By Dr. William Gilly
John and Carol Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and Tex Travis went ashore at Cabo San Lucas, their first collecting stop, on March 17, 1940. To do so, they piled into the Baby Flyer, a 10-foot wooden skiff, and made their way to shore. Steinbeck notes in The Log from the Sea of Cortez:
This was our first use of the Sea-Cow. The shore was very close and we were able just by pulling on the starter rope to spin the propeller enough to get us to shore. The Sea-Cow did not run that day but it seemed to enjoy having its flywheel spun.
Of course, this is not the reader’s introduction to the Sea-Cow. That came much earlier, in Chapter 3, describing preparations for the trip.
We come now to a piece of equipment which still brings anger to our hearts and, we hope, some venom to our pen. Perhaps in self-defense against suit, we should say, “The outboard motor mentioned in this book is purely fictitious and any resemblance to outboard motors living or dead is coincidental.” We shall call this contraption, for the sake of secrecy, Hansen Sea -Cow – a dazzling little piece of machinery, all aluminum paint and touched here and there with spots of red. The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart.
What follows can only be described as a 1000-word polemic against the motor that had “a soul and a malignant mind.” The reader learns at the outset that “Our Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing.”
Steinbeck claims that the Sea-Cow was the evolutionary creation of what today we would call “AI” (artificial intelligence):
In the Sea-Cow factory where steel fingers tighten screws, bend and mold, measure and divide, some curious mathematick has occurred. And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found. Life has been created. The machine is at last stirred…When and if these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed. For their hatred of us is so great that they will wait and plan and organize and one night, in a roar of little exhausts, they will wipe us out.
Lest he be accused of subjectivity, Steinbeck scientifically documents the lines of evidence for his assertion: “We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again.” He discusses seven specific features, with point six arguably being the most salient:
6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog, (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by – in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row – the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.
As a long-time user of Johnson outboard motors, I always enjoyed the Sea-Cow treatise and identified with it. There were innumerable times when an engine wouldn’t start, or if it did, idle nicely only to die as soon as it was shifted into forward. Every outboard probably develops its own idiosyncrasies that you learn to master. Although the Sea-Cow sounded like an entirely greater level of trouble, I figured it was just Steinbeck’s creative genius to cast it in such a humorously malignant light.
But I had an epiphany when I saw a vintage Johnson outboard — a 1936 Model 200 (3.3 hp) — on display in the Steinbeck Center at San Jose State University in early 2004. Behold — the spark plugs on this motor were not covered; they were completely exposed! Of course, that’s why the Sea-Cow never worked – it was constantly getting sprayed with salt water whenever they took it to shore, and salt water is no friend to bared electrical connections. Moreover, this explained why the motor would work properly only after Tex, the engineer, “took the evil little thing to pieces…” and put it back together to discover that “The Sea-Cow would run perfectly out of water – that is in a barrel of water with the propeller and cooling inlet submerged. Placed thus the Sea-Cow functioned perfectly and got good mileage.” No waves in a barrel means no shorted spark plugs. And rain, dew, and fog probably led to a similar outcome. Simple. Steinbeck just made a good story out of the mundane.
I was pleased with this explanation for some time. But in 2017, as part of my teaching a Freshman Seminar at Stanford that included reading The Log from the Sea of Cortez, I searched the web for an image of the motor I had seen at San Jose State, or one like it. This led to a rabbit hole filled with many Sea Horse species from the 1940-era, along with many ads praising their power and dependability. While many images showed motors with exposed spark plugs, others clearly had covers, and some even had complete shrouds over all electrical and moving parts – like today’s outboards. There seemed to be a crack in my hypothesis.
There is one great difficulty with a good hypothesis. When it is completed and rounded, the corners smooth and content cohesive and coherent, it is likely to become a thing in itself, a work of art…One hates to disturb it. Even if subsequent information should shoot a hole in it, one hates to tear it down because it once was so beautiful and whole. (Chapter 17, The Log from the Sea of Cortez)
Over the next few years, I would re-explore the Sea Horse rabbit hole as I prepared to teach, but I never made much additional progress. Then in 2020, I discovered The Old Outboard Book by Peter Hunn, a history that revealed Johnson produced 52 models between 1935 and 1940 alone — “Through the close of the 1930’s Johnson continued specializing in smaller fishing engines. In fact, 80 percent of its 10-model 1939 lineup came from motors 5 hp and under. These smooth-trolling’ fishin’ engines,” such as the alternate-firing LT (Light Twin), were highly prized by anglers everywhere.”
Could the LT be the actual Sea-Cow model, despite the smooth-trolling propaganda? A 4-5 hp motor seemed about right for a skiff the size of the Baby Flyer, even with 4 people aboard. My searches began to focus on the LT between 1937, the year of its emergence, and 1940. Images of LT Sea Horses without and without covered spark plugs emerged. I then tried to enhance the old photo of the Sea-Cow on the Baby Flyer using Photoshop to better match it to LT images. But the fit just wasn’t good – the gas tank seemed to be too tall. I soon discovered the smaller LS (1937-1938) and HS (1939-1949), 2.1-2.5 hp models with a much shallower gas tank. But it was still a stretch to match it to the blurry old image of the Sea-Cow. And a 2.5 hp motor seemed too small to power the Baby Flyer loaded with four people.
