Old Boat Memories- an excerpt from “Living on the edge with Sara B” a sailing memoir on sale now at http://www.chimneybluff.com
We were pretty tired that hot sunny afternoon as we watched "Sara B" make a short overland journey via Travel Lift to the waiting welcoming water where she could at last take a long cool drink. These days not many boat owners recall the soaking up ritual associated with the spring launch of a wooden boat. The usual custom back before plastic hulls, was to wait a few days before going for a sail. This allowed the hull to sort of settle in and find its equilibrium after it became saturated. Smaller boats were simply left at a backwater dock to fill up. If all went according to plan, the boat would settle on the bottom and sit awash for a day or two. The owner would then bring a bucket down, evict the muskrats and snapping turtles and bail her out.
Larger boats like "Sara B", those that had inboard motors and wiring, had to be kept afloat during the soaking up process. One or two or even three sump pumps borrowed from friends, neighbors, your Mom's basement or the town fire department usually did the job. If you had a co-operative marina manager, as Sara B did, you would leave the boat parked on the marine railway in its cradle or supported in the lift slings for a day.
By 1980, when I became the owner of 23 foot cedar and oak "Ariel" with an inboard motor, the soaking up ritual was all but forgotten. Fiberglass was the rule, and once it was launched you were expected to get your boat out of the slip and out of the way. And even twenty years ago “We don't do wooden boats” was a far from uncommon marina policy. I had to make the best of it with the sump pumps and hope they would keep up. As part of my own launch ritual, I usually spent the first night afloat aboard the boat. I worried that someone might come along and disconnect the power. Usually within 24 hours I could unplug her long enough to move to our home dock, but the first few hours afloat were always nerve wracking. If it had been a warm dry spring, even two sump pumps barely kept up.
As we watched "Sara B" settle in for the start of her third season with us, I recalled the year Fred Cornwall, the owner of Pultneyville's harbor, acquired a huge forklift. It was designed to handle twenty foot shipping containers and though old and a bit cranky, the heavy brute was more than capable of launching a 25 foot motorboat. Fred knew about wooden boats. His family had owned an old gaffer built in the late 1800's, and he had learned to sail when everyone had a wooden boat. So Fred was sympathetic to the critical buoyancy issues of elderly woodies when first launched. He had no problem at all leaving Ariel supported in the slings to soak up over night. And he could launch her right beside her home dock.
The forklift mast wasn't high enough to get "Ariel's" keel clear of the aft cradle angle braces as she sat on the trailer. With the help of a friendly bystander we solved that problem by lifting just enough to get the weight off the cradle and then sliding it out forward from under the boat. Feeling rather pleased with ourselves at having solved that problem, the helpful bystander and I watched as Fred lowered "Ariel" into the calm waters of Salmon Creek on a mild spring afternoon. So far so good. This is great, I thought, having a peaceful place to launch right next to my dock. Much less hectic than the usual launch on Sodus Bay where I always had to get the boat rigged and her motor running so we could be off to Pultneyville within a day or two. I had the extension cord plugged in and ready. As soon as she wetted her keel, I connected the sump pump and jumped aboard to monitor the water level. Would one pump keep up? Or should I get the spare from the car? The water poured in and quickly rose to the float level of the pump which kicked on and kept up with ease. Fred adjusted the forks low enough for Ariel to float in the slings and then after seeing that I was satisfied bid us good bye and drove off home. Then the pump stopped. The water continued to pour in and rose over the floorboards with frightening speed as we wiggled the connection. The bystander hurried to the shed door to check the breakers. Locked! And Fred had the key. Another bystander who had come over to see if "Ariel" would stay afloat volunteered to drive down to Fred's house about a mile away. Meantime the water was lapping at the oil dipstick of Ariel's little two cylinder inboard. "Ariel" would not sink in the six foot deep creek, thanks to the slings. But the water appeared to be finding its level well above the oil dipstick. And the engine carburetor was less than a foot higher. Man, we'd better start bailing if we want to keep the water out of the engine block!
I grabbed the bucket and jumped down into the cabin where it was now up to my knees. We were going to need an oil change for sure. I scooped up some water and passed it up to the helpful bystander who dumped it. He then suggested we trade places as he figured he could bail faster than I could. We went at it as hard as we could passing buckets hand to hand and flinging the water over the side, but the water kept rising. My memory of events gets a little hazy, but I seem to recall, as my heart pounded and my arms began to ache, that a second helper and bucket arrived so that I was dumping for two bailers. We continued to lose ground. Where the heck was Fred and that key? Water slopped from buckets and puddled on "Ariel's" decks. Somehow as I reached for a full bucket, my foot slipped on the painted engine box top and I ended up going overboard. My first thought was Jeez how'd I get here as I went under. As I bobbed up to the surface my second thought was of surprise that the spring creek water runoff was so warm- not bad at all, I can tolerate this. I looked around for the boat and found myself treading water and gazing at the fixed grin of a dead cat floating a foot away. EEEUUU get me outa here!! I yelled. Don't swallow any water, somebody called. One of the helpers reached down off the boat and I grabbed his arm and he hauled me up. Then Fred's yellow convertible pulled in with the key. After things settled down I went home and got a change of clothes. I then returned to spend my customary first night after launch aboard the boat. As darkness gathered and spread from the shadows I blew out my kerosene reading light and settled into my bunk. The pump was now kicking on at twenty minute intervals. Ariel was soaking up. All was well with the world as I looked forward to one more season afloat with my “dear old vessel”. It was a quiet night with the music of distant spring frogs for a serenade as I drifted off to a dreamless sleep in safe harbor. A strange creaking crunching sound woke me. I lay staring into the dark. It repeated again, sounding a bit like twigs crushed underfoot. It was coming from overhead. Was some creature walking around on my boat's plywood cabin top? Must be a heavy son of a gun. Sounds like it's crunching the roof. With a jolt of panic followed by a feeling of horror I flung myself out of the bed. The forks! Two massive steel forks were positioned a few inches above and across my cabin top. Somehow they were pressing down against my boat. As soon as I got above deck I realized two regrettably timed events had occurred simultaneously. The forklift hydraulics had a slight leak allowing the forks to settle an inch or two. They now lay directly on the cabin. And I saw a slight movement of water in the creek beside us- upstream. Despite the calm night somewhere out on the lake a distant wind had set up a small seiche causing the water level in the creek to fluctuate just an inch or so, just enough to push my boat up against the inexorable steel forks. They now lay directly on the cabin slowly but surely crushing my boat....
To find out what happened next check out “ Living on the Edge With Sara B” available from www.chimneybluff.com- a great gift for those who enjoy old boats and schooner dreams!