This is the first of my “Gullible’s Travels” stories. If you know me, then you know I love telling stories. In fact, you may have heard me tell this one since it is one of my favorites. These stories are not fiction. They are true life experiences, though I do confess to an occasional embellishment from time to time. This one just resurfaced a few weeks ago when I received an email attachment from my good friend, Naomi Pena, who, unsolicited, had painstakingly typed up the original version, which was typed using a conventional typewriter in the 1970s before people used computers. Naomi is in the story, a hero, and a dear friend. Other stories will follow, some of which were posted on an earlier blog about 10 years ago.
The story of my first experience in owning a sailboat began in Washington, D.C., in 1972. At the time, I was employed by a real estate consulting firm and was clearly ready for something –anything—that would spice up my life. A sailboat might be the very thing I needed for renewal. When I overheard a conversation between two friends at the office, I jumped at the opportunity to buy what my friend described as a fabulous sailboat, which he was ready to sell for $1,200.
My other friend was also interested though he had no sailing experience, and we agreed to buy it together.
The boat was called a “five-o-five,” a 16-foot sailing dinghy. That evening after work I raced over to the local library and checked out as many books on sailing as I could find. Several books had photos and descriptions of the five-o-five. Each book described the boat as “high performance” — possibly, said one book, “the fastest sailboat of its type ever designed.” The boat had been considered one year for an Olympic racer and had barely lost out to the Flying Dutchman, another world-famous sailboat. The photos showed the five-o-five skimming across the water with skipper and crew hiking out over the boat’s gunwale, foam and spray flying in their face. Because the crew used a trapeze, the photos showed a guy stretched out parallel to the water—literally, his entire body, almost dangling in midair with his feet planted on the side of the boat.
When I returned home, I was ecstatic. I showed the photos to my wife, Embry. She appeared mildly interested; but since she was about five months pregnant, I could see how it would be hard for her to think about herself hiked out on the trapeze. “You don’t expect me to do that do you?” she said timidly. Not now, I assured her. My friend, McDonald, would be doing that now. She could do that next year after the baby came.
My heart was pounding with excitement as we drove through the quaint section of Old Town Alexandria, on our way to the Old Dominion Yacht Basin. Suddenly we made a left turn into the marina. It was not exactly what we had expected.
As we entered, to our left, a large, wooden motorboat about thirty feet long was lying on its side on the ground. Most of the paint had come off the hull, which also contained a large gaping hole in its bottom. Next to that were several smaller sailboats lying on the ground, neglected, with paint flaking, rusty winches and rotten wood. To our right was a huge pile of debris, which consisted of several broken masts, pieces of hulls and cabins, Styrofoam, boat trailers, and various other items, unidentifiable because of the layers of rust. The pile had obviously been around from some time because clumps of grass and even a tiny tree had grown up through the holes in the mess.
“Is this a yacht club?” asked McDonald in a puzzled tone. “Are you sure this is the right place?”
I looked around for our new boat—a low, sleek design, white (or brownish gray) hull, with a trapeze. I thought I spotted it just on the other side of an abandoned trailer and a pile of paint cans.
I am sure that my first startled impression of the five-o-five was influenced by the unsightly surroundings. Also, it was an overcast, drizzly day. I paused for a minute to recapture in my mind the exhilarating image of the photographs in the book. The boat I had spotted sort of looked like what I had seen in the pictures, though a beat-up version of the famous boat. The hull was stained with dirt and grime. The ropes were a little frayed and very tangled. The rudder and tiller were peeling, but this looked enough like the photographs that I concluded that this must be our new boat. And compared to the other beat-up boats surrounding it, the boat seemed in decent shape. Nothing was wrong with it that a little love and sweat couldn’t cure.
“Yep,” I said, smiling and patting the boat side, “This is it–a racing machine, a real racing machine.”
MacDonald stared at the boat with a blank expression, not saying a word.
The deal was done. Upon receiving our $1,200 in cash, our coworker agreed to give us an introductory sail the following weekend. All week long at work, McDonald and I darted in and out of each other’s office to share our anticipation of the first big sail.
On our way out for our daily run around the Ellipse near the White House, I took the opportunity to give McDonald basic lessons in the art of sailing. I carefully explained what most of the parts of the boat were, that “port” was left and “starboard” right and so on. He confessed that he had checked several sailing books out of the library himself and that he already knew all of that. He was really interested simply in learning how to sail.
Saturday was the big day. It was a chilly Saturday but clear and not much of a breeze. Our friend who had sold us the boat met us at the yacht basin with a large, bright blue sail bag. He described the various parts of the boat to us as if we did not already know them, and then pulled the sail out of the bag.
As we hoisted the sail up the mast, we noticed the insignia “505” had come loose and was fluttering from the head of the sail, attached to the sail by only a tiny thread.
“That looks tacky,” McDonald whispered to me.
As we hauled the boat on its trailer down to the ramp, we passed by an old shack, which in many respects resembled the prototypical sea shanty. Piles of junk were stacked beside the front door between an ice dispenser and a Coke machine. The word “office” was over the door, but the weathered sign had come loose and was hanging down so that you had to duck to avoid getting a nail in the head.
Following our friend, we ducked and entered the house, where we found ourselves in a tiny, dark room with three other people huddled around a kerosene stove. One was an old woman, who was hard to make out in the dim light, but who appeared rather scraggly. One was an old man with a beard, smoking a pipe and wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap. The third appeared much younger than the other two—a plain looking man in his thirties. The three of them were passing around a bottle.
“Miss Evans,” said our friend said to the old woman, “I want you to meet the new owners of my boat, Mr. McDonald and Mr. Howell.”
Miss Evans burst into a smile, and with a twinkle in her eye exclaimed, “Well goddamn, you finally sold it, did you!” The other two men offered us a swig of rum and invited us to share the warmth of the kerosene stove.
We explained that we couldn’t stay to chat, to which the old lady replied, “Well, we don’t have no rules here. Just pay up in cash by the fifth of the month and don’t complain. This place ain’t no goddamn country club, but it’s the best deal in town!”
At last we were ready to put the boat in the water. There was a narrow ramp into the Potomac River, bordered on each side by a steep wall of black, gooey wooden pilings.
