The first time we bought a boat we thought we would create lasting memories for our children. The second time we believed mooring a vessel in front of our house would magically make boating effortless.
We were wrong—twice.
Fifteen years ago, we bought a 22-foot, 1987 Sea Swirl that, once in the water, rode like a crappy, coughing, loose-in-the-joints, convertible car. We owned the boat for two years. The kids, ages 7, 9, and 11, tried everything to get out of the trips. One time our daughter developed a mysterious rash that I believe she contracted by rubbing her face all over the cat, our oldest son held up his broken thumb and declared he couldn’t get his cast wet, and our youngest, well, he informed us he was sure he was going to poop, but he didn’t know when.
We were clueless the first summer. We slammed into a sandbar forcing us to huddle in the fart-filled air of the cuddy until the propeller sprung free. We tied up on a state-owned island and challenged the kids to make it around the sand before the tide came in. Somehow we lost them in the bushes and found them strung in trees yelling for help. Then, there is the memory of the boys tapping me on the arm and opening their mouths revealing a bevy of tiny crabs trying to escape the tongues that quivered with laughter. Unforgettable.
The second summer we bought a towable water toy for tubing. Our ancient, wheezing boat died in the middle of a lake and we were surrounded by a swarm of jet skis and boats that, collectively, created a high-pitched whine worse than a dentist’s drill. They rocketed past us sending cascades of water into the boat. The kids hid in the cuddy afraid they would be recognized. We waved for help and someone towed us back to the boat launch. My husband was humiliated and swore we’d never have a boat again.
It was my idea to get another boat. We were empty-nesters. Our kids were gone. It would be the two of us cruising on the calm, clear water, and our darling dog could hang off the side barking at the waving people on shore. My husband bought it hook, line and sinker, and we purchased a sleek, little Bayliner in mid-June. It was so pretty. Our friends patted it and hinted for invitations. We were vague, promising nothing. Now that we actually owned a boat we dreaded going boating. We remembered.
It sat in our driveway for six weeks.
Six weeks. My husband worked 12-hour days, we traveled to the East Coast to visit our grand baby, we helped prepare our daughter’s yard for her wedding, and we tried to catch our youngest son before he left for a trip to a foreign country. It was late July. Then, out of nowhere, we had a rare free evening and I couldn’t think fast enough to come up with a pleasant chore around the house that could eat up the hours until sunset.
We were boat owners. We should want to boat, shouldn’t we? I looked around the yard for the cat. Maybe there was still time to bury my face in her sleek fur. The reality was our desire to own a boat was a dream—the first time and the second time. Our motivation was the unrelenting march of years that now had forced us into our 50s. We were having a mid-life crisis. We wanted to be those boating people—you know the ones. Their kids can stand up on the wake board the first time and the adults don’t have to suck in their stomachs while wearing their bathing suits.
The dog jumped into the car, tongue hanging out, head cocked, anticipating our adventure. At least he looked the part. We put the boat in the water—my husband saying ‘hold the line’ and me answering ‘you mean the rope?’ and took off from the downtown dock and headed towards our little inlet.
“Do you have a plan?” I asked. After years of marriage I had discovered the open-ended statement was a gentle entry into what I really wanted to ask—‘what the hell are we doing?’
“We’re eventually tying up to the buoy,” he said cutting the motor.
“We have a buoy,” I murmured to the dog. “Did you know that?” The dog was miserable. He hid under my husband’s legs the entire trip. Panting heavily, I am pretty sure he knew he had to poop and it was imminent.
“Get ready,” I heard my husband say over the sound of the rising propeller. “This is as close as I can get. We have to get the rowboat now.”
There was still a vast expanse of water between us and the shore. He dropped the anchor. “Are you sure it is going to stay put?” I whispered. “What happens if it just floats away?”
“It’s not going to float away,” my husband paused. “I think. I hope.” He lips were set. “Let’s go.” He handed me his glasses. “Let me get settled in the water. Then you can hand them to me.” The bifocals were new.
I forgot to hand him the glasses. I stepped into the water and sunk into mud that reached my calves. I panicked and grabbed for him. We teeter-tottered back and forth until we eased into a upright position.
“Honey,” I said, seaweed clinging to my chest. “I’m so sorry.” We stared down into the water. The glasses were gone. The tide was going out and the mud was churning in the waves.
It was cold, the rocks hurt my feet, and I felt terrible. I deeply regretted my enthusiastic sales pitch that brought us to this moment. The dog launched himself off the side of the boat and swam madly to shore. Once he landed on the beach he bolted for the bushes.
Leaving muddy footprints in the dust of the bulkhead, we grabbed the rowboat we had stashed behind a weathered stump. We carried it down to the beach where I dropped my end before we got to the water. Glaring, my husband pointed at a yucky seat. “Sit. Do not stand up.” He waded back to the boat and pulled up the anchor. I sat in the bucking, aluminum boat all the way to the buoy. While he secured the line and snapped the buttons on the cover, I held vigil in the moldy interior and watched for spiders. Finally, we paddled back to the beach. It took a while. We kept going in circles. In a few choice words, my husband informed me my strokes weren’t matching his. In silence, we dumped the rowboat into its hiding place.
Back at the house, my husband had a beer. I had a shower. The dog hid in the laundry room shuddering every few minutes.
Later, at 11:00 pm, I said, “the tide’s all the way out. Let’s go look.”
It was a ridiculous idea, but the glasses could be lodged in some rocks. We strapped on head lamps and tiptoed down to the beach in the quiet darkness. He took one side and I took another. The moon was almost full and lights sparkled across the bay. We heard the water slapping the side of our boat. It was still there. No luck with the glasses, however.
“We can look every time we come down,” I offered.
“Yeah,” he sighed.
“The kids are going to think it is funny.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Another story for the boating collection.”
Our kids’ experiences are ensconced in the past, but our future as middle-age boaters is still an unwritten page. When the boat leaves the safety of the anchored buoy, we are rudderless and have to make our own way. We have to let go of the desire to be the glamorous couple effortlessly steering through someone else’s messy wake. We are the messy wake! When it is just the two of us (I am fairly certain the dog is done) we can release our stomachs, pour a glass of wine in a shady cove and laugh over our errors and triumphs. The best part? We don’t know the stories of the future. Let’s just hope they don’t involve glasses falling overboard—which our neighbor found by the way.