Light Schooner LogoLIVING WITH A SEAGULL new
(or Zen and the Art of Seagull Engine Maintenance...)

A rant to start with...

The strip-teased outboard, the heritage item, the timewarp machine,the strange and wonderful piece of stainless steel,iron and aluminium, renowned for starting after 20 years under a tree in a paddock/under water/in a midden, blessed with the strangest user's manual ever written, tough, independent, non-biodegradable, the ultimate antidote to inbuilt obsolescence: the classic British Seagull.

Seagull Manual CoverAnd they've just stopped production!!! What is the world coming to? In a period when more and more people are rediscovering the virtues of machinery that lasts and continues to function well, and when markets are pushing more and more the throwaway line, another option closes.

OK, British Seagull are still making conventional outboards which are also pretty rugged (plug), but they've now stopped producing their classics. This ends some sixty-odd years of production of the basic design.

So what if a new engine used to cost 50% more than an equivalent potmetal thing? Do you know of any other workaday motor that you could buy, use for thirty years and sell it, still going strong, for double the price you originally paid?? And sell it as a workaday engine, not an antique.

What other outboard can you leave at the bottom of the local lake, retrieve it next day, empty the water out and start it without doing more than give it a bit of oil?? Arrgh, the world isn't what it was nor what it should be, rant, rant.

We had this happen before in South Oz (or Oz generally). With the demise of the British Empire and the appearance of other outboards, for a period from about the 1970s to recently new Seagulls weren't imported and old Seagulls hung on. Then about 1996, they re-appeared, still at a premium price but cheap if viewed over a 30+ year reliable working life.

Now they're gone again, but perhaps not forever. Occasional outbursts of sanity are beginning to appear in the media, still infrequently we admit. One day, perhaps enough people will start exploring once more the possibilities of non-obsolescent items, goods, outboards, boats, and even (perhaps) new computer operating systems which are not simply one giant bugfix with a few wholly new bugs thrown in for good luck.

Thus endeth the polemic. On to Flying Tadpole's Seagull and we'll start again.

Spare parts supply

Adelaide scenes: the re-opening of a Seagull agency after 20 years....

An outboard with personality...

In South Oz, deprived of new British Seagulls for two decades, these outboards have a well-earned reputation for longevity, ruggedness and reliability which everyone knows about. What everyone doesn't know about are the personality quirks which go with each individual engine. The problem is, those Seagulls you see loafing on transoms as second engines or sailing auxilliaries are rarely less than twenty years old, and they've learnt a lot in that time.

Flying Tadpole II has a 36-year old veteran, still going strong (1999), but with a character one might call "picturesque". The beauty of its solid brass tank hides some less desirable personality traits, for instance the ability to spray oil, grunge and odd bolts over anyone silly enough to approach within three feet.

You don't even have to touch it. Like some ancient and crusty buccaneer, be-hung with prosthetic limb replacements but minus parrot, it hawks and spits all over the helmsman when not being minutely watched.

...aided and abetted by the boat designer...

The motor has only once let us down when really needed, but it takes a certain delight in playing tricks when things are not absolutely vital. It's assisted in its mayhem by the truly sadistic motor well Phil Bolger didn't quite design for the Light Schooner. He left it and "hoped the builder would come up with a better idea...This is a well established designer's gambit [that] sometimes works.." but didn't.

We'll ignore mere fripperies like the hot silencer burning arms, legs and clothing and the skeg pinioning fingers while trying to get the motor well closed, and concentrate on more subtle behaviour.

...with a hatred of strangers...

B. Seagull doesn't like visitors. Most of its best tantrums have been when "strangers" join the Tadpole crew--we'll take anyone for a sail, provided they bring another paddle with them. B. Seagull obviously feels that either (1) it's good, healthy exercise for everyone to have to paddle home in a dead calm with pouring rain, as we have done on more than one occasion; or (2) the skipper can best be made out a total fool when visitors are around.

