Maybe it was because I was fresh from the commercial seafaring realm. Or, maybe it was because I wore a Navy-issue peacoat to work every day. But for whatever reason, in the early days of my marine magazine career, my boss, Bonnie O’Boyle, took me for the veritable son of King Neptune, a salty soul who was totally conversant with all things nautical. So, late one Friday afternoon, in February of 1988, she hit me with an ultra-challenging assignment.
On Saturday morning—which was only a few short hours away—I was to give a very well-known yacht designer and his wife a tour of New York City using a brand-new, 40-some-foot powerboat docked on the west side of Manhattan Island at Chelsea Piers Marina. Moreover, while spearheading this little junket, I was to thoroughly sea trial the vessel in the Hudson River, a task that in those days entailed splicing test-gear meters into the supply and return lines of one of the boat’s twin diesel engines.
“Ah, okay,” I said, ever true to my agreeable nature.
Somehow, my ol’ Datsun 210 station wagon made a successful Saturday run into the city from Connecticut loaded with me, two big Pelican cases of test gear and a bag of sandwiches. I had no charts (because there hadn’t been time to find any) and absolutely no local knowledge. The only thing I knew about the waters surrounding Manhattan was what I’d heard about Hell Gate, a total horror show apparently, seething with monstrous tidal forces and giant, standing waves, all presided over by the Devil himself.
The tour began problematically. Because I didn’t have the foreign-manufactured fittings to splice the test-gear meters, I was forced to make do with short lengths of garden hose I dug up at a hardware store many long, time-consuming blocks from the marina. And then, I got serious pushback when I asked for help with the throttles so I could check my test-gear hookup.
“No,” explained the designer quite dismissively, “I design boats—I don’t physically operate them.”
The next development was even more depressing. Once I’d cranked the engines, descended the ladder from the flybridge to the cockpit and jumped ashore to cast off our lines, the first whiff of the Evil One manifested. As I bent over to loosen the last mooring line, my glasses slid down my nose straight into the drink. Kerrrr-plunk!
Whaaaaa! I exclaimed. Minus my specs, I was a poster child for myopia. I stood there momentarily transfixed, blinking, then somberly re-attached the boat’s lines to the dock and went looking for a marina guy. The rake I came back with, which I desperately used to plumb the depths, canoe-paddling-style, failed. Lucifer, it seemed, was definitely firing things up. And he’d undoubtedly pour the coal to me at Hell Gate!
“Well, I can kinda see,” I apologized when we finally shoved off. I was trying to be a cheerful tour guide but squinting skeptically at skyscrapers was already giving me a headache. At noon, as we purred north up the Hudson toward the junction with the Harlem River, wherein I mistakenly feared Hell Gate was lurking, the designer deigned to take the wheel while I checked the engine room.
“Oh! No!” I yelped, upon looking in. Because the fuel running through it was super-hot, the garden hose on the return line I’d tapped into had softened, expanded to three times its original size and was now threatening to burst into a full-blown, U.S. Coast Guard-attended oil spill. With verve, I bolted for the flybridge to shut down the affected engine.
“We had a problem down there,” I calmly explained to my guests, “but don’t worry—everything’s okay.”
It’s hard to believe it now but this observation was accurate. In spite of my benighted, clueless condition, I managed to circumnavigate Manhattan without incident, slipping right past Hell Gate at slack tide, unawares! Ignorance is bliss, it’s often said. And that day, I’d say, Old Scratch was decidedly down with the concept.