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Talkin’ boats with Mike Muessel Owner Oldport Marine Services

We should all be envious of Mike Muessel’s youth. As a son of a lighthouse keeper, he grew up boating first on Lake Superior and then on the Gulf of Alaska before returning to Lake Superior. His fourth stop was his final one: Newport, R.I., where he has operated Oldport Marine for 41 years.

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The diverse business specializes in diesel repowering and repairs, but it also builds the single-diesel Oldport 26 for its launch service in Newport, shuttling boat owners throughout the harbor ( Muessel and his partner, Ron Ackman, who retired last year, have completed hundreds of repowers on boats (power and sail) to 60 feet.

Muessel, 65, who has no intention of retiring, is quite the yachtsman himself. He restored a 1958 Huckins Sportsman 34 and hopes to complete the refit of a second Huckins, a 1959 Sportsman 40. He owned for 20 years a 50-foot sailboat designed by Henry Gruber and raced it actively in New England regattas.

Muessel’s wife, Beverly Joslin Muessel, works at Oldport as the human resources manager, and his son, Will, 15, helps out, too. When Muessel is away from boats, he can be found working on one of his restored MG sports cars or 1960s Honda motorcycles or playing or coaching ice hockey.

In this interview, Muessel talks about his boats, of course, but also how today’s light and powerful diesels have changed boating and his business. He describes his favorite repowering project and recalls the transition of Newport from a Navy to a yachting town.

Q: Tell us about the business you own — Oldport Marine in Newport.

A: I am the owner and chief cook and bottle washer. My business partner, Ron Ackman, retired last year, so I am pretty much in charge of the whole works. We have been in business for 41 years and have always been hands-on guys, so we’ve done just about everything except for bookkeeping. We’ve been mechanics, launch operators, mooring inspectors, boatbuilders, captains and salvage masters.

Q: What do you offer now?

Muessel's company builds the Oldport 26 launch and offers launch serivce in Newport.

A: We do mooring rentals and launch service here in Newport. We have a sightseeing boat that does harbor tours. We sell engines and repower boats, and we repair engines. And we have water taxis, and we build our own launches. We’ve been Yanmar diesel dealers for 30 years. We’ve put Yanmar power in every boat we’ve built, and we’ve repowered hundreds of boats and put Yanmar diesels in all of these. It is the only engine we handle and probably will ever handle. We are well-versed and carry all the parts. Our chief mechanic, Mike LeBlanc, has been with us for 32 years and is probably one of the pre-eminent diesel mechanics on the East Coast. And he just hit 50 and has a ways to go with us — I hope. One other thing: We have with the city of Newport a harbor shuttle to help reduce boat traffic. That has been up and running for three years.

Q: Describe the Oldport 26 for our readers.

A: It’s a full-keel, Down East-style boat with a sharp entry, built-in spray rail and a single 75-hp Yanmar diesel. It’s highly maneuverable and will turn in either direction in its own length. It has primitive seating, with an engine box that doubles for seating. We just completed the 135th, and they are sold to various yacht clubs and commercial businesses. We have shipped them as far away as Aruba and Turkey. Oldport uses six of them.

Q: How many repowers per year do you complete?

A: Usually 10 to 15 per year. We’ve done boats of all sizes and shapes up to about 60 feet. The percentage of sail versus powerboats is related to the economy. We do more powerboats when the economy is good and more sailboats when it’s not so good. We are still concentrating on sailboats now, but we have been getting more calls for powerboats — more than we’ve had in four or five years.

Q: What has been the most challenging repower or boat project?

Muessel turned this 1958 Huckins Sportsman 34 from a 'junk' into a real showpiece.

A: A boat that I bought for myself — a 1958 Huckins Sportsman 34. There are only three of those boats built, and only two are left. I bought the boat as a junk and paid very little money for it — around $5,000. It was down in Florida and stored in the water for about four or five years and never moved. I bought it sight unseen and had it trucked up here and proceeded to throw half of it in the dumpster.

I restored the hull and all the woodwork. I did all the glasswork. I scraped the bottom by hand myself because no one else would do it. I reglassed the bottom and the topsides and Awlgripped the entire hull with roller and brush. I installed a new cockpit using Nida-Core, trying to go with lightweight materials. And, of course, I put in new engines — Yanmars — and rewired the boat and replumbed everything.

I think I made the boat a real showpiece. I think Mr. Huckins would be very fond of it. Mr. Huckins was a guy who built the boats light, strong and seaworthy, with performance in mind. He never used much varnish on the outside; just the toerails and a couple of the exterior doors are varnished. The hulls were always painted a light gray so you would not be able to see the dried salt.

He made these boats go. Back in the ’50s he had boats that cruised at 20 knots and would do 30 knots. With modern lightweight diesels, these boats are capable of doing a lot more than that. I also found a 40-foot Sportsman, and I’m in the process of restoring that right.

Q: Tell me about that boat.

A: I am basically going through the same process with that boat. I have repowered it and repainted it and replumbed and rewired it. Some of the guys who work for me help me out on weekends. This boat has twin Yanmar 260s and cruises easily at 20 knots, and I can get 28 knots out of it. So I have all the performance of a brand-new boat in a boat built in 1959. The Huckins folks are the oldest continuous builders in the U.S. Their factory is still in Jacksonville. They have all the original plans and the original patterns for the castings and have been a great source of help and inspiration. There are many Huckins out there. What a great boat to restore.

Q: Do you have a repower or project that you are most proud of?

