The real trouble started the next morning. We'd spent the night docked stern-to behind the Rod 'N' Reel Restaurant in Chesapeake Beach, well short of Solomons. Chuck had taken some nourishment. In fact despite his lingering afflictions, he'd managed to down a dinner consisting of half a baked chicken, a pile of mashed potatoes, two scoops of vegetable medley, and a giant slab of pie. Then afterwards, in the comfort of the forward cabin, he'd slept like a log. Not me, though. I'd slept fitfully on a narrow settee in the saloon. The thrum of the heat cycle on Betty's air conditioning system had failed to nix the roar of Chuck's snoring. "You know," he observed, holding a cup of coffee aloft as I jumped back aboard (having just returned from a daybreak run to the local Food Lion for Alka-Seltzer, aspirin, cherry-flavored Pepto-Bismol, and other medications), "this is a weird-tastin' cup o' Joe."
Huh! I put my bag of goodies down, strode purposefully into the galley, and pulled out a cup. Damn! With selfless concern for my fellow man, I'd arisen early to make coffee for Chuck and me before leaving to pick up the stuff he'd said he needed. And what did I get? Complaints! I poured my cup full and gulped down half, burning my mouth. "Tastes fine to me," I said, although the stuff tasted the same as when I'd first tried it two hours before. Chuck strode purposefully to the galley faucet and ran the water—it was pinker than a flamingo! "Antifreeze," he yelped. "Well," I yelped back, instantly grasping that my dewinterization techniques at Duffy Creek had been a tad spotty, "at least it ain't green—the green stuff'll kill ya!"
It was the antifreeze, undoubtedly, that made both Chuck and me queasy while chugging down the bay to Crisfield, Maryland, and then over to Tangier Island, where we spent a couple of days weathered in amongst folks who drive golf carts instead of trucks and cars and speak an Elizabethan dialect that's virtually incomprehensible to outsiders. And just as undoubtedly it was the antifreeze that engendered Chuck's growing resistance to line-handling instructions from the bridge during tie-ups. Unless, of course, you count the fact that he's a single-minded ex-Marine, with seafaring experiences restricted to riverine adventures of the Vietnam era. "Throw the line, Chuck," I'd yell from on high. "Get closer, damn it," he'd shoot back.
Chuck loved the aircraft carriers we passed in Norfolk—I guess they reminded him of the bad old days. And he loved cruising down the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, an experience much enlivened by the conch-shell trumpeting of Deep Creek lockmaster Robert Peek. Indeed, for a while life onboard seemed to be improving immensely. Twice, when I offered to take the wheel in the canal, Chuck enthused, "No, I don't mind drivin', Bill. I like it." And as we pushed on into North Carolina, anchoring in piney creeks along the Alligator River and overnighting in peaceful spots like Elizabeth City, Bellhaven, and Hobuken, both his spirits and his health perked up.
But then calamity struck. It was Saturday evening, almost dark, and we were working our way toward Bucksport, South Carolina, home of the Bucksport Plantation Marina & Restaurant, a commendable place to chow down and spend the night. Betty Jane's VHF was sputtering tornado reports like there was no tomorrow, rain was pouring so hard we could hardly see through the windshield, lightning bolts were zigzagging, and, despite the comparative narrowness of the channel, the seas ahead of us were cresting at two feet, maybe more.
"Whatcha actin' so skittish about?" asked Chuck irritably. He was stalwartly trying to drive while I hung over his shoulder like a neurotic mother hen.
"I ain't actin' skittish," I responded.
"Chill Bill," Chuck ordered. "Chill."
The remark hit my self-righteous hot button. Chuck wasn't worrying enough about the dire circumstances we were in. He didn't fully appreciate what might happen if a twister descended upon us or if the warm lights of Bucksport didn't soon materialize. I cataloged Chuck's foibles resentfully—the buzz-saw snore, the desultory deckhanding, and the abrupt sneezing fits that continued to startle the livin' daylights out of me. Of course, stress played a role in this sorry exercise. Both Chuck and I were beat. We'd been on the water for days.
I sulked the rest of the way to Charleston. I hate to make such an admission, but there it is. And I sulked while we dock-carted our stuff off the boat and down the docks of Charleston City Marina. Chuck wasn't behaving the way I wanted him to. My vacation time was up. And I was going to have to abandon my beloved Betty Jane to unfamiliar circumstances, at least for a while. Tragic! Tragic! Tragic!
It was Chuck who finally crashed my pity party. Just as we were finishing loading up the rental car for the drive home, he said, "Bill, I wanna thank you, man. This was the best trip I ever took in my whole damn life."
The light of awareness dawned, albeit feebly. I could tell that Chuck truly meant what he was saying. And I could also envision him weeks before—ashen, feverish, herky-jerky—dragging an olive-drab duffle bag through the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia International Airport.
"Nope," I replied, "A friend in need's a friend indeed, Chuck. It's me that oughta be thankin' you, buddy!"
This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.