A few weeks ago, I decided to take the Betty Jane II out for a spin. Before hitting the trail, I did my regular due diligence. I checked the oil, transmission fluid and coolant levels in my Yanmar and cranked ‘er up. Then I switched on all my electronics, both topside and below, and briefly eyeballed the water sliding past Betty’s hulllside to gauge the tide. And then, with mounting excitement (still crazy after all these years, I’m afraid), I exercised all my steering and engine controls to make sure they were fully operational.
Probably, I did a few other things, too, but you get the idea. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that there’s a certain undercurrent of unpredictability to boating, despite all the fun and serenity it affords. And since unpredictability tends to manifest without warning, it’s always good to be prepared. You know, by dealing with all the things that can possibly go wrong before they actually haul off and do so.
What a morning it was—sunny, smooth, gorgeous! After I’d tossed off Betty’s lines and eased her out of her slip, I kicked back at the upper helm station and began hatching a plan. Maybe a trip upriver to Doctor’s Lake would be nice. Or a jaunt downriver to the port to watch the harbor pilots work. The possibilities were numerous and alluring.
But then—yikes! Just as I began turning from the fairway into the main channel, Betty’s steering wheel lost traction. Although I spun the darn thing around and around, the rudder seemed to have no effect—we just kept going straight. I throttled back, pulled the gear shift into neutral and made an enthusiastic descent to the lower helm station. Would the steering wheel work there? Nope!
“This,” I immediately opined to myself, “ain’t good.” Betty’s a single-engine inboard vessel, after all, and without an operational rudder she tends to morph into a rather large, heavy projectile.
To make matters worse, the tide was authoritative. It was now carrying Betty back toward the row of slips I’d just departed, where the prows of neighboring vessels lay arrayed like ducks in a shooting gallery. Visions of crunched fiberglass began flashing. A lump bubbled up in my throat.
Which brings me to the point I’d like to make about the preparedness theme I began with. Oh, I know. I know. Any number of authorities on boating safety will tell you that you have to do all kinds of stuff to prepare for any and all contingencies, whether they arise on the mechanical front, the electrical front, the navigational front or whatever. But let’s get real here.
Boating, like many another sporty activity, is at bottom a risky business. On any given day, there’s absolutely no way anybody, however careful, talented, earnest or prescient, can be totally prepared for everything.
But here’s the upbeat part. The riskiness, I think, is actually a good thing, primarily because it almost always involves challenge. And challenge, although it often feels a tad uncomfortable, is what puts the fizz in life, the salt in the chowder. Indeed, if taking Betty out for a ride didn’t occasionally engender a challenge or two, I’m afraid my life-long love affair with boats and boating would simply fade away without a sniffle.
Did I just mention feeling a tad uncomfortable? Well, just prior to going down for the third time in a sweaty sea of desperation (glub, glub, glub), I discovered that, by putting a near-infinite number of turns on Betty’s wheel, I could move her rudder slightly and thereby produce a faint change in direction. So, although the docking extravaganza that ensued came closer to an athletic event than a maneuvering exercise, I ultimately machinated Betty back into her slip without a scratch. And oh, the cause of the steering casualty? A bad hydraulic cylinder.