The trouble with boating
  |  First Published: February 2005

Dad proudly slapped the hull of his 18-foot Statesman Regal. “We’re going take her out today,” he announced. “You’re only in town for the week so it’s now or never.”

This monstrosity hadn’t been in the family long; Dad had traded a couple of his cars for it about a week ago. The cars hadn’t been worth much so I assumed the boat wasn’t either. I had also heard that the engine and the electrics needed servicing. Hardly a sea-going affair.

“Just had the engine serviced too,” Dad said, as if reading my worried brow. He was serious and I was getting nervous. I enjoy fishing from a beach or jetty, but ever since I watched Jaws I’ve never been keen on adventures on the sea. I gently reminded Dad that he didn’t have his license.

“Not to worry,” he said, “I’ve got a couple of mates coming down. They have licenses.”

I looked the boat over again. Well, it was big enough. And big looked safe. There were also two engines. Maybe a boating trip wouldn’t be so bad.

An hour later Dad’s mates arrived and we headed to the coast, but we were only halfway there when we pulled over… at a boat shop.

“Let me guess, you need a radio," I joked.

“Yep, one sec,” said Dad. He jumped out of the car and raced into the shop.

I got out and climbed up onto the boat to see what else might be missing. Suddenly Dad popped up beside the boat.

“Err…forgot the registration papers,” he said. “Do you think you can find your way back to my house and get them?”

I had just arrived back at the house when my mobile rang.

“Hey, while you’re at home can you grab the oars, a fishing knife and a couple of screwdrivers with really small heads so we can wire up this radio?” said Dad.

The fact we had set out without a fishing knife was kind of funny, but forgetting the oars was downright disturbing. I should have asked him whether he needed lifejackets.

An hour later and I was back. The guys were cursing. Equipment was strewn about the boat, lifejackets included, I noted with relief. I proffered the screwdrivers in an effort to placate them. A half hour later, still cursing, they gave up.

“Right, forget the radio,” he said (it had just cost him $100). “We can’t get the electrics to work. But that’s OK, we just won’t go out too far.”

I tried to picture what ‘too far’ looked like while floating in a lifejacket awaiting the strike of a man-eating shark. It was all becoming too much for me. I considered feigning illness, but I knew that if I complained of stomach cramps at this stage it would be too obvious. I would wait.

Half an hour later and we were at the boat ramp. As I clambered out of the car I moaned and rubbed my belly. This was the first act in developing my impending, debilitating illness that would preclude me from the boat trip.

Nobody noticed. Instead, I was given the winch handle.

After lowering the boat into the water and parking the car I groaned and rubbed my belly. I also pulled a face. This time they noticed. I was handed $10 and told to get some food into me.

Upon my return from the shop I heard some familiar cursing. The engine wouldn’t start. The three blokes clambered all over the boat, pulling up leads, lifting covers, banging their heads.

I felt a spark of hope. Perhaps it wouldn’t start. I would be saved.

Off came the engine cover.

“Aha!” exclaimed Dad, “This fuse is kaput. Off you go up to the shop mate, grab us a couple of fuses.”

Back at the shop I asked the shopkeeper for some fuses. Lots, just in case they all broke. While I was there I asked whether there were any sharks in the local waters. Expecting to be laughed out of the store I was instead informed that a shark had been hooked in the area just last week. And released!

Back at the boat the new fuse was put in place (with the other 30 safely stored away in my jacket) and the engine started.

I quickly took stock of my predicament. If I just dropped to my knees now, doubled over and writhed in pain, I wouldn’t have to go out. But clearly this would upset the guys. I reluctantly stepped aboard and the lines were cast off.

I had barely set both feet down on the deck when Dad put the boat into gear. With a lurch and a cheer we were off. With a trip and a tumble so was I, off the boat and into the water. I surfaced, feeling embarrassed, but I was kind of happy to see all of them eagerly calling me to the boat instead of falling over themselves in hysterics. I started paddling toward the boat, the only way I could actually swim without looking like I was thrashing about in an epileptic fit. Then it occurred to me that their concern could be due to the man-eating shark the shopkeeper told me about. I immediately opted for the epileptic stroke. Splashing about madly, I reached the boat and was hauled aboard.

I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. Bad enough that I fell in, worse: I had attempted to out-swim an imaginary shark.

Now I was cold and wet. Furthermore, Dad couldn’t restart the engine. We were continuing in a forward direction into the marina. Off came the engine cover again. A few wires were jiggled. A few curses uttered. Click, click. Nothing. We continued to float out toward the breakwater.

Dad kept trying and suddenly the engine started. Even I was getting excited, sodden as I was. Dad tried to get the engine into forward gear but it wouldn’t engage. Cogs were grinding over cogs and the noise of it echoed across the marina. That gearbox needed help and so did we, because we were floating away in the wrong direction. I reached for the feeble-looking oars.

Suddenly, inspired by some latent genius, Dad tried reverse. It worked only briefly, but it was enough for Dad to turn the wheel to point the boat back toward the piers. Incredibly, a slight wind picked up and helped us along.

As we closed on the nearest pier I realised we had just done a big U-turn. And that was as far as we got. The gearbox never engaged again.

Events had conspired to keep us all close to shore that day. Maybe we should have given up when the radio wouldn’t work or perhaps when the engine wouldn’t start. But after everything that had happened I was actually feeling a little disappointed that we didn’t get out there.

When we finally came to winch the boat back onto the trailer I resolved to tell Dad that maybe next time we would get out there. But just before I did we discovered there was no winch handle. It wasn’t in the boat. It wasn’t in the boot. I then realised I had left it attached to the winch when we parked the car and trailer. After looking all over the carpark we gave up. At that point I wasn’t sure whether Dad was angrier at me or the mechanic who had ‘serviced’ the engine.

I ended up using a shifting spanner as a makeshift handle to winch the boat onto the trailer, hoping this small piece of lateral thinking might make up for recent events.

I’m still awaiting another invitation. – Michael Bartkow


1) Dad decided to wait until we were halfway to the coast before buying a radio for his aged boat. Doesn’t everyone?

2) Just after I took this photo outside the chandlery, Dad made me go home to get the rego papers that he’d forgotten – along with the oars and a fishing knife.

3) Three blokes desperately trying to get a motor to start.

4) Everyone perked up after the motor finally started, but our troubles didn’t end there.

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