. However, this didn’t do much for her confidence in boating. At this time, starting the engine was the only thing she knew, or did.

1. When I was transferred to Canada for work, we sold our powerboat and bought a wooden cutter-rigged centerboarder with a 9.5-hp Mercury outboard installed in the lazarette. It was a good engine, I suppose. It had forward and reverse gears and functioned as an inboard, since there was no room to turn the engine. All that was to the good except for one thing: I couldn’t start the darned thing! It would start for everyone else. After sweating in my fruitless attempts to start the monster, I would ask any 10-year-old nearby to give it a try — and the engine would start, usually with one or two pulls.

2. My war with outboards became a standing joke on our dock and then the entire boatyard. I gave it to the yard mechanic, who overhauled it. Still, no-go for me. If Lou was with me, she could start it. My daughters could start it, and their friends could start it. If I was alone, someone had to start the #!%* thing for me. I finally lost it one day. I opened the lazarette hatch and, without unfastening it from its mount, tore the engine and mount from the boat and tossed it overboard. Then I had to dive in and retrieve it before it started leaking fuel. I then bought a little 5-hp Eska with no neutral or reverse. I couldn’t start that either. I once pulled the starter cord, pulley and recoil mechanism off trying to start it.

3. Even the old, reliable British Seagull wasn’t reliable in my hands. (British commandos used them during World War II because of their simplicity and reliability.) One positive thing to come about from my losing battle with the “Iron Breeze” was that I learned to sail without relying on engines, outboards in particular, of course. I learned to sail into and out of slips, and to dock “Mediterranean” style (stern-to) without an engine. This turned me into a much better seaman than I could ever have become had I been able to rely on engine power.

4. When we cruised, some sort of tender was a necessity, since we would often gunkhole. Rowing an inflatable is problematic against a headwind or in a chop — the only way to make progress is to kneel in the bow and paddle — so we chose a good rigid dinghy. To accommodate our crew, including daughters and our 90-pound Airedale terrier, we had an excellent quality 11-footer that we powered with oars — nice long oars with their throats shaved down to provide more spring to the stroke. To me, rowing is a lot more pleasant than motoring with an outboard.

5. Rowing about and looking at the boats in harbors, marinas and yacht clubs often brought about conversations with the people on board and invitations to join them in a “sundowner.” I met many nice boaters that way.

6. It’s not as if I didn’t take care of my outboards. I was scrupulous with regard to their maintenance. I even helped with two deliveries of more than 100 miles each for friends with small sailboats. In both instances, despite my reservations regarding outboards, the passages were successful and essentially uneventful. That’s probably because the outboards were used as little as possible. But on those occasions that power was applied, I was able to start them without emotional and physical trauma. Go figure.

7. I always thought that outboards, even the old slow-turning Seagulls, were noisy and smelly. By the way, I also had problems starting lawn mowers. Maybe 2-strokes are my problem. Maybe a quieter, less smelly 4-stroke would work out for me.

8. Or maybe I just don’t like outboards.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue.