Buehler jet boat restoration proves complicated
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Buehler jet boat restoration proves complicated

Sep 20, 2023

Exploring the Yellowstone River by boat in Eastern Montana. https://www.youtube.com/@wanderinwonderadventures

For sale: 19 feet of crushed dreams encased in fiberglass. Powered by a cast-aluminum concoction of moving parts beyond owner’s comprehension. Will consider reasonable offers.

The Buehler logo promises jet propulsion.

Such is the fate of my motorboat-owning fantasies. Despite the universe’s several attempts to discourage me, I had persisted in thinking I could get my father’s 1960s-era jet boat running and, maybe more importantly, floating.

To that end, I got down on my knees.

Buehler jet boats are propelled by a firehose-like stream of water shot through the stern.

Instead of praying, which may have been more helpful and less time-consuming, I tinkered with the old mechanical fuel pump attempting to assess its status. After many consultations with friends, who probably found my frenetic text messages annoying, I finally assumed it was broken.

It takes a village to repair a boat. Among my friends, I may now be viewed as the village idiot.

I easily removed the fuel pump only to find that replacing the part would be no simple trip to the auto parts store. One employee even sneered and walked away when I mentioned it was for a boat. Others suggested I drop the old mechanical pump and just wire in an electrical one, as if I had that know-how.

Holes through the boat's hull are visible after cutting a hole in the floor and extracting foam floatation.

Finally, after three trips to different stores, one of the parts guys managed to find a pump that fit. Attaching it in the tiny space provided was the next challenge. I needed three hands but could barely fit one. The engineers who design mechanical apparatuses have no concern for the people who have to work on them. None.

After several failed attempts, lots of cursing and sore knees, I finally got it mounted in place only to find the attachment for the gas line was in the wrong place. Regretfully, I detached it and made another trip to the auto parts store for a different fuel pump. Then I had to repeat the painful process of trying to attach it.

After the pump was in place, new sections of metal fuel line had to be bent into configuration and attached, requiring two more trips to the auto parts store. Rarely was I waited on by the same person, making me think the turnover among employees at auto parts stores must be incredibly high.

After priming the carburetor with gas and cranking the starter repeatedly, the engine finally roared to life. The low overflights of the Navy Blue Angels’ jets seemed almost quiet compared to the big eight-cylinder inboard engine’s idling rumble. There go my neighbors’ property values.

Excited, I towed the hulking boat to Lake Elmo on the weekend they allow motorboats to test their engines before the boating season.

After awkwardly backing the boat trailer between the numerous kayakers, the boat fired up and cruised across the tiny lake. Elated, I time-traveled back to my boating youth, skimming over the surface of Canyon Ferry Reservoir as a teenager — I was thin, had a full head of hair and white teeth. In the short time it took to get back to the boat launch the bilge was filling with water faster than the pump could spurt it out.

With the boat at risk of sinking, I quickly pulled it out, popped out the bilge drain plug and watched amazed as a 1-inch stream of water shot out. A Coast Guard volunteer came over to commiserate, offering that maybe my engine had a leak. When I looked under the front of the boat, the issue seemed clear. Water was gushing from two holes in the hull.

In the 1970s, Buehler jet boats were classy, sleek beasts.

For weeks the boat sat unattended while I watched YouTube videos on how to patch a fiberglass boat. There are a lot of them, and no two seemed to use quite the same method or materials. One repeated note was that the hull had to be dry before working on the repair, but my ulcerous holes never seemed to quit draining. The foam interior was oozing water like an endlessly saturated sponge.

For a little while this spring, hope floated and so did the boat.

Once again I reached out to my village. One friend recommend I sell the boat immediately.

After grinding around the holes, itchy fiberglass bits filtering down my neck, I began the smelly process of applying layer upon layer of fiberglass attached with toxic epoxy resin. I went big, figuring the more layers the better. I even cut a hole in the floor so I could patch it from above. This was required since the foam refused to dry out.

Finally, months later, I was ready to float the boat again. Pulling out of the driveway the trailer popped off the hitch. It hadn’t been locked down correctly. That should have been a sign. By the time we got to Cooney Reservoir, hopes were high and I was happy the hitch had held. After dropping the boat in the lake I turned the key and the engine cranked and cranked but failed to start.

Encased in a Tyvek suit, the boat owner diligently sands a patch to add even more fiberglass.

Pulling up the engine cover it was obvious that water in the bilge was quickly rising. Either my patch hadn’t worked, or there was another leak. Pulling the boat out, it was clear my patch had held but there were other problems. A lot of water had entered the hull. Too much.

Driving back, the washboard of the dirt road rattled both trailer lights off. I skulked back to town in the dusk, defeated, wet and moping.

Many people have joked with me about the old adage that a boat owner’s happiest moments are the day they buy a boat and the day they sell it. Instead, I feel a bit broken that I could not float my dad’s old boat. My ideas for boat names, excitedly thrown out before the second test launch, now seemed darkly comical: Jet Bloat, Jet Dream and Rocked ‘n’ Rollin’ (since it had been run aground in a storm, causing all of the problems I now felt too unqualified to address).

Seen from under the boat, holes are revealed in the hull after an older patch fell off.

In 1964, the manufacturer of the jet boat promised in an advertising brochure an adventure in romance, elegance and excitement. Instead, it felt like my boat ownership had become a misadventure in tragedy, clumsiness and agitation.

Time to get the raft out. It leaks air out, not water in.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Exploring the Yellowstone River by boat in Eastern Montana. https://www.youtube.com/@wanderinwonderadventures

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