What I saw was the tongue of the boat trailer reaching out like a mechanical arm threatening to demolish my little Beetle.
My first thought was to step on the gas and avoid the collision. However, a quick glance at both sides of the downtown Baltimore street revealed that there were no empty parking spaces. A collision was inevitable. I had two choices. I could allow the boat to run into my car or I could speed up and allow it to smash into a stranger's car.
I said something very profound like,"Yee gads!".
While I was having this deep conversation with myself, my brain was sorting out the options. A collision between my boat and my car was very undesirable. However, a collision between my boat and a stranger's boat might be more undesirable. With my luck, the stranger would be a 300-pound professional wrestler who collected rare automobiles.
When I realized there was only one choice, I pushed the brake peddle down without the greatest enthusiasm.
I felt the shock of the trailer tongue hitting the back of my car. At almost the same time, I heard the sound of metal making contact with metal. That was a pleasant sound compared with the sound of the trailer tongue digging into my rear window.
At the time, I had absolutely no experience at stopping run-away boats on land. Therefore, I can only conclude that I was extremely lucky to stop the boat.
My auto insurance agent did not think I was lucky at all. He said something about not having to pay off if my boat had hit some other car besides mine. Therefore, I felt bad about accepting the check for damages to my car. My insurance agent is one of the good old boys and he used to think I was too, until this incident.
At the time of this accident, I had been a first-time boat owner for about two hours. It was not the first problem I had while becoming a boat owner, but at the time it was the most dramatic. My insurance agent did not think it was dramatic at all.
It all started when I bought a waterfront home on a little creek off the Chesapeake Bay. Living on the water without a boat is like living in Aspen, Colorado without skis. Therefore, I began scanning the boat sales section of the local newspaper as soon as I was settled in the new home. It did not take long to find a used boat that I could afford.
As a young adult at the time, I was convinced I was a very knowledgeable boat person. After all, I had spent many a day fishing in row boats with my father when I was a boy. Besides, I had made two crossing of the Pacific Ocean as a Marine on troop ships. I had also learned to operate a paddle boat during my high school senior picnic. With that kind of background, I wondered why I had not been recruited by the Naval Academy. I knew the answer before my first day as a boat owner was completed.
As soon as my signature was applied to the sales contract for the 14-foot run-about, I began to learn that being a boat owner was more than just fun and games.
"Where is your trailer?", the salesman asked.
"I don't have a trailer."
"Well, how do you plan to move the boat to where you plan to dock it?"
"Don't you deliver?"
"No, but we will loan you the trailer that the boat is sitting on."
I thought all of my problems were solved. All that I had to do was tow the boat about 30 miles through the city. I backed my VW up to the boat and began to search the rear of the car for a place to connect the trailer.
My confusion must have been evident because after about ten minutes my salesman walked over to me and asked, "Where's your hitch?".
"That's what I am looking for," I replied like a person who knew what a hitch looked like.
"You don't have one?", the salesman half asked and half stated.
"How could those Germans build a car without a hitch?"
"Cars are not built with hitches. They have to be added."
"Gee, I should have thought of that."
Within a few minutes, I was examining the hitches at an auto parts store. There were hitches for all makes of American cars, but none for the foreign imports that were just beginning to appear on the market. I soon learned that the only way I could purchase a hitch for my car was through a dealer. The hitch would have to be ordered in from Germany, which would take at least six to eight weeks, and would cost more than one third of the price I had paid for the boat and motor.
If I waited for the imported hitch, the summer would be over before I could move my boat to the water. The simple thing to do would have been to borrow or rent an American car, but boat owners are an independent group. I decided to make one of the bumper hitches made for domestic cars work on my import.
After all, it only had to make one short trip across town. If I was extra careful, what possible trouble could I have?
The answer came within 20 minutes after I left the boat dealer's lot while the salesman was shaking his head for some reason.
The crash between my boat and my car attracted a crowd in a hurry. Most of the crowd came from the cars that were blocked by the accident. Some of them were not in good moods and could not understand how a boat could cause a traffic jam.
I bolted the hitch back on to the not-too-sturdy rear bumper. The trailer did not have a safety chain and I probably would not have known what it was at the time. However, I used some rope to tie the trailer to the car. The already damaged rear of my car could not stand another confrontation with a run-away boat.