In retrospect, I must admit that the first sail could have been much worse. There was no wind. Not a breath. Normally this would not be something to be thankful for, but in our case, it was clearly a blessing. A capsize on a chilly spring day in the Potomac River could have meant the end.
Since the seller admitted that he had not actually sailed the boat himself much, he could not help us out as to which lines went where. There was a tangle of ropes, all of which he explained had always been tangled and apparently had no effect on sailing the boat. He presumed they were for the spinnaker, which he had never used.
As we sat in the calm Potomac River drifting gently with the tide, the only minor problem that we observed was that the boat was gradually filling up with water.
“Good God!” said McDonald. “We’re sinking.”
“We’re not sinking,” our friend replied calmly.
“The hell you say!” McDonald exclaimed. “There is an inch of water in this boat, and it’s getting deeper all the time!”
I looked around for the problem. It did not take long to find it. At the stern of the boat there were two small openings with flaps, each about the size of a dollar bill. The flaps were supposed to be sealed shut and secured by an elastic cord connected to the boat’s centerboard. Obviously, something wasn’t working because you could see water oozing in through the tiny cracks around the flaps.
“Oh,” commented our friend, “Don’t worry about that. That’s the self-bailer. It’s there to let the water out fast when you capsize and want to get on the go again. It lets the water flow right out the stern. Neat idea, huh?”
“Neat idea, my ass,” said McDonald. “That water’s not going out; it’s coming in; and what’s more, if it keeps up, we’re gonna sink.” Before he finished the last sentence, I observed that the water was already up to my ankles.
When we got back to shore our friend quickly departed, leaving us the sails. His departing words were, “Now she’s all yours. Good luck!”
McDonald and I looked at each other with the what-do-we-do-next look when we noticed a young man in his early twenties observing us. He had long hair and a ruddy, healthy look. “So, he finally sold the piece of junk, did he?” he said, walking over to us.
Neither McDonald nor I said anything. “You guys into boat racing? Well, if you’re gonna be competitive, I mean competitive, you’ve got some work to do. Come over here.”
We shrugged our shoulders and followed him, stepping around two beat-up boats and over a pile of broken trailer parts and a dead rat. “You guys want to see something beautiful? I mean really beautiful, take a look at this.” He stopped beside a boat which had a canvas cover on it, paused briefly to enhance the suspense, and then with one dramatic sweep yanked the cover off, revealing a boat the approximate size and shape of ours. At that point any similarity ended. His boat had a mahogany deck that glistened with layers of varnish. “Now this is a five-o-five,” he said. “I love her. She is gorgeous, beautiful, and man, one hell of a racer.” I noticed the boat’s name inscribed on the transom of the sleek, black hull, “Hot Dog.”
“What the hell is all that stuff?” asked McDonald pointing to blocks, shackles, lines, gadgets and so on. The ropes were painted different colors, and the stainless steel fittings sparkled. Everything in the boat was neat and orderly.
“It looks like the inside of a goddamn space rocket. “McDonald added.
The sailor replied, “This is what sailing is all about! Sailing is racing and racing is winning. And winning is gear. Hardware. Let me tell you, my boat is nothing compared to most of the other five-o-fives. If you think Hot Dog is hot stuff, wait till you see some of the other boats I race against.”
He then returned with two enormous toolboxes. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, “I’ve got some work to do.” I peered into the toolbox, which must have contained several hundred parts—screws, shackles, bolts and other assorted items.
“Is all that just for your boat?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? This is only half the stuff I need. The other box is for the boat, too, and I’ve got more stuff at home. These five-o five’s are beautiful, but to keep ‘em tuned you’ve got to do a lot of work. Besides, on these boats you never know what will happen.”
I could see the concerned look on McDonald’s face. “Oh yeah?” he said. “All that just for a boat this size? Oh yeah?”
I was beginning to wonder just what we had gotten ourselves into. I was soon to find out.
On our first sail together, it was just McDonald and me. Since there was a moderate breeze, the transom leak was not a problem, and besides I had spent a good bit of time gluing the flaps shut. The only thing worth repeating about that sail was that by some miracle we returned safely with no serious difficulties. The boat did run aground twice, the second time with its center board lodging in the mud. But McDonald hopped out into the water and pushed us off. Though we could feel how tipsy the boat was, fortunately the wind was not too strong, and we did not come close to capsizing. Of course, having recalled the seller’s decisive assertion that the boat could easily be righted, I was less concerned about a capsize.
We were beginning to build our confidence. I returned home to report the event to Embry with great enthusiasm. She seemed delighted to see me in such a good mood and agreed with some temerity to crew for me next time.
“Well, you know, next Sunday is Father’s Day, and I was kind of hoping…”
Embry agreed that as my Father’s Day gift we would go sailing. We even decided to make a big deal of it and invite friends to go with us with their four-year-old girl. We could share babysitting with some people picnicking while the others sailed. Because the marina was so uninviting, we decided to trailer the boat to Pohick Bay, down the Potomac River about 30 miles, where there was supposed to be a nice regional park and a boat launching area.
When we woke up that morning and saw that the day was gray and drizzly, I suppose we should have cancelled; but when you go to a lot of trouble to make a picnic and invite people, that is hard to do. Besides the weather could always improve.
We all packed in our beat-up, old station wagon—four adults and two four-year-olds—and headed for the marina.
As we attached the trailer to the car, Embry asked me if I wasn’t supposed to hook up the trailer lights. I shrugged since the wires on the trailer lights were frayed and were not long enough to reach my car. Even if they had been long enough, I had no idea what to hook them onto.
The ride out highway Route One was gloomy. I noticed that most of the other cars had their headlights turned on. I dared not turn on ours since it would be obvious to any policeman that I had no trailer lights. I also tried to use my handbrake instead of my regular brake, another ingenious scheme designed to disguise the trailer light problem. It must have worked since we passed two policemen unnoticed.
As last we were at Pohick Bay. The park was spacious and clean and, like most national parks, had that Smokey-the-Bear feel about it.
There was a small platoon of rangers at the shore assisting people putting their boats in the water, and several state police as well, checking boat registrations. Of course, it did not occur to me that that was what they were doing until we had all piled out of the car and were ready to put the boat in the water.
