ADVENTURES IN PADDLEWHEEL BOATING
Jerry Hay, Riverlorian
About a year ago I was traveling in Northern Indiana when I spotted an old houseboat, that had been sitting in a field for several years. Upon closer inspection I discovered the it was a classic 1957 "Yukon Delta" house boat. I immediately visualized this as the boat of my dreams. I could see the potential for building a true paddlewheel powered vessel that I could live on. I could imagine an upper bridge with the ships wheel that I had bought 20 years ago, which has been hanging on a wall just waiting for the right boat to install in on. So I made the owner an offer for the boat, which he accepted. We had to fix the tires on the trailer and cut some trees that had grown in the way. Finally, we managed to get the truck hooked up and I was on my way home with this wonderful project.
Most people looked at the 41 year old hull and only saw a run-down old boat with no engine. I saw the future Wabash Queen and knew exactly what she was to look like when completed.
The hull was in excellent condition, needing no work, so my first phase was to rebuild and add an upper bridge to the 8 ft x 18 ft. cabin. I wanted to be able to pilot the boat from the cabin or the flying bridge. Then I built and extended bow deck that would provide a mount for the swiveling gang plank that could be used to board the boat and take on supplies.
The next step was the paddlewheel assembly, which I constructed using 2 old farm planter wheels and 1x4 boards. To power the boat I purchased an old 16 h.p. single cylinder engine, which provides plenty of power, uses very little fuel, and makes a great Puckity-Puck sound similar to the "African Queen.
Needing a single lever action for forward and reverse I used a hydrostrat transmission from an old Wheel Horse Garden tractor with a chain drive to the Paddlewheel axle.
Even though I wanted to maintain the sternwheeler integrity of the boat from on the exterior, I chose to utilize high tech and modern conveniences inside.
I equipped her with the standard navigating equipment like marine radio, GPS, depth finder, and safety gear, and also installed a lap top computer with cell phone hook-up, generator, air conditioning, and of course a color TV. The Wabash Queen was to be a self-contained as possible so that I could enjoy long journeys to remote places.
The first time she was to be put afloat for testing I assembled a launch crew of about a dozen friends and two other boats. I selected a remote ramp on the Wabash River, because I didn't want to draw a crowd on the first launch, especially if things went wrong.
The first thing that I discovered was that the boat was much heavier that expected and the power winch on the bottom the bow deck would not let the boat float off the trailer, so I had to drive my Blazer all the way into the river to get the boat to cast off.
So, now she is floating but listing heavy on the port side. Guess I need to shift some weight. I fired her up and slowly engaged the transmission and to most of my friends surprise, she actually began to move under her own power, that is until I increased the throttle for a little more speed.
That is when the boat began to vibrate badly and the drive chain started slipping on the sprocket teeth creating a terrible jerking, that broke loose the entire transmission mount.
So we towed her back to the ramp and with some difficulty got her back on the trailer. I considered the test successful because she did the two basic things that I was unsure about. She floated and moved under her own power. Everything else can be worked out.
With the test behind me I had a good idea of what needed to be done and set out to make the necessary changes. It has required 2 more "dipping" tests to finally get the bugs worked out, but I am pleased to report that I am writing this letter while cruising on the Wabash Queen. She is not a fast boat, but who is in a hurry to get anywhere with this kind of scenery? She makes up for her lack or speed in comfort and efficiency (she runs all day on 5 gallons of fuel). And that sound......that mild puckity-puck and water thrashing from the paddlewheel is incredible.
By early Spring, I plan to embark on my journey of a lifetime. I will head down the beautiful Wabash River which will lead me to nearly 6,000 miles of inland waterways to explore.
As I cruise and make stop-overs, I will be working via computer/E-mail. I will also be writing my next book, "Beyond The Bridges." I will keep my house, but I'm not certain if I will ever come back.
My children are grown and I am single, so I feel like I have the freedom to finally live my life-long dream. I think the beauty of my trip plan is no plan at all! I will go where it feels right, stay where if feels right, and shove off when it feels right. So, to anyone reading this letter, if you happen to be along any of our rivers and you hear that puckity-puck sound coming in the distance, it might be the Wabash Queen, traveling well "Beyond The Bridges." Hail me down and We'll visit for a while.
A few weeks ago, while I was testing the new rudders I built on the Wabash Queen, I decided to tie a 100 foot line from the boat to the dock, just in case I had trouble, then I could pull her back. The current was very strong and I didn't want to be swept downstream. As it turned out, the rudders worked just fine but my chain drive broke and caused the boat to lurch to the port side so hard that the rope snapped. So there I was drifting without power in a 5,000 lb. boat toward a bridge, which would surely wreck her. My only recourse was to pull in the broken line, put the end in my teeth and jump in the river toward shore. I swam as hard as I could to tie off to a tree before I ran out of slack in the rope. Fortunately, I did make it just in time to loop the rope around the tree, just short of the bridge.
I just layed on the mudding bank for a while, recovering from a feat that would have made Crocodile Dundee proud of me.
After resting for a while and pondering whether I might be getting too old for this stuff, I hiked back to my dock and got my other boat. Then went downstream to tow the Wabash Queen back. Upon inspecting the rope, I had discovered that it apparently had gotten burned almost through when it lodged against the muffler during its previous use. Lesson learned: Always check a lifeline before using it. My motto is that I never make the same mistake twice....too busy making new ones.
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