What’s the Worst that Can Happen?

The boat lurched sideways into the air before landing awkwardly, jarringly into an oncoming wave. I wasn’t concerned at that point about the external forces that were trying to kill me. Instead I focused on the fact that this was really my fault. All of the warning signs had been there, I’d just chosen to ignore them.

I should back up.

A few years ago, when searching for a rent house here in Costa Rica, I met up with a friend over at Lake Arenal for a fishing trip. The fishing was ok, but what I remembered the most was how the guide had bragged about the quality of his four-wheel-drive SUV when we found ourselves mostly stuck in the mud. The four-wheel drive existed in the sense that it made a lot of piercing, painful metallic noises as the SUV tried to pull the boat and trailer out of the water — but it was obvious that only two of the four wheels were spinning in the mud.

“It’s a great car,” the guide shouted over the sound of something metallic being torn asunder, “but I may need to get the four-wheel drive looked at.”

A couple of years later I made the dubious decision that I merited a day away from the crushing grind of not-working and e-mailed this same guide. Yes, he was available. I should come on down in a couple of weeks and we’d catch a mess of fish. I could stay at his place the night before so we could leave out early.

The day before I left I realized that as of yet no details had been shared about where I would stay. I called the guide, and he answered from a mechanic’s shop in a town several hours away from the lake.

“Oh, it’s no problem. Just getting the four-wheel-drive fixed. I’ll meet you at the house tomorrow night.”

“This is the same four-wheel-drive problem you had a couple of years ago?” I asked.

“Yeah, but don’t worry. I’ll be there by 5:00 at the latest.”

He then texted me a set of directions that seemed less like a map and more like a test. There was a key to be retrieved from a restaurant, a vacant house atop a hill with no real descriptors other than the fact that it was big, and wasn’t one of the other big houses atop the same hill. Was it his house? Not really. We’d talk about it later.

I’d had enough work done on cars here in Costa Rica to know that the odds of his car actually being fixed within 24 hours were really, really long. On the other hand, I’d already received permission to disappear for this trip. I thought to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And I went for it.

Throughout my drive to the lake I received texts from the guide where he proclaimed that his vehicle would be fixed at any moment — until he went completely radio silent. I again had that, pardon the phrase, sinking feeling, but thought he might just be too wrapped up in his car to answer or reply to any of my queries.

I went by the restaurant he’d mentioned and, after a number of questioning looks, was given a key to the house where I’d be staying. After talking with several of the folks residing in the other big houses on the hill I arrived at a large, padlocked gate in front of a large house surrounded by a chest-high concrete wall. After several thoughtful moments, including a check for guard dogs, I threw myself over the wall and was delighted to find that they key I’d been given worked on the front door.

I did an impromptu tour and found that the tile for the wrap-around porch had all been chiseled up, the TV didn’t work, and there was no phone or internet — but there was a half-eaten bowl of gallo pinto in the fridge. It was about 4:00 p.m. when I threw my duffle bag and fishing rods over the wall and sat inside this random house hoping that either the ceiling fan or the air conditioner would begin to work (they didn’t).

Texts magically began to arrive from the guide soon thereafter. He assured me that he was just around the corner. He’d come find me and we’d go down to the restaurant where I’d retrieved the key for dinner. It would be great. Any minute now. I was reminded of Bagdad Bob, though in this case it was more like Arenal Roberto.

At 8:15 p.m. my patience was gone and I went down to have dinner by myself. After I returned, and again threw myself over the wall, the guide called and said he’d just missed me — and would I mind driving in the morning? It wasn’t clear where his car was, but he gave me directions to his house, which was back by the restaurant.

We didn’t have to pull his boat the next morning as he’d previously hidden it in a weedy area of the lake, but we did have to haul all of the things from his house that would have otherwise been stolen from the boat. There wasn’t much discussion of his car, or when he’d see it again (he’d apparently hitched a ride back from the town where the car sat in pieces) but over the course of five hours we did manage to catch a few fish.

When our enthusiasm finally waned we found ourselves on the opposite side of the large lake. The winds had picked up, and we now faced a long ride back up the lake going straight into three-and-four-foot waves (in a 17-foot boat).

Instead of a slow, deliberate pace, the guide went full throttle (this is probably the inspiration for the phrase, “If less is more, just think how much more more is”). The spray from the waves crashed over the guide as he stood behind the center console. I bounced on a bench behind him and tried not to fall into the outboard. I was facing backwards because the volume of water spraying into the boat made it impossible to see, which is something I pondered as the guide continued to hold down the throttle.

About ten minutes into this return journey our small boat did in fact go airborne, and then nearly flipped as it spun-out sideways into the next wave. The boat, and everything in it — including me — then went airborne again. I slammed into the port side, was then thrown back to starboard, then port once again. I managed to avoid getting tossed out of the boat, but that actually might have been easier.

Eventually our violent corkscrewing stopped, and I watched from my prone position beneath the outboard as the guide looked back over his shoulder to see how I was — and couldn’t find me. His eyes got big as he looked the other way and then saw me and my bloody knees wedged by the transom.

Big waves kept coming in so there wasn’t a lot of time to talk as the boat took in serious amounts of water. It was probably for the best that I avoided saying all of the things that occurred to me at that point. He shakily turned the key to restart the engine and made exaggerated motions with the steering wheel — but we stayed in-place and continued to take in big waves over the side.

He kept at it until I yelled at him that the steering cable was broken, which led to me sitting on the transom and manually pushing and pulling on the outboard engine to try steer us back to shore. There was much examination of the now broken steering assembly and the equally frightening crack that went the entire width of the transom. We then sat quietly for a few moments and I silently vowed to remove the phrase “what’s the worst that could happen” from my vernacular. 

It was at that point that I had what my Tico mechanic friend would pronounce a “McGeever” moment as I grabbed the emergency paddle and suggested we tie it to the outboard to slowly, manually, steer us back across the waves.

To my surprise, the McGeever fix worked. The guide gave the engine just a bit of gas and, with him holding on to the large, yellow fin side of the paddle, we slowly pounded our way through the waves. My concussion was probably in full flower when I noticed that the guide had decided that fast was the new slow. HIs right hand once again held the throttle all the way down and the tiny, cracked boat again bounced over the waves as he clutched the paddle behind him with his left hand.

Despite it all we eventually made it back. I helped unload just about everything possible from the boat so he could store its crippled shell back in the weeds. I think it fair to say that his disappointment to learn that I didn’t want to book another trip was matched by my desire to never again set foot on his boat — though I will admit to a small amount of curiosity as to whether or not he ever managed to fix his four-wheel-drive (and the identity of the actual owner of the house where I’d spent the night).

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