Rickity Split

I was so proud. I’d just put the finishing touches on a boat I’d built, using only two sheets of 1/4″ marine plywood and a piece of 1 x 6 spruce board. Needless to say I was small, stretching a whole 8 feet long and 3 1/2 feet wide. I had a Johnson 5 hp outboard attached to the end so that it kinda looked like a clam with an outboard. It was made to skim over the surface of the water.

This was the third of a series of motor operated day wasters I’d built. The previous two had frst been a rft, then a kind of row boat, and now I was going for speed. My friend Greg and I loaded it atop the old Ford station wagon and hauled it down to the public boat launch. The launch was a tiny beach set next to a concrete ramp that led into the water of the Columbia right next to the Portland/Vancouver drawbridge. When we got there, a light wind made for a bit of chop on the water, but with clear skies and an 80 degree temperature, it was a great day for boating. 

We plopped the boat into the water, hooked up the outboard and I balanced myself in the tiny cockpit area. I was kneeling and took off my shirt to use it as a pad for my knees. Greg pulled the recoil and the little motor came to life. He waded backwards to the beach, watching as I reached back and pushed the throttle up. The boat started lugging through the water, and being so thin, it took a lot of water over the bow. I leaned backwards and the prow came up a little and the boat accelerated to a pleasant cruise. Everything seemed okay, so I reached back and flipped the throttle open to see how fast the boat could go. 

I came up on plane, skipping over the water like a skipped rock. Each whack against the water was a smack on my knees and it hurt. I twisted the steering lever to swing the boat back around to the beach, but the boat just skidded along in the direction that the motor was pointing. It’s like the boat didn’t have a bow, it was just a flat surface along for the ride. I tried leaning to the side, and the boat began a smooth turn. I leaned the other way and the boat serpentined into the new direction. I reached back and centered the steering bar and then used weight shifting to control the boat. After about a half hour, I pointed myself towards the beach and returned to where Greg ws waiting.

“You were steering it like a hang glider.” he said as I hopped out of the boat. I rubbed my sore knees. 

“Yeah, there’s no real keel or anything to direct the boat, and up on plane it’s worse. But leaning steers just fine.” We swapped places and Greg got ready to take a turn. First though, we found a coat in the car to use as a cushion. We poured gas into the tank atop the old motor and I cranked it up and gave Greg a push out onto the river.  He throttled up and then spent a couple of minutes adjusting his weight until the little boat was skipping its way across the river’s surface. I watched him out there skimming about and I could see the smile on his face. 

A good day tends to bring out the boats, and there were a few moving lazily about. Most were pleasure craft, but a tug was making its way up river, leaving behind it a huge wake. As I watched, the wave of the wake cut diagonally across the water towards the little boat. I saw Greg tilt so that he lined up directly with it and as he and the little boat launched off of the four foot wake. The boat arced up into the air and then lowered its nose and did a beautiful dive into the water. There was hardly any splash at all as the boat disappeared.

I stared in amazement at where the boat had vanished. After a few seconds I became nervous for my friend but then he popped up and treaded water. He was laughing. “That was great!” he yelled across the water. A powerboat had witnessed the crash and had sped over. They pulled Greg aboard and then they all stood there looking into the water. After a minute, they found a rope and Greg took it and dove back into the water. The remnants of my boat was about six feet under water, neutrally bouyant. Fortunately it hadn’t sunk, taking the outboard motor with it. A long story short, they towed it over to shore and Greg and I hauled it out. The boat had mostly snapped in half the long way. Only the transom held the halves together. 

We loaded the remains onto the roof of the station wagon and brought it home where it became the fuel for a backyard bonifire sometime later. The outboard was refurbished and put back in duty. In all, we went through six boats that summer. Probably one of the cheapest summers I spent playing. The average material cost for the little boats was about $30 not including the recycled outboard. All of the boats met with some form of doom, some funnier than others, but all of them taught us something, adding to our skills as well as our experiences.