“I thought for a minute that was a Herreshoff engine,” Brandon Pena said, squinting into a 26-foot steamboat where its proud owner sat.
“You’re a very astute young man,” said Tim Lynch, 68. “It is, indeed.”
“It is?” asked Pena, 22, a conductor’s cap on his head and engine grease on his gray T-shirt.
He was right to be skeptical.
“It is a replica of the idea of a Herreshoff engine,” Lynch said.
Talk of Herreshoff engines, fire and water tube boilers, sampling valves and timing bars filled the air Saturday as whistles blew at the Waterford Harbor Visitor Center where, coincidentally, 14 steamboats docked for the 14th annual Waterford Steamboat Meet.
Pena, of Colonie, was talking about the steam engine designed by Nathanael Herreshoff, a prolific American builder, mostly of sailboats, who has a marine museum named after him.
“She’s gorgeous, sir,” Pena continued, now taking in the boat’s hull, a replica of a 1945 U.S. Coast Guard motor surf launch. “She really is.”
“I didn’t build it,” Lynch admitted.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 people were expected to come through the meet between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., when fireworks were scheduled to light up the sky over the confluence of the Erie Canal and the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, said Dick Hurst, director of the visitor center.
Sixty-five vendors of food, brightly colored clothing, crafts, boating supplies and more set up along waterfront as Rexford musician George Ward played guitar and sang songs about steamboats and the Erie Canal. (“Good God she’s big as a mountain,” he crooned. “That’s the biggest old steamboat I ever have seen.”) About 15 volunteers helped make the event run.
“The reason that we built this place was to bring people to Waterford and hopefully spend their money in our town and village while they’re here,” said Hurst of the harbor built in 1999.
For Pena, the event has kept his interest in steamboats chugging along.
“The steamboat meet has done a lot, to kind of be a devil’s advocate, to kind of keep the fire burning in my boiler, so to speak,” he said.
Pena studies mechanical engineering at Hudson Valley Community College and credits his grandfather for lighting the fire in that so-called steam engine boiler of his.
He recalled being 2 years old and hearing his grandfather tell him about seeing steam locomotives running up and down the down the New York Central and Delaware & Hudson rails by his house in West Albany.
“It just kind of fascinated me,” he said. “And he showed me pictures of these huge, fire-breathing machines. I mean, it arouses every one of your senses.”
As for Lynch, a retired engineer who worked a four-year stint as an engineer on steamships for U.S. Merchant Marine, driving a steamboat proved a natural hobby for him and his wife when sailing didn’t work out. His steamboat, called the Flying Cloud, is named after the first steam ship he worked on in 1968.
At first he dabbled in steam pumps, “but that’s like watching the grass grow,” said Lynch, of Oxford, Conn.
In 2003, after researching steamboats online, he went to a steamboat meet in Moultonborough, New Hampshire, where he boarded a steamboat with a hull similar to the one he has now.
“We didn’t go a mile but something fell apart in his boat and I had to fix it for him,” he said. “I was in like Flynn right there.”
Pena hopes to have a steamboat of his own someday, just as soon as he can buy the parts to build one.
He already has a vertical bottle frame steam engine, and on Saturday he bought a 3-inch Crosby chime whistle from one of the visiting steamboaters, who gave him a discount.
“He knows that I’m a young kid trying to make my way in steam, and obviously steam is expensive,” he said.
Lynch expected to see Pena captain his own steamboat soon enough.
“If you have an engine and a dream and a whistle, you’re halfway there,” he told Pena.
“My boiler’s not big enough to make this thing blow, though,” Pena said, and blew into the whistle himself.
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