Above, Maunie at anchor in the Hunga lagoon and British Seagull - rust in peace
We have moved to the island of Hunga to the west side of the Vava'u archipelago. It's an ancient volcano so we are in the sheltered lagoon, accessed via a scarily narrow and shallow pass on the western side, anchored off the village that's home to about 300 people. The volcanic soil is rich and dark so the plantation next to the village is very productive; yesterday we traded a t-shirt and cap for some papaya, coconuts and a local leafy plant which we cooked like spinach.
As we walked around the village we came upon the remains of a British Seagull outboard motor which brought memories flooding back for me (Graham). These iconic machines were produced in Poole, Dorset, for about 60 years to a design that didn't really change very much in that time. Anybody who used a dinghy tender in the 70's will probably have used a Seagull and probably will still bear the scars; these were the days before the arrival of fancy Japanese engines with their namby-pamby, user-friendly features and smart, noise-reducing covers. British Seagulls were a challenge and the successful mastering of their idiosyncratic ways was an important life lesson. My first encounter was aboard the Wayfarer sailing dinghy belonging to a great family friend, Keith Hodgson, as we motored noisily around Fleet Bay in Scotland in search of mackerel when a flat calm descended upon us and I've dealt with a few since then; we had one for the dinghy on Dad's boat for a while.
The chief outputs of a Seagull were, in descending order: Noise; Smoke and (coming up a rather distant third) Locomotive Power. Starting and stopping the beasts were challenges that tested your manhood (these motors were definitely Not for Girls) and there were plenty of opportunities to inflict injury upon yourself. Even carrying the things from the car to the dinghy was tricky. The old press adverts for British Seagulls had a drawing of a jolly sailor, duffle bag in one hand, Seagull hoisted onto a, presumably well-padded, shoulder but the reality was that there were lots of knobbly and sharp bits to dig into your flesh and the engine would inevitably have a general coating of sticky black oil which would spread itself onto clothes and sails if you weren't careful. They also weighed a tonne. The engine in the advert must have been the Forty Featherweight which, admittedly, a strong man could probably lift unaided but the bigger engines – the Forty Plus, the Century and the Century Plus – were definitely two–man-plus-block-and-tackle affairs. The quaint names gave no clues to vaguely useful information such as horsepower but I remember that Keith's Century model was incredibly heavy yet managed to push the Wayfarer along at no more than 5 knots.
The Seagull designers obviously took inspiration from steam locomotives, using lots of cast iron and brass, and they didn't believe in hiding the moving bits from view and out of harm's way. Most obviously there was a completely unguarded spinning flywheel at the top of the motor. To start the engine you took a 3ft length of rope with a knot in one end and a round plastic ball in the other (Keith used a Clacker confiscated from a child at his school – if you don't know what a Clacker is, ask your parents), put the knot into a notch at the top of flywheel, wrap around 6 turns of rope and prepared to pull as hard as you could. First, though, you'd adjust the shiny chrome throttle lever to what you though would be the optimal position, flick the choke flap into place, stretch the muscles in your shoulder and mutter a dark threat ("Now then, you bastard" was my favourite). Your first to 13th pulls would result in nothing but a belligerent chug from the recalcitrant machine so you'd repeat the process, fiddling haplessly with the throttle and trying to judge when the carburettor was about to become flooded (this was the moment to flick the choke flap open). Finally, just after you'd uttered the immortal phrase "That's it, the bloody thing isn't going to start, get the oars out" a final pull would see the motor suddenly burst into deafening life.
The next phase of the Seagull challenge would immediately be upon you. The things had no clutch (unless you owned for the monstrously heavy Century Plus) so were always in forward gear; the unexpected ignition would see the boat immediately surge forward. If you were really unlucky, the knot of the starter cord would get stuck in the flywheel and the cord, plus Clacker, would whirl viciously around the engine, making it impossible to get at the tiller or throttle without being whipped painfully. In any case, stopping a Seagull at the best of times was an art in itself since there was no off-switch; you just closed the throttle and hoped it would die. Usually it would keep going with a lumpy 'tickover' of about 100 rpm and I have seen brave people adopt a Sumo Wrestler stance and grab the spinning flywheel with both hands. A safer method was to put the palm of your hand over the trumpet-shaped air intake to the carburettor; the suction would leave a circular mark on your flesh (that would wear off after a couple of hours) but it at least starved the beast of oxygen and the sudden quiet that descended over the boat would make you aware of the ringing in your ears. Honestly these engines would have a modern health and safety officer run screaming into the trees. An environmental officer wouldn't like the Seagull much either. It was, of course, a 2-stroke engine so you mixed oil into the petrol to lubricate the moving parts. Our new Tohatsu 9.8hp outboard uses a frugal 100:1 mix (1 part oil to 100 parts petrol) but the Seagulls needed 10:1 so your progress would be followed by a haze of blue smoke to add to the noise pollution.
As the quiet, light, efficient and clean Japanese competition gained a stranglehold on the UK boating market, British Seagull belatedly attempted to modernise its designs with, shock-horror, the addition of a recoil starter and a noise reducing cover but fundamentally the works beneath remained unchanged so the additions had all the effectiveness of a whale-tail spoiler on a Morris Minor. The brand died and today all around the world there will be the remains of these engines lying unused. They won't rust, due to the years of oil leaks, so they remain as a testament to British over-engineering and under-development. I'm sure that there's a society for the preservation of old outboards somewhere in the UK who keep a few of these old motors going and I believe that Keith's eldest son Nick has kept his dad's old Century – polished and chromed to the nth – as an ornament. Half a gallon of 10:1 mix, a few well-chosen words and no more that 20 pulls on the Clacker would probably see it burst into life once more.
A note from Di: if the above blog has gone right over your head, you're not alone. The only detail that woke me up was the mention of Clackers. Yes, I remember them being banned so my pair sadly ended their life hanging on the handle of my wardrobe door as I wasn't aware of their value to Seagull owners. For slightly younger readers, well you don't know what you've missed and you should regard today's blog as a history / engineering lesson!!