Friday, June 28, 2013

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

We invited friends who were visiting us for the first time to join us on our maiden voyage. It was the very first time we cast off from home since bringing the new 20 foot Bennington pontoon boat home. We were to have dinner with our first-time guests, but before we ate, I convinced everyone to join us for a thirty-minute cruise to the nearby river to see the beauty of our area. I even talked one of our guests out of changing her beautiful new shoes as I convinced her all she would do is sit on the new luxurious seats and drink wine!

I glanced at the latest weather radar before asking everyone to cruise with us, and saw a small weather blip way up north, headed away, so I thought we would be fine. As we left the dock, Ilse poked me and said, “Look back! Do we need to worry?”

Dark clouds were forming on the horizon behind us, but the river ahead looked clear and bright. I thought I could go to the river and turn down stream and head toward the State Road 776 bridge which passes over the Myakka River just in case the small storm decided to head our way. Besides, radar showed it going east, away from us so we shouldn't have to worry. We have parked under bridges in the past while Florida torrential rain poured down harmlessly on either side of us. I thought if indeed the storm expanded to cover us, we would be safe under the bridge.

When we reached the river some twelve minutes later, the storm clouds covered twice as much of the northern sky behind us as when we started out. We were still in sunshine, but the ominous clouds obviously were not headed away. They were coming closer. The storm was expanding. As we left the slow speed zone of the waterway and turned into the Myakka river, I opened the throttle as far as I safely could as I was only into the second hour of the break-in period for the new Yamaha 70 horsepower outboard motor. It didn't matter. I could have run full throttle and we would not have made it. 

With three miles to go to the bridge, I realized I had made a bad mistake. I have made this trip for the last fifteen years in a 21 foot, deep-vee Chris Craft powered with a 200 horsepower motor. The old boat would plane easily and speeds around 35 miles an hour were a piece of cake. We would have been there in a matter of minutes. Unfortunately, I was no longer driving the fast Chris Craft. Nope, the new pontoon is a party barge, a displacement boat powered by a 70 horsepower motor. It may get up on a plane, like a water skier, but it will never be fast, even if I put the 200 horsepower motor on it. After pushing as hard as possible for five minutes, I knew we wouldn't make it. As I looked back, the entrance to the waterway was already obscured by rain. Damn! No going back now!

Rain blanketed the bend in the river as I tried in vain to get there first. Rain began to come down in sheets, teasingly leaving our small section of the river as the only dry section before all you-know-what let loose. And it did, from all sides. Our little Bimini top was absolutely no help! The seas picked up to a foot and a half, which in the Myakka River is impressive, and heavy rain pelted us as if to say, “See, smart ass!” One of my guests, water dripping from his glasses, made a supposedly humorous comment about my overall intelligence.

No argument there. This was without doubt the dumbest boating decision I have made in the 58 years I've been doing this. As we headed back I tried to keep the boat aimed so the Bimini top offered at least some protection from the wind-swept rain, but that didn't work well either. Everyone was drenched! Absolutely drenched! Pontoon boats offer absolutely no protection from the elements, and Florida summer rain storms are brutal. The only possible solution is to carry emergency wet weather gear for every one, even if it is only cheap plastic throw away rain covers, and water tight containers for the shoes. In the future, I will carry wet weather gear for everyone.

The new boat handled well, water sloshing over the bow with alarming regularity. I throttled back to minimize the effects of the rough seas, and slowly headed toward the channel markers that offered sanctuary from the torrential rain. As I turned back into the slow speed, no wake zone waterway some twenty, soaking-wet minutes later, still doing at a pretty good clip, for a pontoon boat with six adults on board, the rain began to let up. By the time we returned to our dock, the rain completely stopped, the only water spoiling the surface of the waterway was dripping off the tree leaves.

With all our guests drenched, I worried if any of them would even talk to me. After drying off, and another glass of wine, they departed to change clothes, and forty-five minutes later, they returned and we began the dinner where we left off. No harm done, except my ego, and at least one pair of water-logged shoes.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Another Old Friend

An old friend just proved an often heard adage is not quite right. It's been said the two happiest days of a boater's life are when he buys his first boat, and when he sells it. We just sold our old friend, Namasté, our 21 foot Chris Craft and we honestly say it was not a really happy day. We had many good times on the boat, and learned a lot about the west coast of Florida in the process. It wasn't always fun, though, but we will miss her. She was safe and secure in rough seas, and at home in a three foot chop as any small craft I've been in. She was dry under full throttle even though an occasional rogue wave could drench the cockpit. Namasté was at home just about anywhere on the water. When we picked her up, we thought her exquisite, aesthetically perfect lines were prettier than any boat we had seen. There was one major problem, we had to rename her.

