Christopher Columbus Day
Today is not only a Fall Break day for public school students–it’s also Columbus Day. But if you read non-state-school history books about this man, he might have done some questionable things in his travels.
No matter what you believe about this explorer, one thing I know for sure is that if Captain Columbus had been the master of an outboard-powered vessel and run into the issues I ran into on Friday’s wetland tour, he would have never reached land nor been able to do any evil deed there.
On that particular tour was a lovely family from Edmonton, Alberta. They had planned a fall vacation to New Orleans and parts beyond and had included a wetland tour with me. They were really looking forward to it, and so was I. At this very second, I’m wondering if I should tell you EXACTLY how the morning went?
Hm. I will. And you shall get a glimpse into my realities and see how fallible I really am.
I’m not sure what was going on in the cosmos Friday morning, but it wasn’t good for me. Of that I am very certain.
First, halfway to the camp to get the boat, I realized I had forgotten the beach towels to dry the seats with. Ordinarily, I would just get some from the camp, BUT (fortunately) there were customers in the camp, and I would not dare ask them for towels at 7 a.m. So, back home I went to get them and lost about ten minutes in doing so.
Towels in tow, I backed up to the trailer hitch, hooked everything up, but the locking pin on the trailer jack would not release. I’m out of spray lubricant, so I had to wrestle with it until it finally turned loose.
Once I made it to the launch, I unhooked the winch strap, and undid the two safety straps on the stern. I unlocked the engine and lowered it somewhat, preparing for launch. I tied the lead rope to the trailer post.
I backed down until the boat started to float off the trailer a little and realized I had not put the plugs in. Rookie mistake. So I pulled the boat out of the water, and of course, water poured out through the open drain holes.
I jumped out of the truck, put the plugs in, and backed down again. The trailer went deeper, and deeper, and deeper, but the dog-gone boat would not float away from the trailer. Why not?
Because for the FIRST TIME EVER in my history of boating, I forgot to unhook the metal safety chain (see above photo). It’s a back-up chain that keeps the boat hooked to the trailer post in case the winch-strap breaks or lets go.
At that point, I was in a pickle. The boat was free-floating off the trailer, but still attached by the chain that was now pulled taut. I climbed in the boat, cranked the engine and drove the boat up toward the roller, trying to figure out how I could lean down and unhook that chain with the engine in gear. But with the tide rising and the wind blowing the same direction, she slid back down, away from the trailer post once the engine was in neutral. The safety chain remained taut.
So, I climbed out of the boat, jumped back in the truck and pulled the trailer forward a little more, hoping the boat would sit down nicely on the trailer and the chain would get slack. No such luck. I stood, I looked, I pondered, I cogitated.
At this point, you’re thinking: Just hook the winch strap back on and crank it up, you dumb blond.
Well, it’s not advisable to “dry-crank” a fiberglass boat. The front of this hull already has stress cracks where a previous owner had done just that. But, I had no choice. I flipped the lever on the winch, let out the canvas strap, hooked it to the metal eye on the boat, and dry winched her up until I got enough slack in the metal safety chain to unhook it. Problem solved. Then, I unhooked the winch strap.
Before I got back in the truck, I stood there for a couple of minutes looking at the boat wondering what else I had forgotten and what else could possibly go wrong. Thinking of nothing, I backed her down, she floated off–I walked out, untied the rope from the trailer post, pulled her over to the dock, and tied her up.
And just as I was tying up, my son Danno showed up to get his wallet he had left in my truck the night before. If he had only been there ten minutes earlier, this whole fiasco could have been avoided. For some reason, Fate thought I needed this experience–one I hope to never repeat.
My guests were due at 9 a.m., but they called me around 9:05 to tell me it would be at least another 30 minutes before they arrived. So, I sat and waited. They called again, 30 minutes later. They had taken a wrong turn and would have to back track. All told, they were more than an hour late getting to me. It happens.
While I waited for them, the wind was picking up, getting so strong that I seriously doubted we would be able to cross Lake Decade to get to the swamp. Well, I would give them the best tour I could without going across the lake.
Once they arrived, we didn’t waste any time getting underway. My narrative started as soon as we left the dock. We idled along while I talked about where we were and how these wetlands were formed by the seasonal flooding of the Mississippi River over about 7,000 years–before it was leveed and dammed.
As I was talking and answering their questions, I noticed the engine was hesitating, like there was something caught in the propeller. My first thought was, “Please dont’ let it be a crab trap!” To my guests I said, “Hold that question. I have to try to backwash something out of the prop.” I put her in reverse, gave her some gas, put her in foward, gave her some throttle, but she continued to hesitate. I explained to them that I needed to check the propeller; but with that wind blowing 20 mph, I knew it had to be quick.
I killed the engine, raised it up, looked, but there was no foreign object in the propeller. I quickly lowered the engine down, cranked her up again, and she ran, sputtered, and died. Again–cranked, ran, sputtered, died. Several times. All the while, the wind was pushing us out of the channel and toward the bank.
