Mary set a low bar for me on my first solo voyage in the new used fishing boat.
I do best with low bars. And I cleared this one, just barely.
“I’m just happy that the boat didn’t end up on the bottom of the lake,” she said, moments after I returned from Angostura Reservoir. “I have to say I’m a little surprised.”
I was mildly surprised myself. And in truth I came closer to meeting her dire expectation than it probably appeared as I pulled into our driveway with my “new”1991 Lund 16-foot Challenger in tow, and still all in one piece.
I had a drain plug issue, you see. But it was not your typical drain-plug issue, the one my boat advisor and marine therapist, John Cooper, had warned against a couple of weeks earlier when he gave me an at-the-lake tutorial on launching and operating the Lund.
“Rule No. 1: drain plug,” Coop said. “Make sure it’s in!”
Otherwise, your beloved float toy can quickly become a submarine.
I remembered the plug. Moments before I backed my boat and trailer down the ramp for the very first time by myself, I noted that the plug was securely in place. It just wasn’t in the right place, which I would realize a few minutes later.
Things went well as I launched the boat, tied it to the dock, drove up the ramp and parked my SUV and trailer. Walking back to the ramp, however, I noticed that the bow — which is the front of the boat, for you non-nautical people — was riding higher than it was when I left. And the stern — which is, well, you know, the other end — was sinking at a disturbing rate.
Even a 67-year-old first-time boat owner who tends not to pay attention to details paid attention to those. They seemed significant.
Things went from significant to urgent when I lifted the back bench in the boat, exposing the gas tank, the batteries and the water rising in the compartment, again at a disturbing rate.
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At moments like that, I am inclined to panic. That and a lack of mechanical skills led my dad to assign me, during my teen years, farm duties like mowing lake beds with the old Ford tractor rather than cultivating row crops or combining wheat.
It’s also one of the reasons that some people, especially my wife, couldn’t quite picture me as a motorized mariner of the inland seas. Canoes? Sure. Kayaks? No problem. One-man paddlers for small-water fishing that fit in the back of a pickup. You bet!
But a real boat with a real motor and a real trailer and the things that can go haywire and be forgotten or flubbed? Even I recognized the potential for catastrophe, which is part of the reason I put off buying my first real boat for, oh, 40 years or so.
Maybe a guy gets reckless in his old age.
Anyway, when I saw water rising inside my boat, mindless panic seemed appropriate. Yet I somehow remembered the bilge pump, which was another highlight of Coop’s tutorial. And I was relieved to flip the switch and see water shooting out the side of the boat about as fast as it was pouring in the unprotected bilge hole.
About then, it occurred to me that the tightly secured drain plug was secured in the wrong place: the splash well. It’s supposed to be in drain hole at the back bottom of the boat, unless your goal is to fill the boat with water and take a dive.
About then I recalled that during our aforementioned tutorial, Coop had pulled the plug to drain the bilge and placed the plug in the splash-well hole, for secure storage.
When I called him later to confess my near miss at the ramp, Coop pointed out that I could have reached over the back of the boat and properly inserted the plug. That made sense on the phone. On the ramp, panic ruled.
I frantically jumped onto the dock, ran up to the parking lot and backed the trailer down onto the ramp, drove the boat onto the trailer and pulled it partway up the ramp, with water gushing out of the bilge-drain hole.
By the time the bilge was empty, catastrophe seemed averted and my pulse was almost normal again. So I put the plug in its proper spot, launched the boat again and headed out on my maiden voyage.
I think I’m going to like my new used boat, too, if I can keep if off the bottom of the lake.