Bellingham retiree builds steamboat with twin paddle wheels

Russ Karns of Bellingham was confident his experimental steam-powered paddle-wheeler would work just fine, but that’s what shakedown cruises are for.

His test came Thursday morning, May 28, at Bloedel-Donovan Park, where he launched “Arthur M,” his hand-built plywood boat with two paddle wheels side by side on the stern.

What sets the boat apart is a differential system Karns devised that, with bicycle-type brakes, was designed so he could slow down one wheel relative to the other. That would enable him to guide the boat, which was important because it doesn’t have a rudder.

But, as often happens with prototypes, things didn’t work out quite as planned. Karns discovered the system didn’t give him enough control to steer the boat, so a friend at the bow had to use oars to guide the boat back to the park after about 20 minutes on the lake.

“It went OK; we went out and got back,” said Karns, who plans to tinker with the differential and add a rudder before trying again in the coming weeks. “I’m not through with it. I knew there’d be a lot of changes.”

Karns, 87, retired 30 years ago from Western Washington University, where he was an electronics technician who worked on instrumentation for the chemistry and biology departments.

He developed an interest in steam engines early on, and has been a member of Northwest Steam Society for about 20 years. Founded in 1973, the regional, nonprofit group is for people who share a common love of steam-powered devices, including cars, trains and, mostly, boats.

The “Arthur M” is Karns’ sixth steamboat. It’s his first paddle-wheeler; all of the others were propeller-driven.

He has been working on the boat for the past two months. The hull is 4 feet wide and 16 feet long, squarish with a pointed bow. Painted black with a yellow stripe, it’s named for his grandson Arthur Miller, to whom he gave his first steamboat.

“We go steaming together quite a bit,” Karns said.

Karns built the single-cylinder steam engine about 10 years ago for a friend. After the friend died, the friend’s son returned the engine to Karns.

The boiler runs on scrap wood and takes about 15 minutes to generate enough steam to power the engine.

Each of the two paddle wheels are 4 feet in diameter and have eight paddles. Each paddle is 5 1/2 inches wide and 22 inches long. The paddles are fir; the wheels are plywood.

The open boat has enough room for three people. Joining Karns on Thursday were his grandson and a friend.

“It’s not a real big boat,” Karns said. “The boiler and the engine take up a lot of room.”