I’m currently the proud owner of five outboard motors. I don’t need or want five outboard motors. I would quite happily throw them all into the sea tomorrow if it wasn’t for my admirable sense of care for our marine environment. Let me explain. At first I had only one outboard motor, it came with Macavity and was an old 7.5 HP Mercury of unknown vintage. This motor made it’s intentions perfectly clear on our maiden voyage by powering us miles out across the wilderness that is the Taw/Torridge estuary, before suddenly stopping  and leaving us hopelessly flailing about in the ten meter tides. This was my first valuable lesson in sail cruising though, to never, ever, rely blindly on an auxiliary motor.

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Struggling with the reluctant old Mercury 7.5 became a regular part of summer 2011.

Having a bit of experience with mending machinery, I decided that a simple two cylinder two stroke motor couldn’t be that complex a beast to fix and took it home to the garage…. where it worked perfectly. Next trip out on the boat we didn’t need the motor until it came to fighting that ferocious tide back to the mooring again, whereupon it refused to start at all. Sound familiar? After taking it home again and replacing all the rubbery bits in the carb with a kit sourced from a local chandlery, it once more ran perfectly…. until needed. This motor continued to run, or not run, at random according to its own secret schedule for the rest of the season, teaching me all sorts of valuable old skills such as kedging off of sandbanks, waiting out a tide at anchor, towing with a dinghy, keeping calm whilst being washed out to sea, and above all how to swear ferociously in a nautical manner.

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After two seasons of fault finding and head scratching, the old Merc did behave. It needed two new ignition trigger coils, plugs, strip down and rebuild to clear all clogged waterways, rebuild of coolant pump system with s/hand parts, carb rebuild with new parts. Oh, and those two red coils you can see on top of the engine are earthed to the motor with two bare wires sandwiched underneath. They corrode and then give a weird intermittent misfire.

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Over the following winter I clearly forgot all of my recent education and bought another one of the bloody things. This was mainly due to the difficulty I had been having all the previous summer rowing the two of us and our gear across the estuary without suffering an awful watery death. I bought an ancient 4HP Johnson which also ran completely according to the phases of the moon. To be fair, I was able to sort out its problems fairly quickly by fitting two new ignition coils. This I shall call outboard number 2. It’s still running well, but I suspect this is only because I never really use it on account of it being too damn heavy to lug about.

At the same time I was keeping an eye out for a good replacement for my original outboard ( the 7.5 Merc) because I knew that sooner or later we would get into trouble up there and there would be no other way to safety. Nothing any good in my lowly price range seemed to be for sale at the time, so I ended up with yet another old Merc 7.5 which, I was assured, had been owned by the Pope himself and never missed a beat. It seemed an absolutely amazing winter bargain and ran like a dream…. the first few times. After about a month it started to get slower and smokier and smellier until eventually it just stopped every time it got within 300 yards of my mooring. I was getting really quite good at picking up my mooring in all sorts of conditions under sail. A steep learning curve as they say.

Fact is, I was getting really sick of all these outboards and thought that there must be a simple alternative. Oars maybe? It was only a small boat after all. I had in the meantime bought from a friend, an old seagull 40+ for the dinghy (outboard no.4). It was the pinnacle of simple reliable British engineering back in the 1960s and I was impressed by how light it was and how easy it was to start. I know they’re a bit oily, but I only needed it to push me a short distance in the dinghy when the tide was against me, I really enjoy rowing whenever I can. I figured that to “re use” an old thing like this was probably more environmentally friendly than being a heathen consumer and buying a newly made one with all its freshly mined metals and transport miles. Besides I only had £40. Maybe I could get a kind of “big seagull” engine for Macavity.

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The work shy, long haired…

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 ….1960s silver century.

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If it has a villiers ignition system like this, rather than the later wipac, it may be afraid of the wet like mine is. Apparently, you can cure this bizarre phobia  for good by fitting a complete wipac system including flywheel and back plate.

This theory was flawed. Yes, it seemed you could get a big seagull. It was called a Silver Century and could be had in a long shaft version. Excellent! I shall throw away all these needlessly complex multi cylinder outboards with their flimsy forward and reverse gearboxes, and get a simple cheap Seagull to power Macavity out of the rapids. I found one close by that had belonged to the Queen and had powered the Britannia around the Med when their main engines had gone for a service. Perfect. It worked like a dream in my test barrel at home too. In fact the only thing that could stop this British Bulldog it seemed, was being in too close a proximity to the sea. As soon as it smelt salt air it had a kind of panicky flashback of its 60s heyday, and shut itself down.  I shuffled between this one and the original Merc for the rest of the year, trying in vain to get one or the other to show some willing. Finally another sailing season was over, I still couldn’t afford a shiny new four stroke Honda but I was getting even better at relying purely on my sails.

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My beautifully reliable Seagull 40+ complete with salt water resistant ignition system.

Is there a point to all this then? Well yes. If you, like me, have ended up inheriting some ancient old outboard on your boat and are wondering if it’s worth keeping, I will say this. I accept now that an old worn out two stroke outboard is never going to be very reliable. Therefore I try not to rely on it and sail as if I don’t have an engine at all, just like all those pioneering chaps such as Eric Hiscock, and Maurice Griffiths did (see “Great Books To Read” for tips).  You don’t have to have a good engine on a small boat, but you do then have to be very, very careful. Pick a safe, open environment to sail in until you can afford a decent engine, and don’t waste too much time and money on buying or repairing an old banger. If I hadn’t wasted so much effort on trying to rebuild dead engines that I already despised, I might be able to afford a good one by now. On the plus side, if your engine is effectively worthless but running, why not have a go at maintaining it yourself? You can’t lose a lot on its value if you mess up, but will save a fair bit on garage charges. I would advise starting with a motor that’s simple and one that already runs. You won’t find anything simpler than an old seagull and they have a big following of enthusiastic tinkerers, so advise will be easy to find. There is a man called John Williams who runs www.saving-old-seagulls.co.uk . He is a very helpful chap and well worth a call if parts or information is needed. Complex old engines of foreign manufacture are quite hard to get parts for and in most cases not worth the cost anyway.