Whatever floats your boat

“I’m telling dad.” said my sister with a taunting tone. “Then you’re going to get it!”

What is it with her? I asked myself, looking at her smug expression. Some people like cake and ice cream. My sister got off on my father taking a belt to me. Yeah, I was raised in a strict household, but the family wealth made sure I had lots of toys and things to do. The proverbial gilded cage. At this moment I was in the garage workshop using my father’s tools to try to fix an old Johnson 3 horse outboard motor given to me by a local fisherman who’d scooped it up with his mussel dredge. Using my dad’s tool was verboten, but that never stopped me from availing myself of them when I had to. I had been given a toolkit of my own, but the hammer, pliers and wood saw wasn’t very helpful when taking apart a motor. The screwdrivers were handy though.

“If you tell dad, I’ll tell the kids at school that you let Chad put his hand in your panties at the movies yesterday.” I replied. The smug look was immediately wiped from her face and replaced with one of pure fury.

“That’s not true. I didn’t even go to the movies with Chad.” she retorted.

“Yeah, but he was there and he sat with you.” I replied. I was guessing, I really didn’t know if what I was saying was true.

“Well, he didn’t put his hands in my panties.” she squealed. Jackpot!

“You can deny it. Let’s see what your friends have to say when the story gets around.” It was my one and only weapon against the malice of my sister. All I had to do was tell my friend Toby something and he would, sure as sunrise, repeat it to his sister. He and his sister were like brother and sister, unlike me and the wicked with of the west. Toby’s sister was a total gossip, and so the nuggets of information she received would be enhanced upon and spread through school society like a case of chicken pox.

“Okay, okay. I won’t tell dad …this time. But if you tell that stupid story I’ll tell dad all of the things I know you did.” With that she stomped off, probably to feed her flying monkeys. I turned back to the task at hand and finished taking the motor apart. I later pronounced it irreparable, not so much because it resided on the ocean floor for some length of time, but because I had absolutely no idea how to put it back together. That was okay, I didn’t know it but soon I would get a much better motor.

Our family wasn’t rich but we were well to do. We lived on the Connecticut coast on Long Island Sound and our seaside home looked out over the water to Greens Ledge lighthouse. Much of the time the view from my bedroom window was like an artists rendering. Lobster boats, mussel dredges, fishing boats and numerous pleasure craft bobbing on the waves. The view was one I loved, no matter the weather. On sunny days I would watch the light fairies zip like lightning from wavelet to wavelet, and in coarser weather see the whitecaps tossed from wave tops by the wind. Take that, Currier and Ives!

Of course, living by the water I had to have a boat. Every kid in our circle of friends had a boat so there was no way my parents would let me live life without one. Peer pressure and all, I guess. But part of it was my mother’s unreasonable fears. It all started with a go kart. It was a Christmas gift which I definitely appreciated. There was a regular little go kart community that had a track and everything, and all of the members pooled knowledge and even resources to keep things interesting. Making sure that everyone’s go kart was equal in power, and pushing the power envelope continually made for some pretty fast, competitive go karts. It also meant that a win at the track was a matter of skill rather than mechanical advantage, and thus more satisfying. Things were going pretty great until our local community cop, an unpleasant man named Murphy, clocked me at 62 miles an hour on the causeway leading to Butlers Island and the Tokeneke Beach Club. My family lived on Butler’s Island. In a rare moment of understanding, when he heard, my father said “Hey, way to go, son!” and my mother shrieked and turned white at the thought of her thirteen year old son cruising a mile a minute in a vehicle that looked like a powered roller skate. That was it for the go kart, which was quickly sold to a boy with a more tolerant mother –or more likely one who was as unaware as mine used to be about the speeds involved.

I, of course, raised absolute hell. That was MY go kart, dammit. Now what was I going to do with my time? My family was fourth generation navy there was all that nautical peer pressure and so the obvious answer to what I should have instead of a go kart was a boat. My discerning father directed me to go see old Mr. Jenkins at Jenkins Boat Yard and get myself fixed up. This would not only quiet me, but probably reduce the quiet contempt out on the golf course towards a coast-living father whose son didn’t have a boat. So off I went and in no time at all found myself the owner of a 16 foot Boston Whaler with a 90 hp Mercury outboard. The combination was stunning, and my mother never learned that it was, on placid water, a mere few miles an hour slower than my go kart. It went like a bat out of hell. Then too, I could pull three skiers at once, although we didn’t do multiples very much because the propensity for collision between skiers was too great. Plus that, we spent hours and hours just thinking up things we might pull behind my boat. Fortunately our snow season wasn’t very long because we warped or broke just about every snow toy in the neighborhood. But I have to admit, towing four kids on a toboggan across the water was pretty neat stuff, especially when the toboggan tipped over. Even I would give up the controls so I could take a ride.

The boat was a spectacular addition to my life. Over the next four years it would entertain me for countless hours and take me from my home as far north as Cape Cod and south to Charleston. It always amazed me that a mom who would nearly faint at the idea of me speeding in a go kart would be liberal enough to allow me to range so far. But I took the Sound and the ocean dead seriously, and was responsible to the point that my own tight circle of friends would taunt me over it. I did, however, have a series of run ins with both the Power Squadron and even the Coast Guard, but they were never all that serious and more a case of, as they said, boys being boys.

