Bayside Boatshop - Putt-Putt


Bayside Boatshop
by Ross Lillistone


Lying on the foredeck, Mike Rowe stared down the stem and contemplated the bow-wave of the small wooden boat. Behind him, and beyond the source of the regular “putoonk, putoonk, putoonk” emitted by the exhaust, Ken Foster sprawled in the stern sheets with his left arm laid out along the tiller. Ken’s look was distant, but relaxed.

The boat these men were operating was of the simplest type. Built half-a-dozen decades earlier of inch-thick topside planking, with inch-and-a-half on the bottom, she carried the scars of her life as a fishing boat and hire vessel. Although she could not hide her age, she had done what the other boats in the harbour could not – she had aged gracefully.

Recent events had been kind to this beautiful boat.

Ken had seen an entry in the classified section of the paper, offering some of a hire-boat fleet for sale. The business had changed hands and the owners were equipping themselves with a bunch of new, outboard-powered tinnies. Good business sense? Time would tell.

At first sight, a lesser man than Ken could have been put off the deal. What paint remained was cracked and peeling, oil and fish scales lay in the bilge, and the motor emitted blue smoke and rusty water. The planking and framing showed evidence of “quick-and-dirty” running repairs, in which chopped-strand fiberglass mat starred prominently.

Several months of hard labour had given Ken a renovated boat and a restored engine. New timber melded with old in a way which would have clashed in a more pretentious vessel, but which looked just right on this one. Brightwork was minimal, the paintwork was done in green and buff, and the engine displayed red paint, brushed bronze and drips of oil.

Mike Rowe and his son had left the workshop early in order to go for a ride in Ken’s boat. They were planning the construction of a new putt-putt boat and intended to use a W.M. Olds & Sons 4-6hp four-stroke also. This was an ideal opportunity to sample the experience. For over a year, their engine had sat silently in the workshop, moving only when one of them put on a few drops of oil and then turned it over by hand to feel the compression. Imaginations had run gently wild.

As Ken turned the crank-handle and his engine throbbed into life, they looked at each other in silent agreement. This was really good! Weather conditions were such that a trip around the harbour was more suitable that fighting the steep Moreton Bay chop whipped up by several days of 25 to 30 knot winds. The boat would have handled it without trouble, but that wasn’t the aim of the afternoon.

They spent over an hour touring the yacht harbour, and in that time they made some interesting observations. At one point they stopped to examine a putt-putt of a similar size to Ken’s. This boat was lapstrake (clinker) but made of moulded fiberglass. She carried all of the standard add-ons which are thought necessary to make a “character” boat – bits of teak, brass bow-chocks and bollards, a heavily varnished rudder and tiller…

Viewed amongst the surrounding plastic and alloy yachts, the ‘glass launch looked interesting and wholesome. But when Ken’s old thumper was tied-up near by, the new boat just looked silly. Despite having cost a tiny fraction of the price of the clinker production boat, the old and worn fishing boat won the looks contest hands-down.

Our trio felt no envy as they toured lines of millionaire’s play boats, but the eyes of many observers followed them with interest. Which boat was delivering the most fun for the dollar?

The bow-wave peeled off the side of the boat in a clean curl, swept down low amidships and rose to leave the transom in a gentle boil of prop wash and wake. Mike Rowe would have been happy to view this scene for hours, and he was captivated by the sense of speed. This speed seemed miraculous given the modest number of puts-per-minute, and the gentle rate at which the heavy flywheel was turning.

Although Mike was a sailor by nature, he found the motion of this fine boat to be incredibly relaxing. The frequency of the engine sound was soothing, and the noise level low enough to allow easy conversation. Despite this, the occupants did little talking. Instead, they absorbed the sounds of the water passing the boat, felt the wind in their hair, and drifted within their own minds.

Little wonder then, that these three people came ashore feeling relaxed and happy. Later, as they drove out of the car park, they saw a man who had glanced at their boat as he tied up his massive power cruiser. The man did not notice them this time, as they sat in the ute. He was concentrating on traffic while waiting for an opportunity to turn onto the main road. The big BMW accelerated past, and Mike Rowe observed that the man’s face looked fixed and preoccupied.