This story was first published in http://www.storiesserved.com on July 22, 2016
There were always boats in my life. Dad always had a floatable hull sitting atop concrete blocks on the lawn. He spent countless hours sanding peeling paint and varnishing brightwork. There were always a seized manifold or coughing carburetors dissected on a table. He reveled in taking apart engines and rebuilding them with whatever was around. For years an engine slept under my parents’ bed with the promise parts would be salvaged. Dad could make anything work. If it didn’t work with conventional parts, there were always bobby pins, rubber bands, spit and glue that could hold whatever need to be held together long enough to get us home. Dad was the original MacGyver.
In the early years, my parents packed their 5 kids along with aunts, uncles, and cousins into a twenty-eight foot wooden cabin cruiser and motored out of a canal into the Great South Bay for a beach day, crabbing expedition or fishing within the Fire Island inlet. Most often, the engine hatch was lifted to replace this, cool down that, tighten something else. We usually got to our destination and always arrived home safe. My mother did not like the uncertainty and made sure Dad heard her. However, she learned to operate the boat while Dad adjusted cables or spit gasoline into gasping carburetors. We sang songs to quell any doubts. Once or twice we sang 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall to completion before getting underway. This was my normal of boat ownership.
One summer day, while Dad and uncles spent the day at work, their wives and children were left to fend off the oppressive heat. It was breathlessly hot. Sweat and grime stuck to every pore. No relief could be found under the shade of trees. It was too hot to jump through sprinklers. Mom and Aunt Marsha were pregnant—there were always a few women pregnant in my young memory. They held wet towels on their heads and let small children spill temped wading pool water over their legs.
It was decided to take the boat out and let us kids swim in the eel grass shallows. The boat, named Cho-Go, behave well the day before. There was no reason to believe it would not do the same on this day. There were 8 children under the age of 5—2 were not yet walking. Grandma packed bologna and salami sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, ripe peaches, and a thermos of lemonade. She waved goodbye as Mom pulled the boat from the dock. The bay was cooler and lay flat in the gentle breeze. The swimming spot was just 10 minutes from the canal. Mom increased speed.
Us kids filed into the cabin to the front bunk, taking turns poking our heads out of the hatch. When the dads were in charge, we were allowed to sit on the outside bow of the boat with one leg through the hatch while racing full-speed. That was normal safety protocol. We were expected to sit still. If there were any shenanigans, someone was blamed and banned to the cabin for the remainder of the ride. This, in turn, invited relentless feet tickling and leg pulling that only instigated additional banishment. Rarely was there one child that behave well enough to stay on top for the whole ride. But when the moms skippered, us kids were automatically sent to the cabin.
Just as Mom started to slow down, there was a was a thump. The boat lurched, spilling gangly legs and arms onto the front bunk. Mom turned the wheel this way and that—no response. She shifted into reverse. Stuck. Mom turned off the engine and directed Aunt Kay to quickly set the anchor.
“I’ll check the prop and rudder,” announced Mom. Even though she was 8 months pregnant, she was the better swimmer than my other aunts.
All of us watched as my round mother lowered herself into the bay from the ladder. Aunt Kay handed her a face mask. Aunt Marcia opened a box of Oreo cookies. Under Mom swam, furiously kicking her buoyant self beneath the back of the boat. Props, shafts, and rudders had been damaged before by running into shallow water. Most times a pull here and push there could fix the problem well enough to get home. Mom was an astute MacGyver apprentice.
Mom popped her head up. “The rudder is gone! It fell off!”
” Will we sink?” asked Aunt Kay. Aunt Marcia gave each kid a cookie while holding one in her mouth.
“No, the shaft is connected.” Mom knew a lot about boats.
” Diana, did you look in the front of the boat? Maybe Billy put it there,” ask Aunt Marsha though the Oreo cookie.
Mom realized that despite all of her confidence and skill, she was alone with 8 small children and pregnant women on a boat without a rudder.
” Children, it’s a lovely day on the bay,” announced Aunt Marsha, “Let’s sing!”