Lee Haven, Easton, Maryland
‘Polar,’ who died in July ’53, was one of the most
unique characters this part of the country had ever produced. He
was a fine gas-motor man and a great lover of the water. I had
known him for nearly forty years. His real name was Earle Trimble
Spencer, and he lived only a few miles from me-on the water (a
beautiful winding cove) the same as I do. People who knew Polar
said the Skip per story hit him to a tee.
‘He died and the jury wondered why-The verdict was the
The words and melody come drifting in rich and mellow through
the shop window, and it’s no other man than my sidekick, Polar,
which last I haven’t seen recent. When his presence obstructs
the light through the door, I lay down my file.
As usual, Polar is clad casual, same comprising a pair of old
pants cut off at the knees, and patched considerable. Which puts
him inside the law, anyway.
Polar starts to speak, but the power of his thoughts stops him,
temporary, and I wait, patient.
‘Bert,’ hs says, final, ‘there’s something
I’m urgent to discuss with you, if you have the time.’
‘I’m taking the time,’ I say.
Outside we settle down in two old chairs under a big pine,
overlooking the creek, and I await further utterance by Polar.
‘Bert,’ he says, earnest and thoughtful, ‘I’m
plumb weary of noise. Which working with gas motors all week, and
hearing them snort, and roar, and talk back to me, come Sunday I
crave peace and quiet, as befits the Sabbath. But simultaneous I
crave to wander over these Chesapeake Bay waters, up the narrow
coves that wind back through the fields and woods which if
there’s anything closer to Paradise on this earth, I’m
unacquainted with same.’
Polar is speaking my language precise, and I’m
‘Sail isn’t the thing for this,’ he continues,
‘you need power, and I’m pondering over same, earnest.
Which steam being quiet and peaceful entire, I’m thinking
it’s for you and me to consider same, serious. Not being a
steam man myself, I’m not going into this alone, but if
you’ll come in with me, I’m prepared to get started
immediate. Which I having a hull, and you having some steam stuff
in your garage and cellar, and if we put it all together we begin
to look like a steamboat, already.’
Steam being my first love, I’m interested plenty. For once
the smell of steam and hot cylinder oil gets into your blood,
it’s there forever. And once you’ve handled steam,
you’re never the same again. I agree to stick with Polar to the
Now, a ordinary steam engine and boiler can be picked up around
here without too much trouble, but Polar’s boat being lean
unusual, with lines destroyer-like, she’s allergic to weight
and my thoughts go back to the fast steam launches of my boyhood,
with their light, sweet-running triple-expansion engines. But that
was years back, and all those engines were junked and melted up
long ago, presumable. And then, as we ponder, I recollect a friend
in New York telling me that in a storehouse at one of the old
yacht-building concerns he sees some engines from old steam yachts
and launches, laid away in grease. Which one of thesea little
triple-expansion launch engine would suit us precise, same being
light, sturdy, superb-built, and economical with steam so not
needing too big and heavy a boiler. Polar listens intense, is
silent for a spell, and then says, abrupt, ‘Bert, we’re
leaving for New York tomorrow-early! I’m going home and get
In New York we have some trouble finding the place, but we get
there eventual, and maybe sooner. The boss is out to lunch, but a
gent in the front office allows there’s some steam engines in a
building in back, and he shows us out there.
There’s engines there, all right, laid up in grease, and
some of them are sweet! But they’re all too big. And then, as I
get used to the shadowy light, I spy, back in a corner, a little
triple-expansion engine that makes me water at the mouth! It’s
what we’re wanting precise, and after looking same over
critical, we go back to the office, and find the boss in the front
room, talking with the other gent.
‘These are the gentlemen,’ says the gent, introducing us
formal. Which the boss looks at us questioning, but friendly. We
tell our story, and the boss says, final, ‘Well, I never
expected to see any of those engines in a boat again: I’ve kept
them because my father designed them he founded this business. And
they’re too good to be junked, anywayeven though I am not a
steam man myself. So if you are really going to use it in a boat,
where it belongs, I guess I’ll let you have it.’
Now Polar and me haven’t recovered from finding that engine,
and this good luck additional leaves us plumb speechless. Which the
boss smiles, and says, ‘And if you’ll promise to invite me
down for a little cruise when you get your boat running, I’ll
load the engine into the railroad car for youth boys can do it
while they’re resting.’
We promise solemn, thank him earnest, write out a check, and
The engine arrives after a bit, and we head for town in
Polar’s old truck. We bring the engine out and get her into
Polar’s shop, and go to cleaning her up with gasoline and a
brush. And the cleaner she gets, the sweeter she looks!
