Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fossil Fuel for Pleasure

Well, there it is, damn it, riding on a slightly customized aluminum motor bracket to starboard, one more protuberance on an already-crowded pointy stern. Did the world really need yet another piston engine? Did I?

As outlined in previous posts, my decision to buy this 3.5 horsepower Tohastu was long and guilt-ridden. In the end, I felt that this boat is just too big to handle expeditiously and safely without the power. But I could not have guessed how much pleasure would ensue from strapping on this appendage.

As I mentioned, the first trip with a gas auxiliary was on a long, narrow reservoir, the South Saskatchewan River upstream from Gardiner Dam, to be exact. True to the forecast, the weather held very hot and still for the entire trip of four days, with just a few puffs of sailing wind at the very end. As it turned out, we motored about 150 kilometres, and had a surprisingly pleasant time doing it. Without the motor, we would have had to abort altogether.

Thanks to fossil fuel, we slow-powered our way through an area of wilderness seldom appreciated, where the river cuts through an otherwise almost desert-like region of southern prairie, home to prickly pear cactus, pronghorn and deer, cottonwood and bur oak. With the sail stowed, we motored along under hull speed — maybe five knots. Every ninety minutes or so, the motor would begin to flag somewhat, indicating it was time to refuel its integral fuel tank, less than one liter capacity.

Twice I spilled a small rainbow of fuel upon the water and I am still mad at myself for it. If you must run a gas outboard, I think it is your solemn duty to figure a way to refuel it without spills. Unfortunately, the people who profit by the industry do not make it easy. The motors are designed not to catch over fills, and the people who make jerricans don't make good filler necks. Since that first outing I have found a no-spill spout for the jerrican I have, but it is far from perfect and takes some skill to use without over-filling.

There are many motor boats that use Lake Diefenbaker, as it is called. But few slow down enough to enjoy the real nature of it. While motoring along at roughly one-third throttle — there is no more speed to gain from more power — I came up with some rationalizations for having a motor. The fuel use, compared to that which I use driving to the water with the boat following along on its trailer, is insignificant. I have made countless purely human powered wilderness trips over the years, but can think of not a single one that was begun without a car trip to the trail or canoe launch. Even underway, our nature trips rely on the whole gamut of military-industrial wonders: Goretex, LEDs, GPSs, ripstop nylon, heavy-metal batteries, satellite-produced maps, Lexan, Vibram, butane.

Yes, it is a slippery slope, and I will always feel circumspect about the motor. Yet that first trip on Lake Diefenbaker got me thinking about Neoma's capabilities as a river boat. I thought of the small Redwing power cruiser designed by Karl Stambaugh. Recently, I did solo trip to Lac La Ronge and was royally becalmed for nearly three days, getting just enough wind for one good sail. So I ran the motor a good deal. It runs quietly, sips fuel. It is not the End of Days.

One very real threat with the motor while traveling solo is falling overboard and watching it power your floating home over the horizon as you immerse yourself in hypothermia research. The little kill-switch cord that you are supposed to clip on yourself is too short to be practical with the motor hanging so far outboard — so you have to add a piece of line to end of it and remember to wear it.


  1. .. i am very curios about your new rig, will you write us more about it ..

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  4. It's so great that you consider a combustion engine to be the last resort when all else fails, and use it so sparingly and efficiently. If everyone made the same effort as you do perhaps we wouldn't have to worry so much about the consequences of using them.

    I guess you're committed to the big boat you've invested so much time in, and you're also on a schedule. Of course the simple solution for solo cruising is to have a very small boat that you can tow with a bicycle and propel with your own muscle.

    The key to eco-cruising is not having a tight schedule so it doesn't matter if the weather doesn't comply. Also staying local means you don't have to travel a long distance in a short space of time. That includes the journey to and from the water.

    This ultimately requires completely restructuring one's lifestyle before one can cruise far without damaging the environment. Easy for me to do because I'm single (see my website), but not so easy if you're committed to people who disagree.

    Still, at least your Birdwatcher is beautifully finished and so much better than a heavy twin-screw plastic cruiser. I'm a great fan of Bolger.