Ah, summer. Many summers in my childhood I eagerly anticipated the end of June because it meant I could spend a week with historic preservationists, if you think outside the box when defining “historic preservationist.” I’ll admit, at the time I didn’t think of these people as historic preservationists, but now that I look back on it, that’s sort of what they were. What I mean to say is: I often skipped out on the last week of school and went off to hang out at a steamboat meet instead.
Yes, a steamboat meet. As in that antiquated form of transportation that was once so revolutionary and was also quickly overshadowed by other technologies. Several times a year, steamboat enthusiasts get together to show off their boats, discuss steam, and have fun. Steamboaters are definitely some of the most entertaining and helpful people that I’ve met. How did I get involved in this? My grandparents own a steamboat, a fiberglass Elliott Bay hull from the 1980s.
While my grandpa’s boat is a new build, there are plenty of boaters who’ve restored old boats. Some have fitted more modern boats or tugs to run on steam instead (reduce reuse recycle!). At each meet there are endless conversations that I can’t quite follow about what type of engine someone has and what year it’s from and what boat it was in before. The men (let’s be honest, it is mostly older men who have steamboats as toys) are walking dictionaries on all aspects of steaming and are concerned with preserving the boats, a pastime, and a technology. Some work with boats full-time or volunteer at maritime museums, others are purely hobbyists. But they’re all incredibly knowledgeable.
If you learned about steamboats in school, you probably learned about the Mississippi River paddleboats or the ocean-going steam ships. The boats at these meets are usually in the 20-30 foot range and can carry up to 8 or 10 passengers at a time (depending on the boat) but can be managed by just one or two. Most burn wood, a few burn coal. Going faster than 7 or 8 knots/hour (8 or 9 mph) is a chore. The engines are noisy. Sometimes there are water gun fights or impromptu sing-a-longs.
I would say it’s good, clean, educational fun, but you actually get rather dirty running a steamboat.
Craving more about steamboats? Check out this list of meets in the U.S. in 2014 (spectators always welcome!).