Sidewinder Shenanigans

I thought the "Evil" Jetboat was possessed. But now that I think about it, this boat had a "devilish" side as well.....


In the story of the "Evil" Jetboat, I related how this seemingly innocent Rally Sport Samurai jet boat must have been possessed to have had so many bad things happen to it. Rusted out oil pan, leaking gas tank, broken shift cables, blown engine, run aground on a sandbar, and the list went on.  But Whitey, the guy who owned this boat before Art first took possession of it, had another jet powered pocket rocket before the evil green monster.  And, not too surprisingly, this one had a few of its own demonic issues as well.......... 

Whitey loved his summer place up in the Pocono mountains.  Over the years, he had gotten to know a few of the seasonal summer residents who shared this little chunk of paradise,  otherwise known as Walt's Landing on Lake Wallenpaupack.  So between him, his family, his friends, and their extended families of growing kids, it was no surprise that they would enjoy spending time out on the lake.  Eventually just riding around in the boat wasn't good enough, and they started learning how to water ski.  It wasn't long into this activity before Whitey realized that his current boat, a 4 cylinder Mercruiser powered Lone Star runabout, lacked the power to make for a good ski boat, especially when trying to pull a 200+ Lb man out of the water on one ski with a boat load of people on-board.  So, in 1971, Whitey sold his old reliable Lone Star, and started looking for a new, more powerful boat.  As he was looking for a suitable boat to replace the Lone Star, he happened across the Sidewinder boat line.  Sidewinders were a relatively new maker of affordable trailerable sport boats.  They came in outboard, I/O, and jet drive models.  But in the early 70's, Neither the I/O's nor outboards could produce large amounts of horsepower.  The biggest I/O available in the Sidewinder, was a 145 HP 6 cylinder, and the biggest outboard was a 150 HP.  The jet drive boats were not all that popular yet, but they were equipped with a seemingly gargantuan 455 C.I., 300 HP Oldsmobile engine.  Whitey was impressed with the big block V8 engine which graced the stringers on the jet powered Sidewinder.   What sealed the deal was when he was told that the jet powered Sidewinders would hit 60 MPH, which was a hellishly high rate of speed in those days for anything short of a race boat.  Back then, the typical factory equipped family runabout was lucky to make 40 MPH.  The jet had other advantages as well.  No propeller to slice off feet or hands, it turned on a dime and gave you a nickel's change, and can run in shallow water (not that there were many shallow areas at Wallenpaupack).  With all this in mind, he concluded that this would make the ideal ski and fun boat.  So without much more convincing, Whitey signed on the dotted line and took delivery of a nice metalflake blue 18' jet powered Sidewinder, which he named "Blue Bandit".  It was setup like a typical runabout of the time period, except it was quite a bit lower in profile .  It had two non-adjustable back-back front seats and two forward-facing back seats straddling either side of the engine cover, giving a total seating capacity of 6.  Gauges, throttle, and steering were provided by Teleflex and Morse, and the jet drive was a typical Berkeley unit.  By today's standards, the boat was sparsely apportioned.  Not many creature comfort amenities like cup holders, under floor ski storage,  or even a stereo could be found.  But it was quick and powerful, and that's all that mattered.  For the first year or so the boat ran flawlessly, which one would expect from a new boat still under warranty.  Whitey and the crew blasted around the lake, and it had no problem pulling skiers right up out of the water.  And it could pass almost anything but a gas dock.  You could burn through 20 gallons of gas in an hour if you were running it hard.  But gas was still cheap back then, so it wasn't much of a problem yet.  But what was a bit of a problem was that the boat was setup from the factory to run on premium gas. Whitey's home marina, and most others on the lake, only sold regular gas.  So he was forced to lug several Jerry cans full of premium gas down to the dock every time he needed a fill, which was fairly often considering the big 455's thirst for fuel.  It was lucky that there were always teenagers around willing to help lug the cans in exchange for a ride.  But other than that relatively minor hassle, it was a fun boat which everyone enjoyed.  But nearing the end of the boat's second season, the heretofore hidden gremlins were starting to stir.  The first one appeared when Whitey started having problems with the engine surging and running rough at cruising speed.  Thinking it was dampness related, he changed spark plugs, wires, points, and distributor cap and rotor.  The boat started a bit easier and idled a little smoother, but still ran rough at certain higher RPM's.  Eventually a mechanic was called in and he discovered that the original Rochester Quadrajet carburetor had developed a crack in one of the secondary bores, and there was no practical way to fix it.  So Whitey had a Holley 950 3 barrel (A very unusual carb with a single large bore for the secondary which was probably way too much for that engine) bolted on, and that did the trick for the rest of the 2nd season.  The mechanic also retuned the engine to run on regular gas, thus eliminating the hassle of bucket brigading gas cans down to the dock.  The boat lost 1 or 2 MPH off of the top end, but otherwise ran acceptably.  

