For about forty years now, I’ve been rigging. But in all that time I’ve only had one job, and that for just two days. By “job” I mean employed as part of a crew in someone else’s shop; all the rest of the time, out of obstinacy and/or ignorance, I’ve either worked by myself or hired my own crews. But one Winter, early on, I was out of work, out of money, and decided to sign on with a boatyard on Mount Desert Island, on the coast of Maine.
It was late March, and the yard was beginning to prep clients’ yachts for the brief, sweet sailing season Downeast. As the new guy, I was outranked by everyone else, and was paired with a relative veteran, who had been there for about two weeks. As I soon discovered, those two weeks comprised nearly all of his experience on the water. The first day we spent sorting and checking rigging on masts that were soon to be stepped. It was easy work.
On day two we were tasked with taking an inflatable about a mile to a sheltered little harbor, there to pick up a gorgeous Hinckley yawl. When we got to the inflatable my partner –we’ll call him Sam – claimed seniority, and took the helm. That was fine, but he soon displayed a peculiar driving style: he would gun the engine full throttle until he was about to run into something. Then he would throttle down to an idle, carefully make a course correction, and then gun it again. Full screaming throttle. Idle. Repeat. This went on until we idled up to our delivery.
The boat had just come through a complete overhaul. The rigging and mast were new, the plumbing, generator, and engine had been completely upgraded. So had the navigation gear. And the hull was a gorgeous, perfectly fair, utterly polished, midnight blue work of art. Since it was clear that Sam was not exactly a skilled driver, and especially because there was a bit of a breeze blowing directly into the harbor, I presumed to offer to drive the boat back to the yard.
“Uh-uh,” said Sam, “I’ll take it.”
A brief aside here. In the code of protocol among American males, Who Gets to Drive has historically played a dominant role. Riding Shotgun, while not without honor, is distinctly subsidiary, and only the implication that a firearm is involved makes it acceptable. I had deferred to Sam in the matter of the dinghy, because seniority is a powerful component of the same code. But it was clear that Sam knew essentially nothing about driving a boat, and that the one he now had the keys to was much larger, much more difficult to maneuver, and, especially much more expensive than what he had barely managed to arrive in. But, after a moment’s hesitation, I deferred to him, and set about dealing with fenders and mooring lines as he got under way.
It is important now to picture the harbor. It was a tiny little pocket of a thing, with the dock at its leeward end. The wind was beam-on to us as we left the dock. The harbor was crowded with boats (a mix of pleasure craft and fishing vessels), all on moorings. The shores were steep-to, with moorings right up to them. This meant that anyone leaving the dock had to turn smartly into the wind to get started, and then snake through a mooring field to get clear. Not a major feat for an experienced driver, but Sam wasn’t experienced. Sure enough, as soon as the lines were cast off he cranked the big wheel over, and, with the engine at idle, scraped his way off the dock. I was immediately and aerobically occupied with a roving fender, trying to preserve the gelcoat. Eventually we got clear, with the bow pointed out, at which point Sam opened the throttle all the way.
The trouble was all those other boats; they formed an overlapping barrier to our exit, several ranks deep, so that just as we got some serious way on we were in danger of ramming somebody. And sure enough, whenever a collision was imminent, Sam would drop the revs back to idle and crank the wheel over, looking for a lane. More running about with the fender, and a couple of bumps, but we got past the first rank. At which point Sam again gunned it, and again got us up to a fairly scary velocity, on a fairly collision-assured vector. By this time people on some of the other boats were beginning to shout, and to bring out fenders of their own. People on shore were beginning to come out of workshops and houses, to join in the shouting, to wave their arms, or just to stare in wonder. In brief respites between collisions, I shrugged dramatically, as if to say, “It’s not my fault.” This appeased no one.
We conducted a high-stakes game of pinball for the next few minutes, miraculously inflicting only cosmetic damage to our own boat or those of others. Several times I had the urge to drop my fender and force Sam away from the wheel. And several times I stayed with the fender. I am not proud of this; in the course of subsequent years I have concluded that many of the ills of the world are due to competent people who, out of a misplaced sense of etiquette, let incompetent people drive, in the various meanings of that term.
Anyway, there was at last only one mooring between us and freedom. On it was a Nova Scotia-built lobster boat, about thirty-five feet. It was not new, but it was handsome, and well-cared-for. It was on our port side. Two men that I took to be the crew stood on shore not far away, hands on hips. Sam narrowly missed a boat to starboard, but in doing so he pointed us right at the Novi boat. And gunned it. Much shouting, from shore, from other boats, and from me. Sam went to idle, turned sharply to port, and just cleared the bow of the lobster boat – but fouled on the mooring chain. At this point a combination of vessel inertia and wind, aided by a desperate mash on the accelerator, caused our lovely yawl to scrape its entire port side against that chain. I remember watching as the chain tore out all the port lifelines, and all of their stanchions, and exploded all the big round fenders that were hanging there. The sound of thousands of dollars of gelcoat being ground away was an apocalyptic accompaniment.
Suddenly we were in the clear. There was a lot of shouting and fist-shaking still going on, but the worst was over. Maybe a bit patronizingly I said, “How about if I drive?”. And to his credit, Sam said, “I screwed up, but I might as well take it the rest of the way. Besides, it should be easy now.”
There was something alarming about that last sentence, but once again I deferred, and we continued towards the dock that was our destination.
To be continued.