Along with the sailboats, yachts, kayaks and diesel fishing vessels in Fidalgo Bay this weekend, members of another once-popular class of propulsion will heat up the bay at their annual gathering.
The annual Northwest Steam Society meet will be at Cap Sante Boat Haven Friday through Sunday, bringing 19 steam-powered boats along with automobiles and stationary exhibits of steam power.
The boats range in size from 14 to 30 feet long. Many are long and narrow, riding low to the water and resembling a canoe more closely than a yacht. The vessels incorporate modern and replica hulls with steam technology from the late 1800s.
“There was a very small window of steam-launch vessels, and then the combustion engine came along,” said Paul Hylton, Anacortes resident and NWSS member.
According to the BBC, the first working steam engine was patented in 1698, and improvements over the next 100 years led to the first workable steamboat in the late 1700s.
Hylton said that by the 1890s, a person of some means could purchase a small steam-launch boat for pleasure cruising, but within 20 years the technology had been eclipsed by combustion engines.
Hylton said the society membership chose in March 2011 to have their next meet in Anacortes because of the marine heritage, historical working waterfront and marina improvements in town.
The historic W.T. Preston steam-powered sternwheeler snagboat is Anacortes’ most visible tribute to the steam era, and Hylton said Anacortes’ Tommy Thompson was a member of NWSS, with his narrow-gauge, steam-powered train, before his death in 1999.
Preserved on dry land near the Depot, the 163-foot Preston is a testament to the working steamboats in Puget Sound. It traveled up and down Puget Sound removing submerged snags that threatened commercial vessels
The Preston is one of the last two steam sternwheel snagboats in the contiguous United States.
Although the boats coming into town this weekend are much smaller than the Preston, the mechanics are largely the same: burning fuel heats the boiler and produces pressurized steam, which is then used to power the boats’ engines.
NWSS members’ boats burn a variety of fuels including wood, propane, diesel and waste oil. It takes about 30 minutes to raise steam in the boiler and start the boats moving. Hylton said the visible mechanics and the peaceful quiet of steam power is what keeps steamers’ passion burning.
“You can see the whole thermodynamic process happening very clearly,” he said.
One of the boats coming into town is more than 100 years old. Hylton’s aunt, Stephanie Hylton, lives on Lopez Island and in 1973 purchased Uno, built in 1894 on Lopez by Michael Norman. The hull was extensively rebuilt in the mid-1990s.
Wolfgang Schlager of Bellingham is a past president of the society. He said more than 250 members are registered with all types of steam-powered machinery.
But he said the do-it-yourself aspect of steaming is also a reason that the society doesn’t attract many youngsters.
“We have, unfortunately, only a few younger members,” he said. “They like to flip a switch and speed away.”
Schlager said the society was formed in 1973 and has never had a major accident — other than the occasional blistered hand — despite boilers that regularly reach more than 150 psi (pounds per square inch).
Every spring, the boats undergo a safety test that includes a check of the over-pressure valve.
Society members plan to parade their steamboats around Seafarers’ Memorial Park at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Members are encouraged to dress up in costumes of the Edwardian era, but Schlager said few members do these days.
“That (1901-19) was the high time for steamboating in England,” he said.
Other steam society members will have stationary electricity-producing displays and even cars.
Pat Ferrell of Sedro-Woolley will have a 12-passenger steam-powered car called a Mountain Wagon, Schlager said.
After the parade, the group plans to steam over to Saddlebag Island State Park, east of Guemes Island, drop anchor and tie up for its traditional Wine and Cheese Raft Up.
Dinner provided by Gere-a-Deli at the Depot will round out the evening.
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