Row, Row, Row

The Sound was angry today. Waves were breaking whitecaps at about five feet. That doesn’t sound like much until you try it in a 18 foot Boston Whaler. It was a cross between that mechanical bull thing at the famed Gilly’s Bar of Urban Cowboy fame and a roller coaster. I was white knuckled as I hung on to the steering wheel with one hand, the throttle with the other. It was cold, I was wet, and Greens Ledge Lighthouse was only a quarter mile off my stern. That put me about 4 miles from the Connecticut coast and my home. I could see my house each time I rode to the crest of a wave, only to have the seat drop out from beneath me as I moved down it’s back side. I was taking the seas on the oblique; trying to steer along the crests or troughs of the waves would be instant foundering and perhaps a capsize. Trying to take them face on would likely catapult me out of the boat –assuming it was broken in half amidships by the force of the wave collisions.

I was more exhilarated than frightened. I had faith in my Whaler; the boats are literally unsinkable. I remember when my family went to visit the Boat Show in New York. They had a big tank in which they were demonstrating the safety of the Boston Whaler line. They had a guy powering around in a 50 foot circle in a 16 foot Whaler. He took a chainsaw to it and carved it in half, side to side. The bow end fell off and he continued to motor around the tank in the broken boat. Then he took the saw to the boat lengthwise. He cut slightly off center so the outboard motor, an Evinrude 20 hp model, kept its grip on the transom. The boat continued to float and the pitch man drove the boat in his circle, steering it by the hand tiller on the motor. It was a very convincing display; it was less than a week later that my dad ponied up to Jenkin’s Boatyard in Rowayton’s Five Mile River for the boat I was now battling an annoyed Long Island Sound in.

The boat was a compromise. Perhaps a concession. They had bought me a really great go kart. It was a blitz model and my dad, in an effort to keep me engaged in positive endeavors, encouraged my modifications and improvements. I was doing tons of menial labor jobs for my family and neighbors in order to get the money for parts. My dad forked over a couple of loans for larger ticket items (like a new racing motor to replace the McCulloch chain saw engine it came with) and I had to pay them off on schedule. Believe me, I had to pay. Everything was going swimmingly until I managed to get pulled over driving the Tokeneke causeway doing almost 70 mph. It was private drives all through the Butler’s Island and Contentment Island streets, and our cop was a retired Darien, Connecticut policeman named Murphy. He was, as opined by every resident I ever heard comment, an ass and a tyrant. But he did a good job and so his character flaws were mostly ignored. Still the same, private or not, I found myself busted for speeding and was escorted to the tapping foot of my father who kept repeating “He had it going how fast?” And then shuddering. The go kart was immediately impounded by my father who took it to the go-kart store and sold it back to them. The modifications I had made surprised my dad when they offered him almost three times what he paid for the kart initially. I had done all the right things to make the kart a race contender, studying karting magazines and visiting the three go kart tracks nearby. Still, I took great exception to the loss and seventy miles an hour seemed to me to be more fun than dangerous. I was almost 14 years old.

I sulked for the better part of a week and then my dad explained the he and mother had decided that it wasn’t fair to deprive me of my kart and my customizing efforts. They were merely frightened by what harm I could do to myself or someone else with a butt rocket like that. So their answer was to replace it with a boat. After all, how fast would I go to pull skiers? Plus, I could fish from it, explore the coat with it and use it in ways that our round bottomed dinghy with the Johnson 3 hp motor just wasn’t up to. It’s whole purpose in life was carrying to family from shore to the mooring of our 22 foot Henry Lures Sea Skiff, our family boat. It had a 120 hp Chris Craft inboard engine and brought the family a number of great memories with it. I skied behind that boat from Darien, Connecticut to Oyster Bay, Long Island and back one day. I hung onto the pull bar for 11 miles over and 11 miles back, a total of about 3 hours or so. When my dad cruised a circling course in toward our beach, I would toss the line and coast right to hallow water and step out of the skis onto dry sad, This time I threw the bar but my fingers were cramped and numb and refused to let go. I was yanked out of the skis and pulled in to the boat by my father, who spent five whole minutes prying each of my fingers from the tow bar. It hurt like the dickens. Stuff like that is fin to think back on. But it was a complex boat in a number of ways, and too big and expensive to use for daily recreation. It ate gasoline like mad. Anyway, the dinghy was like giving a 13 year old a tricycle.