A burly, state highway patrolman angled over to me chewing a cigar out of the side of his mouth. He was weighted down with so much paraphernalia that it seemed any smaller man would have been unable to walk.
“Thanks,” I said smiling, “but I think we are doing fine. We don’t need any help.”
“All right,” he sighed in an I-hate-to-do-this-to-you tone. “Boat trailer inspection sticker.”
“Boat trailer what?”
“Boat trailer inspection sticker.”
I instinctively pulled out my wallet.
“It’s not in your wallet. If you’ve got one, it is supposed to be on your trailer. In Virginia every year you’ve got to have your boat trailer inspected.”
I began feverishly examining the trailer for a sticker. On the other side of the boat trailer, I heard Embry shout,“Hey, I found it, but I’m not sure it’s current.”
“Wonderful,” said the cop, who walked over to Embry and inspected the sticker, frowning. “The trailer hasn’t been inspected for over 10 years.”
“Okay,” he continued, pulling out a pad. “Let’s see your trailer registration, your certificate of ownership, and your boat registration.”
“Good God,” said the cop shaking his head in disbelief. “You don’t have these either?” He put his pad back in his pocket and slowly began walking around the boat, scrutinizing every detail. When he got to the rear of the car, he reached down and picked up the wires which were dangling from the taillight. I could see myself getting 20 years for this.
He ran his fingers across the frayed wires, then stood up and slowly walked over to me.
There was a long pause during which time the big man stared at me, then at Embry. Our small children looked quite pathetic, huddled under a tree with the other couple, trying to keep out of the rain. My old, beat-up car pulling an old beat-up trailer. All of us shivering in the drizzle. We must have been a sad sight. Steinbeck’s Oakies came to mind.
The cop let out a long sigh, then scratched his head. “Let me see your driver’s license,” he finally said.
“Oh, yes sir, yes sir,” I said enthusiastically. “I’ve got one.”
He looked at the license, then shook his head.
“Okay,” he said, “go on,”
“Yeah,” he said, sighing. “Go on sailing. You know, I’ve been inspecting boats here for over 10 years, and I have never seen anything like this. Never mind, I don’t want to go into it. It’s Father’s Day. You’ve got a picnic. Hell, it’s raining. I don’t even want to go into what I could do to you. It’s Father’s Day, just get that so called ‘boat’ in the water as fast as you can and park your trailer way out of the way somewhere where nobody can see it.”
He paused, then lowered his tone to convey the gravity of the situation. “And for God’s sake, don’t ever, I mean ever, come here again.”
“Thank God for Father’s Day!” I exclaimed. “Now let’s go sailing!”
We got the boat rigged and in the water in record time and dragged the trailer way off in the woods. We decided that Embry and I would sail first.
The sail started off well. Just as we got the boat in the water a gentle breeze picked up, and as we glided across the water, and the rain began to let up.
“Hey, this isn’t so bad,” said Embry.
“Once you got to sail it, I knew you’d like it,” I said.
I held the tiller for about the first 30 minutes, tacking back and forth in the pleasant bay. The rain had completely stopped, and the clouds were lifting. It was actually turning out to be a rather nice day.
“Do you think I could take the tiller?” Embry asked.
“Sure,” I said, smiling, “You take it.” Changing positions in this small boat was always a delicate operation, but we managed to do it. I felt very proud that I had a pregnant wife so adventuresome.
The wind was still gentle, though I did notice that its direction suddenly shifted at about the time we switched positions. I thought nothing about it and closed my eyes feeling the wind blow across my face and hearing the gentle lapping of waves against the hull.
“Now this is living!” I exclaimed.
When I opened my eyes, I noticed that the wind was beginning to pick up. I could feel the surge of power as the boat responded instantly.
“Hey,” I said, “How about that! We are starting to plane.”
“I am getting a little nervous,”said Embry. The boat is awfully tipsy.”
I realized that the wind was really beginning to pick up and with each gust felt the boat tip perilously close to a capsize. I leaned out as far over the side as I could to try to balance the boat. Now would be the time to use the trapeze and hang out over the water like I had seen in the photo, but I had left the harness back on shore.
“Joe,” she said with a hint of panic in her voice, “I think you should take the tiller.”
Another problem with a five-o-five is that if there is very much wind, it is very difficult to change positions without capsizing. Taking the tiller would risk capsizing.
The wind was still building. White caps were becoming frequent, and I heard myself shouting orders. “Do this, do that, lean over,” and so on.
“I’m doing the best I can, Joe. Please quit telling me to watch out. That doesn’t help at all.”
I knew that she was doing something wrong because the boat was not steering right. Now white caps were everywhere. I could see other small sailboats heeled over and heading for shore. The only reason that we were still afloat was because the wind was pretty much behind us. But the boat still was weaving and lurching.
Suddenly, I felt a lurch as the boat veered around directly into the wind. We came within a hair of capsizing as I instinctively threw myself to the center of the boat.
Embry was already lying on the bottom of the boat herself, holding the tiller in her hand. It had broken off from the rudder at its base, and she was waving it in the air like a baseball bat, trying to regain her balance.
I noticed that the wind was now directly behind us. I realized that we were still afloat and by sheer luck–Providence? — the boat launch area was directly downwind about a half mile. I suddenly felt relieved.
I climbed over Embry who was trying to pull herself up, released all the ropes and grabbed a canoe paddle we had brought along in case the wind died. The wind was blowing us exactly where we wanted to go. The canoe paddle, which I held over the stern like a rudder, helped steer us, and within 15 minutes we landed at the launch area.
However, the damage had been done. Not so much to the boat. The tiller could be repaired, though sailing was over for that day. To Embry. We said few words as we drove home.
The next day at the office I sulked. I mainly just sat at my desk staring at the sailing calendar on the wall, wondering what I should do next. McDonald was out consulting somewhere, so I couldn’t talk to him. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that this minor accident could have happened to anyone on any boat. My spirits slowly began to rise. The next day when McDonald got back and I told him of the incident, my optimism was confirmed. In his typical good-natured way, McDonald said simply, “No problem. Just fix the tiller.”
