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No breaking point for this old mainstay

We stood on the dock in disbelief as our ride drifted out into the harbor — on fire. Watching your boat burn is never a good thing, and it’s worse when you’re on a faraway small island.

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The original Tranquillizer was a platform for fun in the Bahamas

We were in the Bahamas, many miles from the U.S. coast, many miles even from Nassau, and many miles from any fire department. So when we heard the poof and saw the fire and smoke shooting up, we pushed the boat off the dock, which happened to be a fuel dock, and stood there watching her burn. Until she went out. All by herself. As if ready for another ride.

The owner was an old friend, Herman Wenzel. We’d spent hours in that boat fishing in the ocean, day after day, with only birds in sight and the low island chain in the far distance. We’d run ocean inlets, with waves raging through reef, mounting up against racing currents. We’d darted around waterspouts and through thunderstorms. We’d used her as a freight boat to carry an ancient generator to the mail boat to Nassau. One dark night in her past she’d even been run at high speed into a rocky shore.

She was a tough old lady who could handle the sea like a longtime rough-and-tumble lover. She was a 22-foot Mako with a big Yamaha. She was old. And I loved her, even though she wasn’t mine. I’d first started loving boats as a small boy and would sit for hours on others’ boats, anchored off the beach where I lived. When I got my first boat at age 9, I’d sit in her for hours. I wasn’t allowed to untie the line at first, but I loved the feel of that boat, just sitting. But times pass, as did my days in my friend’s boat in the Bahamas.

But this boat was still fond in my memories when a friend back in the States, Pete Ashby, bought a well-used and somewhat abused 1985 Mako. She was 2 feet smaller but very much the same boat. She knew the sea and was built for bullets, which turned out to be a good thing. I loved it when Pete would take us for rides in her. Mel, my wife, and I would sit back, close our eyes, and feel the Bahamas through the feel of that boat. But the day came when Pete wanted another. It happens. She’d been through some tough times and needed a heavy dose of rehab. We bought her (Pete says he “donated” her) and set out to bring her back.

The Mako 22 of the Bahamas had been named Tranquillizer. It had been the name of several of Herm’s boats. The name had been painted on the quarters by an islander who used that spelling. Herman’s burgee was the South Pacific symbol of a small man rubbing his tummy with one hand while beating himself on the head with a club in the other hand. Some say this is a tranquilizer symbol. I think it’s a great symbol for my boats. They make me feel good even when they’re beating me up. It’s a circle, of sorts. When we got our Mako, Herm had passed, so we asked Helen, his wife and still our special friend, for permission to use the name and burgee. It was granted. Mel painted both on our old Mako, and she had her identity.

*    *    *

We began using her in the summer, when we return from the Bahamas. In the winter, before we head south in Chez Nous, we tenderly put her away, wishing already for another ride. The springs, when we return to her, are always full of surprises. I walk up to her, sitting high and mighty on the trailer, pull off the cover, and run for dear life as the hornets and snakes and spiders come spilling out. Then I set out with a hope and a prayer to get her going yet once more.

The first spring, when I headed off to the ramp to launch, I knew I needed new tires. But I had to offload the boat from the trailer first so I could jack it up and remove the wheels. It was only about a three-minute trip. What could go wrong? About 1.5 minutes into the trip I glanced in the rearview mirror to admire my boat. She was as beautiful as ever, but she also was listing hard to starboard. Boats aren’t supposed to do that when they’re on the trailer.

I pulled to the side of the lane, stopped the car, got out and got down on my hands and knees to look at my tire. Then I remained on my hands and knees to pray. The cracks in those tires looked like what you’d see in an aerial shot of the Grand Canyon. Now, I’m a firm believer in Fix-A-Flat (the tire inflator and sealant in a can), but I’ve noticed over the years that it doesn’t work when the tire’s off the rim.

Luckily, the trailer had four wheels, and I had a bottle jack. So I jacked it up, removed the wheel with the flat, hiked down the road (rolling it in front of me), found a guy with a big air compressor, and he and I had a fun time wrestling the tire back onto the rim and spitting on it to get a bead. It was still hissing like a scared snake on a mongoose farm, but I figured I had six cans of Fix-A-Flat (I have an old car, too) and that if I stopped every hundred feet or so, I could make it to the ramp and back. My calculations were right on the money, a term I try not to use these days when discussing my boats. The rest was easy. All I had to do was buy some tires.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but nobody I could find had ever heard of the numbers on my tires. One guy said this probably had something to do with the fact that these tires had been made before anybody working in a tire store today had even been born. And he was in his 60s. Finally giving up on the “do it yourself penny pinching” concept, I decided to take the wheels to a good auto mechanic’s shop down the road, where the sign says they can do anything.

