THE FATHER OF THE THAI LONGTAIL BOAT MOTOR

by Jon Dobbs

I looked at my watch as the taxi wound its way through the narrow streets, attempting to push through the teeming mass of humanity known as Bangkok, or Krung Thep… the City of Angels.  My journey began 34 hours previously, at the Tampa Airport.  I’m tired, but there’s still much to do before I sleep.  In the cramped back seat of the cab, I twist and contort in an effort to squeeze my tall, lanky frame into a suit and tie, as the cab does the same while writhing its way through narrow streets that were laid out long before the advent of the automobile.  We slowly wind our way through the thirty-seven-kilometer gauntlet from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the Wat Ratchasit Temple.  The progress is slow, and it looks like I’m gonna be late.  It’s after 7pm so I know the droning chant of numerous Buddhist monks has already begun the fifth night of ceremonies.  I’m supposed to be there because tonight I’m the sponsor. Oh well, “Mai pen rai krub,” I say to the driver, which roughly translates “No worries.” 

Over the past 23 years, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve come to Thailand.  Most Western tourists are drawn here by the elaborate golden temples or seedy brothels of Bangkok, the tropical beaches of the Andaman Sea, or the elephant rides and rafting trips near Chiang Mai.  I’ve seen it all but the brothels, and while the tourist departed from me long ago, I continue to come here for one reason above all others….Thai longtails.  Whether it’s exploring the thousands of miles of klongs around Bangkok, running upcountry river trips, hanging out with longtail racers, or learning from the old timers, I could never seem to get enough of this uniquely simple, yet amazingly capable boat motor.

As the driver pushed through the crowd of motorcycles, samlors, and tuktuks mixed with a sea of pedestrians, raindrops began to spatter on the windshield, reminding me it was monsoon season.  How fitting were the somber skies on this first day of August 2014, as this wasn’t a typical trip for me to the Land of Smiles.  There was nothing to smile about.  This time was different.  I was here to attend the funeral of a dear friend.  As the cadence of the windshield wiper blades hypnotized me, my mind drifted back over the many years I have known the man, Songsak Sriprasertying, his family, and his story.

Songsak was no ordinary man.  He was a pioneer, who brought the Thai longtail boat motor to the world in a very big way.  Born on the Chinese island of Hainan in 1932, he was nine years old when the Japanese invaded in 1941.  He ran with his mother from the advancing foot soldiers who were shooting people in the streets.  They turned a corner into an alley and ran directly into a horse.  Songsak looked up and saw a mounted Japanese officer pointing a pistol down at him.  For a tense moment, he and his mother thought this was the end.  After staring at them for what seemed like an eternity to Songsak, the soldier finally waved with his pistol for them to pass.

Songsak and his mother were among the fortunate few to secure passage on a boat with other refugees and fled out into the unknown darkness of the South China Sea.  Songsak didn’t know it at the time, but he would never see his homeland again.  Hugging the coastline of Vietnam and eventually Cambodia, the refugee boat sailed for over 1500 miles and brought them to their newly adopted home in Bangkok, Thailand.  The ravages of World War II had changed their lives forever and brought a young Chinese boy to a new life and a new country that he would eventually leave his indelible mark upon forever.

As a new immigrant, life in Bangkok wasn’t easy for them.  While Songsak learned the language of his new country, his mother found work in the Chinese community.  A little brother was born to Songsak in this new land.  His name was Chanchai, and he was 10 years his junior.  Songsak wanted to go to school so he could learn to read and write in Thai, but he had to take care of his infant brother while his mother worked.  Being resilient, Songsak found a way to get the schooling he longed for.  Each day he took his baby brother with him to a vacant lot located next to the local schoolhouse.  They sat upon a sand pile that was high enough for Songsak to see the classroom chalkboard, and he could hear the teacher’s instructions through the open window.  As the teacher wrote the Thai alphabet on the chalkboard, ten-year-old Songsak would practice writing the letters in the sand with a stick.