So I fixed the tiller—thanks to super glue and an ingenious supporting brace which I rigged up. Two weeks later the boat was ready to sail again.
During this period I had deliberately avoided any mention of sailing to Embry. About the time the tiller was fixed, McDonald went away for summer vacation, so the five-o-five was just sitting at the marina, collecting dust, restless, and eager to be sailed.
Two more weeks passed. I was burning with desire to try another sail. I had vivid memories of the euphoria I experienced just before the wind picked up and the tiller broke. If only the tiller had held up, Embry would have loved sailing, and I would not be going through such agony.
Finally, the opportunity came. It was the Fourth of July, and the day was sparkling. As soon as I woke up, I immediately called the weather lady—a neurotic daily, pre internet habit I had developed soon after purchasing the boat. The recording was music to my ears: “Sunny, highs in the mid to upper seventies, low humidity, with southerly breezes at 10-15 mph.” It was too good to be true.
I got up my nerve at the breakfast table, “I am very, very sorry, as you know, about what happened on the Father’s Day sail. I realize it was not your fault. Do you think…”
“Well,” she smiled, “it is a pretty day.”
I gave her a hug and a kiss and raced down the basement stairs to get the sails. Today would be different. I could feel it. The smell in the air, the gentle breeze, the warm sun, and birds singing. Everything was perfect.
Quickly the plans were set. We would make another big day of it. We asked our friend, Naomi, an old friend from graduate school, if she wanted to go with us. Having heard about how fast the boat was and being a sailor herself, she enthusiastically accepted. We also made complicated arrangements with two other couples, who would join us around five o’clock at another marina up the river toward Washington where we would enjoy a picnic and watch the fireworks across the river at the Washington Monument. The idea was that the three of us would sail from the yacht basin, then sail back and put the boat back up on land and drive the few miles to the park next to another marina where we would rendezvous with the others. By noon all the details had been worked out, the picnic fixed, and by one o’clock we were at the Old Dominion Yacht Basin ready to put the boat in the water.
The Fourth of July is always a big day on the Potomac River. This Fourth of July—because of the perfect sailing conditions—was more active than usual. Today everybody was outside. There was a long line of people waiting at the ramp to put their small sailboats in the water. People staying in the marina were sitting in the cockpits of their boats drinking beer, listening to music, laughing and chatting with friends. It was a festive atmosphere—with music from hundreds of portable radios blending in one great symphony, with colorful pennants and white sails everywhere.
Out on the Potomac River two major regattas were in progress, with clusters of white sails sparring for a place at the starting line and other boats racing downwind behind colorful spinnakers. Motorboats of all sizes and shapes picked their way through the racers.
Shortly after two o’clock our boat was in the water, and we were on our way. The wind held steady at 10-12 knots, just enough for the five-o-five to plane nicely on a reach and not too much to make us nervous. To be on the safe side, this time I was at the helm the whole time. Besides, Embry was somewhat awkward, being a few months pregnant. Even Naomi was impressed—the proud co-owner of what she described as an Olympic keelboat racer, which she had sailed when living in Chicago. We all had the distinct feeling we were the fastest boat on the river.
We sailed for almost three hours. On the way into the marina I casually commented, “Well, at long last, a perfect day and a perfect sail.”
“Okay, crew,” I said. “Getting in is a little tricky. It is very important that you pull the sail down just as we come into the wind. When I give the command, down with the mainsail.”
I was really beginning to get the feel of sailing the boat and was particularly pleased with my sense of timing as we came into the marina—a rather delicate maneuver. This time we did everything right. We were in the perfect position to drift right into the ramp area once our sail was down. Naomi had volunteered to lower the sail.
“Down with the main!” I commanded.
“Naomi, quick. I said, ‘Down with the main.’ Pull it down!”
Still nothing happened.
“Down with the main, please!” The wind was beginning to push us back. Our boat direction changed, and suddenly, the wind was in the sail again. We were skimming through the water—away from the marina.
“Naomi, what t is going on?”
“I don’t know,” Naomi said. “It just won’t come down.”
“Let me try it,” I said as cheerfully as I could as Naomi and I switched positions.
Naomi brought the bow into the wind as I released the main halyard and gave a strong tug on the mainsail. The sail budged about six inches. We repeated this maneuver several times and succeeded in getting the mainsail about a fourth of the way down. I suddenly noticed that during all these maneuvers to try to lower the main, we had lost considerable ground on the marina. We were now downwind some 50 yards and in order to make a landing would have to sail upwind. To sail upwind we would have to raise the mainsail again.
I informed everyone of my plan and then gave a strong tug on the halyard to pull up the main. Nothing happened. The sail was stuck. With every second that passed we were being blown further downwind—upriver in the direction of Washington and away from where we wanted to go.
“Okay,” I hollered to Naomi, “Let’s try to get to shore the best way we can.” Naomi angled us over to shore with the wind off our beam as we limped along, like a wounded bird, toward the closest dock we could get to. In a matter of only two or three minutes the boat lurched up against a large, gooey piling. I tossed the line around the piling and held on tight.
“Okay,” I said with confidence, “No problem, no problem at all. No need to worry.” We were close to where we wanted to go—no more than 100 yards away. The problem was we were downwind. We were almost close enough for someone to throw us a rope and drag us to the pullout area.
I examined quickly the various alternatives. Since the sail wouldn’t budge, we couldn’t sail the boat the 100 yards we needed to get to the boat ramp. It was too windy and too strong a current to paddle. Because of the configuration of the pilings, we couldn’t walk the boat back. The only solution would be to get someone in a motorboat to pull us the 100 yards upwind to the marina. With all the boats in the water today, this should not be a problem.
We first tried to flag down a boat; but when this proved futile after 15 minutes, Naomi volunteered to scale up the piling and walk around to the marina and persuade someone to tow us. Though scaling the piling was a challenge, Naomi managed the feat easily.
We were beginning to get a little worried after waiting about thirty minutes since we were due to meet our friends at the other marina—about two miles away—in less than an hour.
