Boating is long periods of tranquility punctuated with moments of stark terror. In late 2003 or 2004, I was the senior adult leader in a Sea Scout Ship expedition and mate on Sea Scout Ship 24, Jolly Roger, the oldest active ship in the nation. (The earliest written record places it in operation by at least 1923.)
During this expedition, two adults and nine youths entered a Christmas Boat Parade in a 20-foot open lifeboat rigged as a schooner. That particular Christmas was cold—no fog or wind, just cold—with temperatures in the lower 40s. The youths rigged the boat with lights and installed a beautiful banner, and we coaxed a small generator (installed forward of the no. 3 rowing position) into operation. Jolly looked beautiful.
We launched as the sun dropped into the freezer and the temperatures headed the same way. Shortly afterward, one of the youths found the drain plug and installed it. After a few moments of bailing like mad, the bilge was no longer filled with water, just wet. We got the outboard started and warmed up (unlike the rest of us), and just before casting off, our last youth showed up wearing a strapless dress, heels, and a blanket for warmth. She had been a bridesmaid that afternoon but really wanted to join us. “Please, can I go?”
Common sense and good leadership be damned. “Sure, come aboard.”
As we motored across the lake to our appointed place in the parade lineup, the other mate and I realized that the parade was as well organized as the D-Day operation with directions just as complex. By flashlight, the other mate tried to figure where we were supposed to be, which boat to follow, who was behind us, and how close they were. We just hoped the judges were drunk and didn’t notice we were in the wrong slot.
When the outboard died as we throttled down to parade speed (dead slow), we quit worrying about our position. Either the carb’s low-speed jets were clogged; the engine was old, cold, and didn’t want to be there; or the fuel was a lot less fresh than we were. As a result, we moved at three times the speed of everyone else right up to the transom of the boat in front, took the outboard out of gear and floated around until the boat behind us got excited. Then, we kicked the outboard in gear, and the cycle continued.
This process worked well until we entered the channel leading to Galveston Bay and the outgoing tide began moving at a good clip.
At this point, all the pretty bright lights on the boat went dark. The generator had stopped, and the girl in the bridesmaid dress started screaming.
I’d like to tell you that this was all in a day’s work for a Sea Scout leader, but the screaming was unusual. Turning over the helm and outboard to the other mate, I hurried over to the generator and the screaming girl. The first thing I noticed was that the youth who had emptied the bilge had done a less-than-complete job. Next, I saw the girl’s blanket wrapped around the generator’s cooling fan. As the blanket wound around the fan blades, it tightened on the girl’s legs—hence the screaming.
As I lay in the bilge working to clear the fan, the boat slowly drifted toward the judging station and Galveston Bay, the navigation lights went out, and the outboard died its final death of the evening.
Ever resourceful, Sea Scouts always have a plan. A six-oared gig, Jolly has three oars to a side. Nothing for it but to row, row, row our boat. (Did I mention that it was cold?) The youths forgot everything they knew about rowing; they couldn’t even remember which end of the oar to put in the water. (Did I mention that the tide was carrying us out into the bay?) As the youths huddled together for warmth, their teeth chattered like castanets at a Spanish dance contest.
The truth is that people forget how cold works and how it impacts our ability to do anything. As we passed the last bridge pilings before the long, slow drift into Galveston Bay, I got a youth to grab the pilings; they couldn’t remember how to operate a rope, but they remembered how to hold on to something for dear life.
Sea Tow came by (maybe at the request of the Parade Commission, divine intervention, or a bored operator) and towed us back to the park launch ramp. We got the navigation lights operational again; I had kicked the connection off the battery as I lay in the bilge.
And so ended another exciting Sea Scout adventure, right? No such luck.
When we got back to the launch ramp well before everyone else, I offered the Sea Tow operator some hot coffee—he was cold and could do with a hot drink. As we put Jolly on its trailer, one of the youths ran up and told me that the bridesmaid had driven her mother’s car into the lake—with three other Scouts in it. As I hurried over, I noticed the Sea Tow operator quietly departing the dock. Coward.
The kids had been cold and started the car to run the heater. The car’s manual transmission had been left in gear. Naturally, it moved forward over the wooden beam and high-bottomed on the beam placed there to do exactly that. I wish I had a video of the kids getting out of the car at that moment; I bet they were moving faster than when we’d tried to row.
Once the boat was out of the water, we dropped the trailer (and chocked it to keep it in place), put a tow line on the car’s bumper and the truck’s trailer hitch, and pulled the car back on land.
By midnight I had the boat back in the barn and was home. I had learned a valuable lesson: Never ask what else can go wrong.
I may never forget that night, but I sure would like to.