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Boating Through the Ages - Part IX Internal Combustion Engines and Rum Running

September 24, 2020

We find ourselves about to go pleasure boating into the twentieth century, no longer strangled by the fickle limitations of sails, frustrated by the inefficiencies of cumbersome paddlewheels, nor plagued by the permeating residue of coal dust and the bursting pipes of steam engines. The propeller cleaves along now under the motive force of a real motor: a grease infested, carbon-monoxide burping little wonder of the mechanical revolution known as the internal combustion engine. Gas was dirt cheap, no one had even begun conceiving of the EPA and it was a given that if you owned one of these motors you knew how to keep it running with no more than a pair of pliers, a screwdriver and some chewing gum. The waterways soon became crowded with like-minded folk who loved a spontaneous race; didn’t mind a little muffler noise, grease slicks and wakes; and who all appreciated the merits of an over-sized cooler. Yes, pleasure boating was finally beginning to ascend to its rightful and foreordained position of dominance within the maritime realm. The Neanderthals that used to float astride tree logs would have been very, very proud!
It would require volumes to recount the endless designs of pleasure boats in this period. From plodding little picnic launches with their one-lung diesels, rattan chaise lounges and awnings, to the swift and sleek mahogany monsters that commuted the ultra-rich between their palatial shore homes and downtown empires, motorboats of every conceivable kind inundated the lakes and bays. It wasn’t long before the mechanical tinkerers set to installing absurdly large engines within the hulls and a whole new sport was born: Powerboat Racing! Sail boaters cowered like fuzzy bunny rabbits caught in front of a buffalo stampede and the spectators along shore cheered on the spectacle. This was what boating was meant to be!!!
Starting off with the “happy tree sap” sipped by the Neanderthals, then the honey nectar guzzled and purged and guzzled again by the Roman on their pleasure barges, then to the rum copiously quaffed by the pirates and the grog served to colonial seamen, booze onboard has always been an instrumental⎯ if not quintessential⎯part of boating! And then, just when we FINALLY had boats that freed up a hand for holding a cocktail, that most insidious of governmental decrees were handed down: the XVIII Amendment! Prohibition!!!
 But as much of a blow to the fabric of society as it was⎯not only for boaters but for all fun-loving folks⎯prohibition provided an early opportunity for power boating to make an invaluable contribution back to (if not, an indelible mark upon) society, one which even sail boaters could appreciate. This was the initiation of the great patriotic peacetime fleet known as the Rum-Runners. Although the unwitting founders of NASCAR played an equally important role, this is, after all, an article about boating, but God bless Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and all those of their ilk, just the same.
It was simple really. Americans are entrepreneurs and will always manage to find a supply to fill demand when the price is right. The legal distillation and brewing of spirits and beers were out-lawed. People still wanted to drink, especially the rich and powerful that we have always counted upon to set the moral tenor of society which the rest of us follow like lemmings towards a steep cliff. The reason we follow the rich so blindly is that we are a society that respects the law, and the appropriateness of behavior is always first discerned by lawyers. The rich can better afford lawyers than the rest of us so it’s only natural that they pay the lawyers gobs of cash to tell them what they can and can’t get away with, then embark upon that behavior in a lavish and conspicuous manner which then disseminates these brilliant legal renderings down to the masses. Although the XVIII Amendment prohibited the production, distribution, possession and sale of alcohol, it left a huge loophole by not prohibiting the CONSUMPTION. So it was judiciously discerned by high society that there was nothing wrong with drinking, despite the legislative appearance to the contrary. Thus, it was calculated by the rich that spirits could be imported from the stills and hooch-huts hidden in the bayous and back-country of the deep south⎯not to mention the rum which came up from the Caribbean⎯up to the dense coastal population centers of the major seaboard cities. But there was one small obstacle. The government had a fleet of revenue cutters whose mandate was to patrol our coastal waters and stop contraband shipments like alcohol from making it to port. But the Feds screwed up. The cutters they employed were…get this…sailboats! Please don’t think governmental stupidity, waste and short-sightedness started with thousand dollar toilet seats on moon rockets. It goes way back.
In no time, American ingenuity was producing ever-faster craft that could carry larger payloads while drawing less water. These boats would cruise out to meet a mothership offshore, load up the jugs and mason jars, then hightail it back into the bays and backwaters to rendezvous with the trucks that would take the precious cargoes into the speakeasies and blind tigers of the cities. One of the greatest of the Rum Runners was a fella named Captain Pete McCoy, an ex-navy man who had a solid reputation for delivering the best spirits, never watered down and it's from him we got the expression "That's the real McCoy", denoting something to be of high quality. Eventually, the government started using powerboats as well, but the eastern coast of the U.S. is a lot of ground to cover so the stuff kept flowing and eventually the XXI Amendment repealing prohibition was tacked onto the Constitution.
So the next time you slug down a shot, guzzle a beer or share a fine vintage wine and finally get that gal to start thinking your way after she’s slurring like a sloth, who do you think you have to thank? Yes: power boaters!! They alone turned the tide. If not for them, we’d all have turned out just like our parents wanted us to, perish the thought.

Next Time: The Post War Boating Boom

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