During my thirty years living on the waterfront of British Columbia, I have always had some sort of container in which to sit on the water. My first boat was a ten-foot dinghy that my late husband John Daly, a commercial salmon troller, equipped with a small electric motor to surprise me. He had the bizarre idea that I, a sometime canoeist from Ohio, could manoeuvre a boat on my own around our capacious Pacific coast harbour. The electric engine would be ideal for me, he thought. No rope to pull to start it up! No gasoline tank on board!
I was dumbfounded. I stood there thinking of how to tell him what a mistake he had made without hurting his feelings, while he ran up the hill to our Volvo station wagon, removed its battery and brought it down to the dock. He connected the battery to the motor, switched it on, and off we went.
We travelled slowly—we could have walked on land beside it faster—all six-feet-four of John and five feet of me in a boat the size of a bathtub. We were above the water line but the boat below us had more or less disappeared. We must have appeared to be riding along without support in a sitting position on the surface of the water, not exactly walking on water, in the biblical sense, but doing something close to it. We took one trip around our end of the harbour. After I steered us under the ramp of a neighbour’s dock instead of going around it—it was a tight squeeze and John had to bend almost double to avoid hitting his head—he said, “I think we have done enough boating for today.” The neat blue and white motor minus battery hangs on a post in the cellar, now a bright spot of memory.
That shallow dinghy became the only vessel on the property after John died. I had to sell his troller and I missed it, tied to our dock with its upright poles, which I could see swaying from my bedroom every morning when I woke up. But I also lived in terror of that forty-one-foot boat turning upside down at the dock or sinking, and I was relieved when it was sold.
I acquired the second boat by chance. I was going into the nearest town for groceries and my neighbour Sam Lamont asked me to stop at the sporting goods store and pick up a gas tank for his outboard motor. While I was waiting for the salesman to bring the tank I saw a sign: BOAT BARGAIN! ALUMINUM DINGHY COMPLETE WITH 9 HP OUTBOARD MOTOR AND OARS. I walked over in a trance and bought it, and became a true boat owner for the first time. To round things out, I purchased a navy blue cap with the word CAPTAIN in gold on the visor.
I was convinced immediately by consultants that the boat required a canvas cover to keep it from filling with rain and sinking at the dock. A legally blind friend was hired to make the cover and he stitched up a beautiful tight-fitting specimen that split after the first heavy rain and had to be discarded. He also soldered a heavy metal hook firmly into the seat at the stern to secure the now non-existent cover so it wouldn’t blow away. Whoever ran the boat had to sit on that seat to start the motor and to steer. Aluminum seats are a hard sit at best, and that large lump of heavy metal right in the middle added an excruciating touch. John and I had lived almost half the year on his troller, which he was fond of describing accurately as “the most uncomfortable fishing boat in British Columbia, no doubt about it.” Now I had graduated to the most uncomfortable dinghy, and there was no doubt about that either.
After I met my friend Frank, we began venturing out into the open waters of Georgia Strait in my shiny new vessel, Frank driving. It was so uncomfortable that when I had the chance, I acquired one-half of a sixteen-foot wooden dinghy with a nice broad beam and an ancient Viking outboard motor. My son Jay owned the other half, and we soon learned the true meaning of that old saw, “A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money.” Replacement parts for the aged Viking motor were unavailable. The new thirty-three-horsepower Force motor that succeeded it was supposed to be a bargain, but it cost more than my aluminum dinghy, motor and oars put together.
For the long-anticipated First Trip, I packed a delightful little lunch: two cans of beer for Frank, a V-8 for me, potato chips, the sliced green olive sandwiches for which I am famous, carrot sticks, two apples, a large sawed-off vinegar bottle for a bailer and two life preservers. Frank started the motor and we headed for the mouth of the harbour, a twenty-minute ride. We flew through the water, enjoying every minute of our new speedy freedom. Halfway there the new motor gave a gentle cough and stopped.
“Maybe we ran out of gas,” I said, looking around for the oars, which we had forgotten to bring.
Frank was busy connecting the motor to a second gas tank that I didn’t know we had. The motor started and we were away—for another hundred yards. Then we stopped again.
“Oh my goodness,” I exclaimed. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s nothing I hate more than these wretched outboard motors,” he said. “I’ve fooled around with enough of them to last a lifetime.” All the while he was prying open the lid to the motor and poking around with a pencil and a monkey wrench he had in his pocket. After half an hour in the hot sun, with the sweat dripping over his glasses from his gleaming bald head and several false starts and a volley of curses, he sat back and said, “Well, I guess we’d better row home.”
There was a pause. “We forgot the oars,” I said.
We sat for some while digesting this fact. Then Frank shifted in his seat and pulled a piece of string from his pocket. He fiddled around over the stern, his head in the motor. Suddenly the boat gave a little bounce. Putt-putt, it wheezed. “Hold your breath and hope we make it home,” Frank said. He turned the boat and very slowly we putt-putted back to our dock.
