Copyright © 2019 Doctor Chuck Radis. All Rights Reserved
My friend Bud Perry once said to me, “You haven’t learned much until you sink your first boat.” His advice fell on deaf ears; at the time, I didn’t own a boat. My wife Sandi, knowing how absent minded I can be, didn’t want me to buy a boat. She reminded me that I regularly lose keys and wallets, my glasses and medical charts. If I bought a boat, would I run out of gas in the fog? Forget to charge the marine radio? Lose the navigational chart? Those sort of things. And there’s this: For 16 weeks of the year, Casco Bay is a boating paradise. For the other 36 weeks only the larger lobster boats and draggers, oil tankers, and the Casco Bay Lines ferry move about in the harbor.
Of course, that was before I found the perfect boat, one that was 15 years old but with an almost new engine. I emphasized to Sandi that it had high gunnels, meaning the side walls were high enough that even our spirited 3 y/o daughter couldn’t fall overboard. Better yet, the price was right and it came with a boat trailer. With visions of gunk-holing to the outer islands dancing in my head, I drove west from Portland to a farm in the western mountains of Maine. After cleaning out a case of empty Budweiser cans from the hull, the owner filled a garbage can with water and started the engine. It worked. Sold.
Bud Perry was a few days from discharge from the local rehabilitation hospital where he was recovering from the amputation of several toes. As I drove to the car ferry, I thought my boat might cheer him up. I pulled in to the front entrance. Upstairs, I learned that he was not pleased with the food, nursing care, pain management, orderlies, x-ray technicians, lab techs, or the administration. Legally blind and on dialysis, the man was a “difficult admission.” Nursing quickly agreed that it would be best for everyone if I took Bud outside for some fresh air.
I found a wheel-chair and rolled him through the automatic doors and stopped in front of the Sea-Whaler. He held up a hand to shield his eyes from the bright morning light. The dim outlines of the boat seemed to revive him. “Well, well, well. You’ve finally bought yourself a boat. What kind of engine?” He straightened himself up in the wheelchair and leaned forward.
“Mercury, 90 horse power. Two stroke. It’s only four years old,” I said.
Bud wheeled himself to the stern and ran a hand over the metallic outlines of the engine, working his way down to the lower unit. I knew I’d gotten a great deal and told him so. “Sixteen feet long, only $3,500 dollars. I’m heading from here to the public boat ramp and from there, out to Peaks.”
“The guy you bought it from rammed into something, bought a new propeller, but the prop is bent. You’re going to get a lot of vibration and that’s going to tear apart the lower unit.” He ran a hand over the stern and noticed a thin crack and ran a finger over the wound. “Probably when he did this. Fiberglass repair is piss poor.” He leaned forward and peered at the lettering one letter at a time. “Sea-Whaler. You bought a lake boat, a Sea-Whaler. Keep your life preserver on; you hit a ledge and this baby is going down like the Titanic, stern first.”
“So…you like the boat,” I joked. We both laughed.
“You could have done worse.”
In hopes of increasing Sandi’s comfort zone, I signed up for a Coast Guard water safety course. True, due to scheduling conflicts, I only made two of the classes, but I read the book and passed the test, conflating my false sense of confidence. That summer, our family motored around Casco Bay in Sakamo (from the first two letters of Sandi and our two children, Kate and Molly) whenever I could squeeze out an hour or two from my island medical practice. I learned how to read a navigational map, how to tie a bow-line to secure Sakamo to its mooring, and practiced “parking” on nearby docks until I could feather Sakamo in and safely load and unload passengers. I timed our trips to islands on an incoming tide so that we could safely beach Sakamo and explore abandoned forts and tunnels from the Civil War and World War ll. I paid attention to the weather.
True, one afternoon I received a call that Sakamo was drifting in the channel after somehow coming loose from its mooring. And I did run aground on a sand bar when I was heading up the bay to visit a whale in Lovell’s Cove with Kate. We were marooned on Little Chebeague Island with my friend Geoff and his son, Brian, until we refloated Sakamo 6 hours later. When we returned to Peaks Island, Sandi was waiting on the beach, arms crossed, absolutely livid. Motoring in, I explained to Kate that, sure, we hit the sand bar, but maybe she could tell mommy about the fun things we did on Little Chebeague. Instead she jumped off the boat and ran to Sandi crying, “Mommy, I fell off my seat and hit my head. This is the worst day of my life!”
In mid-September, I ran into a busy stretch with house calls, clinic days, and hospitalized patients. When I looked up it was October. Next weekend, I thought, I’ll pull the boat, next weekend. Then it was November and a rush of arctic air flowed down from the north. My phone rang early one morning and a worried neighbor suggested that I check out my boat.
I bundled up and went down to the beach. Rain was pitching out of the sky sideways. Shielding my eyes I made out the gray outline of my Sea-Whaler as the rain shifted to stinging sleet. Closer to shore, just beyond the shore break, a raft of eiders rode out the storm. A long line of cormorants flew by, their wings skimming the surface of the churning waves. My eyes tracked northward and southward, up and down Diamond Pass. There were no other boats on the water; they’d been pulled weeks ago.
Had I really been too busy to take the time to back my own trailer down the ramp and pull my boat? Yes, I’d been too busy. No, I hadn’t taken the time to do it anyway. Now I was paying the price. Visibility dropped as the sleet changed over to snow. I stepped closer to the edge of the surf line, up to my boot tops and watched my Sea-Whaler rock up and down on the mooring. A gray, white-capped wave lifted up the bow and sent it shuddering into a deep trough. Another wave rolled over the stern. The bow pointed skyward, like a forgetful finger. I blinked twice and the boat was gone.
It was time to go to work; clinic hours in 30 minutes. I dressed and cut through Snake Alley to the Island Health Center up Sterling Street.
