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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Are We Sinking or Are My Legs Getting Shorter?

(by Bob Bernstein, originally published in Offshore Magazine. Illustrated by Chet Jones.)

It happened on a lake in Central Maine in the summer of 1969. I was 16 and had been hired as the new water skiing instructor for Camp Webago. Never mind that I didn't know how to water ski. The Director assured me I would know enough by the time the kids arrived. He was right, but that's another story.

I was in charge of two boats, a 17' MFG with a 65 hp Johnson, and a 16' Glastron with a 55 hp, four-stroke Bearcat. They don't make the Bearcat anymore, and for good reason. The old Bearcat was way ahead of its time -- a good idea backed by something less than perfect engineering. It was a high-concept outboard with a few problems, among them a tendency to overheat.

The director took me to the waterfront and left me with the two boats, both beached and full of rainwater. I decided to tend to the Glastron first. I climbed aboard, dropped the lower unit into the water, and turned the key. The engine spurted to life -- and I do mean 'spurt'; a little rubber nozzle under the bonnet was the key to proper engine performance. As long as water flowed unimpeded through the nozzle, the engine ran fine. However, as soon as dirt or air clogged the nozzle, the motor would overheat, sputter, cough, rattle, and die. Fortunately, it didn't take me long to figure out that the problem could be corrected by oral siphoning of the nozzle. After several breathless minutes of alternately blowing and sucking on the nozzle, I had the beast running smoothly.

Before heading out on the lake to drain the boat I did two things. First, I boarded the MFG and started the Johnson. I let it run a few minutes, then shut it off and pocketed the key. Second, I went into the dining room to shanghai a couple volunteers to help push the Glastron off the beach; the boat had a double hull and full of water it was heavy as a tank.

I found half a dozen counselors drinking coffee at one of the tables, but only one expressed an interest in coming along. Ken, a thick-set, blond-haired, die-hard Yankee fan from Westport, L. I., said he would help if I agreed to take him over to the girl's side of camp. I nodded heartily and together we walked back to the beach.

"I don't get down here to often," Ken said as we strolled to the Glastron. "It's not really my thing."

"Well," I said. "All you have to do is help me push it off the beach, maybe steer a little while I pull the plug."

"I probably should warn you," Ken said placing his hand on the rail. "I don't know much about boats."

"That's all right," I assured him. "I do."

Ken peaked in the Glastron with a dubious expression. "It's full of water," he said. "Shouldn't we drain it first?"

"Nah. We'll do it out there. We'll bail her through the drain plug."

"The drain plug?"

"A little hole in the back."

"There's a hole in the boat?"

"Yeah. It's supposed to be there. We get her up to cruising speed, pull the plug, and the water will be sucked out the hole."

Ken was unconvinced. "Wait a minute. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's more water in the lake than in the boat. What's to stop the water from coming back in?"

"It's physics, Ken. Trust me. I know what I'm doing. Now start pushing."

Reluctantly, Ken rolled up his pants, heaved the boat off the beach, and climbed in. As the green and white hull of the Glastron floated a bit low in the water -- not dangerously so -- I started the motor, turned the wheel, and headed for the middle of the lake. It was flat calm. A minute or so later, with water up to our shins. I brought the vessel up to speed. The Bearcat labored. Skis, life jackets, cushions, fuel tanks, and other miscellaneous boat stuff piled aft. The bow pointed toward the skies.

"Ken!"

"What?"

"Take the wheel and hold her steady. I'll go pull the plug."

Ken maneuvered himself to the helm, cautiously, so as not to splash his pants. I went aft, dropped to my hands and knees, and reached back through the water and mess of floating junk for the drain plug. I released the dog and pulled. Nothing. I pulled harder. Still nothing. Finally, I took a deep breath, held it, and used all my strength. The plug pulled free. Water began to drain rapidly and I felt pleased with myself.

And then the old Bearcat just up and died.

"I already told you I don't know too much about boats," Ken said. "But isn't the water coming in kind of fast."

"Now don't panic, Ken," I said. "I'll just put the plug back in and get the motor started."

I lifted my hand to look at the plug and came to a startling realization. Soaking all winter and spring on the east end of St. George lake had swollen the rubber to three times its normal size. Nothing short of a miracle would get it back into the hole from which it came.

"Well," Ken said. "What are you waiting for? Put the plug back."

"It's swollen, Ken. It won't go back."

"You mean we're sinking."

"Well, in a matter of speaking."

"How deep is it here?"

"About ninety feet."

"Can I panic now?"

"No. I know what's wrong. It's no big deal. I can fix it. The motor's overheated because the cooling circuit's jammed. It's air or something. Just wait a sec."

"If you don't mind, I'd like to scream for help."

"I'd rather you didn't."

Ken watched me as I positioned myself over the Bearcat. "Well, as long as you know what you're doing," he said."

"I do. Don't worry."

"You going to tighten some screws or bolts or something?"

"No," I said, leaning over the stern of the boat. "I'm gonna wrap my lips around this little rubber thing and suck as hard as I... YEOW! SON OF A BITCH'S HOT."

"HEEELP... SOMEBODY... HEEELP!" Ken screamed.

"What the hell are you doing?" I asked, leaning over the rail and dabbing cold water on my lips.

"Sorry. But if it's all the same to you, I'd rather yell for help. I don't think you're going to fix anything like that. No offense." Ken faced the beach and waved his hands over his head.

"Heeelp... Somebody... Heeelp!" he hollered.

Just then my new boss, the Camp Director, walked down to the beach. We could see him looking at us, then cupping his hands to his mouth. The words came across the lake clearly and distinctly. "Are... you... in... trouble... ?"

"Ken... " I was begging now. "Don't go starting a panic. As soon as this thing cools I can start it. Just be calm and don't say anything to worry him. It's really not as serious as you think."

Ken looked at me questioningly, then at the beach. "No problem," he said. "I know just what to say." He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled: "We... are... sinking... !"

"Great," I said. "Now all he has to do is ask me where the key to the other boat is?"

"Where's... the... key... to... the... other... boat... ?" the Director yelled.

"Where is it?" Ken asked.

I was laughing. I couldn't help myself.

Ken scowled. "I don't really see the humor here, Bob. I mean, the boat's broken. Water's pouring in through the back. My pants are wet. It looks like a long swim to shore. Why don't you just tell him where the damn key is?"

I reached into my pocket and produced the tiny key. "It's right here." I gave it to Ken. "You tell him where it is." Ken shook his head.

"Where's... the... key... to... the... other... boat... ?" the Director yelled again.

I had no choice. I cupped my hands to my mouth and answered. "It's... in... my... pocket."

The director's head dropped to face the ground. He turned and walked away from the beach. He wasn't in any hurry, as if maybe he didn't really need two ski boats, or a new skiing instructor. In fact, he was controlling his heart rate with tabs of glycerin and headed for the nearest telephone.

Ken resigned himself to his fate. He walked forward into the open bow and made himself comfortable, lifting his legs over the gunwales to keep his pants as dry as possible.

Me, well I knew what I was doing all along -- sort of. After the motor cooled I cleared the obstruction in the nozzle, started the Bearcat, got the Glastron drained, and learned two valuable lessons. I don't take anything apart that I know I can't put back together. And I have a lot of spare keys.

-seabgb

Copyright © Bob G. Bernstein (seabgb) All Rights Reserved!

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