I never found out what Frank did with that piece of string to get us going. When I asked, all he said was, “I never go out without a piece of string in my pocket.”
A trip to the boat doctor and new coats of paint: a lovely salmon pink on the inside of the hull, sky blue on the outside. There were more trips to the boat doctor—so many that I added my cellphone to the essential equipment, like life preservers, that we took with us. On one memorable trip the heavy metal throttle broke away from its wooden holder and landed in Frank’s lap. Without stopping, he continued to steer us home, from his lap. Twice we were towed to our dock by Frank’s son, and once by my angelic next-door neighbours, who watch for us nervously whenever they think it’s time we came home.
We flew with the wind to all the hidden areas we could safely reach on two tanks of gas. We explored little caves and petroglyphs on the rocks, and because our boat was so small we could run right up to anything that made us curious. We ran rapids, circumnavigated islands and visited the bay where Frank had brought his young family and logged many years ago. We dropped in at an oyster farm for fresh oysters, which we opened and ate as an appetizer to our picnic while we bobbed gently at anchor in a cove. Eventually we made longer day trips, stopping at a marina halfway along to refill both gas tanks so that we could go twice as far. Once, on a very low tide, we noticed submerged rocks that we had gone over many times before with blind, shocking ignorance.
Our favourite trip, running straight from the dock to the rocks in the middle of Malaspina Strait, a matter of thirty or so minutes at top speed, brings us to the playground of the seals and sea lions, who loll about in their own version of Club Med. Sometimes we take our supper, and often we invite guests. It is an unending delight to watch the sea lions sunbathe on the rocks, while mischievous seals duck in and out around our boat, popping their heads up at one side and then the other.
We often pass a neighbour venturing fearlessly into the path of incoming large yachts in his small, open rowboat. He rows backwards, but he has installed a mirror on a wooden stand in the gunnel in front of him so that he can see where he’s going—or rather, who’s coming. He appears to be getting ready to shave. The first time we passed by this contraption, we stopped to admire it and he said that he had to keep reminding himself that everything he saw was backward, because a boat approaching in the mirror on the left in reality was on the right. “I have a friend with a long beard who rows without a mirror,” he told us. “He spends so much time looking over his left shoulder to see where he’s going that his beard is all worn off on the left side.”
A year or so ago, because we were advancing in our eighties, we thought we should have a cover over our heads and put in some heat, especially for fall journeys. We answered an ad in the local newspaper for a little cabin cruiser that had had only one owner. We sold the pink and blue treasure for what it had cost and congratulated each other on our excellent judgement in buying this new vessel.
The engine, which had started so perfectly when we bought it, soon told us how tired it was after fifty years. Then there was that little wet spot inside the cabin on the rug at the door. It never seemed to go away. I mopped it up, but as soon as I turned my back it oozed water again. I mentioned it to Frank, but maybe he didn’t hear me. So I kept right on mopping. What troubled us most was being “indoors”—we missed the brisk rush of air around our heads and the feeling of flying through the water.
In January my great niece and her fiancé came to visit and we took them on a trip to the sea lions. Halfway there, the familiar splutter and the engine quit. We didn’t have to go to the boat doctor to find out what was wrong. The starter had broken off. Paddling a broad old sixteen-foot boat home wasn’t easy, but for our guests it was a grand adventure. On the consolation automobile ride that we took for the rest of the day, they made notes about property for sale up and down the coast.
When my dock needed repairs last year and the pile drivers came in, we traded this latest boat acquisition for dock work, to everybody’s satisfaction. It was just the sort of runabout the pile drivers needed and, not incidentally, could repair themselves; and I didn’t have to think any more about what the perpetual ooze of water in the corner by the cabin door might mean.
Not long ago Frank paid a condolence call on a neighbour and spotted a fourteen-foot dinghy, bright yellow, with cushioned seats that fold down, “so we can go out overnight,” he said. We could hardly wait to show off this new gem to Jay and his wife Atty. I was so excited that I forgot to take my cellphone. So when the engine stopped, I reached into the picnic bag, pulled out the magazine I always take with me now and began to read. To the passengers who accompany us on our journeys, this behaviour may indicate a lack of concern, but I have found that it is the only way I can avoid a nervous breakdown during a breakdown. It also gives Frank a peaceful atmosphere for contemplation of the engine.
Eventually the boat started. When we got home, I cornered Jay and asked him if he had noticed how Frank managed to get that motor going again. “It was amazing!” he exclaimed. “He pulled his car key out of his pocket and sawed off the end of the gasoline line where it had cracked, and reconnected the line to the tank!”
Frank and I are probably incorrigible. Where is the small craft, we find ourselves wondering, that can carry us overnight to anchor in quiet harbours and view the lovely lavender mountains up the coast at sunset, after the tourists have departed? We’re looking.