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Boating Through the Ages - VIII - Propellers, Whaling and the Great White Fleet

August 27, 2020

If you were asked to design something for your boat that was almost always bound to break and ruin your day, could you possibly come up with something more fitting than a huge circular wooden wheel thing hanging off the side⎯or one on each side, actually⎯ especially when that huge wooded wheel thing was your only source of power? No, of course not. Few of us can claim to be that stupid, but that’s exactly what was going on in boating with all those paddle wheelers during the mid-nineteenth century. The boating community was begging for a better mousetrap and the propeller was to provide the solution.
A propeller is nothing more than an underwater screw (sounds good already, huh?) that spins its way through the water, pushing (or, if you’re a Volvo person, pulling) the boat along with it. What’s more, the power was transmitted to the propeller via a shaft that was required to pass through the hull. This meant that you had to have a hole in the bottom of your powerboat. This concept flew in the face of accepted boating notions (in other words, it was how sail boaters thought) and at that point, the essence of the difference between sailboat-versus-powerboat thinking was established. Power boaters had the unmitigated guts enough to purposely cruise around with a gaping cavity bored out at the very bottom of the hull. Call it stupid, but after a few beers and a dare, even a sailor will admit it’s a pretty cool idea you just can’t wait to try out for yourself.
Before moving on I must concede that there was one group of ‘rag baggers’ who deserve our respect, if not even, our admiration. They would be the whalers, best immortalized in Herman Melville’s The Great White Whale, or Moby Dick. It’s not the whalers' fault that steam engines and propellers weren’t yet invented while they non-the-less tried to make the most of what sailing had to offer as a substitute for the manly pursuits of power boating. History is clear on this point, as evidenced by the way whalers worked out those severely pent-up frustrations over not having propellers and belching black smokestacks, as most all real men preferred. But, did they vent their frustrations by beating the dog, wife and kids, as is so often done today when the male of our species has a bad day? Most certainly not! They did the decent, honorable and truly masculine thing which was to leave the wife and kids for years at a time, sign onboard a flimsy craft, curse the biggest creature on the planet, chase it down from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, and hand-to-hand, kill it. The modern day equivalent would be akin to storming Jurassic Park armed with nothing but a tin cup, a Bowie Knife and a bad attitude (a-la Rambo) calling “Here, T-Rex, you big-toothed ninny.” In addition, whalers wore lots of peg-legs and eye patches, had dirty talking parrots and carried around harpoons. They were real men. Is it any wonder we honor them with one of the best power boats ever built, the Boston Whaler, while we don’t see any boat manufacturers producing a line of Joshua Slocums, Gary Jobsons, or Dennis Connors now, do we?
Since the steam engine and propeller had permanently assured the future of pleasure boating, it was assumed safe to let the military once again bask in the maritime limelight for a spell. The world had become a tense place due to some international misunderstandings and counter-contentions, which came to be known as World War I, and afterward we had a national Commodore primed and ready for the ultimate regatta. Following the power boating script to the letter, that great president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, had a marvelous idea for keeping the peace. In a macho display of boating prowess that has not been duplicated since, that old Rough Rider instituted a rigorous naval building program, consisting primarily of battleships which he then ordered painted white (as is done with yachts to connote a quite personal command of the havoc they could reap when all those 16-inch gun turrets were brought to bear), then had that fleet sail to ports around the globe in an awesome display of naval dominance. Teddy wanted to send a thoughtful, polite, direct, yet diplomatically sensitive message to the governments of the entire world: “Don’t ever, EVER screw with us again or we’ll blast your wimpus navy into such little bits that you’ll need a microscope to navigate!” In classic T.R. style, he discretely drove his point further home by completing construction of the Panama Canal so the Great White Fleet could deliver its formidable might even more quickly to wherever it may be needed should some country get a bit too adventurous. It is a shame that the annals of boating history do not more frequently recognize the unequaled contributions of Mister “Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick” as it regards power boating demeanor.
Yet, over the next few decades or so Commander Mitchell and the “aeroplane” proved that even a mighty navy has an Achilles Heel. Aircraft carriers became the focus at the expense of big-gunned dreadnoughts, which so disheartened naval architects that they turned their attention to smaller, speedier craft like PT boats. This development was a windfall for the progress of pleasure boats since many of the lessons learned and concepts perfected while on the expense account of military R&D could be applied directly to pleasure boat design and construction. All we had to do was get through another little international skirmish know as World War II and the halcyon heydays of boating were just around the corner.

Next time: Internal Combustion Motors and Rum Running.

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