I cranked the trailer up with a jack, inserted cinder blocks and wood, removed the wheels and took them in. They were glad for the business, even though they told me they had never replaced tires that old before. Like most good country mechanics, they knew their business and soon figured out what to put on the rims and ordered them to come on the very next truck, which was supposed to come in a “few days.” Then, they told me, they’d get the tires on the rims “right away.”

At the appointed “fewth” day, I called. “Are those trailer tires ready?” There was a very long pause. Then there was a noise that sounded like a cross between a gurgling and sobbing. Then, “Well, I’ve never seen anything like it,” the owner said. “I’ve never … They came all mashed up, and we can’t get them to go on the rim.”

“You mean they’re the wrong size?”

“No, they fit all right. It’s just that they came on the truck all mashed up, and we can’t get them tight enough on the rim so that we can fill them with air. The only thing we can figure to do is put an inner tube in each one, blow it up, let it sit for a long time to unmash the tire, and then it’ll fit against the rim enough so that we can put air in it, but we only have one inner tube that’ll fit, so we can only do one at a time. But we’ll get them done for you by this afternoon.”

Late in the afternoon I pulled up to the garage. “Are those trailer tires ready?”

The guy just looked at me, opened his mouth to say something, closed it again, shook his head, opened his mouth again, and then pointed silently over to a corner of the shop. All work in the garage had stopped except for that corner. And there I saw the entire garage crew — about eight people — standing and staring in amazement at the tire man, who was down on the floor, rolling and thrashing and wrestling and hugging a tire around one of my rims while another guy was trying to get it to hold air. Another tire was on a rim with a cargo strap cinched tight around it in a hopeless effort to make it fit snug. Nothing was working, except the one-tire-at-a-time inner tube fix.

The owner looked at me with mute disbelief on his face. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back tomorrow. There’s no way we’re going to get this done today. We’ve been trying all day. Those guys haven’t got anything else done since 10 this morning.”

I looked at the poor guy on the floor wrestling the tire and figured I wouldn’t blame him in the least if he pulled out a gun and shot the thing. Then I’d have to pay for a patch, too. But I wouldn’t have complained. So I smiled and said, “That’s fine, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

The next day all was well, and they charged me the normal fee, muttering, “We’re never going to use that truck again. Damned fool said they packed ’em tight like that so they could stuff in extra tires.”

I put the wheels back on and knew my luck had finally changed when, while taking a test ride with the rig, I saw a nice trailer roller lying in the middle of the road. I stopped the car, looked around to be sure that nobody was seeing me pick up this road kill, grabbed the roller, and jumped back into the car, a smile on my face. It’s always nice to have spare parts, especially for an old trailer like that. The first thing I noticed when I got back to the parking lot was that the trailer was missing a roller — the very one I held in my hand. I should have taken these things as an omen.

*    *    *

Each spring I first get the engine going while the boat is on the trailer. I figure there’s no need to go through the hassle of launching if she isn’t going to run. On occasion this has meant a squirt of the ultimate of evil — only because the old engine, after sitting cold and neglected all winter, needs a little encouragement. I’m talking about a substance the name of which should never pass my lips, the use of which should never be considered except in the darkest hours of despair when all hope has deserted the soul. I’m talking here about … ether. (I think the politically correct word is “starting fluid,” but I’ve never been politically correct, especially when it comes to outboards.)

All the experts say not to use it or even think about it. They’re right; experts always are. But, after all, this 200-hp brute of a Yamaha was built in 1985. And when I’m that close to the end of my days and still trying once again to get up on plane, I hope somebody gives me a whiff of some good stuff, too. And boy does she like it. Despite the dire warnings of ruination, she still runs today, although I’ve learned that there’s far more to it than just getting that outboard to start.