During the third season, while out skiing, the boat accidentally rode over and sucked up the ski rope in the jet intake.  The rope then wrapped itself around the shaft and gobbled up the remaining rope until it wedged itself inside the jet intake and stalled the engine. The friction of a nylon ski rope trying to hold back a 330 HP engine resulted in a fused mass of rope around the shaft, and no real way to easily free it while in the water.  Fortunately, this happened while the boat was just outside the no-wake area of the home cove, so it was a simple matter to flag someone down for a quick tow back in.  But the boat had to be taken out of the water to remove the rope, which ended up needing a propane torch to cut (melt) through.  The next gremlin appeared when the engine started turning over slower and slower when you tried to start it.  Thinking that the battery was about shot, he replaced it, but the problem only improved slightly.  After having to be towed in when the engine would not turn over fast enough to start one day, Whitey got disgusted and took the boat home and winterized it early, deciding to wait until the next season to delve into it further.

It was now 1974, and this is where I entered the picture. I had met Whitey earlier that year when he had discovered the CB radio hobby over the winter.  Another new CB acquaintance was a guy known as "Little John" who was a car mechanic by trade.  One thing led to another and Little John agreed to give Whitey's boat a look over.  So on a warm spring day, Whitey and I drug the boat down to Little John's shop in the east end of Norristown.  It didn't take John long to figure out that the starter most likely had a bad winding, and needed to be replaced.  On a car, this was not a difficult job. You crawled under the engine,  unbolted the starter and replaced it.  But on a boat, it was not so easy.  You couldn't get under the engine, and there was very little clearance to get to it from the top.  But somehow John found a way, and he managed to get the replacement starter installed.  The boat then fired up easily, and while we were there, John also tuned the engine up.  Whitey was grinning from ear to ear when John only charged him for the parts (Nice guy!).  Taking apart the old starter revealed that there was considerable rust inside, which was most likely due to the starter sitting so low in the bilge and being immersed in the accumulated water.  But with the boat's problems seemingly behind him, it was off to the lake for another fun-filled season, and my first chance to ride in a boat again since my father had died 5 years earlier.  And not just any boat either.  It was like the first time riding a roller coaster.  I had never felt a boat accelerate like this thing did.  It was definitely a thrill, and likely the reason why I like high performance boats to this day.  So we ran the boat around the lake and had a blast.  He even let me drive, which took a little getting used to, ironically more so at low speed, where a jet's maneuverability is greatly reduced.  