“Here she comes!” exclaimed Embry. Emerging out of the marina was a huge houseboat-type craft—about 40 feet long, with a flat hull and a two-story cabin. “It’s a house-trailer on a barge!” I commented. We could see Naomi standing near the bow. At least a dozen people were on deck, drinking and laughing. Disco music blared out from the cabin. The skipper, standing beside Naomi, wore sunglasses, a flowery Hawaiian sports shirt with the top unbuttoned to show his thick hairy chest. He was bald and fat and had a drink in his hand.
As the boat approached, more people poured out of the cabin. Most of the people were in their late 40’s or 50’s. The men wore Bermuda shorts, shirts like the captain’s, and they all seemed to have skinny legs and large bellies. Most of the women were wearing bikinis and funny hats. Everyone had drinks; and as they came out of the cabin, they began to point at us.
Acknowledging that I had already become something of a sailing snob, I could not help thinking that these people represented the antithesis of everything that sailing had come to mean to me. I gritted my teeth and sucked in my pride. Couldn’t Naomi have gotten someone else, anyone else? I caught myself. After all, these people did come to help us. I should be thankful. No one else had volunteered.
The huge boat pulled up closer. The boat’s motor made such a thundering noise, and the music was so loud from inside the cabin, that I could barely hear the skipper shouting at us.
“I’m gonna throw you a line,” he shouted. “Don’t worry, we’ll pull you in.”
“Thanks,” I shouted back, but I doubted that he could hear me. As the gigantic craft swung around, I could see the name on the transom, “Big Tub.”
He pitched us a line. “I’ve got plenty of power,” he shouted. “You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Easy,” I shouted back. “Real easy. This boat’s tipsy, and my wife is pregnant.”
I secured the line to the bow. Embry sat in the stern and held the tiller. I draped myself partially in the cockpit, partially on the deck to be sure the tow line was properly secured. As the skipper of Big Tub maneuvered the craft, another man walked back to the stern. He had a short haircut and was wearing a Schlitz beer shirt, which said “Go for it.”
“Are you ready?” he shouted.
I could remember the times I used to water ski in high school when I would sit in the water behind a speedboat with my skis on and my friend who drove the boat would ask “are you ready” in the same tone. There was always that instant of anxiety between when I would nod my head, yes, and when I would feel the ropes jerk me out of the water. I felt that anxiety as I held tightly to the rope and looked up at the towering behemoth in front of us churning the water. All the people were now at the stern staring at us.
“Are you ready?” he called again.
“I nodded and swallowed hard. “Easy! Easy does it.” I called back as loud as I could.
“They’re ready, Ralph, pull ’em up!” he shouted to the skipper.
I had never been to Cape Kennedy, but I had seen space rockets liftoff on my TV and had heard the long thundering roar that occurs at zero countdown. The roar that came from Big Tub equaled in my mind the thunder of a space rocket liftoff.
It was over before we knew what had happened. For a moment we were yanked out of the water, just as I had been pulled up as a young water skier. The next moment we were both in the water. The five-o-five was on its side, and the remains of our picnic lunch were floating beside us—beer cans, sandwich wrappers, Styrofoam cooer, life cushions, paddle and all other loose contents of the boat.
I looked around to be sure that Embry was okay. She said she was. Luckily, we had on our life jackets. Then I realized we were sinking. So much for the life jackets, I thought.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I could hear myself saying to myself, treading water. “The boat will come right up. It’s designed to be easily righted.”
By this time Big Tub had circled around and was coming back toward us. I could see the expressions of surprise on the faces of the people. This time no one was laughing.
The skipper shouted, “Was that too fast?”
I nodded, “Yes, but It’s okay. The boat is self-righting. She’ll come right up, and we can try again.”
Naomi was pointing at Embry. All the women suddenly seemed particularly concerned. After conferring with Naomi and another woman, who I presumed was the skipper’s wife, the skipper hollered back, “Your wife, your wife! Hey, is she pregnant? Oh my goodness! Get her on board quick!” Someone tossed us a lifeline, and in a few moments, Embry was pulled up aboard Big Tub. All the women gathered around her to inspect her to be sure she was okay.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” she called back to me. Someone was offering her a drink.
The capsize occurred around four o’clock in the afternoon. At nine o’clock I was still in the water, having drifted more than three miles from the scene of the capsize.
I immediately found myself floating in mud and slime. Even the feel of the water was different. Images of the various pollution signs posted along the Potomac River came to mind warning people not to swim, and I had the distinct impression I was swimming in an open cesspool. God only knows what this would do to an unborn fetus, but at least Embry was now safely aboard Big Tub.
The skipper of Big Tub did the best he could. He and the dozen or so other people in this party watched as I tried desperately to right the boat. All you have to do is stand on the center board, my friend had told me. I did this immediately and finally succeeded in getting the boat upright. The problem was when the boat finally did get upright, it was almost submerged.
The next solution was to drag the boat into the marina. After all, we were only yards from where we wanted to go. We made several attempts, each time very slowly. However, with each tug the five-o-five simply rolled over with its mast going directly downward. On the third try, the mast lodged in the mud.
Big Tub gave up. The skipper called that he was taking Embry into shore and that he had radioed the Coast Guard for help. They should be here shortly.
That left me and the five-o-five, belly up, lodged in the Potomac River mud. It was about then that boaters started heading up the river toward Washington to jockey for the best viewing position for the grand fireworks display. I sat on the overturned hull and watched as boat after boat passed by. It reminded me of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Several boats circled around me pointing. One or two offered to help, and several assured me they were calling the Coast Guard.
Professional help finally came about a half hour later. All at once. From three different directions, three power boats converged. One boat was the Coast Guard and the other two were police boats—one a D.C. police boat, the other a Virginia police boat.
The Virginia police got to me first. Their boat was a Boston whaler, an outboard about 20 feet long. Two uniformed policemen were on board. One threw me a line as the other officer waved the other two bots away. “We’ve got it fellas, no sweat. We’ve got it under control.”
The other two police boats kept their distance but did not depart. The Virginia police boat stayed with me for about thirty minutes. After about three tugs, I heard a thump and a cracking sound and felt the mast come free from the mud. I could hear shouts and cheers from the other two boats, though by this time the Virginia police were thoroughly worn out and scowling. For some mysterious reason, just as they had freed the mast from the mud, they asked me to throw them back the line, gunned up their motor and roared off. “Got a more urgent emergency,” said the officer at the wheel,” We’ll be back.”