One spring I hauled Tranquillizer to a ramp on the trailer, started the engine, smiled as the gear shifted with no trouble, and started to take off. But the wheel wouldn’t turn. It was frozen like a wooly mammoth in Siberia. There’s always an answer for that. It’s not an answer experts recommend, but it’s an answer I use. You tap the end of the rod or whatever else is sticking. So I did. And it still didn’t budge. I tapped it again. And again. What the heck. I hit the hell out of it. Yes, I knew I might be spreading the rod and ruining it forever, but at this point I didn’t care. And besides, there’s nothing in all this world that makes you feel better than hitting an outboard with a big hammer.

So I swallowed my pride and asked a friend about it. He’s one of these guys that can do just about anything if he wants to. Part of the reason he’s so good at fixing things is when this guy hits something, he hits it. I put pressure on the wheel (not too hard — didn’t want to strip it) and he whaled away. At first it looked kind of grim. The thing didn’t budge. I was considering applying heat in the hopes that if heat failed to free the rod it would at least burn up the engine.

Finally, after multiple squirts of PB Blaster, it started to move. The channel bore on the Yamaha through which the rod slides had corroded badly. There was so much rust and old grease and other stuff in there it looked like the inside of a New York storm drain. (Don’t ask me how I know what that looks like.) We didn’t have a wire brush big enough to clean it out, so my friend got a long, thick bolt and used the threads to file out the bore. He called it his “Bohemian file.” We cleaned and greased the rod and stuck it back in. Soon that motor was turning like a young man’s head in a strip joint.

Now I perform certain rites when I store the boat for the winter. I remove the rod at the end of the cable from the tube on the Yamaha in which it customarily slides. I clean out the tube with a round wire brush. I spray protective grease inside. I also grease the rod itself, turning the wheel so it protrudes from the sheath to its max and then running it back in, slathered with grease. And, yes, I use the “manufacturer’s recommended lube,” whatever that is.

I then run it out again, grease it again, and cover it with plastic wrap, securing that with wire ties. I do not reinsert it into the tube on the motor, saving that pleasure until next spring, at which time I clean the tube and lube it again. I haven’t had any more frozen steering cables (yet), but I’ve had plenty of other issues, including one later that season.

Before starting the Yamaha on Tranquillizer, you must pull out the shift lever/throttle so you can give ’er fuel while she’s in neutral. One day early in the game, I jumped in for a ride and found I couldn’t pull out the lever, or shift it, no matter how I tried. Obviously, the problem had to be a frozen linkage cable. No problem. I disconnected the cable. Oh joy! It worked just fine, but the throttle mechanism still

didn’t work at all. This wasn’t what I wanted.

Getting one of those things off a center console is like pulling out the insides of a space shuttle while you’re upside down. No, I haven’t done it, but I have stayed in a Holiday … never mind. I spent about a day jammed into the nether spaces under the center console until I finally got the thing off and totally disconnected. Then I took it apart. Then I sat and stared.

There were springs, levers, cogs, indents — heck, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a cow in there. I knew right away there couldn’t be any piece missing. You couldn’t have squeezed another part in there with a 10-foot crowbar.

When I don’t have a clue about how to fix something, I sit and look at it. When I still don’t have a clue, I set it aside and think about it, usually all night long, hoping to get a clue. After several nights of this with no revelations, I decided to check how much a new control would cost. The answer to that question infused me with the fervor of the crusaders. I was going to fix it myself.

There is an old saying that if you put enough monkeys around enough pianos for enough years they’ll come up with a work like a Mozart. This has inspired me in many hopeless projects. I tackled that mess of parts and finally found that something was bent. That’s all it was. A bent piece of metal. Someone in the past had tried to force the lever. A set of Vise-Grips got it straight. Then all I had to do was remember how to put it all back together and how I’d taken it off the console, but finally, with much trial and error (with emphasis on the later), I got it all back together, and it worked. The monkey with no money, but a lot of time, had done it again.

*    *    *

And then came last summer. I performed the normal rites of getting the Yamaha running again, as usual, with bated breath. She fired right off. She shifted well. The wheel turned well. “Hallelujah! Let’s get this baby in the water.”

When I got her back to the dock and shut her down, I noticed a tiny bit of sheen on the water after I tilted the engine. Figuring it was residue from my maintenance and spring lube job, I soaked it up with a piece of Star brite absorbent pad. The next day Mel and I went for a ride. When I lowered the engine I noticed another very tiny sheen — almost invisible. I soaked it up, and we took off for a great ride.

