Memory Machine

Infused with kevlar, laden with teak and lovingly maintained, our new senior editor waxes nostalgic about the 40-year-old boat that’s never left his family.

Photos by Luke Pope Corbett

Infused with kevlar, laden with teak and lovingly maintained, our new senior editor waxes nostalgic about the 40-year-old boat that’s never left his family.

Keeping a rip-snorting Johnson Ocean Runner in shape gives a real-world education into how–and why–things work. 

A few days ago, my 13-year-old son and I had an “aha moment” out in the garage. Fritz and I were deep into replacing both a worn-out water pump and fixing the shift linkage on the Johnson 200 Ocean Runner that propels the family’s 1983 Hydra-Sports 2100cc. Attached to the shift arm on this otherwise reliable, if thirsty vintage motor is a finicky little electrical switch called a “shift interrupter.” As I explained to Fritz, the analog switch’s purpose is to ease strain on the gears in the lower unit when shifting to neutral. It’s simple in concept but vital in function because if it fails, the starboard bank of cylinders won’t get spark and the motor will barely run. Fritz well understood this because when the switch died last summer, it cut short a glorious sunset wakesurfing session behind our house near Charleston’s Folly Beach and left us crawling home to our dock in the dark.

Sensing a teachable moment, I grabbed the voltmeter and handed Fritz the wire strippers. He deftly sheared a centimeter off both ends of the switch wire, but before I could show him it worked, he asked me: “So how long have we had this boat anyway?”

It was then I realized that aside from the fact that we had owned the Hydra-Sports for as long as he could remember, he didn’t know why his old man was so attached to it.

Casting for trout with your kid on a 40-year-old-boat. Does it get any better?

See, the sleek, sturdy old boat has actually been in my family since new. Originally fitted with a Johnson “2-Thirsty-Five,” Sea Horse and sporting a bulletproof but lightweight, Kevlar-inlaid hull, my uncle relied on her to safely shuttle my aunt and their new daughter from Islip, Long Island, out to their Manhattan escape cottage on Fire Island. The story my uncle Richard tells is that he was originally sold on her quality. She was also constructed with (and still boasts) a beautifully sweeping, welded stainless bow rail, teak trim and cabinetry, non-skid decks, livewells fore and aft and bronze thru-hulls. While pounding along behind Fire Island one summer afternoon, I recall him telling me that the hulls were so tough that the DEA agents who used them as pursuit boats felt comfortable dropping them from helicopters. The empty spaces beneath the deck were also infused with foam, so the boat wouldn’t sink—another important consideration when hunting stripers in the turbulent waters off Democrat Point.

When my uncle and aunt Vicki moved down to rural Georgia to raise their daughter in the company of my aging grandparents, Granddad Ricks trailered the boat down to his house at Lake Oconee. Granddad was a farmer, a postmaster and a self-taught engineer who believed in keeping old things alive. He hand-built his four-bedroom lake house with ancient heart pine he scavenged from abandoned barns and was equally at home working on his 50s-era John Deer tractor, ‘61 Sedan DeVille or the beautiful nameless wood-hulled fishing boat he kept running and (mostly) leak-free for decades. Endlessly patient, he taught me to replace the points on my go-kart, understand the symbols on a voltmeter and rebuild the 390-cubic-inch V8 in my own 1962 Coupe DeVille.

Granddad loved the Hydra-Sports. I remember opening her up once during a glassy fall afternoon on North Inlet near my dad’s house in Georgetown, South Carolina. Standing alongside Dad and me at the helm, he gave a long whistle and repeated a long-running joke we shared: “She runs like a scalded dog.”

In 1994, I moved to San Clemente, California, to take a dream job at Surfer magazine. Granddad’s health slowly deteriorated, and the Hydra-Sports was parked under an open-sided shed at his farmhouse. I made regular visits back east and promises to synchronize my travel for yet another fall fishing trip. But that fishing trip never materialized, and the boat sat. The years faded her gelcoat and sparkly lightning-bolt hull swatch while varnish collected in her carbs and weathered off her beautiful teak. By the time my wife and I moved back to Charleston, South Carolina, with our own newborn daughter in 2005, Granddad’s health simply wouldn’t allow him to fish anymore. Still, in the final year of his life, he was mighty happy to have us all back.

