Pitch Perfect

Buck Holmes keeps marine wheels spinning just right.

Michael Booini

Gone are the days of static balancers. Today, Buck Holmes employs sophisticated technology in truing propellers. Even at that, trial and error is often part of the process.

The lives of David Marshall and Buck Holmes revolve around propulsion.

Marshall is a Ford dealer whose passion is boating and, especially, billfish tournaments. Holmes — whose hobby is drag racing — repairs and balances propellers for a living.

Marshall’s boats have grown in size as his family has expanded, and today he owns a 106-foot Broward yacht whose performance he intends to be efficient and smooth. Bothered by a vibration problem the vessel was exhibiting, Marshall, of Dothan, Alabama, consulted Holmes, whose stellar reputation as a prop doctor extends throughout the Southeast.

“Broward yachts have aluminum hulls that are more sensitive than other hulls,” Holmes explained. “We’ve been trying out different styles of prop on Mr. Marshall’s boat, and everything seems to be getting better. We’re headed in the right direction.”

It is clear, then, that trial-and-error approaches to problem-solving remain an inescapable part of what Holmes does, but not nearly so much as they used to be.

Static balancers like those used to balance tires have given way to an MRI machine used to scan propeller blades and dynamic high-speed balancers used to precisely tune them.

“Today’s equipment helps us zero in on the areas of the blades that we need to address,” Holmes said. “We balance props by adding or removing weight from the spots identified by the diagnostic equipment on a given side of the blade and a certain distance out on a radius line. The machines take a lot of the guesswork out of what we do.”

Holmes discovered a market for a prop shop 37 years ago. His partner in a steel business had a boat that needed prop repair, and the two men discovered that no one in Bay County was in the business. Holmes traveled to a school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to learn the trade and opened a shop in the St. Andrews neighborhood of Panama City, across from the Smith Boat Basin, in 1980.

Ten years ago, Holmes moved his business, Marine Wheels, to Southport in northern Bay County, where he shares a building with Miller Marine Yacht Service and works on hand-sized props from six-horsepower outboards to 6-foot diameter, 500-pound props from large inboards.

“We’re a small, hands-on operation,” Holmes said in a tone that suggested he wouldn’t have things any other way. “It’s me and my wife, Sharon, and our employee, Mike Martin.”

Martin, who has been with Holmes for 17 years, tends to specialize in outboard props, while Holmes handles the big stuff.

“He’s coming along,” Holmes said, kiddingly. “Might be a keeper.”

Holmes said he cannot imagine starting a prop business today with the equipment he used when his business was young. Engines have gotten bigger, boats have gotten faster and tolerances have gotten a lot closer. Imperfections that may scarcely be noticeable at 15 knots become obvious at 40.

There is a sense that the new equipment has made Holmes’s job harder.

“We couldn’t fix problems that we didn’t see,” Holmes said. “We used to take three radius line readings. But now we take six or eight. We see more and when we detect minor issues, we feel that we’ve got to fix them. We can really fine-tune things.

“It’s like the old LORAN radio navigation systems versus the GPS of today. LORAN would get you close and you could wander around until you found good bottom with fish on it, but now you go to the dot.”

Advances in prop-tuning gear have been accompanied by changes in the props themselves. Prop blades used to have a uniform pitch — the forward movement of a prop through one revolution — from the leading to the trailing edge. Now pitches are variable.

“The new blades, if you were to cut them in half, they would look like a banana,” Holmes pointed out. “They may have a pitch of 27 inches on the leading edge and 32 on the trailing edge with an average of 30. There would be no way to measure all that without today’s machines.”

Holmes’ customers include bass fishermen, shrimpers, the operators of supply boats serving the oil industry and sportfishing yachtsmen like Marshall. He finds himself dealing with props made from aluminum, stainless steel, bronze and, in the case of the largest props, a nickel/bronze/aluminum alloy.

Optimally tuning props often requires knowledge not just of metallurgy but of a customer’s boating habits.

“You can take two identical 60-foot Vikings,” Holmes said. “But one owner may be more interested in mid-range performance than top end. One might typically have 2,000 gallons of fuel on board, another half that. Part of the challenge is taking all of those differences into account.”

Basically, Holmes views himself as a problem solver.

“If I can increase an owner’s level of satisfaction with his boat, I feel good about that,” he said. “If I can repair for a couple of thousand bucks a pair of props that might cost $40,000, that’s satisfying.”

Yachts running over unseen debris at 40 knots are sure to have a problem, but Holmes finds that “99 percent of the time,” props can be fixed. Only in extreme cases — an entire blade is knocked off a prop, for example — is repair not an option.

Many times, pulling a boat from the water is not practical, so Holmes has divers at his disposal who are capable of removing and reinstalling props.

“I’m not gonna say I’m the best in the business, but nobody tries harder than we do,” Holmes said. “We find a way to get things done.” And, in Bay County, he enjoys a monopoly.

When it comes time to relax, you may find Holmes fishing at his place on Howard’s Creek, but he is far more enthusiastic about taking on the competition in NHRA Super Speed drag-racing meets.

“I go fishing and people want to talk about their prop problems,” Holmes said. “Drag racing gets me out of town (there are no speedways in Bay County) and away from work. It’s like the mailman. When he’s not working, he doesn’t feel like driving around.”  

Categories: Happenings, Panama City