One example: we set out from Clayton for an overnighter up a local creek (nothing new there) with strong wind warnings current (nothing new there either) and a stranger in our midst. The run under sail was great, through the narrowing waterway lined with ten-foot-high reeds. At the head of navigation we went into backwaters to look for a protected watercamp. This meant waking B. Seagull up.

Being a bit somnolent, Seagull didn't complain until we fouled in weed. In the ensuing struggle to get the propeller free, water got in somewhere. Then started the first of B. Seagull mutinies for that trip. After checking plugs, we bribed it with a blast of dewatering fluid into the throttle chamber--the equivalent of a stiff shot of rum--and so reached an overnighting spot and thought no more about it.

DrunkBut B. Seagull, incensed at being ignominiously caught in weeds and desiring further shots of hooch, plotted through the night...

Come the dawn, with the wind still howling, we decided to motor home to Clayton - no chance of tacking in the narrow creek. B. Seagull, its plans laid, started brightly, drove us a hundred metres, then stopped and refused to budge until another hefty shot of DWF had been squirted down its throat. This allowed another 100 metres progress before stopping.


At the next stop, we ended up disassembling the carburettor totally to get rid of all last traces of water, and yes, another shot of hooch. One hundred metres further on and another stop. This time, water in the tank, but in getting rid of that, fuel was spilt. B. Seagull was temporarily abandoned to avert the potential environmental disaster from the thinned oil which old Seagulls consume. That fixed, and some more joy-juice, and B. Seagull condescended to propel us another 100 metre leg.

We won't continue the whole rigmarole, but to demonstrate that the motor usually behaves when it really is necessary, after the ninth engine rebuild we came into the open estuary waters and B. Seagull performed faultlessly--until it emptied its tank of course.

...and a tendency to twiddle...

Our Seagull is also a fidget. It likes undoing things when no-one is looking. We became aware of this bad habit early on, when it embarrassed us by surreptitiously undoing its clutch and ramming us into a private jetty. That nut resecured with split pins, the motor took to unscrewing the stud instead.

At various times, it has unscrewed the throttle cable, the fuel cap, the carburettor, the fuel lines and, until we gave up and bolted them to the boat, the engine mounts. B. Seagull's best tantrum, though, came after the completion of one of the Milang-Goolwa races.

Always reliable

Resenting its lack of participation in the race, and knowing that we would motor back to Clayton from Goolwa, B. Seagull seized its chance. The entree, running out of fuel, was minor and expected. The next was a splash which shorted the plug out. That fixed, for a while B. Seagull purred us into a false sense of security, then totally died. This time, a brand new spark plug had to be offered as a bribe. The motor leaped ahead and chewed the fuel at an astonishing rate, and ran its tank dry again.

We refilled the tank. Onwards once more, until the new plug fouled. It was while rectifying the last misdemeanour that we found it was all a front. Knowing we were watching like hawks the bolts that B. Seagull normally unscrews, the motor left them religiously alone, diverted our attention by the demands for new plugs etc., and in the meantime unscrewed half the fuel-tank mounting bolts and threw them away.

...but it's good for the soul...

Bearing in mind all these little personality quirks, we still find it easy to live with B. Seagull. We sail in and out of moorings, and we use paddles a lot, and we have a good anchor always ready for immediate use. And there is one overwhelming advantage to using a Seagull--no reverse gear means you rapidly learn either how to handle your boat in close quarters or how to repair your bow, someone else's hull or damaged jetties.

...and the future doesn't look too bad either.

All the same, one day we will have a motor with a little less character. But when we do finally betray the Seagull (as all owners seem to do eventually), I'm sure it will still be chugging along, providing its future owners with service, entertainment and the opportunity to field test washing powders, toilet soaps and burn creams under battle conditions. In the meantime, we do ask anyone who reads this please not to mention this article anywhere within hearing of our motor, for fear of reprisals.

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