Make & Break Engines

When my faithful old engine (known locally as a make-and-break) began running roughly I took it to my neighbor, Harry Hirlle. Harry listened to it for a moment and then made his diagnosis:’The fluffer valve is gone onto her, Simon’. I thought it would be a major chore to order parts for a sixty year old engine and I might need to have them custom made. But Harry already had the solution and asked if I had an old shoe handy. This will be a new one, I thought, fixing an antique engine with an old shoe.
Harry Hirtle has been around these low tech engines all his life and I had recently acquired a 5HP Atlantic along with the shaft, propeller and battery box. I had also obtained a copy of the original operating manual which was forthright to the point of rudeness. “Don’t crank your head off but look for the cause.” It continued in the same hectoring tone and ended with: “don't read these instructions merely but study them until you know them and then follow them. It will then only be in extreme cases that you have to seek our assistance.”

These engines first became available around 1900 and any power, however primitive, qwas a quantum leap from rowing these heavy boats out the harbor, hauling the herring nets, and then, “if there didn’t come no wind, you’d row that distance back” a veteran fisherman summed it up by telling me “ My, oh, my we done some rowing in them days--the seats was wore thin from sitting on ‘em”..

The fluffier valve turned out to be a spring loaded leather washer that controlled the intake of air to the cylinder. Using the old one as a pattern Harry simply cut a circular washer from the tongue of a shoe. When he started the engine again it ran as smoothly (but no quieter) than before.

Mufflers were an optional extra and most fishermen were reassured to hear the steady beat of a well-tuned engine.  Everyone knew the distinctive sound of the various make-and-break engines within the harbor--even which boat they belonged in. The sound carried along the fog-shrouded coast of Nova Scotia and served as a timely warning to other vessels in the vicinity.

It was a relatively safe engine unless the retractable starting handle was replaced by a fixed pin so the engine could be started with a foot. This caused numerous nasty accidents--often a broken hand or wrist because the heavy, cast iron flywheel took a lot of stopping. I considered myself lucky to lose only one sleeve of a favorite jersey. The reason for this change was to be able too start the engine with a foot--handy when both hands were occupied hauling traps during lobster season.
These two-cycle engines were direct drive with no gearing but the mechanical timing was arranged so they would run forwards or backwards--whichever way they were started. With a bit of practice they could be reversed by switching off the ignition between cycles and then on again until it it fired backwards. This was tricky and the cause of numerous collisions.

There was also the intermittent problem of tiller lines getting wrapped around the flywheel. This stalled the engine or broke the lines-- or both. My own boat leaked and when the water rose in the bilge above a certain level the flywheel would pick it up and send it spinning into the ignition which, of course, stalled the engine. It was no worse than a nuisance but meant stopping the boat and pumping out the water. i never bothered with a muffler because children tend to keep a respectful distance from any loud noise.The electrical system consisted of a 12 volt electric fence battery, a hand wound coil and an igniter inside the cylinder. Each time the circuit was interrupted it produced a spark and this fired the engine

At the mouth of the Lahave River lie two small islands called the  Spectacles, known locally as the Spinnacles. Guy Bush lived on the West Spinnacle and was in the habit of playing cards evenings with his pals in west Dublin. He would set off for home regardless of weather and when his friends urged him to stay the night he would brush them off saying “Spinnacle ain’t shifted” and chug off into the dark. One morning at daybreak a yellow spar was sighted sticking out of the water a mile or so from the shore line.. A couple of dories set off to investigate and reported that they had found Guy still sitting on the engine box with the tiller lines in his hands.The general verdict that “‘something had come oe’r him” was generally accepted.

After throwing the rock ballast overboard we towed the boat to Mikey Bush’ workshop in West Dublin and hauled it on his slip. It was not much damaged--one side of the bow was stove where she'd been run on a rock.  i needed a boat for Middle Island So offered to buy it: we agreed on a price of $350, repaired, painted and ready for the water. This included the spars, a suit of sails--and a make-and-break engine, an Acadia 5 HP made locally in Bridgewater.

I soon realized that I had acquired a museum piece. a working relic, and that I lacked the skills, money and a workshop for the restoration. Luckily for me these boats and the handling of them were still part of a living tradition and there was no shortage of advice and practical help.

A few years later I began building Sadie, a 26 foot transom stern,  so donated the old double-ender along with the Acadia engine to the Lunenburg Fisheries Museum. She was an outside exhibit and the sun and drying winds soon took a toll and she went to pieces rather fast.

By this time I had become involved with the Arques School in Sausalito, California and we decided to build a full-sized working replica of a Bush Island boat. We sent a team to Nova Scotia to measure and record the best surviving example one built by Mikey Bush in 1930. I wrote this story up for WoodenBoat magazine for publication in the ????? issue. Plans are available from the school but they were rather hastily drawn by Bob Darr and of marginal value to builders.