Just Another Way We Learn
I’ve always had a love for boats. I think it started when my best buddy in Grade school and myself dragged an old, rotted and wooden skiff out of the woods near the banks of the Tar River in Greenville.
Even though Tom Sawyer was just another book to be read at the time, Mark Twain must have known exactly what the historically strong attraction that young and adventurous boys have always had for boats. Especially boys who had the great fortune of being able to grow up near navigable Rivers, Lakes and Oceans.
The inevitable challenges that boating adventures (and mis-adventures) present to the young minds of boys are just too irresistible for those young minds and I suppose, go a long way toward building the all important self-confidence that would be needed later as they grew into young men and responsible people.
These early challenges and water borne activities may not ever had been experienced or had possibly been forgotten by our parents who, by this time in our growth years, were suspicious but nevertheless mostly unknowing of their offspring’s antics as long as the activities of said offspring didn’t turn life threatening. Besides, They were of “The Greatest Generation” and had much bigger fish to fry as family providers and survivors of a brutal World War.
The dangers and consequences of dragging an old wooden skiff out of the woods to experience a mid-summer, 20 mile trip downstream a narrow, muddy and mostly lazy river was never an issue in our 15 year old minds. Instead, it was the adventure of planning our own expeditions and the accompanying freedom from hot, sticky Summer tobacco jobs that madly drove us in our poorly planned, but (sometimes) successfully executed endeavors.
Of course, as every future Mariner should know, a “shakedown” cruise is absolutely necessary on any newly acquired watercraft and our wooden skiff was no exception. As I much later in life discovered, a shakedown cruise is a very important part of the boat ownership process.
Pushing off from the banks of the muddy Tar River for the first time, we quickly discovered that minor leaks were a part of the wooden boat experience. To remedy that, we made some cut up Clorox bottles to bail out the water if it got deeper than an inch in our vintage watercraft. We didn’t realize it at the time, but these plastic bottles were to be our introduction to the much more sophisticated version of the automatic electric bilge pump we would rely on in the far off upcoming future. Apparently, the saying that “there is no better bilge pump than a scared man with a bucket” still holds true to this day.
Soon after, on our second excursion, we realized that some sort of steering would be needed so we “borrowed” a couple of Cypress Garden water skis from a friend to use as oars or more accurately, as paddles. They did a fair job of keeping our bow pointed downstream but precise steering was yet to be learned as our paddling skills (like 15 yr. old male brains) were not yet quite developed.
The loss of steering control continues to this day, to be one of the most serious emergencies that can occur on any watercraft. The US Coast Guard regularly performs seaborne rescues just off our coast to vessels and Mariners who have lost this vital ability aboard their crafts. We learned this lesson early in our boating lives on the third of our Saturday shakedown series as we pushed to “sea” from our ancient home port on the Tar, known throughout history as Port Terminal.
Port Terminal occupies an important place in Tar River history as it served as a port and warehouse area for the shipping of timber, pine tar and other commodities produced in our area in the early Colonial days
The Tar River gets its name from North Carolina’s history as a naval stores colony, where the dense longleaf pine forests provided much of the tar, turpentine, and pitch needed for shipbuilding and transporting goods throughout the colonies and abroad. Like all coastal rivers, it is also due to this abundance of trees, and the tannins their leaves produce, combined with the stirring and movement of rich sediment during storms that the Tar River gets its brown color.
I can remember, it was a very hot, windless and lazy afternoon. Our afternoon float plan allowed for about an hour or two for fishing for Catfish and just general “skylarking” (a Navy term) as adolescent boys are so well at doing.
Drifting downstream on these shakedown cruises was always an open-ended thing. We never knew exactly where we would end up but were always careful to not stray too far from where we had set off from. The Tar had a swift current. And if not careful, our planned for “passage”, which was still in the planning stages, would get started before we were actually ready for the “Big Day”.
We knew that the Tar became the huge Pamlico River at Little Washington. We also knew that the Pamlico eventually flowed into the vast Pamlico Sound and eventually through Teach’s Hole Channel out into the Great Atlantic Ocean. Never mind the distance. We had already done this first leg (with our parent’s permission) floating along on truck inner tubes. (I won’t go into explaining what they were, just Google it)
As all 15 year old’s know, we believed we were up to any task and invincible. This was the lofty and overly ambitious route of our future plans and dreams. But we didn’t care. We would make it!
In the time that it would take to get all of this accomplished, we would somehow figure out how to explain how we got so far from home to our parents and they would happily come to get us and our gear in their early ’60’s station wagons. (Google again) The great experience would make all the whippings to our backsides and groundings worth it in the end.