The next time I was up, Whitey had decided that since the reason the old starter had failed due to exposure to bilge water, which usually occurred during the week when no one was using the boat and rainwater and jet seepage would accumulate, he wanted to prevent it from happening again.  So to alleviate the problem, he decided to put a water level float switch on the bilge pump to make it automatic.  So he asked me to help him install the float switch.  Since my budding skills in electronics were already well underway, electrical devices were up my alley, so I said "sure".  All we needed were the parts.  So we took the boat for the trip (And a trip by boat was infinitely more fun than by car) to the other side of the lake to a marina there to get the water level switch for the bilge pump.  The trip was enjoyable and once there, we tied up at the courtesy dock, and went in to get the parts we needed.  We couldn't have been in there for more than 20 minutes before we finished our transaction, retrieved the boat,  and headed for the 11 mile trek back to our home port.  The boat started up fine, but no sooner did we accelerate to get up on plane for the return trip,  when the engine started backfiring through the carb and running all sorts of rough at any RPM over about 2500.  We quickly stopped and checked the engine over, and could find nothing obvious wrong.  So we nursed it back to our end of the lake and spent the rest of the weekend trying to figure out what was wrong (and installing the bilge pump switch).  We had no luck finding the problem, but one interesting fact did become evident.  When you share a dock with several other boaters, it should come as no surprise that almost every one of them will stop by and gladly offer up their honest (if perhaps a bit uneducated) opinion as to what they think is wrong with your boat the minute they sense that there's a problem.  And a raised engine cover with heads buried in the engine was a pretty good sign of a problem.  Everything from spark plugs, to dirt in the carb, to bad gas was suggested.  One of the more sensible opinions offered up by those dockside wizards of mechanical ineptitude, was that there might be water in the gas.  So we dumped several cans of "Dry Gas" into the gas tank and hoped for the best.  But when the next weekend came, the problem was still there.  So with no more ideas to try, theories to explore, and nothing more that we could do, Whitey had to wait until yet the next weekend when he could bring his big car up to tow (a '73 Subaru coupe would not tow a boat), the boat back down to Little John's shop to hopefully find out what was up this time.  That next week, Little John tried tuning and playing with the timing, and the engine seemed to run a little better, but still not quite right.  Then on a hunch, he checked the firing order of the spark plugs and found that the last two plug wires on the starboard side of the engine were swapped.  Huh?  Sure enough, when he swapped the wires back to the way he thought they should be, the engine smoothed right out and ran strong again.  But what was up with that? The engine had run fine right up until we went to that marina to get bilge pump parts. There's no way the engine could ever have run ok with those two wires reversed.  And there was no way that we had done it ourselves recently, and they certainly didn't swap by themselves.  So that left deliberate sabotage (or gremlins). The only thing I can figure is that someone must have quickly lifted the engine cover and swapped the wires while we were inside buying parts at the marina.  Great joke there whoever you were.  A real bold and gutsy move too, doing something like that in broad daylight with who knows how many people who could have seen them (but none who told us) do it.  This prank cost us 3 weekends trying to pin that one down.  But I still can't understand what would motivate someone to do something like that.......  A disgruntled sailboater perhaps?

The next issue for the boat was the clearcoat on the bow baking from sun exposure.  This really wasn't a "gremlin" influenced SNAFU, but the ensuing project that this generated was enough to create additional consternation.   In any case, this came about because the boat had a vinyl cockpit cover which kept the inside of the boat dry, and out of sun's rays.  But the cover didn't extend far enough forward to cover the whole bow of the boat, so after 4 years of sun exposure, the clearcoat had gradually baked off, and the rough metalflake undercoating was showing though.  Whitey thought he could fix this problem by spraying on cans of clearcoat.  But after 3 or 4 cans, the finish was still rough.  Not wanting to have to spray on an indeterminate number of additional cans (at over $3.00 a pop), he went out and bought a gallon can of brush-on clear, and applied that.  Well, after application and some good old fashioned elbow grease to buff it smooth, the finish actually looked acceptable again.  But after about a month, the clearcoat that he applied started to turn yellow, which gave the bow a decidedly green shade, which didn't go at all with the blue color of the rest of the boat.  Then, to make a bad situation even worse, a few weeks after that, the whole mess started to crack and peal which made it look even worse than before.  So at the beginning of the next season, Whitey decided to have the whole bow section of the boat covered in vinyl fabric, like a vinyl top on a car.  From my seasoned vantage point in the year 2009, I can say with a fair degree of certainty,  that this was a really bad move.  I'm sure a professional fiberglass shop could have fixed up his finish again for a reasonable price.  But for whatever reason, Whitey instead had a vinyl guy come out and he picked a suitable matching blue vinyl fabric and had the guy apply the stuff.  The job didn't turn out all that bad, but a vinyl top on the front deck of a boat just seems really tacky to me now. 

