Sept. 2001

When I was a kid half a century prior to this steam encounter, I remember being fascinated by the stories and myths of the Stanley Steamer and watching movies of riverboats turning fire and water into motive power. Since then I've continuously read everything I could find about steam anywhere, including Modeltec, Live Steam, the Steam Auto Club publications, the 'Intergalactic' Steamboat Society magazine, several books about steam automobiles and boats, visited many steam museums and steam events around the US and other countries. Then after retirement, I ended up buying a fifteen foot dory steamboat. I really thought I had a fairly good steam education. But you just never really know. 

To wit, I offer this case in point:

This boat is capable of holding two persons only, wood fired, Stewart 5A engine, 10X20 screw propeller. The boiler feeds from the front of the boat and the helmsmen/engineer is in the rear. The steering at the moment is via a rod running lengthwise along the right side of the boat. Sliding the rod FORWARD, or to the LEFT as facing the rod, steers the boat to the RIGHT and pulling the rod back, or to the RIGHT as one is facing the rod, steers the boat to the LEFT, a totally counterintuitive arrangement. Now, one would think that steering the boat with this arrangement would not be all that difficult of a mental calculation once memorized. GUESS AGAIN. This is not an obvious way to steer a vehicle, believe me. It is a NIGHTMARE. Maybe I'm just
getting addled with age, but it was so counterintuitive, I was never able to steer the boat automatically while being concerned with all the other boating functions, like moving the flywheel in the right direction to restart the engine after reversing it and having it stop on dead center, while backing up, just before inadvertently crashing into that half million dollar yacht behind me. The future of this vehicle really needs a lever or wheel somewhere, attached to the rudder, so that when moved to the left or right, the boat moves in the obvious direction. Oh boy. Another project.

Having never before piloted a steamboat, before starting out, I remembered reading somewhere the 'first law of steamboating': 

When something goes wrong, it will probably happen with the greatest number of people possible observing. With this in mind, I commandeered an attractive lady stoker, so that when my little steamboat world crumbled to ashes amidst a shower of sparks and smoke, at least we would look good in the photos. 

On the Sacramento delta, there is a steamboat meet that has happened for the last 26 years or so, the last 10 of which I have attended. Until now however, without steamboat. It's an ideal place for small boats as there is at least a hundred miles of calm channel waterways.

We arrived in the daytime and step number one was to fire up the machine prior to launch. This is one thing that went exactly right and we got the boat launched and docked and everything went smoothly. The steering was awkward but possible (during the day, anyway) and everything seemed to be working. I had promised this lady a moonlit ride right after sundown, knowing the moon would be about thirty degrees above the horizon and nearly full. I wanted this person to experience the serenity of the silence on the water, the click, click, of the engine, the chug, chug of the open exhaust and the occasional steam whistle of the other steamboats in the distance as the moonlight reflects across the delta waters, as I have experienced so many times in
years past in other people's steamboats. 

As the sun was sinking in the West, I attached the nighttime running lights and we fired up the boiler and began backing out of the slip. It soon became very apparent that managing the steam pressure, the water level, the backup hand pump, the fire heat, the restarting of the engine after throwing the reversing lever by spinning the flywheel be hand (WHICH WAY???) each time I had to reverse the boat or move forward, not to mention that GOD-AWFUL steering arrangement, ALL IN THE DARK, was going to
be an unfathomable nightmare. And it was. It was a Horror story.

After floundering about in the dark for about ten minutes and nearly crashing into some very expensive floating hardware, my assistant suggested heading for the dock before we did some sort of damage, and while we still had some water left in the boiler. One wise lady.

Heading for the dock and actually reaching it unscathed are not exactly synonymous. A friend of mine, in his boat in the slip adjacent to mine, was only mildly amused as I crashed into the back of his boat before he hopped on the dock and helped me tie the thing up. He was about to leave, himself, for a moonlight cruise and offered us to come along, so there was some hope for a nice outing, sans my own boat. 

