Old School Ways

Oct 14, 2021 by Capt. Jeff Werner

The past comes roaring back at the helm of a vintage Huckins motor yacht

Although my first love is sailing, I do have an affinity for classic wooden motor yachts. The double-planked mahogany hull, built on oak frames and the gleaming brightwork are a siren song to me. In the past, I have captained a Trumpy motor yacht, that was the next to the last to come off their ways and built in 1972. This summer, I had the opportunity to captain the second most well-known brand of vintage wooden motor yachts: a Huckins, which was built in 1959.

For six weeks I learned to appreciate the hull design of this 50-foot yacht, which was being used for luxury day charters in the Hamptons. Although John Trumpy would never give in to the popular demand for fiberglass hulls, Frank Huckins began sheathing his mahogany hulls in fiberglass as he looked toward the future of yachting.

Huckins was always a visionary. In 1928, he invented one of the first true planing hulls, and also patented the process for building laminated oak keels. Both of these innovations were always included in his future yachts, known as “Fairform Flyers.”

Owning a wooden yacht is a labor of love that requires deep pockets, and is not for an owner faint of heart. The expenses of restoring and maintaining a vintage yacht always seem to grow exponentially. This past summer, the Huckins was no exception. And the struggle to maintain veracity to the original design can be overshadowed by the simplicity of adopting updated navigation equipment, and quieter, more efficient diesel engines.

The helm was a fairly spartan affair: a basic steering wheel, the necessary engine gauges, and two twin-lever Morse mechanical controls. The only nod to modern navigation techniques was a simple GPS chart plotter. Admittedly, it did look a bit out of place, but it served its purpose admirably.

The heart of a vintage motor yacht are the main engines, and they are loud. I overheard a guest on her phone say, “Yes, we’re on the noisy boat today!” A classic yacht aficionado would instantly recognize that sound as Detroit Diesel engines. They were the multipurpose diesel workhorse of that era — the same engines that were used on trucks and asphalt pavers. They were loud on trucks and loud on yachts, concern about noise pollution clearly not public policy back then. The noise was tolerated aboard yachts because these engines were state of the art. It didn’t matter if the boat’s exhaust was dry stack or wet, it was the engine itself, as it spooled up to higher RPMs for planing speeds, that sounded like a piece of construction equipment.

The Detroit Diesel engines were “marinized” by replacing the radiator with a heat exchanger. Other than that, every part on a yacht engine was the same as a truck engine. That meant both parts and mechanics were easy to find. For major repairs, the engine parts could be easily disassembled down to the engine block, and taken off the boat piece by piece. Once the repair was completed, the pieces of the puzzle were brought back on board and reassembled.

Any captain or engineer who has recently worked aboard a yacht with old Detroit Diesel engines knows the adage “bilge diapers are your best friend” and buys absorbent pads in bales of 100. These engines tend to use up lots of lubricating oil— and leak a lot of it in the process. In the 1950s and ’60s, that meant that trucks were leaking oil all over the highways and yacht bilges were pumping oil into the waterways. In addition, the engine air-box vents had drain tubes that deposited slight amounts of fuel and oil into the bilge, and the crankcases vented blowby gases directly into the engine room, leading to further water and air pollution. Since that time MARPOL and EPA regulations have made diesel engine manufacturers clean up their act, and our environment is the beneficiary.

Even with all their foibles, older Detroit Diesel engines are beloved by marine mechanics because they are simple to repair. Since there are no microprocessor-controlled common-rail fuel injection systems or engine fault-code analyzers to be reviewed, all that is needed is a standard tool repair kit. The trick is to find an old-school mechanic who has worked on these engines, as they are becoming a dying breed.

Capt. Jeff Werner is a freelance writer who has been a yacht captain for 30 years. He is a certified instructor for the RYA, MCA, USCG and US Sailing, and the owner of Diesel Doctor (MyDieselDoctor.com).