The British Seagull That Wouldn’t Die.

The Sailboat "Po!" and it's Seagull Engine..

The Sailboat “Po!” and it’s Seagull Engine.

My dear wife Michelle owns the smallest sailboat in Cowichan Bay. I don’t know if this is absolutely true, but at nine and a half feet, her little Davidson fiberglass dingy must be amongst the contenders. She’s named it “Po!”. A short name for a little boat. Every few days or so, you may see her out on the water, a little blip in the distance tacking back and forth. The winds must be *just* so and seas not too rough. It is for her a fun little boat and not to be taken too seriously.

Until this year.
 You see, every year Cowichan Bay plays host to a small craft regatta. There are races. Competition is intense. Fortunes may not be won or lost, but there is a fierce sense of pride involved. Most of the boats come from right here in the bay, but we have had competitors from other places too. The rules are simple. Run what you brung, so long as what you brung is a British Seagull outboard motor.

The British Seagull, (“The Best Outboard Motor for the World” is stamped on every engine flywheel) is one of those things that people either fall in love with, or come to hate with a passion. It is a contraption. It is a two stroke outboard motor that resembles a coffee can on a stick, with a propeller attached, a design as unchanged by time as was the original Volkswagen. The first ones were made in 1931, the newest you can find were built in the late 80’s. Some call it the Model T of outboard motors.

They make a lot of noise, smell of gasoline, require a 10 to one fuel/oil mixture (after 1979 25/1) and do all sorts of environmentally unsound things if you aren’t careful. All the engine bearings are sturdy bronze bushings, as are the bearings in the leg and at the propeller. The propeller gearbox takes 140 weight lubricating oil, and there are no seals down there protect anything from the water. It just comes in, mixes with the leg oil and makes a slurry. This is expected. Cooling is provided by a water pump that doesn’t ever wear out or get plugged with sand, but which also doesn’t work properly at slowest idle. This is not a trolling motor. The original starting instructions require flooding of the carburettor to the point where the fuel and oil dribbles into the sea, something we now catch of with a bit of rag.

The starter consists of a length of thin rope with a handle at one end and a knot at the other. This you wind around the flywheel, and after setting the choke, a brisk pull generally wakes the engine up. Unless you are tied to the dock, you begin your voyage immediately, for most have no clutch whatsoever. None was ever made that had a reverse gear. If you want to back up, you use an oar.

In days long past, the Seagull was used by fishermen, bargees and sportsmen. It provided an excellent alternative to an inboard engine on boats up to 35 feet. During the second world war, the Seagull went to Dieppe. It landed in France on D-Day too. It powered more than a few of the inflatable rafts which helped Allied raiding parties cross rivers.

The Seagull, whether it be a 1.5 hp version or the mighty 5.5 hp, makes precious little speed in it’s original format, yet it provides tremendous thrust for it’s size at speeds below 8 knots. The secret lies in the propeller, or as it’s correctly known, the Hydrofan. It’s like no other outboard motor propeller. It’s slow turning and has four or five pitched blades, each curved across the profile like an airplane wing. You have to think of the British Seagull not as a speed-boat motor, but as a little tugboat engine in minimalist form.

Six or seven years ago, I found three of these engines for sale as a lot on Craigslist, two 1.5 hp and one of the big 5 hp ones which had a clutch. Of the three, the two smaller engines stood out. One from about 1955 and the other from 1973. The larger was a bit of a mess, but a complete unit for all that. Often all you can find are basket cases, or engines so neglected they won’t even turn over by hand.

I set the big one away and concentrated on the smaller two. I got both of them running. The ’55 tended to miss a bit and cause a fuss. The ’73 ran sweetly so I put the ’55 away as well and concentrated on this remaining engine. We had a little 12 foot skiff at the time and prattled about the bay for most of the summer. That boat eventually became so rotten that we disposed of it and the ’73 engine went into storage with the others. It remained there for the last five years or so.

It saw daylight again a few weeks ago, when Michelle decided to try it out on her little sailing dingy.

Resurrecting a British Seagull that’s been stored dry is often a simple affair. In many cases you fill the tank with fuel/oil mix, put a three or four drops of 2 stroke oil in the spark plug hole, turn the engine over by hand a few times, check that there is at least some oil in the lower gear-case, initiate the starting procedure with the engine in a barrel of water and off she goes. Tony Owen has resurrected quite a few in this manner at the Maritime Centre.

Our little engine needed a bit more attention. The fuel tank had muck in it. Michelle removed it by dropping in a handful of coins, adding some water and a bit of scouring powder and giving it a 15 minute shaking. You duplicate the technique of the barman, by pretending you are mixing a fancy cocktail until your arms expire. Then you do it again. Cleaned in this manner, she removed the coins and put the tank into the dishwasher for good measure. Cleaned inside and out, the tank was ready for it’s fittings.

Along the way Michelle also discovered that the tank valve leaked. A quick trip to the Maritime Centre and a raid on Tony’s parts department fixed that up for less than 15 dollars. Then, the carburettor float needle valve wouldn’t fully close. This flooded the engine and risked dribbling fuel into the sea. We couldn’t have that so, Michelle cleaned the entire carburettor again, and so fixed the problem.

British Seagulls use a magneto for ignition like a lawnmower does, and this proved to be in fine order. She cleaned the spark plug and reset the gap. This complete, she fixed the engine to the boat and began the starting procedure. To our delight the thing took right off. The first test run proved successful. The little engine didn’t miss a beat.

It starts easily, usually on the first pull even when cold. It’s good at coming into dock, will idle down so as to prevent rushing about. When you close the throttle fully it stops, something not all Seagulls will do. Even at 1.5 hp it’s thrust is enough to tow a 17 foot speed boat or move a 20 foot dock into position, something I remember doing at one of the stilt houses up the road that first year we had the engine.

It pushes Michelle and her little dingy along at about 5 to 7 knots. This may not win the speed races, for there are always out of towners who show up with long thin craft and have their Seagulls tweaked. One year the hot setup proved to be a modified rowing scull with an outrigger and a 5hp Seagull that must have put out at least 8 or 9hp. Speed props are not unknown either. It’s a Gull eat Gull world out there on the water on Race Day.

But there is also a poker race, and the reliability of this particular motor may well prevent a last place finish. Speedy temperamental engines have been known to balk at starting, and at the beginning of every seagull race, you have to start that engine.

British Seagull racing in Cowichan Bay. Perhaps not as serious as Gull racing in other parts of the world, but Michelle is ready for 2018.

Watch for date and time, and watch out for a slow but steady competitor with a very nice running ’73 Feather Weight 40 in a 9 and a half foot Davidson sailing dingy.

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  1. Chris
    August 20th, 2017 at 09:01 | #1

    Sorry I missed the first run, though I was aware of the meticulous build-up and preparations. My own Seagull runs really well!

  2. Erik de Vries
    August 20th, 2017 at 10:01 | #2

    Your Seagull is one of those Michelle will really have to watch out for! It’s in her class, we know it to be as reliable as the sun and that it’s owner is skilled in it’s use too!

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