A: We did an engine installation for J.P. Mouligne. He sailed in one of the round-the-world races about 15 years ago. We installed a Yanmar auxiliary engine for him that would provide emergency propulsion if he needed it, and he never did. The primary purpose of the engine was to provide battery charging and ballast pumping for his water ballast. We designed a special installation bracket system and installed a 200-amp alternator in it and a big 2-inch saltwater pump for his water ballast. He went around the world, and he had no problems whatsoever — never even had to change the belts on the engine.

Q: What kind of impact has the modern diesel had on boating and repowering?

Oldport Marine specializes in repowers and is a Yanmar diesel dealer.

A: The majority of our repowers are older fiberglass production boats. With the new lightweight, strong diesels you can get modern performance out of older powerboats. The engines of 30 years ago were hampered. They ran at low rpm. They were heavy and noisy. They couldn’t put diesels in the Bertram 31 because when it was built there was no propulsion package small enough and light enough to make the boat perform up to its potential.

Now many people are repowering these boats and getting great performance out of them. We also see older Blackfins, Hatterases, Luhrs and Pacemakers. The deep-vee hulls really benefit. Chris-Craft built a boat called the Tournament Sport Fish that was a Ray Hunt design. This boat and the others have become so much more sought-after because of the modern diesel.

Q: How have engines changed over the past two decades or so?

A: They have a much higher horsepower-to-weight ratio. They are much smoother and quieter, and they run cleaner. Because of all this, today’s diesels compete head to head with gas engines. Twenty years ago, if you wanted a performance boat with a lightweight engine, you were forced to go with a gas engine, but now you can go with a diesel and get better performance and burn probably 30 percent less fuel.

Some of the 2-cycle diesels were very smelly and smoky. Even 4-cycle engines were not all that clean. The common-rail diesels burn so clean with their multiple-stage injectors. They only inject enough fuel to keep the engine operating at its optimal level. There is no surplus fuel being used.

Q: Do you have a favorite old engine and modern engine?

A: My favorite old engine was the Yanmar 3QM30, which was a 3-cylinder, slow-revving, heavy-duty engine used mostly for sailboats, although we did use quite a few of them in our launches. They were one of the predecessors to the new lightweight diesel. It was a rugged engine and somewhat heavy, compared to today’s engines, but they lasted forever and are still out there. Yanmar used them in tractors. I actually have one.

My favorite new engine is the Yanmar 8LV, which is an electronically injected common-rail engine. It’s light, smooth, quiet, smokeless and weighs only about 1,000 pounds. It has tremendous torque and horsepower. They are getting 370 hp out of an engine that weighs only 1,000 pounds. And the engines can be linked to Yanmar’s new joystick control system. [Search “yanmar joystick” at Soundings for more on Yanmar’s joystick.]

Q: How much horsepower would an older 1,000-pound engine generate?

A: About 100 hp — about one-quarter of what the engines are getting now. We have removed many huge old diesels that were burdensome to a boat and never allowed the boat to perform. An example is Brownell boats, built in Mattapoisett, Mass. They had a great hull, but the diesels were too heavy to allow the boat to perform like it could. If you get an older Brownell — and we have repowered a number of these boats — and take out the heavy GM diesel — some of those engines weigh 3,000 to 4,000 pounds — and replace it with a 1,000-pound modern engine you suddenly have a boat that will achieve performance levels that no one would think was possible 30 years ago.

Q: What engine technologies impress you?

A: We have all looked at electric boats recently, and I think the electric boats have a lot of potential. There is a new electric launch being built in Newport — a one-off, cold-molded boat. I have looked at it, and it should be very interesting. The builder is using AGM batteries, but lithium ion batteries are making their approach into the yachting scene. They are probably a little too expensive right now, but they are lighter, and they ostensibly last longer and take a faster charge. As time goes on and prices start to come down, we will see a lot more electric systems in boats.

Q: So when is an electric boat practical?

A: It depends on the use of the boat. Right now it is mostly dayboats or cruising boats or boats that have auxiliary power, like a sailboat. It would be impractical for our launches that run 18 hours a day, but I am sure the day is coming when they will be more practical.

Q: When is it wise to repower, and when is it unwise?

A: Fiberglass boats are going to be around forever. While the hull may be good, the systems inside the boat become old and unreliable. Those are good candidates for repowering and refitting. You can buy one of these boats for short money and upgrade all the systems and come away with a viable, usable boat for a lot less than a new boat.

If your boat is in poor condition overall and you put a new engine into the boat, it is like trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and you will never get your money back out of it. But maybe money is not the driving force.

You would not believe some of the boats we have put new engines in. When you look at some of these boats you just shake your head. But these people love their boats, and they don’t want to give them up. And they price out a new boat and see how much money they will have to spend, and they simply cannot afford it, so they choose to repower their old boat. Many times it is an economic decision, as well as aesthetic reasons. They don’t like the look of modern boats.

Q: In all of the boats you have repowered, was there one that was clearly in the worst condition you had ever seen?

A: A 42-foot sailboat. The owner was in the Navy at the Newport base, and he was being transferred to Norfolk [Va.]. He wanted it repowered. It was in terrible condition. It looked horrible. It looked like it was ready for the scrap heap, but he wanted a new engine. Along the way, we told him the wiring needed to be done and the plumbing, too. He said, “I will worry about that stuff later on.” The paint was flaking off the hull. The deck and cockpit had bad paint jobs, and the wood on the boat looked horrible, but he insisted. When we finished, he started it up and went to Norfolk and never had a problem with it. And to this day I don’t think he has done anything more to it. He loves the boat.

September 2013 issue