Dear Dr. Motorhead,
I’ve read your articles for years, even before I owned a wood boat. I have been a club member networking, searching and trying to find the perfect boat for my family and me. I did. I finally found the perfect boat at the perfect price. I cant believe it has come true. My own wood boat; can you believe it? It got here kind of late in the season – not until September of this year. I had time to test it out, brought it home, and took the wife and kids for a number of rides. I was as excited and had more fun than a grown man should.
As with most things in life, all good things must come to an end, at least for this boating season anyway. Winter was coming and it was time for me to get her out of the water before old man winter arrived and the lake freezes solid. Who would know, I mean really, who would know that we would have such warm weather this late fall? Usually, when Thanksgiving rolls around most of the ponds are frozen and we all go ice-skating after our Thanksgiving dinner. All I could think about this year was our new boat. Everything reminded me of boating as I sat daydreaming at the table. Everyone even Gramma was wondering where my mind was. For an 89-year-old woman wondering where my mind was, well, you know it was bad. I tried to clear my thoughts as I pushed the food about my plate. Then I would look up and see the gravy boat, and thoughts of boating would return. My daydreaming would subside only for a moment, until I was asked if I would like more turkey. Did someone say, turn key like in starting an old engine. Then some one asked me if I would like some more stuffing. Then I remembered the stuffing box on old Woody was leaking on the last boat ride of the season.
What is a stuffing box anyway? How do I make sure it is working properly? Do I need to add oil or check it every once and a while? It seems like a silly thing, a big nut wrapped around the propeller shaft. I mean like why do we even need this crazy thing? Who invented it? What is a shaft log anyway? On another note, where is Deer River? Can you help me with these questions? Oh Doctor, I am so excited for next spring. Can I possibly last till then?
Hopelessly lost in the meanderings of my own mind
Dr. Motorhead responds.
I know that cant be your real name – way too long. Besides, living in Minnesota, you should have a son at the end. So I will call you Sven – Sven Anonymousson – from Scandia, ya know. Really Sven, there is no need for you to not divulge your real name. Remember, there is no such thing as a dumb question; well, almost no such thing. Let me ask you one question. How would you profess to keep your boat from sinking if you didnt have a stuffing box? Remember, your propeller shaft goes through the bottom of your boat. kind of like asking a screen door to keep out the wind.
Before I answer your questions directly, lets go back in time and look at some of the great events in boating history. Do you know why the great Viking ships had oars and not propellers?
They hadnt yet invented the shaft log. They tried using a propeller but their boats kept sinking. Never got out of the Fjords. How about the Venetians? They couldnt walk around Venice so they invented gondolas. Any propellers on these boats? Nope, werent ready yet here either. How about Cleopatra? She had a barge with out oars or a propeller. She could only travel the Nile down stream. Imagine traveling all the way down river only having to walk back to Mesopotamia. The technology was there to propel these ancient watercraft with the efficient propeller or screw, but no one could figure out how to drill a whole in the bottom of his or her boat without having it sink.
It wasnt until the late 1800s in industrialized America, that some one figure out you need to find a way to keep the water from coming in. At first a rigid box was built around the shaft, using a pine tar solution to form a tight glue like seal. That worked well sitting at the dock. That rigid seal broke when the engine was started and the boat was put into gear. Where? You guessed it; another boat on the bottom. All these sunken boats were getting expensive. Not many could afford to keep losing boats in those days, especially on an inventors salary. People were getting discouraged. It was starting to look like the use of the propeller would never come of age, when out of nowhere, a young lad emerged with an idea. At first everyone laughed and guffawed at the concept. He said with great confidence, why not have a tapered adjustable packing device that allows the propeller shaft to run through? Then you fill the device with some waxed cotton or, better yet, flax. Tighten it down just enough to keep the water out, but not too tight. You see, if you pack it too tight, you will wear a groove in the shaft. To prevent this, you let a little water in, the whole device stays cool and lubricated. Scratching his head in total disbelief, he couldnt figure out why no one ever thought of this before. As quickly and as quietly as the young lad emerged, he disappeared again.
Naval Architects and Engineers pondered; could this really work? It was time to give it a try. We could ill afford to sink another boat. Weeks went by, everyone sat in great anticipation waiting, waiting for the day this new device could be tested. (Kind of like you waiting for spring, Sven) The day finally came and the boat was launched. While tied to the dock, everyone peered in with wide eyes in amazement. It didnt leak. The boat was floating. Ok, said the naysayers, start it up and pull away from the dock. Tentatively, the builders agreed. You see, their budget had run out and they could not afford to lose another boat. Its working, they screamed from across the bay. Weve done it! The young lad was right! Hooray, Hooray (a term used in those days.) All the marine architects and engineers sang in rejoice. There was dancing in the streets. How could such a simple idea have gone withoutrecognition or invention for so may years? Think of it, even Noahs Ark was built without a propeller. Everyone asked for years, who was this young lad, a Messiah? Perhaps an extra terrestrial sent from the heavens, or even someone sent back in time through the aid of a time machine. No, none of these, as you see, that young lad was my namesake. He was my great, great grandfather, Fred Motorhead Sr. I know this now, as his early writings and tabloids were just recently unearthed from the original Motorhead homestead, in New England.
So Sven, here is how it works. If you have a little water dripping from the stuffing box leave it alone. This is good. If you have a lot of water, do the following: There is a thin jamb nut wedged against the big stuffing box nut. Loosen this and tighten down the big nut on the end of the stuffing box – not too tight – no need to reef on the thing. This should stop the leak. If it doesnt, you need to put new stuffing material in the box. Here is a hint; learn from your elders. Take the boat out of the water before pulling your stuffing box apart to change the material. (Remember, boats have a tendency to sink when they have a hole in the bottom.) You can purchase the stuffing material at any marine supply store. Take out the old; see how it is wrapped around the inside. Tighten the nuts down, both outside and jamb, and then go boating. No need to add oil. Its probably one of the most simple and low-maintenance items on your boat. Thanks great-great Granddad.
There are three parts to the device: the shaft log that attaches to the inside bottom of the boat, the Stuffing box, (the topic of this article) and the flexible hose connector that attaches the two together. Keep an eye on this rubber connector. Check it in the spring; cracks and breaks can occur after a time. Easy to replace, but I want to talk about this a little more next time. When cracks develop in the hose, your boat has tendency to leak and you could be like the early inventors.
Do I know where Deer River is? Alas, I guess I dont have all the answers, but I bet if you ask Denny Smith, hell have the answer to this.
I got to go, Peggy is waiting for this article.
Keep cool Dudes,