I could hear a shout from the Coast Guard vessel, which was considerably larger than the other two boats—a cruiser-type boat about 30 feet long with a small cabin and an inboard motor. “Okay, we’ve got it, D.C., You guys can leave. We’ve got it.” The Coast Guard pulled up beside me and tossed me a line. It was about this time that I realized I had drifted across the river to a point less than a couple of hundred yards from the giant Blue Plains sewer pipe that empties into the Potomac River.
“Those Virginia guys don’t know what they are doing,” called out the captain. “We’ll pull you out. Just get your boat upright, okay.” This I did with a great deal of effort. The Coast Guard boat then pulled up alongside me. The assistant asked me to hold my boat close to their boat as they handed me a very large suction tube. “Okay, hold this thing in your boat, and we’ll bail her out.” The assistant cranked up a machine, which sounded like a very loud lawn mower. I heard the tube slurp and watched as water gushed out the other end of the machine through another tube and into the Potomac.
I was not sure what they were planning to accomplish since by this time the sailboat was inches below the surface. They were taking water out of the Potomac on one side of their boat and putting it back in on the other. Since the machine was so loud, there was no way any of us could communicate during this futile exercise, which must have gone on for fifteen or twenty minutes. However, their effort was not totally futile because the gunwales of boat were now slightly above water.
Suddenly the noise stopped. The captain came over to the side of the boat. “Look,” he said, we’ve got an emergency call down the river. We’ve got to respond quick. We’ll be back.” They yanked in the tube, gunned up their motor and roared off.
The D.C. police then moved in only to depart after a few minutes to go to another emergency. For more than an hour I was on my own, floating alone in the Potomac River as boats of all types sailed or roared by, pointing at me, but not stopping. A strong wind from the south and a strong current caused by a rising tide were pushing me closer to the Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant, notorious for being in desperate need of repair.
Just as I was wondering if anyone would return, I saw a boat motoring fast, headed directly toward me. The DC Police had returned in their Boston Whaler.
“You still here?” asked one of the two men, a small, short man about 30 with slicked down hair. His partner was a little older, and somewhat larger, with a bushy mustache. Both were dressed in blue uniforms. I gathered the older guy with the mustache was the superior of the two since he immediately took charge.
“Okay, owner,” he said with authority, “Owner, on board, right now.” As they yanked me on board their boat, he pulled out a new life preserver, having observed that the preserver I had was useless. “Now, owner,” he said, “Let’s see your driver’s license and boat registration.”
I told him that I had lost both in the capsize though I had no idea about needing any boat registration.
“Okay, owner, I can understand that,” he replied, with a strong Southern accent, which I guessed was from West Virginia. “Now, we’re gonna pull you into shore. What I want you to do is to right the boat, then get back in with us. The problem is that your weight makes the boat flip over and capsize. Dumb ass Virginia police and Coast Guard don’t know what the hell they are doing.”
I jumped back into the river as directed.
“Watch the splash,” said the smaller one, scowling. “I don’t want to get my clothes wet. Do you have any idea how polluted this water is?”
After I managed to right the five-o-five with great difficulty, he shouted, “Owner, okay, now get back in our boat!” Since they did not have a ladder, the two men had to yank me up over the side again. As they did this, I gasped and flopped over the side of the deck onto the bottom, brushing against the foot of the smaller officer.
“For Chrissake,” he shouted. “Owner don’t get that filthy water on me! Watch the hell what you are doing.” He quickly dried the water marks off his pants and his shoes.
“Sorry,” I said.
The guy with the mustache went to the controls and put the boat in forward. Immediately the five-o-five rolled over and capsized again.
“Damn!” he said. “Owner, back in the water!”
I cannot remember now many times we went through this ritual. With great effort I would right the five-o-five. The two cops would yank me out of the water and into their boat. Some water would get on them, and the little guy would warn me not to let this happen again. As the boat would invariably turtle, I would hear the familiar command.
“I know,” I would say, “’Owner, in the water…’”
I seemed that this went on for hours. I completely lost track of time. I was so tired I could not think straight. I felt every muscle in my arms ache and finally had no energy at all as the cops yanked me for the umpteenth time, limp, out of the water.
In the middle of the ordeal the short cop put the boat in reverse instead of forward and backed over the mainsail, which immediately caught in the prop.
“Owner! In the water. Get that goddam sail off our prop!” I could feel the rips as I untangled the sail, which was wound around the boat’s prop. Two other times I had to untangle the tow rope from the prop when they ran over it.
As I observed the two men fumbling around trying to operate the boat, it became obvious that they seemed not to know what they were doing. I began to wonder if this was the first time they had seen sea duty.
The afternoon wore on. It was about this time that I became aware of how far we had drifted. Miraculously, we had drifted miles upriver, well past the sewer treatment plant, and were now only a few hundred yards from the marina where I presumed Embry and friends were—picnicking, waiting for the fireworks to begin. I felt as if I had been in the water for days.
The officers must be getting as exhausted as I was. They had been on the scene since about seven o’clock and with me for over an hour. And they were still at it. I could see the determination in their faces. Getting me to shore now represented the ultimate challenge. I recalled Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus as the boat righted only to capsize again.
“Owner, we’re sick of this shit,” the guy with the mustache said. “We’re going back. You get in the water and get rid of whatever you have to get rid of, so that this goddam piece of crap doesn’t turtle, you understand? Otherwise, we’re leaving the boat here.”
I got the picture. I made my last plunge, took a deep breath and underwater unscrewed every shackle I could find, surfacing only to breathe. I had had it myself. The hell with the sails, the mast, the boom and everything else. After a great deal of fumbling, yanking pins and unscrewing shackles, I could feel the mast and boom slip off. When I reported back to the cops that the mast was no longer attached to the hull, they jerked me up on board, one final time. Completely exhausted, I sat on the deck of the boat, dejected and unable to move.
“Owner,” said the short one with a smirk on this face, “You drink?”
I nodded, wondering why he was asking me.