Meanwhile we’re considering boilers, and decide, conclusive,
on a coil boiler made of seamless steel tubing. Which such a boiler
is safe entire, light extreme, is good for most any steam pressure,
and we can build it ourselves, ordering the tubing coiled to
But there’s more than one way to build a coil boiler, and we
go to studying. Among my books is a copy of C. P. Kunhardt’s
Steam Yachts And Launches, which describes the Herreshoff coil
boiler, giving drawings and all details, with figures on boilers
used actual in fast boatsfigures on grate area, heating surface,
spacing of coils for correct gas area through same, and all. Which,
along with Seaton’s Manual Of Marine Engineering, we’re all
Now the Herreshoff boilers don’t last too long in those
days, particular in boats used in salt water, said salt water
getting into the coils frequent; additional to which the tubing
used then is poor, having brazed seam. But since today, on land,
boilers on the same priciple precise, made of modern seamless steel
tubing and using pure water exclusive, are satisfactory entire, we
decide, final, on the Herreshoff-type boilerour condenser to be
leakproof absolute, so no salt water ever gets in. And we will bolt
a zinc slab inside the separator, so electrolytic will not eat up
the steel tubes, the condenser being copper. Which if they use zinc
in the Herreshoff boilers, we find no indication. Said Herreshoff
boilers burned coal satisfactory, which is what we aim to use.
The coils of tubing arrive, and are found correct as ordered. We
assemble same, weld the ends together, set coils on furnace, put on
casing, andshe looks like a boiler, anyway. But previous to putting
on casing, we test coils with cold water, pumping same up to 450
pounds pressure, and inspecting coils critical while holding
pressure. We do same with the separator when said unit is
completed. All is found tight, and safe unquestionable.
For said separator we find a piece of heavy 8-inch pipe at a
machine shop, and they cut some off for us. In one end we weld a
piece of steel plate, the other end we fix a flange and bolted-on
plate, removable, for inspection and for renewing zinc slab when
electrolytic eats same away. There’s a baffle inside the
separator which separator stands vertical, said baffle separating
the steam from the water as same enters at the top from the boiler
When running, the air pump on the engine sucks the water and air
out of the condenser, making a vacuum in condenser, the water going
to the combination hot well and filter box, which takes the
cylinder oil out of it, same being bad in the boiler. The feed pump
then picks up the water, and forces it into the coils again, the
circulating pump keeping it circulating continuous through the
coils and separator. Leakage, safety valve, and whistle are made up
by water from reserve tank. Which in a recirculating flash boiler
you need a extra pump for circulating, but the tubes don’t burn
and she doesn’t scale up if managed proper. Without condenser,
and air pump, and hot well and filter box, she’s simpler, but
you have to carry all fresh water with you, if you’re in salt
waterand she uses a lot of fresh water.
Now we know that with coal, handfired, instead of automatic oil
or gas, that boiler’s going to be some tricky and temperamental
until we know her; and she’ll take close watching, anyway. But
not needing electric to run her, if the battery goes dead we still
make port. And there’s no fire risk. Additional to which,
hand-fired coal is silentand cheap, relative.
We haul the boat out on Polar’s railway, and rig a keel
condenser, same being copper tubing, under water, connected one end
to the engine exhaust, running aft through the dead-wood, and
coming forward again, connecting to the air pump on the engine, the
tubing getting smaller and smaller size from the exhaust to the air
pump, account the steam condenses gradual to water.
While the boat is on the railway, we put on a new propeller,
same having pitch plenty rank account the engine turns a lot slower
than a gas motor, and the lean hull runs from it.
We get the boat back in the water, and the engine, boiler,
pumps, valves, and all, installed and connected up-and we’re
ready to try her out.
We pump some water into the coils, and when we have the fire
started, with wood, we put on a little coal-anthracite, stove-size,
and then operate slow a blower off of a old blacksmith forge we
find at the junk yard, which blows air under the grate and makes
the fire hot intenseour stack not being high enough for strong
draft; said blower being rigged for engine-drive, too, through belt
and pulleys. Which if it blows a bit of flyash out through the
cracks around the ash-pit door, said door is forward, away from the
engine, so the ash doesn’t get in the bearings, the engine
being open entire, with the three cylinders carried on light steel
columns, braced rigid.