Money for food was scarce, so the family sometimes went hungry.  Through this adversity, Songsak grew in toughness and character.  To help his family make ends meet, Songsak took on various odd jobs and eventually landed a steady job in a machine shop at age fifteen.  As an apprentice, he soaked up everything he could learn about metal fabrication.

Known as the Venice of the East, the water oriented culture of Bangkok boasted a vast network of canals which the Thais call “klongs”. These klongs were laid out in an ever increasing series of concentric patterns around the royal palace at the city’s center.  These klongs encircling the city were bisected by hundreds of other klongs radiating outward like the silver threads of a spider’s web.

Not only did the klongs provide a method of flood control, but they also channeled life sustaining waters to farm fields, and provided farmers with arteries of waterborne transportation to get their crops to the big markets in the city.  It boggles the mind when one realizes that many of these untold hundreds of mile of klongs were dug by hand, providing travel routes where few roads existed.  Thai life and commerce revolved around the klongs.

In the early days, there were no affordable engines for small boats, so the Thai farmers had no choice but to endure the backbreaking work of rowing heavily laden sampans for great distances.  When large, heavy, single cylinder engines became available, the Thai tug boat came into being.  The tugs provided some relief to farmers by towing a long tether line behind the boat which multiple sampans could hook onto for a fee (if they could afford it), and be towed to or from their destination.

Except for government boats, these early tug boats were one of the few engine driven watercraft on the klongs of Bangkok in those days.  These hit & miss engines were coupled to a primitive forward/reverse gearbox which often needed repair due to being put in and out of gear without the use of a clutch.

At age fifteen Songsak landed his dream job as an apprentice at a machine shop located on Soi Latbhumruang.  Under the tutelage of an old time machinist for the next four years, he soaked up old school knowledge like a sponge and saved his money.

At the age of nineteen, Songsak opened his own machine shop and called it Song Ch̀ānghang which roughly translates Technical Mechanic. This shop was located on the Eastern side of the Chao Phraya River, in Rong Mueang District, so local tug boat operators started bringing their broken gearboxes to his shop for repair.

Songsak became quite good at repairing tug boat gear boxes and eventually started building his own improved version that held up better than others.  Songsak’s mother and 10 year old little brother, Chanchai, helped out in the shop.  Word spread, and his shop developed a reputation for quality.

Wiwat & Viroj Sriprasertying

When Songsak was 26 years old he married 19 year old Phrapimon, and their eldest son Wiwat was born in 1958.

Phrapimon Sriprasertying

About that time, Songsak saw a small engine hooked to a long shaft with a propeller that had been built by a machine shop known as Weng Heng.   Like other early Thai designs, this one was crude, heavy, utilized a U-joint that robbed the engine of power, and had an exposed shaft that chewed up the wooden boat or anything else it came in contact with. Despite its weaknesses, Songsak saw great potential in the idea and quickly set about refining the concept to make his own improved design.

Around that time he also saw a small German made rowboat motor that had a shorter shaft than the Thai version.  What he most likely saw was a Zundapp Delphin 303.

Throughout the rest of the world, this type of boat engine was referred to as a sideboard motor or rowboat motor.  Based upon what Songsak had seen, he began to refine a simple, yet rugged coupler and shaft system which allowed for easy mounting to a variety of engines, did not utilize a power-robbing u-joint, and the long shaft could be changed out in seconds.

Songsak’s timing could not have been better, because shortly afterward lightweight two-stroke engines by JLO and Rotax became readily available in Thailand, and were a perfect match for Songsak’s refined design.  As its popularity quickly grew, this Thai boat motor became known as a “rua hung yao”, or literally, “boat tail long”.  Hence the term longtail motor first originated in Thailand to describe this type of boat motor design.

Other machine shops attempted to copy Songsak, but none were able to compete with his reputation, machining ability, or resulting durability.  He developed a method of balancing the long shafts that no other shop has ever been able to duplicate, and remains a family secret to this day.

As an alternative to slow manual power, Songsak’s longtail motor design quickly grew in popularity, and his days of being poor were over.  He decided that he needed a brand for his product.  Thinking that three kings was a good hand in playing cards, he decided to brand his product using three K’s, or KKK.