Eventually my wife, daughter and newborn son settled on a tidal creek near Charleston’s Folly Beach. With a dock out back and kids who learned to swim and walk simultaneously, I asked Uncle Richard if the Hydra-Sports could come live with us. He was thrilled. When she arrived, I immediately christened her Granddad II and set to work. She was a mess. Her transom needed serious attention, condensation gunk filled her gas tank and her copious teak needed much love. But the hammer fell when, after days of motor work—stator, fuel pump, new coils and powerpack—I discovered that one cylinder could summon zero compression. On a freelance journalist and stay-at-home mom’s salary, a new powerplant was out of the question, reliable and affordable used two-strokes weren’t terribly common (four strokes even less so) and I didn’t have the fatherly bandwidth for a full rebuild.

I’d think most any boating parent can relate to the discussion my wife and I had next. There are only so many hours in the day and you can only juggle so many plates at once. Devote too much time to any one element and other aspects of life—kid time, wife time, work time, lawnmower time, surfing time, fishing time, boat time—suffer. As a roving journalist, I relied on a mint 1991 VW Westfalia camper called Jean Claude Damn Van as a daily driver, mobile office and family campmobile. My sage wife correctly pointed out, yes, Jean Claude had created wonderful memories, but it still broke down and there was always something to fix or some new piece of gear to add. Now I wanted the headache of this even older boat? When she raised the idea of selling the van or relying on OPB (Other People’s Boats) I bristled with denial. Keeping old things running was part of my DNA. Granddad II had been in my family for 30 years. I wanted my kids to enjoy her. I also wanted Jean Claude. But my wife was right. At what point does the project get in the way of the family—and the fun? At what point does the project require so much of your time and energy that you’re not enjoying it because you’re spending irreplaceable fun time working on it—and worrying about it? At what point does the idea that you can somehow have time to do it all have to give way to the simple reality that you can’t? When I finally decided to trade the VW for an uber-reliable (and tow-capable) Transit, and concentrate on the boat, I expected to be sad. Instead, I was ecstatic.

With Granddad II’s far simpler project list, I found myself looking forward to escaping to the garage, popping in an old Zeppelin cassette and even working on her for just a half an hour. Rather than creating stress, Granddad II put me in the time-stands-still Zen state I knew as a kid, building Lionel model trains or wrenching on my go kart—long before mortgages, dance recitals, medical bills and copy deadlines were part of the mix.

Fritz dove in too. He was still too young to layer fiberglass on the transom, but he could still sand teak, scrub the hull and help me get to hard-to-reach wires under the console. A 1999 Ocean Runner 200 eventually popped up locally on Craigslist. It was old, but it was also a straightforward, beautifully maintained powerplant that would not only serve to propel the boat, but to pass on knowledge of things like water pumps and shift-interrupt switches to Fritz.

By the summer of 2013, a remarkably shiny, smooth-running Hydra-Sports was leaping onto plane on the Folly River. Bouncing behind on an inner tube, Fritz and his older sister Lucy howled with delight. Scores of memories and misadventures have followed. Fritz landed his very first fish—a tiny whiting—from the stern. Lucy launched her first successful wakesurfing foray in its tow. There were camping trips, day trips, fishing runs, sunset cruises and surf safaris to the vast string of uninhabited islands and sandspits that make living in Charleston so awesome. Have there been issues? Actually, not many. There was that apocalyptic 60-knot summer thunderstorm while we were beached up at the north end of Kiawah Island; Granddad II’s anchor thankfully held. There was also the water pump failure during an afternoon cruise. But the boat has only left us stranded once—and that was entirely my fault. I trimmed the motor too high while beached up at Morris Island and it stuck in the up position. Because I stupidly lacked a screwdriver to drop the hydraulic pressure, we sat out there on the beach for quite some time. But hey, at least we were on the beach.

After stripping the wires, I had Fritz hook up both ends of the voltmeter to the shift switch and turned the knob to read the ohms. When the switch was “on,” I explained how current flowed from uphill, or positive, downhill towards negative. Along the way, like a mill wheel in a river, that current can turn a motor, power a light, or allow spark plugs to fire along a bank of cylinders. Fritz’s eyes lit up with recognition. “So the battery is kind of like a dam holding back water,” he said. In that moment, he understood something fundamental not only about the boat and its battery, but nearly every machine that runs our everyday lives. I clearly recalled a similar moment, forty years earlier, while hunched over a fried bilge pump with my granddad.

As we fired up the motor, a reassuringly strong stream from astearn confirmed a correct water pump installation. The shifter was smooth as butter. It would now be a matter of days before Granddad II was back on the water. As Fritz and I stashed the tools and headed upstairs for dinner, I took one last glance back at our 40-year-old boat. Really, she’s not a boat at all. She’s part of the family. She’s our memory machine.

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This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.