When we were back at the dock, I tilted the outboard, and it stopped halfway up, refusing to move even though the hydraulic motor was running. And there was another almost imperceptible sheen. We ignominiously towed the Mako back to the ramp, hauled it out, and brought it back for work. I was thinking, If I can’t figure this out, no more fast Tranquillizer rides until I win the lottery, because I can’t afford another outboard.

I checked the tilt motor fluid, and it was very low. Must be a leak somewhere, I thought. I filled the chamber, let the air bleed out, and the motor began tilting again. I looked closely at the tilt mechanism as I raised and lowered the engine, and I saw absolutely nothing. No leaks. Then I noticed something very strange.

On a bolt at the bottom of the left fork of the mounting bracket, I saw a tiny bead of oily fluid. This bolt had nothing to do with the tilt hydraulics. It

wasn’t even below the tilt motor, lines, ram or any other part of the system. It was screwed into the solid metal of the mounting fork. There was no fluid chamber or passage inside this, so hydraulic fluid couldn’t have dripped onto that bolt or migrated there or found its way via an inside passage or gotten there any other way. It must be left over from my corrosion spray, I hoped. It looked and smelled like hydraulic fluid to me, but this would have been impossible.

I wiped off the drop and operated the tilt motor again, watching closely. I saw nothing. No leaks, drips or dribbles. But when I looked at that bolt, there was another tiny bead of oil. This is crazy, I thought. By this time I was beginning to think I was going nuts, a familiar feeling when you mess with outboards.

So I crouched down with my face about a foot from the bolt and asked Mel to operate the tilt as I watched intently. As before, a bead materialized on the bolt, out of nowhere. But something else happened. I noticed a very fine speck of something on my glasses lens. I wiped the speck off and noticed that it seemed to be oily. I looked at the bolt again, even closer, as the tilt motor whirred. A fine mist of oil — so fine that it was almost invisible — splattered from the side of the bolt and onto my eyeglass lens. I put my finger up to the bolt, and it became oily. Then I saw a nearly invisible, tiny stream of fluid that was being sprayed across space from a curled stainless high-pressure hydraulic pipe under the ram. It was hitting the bolt. This only happened when the tilt motor was operating. The pinhole in the pipe was so small I couldn’t see it no matter how closely I looked. Voila!

The line cost less than $30. I ordered it and had it on in four days.

We began a summer of very nice rides. So nice, in fact, that one day while out on the Chesapeake I decided to call Pete, the friend who’d sold me the boat, and gloat a bit. He was in California tasting wines, and I’m sure he was happy to hear me extolling the virtues of the boat he’d recently dumped (“donated”).

It was less than five minutes after the conversation that the low-oil alarm went off. The oil tank was nearly full, but the reservoir was indeed low. We got back by pouring oil from a spare container into the reservoir, and I set to work. I could hear the pump on the side of the tank trying to move oil, but unsuccessfully. Filter, I thought. As you’d figure, the filter (and the pump) resided in a space next to the hull with about an inch of clearance, necessitating that I remove the entire tank assembly. A dirty and bloody hour later, the whole mess was in my lap.

I drained the oil from the tank to avoid additional spillage and saw a silver foil stuck in the feed hole for the pump. It had been the cap liner for a container of outboard motor oil. Somebody in the past had dropped it in while adding oil. It had just happened to pick that time — the time I was bragging about the boat and motor — to clog the line.

Some boats, I suppose, are just boats; others have their special magic. Mine always have. I think that with a boat you can change the magic by changing the engine. The boat and motor are often thought of as one, but they aren’t really — or are they?

It has been suggested to me by numerous people that this motor long ago served its usefulness and that I should get a new one. I can afford to buy a new outboard like I can afford to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But that’s OK. That big Yamaha is still helping me enjoy the Mako, in a perverse sort of way, making yet another circle in my boating life.

These days I can’t afford the gas to run that huge motor, so I’m spending some wonderful afternoons just sitting in Tranquillizer at the dock, sensitive to her gentle tug on her lines but enjoying the feel of her as she just floats, moving with the wavelets, silently. And nothing breaks.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.