Of course, directly ahead, was Bud Perry, perched on a stone wall. Over a red Mackinaw shirt, he wore an over-sized purple parka with a tunnel hood, insulated boots, and a pair of gray, woolen mittens, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing. I was almost by him, tip-toeing really, because he was absolutely the last man on Peaks Island I wanted to talk to. Leaning forward to get a better read of my silhouette he jabbed his lit pipe in my face, “Heard your boat sank.”
I looked at my watch. Thirty minutes had passed since Sakamo sank on its mooring.
“The wind’s supposed to flatten out tomorrow. If you call Dave Quimby, his boat, Speculation has enough power to muscle Sakamo off the bottom. He can tow you to a boat ramp in Portland and from there you can trailer it to one of the marinas. Seawater does a number on an engine, but flushing it out with fresh water might work. Doubtful, but it’s worth a try.”
I wrote down Dave’s number.
“Aren’t you glad I’m your first patient today?” Bud rolled up his pants leg and revealed a swollen knee. Bending down, I removed a glove and palpated the red, warm surface and decided it was either gout or an infection. It would need to be drained.
The day passed quickly. I tapped Bud’s knee and identified uric acid crystals under the microscope—gout, and injected it with methylprednisolone, a steroid. A secession of sore throats, coughs, headaches, and bad backs and shoulders kept me busy through the morning. I was fortunate that I had an albuterol aerosol mist on hand to treat a 3 y/o with an exacerbation of asthma and a supply of liquid prednisolone for a particularly severe drug reaction to amoxicillin in a preteen. At noon, I called Dave Quimby. There was a pause on the other end when I explained that my boat sank on its mooring a few hours ago before he chuckled and agreed to help.
The next morning, the wind backed off. By the time I boarded Dave Quimby’s sturdy dive boat, Speculation, the temperature had ticked up into the high 40’s. Over the hum of the diesel motor, Dave explained that if we were lucky, my mooring ball would still be on the surface with my bottom-dwelling Sea-Whaler attached. I sat despondently on a crate next to Dave’s diving gear, and fiddled with a length of chain.
Luckily, Sakamo was still attached to the mooring line. Dave dropped a grappling hook into the water and “fished” for my bow rail, explaining, “With any luck, I’ll catch your bow rail instead of the windshield.”
Ever the optimist, my friend Tux, who was on-board and had recently bought a boat of his own, whispered to me, “No way this works.”
Dave jiggled the grappling hook up and down. From time to time he declared that he felt the hook ‘scrape something.’ He was about to change into his diving gear, when the hook caught, and he cleated the heavy line to his stern. “Now’s the fun part,” Dave grinned. “I gun the engine, Sakamo slowly rises to the surface, water pours out, and we tow that baby to town.”
He slipped Speculation into gear and the metal work boat groaned forward. I imagined Sakamo on her resting plot. Was she bottom side up? Was Dave grinding my engine, my almost new 90 horse-power, bent prop Mercury, into the mud? Would she tear apart? Speculation picked up speed. The stern line played out. Dave turned round from the wheel house and shouted, “Here she comes!”
The surface churned as the windshield, then the bow-rail, gunnels, and lastly, the engine emerged, shedding water and mud. As we picked up speed, the boat came up on plane. I exhaled. Dave pointed Speculation towards Portland and we cracked open a celebratory beer. Unbelievable.
As we approached Portland, a marina truck backed down the public boat ramp, the trailer resting, half-submerged over the wheels. Dave lined up Speculation for the delivery. I gave a thumbs-up sign to the driver. As we slowed and made a gentle arc towards the ramp, the grappling hook shifted on the bow rail and Sakamo abruptly flipped like a mortally wounded whale. Then the boat disappeared. Only a dull, rainbow, oil sheen stained the surface, marking the second, deeper, burial site.
It was the lesson that kept on giving. Eventually, and it took the rest of the morning, we muscled the boat onto the marina trailer. Dave declared that Sakamo looked remarkably undamaged. A few days later, I took a call from the marina during clinic hours. The repair manager wanted me to know that they’d flushed the engine and managed to get it started. The boat was dinged up, would require considerable fiberglass work, but it was definitely fixable. He wanted me to know that they’d cleaned out a lot of mud when they removed the cowling from the engine. No guarantees on the engine. It might be dependable, but then again, rust might set in and, and, you know, it might conk out when you least expect it. Hard to predict.
“So what are you saying?” I asked.
“Well, between hauling your boat on a Sunday, flushing and trouble-shooting the engine, you’re seven hundred dollars into it already.”
I rubbed my temple and tapped a finger on a chart. Anne pushed a pen into my hand and asked me to sign a prescription. She whispered that I had a call from the hospital on the other line.
“Dr. Radis? You still there?”
“So we’ve got two options. We keep going; I can give you a better estimate next week, could be a couple thousand dollars for the repairs, or….. we keep the engine, give you back the boat, and call it a day. It’s a wash. Done.”
They kept the engine. I trailered Sakamo back to Peaks Island a few months later and sold her for $350 to a guy on the island who knew how to do fiberglass work. The next spring, I was boat-less and relaxing on the top deck of the Peaks Island ferry when I struck up a conversation with my neighbor the marine mechanic. He asked why I wasn’t commuting on my boat. I retold him the story. When I got to the part about the phone call from the repair manager, he, waved me off, and lowered his voice, “So we’ve got two options. We keep going, or we keep the engine and call it a day. It’s a wash.” He raised an eyebrow and said, “Am I right or am I right?”
I silently nodded.
“There’s never been a submerged engine that’s ever left that shop. It’s a racket. You know, there’s good money in used engines.”
Like Bud Perry said, I thought, “You haven’t learned much until you sink your first boat.”