Warren Miller: First launch of power boat, oh boy
Vail, CO, Colorado
“A journey in a boat is not a lineal experience on a given compass heading. Rather it is an experience involving the outer reaches of your psyche. A journey glued together by your own strength, daring, an urge to explore, mixed together with a very conscious fear of potential death by drowning.”
Notes from the inner reaches of the instinct for survival: This story is dredged up from unwritten notes lodged somewhere in my memory bank and is triggered by smells, motion, cold, rain, isolation, exploration, fear, whales, porpoises, a sturdy 20-foot runabout and a 175-horsepower outboard motor that ran most of the time.
For a $20 bill, Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes, Wash., launched our boat in 1986.
We gassed it ourselves and filled the water tanks. Our water tank was a six-gallon Gatorade jug, and our two ice chests took up more space than we did.
It had been a long trailer haul up from Marina Del Rey, in southern California.
At the dock, we unloaded what seemed like a thousand boxes and bags full of stuff for our first ever two-week cruise into the wilds of British Columbia, with stops all through the San Juan Islands.
As I gassed up and added too much pre-mix, I looked to the east and saw Mt. Baker through eyes that were not accustomed to the clear blue sky of the Northwest.
Mt. Baker was at least 30 miles away, but it seemed less than a mile from me. Its glaciers a mixture of wind-driven dirt and new avalanches, cutting ribbons of white down its volcanic sides.
Being new to power-boating in 1986, I assumed everyone took this much stuff with them when they cruised.
How was I to know that there were small villages and gas docks every 20 miles or so, wherever we were going?
There was even the occasional small lodge that would rent you a room with a sometimes lukewarm shower.
I signed the charge for the gas and premix and then knelt up on the driver’s seat to fire up the engine. The outboard spat and sputtered and finally roared into life, as they are sometimes known to do.
That one made a bigger racket than normal because I had forgotten to lower the propeller into the water.
Well, I also discovered that I had forgotten to put the drain plug in the bottom of the boat until the gas dock lady hollered: “You’re sinking by the stern.”
I had to crawl over the pile of gear for our trip, pull up the floor boards, replace the plug and stop the flow of muddy, oily water.
Once I did that, I could hear the hum of the bilge pump and the gurgle of the water going out of the boat instead of into it, and the outboard propeller was finally in the water.
Ten minutes later, Laurie cast off as I found reverse and discovered for the first time that power boats pivot around their propellers, not around the keel like the sailboats I had been steering for the last 20 years.
The captain of a brand new 28-foot Bayliner found out how little I knew when I rammed into his port side.
Luck was on his side, however, because the hole I punched in his boat was above the water line. He had about one hour more experience than I did in power boating.
Someone hollered from the dock, “Take it out of reverse, you klutz.” I did, but the boat instantly leapt forward 20 feet, hit the dock with the bow and catapulted Laurie onto the gas dock. Fortunately for both of us, she had the foresight to hang onto the bowline and we were sort of safe for the time being.
After many years of making mistakes in sailboats, I had a form made up by my attorney for situations just like that.
The form listed my insurance company, the name and fax number of my agent, his home and work phone number, the limits of liability of my policy, and the name of the law firm that represented me.
On the back of the form there was room for a diagram of the accident, and a place for witnesses to fill out what I had convinced them they had just seen.
Fortunately, the young kid on the Bayliner had on a life jacket because I hit their boat hard enough to knock him into the ice-cold, oily water of the harbor.
The father had a boat-hook handy and was already fishing him out of the water from between the four dead seagulls.
During that same time, I managed to convince his wife that it was their fault and she signed a release for me, while her mother-in-law was screaming from the public restroom that she had accidentally gotten locked in: “Don’t leave without me or I’ll make you trade that tub I just bought for you in for lawn furniture!”
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net
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