It was on this day that we discovered how important steering was to a well found vessel.
The first sign of trouble was realizing that we had gotten caught mid-stream in the fast current. There had been recent thunderstorms which had brought an abundance of rain which in turn, caused high water and a very fast moving down stream current. We noted that it would be these conditions which would be to our advantage on the first leg of our passage to Little Washington, 20 miles down stream. We also agreed that finding a 16 yr old friend with a driver’s license and access to a car for a ride to get back to Greenville could wait until we got closer to the day of the start of our “circumnavigation”.
Rushing downstream without the aid of propulsion was thrilling. Steering was another matter. We soon found ourselves being pushed to the edges where giant trees overhung their branches into the high water caused by the recent rainstorms.
Unknown to us at the time, really big snakes and water moccasins loved to lay out and sun themselves on the lower branches where they could easily slip back into the water to escape predators or pursue prey.
As we were pushed under one of these leafy branches, the biggest Water Moccasin I’ve ever seen just fell down into our little skiff with us. It MUST have been 6 feet long! The snake dropped in and we all bailed out into the muddy, fast moving water.
We eventually managed to get the boat to a sandy bank where we pulled it from the water and overturned the craft to rid it of the unwanted passenger. We learned a valuable lesson that day that would last a lifetime. A vessel under control is much safer and especially more conducive to pleasant passage making.
Pondering what to do as part of our “great trip”, my lifelong buddy came up with the idea that we could “borrow” his Dad’s outboard motor from his garage to both provide propulsion and steering and would also give us the option of a method for our eventual return. This idea would take time to implement as proper planning for the opportune time to “borrow” it was instrumental to the plan’s success. A few week later, the right moment arrived and we all met down at the sandy beach where our vessel lay in wait for it’s final shakedown and excursion.
Initially, we had a little difficulty in getting the old Evinrude started but being the tinkerers we were, we soon had the old 2 cycle smoking and coughing her way back to life. We had placed it on the transom and were soon ready for shoving off. Thinking back, I believe there were 4 of us who boarded that day.
None of us considered that this day would be our last aboard the old wooden skiff.
We had really come to love our “find” and were even trying to come up with a name for her that all of us could agree on. She had previously provided us with crazy fun, lots of freedom, a new knowledge of watercraft and yes, a few scares which have all developed into one of the lifelong stories that long time friends always share and reminisce about decades later.
Shoving off from the beach in Neutral at a fast idle in a cloud of oil smoke and gasoline fumes, we were modern day versions of Tom Sawyer, Christopher Columbus and Robinson Crusoe. We were 10 feet tall, bulletproof and invisible. Until we kicked the little Evinrude down into gear.
Disregarding that the motor was at a much too high idle to go into gear properly and that our old wooden skiff did have a lot of rot in the transom, we dropped her into a grinding and loud bang forward gear which promptly destroyed the rotted wood on which she was mounted allowing the entire river to rush in and quickly sink our boat along with all of our carefully thought out plans of becoming the first Pitt County natives to successfully cross the Pamlico Sound to the Outer Banks in a 12 foot skiff. The poor motor also sank to the bottom but was eventually recovered albeit with much explanation.
It’s crazy, but we learned a lot with that little boat. Knowledge that has unbelievably lasted to this day. Shakedown cruises are important in that they will bring out most of the weak points in a vessel. Never go out without lifejackets and proper safety gear. Boats are always full of challenges, surprises and fun. And finally, as parents.. to never fully trust the judgements of a early teen.
Now that I am older, arguably wiser and a licensed captain, I still have that dream of cruising and passage making. I still enjoy the challenge of single handing my 38 foot sailboat “Brilliant Cut” in all kinds of weather. I can also see the lust for adventure, and sadly, a lack of knowledge and Common Sense and casual disregard for Safety in the eyes and actions of some new and some experienced boat owners. Being around the water everyday and delivering all kinds of boats provide a lot to observe.
In trying to understand some of the craziness I see on the water, I sometimes think that these folks never had the advantage of being raised close to water or the opportunity to learn from the irresponsible behavior that naturally comes with the freedom of adolescence. Most of us, if we are lucky, live through those times to understand that our actions come with consequences. Never as much as they do with time spent around water or boats. Unlike breathing, responsibility and knowledge is not a natural human trait. It must be taught and learned. Hopefully with as much a lack of pain as possible.
Boating is supposed to be fun and a rewarding part of life. As you go about your Boating fun this Summer, make sure you have the proper training and knowledge to safely enjoy one of the greatest pastimes our earth offers. Your life and the lives of those you love may depend upon it.
Fair Winds and Following Seas.