It seemed like an ordinary morning. As I walked toward the kitchen from my office, I shot a glance out at Ochlockonee Bay through the windows in the living room. It looked cold out there, cold enough to check the thermometer. Wow, I remember thinking, just 18 degrees—was snow in the offing? It still surprises this upstate New York transplant how wintry it gets in January in Northern Florida. And it’d been like that for three solid weeks.
Something out there caught my eye. I extracted my binoculars from their case to take a closer look: two guys in a kayak. “Hearty souls,” I told myself as I watched them cruise the edge of Grassy Island, a prime duck hunting spot. I remember wondering, wasn’t that kayak pretty small for two guys? I saw virtually no freeboard.
I put the binoculars down, proceeded into the kitchen, poured coffee and resolved to keep an eye peeled. Both guys had gray hair but neither, it seemed, had much common sense.
As soon as I returned to my office, my boss called from New York, a common occurrence that usually ate up a fair amount of time. Eventually, though, I headed back to the kitchen for more coffee, remembering on the way to take another turn at the binoculars. What I saw at first was a vast, sporty emptiness, with no kayak and no hunters. But, as I scanned more carefully, I picked up two bobbing black dots way out there—the hunters in the water, one waving, trying to signal.
Back then, I owned a 23-foot Steiger Craft which I kept in a boathouse at the end of our long dock. I called her the Scrumpy Vixen, a name that honored both her fast, feisty, sea-chomping personality as well as one of my one-time favorite beverages. Because the weather had been so grim and the tides so low for so long, I hadn’t run the Scrump’s 200-hp Optimax outboard for close to a battery-languishing month. So, while making for the boathouse, I had two questions—would the outboard crank under such frigid conditions and, if it did, would there even be enough water to get out of the slip?
I leapt into the Scrump’s cockpit, threw open her wheelhouse door, inserted the key and, after only a few rer-rer-rers, heard the Opti spring to life. “Wayda go, old girl,” I said, after I’d tossed off the lines and backed free, with only a touch of mud roiling up. Despite the 3-foot chop I was soon doing top speed—about 38 knots.
When I got to the two hunters, the larger one—who had to be at least 70 years old—was on the verge of drowning, mostly because he had no PFD and was wearing thick winter clothes. Because I figured he’d be too heavy for me to pull aboard by myself, I tossed him a flotation cushion and concentrated on the younger, smaller fellow, thinking if I got him aboard, he could then help me with his companion.
I nosed the Scrump into the wind. When my guy was alongside, I threw him a line and, with the outboard in neutral, pulled him around to the rear, where the outboard cutout offered a reduced lifting distance. Then, by grabbing hold of his coat near the shoulders, I gave a tremendous heave and hauled him in.
“Okay,” I yelled, pointing at his partner, “now him.”
Pulling the oldster aboard took all the strength the two of us could muster. The trip back to the dock was a blur. But at length, things returned to normal around the ol’ ranchero and the two hunters went warmly on their way, along with their kayak and a good bit of gear, all of which the Scrump and I had subsequently rounded up for them.
After sundown, it got really, really cold. Nevertheless, I headed out to the boathouse again, albeit in a leisurely, reflective way this time. And while the wind and seas had calmed, now and then a wavelet would wash through, causing the Scrump to steadfastly nod on her lines. I understood. She’d done everything I’d asked of her that day and, into the bargain, she’d saved two lives. The right boat at the right time? Oh yeah—for sure!