His boat is mostly self designed and fairly wide for it's length, making it although not as fast as some, a very stable boat to walk around in. As many wise steamers do, he has a separate helmsman pilot the boat while he runs around the engine and boiler doing the engineering details, beer can in one hand, oil can in the other, cigarette dangling, reading gauges, turning valves and swearing and cursing at this or that device working or not working perfectly. Way fun. The moonlit ride was delightful and I am only left wondering if my steamboating days will ever be as fulfilling as his. But tomorrow's another day. 

My boat being so tiny, it seemed there was inadequate storage space for firewood for a trip of any length, so charcoal seemed more compact, simpler to handle (though dirty), and burns a bit hotter for better mileage. And it comes in it's own container and I don't have to chop it. However, I believe this may have turned out to be a gremlin in disguise. One which I have never encountered in all my quarter century of steam engine study and research. 

During the day, I did get three good twenty minute runs in, but they were only twenty minutes each because of one nagging, recurring problem: The boiler kept running out of water. After the last run, the previous owner happened to be on hand and said that the engine driven pump had always kept up with the boiler's needs unless the boiler pressure was near the safety valve limit, in which case just a little help from the hand pump might be in order. Checking the engine driven pump showed that it was
indeed leaking a bit at the shaft gland, so the partial disassembly of the pump and the addition of a little graphite packing
mended that problem. But still the boiler was not filling. Opening the bypass valve showed that steam, then lots of water was being pumped back into the hot well. Closing the bypass and running the engine while also using the hand pump as vigorously as possible (which I had checked out to be working properly earlier), still would not fill the boiler. What in the world was happening. The hand pump filled the boiler fine when the boiler was cold. I was stumped. Obviously, there was only one solution to this conundrum: Do some heavy drinking. I threw a bucket of water on the coals and we headed for the bar.

The next morning the boiler was full of water (magic?) having siphoned water from the hot well over night, I presume. Anyway, it was a good starting point and knowing my water problem limitations, we fired up the boiler and headed out into the waters of the Sacramento delta. 

About ten minutes out I notice the steam pressure is over a hundred pounds and my friend is trying to cool the fire with a hand sprayer, but to little avail. 

I pull a relief valve which lowers the pressure, but I can't do that for long as this lowers the water levels fast. The pressure builds again and the safety valve blows, and of course, won't reset! SWELL! Naturally, the water level's getting really low and the steam pressure's getting really low and I'm working the hand pump and forgetting to steer the boat, and now it's all about panic.  Head for the dock before we get stuck out here.

The safety valve finally resets, more or less, at about thirty pounds and I sit at the dock with the engine running, watching the water level drop out of sight, scratching my head, and continue to wonder about this for the next couple months. An interesting experience. My life and welcome to it.

Epilogue: So what was really going on? As near as I can figure, it was something like this: When I opened the bypass valve for water to go to the hot well, steam came out before water started flowing. Water goes from the various pumps through a preheater in the fire box, then to the valve controlling the direction of water to the boiler or to the hot well. Charcoal is hotter than wood. Maybe a LOT hotter. So hot that it appears that the water was turning to steam in the preheater and was no longer liquid water when entering the boiler. It was STEAM! The preheater became the boiler and the boiler became a superheater! The steam
was so hot that the insolation on the steam pipe exiting the boiler turned black and started to smoke.

Needless to say, superheated steam is not something this little engine readily appreciates. Unfortunately, I had never been able to loosen the cap on the displacement lubricator but felt that the (heretofore) wet steam would in any case be a good enough lubricant. The bottom line is that the piston is now stuck in the cylinder and now that I have recently been invited by a lovely friend to live in Budapest, I'm afraid this little project will have to be put on the back burner for a while. A LONG while. One crisis at a time.

All in all, one hell of an experience. I had never heard of anything like this before. It just goes to show, you never learn it all. 


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