So another season was under way in the year 1975, and the boat was not going to let us have a completely trouble free season this year either, without having at least one or two little tantrums in the process.  The first problem showed up one Saturday when we uncovered the boat and prepared to take a spin out on the lake.  I knew we were in for some trouble when the ignition key was turned and all that came from the engine was a low growl followed by a rapid CLICK-CLICK-CLICK.  Oh oh, it would appear that we had a dead battery.  The engine cover was raised, connections were cleaned and checked, but the problem remained. So Whitey had little choice but to go into town and find a replacement battery.  We probably should have checked the alternator charging voltage, and then examined the drive belt.  Had we done that, we might have avoided our next "gremlin".   This next one manifested itself a couple weekends later, on another outing.  We were about halfway down the lake when the engine suddenly started overheating, so we quickly shut it down.  Lifting the engine cover, and upon closer inspection, we could see that we had broken the engine's drive (fan) belt, which ran around the alternator and water pump.  Later model jet boats usually eliminated the automotive style circulator water pump and relied on the pressure exclusively from the jet pump to push cooling water though the engine.  But that wasn't the case on this '71 model.  So not only did we lose the alternator, but the water pump as well, which explained the overheating.  Naturally, we didn't have a spare belt, and we were stuck out in the middle of the lake.  As if that wasn't enough, to throw a little salt in the wound, unbeknownst to us, we had also chosen to break down right in the middle of a sailboat racing course.  So while we had our heads buried in the engine compartment trying to come up with some way to jury-rig a replacement fan belt, a group of sailboats had silently come up on our port side, and had to maneuver to get around us.  Sailboaters are a notoriously whiney bunch of curmudgeons who hate powerboaters to begin with, especially one that just happens to be stalled right in the middle of their little "race".  One by one, as they passed us by with feet to spare, they took turns letting their vitriolic angst be known.  The fact that we were broken down, and not simply there by choice or ignorance didn't seem to matter to them either.  As my anger level rose, I pleaded with Whitey to fire up the engine for one brief moment just so we could blast them with a shot from the jet.  The mental image of these pompous windbags, dressed like a cross between a GQ cover and Thurston Howell III, dripping from head to toe would have put a smile back on my face.  But Whitey, being the only adult in the area, thought better of it.  Eventually though, the gaggle of rag baggers moved on at a speed not much greater than our rate of drift, and I returned my attention once more to the problem at hand.  In a sudden burst of crazed inspiration, which closely resembled the product of Rube Goldberg meets MacGyver, I came up with an idea.  I took a piece of old ski rope and tried to loop it around the drive pulley and the water pump.  Wonders upon wonders, it actually fit, and I pulled it as tight as I could and tied a knot.  I figured that this might be just enough to run the water pump and keep the engine from overheating just long enough to get us back to our dock.  Crossing my fingers, Whitey fired up the engine. The makeshift rope belt made it around for maybe a half dozen revolutions before it flew off the pulleys.  I don't think it liked the big knot which we tied the rope with.  After a couple more tries, we gave up.  So now out of options, we sat out in the middle of the lake for an hour or so while the engine slowly cooled down.  Then we fired it up and ran it for about 5 minutes before it began to overheat again.  But that 5 minutes of running time took us a few miles closer to home.  So we stopped again and did a little more swimming, waited another hour, and then we moved again.  Luckily Whitey had replaced the battery with a brand new one a couple of weekends back, or we might have run the battery down as well, and we'd have been really stuck.  Eventually though, we did make it back, and a quick trip to the local auto parts store for a new belt (and a spare!), took care of that problem.

There were other small incidents, like a broken shift cable, but that was the last season I spent around that boat.  Whitey kept it for one more season, then he sold it and bought the Evil green monster, the Rally Sport (a Sidewinder clone).  He ran that one for a few seasons (and had problems with that boat as well), before passing those gremlins off to Art.  But as an interesting side note, back in 1990, I was up at Lake Wallenpaupack in my Sea Ray Pachanga cruising up to Whitey's end of the lake to pay him a visit.  On the way in to Walt's Cove, I saw what could only be a '71 Sidewinder (the hood scoop on the engine cover was a dead giveaway).  It was painted dark blue on the hull, and red on the deck and gunwales.  Because of the color scheme, I didn't think it could be Whitey's boat.  But when I picked up Whitey, and took him out for a ride, I mentioned it, and he wanted to try to find it, so we looked around.  It didn't take long to find it again, and we pulled alongside to talk to the owner.  Well, as luck would have it, the boat did turn out to be Whitey's old boat.  This guy had bought it from another guy, who had painted it to get rid of the "awful vinyl" on the bow (that clinched it).  The boat was now on its 3rd engine, the original and one other had blown. The current owner had redone the interior and replaced the gauges.  But all in all it didn't look bad for a 19 year old boat (I was not too fond of the colors though).  Hopefully this owner had good luck with it.  One can only wonder where the boat is now..........