Boat Stories – Part Four: A Three Hour Tour

My father was lucky enough to retire early, at the age of 62. He decided to buy a fishing boat capable of braving Lake Erie in almost any weather. If you’ve never heard, Lake Erie is really shallow (210 feet maximum depth) and is therefore particularly vulnerable to the wind, and churns up into white caps at the mere suggestion of a breeze, much like the the French surrender at the first hint of hostility.

So my father bought a 26′ aluminum boat. I forget the make, but it was designed for fishing with an open deck, and only a small area enclosed in the bow. The comfort features were minimal, and it came with outrigging stuff, radar, fish finder, and other gadgets. Because it was aluminum, it was still light enough for him to tow with his van, and he believed he could handle launching it by himself. He was wrong.

My mother was still deathly afraid of the water, and would not go for a ride, so she was useless to him for handling this boat.

He rented a slip at a local marina, and intended on fishing a lot. I don’t believe he ever put a line in the water from that boat. On its maiden voyage, with my brother and my brother’s fiance on board, the engine quit. The radio turned out not to work, and so they fired a flare in distress. My brother aimed the flare gun straight up, pulled the trigger, and watched as the flare rose up high, and returned to earth, nearly hitting the boat. It splashed down and fizzled in the green, algae reeking waters of Erie just a few feet from the boat.

As they awaited help, my father realized that they did not have the adequate safety gear on board, namely life preservers for all passengers. So it was decided that my brother’s fiance would hide under the bow when the Coast Guard arrived.

The wind picked up, the waves grew heavy, and the boat began to pitch violently. My brother’s fiance grew sea sick, but she was forced to crawl into the tiny, cramped, and stuffy “cabin”.

My father had been trying to troubleshoot the problem with the engine, and decided it was an electrical problem around the distribution cap and the spark plug wires (it was a V-6 engine with a Sterndrive). As the Coast Guard approached, he found his largest lead sinker and used it to close a break in the electrical system. The engine started.

The Coast Guard verified that everything was fine, and allowed them to leave without inspection. They made a bee-line for home, not wanting to tempt fate further.

The next week, with the engine repaired, my father attempted another voyage, this time with my other brother. They made their way along the Portage river towards Lake Erie. It was a warm morning, the sun shone brightly, and numerous boats were making the same journey. As they neared the Lake, the Sterndrive made a strange, higher-pitched noise, and the boat stopped moving forward. My father moved it into neutral, back into drive, then reverse — still the strange noise and no motion. He lifted the Sterndrive out of the water, and ordered my brother to the stern to look.

“The propeller fell off,” was the official report.

My father was, at that time, not a particularly calm or easy-going person. He had a temper, was prone to anger, and had learned numerous colorful expressions for communicating that anger. There was very little that was right with the world when he was angry. This was one of those times.

They were towed back to the marina by a helpful, albeit amused boater.

I went along next to help get the boat out of the water so that it could be taken for repair. My father brought his twelve foot aluminum with the small outboard motor, and we launched that craft and crossed the marina. My father commanded what was now a tug boat, and I was stationed in the crippled vessel, monitoring the rope tied to the bow cleat.

This was late on this particular day, once again warm, and mostly calm. My father was quiet and sombered as he towed the boat back across the marina. He was somewhat anxious because, near the end, to get this much larger boat close to the ramp, we were going to be juggling boats and pulling rope, but, at the moment, it was a nice little trip. I sat on the bow, enjoying the sun and the relative calm.

We had to brave a stretch of open water, exposed to a breeze and other traffic, and it was at that moment that the small outboard motor on our tug boat quit. My father worked methodically to restart the motor, pulling on the rope, adjusting the choke and the throttle, and pulling again.

The breeze picked up. Because the large boat was made of aluminum, it sat high on the water, and became, essentially, its own sail. We were pushed across the open expanse as my father struggled to restart the motor. My quiet, calm tour was clearly at an end as the boat was being pushed closer to a stone breakwall at the far end of the water. Being the senior officer on deck, I readied myself to either abandon ship, or to leap onto the stone breakwall just moments before the wreck, and try to prevent severe damage. I was going to take my cue from the tone and intensity of the vulgarities now streaming from my father’s mouth. Although, looking back, I really didn’t know how I could have justified not sacrificing my body to save his boat. But I really didn’t want to do it.

I was saved from this fate at nearly the last moment when the small outboard motor started, and the tension in the rope returned, and we once again approached the cement boat ramp.

That big, aluminum fishing boat was taken from the water, never to return. It was repaired, but my father had lost the precious and very necessary belief that the effort involved in boating was going to be worth it. He parked it at his cottage, and it remained there for the next six years while he slowly died, and for three more years after that as we, his sons, decided what to do with it.

The last time I was on that boat, I was busy cleaning out the dirt and destruction left by a family of raccoons that had taken up residence the previous year. There was feces in every crevice, and all soft materials had been shredded. As an added bonus, three separate yellow jacket nests also had to be removed.

Lake Erie is arguably one of the most deadly bodies of water on earth, with a wreckage rate per square mile of its surface that puts it in the company of the most lethal and damning places on earth, at least for boats. It had stopped my father before he ever started, and perhaps that was a lucky thing, although, if he’d known the manner of his death, he might just have taken his chances out on the water.

We decided that the boat was beyond our abilities to repair, and donated it to charity, taking the tax deduction on our mother’s tax return. If only there was something pithy to say about all of it, but, alas, I can think of nothing.