“Thank God,” he said with a sigh of relief, as he opened the hatch and pulled out three beers. From the large number of discarded plastic six pack holders, I could tell that we were drinking the final six pack out of what at some point had started off as a case of beer. Suddenly their cumbersome and inept behavior became more understandable.
The cop with the mustache gave a sheepish grin. “Well, after all, it is the Fourth of July.”
Instantly, as I took a swig of beer I felt better, and the two officers perked up too, especially when they realized I did not disapprove of their drinking.
The tall one started up the motor and put the boat in forward. The five-o-five didn’t turtle. We all let out a cheer and motored toward shore, dragging a partially submerged hull. As we approached the sailing marina, the short officer said, “Finish up your beer. We’ve got to deep six the cans before we get there.” He pulled out an ice pick, poked holes in the empty cans and heaved them overboard.
Now the Washington Sailing Marina is not necessarily the best place to watch the Fourth of July fireworks display on the Washington Monument grounds, but it is certainly one of the best, especially if you’re going to combine sailing, picnicking and fireworks watching. Accordingly, every year hundreds—perhaps thousands—of sailors and boaters and their families gather there after a day of racing or cruising. Most people stop sailing around six, picnic until eight and are ready for the fireworks to start at nine. Except the fireworks don’t start until about nine-thirty. So from nine to nine-thirty there is usually a lull in the action. Kids are getting restless, and grown-ups are telling them “In a minute, in a minute.” In short, just about everybody is looking for something to do.
It was precisely at that time that we came cruising into the sailing marina—a police boat pulling a partially submerged hull. We immediately were the center of attention.
As we came closer to shore, I could see a large crowd of several hundred people gathering and pointing at us. The closer we got, the larger the crowd grew. Quickly, I devised a scheme to avoid further humiliation. As the boat pulled up to shore, I would jump out on the dock and join the crowd as just another spectator. No one would know the difference or who I was. Besides, the cops deserved all the glory anyway. They didn’t need me.
As we pulled up to the dock, I immediately jumped ashore, headed to the back of the pack, squeezing through the crowd, which was now about 20 people deep. “What happened?” people were saying. “Is everyone all right? What kind of boat is that? How did it happen?”
I inched my way to the back of the mob, next to a tall fellow wearing a baseball cap, who commented to his friend next to him, “That boat is a piece of junk. They should have let it sink. What kind of idiot would try to sail a boat like that?”
I commented that I agreed and no idea.
Just then I heard the familiar bellowing voice of the officer with the mustache. “Owner! Owner!”
I tried to ignore it as people began looking around. Somehow they figured out it was me, pointing at me. I slowly made my way forward, head bowed. The crowd parted to let me through. I heard several people say, “Look, there he is! There he is!”
I stood silently at the water’s edge.
“Owner! In the water. You’ve got to connect the bridle under the boat so that the hoist can pull it out of the water.”
I looked around. People continued staring at me, whispering.
A woman shouted, “He’s not going to jump in there!”
I looked around at the crowd, took a deep breath and did a swan dive into the water. When I came to the surface, people were applauding.
I did what I was ordered to do. I secured the bridle around the hull, then climbed back on shore and once again nudged my way to the back of the crowd. The older officer connected the hoist chain to the bridle and pushed the up button. As the boat slowly came out of the water, a hundred tiny streams of water came trickling out of the tiny holes and cracks in the hull. Someone not too far from me commented, “Looks like a goddam shower head.”
“Where are the mast and the sails?” someone else asked.
There was only a hull—no mast, no boom, no sail. A hull, full of holes. I presumed the mast and sail were resting peacefully at the bottom of the river. Good riddance, as far as I was concerned.
Just behind me, I heard another voice comment, “My God, it can’t be! That boat looks like a five-o-five!”
“Impossible,” said his friend.
Just then I heard someone shout, “Look! Look! There they are.” I made my way to the front of the crowd again in time to see the mainsail come out of the water. It—along with the mast, the boom and the jib—was still connected to the hull by one tiny wire which I had failed to disconnect. The mainsail was shredded into several pieces, but it was there.
Another burst of applause and cheers from the crowd.
Later in the evening after the boat was on land, I found Embry and my friends. They had finished supper but had saved some Kentucky Fried Chicken for me. After hearing the story, they were quite sympathetic. Embry gave me a reassuring smile. “Why don’t you just try to forget about the whole thing,” she said. I remained silent for the rest of the evening and have no recollection of seeing the fireworks.
The next day I described the event to McDonald, who had just returned from vacation. He had sailed in the boat exactly twice. I reassured him I would replace everything at my expense and would order a new mainsail and jib.
The following day I got sick. Really sick. Worse than the flue, certainly not a cold. High temperature. Chills. Diarrhea. Vomiting. I thought It was all over. At my young age of 33, a victim of Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant. After two days of hearing me complain, Embry insisted I call the doctor.
“Doctor,” I explained in my weak voice, “I think I’m going to die.” I went into great detail about what had happened, my severe symptoms and the fact that I had spent over two hours swimming in the effluent of the Blue Plains Sewerage Treatment Plant. Before I could finish, he interrupted me.
“What kind of boat do you have?” he asked.
“What difference does that make?” I replied.”
“ Just answer me. The boat, what kind of boat?”
“No kidding. So you’re a five-o-five sailor are you? Is your boat competitive?”
“Competitive? For goodness sake, I spent two hours drinking the filthy Potomac River water. I feel like I am near death, and you’re asking me if my boat is competitive? I want to know what is wrong with me?”
He continued. “Do you sail much? Where do you keep your boat? Has this happened before? Are you experienced?”
There was a brief silence. Then his tone became more serious. “Jesus,” he said, “I’m a Flying Scott sailor myself and I sail on the Potomac regularly. I’ve always been afraid something like this might happen to me. I think I’ll move my boat to the Bay.”
Before he hung up, he managed to say in closing that what I had was probably one of the “bugs” going around. I could have picked it up anywhere. It could also be hepatitis, but probably wasn’t, and in any event, there wasn’t much you could do for hepatitis. His advice was to rest in bed.
