“Work is the curse of the drinking yachtsman” read the small plastic plaque on the lower helm station. As a young man with a taste for distilled spirits and a less than stellar work ethic, I immediately fell in love with the old girl. By “old girl” I mean a 34′ Stan-Craft Express Cruiser that I stumbled upon for sale at the old Newport Yacht Basin on Lake Washington east of Seattle. Built in 1955 on Montana’s Flathead Lake, she was ten meters of solid African mahogany with the shape and style that watercraft of a more contemporary nature sorely lack. Her best years were clearly behind her as evidenced by the peeling topside varnish and the frequency with which the automatic bilge pump activated but love is not to be reasoned with and I bought her on the spot.
Going below to get acquainted with my new mistress I spied a small toggle switch in the galley labeled Cocktails. Never one to hesitate at the bar I pushed the toggle and to my surprise a circular aluminum disk in the center of the galley counter started to slowly rise exposing a rack containing various glasses and a 3/4 full bottle of “Old Vatted Demerara Rum”. Wiping the dust from one of the glasses with the tail of my shirt I poured three fingers and sat down to reflect on my good fortune. After four or five reflections in the span of thirty minutes or so I re-racked the now considerably drier bottle and decided that it was high time to get the old girl out on the water and determine if her beauty was merely skin deep.
If you’ve ever heard the sound of the old inboard motors in these vintage wooden boats you’ll know what I mean when I say heads all over the marina snapped ’round when the twin Chrysler Hemi V-8’s caught a spark and roared to life. Idling out and clearing the end of the marina, there was a small voice on one shoulder telling me to start slow and take it easy as the old power plants probably hadn’t been run hard in who knows how long. On the other shoulder however was the slightly more insistent voice of “Old Vatted Demerara Rum” saying “Pour the coals to her!”
When something of a mechanical nature goes sideways on a boat running at speed, you feel it more than hear or see it at first. Imagine it as a person suffering the early symptoms of a stroke or heart attack. There is some minor numbness or maybe weakness, often followed by a denial of anything being wrong until it is too late. With the big mahogany hull on step and the twin engines thrumming perfectly in sync, the first sign of trouble was a nearly imperceptible slowing of hull speed without a reciprocal slowing in engine RPM’s. Probably just my imagination. Just a little paranoia. Nothing to make a fuss about said the voice of “Old Vatted Demerara Rum”. No problem. Right about then the port engine hatch blew off followed by billowing clouds of smoke and steam exiting the engine compartment.
The first thought an un-inebriated person has when there is any kind of explosion on a boat is wondering in what proximity it is to the eighty gallon cylinder of gasoline below decks and wondering whether you have minutes or seconds before this question answers itself. The first thought I, and “Old Vatted Demerara Rum”, had was that if my new found love was going to jilt me by burning and sinking to the bottom of the lake, I was sure as hell going to pry something loose to remember her by before I jumped and swam for shore. Seeing as the plaque stating “Work is the Curse of the Drinking Yachtsman” was the initial spark that set in motion this passionate affair that was looking more and more destined to be a one night stand, it seemed just the ticket. Setting to work with a small key chain pocket knife, I earnestly went about the job of separating the plaque from the ancient glue fastening it to the helm. I just about had it loose when to my disgust it snapped in two and fell to the galley floor. After reflecting on my disappointment for a moment, the thought occurred to me that the breaking of the helm talisman might be a bad omen. It was about then I noticed that the port engine was no longer belching smoke. The fire had luckily been quenched by the quickly rising water in the engine compartment.
Lake Washington is a very deep lake but not particularly wide at any point. The shore is tightly packed with waterfront estates easily visible from nearly anywhere on the lake. I determined that the only hope for saving my beloved was in restarting the starboard engine and getting her as close to shore as possible before the rising water drowned this remaining operating motor and sealed our doom. It also didn’t escape my fogged senses that as the authorities tended to frown on drunks running their boats up on the lawns of these waterfront estates, I would, out of necessity mind you, have to polish off the remaining rum and dispose of the incriminating bottle. These two tasks I accomplished in short order. Most of these lakefront homes have stone bulkheads or large docks running the width of the lots making them unsuitable for a high speed beaching. Cruising perpendicular to the shore and after passing eight or ten such places I finally spotted a beautifully sloped lawn that extended right down to the waters edge. I brought her hard about, pushed the throttle forward and aimed the bow directly for the center of the lawn.
As luck, or fate would have it, the beautiful rolling lawn was only so due to the fact that the boulders and rocks that previously occupied the lot had been bulldozed into the lake and right into the path of my future beaching attempt. With a great grinding and snapping of planks and ribs, she came to rest where I had planned, though not quite as I had planned, at the point where the lawn and water met. Of course such a commotion immediately caught the attention of the home owner who rushed to the waters edge just in time to witness me leap from the bow, drop to my knees, and vomit all over his freshly manicured lawn. Not my proudest moment as a mariner but certainly one of the more memorable.
It so happened that the Earl of the estate was a fellow wooden boat owner and for reasons I have yet to fathom took pity on my predicament and neglected to alert the authorities of what could have been interpreted by less imaginative souls as a pre-meditated menacing of the public safety. Upon recounting my story of the previous hour it turns out he was an aficionado of fine Rum himself and over the course of the two weeks it took to remove my boat from his lawn, we became friends. Over time he became somewhat of a mentor to me in the intricacies and hard rules that must be followed by those who take on the stewardship of old wooden boats or indulge in the occasional heavy drinking of liquor.
“Slowly” he would say, “Slowly and methodically will accomplish your goals”. “With your eyes always focused on the horizon rather than the passing squalls of the mundane and irrelevant.
It seemed like silly advice in my youth but his stern tones let me know he was serious and that perhaps I should consider that his words had some validity. As I grow older, taking on the responsibilities of being a husband and father, I have given up the “Demon Rum” (mostly) and no longer can afford the time and expense of owning a wooden boat yet his words seem to apply equally in other areas of life as well.
“Slowly and methodically will accomplish your goals”, with your eyes always focused on the horizon”. Life will throw unexpected obstacles in your path. Try to see the big picture when faced with these obstacles and you will stand a better chance of getting through them.
So far so good.