By Michael G. D’Aversa
These days, most people know me as an avid touring motorcyclist. But long before I became a biker, I was a boater. Before I became a boater, I was just a guy who wanted a boat. All that changed on 4 July 1990 when I was thrust into the world of recreational boating by the makers of Royal Crown Cola.
It had been a typical Fourth of July in Bensenville, Illinois, where my wife and I lived at the time. While grilling outside, I’d been drinking copious amounts of Diet RC Cola. I’d been drinking Diet RC for weeks because of a contest the company had been running. Specially marked cases proclaimed, “Win A Boat Instantly!”
While doing dishes in my kitchen, I drained another can of Diet RC and was about to toss it into the trash when I remembered the contest. I stopped mid-toss, brought the empty can to my right eye and peered inside. The winning code was printed across the bottom.
I put the can down and stared straight ahead, stunned in disbelief. After taking a breath or two, I put the empty can back up to my right eye and looked again.
Karen looked at me as one might look at a deranged lunatic wielding a bloody machete. Ever so tentatively, she reached out, accepted the empty can, and held it up to one eye.
Heart racing, I realized how close I’d come to throwing a 17-foot Bayliner into the kitchen trash. Still dumbfounded by the whole thing, I stared at the winning can in my hand. I had to tell Karen. I began bellowing “Boat!” at the top of my lungs. That wasn’t what I’d meant to say or how I’d meant to say it, but that’s all that came out, again and again. “Boat! Boat!”
My poor wife scrambled into the kitchen at top speed. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
Still not able to say multisyllabic words, I held out the can and said, “Look!”
Karen looked at me as one might look at a deranged lunatic wielding a bloody machete. Ever so tentatively, she reached out, accepted the empty can, and held it up to one eye. Her other eye popped open when she realized what she was seeing. Seized by the same excitement, she began to yell at the top of her lungs, “Boat! Boat!” Eventually, we regained the gift of human speech, but that’s pretty much how it started.
Months later, we took possession of the craft. While at the dealership, no fewer than three people jokingly cautioned us about remembering to install the boat’s drain plug. The business manager, who collected the sales tax and gave us legal possession of our new boat, said, “Here’s all your documentation, here are your two keys, oh, and here is your drain plug.” She handed over a plastic bag with the little brass plug inside. “Don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!”
The young man who gave a crash course in what and where everything on the boat was, asked, “Did they give you the drain plug?” I nodded. “Good! Well, don’t forget to put it in. Ha!”
The guy who helped me hitch the trailer to the back of our tow vehicle, a 1980 AMC Eagle, called out as I got in the car, “Hey, you know the drain plug is out. Did they—” I held up the little plastic bag and waved it back and forth. “Ah, good! Now don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!”
I shook my head, smiling. Don’t forget to put the drain plug in …
What kind of an idiot did they take me for, anyway?
For our first outing, we hauled the boat to my in-laws’ place in Kenosha, Wisconsin, taking great pains to ensure that we had everything before leaving Bensenville. We’d bought a lot of essential equipment in preparation for our maiden voyage: life jackets, dock lines, anchor and rode, a chart of Lake Michigan, two-way marine radio, air horn, first-aid kit, and on and on and on. We also brought everything that came with the boat, like the ignition key, hitch lock key, operating manual, and—oh, yes—the drain plug, which I stuffed into my right front jeans pocket so I wouldn’t leave it behind.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at Kenosha Harbor and prepared to launch Sweet 17 for the first time. Having never launched a boat before, Karen and I were a little nervous, but we had gone over the process many times on our way up from Illinois. We worked as a team to ensure a smooth execution on the ramp. Right.
At the wheel trying hard to look cool, I backed the trailer into position on the ramp. Karen stood on the dock, signaling and calling out helpful directions. “A little left… A little more… Straighten out… Go right… No, right… No, your other right… Wait! Okay, pull forward and straighten out.” You get the idea.
After lining up relatively straight on the ramp, I set the parking brake and got out so we could make ready. We removed all the tie-downs, fastened the dock lines and fenders, and unhooked the bow eye safety chain. Karen took the dock lines and stepped onto the dock as I got back into the car and backed down the ramp—slowly, slowly, slowly, until the boat floated free and Karen drew in the lines. She stayed with the boat while I parked the tow vehicle.
That hadn’t been so bad! I drove toward the parking lot feeling proud.
I pulled into a parking space, shut off the car and got out. Being conscientious, I felt my right pocket for the car keys before shutting the door. When I slapped my hand against my leg, I felt that little brass drain plug.
Dale Earnhardt would have been proud of how fast I drove back toward the launch ramp.
Dale Earnhardt would have been proud of how fast I drove back toward the launch ramp. Waving frantically, Karen pulled on the dock lines for all she was worth as the back end of the boat sank lower and lower into the water. She didn’t even have to direct me as I backed down the ramp—not that she could have, anyway.
I put the back end of the trailer as far into the water as I dared, set the parking brake, and flew onto the dock to help her draw the boat forward. It took some doing to winch the boat onto the trailer, but we managed. With the bow eye chain safely in place, I hauled my boat, trailer, and quite a few gallons of Kenosha Harbor to the top of the ramp to let the incline and gravity drain the water out.
As we stood there, another couple pulled in on the opposite side of the dock. The man hopped out and began walking toward the parking area to retrieve his tow vehicle and trailer. He paused as he passed us, glanced at the water streaming out the back of the Sweet 17 and deduced, “Forgot to put the drain plug in, eh?” His tone was not the least bit unkind. He just looked at me knowingly and nodded, his gray hairs catching the sunlight as he did so. I felt a little better after that.
Once we had gotten everything relatively dry, we got out on Lake Michigan and had a wonderful time on the water. I felt rather skipper-like as we skimmed the waves, waving at other boaters and observing people on shore. Gulls flew overhead. The sun shined down upon us. Despite a challenging start, the day turned out to be good.
In the months and years that followed, I took a safe boating class offered by United States Power Squadrons, went on to join the Chicago Power Squadron, became instructor-qualified and began teaching sessions of the course. One year I even won an award for my teaching. My students always appreciated my stories for providing real-world examples of the principles they were learning, but my drain plug story always got the biggest laughs.
Michael G. D’Aversa lives with his wife and family in northern Illinois. He is an avid writer, motorcyclist and champion of domestic travel. Although no longer an active boater, Michael remains an enthusiastic fan of the hobby and USPS.