My worst exposure to the Coast Guard (and Power Squadron, local and state police) had nothing to do with my boat. It had to do with mixing Ivory Snow flakes, a laundry detergent no longer made, and Coleman lantern and stove fuel. When combined in proper proportion and allowed to sit, the mixture turned into a napalm-like substance. Making, I then HAD to test it, and so I threw it like a Molotov cocktail onto the rocks that peered up through the water in front of my home. In moments I had the surface of Long Island Sound blazing with smoky flame as the inflammable mixture spread quickly over the water. It burned out fairly quickly, but it was large enough to be witnessed from the shores of Long Island 5 miles away across the water. Naturally, it attracted the various and sundry law enforcement entities. Today, a stunt like that would no doubt be considered a violation of national security and bring the wrath of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. But back in those wonderful and heady times in America it rendered a severe talking to with finger shaking and the admonishment to never do that again. While the fire engulfed some 400 or so feet of coastline, there was really no damage. When it was over there was a slight iridescent sheen, but it dissipated after a couple of hours. It was gone before everyone was done reading me the riot act.


Greens Ledge Lighthouse

My boat and I were a common sight on the coastal waters. The denizens of the coastal fishing communities all knew me and all had a friendly wave in passing. Back then, the lighthouse still had crews that would spend a few days there every now and then, and they were friendly about my visits to the lighthouse in spite of the No Landing signs to warn would be visitors away. Now there’s just a single guy who sees to the needs of all of the lighthouses from Maine to Bermuda. Oddly enough, I used to date his sister. Small world. For the most part, my boating stayed between Norwalk and Port Chester. I knew the ins and outs, the rocks and sand bars as well or better than many of the fishermen who pulled their living from the rock strewn, sandy bottom. But I also was somewhat familiar with the Long Island side as well, taking reasonless trips over to Northport, Huntington and Oyster Bays. The larger vessels that transited the sound stayed to the Long Island side and so when I felt like dogging a cargo vessel, I had to do it from the New York side. My boat gave me a sense of freedom and bolstered my already independent nature. I didn’t so much drive my boat as Captain it. Certainly, the propellers of some of the cargo ships were larger than my boat, but my measure was not so much the size of the boat as the size of the water. One could be fairly bold in a Boston Whaler. The company marketed the series of boats as unsinkable. They would, I remember, put their money where their mouth was. At the New York Boat Show, they had a large tank erected in which to put one of their Whalers, fully equipped. As the boat circled in the huge tank, the driver would pull out a chainsaw and cut the boat clean in half while underway. The boat would continue to circle as the driver smiled at waved at the spectators. This demonstration was one of the reasons my mother so favored the boat. Even if I managed to crash it into the rocks, and she was sure I probably would, I wouldn’t be drawn to the permanent grasp of Davy Jones’ Locker.

As my experience with the boat grew and my range increased, my mom was very supportive. She would pack great lunches of way more than I and everyone  ever knew could eat, packed in two and sometimes three coolers. But she was more fanatical about my being possessed of all sorts of safety gear, including a marine band radio with which I could call for help should I ever need it. The radio brought me many weather reports and conversations with fishing boat captains I would bug about where the best fishing was that day. They would never tell me where it was good, lest their advice be heard by competing captains, but they would happily tell me where the fishing was terrible.

Naming the boat caused some level of angst. My father was insistent I call it the Kirkamaru, a bastardization of Japanese for Kirk Boat. Even now I shudder at the thought of how lame a name that would be. My mom thought that Gladys would be a good name, what with it being her mother’s name, but there were three fishing boats that plied the waters that bore that name. I gave some thought to calling it Jade, since that was my mother’s name, but I still wasn’t thrilled. My sister was vying to have me call it Poophead since she thought it would be descriptive of it’s owner. I chose not to call it that either. In the end, I called it my Whaler, since that seemed to me to best symbolize the boat. Plus that, it was already painted on both sides of the transom.

The Whaler was, for me, a whole series of rites of passage. I was sorely tested in that boat, most often because of weather and the effect of wind on the seas. I managed to find myself in 30 foot swells once, the boat virtually swamped by the time I made it to shelter. Had the boat not been made of sandwiched foam between fiberglass inner and outer hulls, I’d have been a goner. As it was, I lashed myself to the boat in case I was washed overboard, buckled a life jacket over the skiers flotation vest I always wore and kept the motor pushing me fast enough to keep the bow up and the stern down, the better to let the boat self-bail somewhat. It scared the crap out of me. The thing is, I was ready for it. I had the right equipment and had listened to the tales and advice of a lot of old salts. Authority, I believed, and still do, comes from long and hard earned experience, not title or ego. While it helped me learn about my boat and myself, the attitude did me no favors with many adults who happened to be unlucky enough to have me in their charge. You paint Headmaster or Principal on some people’s door and they think they’ve just been made a deity.

I loved that boat and take great delight in the many, many memories it has given me to reminisce about through the years. Even as the old coot I am today, many memories of the four years I owned that boat are as fresh and vibrant as they were the day after they happened. I had to let the boat go when I joined the army, and I literally cried as I walked home from Jenkin’s Boatyard after turning over the keys. I was a lucky, lucky, lucky boy to have had that boat, and was able to have all of the experiences it made a part of my life.