Blazoned across her mustard colored hull was the huge white lettered name “Whim Wham.” Great, just the boat you want to take your grandkids out in. We bought her from a fellow in Punta Gorda who looked like he hadn't named her. He hadn't. Really, he looked more accountant than swashbuckler. He was the second owner. The first owner probably died of VD or rampant alcoholism, but we liked the boat in spite of the name and brought her home across Charlotte Harbor towing a six foot dinghy that was included in the deal. That was luckily included in the deal, I should say, as I sat in it for an hour while I unbent an unmarked, wire crab trap by hand from around the propeller. Lesson: never venture out without a tool kit and avoid bleeding in shark infested waters. Actually, the alligators keep the sharks away in the Myakka River, but my hands were pretty well lacerated by the time we finally got underway. When we finally got her home, I tied her to a neighbor's dock while we had a boat lift and a seawall installed. The day she was lifted into place was indeed a happy day.

We took trips to Cabbage Key and through Boca Grande pass, exploring Charlotte Harbor and the Peace River without worrying about expending the 80 gallons of fuel we carried. Of course, gasoline was only a buck and a quarter a gallon back then, and we didn't have the destructive ethanol additive to worry about. Gas tanks and carburetors stayed clean and we ran just fine. As the price of gasoline crept up, our trips got shorter. And slower. But the noisy, thirsty 200 horse power Mercury Black Max outboard motor had developed another problem: it was becoming unreliable. We had to make a decision about the boat: fix the motor or replace it, or possibly even the boat. I borrowed a trailer big enough to handle our 3500 pound baby and hauled her into the yard next to the house in the spring of 2006. I rebuilt the carburetors and replaced ignition coils. I swore in frustration as love bugs got sucked into the open carburetor throats and stalled the engine. I replaced all the chrome hardware that had deteriorated from the exposure to salt water, including all the hinges and cleats, and meticulously, gently removed the name. She only came with two seats, so I installed two more in the stern. I replaced the Bimini top with a new, longer top. After cleaning and waxing the hull, I carefully applied her new name, Namasté. After six weeks of work, we relaunched her only to find the engine problem hadn't been fixed. Out she came again and this time I tore all the wiring out and rewired the entire engine. Finally she was put back in the water and she started up and ran the way she had when we brought her home, but she was as noisy as ever.

People a block away could hear her when I started her, and conversation on board, even while we were at idle, was out of the question. We actually took cotton wads for our ears with us on one trip, but they were no help. I decided the next time the motor gave us problems, it was coming off. Two years later we pulled off the Black Max and installed a rebuilt Yamaha 200 hp outboard motor. It was like night and day! We had our old boat back! Unfortunately, the price of gas soon went to 4 dollars a gallon and we found ourselves in a quandary, we couldn't afford to take her out every time we wanted. A full gas tank was worth $320! We finally had a quieter, reliable engine, but no place to go.

We continued to take her out though, sometimes with fishing friends, sometimes with guests to see if we could find Dolphins. Still, when we had more than four guests, we had to take a fold up lawn chair placed in the center at the stern. We had one poignant trip when we asked dear friends to join us for a sun-down cruise to the river. Their adult son was dying from cancer, so the trip was special for all of us. In a cruel turn of fate, his mother and father were also gone within a year.

In a memorable return trip down the Peace River from visiting the Navigator restaurant with friends from Germany, we passed under the Blue Angels as they performed for a near-by air show.  I saluted the blue F-18 as he leveled out just above the water off our starboard bow and he returned the honor with a wing waggle as he passed a few feet over head.

We will miss our old friend, but we have a new one coming next week to take her spot on the boat lift. The new boat doesn't have the beautiful, sleek lines of the old Chris Craft. Rather it looks like a utilitarian barge. Her replacement is a pontoon boat. With only a new four-stroke 70 horsepower motor, our fuel consumption should be cut in half and we will be able to carry on normal conversations at idle. It has comfortable seating for eight people. We started with a small 22 foot sail boat, then made the jump to our big power boat. The new one should fit somewhere in the middle.

Another old boating adage says power boats are going somewhere but sailboats are already there. The new boat will nicely fit both worlds. We'll call her Namasté II.  It couldn't have a better name.