As I continued to write this article, I came across MercGuy.com, a site featuring a Virtual Outboard Motor Museum. This was a great find, and I noticed that it included the name Bob Grubb and an email address. So, I emailed Bob, who maintains the site as well as a physical museum. I laid out the nature of my quest, along with the enhanced photo of the Sea-Cow and the relevant 1,000 words from The Log.
“Bob… I’ve wondered about this motor for a long time and figured they had an early Johnson model from 1938 or 39 that lacked a proper shroud or even a cover over the spark plugs. I’ve been trying to match the only known photo of the Sea Cow to old Johnson motors, but I come away somewhat mystified. The photo is pretty bad. If it’s a Johnson, it would seem to be a model of the LS or LT series. The gas tank appears to be more like LS, and a single spark plug seems to be visible. But something just doesn’t seem right.”
Bob replied in less than 2 hours:
“My first reaction was that the picture was poor enough that ID was impossible. But, I started pondering this, and I read his description. I’m certain I have the answer. I feel you were on the right track and close but not quite there.
In the late ’30s…Johnson got into development of smaller and lighter motors — smallest ever was 1.1 hp. In 1938 Johnson introduced the MS38 model and had a nearly identical 1939 model MS39.
These very small motors could be very finicky. The fuel passages in the carburetor are very small, and tiny particles that would pass right thru larger motor systems would cause blockage or flooding in a gravity feed fuel system that would cause fuel to leak overboard.
I had a friend…whose father sold these new. He was a total Johnson fan but did not have a liking for this model. They are cute and are popular today as display antiques. They can run just fine, but…need everything clean and in good condition.
They were originally painted entirely dull aluminum color. The splashes of red would have been the Johnson decal on the fuel tank.”
Indeed, the 1.1 hp MS-38 has an unusual a tubular, wrap-around gas tank that does seem to match the blurry image of the Sea-Cow. As for the presence or absence of the spark plug cover, Bob tells me, “The original spark plug cover was a small piece of stamped aluminum held on by 2 screws. It is most often missing, and collectors have reproduced them.” And to my question of whether a 1.1 hp motor could have powered the Baby Flyer, Bob replied, “ It would push it, but not fast. They were probably attracted by the compactness and light weight.”
So, a revised hypothesis arises for the identity of the Sea-Cow and an explanation of its viciousness. First, the MS-38 appears to have been a troublesome little beast even under the best circumstances. Second, the 1940 Sea-Cow may or may not have had a spark plug cover – but it certainly was not the shrouded MD-38 version that would have offered protection from salt spray. Third, the meager 1.1 hp rating probably meant the MS-38 quickly became sluggish and overheated when pushing an overloaded Baby Flyer any significant distance to the beach. Finally, the motor was designed for use in freshwater (not surprising given Johnson’s location in Waukegan, Wisconsin).
Another “new” discovery is that Red Williams, the owner of the “Flying A” gas station in Pacific Grove (where Mack and the Cannery Row boys went for gas for the frog hunt), provided the Sea-Cow for the Sea of Cortez expedition. According to Bonnie Gartshore in the Cannery Row Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of The Steinbeck Newsletter published by San Jose State University (Fall 1995), Red Williams recalled, “…John came in to get a motor for the trip. It was wartime, and I didn’t have a new motor to sell him, but I had a used one that I said I’d lend him. That’s the last I saw of it. It didn’t run too good, and when they got down there it ran intermittently. There’s quite a discussion in the book about it. He called it a Hansen Sea-Cow, not a Johnson Sea Horse, which it was.”
So at least we know the Sea-Cow was a Johnson, that it wasn’t new in 1940, and that it was already known to be problematic before the trip. Whether it was really a 1938 or 1939 MS, or an even older model, may depend on someone being able to pull more life out of the old photo of the Sea-Cow on the transom of the Baby Flyer. According to Bob Grubb, “There is no doubt in my mind the motor in question is an MS 38 or 39.”
But do we really need a precise identification of the Sea-Cow? And what would that tell us anyway? Steinbeck undoubtedly became thoroughly familiar with the realities of the Sea-Cow on their expedition and chose to give this character life in creating a narrative of the 1940 expedition. He did the same thing with crewmembers Sparky, Tiny, and captain Tony Berry. They are all essential to the story and emerge multiple times to keep the tale moving along.
Perhaps, too, the Sea-Cow also has a more mystic significance that Steinbeck brings up in his discussion of the “Old Man of the Sea” in Chapter 4:
There is some quality in man which makes him people the ocean with monsters and one wonders whether they are there or not. In one sense they are, for we continue to see them…Men really need sea monsters in their personal oceans. And the Old Man of the Sea is one of these…So far he has not been photographed. When he is…another beautiful story will be shattered. For this reason we rather hope he is never photographed, for if the Old Man of the Sea should turn out to be some great malformed sea-lion, a lot of people would feel a sharp personal loss – a Santa Claus loss. And the ocean would be none the better for it.…An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep.
For now, I shall let the Sea-Cow sink back into the malicious depth that Steinbeck gave it. I have learned enough.
I would like to thank Peter Van Coutren of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University for assistance with images, Susan Shillinglaw for bringing the Red Williams interview to my attention, and Bob Grubb for insight into the identity of the Sea-Cow.