Resting in bed gives you a chance to think, especially when you start to feel better. As I started to think, the more depressed I became. I did not know what to do. Some of the sailing moments had been spectacular, most a disaster. Owning a sailboat was like life itself, I thought, only more so: lots of ups and downs. Surprises and disappointments. Joys and sorrows. I did not want to part with what the boat promised: liberation from the bondage of day-to-day boredom, even transcendence. Yet the boat was in such bad shape, I did not see how it could ever be sailed again. In any event, Embry politely informed me that she was not happy about going out in that boat again. I could see her point.
My mind was made up for me when I took the boat to a sailboat repair shop which specialized in small sailboats. I had talked on the phone to the store’s owner, who had enthusiastically suggested that I trailer the boat to his shop. He said he was familiar with five-o-fives and would be honored to work on one. He was sure he could put the boat back in racing shape. “If I can’t do it, nobody can,” he told me with great pride.
After I brought the boat in and he had a chance to look at it, he scratched his head, then went into his back room and returned with an ice pick and a dollar bill. “Here,” he said, handing me the pick. “Use this ice pick here. Tape this dollar bill to the hull and then poke some holes in the hull and let this piece of shit sink to the bottom where she belongs.”
“Is that all you have to say?”
The next day McDonald and I decided to sell the boat. Strange as it may seem, the decision to sell the boat still was not an easy one. I had never gotten a chance to use the trapeze and hang out over the boat’s side, fully extended. I had never really tasted the transcendence I longed for. McDonald had never gotten a chance to even touch the tiller. We both still had the feeling that if we could just get the boat back in shape, maybe….
After work the next day we went out to the sailing marina where the remains of the craft lay in a pile beside a tree. One look and our decision was made. The boat had to go.
We agreed we would offer the boat for sale for $1,000 or “best offer,” and I would petition our friend who sold us the boat for a $200 refund. I confronted him head-on that afternoon asserting that his selling us the boat was a well-contrived plan, carefully designed to unload a piece of junk.
While he said he thought we were underpricing the boat, he apologetically agreed to give us a refund up to $200 if we could demonstrate that there was no market for the boat at $1,000.
The next weekend I posted the following ad, which appeared in The Washington Post, running for three days:
For Sale: 505. Hot-shot, 16-foot racing boat. Trapeze. Your ticket to freedom. $1,000 or best offer. Call 202-244-5942.
For two days the phone hardly stopped ringing. I had two distinct types of callers. The first type was what I had come refer to as the five-o-five groupies. The typical questions went something like this: “Who made the boat? What year? How many first places has it won?” And so on. Usually, they asked me about mysterious items I could not even pronounce, and always, always would ask, “Is the boat competitive?”
To each question—except the one about being competitive, which I refused to answer– I would respond simply, “I don’t know.”
The second type of caller was the novice: The father who wanted to buy a sailboat for his teenage son in hopes of keeping him from smoking dope or drag racing his car. The college student who thought he might like sailing and liked the sound of the ad. The young family thinking this might be a great bonding activity. Sadly, most of these callers were like McDonald and me—people who knew little if anything about sailing. They were simply looking for a small sailboat, any sailboat, and liked the price. On them I took great pity.
I gave interested callers directions to the boat’s location and advised them that the boat needed a little work.
Sunday late afternoon I started getting return calls from people who had seen the boat that morning. Without exception they were furious, claiming the ad was misleading. Most were angry that they had invested the time to see the boat. Two people threatened to report me to the police for false advertising. Though I did get one firm offer of $50, the price was an insult; and later in the day I called the newspaper to cancel the ad. However, I refused—as one caller demanded—to publish a public apology.
For two weeks nothing happened. Neither McDonald nor I said anything to each other about the boat. I think we were hoping the ordeal would just go away. The boat was still resting on the ground illegally at a marina where it did not belong anyway. (A cardboard poster on the boat read, “fire hazard.”) For all I cared, the boat could stay there.
Then one evening a couple of weeks later I got another call—this time from a graduate student, who said he was looking through old newspapers and wondered if I had sold the five-o-five yet.
“Look,” I warned, “the boat’s not competitive. It’s a piece of junk. Nobody wants it. I almost drowned in it. The tiller came off once. It’s got holes in its hull. The sails are shredded. It looks like shit. The hull is supposed to be white, but it’s all brown and gray and mangled. The boat’s been raced to death. All the ropes are tangled up, and I don’t know where they belong. The boat repair store told me I ought to sink it. You’ll just call me back, chew me out, and threaten to report me to the police for false advertising.”
There was a pause at the other end of the line. Then he said, “It sounds like exactly what I’m looking for!”
The tone of his voice was not sarcastic.
“You see, I build surf boards from scratch. I’m an expert in fiber glass. I’m looking for a challenge.”
Within an hour the caller had arrived—a tall, clean-cut young man, the sporty type. His girlfriend—a tall, shy blond—was with him. He followed me in his car as I drove out to show him the boat. I held my breath. When we got to the marina, he looked it over, chuckled, then said, “Well, she’s in worse shape than I thought she’d be in. But she’ll do. How does $300 sound?”
“Sold!” I almost embraced him on the spot.
He gave a sheepish grin, realizing, I think, that he had just performed a mission of mercy. I gave him the shredded sails, the worthless life jackets, the trapeze, harness and all items that were associated with the boat. I wanted nothing in my house to remind me of the five-o-five. He piled everything into his car, wrote me out a $300 check and departed. I never saw the five-o-five again.
Almost four years later, Embry and I were shopping for ice skates for our son, who was then seven years old and our daughter, who was almost four. A tall young man fitted the skates carefully and kept looking at me in a funny way. He looked vaguely familiar.
As I was standing at the cash register signing my credit card slip, he paused, and his face lit up. He stared me directly in the eye and said very slowly “five-o-five”.
“What?” I replied, startled.
“Five-o-five,” he said again. His eyes twinkled and he grinned broadly.
“Five-o-five? What do you mean?” I did not have the slightest idea what he was talking about.
“Five-o-five. About three years ago, you sold me a five-o-five!”
“Oh, that five-o-five.” I must have turned a deep red.
“Well, I warned you ahead of time. I told you it was hopeless. I apologize. If you want your money back, …. I am really sorry….”
“Sorry? Hey, I worked on her all summer and fall. Completely rebuilt the hull and sold her the next spring for $1,200! Understand now she’s real competitive.”