Boat — and other 4-Letter Words

Circa June, 1997

My regular fishing buddy (who we’ll call Bill) and I tooled around Lake Livingston in my cousin’s small speedboat. We — and our respective wives — were staying at my cousin’s lake house. And using their boat. Life was good.

We’d just launched the boat from the nearby marina and were following the crudely marked channel that led to open water. The channel followed the “red, right, return” principle used in marking channels but sans the color scheme and with empty milk jugs hanging from long sticks shoved into the muddy bottom in place of actual buoys.

On a good day, this part of this man-made lake was around thirteen feet deep. The only really “deep” water was the winding portion attributable to the previous bed of the Trinity River – the river that had been dammed to make the lake. Due to a desire to cultivate fish habitat, or perhaps because removal of trees in the area to be flooded wasn’t in the budget approved by taxpayers, the majority of the lake was laden with true stumps that stuck up out of the water when the lake level was low, or hung just inches below its surface during when water was plentiful.

This was not a good day in terms of water. Weather and water usage (this lake was actually part of Houston’s water supply) had taken their toll. I’d only driven this boat a few times on this lake, and those outings involved much higher lake levels. I followed the channel with the hope that whomever had marked it knew what they were doing — though my mind kept going back to the hand-written sign hanging over the register of a local store that warned, “No Profaity.” The odds were not in my favor.

We meandered around this portion of the lake, putting forth a very nominal effort at fishing as we were more than a little afraid that all we were going to catch was tree stumps.

“You wanna try and get some minnows?”

“Sure,” answered Bill.

“That marina across the way has them.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Bill reeled in his lure and went to the bow to resume his role as stump detector.

I slowly motored across the open water towards another set of ramshackle channel markers that led to the other, more fishing oriented, marina.

We idled along in the channel, making small talk as we drew closer to the marina. Our chatter was soon broken by a loud, horrible screeching noise accompanied by a large shudder on the part of the boat as it contacted something below us.

I looked at the depth finder on the dash, which read seven feet. I tapped it for good measure, and it assured me that it was reading correctly.

We continued to sit, hung up in the channel when another boat appeared. This boat was attempting to exit the marina out in to the open water. This makeshift channel, which was apparently designed to wreck anyone who used it, wasn’t wide enough for the boat to pass us. Whether we were ready or not, we had to move.

“I don’t really need to go fishing with minnows.”

Bill nodded. “My either.”

I put the throttle into reverse and turned the wheel sharply so as to try and force us off of our obstacle. I applied a little power, and the effort got me nowhere. I continued to add throttle until I’d nearly floored it (in reverse) and we finally heard the somewhat welcome screech of our hull leaving the tenacious grip of whatever held it.

I quickly shifted back to forward as we slipped backwards out of the channel and then ever so slowly reentered it. It occurred to me that I might accidentally drive back over the exact same spot that got us in the first place — there was no floating X — but the cynicism bore no fruit.

Anxious to get the boat out of the water to see what kind of damage we’d done, we declared fishing  over and headed back across they way to the original marina. That portion of the journey passed uneventfully. As we glided in past the small rock wall I fished around for my keys so I could give them to Bill.

I gave him the keys, but only after I’d warned him three times to put them in his pocket so he didn’t drop them in the water. He put up with my doubts regarding his abilities and stoically put the keys in his pocket. I motored up to the floating dock that comprised left hand side of the boat ramp, and reversed as I drew close to cut our progress and allow Bill to jump off.

Any doubts I had about Bill holding on to keys were nothing compared to the nausea I felt trying to pull off any maneuver involving a boat. Previous attempts at this kind of maneuver had resulted in many outcomes that had nothing to do with a peaceful, controlled stop. I lucked out this time, which was particularly nice because there was a girl astride a jet ski in the right side stall of the boat ramp closely evaluating our progress. Male impotence is bad enough without females around to witness it.

I did a reasonable job of pretending not to notice the bathing suit she was almost wearing as she and her boyfriend messed with the gigantic jet ski. I believed then, as I do now, that there should be an open season on jet skis as they and their owners ravage any calm, quite spot of the lake they can find. I wasn’t sure that there was enough momentum behind this particular platform to get me elected to office, but I knew plenty of people who admitted that the only good thing about a jet ski was riding one.

This issue settled, internally, I called out to Bill as he backed the trailer into the water. He was using my 2-door, 5 speed, manual-shift Explorer and he hung his head out of the driver’s side window to take in the path of the trailer, and my encouragement.

“Good!” I called out while holding up my left hand for emphasis.