I was dispatched to Jenkin’s Boat Yard and permitted to choose a Boston Whaler and the appropriate power plant(s). I chose a pair of Mercury sixty horse motors which flew until my dad heard the bottom line.. When  putted away from the yard in my new boat, it was powered by a single Mercury 90 hp motor. Oh, yeah. I spent hours in that boat. My friends and I would spend a morning collecting up bottle that we’d turn in for the nickel deposit they carried. That’s how we paid for most of our gas, and also managed to scarf some Fizzies, Look bars, Sugar Daddys and other confectionery necessities for life on the high seas.  The boat was capable of doing 50 knots wide open with just me in it. Not quite the 70 mph of the go kart, but it wasn’t that far off either. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be keeping pace with cars on the Connecticut Turnpike where it paralleled the Sound. I could raise and pull six skiers behind that boat. I think it would have done more, but we only knew enough people to get six sets of skis to work with. Of course, I towed kids on just about every snow toy devised: flying saucers, toboggans, tire tubes and the lot. I had a wonderful time with that boat in the three and a half years I had it. It broke my heart when I sold it back to old man Jenkins as I was getting ready to go into the Army.

The boat jarred my viciously and nearly tossed me overboard. I tied the ski tow rope around my waist and tied off the free end on the tow bar that ran behind the motor. I figured that if I went into the drink, I didn’t want my boat to leave without me. A very real possibility. I took a wave from the side and the boat filled nearly half way with water. I pulled the pair of drain plugs from the bottom of the transom and sped the boat up almost to the point of plane. This gave it a nose high attitude and caused with water to run out the drain holes in the back. It was critical to remember to replace the plugs if the boat was to slow down, lest the water be let right back into the boat. Perhaps faster than it had been leaving.  As I got nearer to the shore, the waves moderated a little, turning into 8 foot roller and they swept into the beach to crash on the shore. It smoothed the track enough that I was able to drain all but a couple of inches of the water. I replaced te drain plugs and studied the beach. With the size of the waves, rushing the shore and beaching the boat was a bad idea. Chances are it would take a lot of transom abuse as the waves beat on it, not to mention the water that would drench the motor.  We had a couple of concrete bricks that were three foot cubes sunk off the front of our property, about 50 feet out from the low tide line. We often kept the Duet, the family skiff there when we would be continuous in using it for a few days. The rest of the time it was moored off the Tokeneke Club in a lee of the Fish and Contentment Islands.  I grabbed the Chlorox bottle that was our buoy and affixed the bowline to it. I tied off the stern to that it was held generally towards shore, presenting the front of the whaler to the waves. It would take a lot more abuse that way. If it filled with water then it was still easily retrievable because it would sink, made of fiberglass covered foam. I could drag it to the beach at high tide, tie it off and wait for low tide and then pull the drain plugs. It’s had to do that before, so it wasn’t a new drill. Anyway, I stretched its canvas cover over it and snapped and tied it in place, then jumped into the water for the 50 foot paddle to shore.

The water was warm enough I gave thought to fetching my surfboard, but A) I wasn’t very good at surfing, and B) it was chilly. My teeth chattered from the wind chill effect from the brisk wind blowing onshore.  I walked up to the house and let myself in through the solarium. When wet and sand was involved, we had to go in through the solarium with its flagstone and slate flooring.  A half hour later I was showered, warm, changed into dry duds and drinking cocoa made from Nestle’s Quik and milk, carefully heated in a pan on the stove. (No microwaves back then…) I walked into the living room and looked out the expansive bay window, looking at the panorama of squall driven turmoil in the water. I yawned largely and headed off to the den to watch cartoons. It didn’t look like the weather was going to improve any time soon.

In the morning, I strolled down to the beach to find out how much work it would take to get my boat ready for use again. I stood blinking on the beach, trying to make sense of the picture I was seeing. I saw the sound, far off Long Island, the various coastal rocks poking up through the water… but I didn’t see my boat. I ran from one end of the beach to the other, some 30 feet away and back again. Only then did I catch a glimpse of white. I shed my shirt and shoes and swam out to find my boat.  It has buoyant but sitting about 4 inches under the surface. I untied it, grabbed the bow line and swam my hardest trying to move the boat to the beach so I could stand it in the high tide. I finally had to call a few friends and get help getting the boat to the beach. By the time we got it there, it was low tide and so I had to tie it off to a beach anchor and wait for the tide to return. It took me at least 14 hours to get the boat dried out. When I did, I discovered that water had flooded the engine and gotten the electrical system wet.

My friend, Toby Hubner, showed up with the Phoebe B. Bebe, a dory converted to look like a tug boat. We dragged it to Jenkins and agreed to pick it up in the morning. Then Toby and I went crabbing for blues up at the bridge where the brackish water populates a bight of wetland. Not the day we had in mind, but it was relaxed and fun.

This is one of those stories where you wait patiently for a these and a punchline of story moral. Actually, I just happened to remember the day while I was looking at YouTube videos that people had shot of coastal ocean scenes.  Man, I really did love that boat. I have no idea where it is any longer– I mean, fifty years ago, right? But it was nice enough that the memory remains and still gives me pleasure.