The remainder of the journey from the boat dealers to the launching ramp was without incident, except that I stopped to pick up my father. My objective was to impress my father. However, I did not make the impression intended.
When I arrived at the launching ramp at the marina near my home, I learned that it is easy to tow a boat forward, but backing one in reverse takes some skill.
Twenty minutes after our arrival at the launching ramp and after many attempts, I managed to get one trailer wheel in the water. There was a problem, however. The trailer was sideways in the ramp.
My father, who had exhibited amazing control, quietly asked if I would mind if he backed the boat down the ramp. It was like magic. The trailer that always went the wrong way when I was backing it went straight down the middle of the ramp with my father at the wheel.
All seemed to be ready for the occasion that was the launching of my first boat. While I was unhooking the boat from the crank, my father was holding a rope from the pier along side the ramp. Just as I was ready to launch the boat, he noticed that the plug was lying on the deck in the back of the boat.
"Don't let it go," my father yelled as he stepped from the pier to the gunwale of the run-about.
Perhaps, it was the excitement of the moment, but I thought my father had said," Let it go.".
I gave my boat a mighty push and stepped back to admire its slide from the trailer into the water. Unfortunately, what caught my eye was my father standing with one foot on the pier and one foot on the gunwale of my boat. He did not maintain that pose for very long as I launched my first boat and my father at the same time.
My father disappeared in a big splash, but soon popped to the surface standing in chest deep water. He was grumbling something about one of his sons not having the brains with which he was born.
He did not grumble very long because as he was walking up the wooden launching ramp both of his feet slipped out from under him and he went splashing face down in the water again.
At that moment, I learned there is nothing quite so slippery as a wet, wooden launching ramp. I did not have much time to appreciate this wisdom gained as my father came sputtering out of the water yelling something about the plug not being in the boat. Since my mother might read this, I have left out some of the adjectives my father used.
By the time I scrambled into the boat, there were six inches of water above the deck. By the time I found and inserted the plug, there were ten inches of water in the boat.
Having stopped my boat from sinking, I came to the conclusion that my father had enough boating for the time being. I decided to take him to my home where he could dry himself and his clothes. While he was getting comfortable and calming his nerves, I would bail out the boat and prepare for fishing.
After I had bailed for a half an hour with a tin can with little evidence that I had removed any water, the marina operator asked me if I would like to use his bilge pump. When I conceded that a pump would be a big help, he produced a large galvanized hand pump and I eagerly began pumping water from the boat. At least I tried.
When the marina operator returned about ten minutes later, I had not pumped an ounce of water from the boat.
"How's it going?", the friendly marina operator asked.
"Not so good," I answered. "I think the pump is broken."
"Did you prime it?"
"No. I just pumped it."
The marina operator gave me a strange look as he took the pump and poured some water in the top. As soon as the pump began removing water from the boat, he turned the pump over to me. As he walked away, he was mumbling about some dummy who had rented a slip from him.
When the boat was pumped dry, I rounded up my father, fishing tackle, food, beverages and a tank of gasoline. I was ready for my maiden voyage. At least, I thought I was.
With all the gear loaded in the boat and just the hint of a smile starting to show on my father's face, I pushed the controls to start and grabbed the hand crank. Expecting the motor to roar to life, I gave a mighty pull on the crank. The crank moved a couple of inches and then came to a sudden stop that just about dislocated my shoulder.
"What's the matter?", my father asked as I rubbed my strained shoulder.
"The engine will not turn over," I answered.
"Didn't you run it before you bought it?", he asked.
"No," I replied. "It was on land, but the salesman guaranteed me it would run."
"Well, you had better call your salesman. Before you do, would you drive me home?"
I noticed that hint of a smile on my father's face had disappeared.
I did not learn everything about being a boat owner on that first day I owned a boat. It was nearly two months before the motor was repaired and running. Therefore, it was a while before I learned about shoals and shear pins, ropes in propellers and how fast an outboard engine will use gasoline.
Like every other new boat owner, I learned from experience. Some of the experiences are funny now. I still have a little difficulty convincing my father that some of the things were funny, but he never claimed to have a great sense of humor.
When I see another boater in some ridiculous situation due to inexperience, I only have to think back 40 years to that day I became a boat owner for the first time. I am glad I survived because now I understand.