Bill cut the motor, jumped out of the Explorer and hustled back to the tongue of the trailer so that he could fasten the bow to the trailer. I reversed a bit to gain to maneuverability and then idled back in to try and align the already-beaten boat with the arms of the trailer. Unlike other occasions, I did not end up sideways across the trailer, nor did I overshoot one side and park it alongside the car.

Bill reached out to latch the cable to the bow and began cranking on the winch. I shut off the motor and looked to see if the jet ski couple had witnessed my triumph. They apparently had not, but were still messing with things on the giant jet ski to the extent that it was impossible to determine whether they were just starting out or instead ending their day on the water.

Bill made another couple of cranks and the boat slowly moved up on the trailer. That progress was broken by a loud “thunk,” and everything went awry. Bill, still clutching the handle of the winch, looked around to tried to figure out where the sound had come from. Within a fraction of a second he and I both realized that he hadn’t put on the parking brake. The Explorer had popped out of gear and everything, boat, trailer and Explorer was slowly easing back down into the water. 

I witnessed all of this from my vantage point in the boat as I could clearly track our backwards progress against the dock and the jet ski couple. Bill realized all of this because he felt the bumper of the Explorer hit him in the back of the legs. He quickly dropped his hold on the winch arm and instead turned to push against the tailgate of the Explorer. As I watched him I went from scared to angry in a few nanoseconds. There was no man alive who could push a Explorer fastened to a trailer holding a speed boat out of the water on an inclined boat ramp.

“Bill! Stop trying to push it out and go put it back in gear!”

I then reach downed and fired the boat engine back up. I put it in forward and revved it until the bow made contact with the pad at the front of the trailer — and then gave it full throttle. This move gave Bill, who was reluctant to stop pushing, enough time to gather himself and run back through the water, while still pushing fruitlessly against the side of the SUV, to the driver’s side door — which at least he hadn’t locked.

We were now in a stalemate of sorts as the roaring boat engine kept the trailer, and the Explorer, from becoming an artificial reef, but Bill, who was now officially freaked, had yet to make a difference with whatever he was doing inside the vehicle. I looked over and noted that the jet ski couple was standing up to get a better view — laughing so hard that they were in danger of falling off.

“Dammit Bill! Turn it over and get us out of here!”

The Explorer rumbled to life and some creaking was heard before it took a single lunge forward and shuddered to a halt. This same thing happened a couple more times in quick succession. 

I yelled out, “Did you put the parking brake on or something?”

A moment of silence passed, and another thunk was heard. The Explorer fired back up, the exhaust sounding odd from its submerged position, Bill began to pull us forward. “Sorry!”

I turned off the motor and raised the outboard as we slowly ascended the ramp. The jet ski couple was still laughing, and she rubbed it it by giving me a a thumbs-up. I had no idea what the proper response was in this situation, so I turned and stared at the watery handprints all over the back of the Explorer with what I believed to be a stoic look on my face.

We finally reached level ground away from the boat ramp and Bill brought us to a stop and cut the engine. As I climbed out of the back of the boat, tie-down straps in hand, he emerged from the driver’s side, holding the keys in front of him as if they were stricken with an intolerable stench.

I took the keys from his shaking hand and we each tied down a side of the back of the boat. No words were said throughout the process, and we then got back into the Explorer to made our way back to the cousin’s lake house. Bill put a towel under him as he was soaked from the waist down.

As I reversed the boat back towards the garage I stopped short of the usual resting place and killed the engine as I’d just remembered that we had never tried to look at the damage that may have been caused by whatever it was that we hit in the channel. As I crawled around under the boat I saw Bill’s feet on the other side. He figured out what I was up to and joined me to scrutinize the underside of the boat. A fair amount was obscured by the support arms of the trailer, but of what we could see of it there were only a couple of shallow, brown scratches in the bottom.

“Guess we got lucky there.”

Bill nodded as he rolled out from under and got to his feet. “Yep.”

I walked again to the front of the boat to get some stuff out of the Explorer and couldn’t help but notice the manic set of Bill’s dirty handprints, which went from the the tailgate all the way around the side to the driver’s side door.

When we entered the house a few minutes later we found our wives lounging on the couches. My wife looked up and noticed something odd about us. “You weren’t gone very long. Everything ok?”

I looked quickly at Bill and he furtively looked back. We were in tacit agreement that a significant omission of the facts was called for if we were to continue to be allowed to wander unsupervised around boats, and lakes. Years later I read a novel where one of the characters stated, “I do not lie, but the truth is not for everyone.” That aptly sums up the details we provided that day to our respective wives.

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