Songsak riding his rare Hoffman MR 175 motorcycle, made in Germany @ 1951 or 52 & powered by an ILO 2-stroke.

Daily Thai life was very much centered around water.  Being such a water oriented culture, Songsak’s longtail design was a monumental contribution to the Thai people.  It affected everyone; farmers, merchants, even the mail carriers were able to trade in their boat paddle for a motor that would allow them to deliver the mail in a fraction of the time.

It didn’t take the Thais long before they began mounting Songsak’s coupler and shaft design on higher horsepower engines.  For a people who lived and worked on the water, it was only a matter of time before they began using the Thai longtail to play on the water, and the uniquely Thai sport of longtail racing was born.  Once again, Songsak’s products dominated the ultra-high speed sport of longtail racing, where his uniquely balanced shafts routinely turned in excess of 10,000 RPM, a world where other shafts simply could not hold together.

In the early days Songsak had an old US military surplus Willy’s Jeep they used to deliver longtails to customers.  They would load it down with longtail shafts hanging out the back, and his wife Prapimon would make deliveries to customers around Bangkok.  Sometimes if the Jeep was too overloaded the front tires would lightly touch the ground, and she would lose steering when attempting to turn a corner.

Phrapimon & Songsak have a little fun in the mud with the Willys.

When Songsak’s little brother, Chanchai became old enough, Songsak welcomed him as a partner in his business.  A steady income from KKK allowed the brothers each to raise their families and work together for the next five decades.

Songsak had a stroke in his early 70’s, but that didn’t deter him from his love of making longtails.  In his early 80’s Songsak began to develop Alzheimer’s and had to quit working in the factory. In 2008 he lost control of the KKK brand he had founded.  Being no stranger to adversity, Songsak and his sons started all over again by forming a new longtail boat motor company under the brand SPS, which was an acronym for Songsak and Praprimon Sriprasertying.

They struggled at first, but word spread and Songsak’s reputation quickly followed him.

With the help of his sons, business once again flourished for Songsak, with his new brand quickly gaining market share over the competition, and the company rapidly expanded with worldwide exports to every continent.   During his lifetime, Songsak produced millions of longtails, and eventually realized a dream of seeing his longtails in America.

I’ll always remember Songsak as a fighter, and a survivor; the kind of guy you wanted on your side if the going got rough.  As the taxi crossed over the Phra Pokklao Bridge spanning the Chao Phraya River, my thoughts returned to the present, and I could not help but notice the many longtail boats plying up and down the waterway for as far into the distance as the eye could see, and I thought to myself…”just another ordinary day in Bangkok”.

The cab finally pulled into the compound of Wat Ratchasit and came to a stop under a large bodhi tree, ending my 10,000 mile journey.  The ancient tree provided umbrella-like shelter from the rain, as I walked into the temple to say goodbye to my friend and mentor.

Phrapimon Sriprasertying                                                                     Jon Dobbs

Three generations of Songsak’s family.

Songsak’s funeral lasted for seven days and over eight-hundred attended to pay their respects.  It was a great honor when his sons asked me to give the eulogy for their father. 

I started his eulogy by pointing out that few men depart this life and leave behind a lasting and positive mark upon their fellow man.  No matter where you go throughout Southeast Asia, you cannot help but see Songsak’s mark.  The Thai longtail is everywhere; millions of them.  Like golden temples and white elephants, the Thai longtail has become an iconic symbol that is synonymous with Thailand.

I spoke of a young, poor refugee boy who overcame extreme adversity.  I spoke of a young man who was an excellent provider for his family.  I spoke of an amazing machinist who greatly changed transportation, and bettered the lives of millions throughout Thailand, Southeast Asia, and the world.  I spoke of an extraordinary life that spanned eighty-two years.

Yes, there are few men in this life who leave behind a lasting and positive legacy.  Songsak was such a man, and I am proud to call him my friend

Songsak Sriprasertying

1932-2014

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