Full steam ahead
“Get on,” is the terse command from the shadowy figure standing at the back of the boat.
Disobeying that order is not an option.
“I said get on,” repeated the captain of the SS Skaha as he sensed a slight hesitation on the part of his reluctant passenger.
Stepping from the dock onto the vessel I’m greeted by the outstretched hand and huge grin of the boat’s owner and designer Bob Maurice as he moves from under the canopy into the sunshine.
“Come on, we’ll just go for a short ride, you’ve got to see this,” said the retired Alberta welder who lives with wife Sally on their waterfront property in Okanagan Falls.
Once on board, smiling first mate Dave Mortensen (who as it turns out doesn’t say much) pushes off using a long metal pole to nimbly avoid grounding the watercraft in the shallows.
But this is not just any boat, the Skaha is an actual (albeit scaled-down) working, wood-fired steam sternwheeler.
What makes her especially unique is that the engine and all the fittings are the work of Maurice using no plans, just his inherent skills and experience.
And while the 24-foot metal-hulled craft can also run on propane, the captain prefers the more traditional wood fuel to fire the boiler.
Accommodating anywhere from eight to 10 passengers, the Skaha features lounge seating in the bow (three wicker chairs) a galley (small marine barbecue) and other luxury amenities including a bathroom, although Maurice appears to be pointing to the water over the boat’s starboard side as its location.
Although the skipper has not determined the number of nautical miles per cord, he maintains a trip to Penticton and back (likely an overnighter) is very economical.
Most of his outings during the warmer months are in and around the south end of the lake and the lonesome sound of the steam whistle and the slap of the bright red paddles on the water are not uncommon to his neighbours.
On this cruise he decides to turn the controls over to his guest. “That’s one more you can cross off your (to do) list,” he said with a laugh.
And now, after the leisurely part of the voyage, it’s time to put the Skaha through her paces.
“Let’s see what this baby can do,” said Maurice as he jams the throttle into the full ahead position and tugs on the whistle chain to alert other mariners of his impending actions.
Almost immediately clouds of steam emerge from around the boiler, the gentle chugging of the pistons is replaced by a pronounced drumming sound and the rhythm of the paddles steadily increases as the chains attached to the motor move faster and faster.
The end result is near-perceptible acceleration at which time I quickly grab the side rail while performing a convincing backwards motion.
Words are not necessary during this power demonstration and would not be heard over the noise of the engine anyway.
An appreciative shake of the head is all the recognition necessary.
Sadly the adventure of this voyage ends all too quickly and it’s time to return to shore.
But for Maurice and crew the sun is still shining — there is plenty of daylight, lots of firewood left and the calmness of the lake beckons.
As the sternwheeler turns around and once again heads out into open water the captain glances over his shoulder and gives a wave.
The first mate too looks back from his spot in the bow of the boat ... and smiles.