Three minutes after the fire gets hot, the steam gage shows 200
pounds, which the safety valve is set for 210. We stop blowing the
fire, and I put the engine in reverse, and open the throttle a
crack. She starts turning slow, the water snapping in the cylinders
as the steam condenses on the cold metal. In reverse that way, the
propeller shoves the water forward along the condenser, cooling
same even though we’re tied up at the dock.
As the engine warms up, she turns faster. When the snapping in
the cylinders stops, we’re ready to go. I close the throttle,
and Polar casts off, and then stands at the wheel. He nods to me, I
give her steam again, and we slide away from the dock as slick as a
eel, and most as silent.
Out in the cove Polar swings her around, and nods to me again. I
shut the throttle, put the reverse-lever abead, give her steam
again, and we’re heading for the river. The way she labors,
there’s grass on the wheel, and out in deep water I reverse her
and then ahead a few times, and she leaves the grass astern.
The steam pressure is down to 100 now, so I put the blower belt
on the pulleys. In fresh water, in the old days, small boats made a
draft by turning the exhaust into the stack, like a locomotive or
traction engine, but in salt water you need to save your fresh
water, additional to which a triple-expansion engine doesn’t
have a strong exhaust, being designed to exhaust into vacuum, in a
Now we’re urgent to see what speed we have with the new rig,
which having less power and more weight than previous, we don’t
hope for the old 17 knots, but pray for, maybe, 15 which the new
propeller being more efficient, considerable, than the old
high-speed flat-pitched one, we’re some hopeful.
As we head for our measured mile, I oil the engine plenty; and I
fix the fire just right. We haven’t had her opened yet, and
Polar and me are excited intense, and trembling considerable.
As we near the starting-point, we get out our watches, and
inspect same to see if running. The steam pressure is 208 pounds,
and the safety valve beginning to sizzle. Polar waves to me when
we’re near the line, and I open the throttle all the
waygradual, to let her come up natural.
When we cross the line we’re all out, and Polar and me check
our watches. It may not be the old 17 knots we’re doing, but it
seems like it, which the boat being some deeper in the water now,
she’s moving more of it. The boiler is doing excellent, and
holding the pressure easy, and we know we have us a steamboat, sure
As we finish the mile and cross the line, we check our watches
again. I close the throttle some; which, as the engine slows down,
the safety valve opens with a roar fit to wake the dead. I shut the
air intake on the blower, and sprinkle some fresh coal on the Lire
to take the glare off the coils, leaving the furnace door open
some, additionala coil boiler not being hurt by cold air coming in
We do some figuring, and we’re just even 14 knots. We’re
disappointed some, until we remember we forgot to clean our bottom
when on the railway, additional to which the new wheel may not
match the hull and engine simultaneous. Also, quite likely, the
engine’s valves are off some, account of slackness in the valve
gear, and her piston rings may be leaking. So we call it 15 knots
anywaywhich we deem same satisfactory with our power.
We’re heading up the cove on our way home, and taking it
slow and easy, Polar and me like a pair of kids with a new toythe
most wonderful toy that ever was! We’re talking earnest but
quiet, joy and peace in our hearts. And then, as we round the bend
I’m looking at the fire, Polar hollers, sudden and urgent,
‘Bert, for the love of Mike, back her!’ I don’t look to
see what we’re colliding, but throw the triple in reverse, and
yank the throttle open wide, and the boat trembles all over as the
engine goes all out, and the wheel churns the water violent under
the stern. As we lose headway and start backing, Polar throws the
rudder over, and she comes around. As I look up the cove, I see
what Polar sees: his dock packed solid with people waiting to swarm
all over us! Polar waves to me, I stop the tripple and then put her
ahead, and we high-tail it out of there! ‘We’re waiting
till after dark,’ says Polar.
As we slip easy up the cove in the moonlight, it’s like
Fairyland and the Garden of Eden simultaneous, with nothing to
disturb the stillness, the triple quieter than a sewing-machine.
Polar and me are speechless, drinking in the beauty of it all.
We’re in boats at night not infrequent, but never before like
this! It’s unbelieveable how noise can spoil beauty which you
don’t know how beautiful it is till you take the noise away.
Polar and me are seeing another world!
As we round the point, in close, following the channel, a owl
hoots solemn in a big oak almost over us. Above the point, in the
edge of the woods, a whippoorwill is calling, and a mocking-bird
sings, beautiful, from the top of a tree on the bank. The frogs,
even, are singingand they don’t like noise any.
‘You know,’ says Polar, thoughtful, ‘something tells
me that with this boat you and me are going to have experiences
unknown to us previous, some of them exciting, possible.’
Something’s telling me the same thing, too.