Without power we were, in Coast Guard terms, “DEAD IN THE WATER”.
Without telling my guests what I was doing or why (there was no time for chit chat), I grabbed the closest anchor–my homemade Cajun anchor–and threw it down into the water as hard as I could. But the wind was blowing so hard from behind that the spear anchor could not get a purchase, the rope burning through my hands. While doing that, I asked Mr. P. to open the front hatch and get out the big Danforth anchor. Not knowing what that was, he could not find it.
I rushed to the front hatch, grabbed the Danforth, and threw it overboard, hoping it would catch the bottom quickly. I was in such a hurry to throw the anchor out, I failed to first tie the end to the cleat on the gunwhale. The wind was pushing the boat across the water with such force that I could not get a loop around the cleat on my side. So I yelled at my guest to tie the loose end quickly, all the while the rope was burning through my hands, too.
Fortunately, the anchor finally caught and my guest was able to tie off his end so we did not totally lose the anchor. Just as I turned to assess how far we had been blown, I noticed it looked like we were moving. Alas, the anchor did not hold fast.
I quickly grabbed the Cajun anchor and cast it down again with all my might into the muddy bottom, and Mrs. P. gasped when she realized we were only in about a foot of water. Somehow, we managed to get the Cajun anchor down far enough to hold, and there we sat.
Once anchored securely, I tried cranking the engine again. The engine would crank but would not stay running. I checked the fuel line, the air vent on the gas tank, the fuel filter–everything I knew to check. I thought it could not be the fuel pump, because if it were, then it would not start up at all. I felt the primer bulb, and it seemed to be firm enough. I pumped it up anyway, and again, she cranked but died. There was no way we were getting out of there under our own power.
Shortly, a small work boat approached, and I threw my arms up for help. They came right over, and I tossed them a rope. Their boat drew more water than mine, preventing them from pulling us out going forward. They untied the rope, swung their boat around, and re-tied our rope to their bow, and backed out of the mud in reverse.
The two large engines on the back of their boat were kicking up mud, as they struggled against the wind to get us out of there. Once they got our boat to the middle of the channel, they quickly untied, swung around, retied, and pulled us out going forward.
Back at the dock, Mr. Johnny (father of the dock owner), came out and helped me tie up the boat. After we thanked our saviors, Mr. Johnny got down in the boat with me and asked me what happened. I told him what the symptoms were and everything I had checked. He re-checked everything, but when he pressed on the primer bulb, he said it wasn’t “hard enough”.
After he pumped it up “hard enough”, he told me to crank it, and she cranked up and STAYED RUNNING. She idled there for a few minutes, with Mr. Johnny telling me the bulb had just lost its prime and that it should be fine now. I took a little spin in front of the dock, and she seemed to be running fine.
My guests hopped back on board and off we went to continue our wetland tour. Mr. Johnny said the fuel line had gotten “air locked”, so in order to get the air out, I told my guests to hold on while I ran 3/4 speed for about a quarter of a mile. By this time, the wind was so high there was absolutely no way we were crossing the lake. If the engine were to fail again, we would drift for miles before anyone would help us, and I just wasn’t up for that.
Playing it safe, I turned into a canal, and feeling confident with the engine running so smoothly, I continued the narrative under idle speed. We spent some time in Garfish Pond, watching Anhinga dive for fish and swim with their necks out of the water, looking very much like snakes; hence, the nickname “snake birds“.
Just as we left Garfish Pond and got into the canal, the engine hesitated. I reached down, pumped the primer bulb, and she ran smoothly again. This happened several more times before we reached the main channel; and with the lake too rough to head to the swamp, it was time to call this tour O V E R.
I pumped up the bulb again, turned into the wind, and headed back to the dock while praying that the engine would keep its prime and not leave us D E A D in the water again. An inner voice told me to run her at about half speed, and in so doing, I only had to prime the bulb one more time on the half-mile ride back to the landing.
As they say, “All’s well that ends well” and my guests declared they still had a good time. Even though they didn’t get to see the swamp, they saw osprey, bald eagles, great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, sea gulls, red-winged black birds, and a buzzard. They were happy.
They departed, saying they would come back another time.
I hope they do.
Thank goodness the motor ran long enough for me to get her back on the boat trailer; and once everything was hooked up and tied down, I drove her back to the camp and parked her. I then drove straight to the Yamaha place in town where I talked to a mechanic and purchased a new primer bulb. I drove back down to the boat and replaced the old one. With the water hose hooked up to the engine, she cranked right up, and ran well for about ten minutes. Not a sputter. Not one hesitation.
I won’t know if that really fixed the problem until I put her back in the water and run the engine under a true load. But Saturday and Sunday, the winds increased even more; and there was no way I was going to risk losing power and getting pushed against the bank again.
Today would be a good day to run her, and maybe I’ll do that later when Termite gets home from his overnight with friends–just in case I need an extra hand.
I hope you enjoyed this recount of a typical day in the life of a boat captain.