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 Chapter 3

Approaches to the Sea

The greatest impediment to getting out to sea isn't injury or sickness, or even bad weather, but lack of freedom.

Boys and girls usually have quite a lot of free time, at least if they're sensible enough to take school lightly and malinger themselves out of any other kind of work. The ones who live on the coast can then find some way of getting out on the water.

The great enemies are college, graduate school, marriage, children, and professional ambition. But suppose that you have indulged yourself in all these ways, and also live hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean or Great Lake. What can then be done?

The obvious thing is to get the same kind of skiff or rowboat you might have had as a child. You then carry it on top of your car or tow it with a light trailer. In this vein, I bought a twelve foot aluminum rowboat, and kept it on top of my car, an old Dodge, on a permanent basis. It required a big strong roof rack, and the bow of the upside down boat made it difficult to see some overhead traffic signals, but these sorts of problems can always be finessed.

Since the boat weighed only 112 pounds, I could get it on and off the rack and carry it. Unfortunately, while the weight is manageable, it's very awkward. If you turn the boat on its side and lift the upturned rail on to the back of your shoulders, the other rail hits you in the back of the ankles as you try to walk. Alternatively, you can sit the boat on its stern, back up to it, and put your hands under the rowing seat. That enables you to lift it far enough off the ground to clear the ankles when walking.

Wind can be a problem, particularly in the vertical mode. With the bow some fourteen feet up in the air, a gust can easily topple you and the boat over backwards with a horrid crash. Then, too, you have to avoid touching power lines overhead with an aluminum boat. That will result in all sorts of flashes and sizzles. While it can provide you with the equivalent of electric shock treatment, you may not be needing that treatment at that time.

The upshot is that you can't count on carrying your boat very far. Assuming that you don't have some special arrangement at something like a yacht club, it often comes down to launching at a public boat ramp. That's easy. Just back up to the water and drop the boat.

Another possibility is to tow your boat on a small trailer. This is more pleasant in many ways. There isn't any heavy lifting, and virtually no chance of electric shock. Trailers are also fun. Backing them is interesting, and, at highway rest stops, you go in among the semis and sleep on your boat. The truckers, who often have guns or dogs in their cabs, scare away people who might sneak up on you while you sleep. One trucker even gave me a paper cup of moonshine whiskey.

The trailer again limits you largely to launch ramps. There's a certain drama to these ramps with what amounts to miniature ship launchings. It's fun to see some big motorboat slide gracefully into the water, or be pulled powerfully out of it. But things frequently go wrong. A red-faced man with a significant quantity of beer aboard will get terribly upset and say horrid things to his wife as they watch their unsecured and unmanned boat float away.

In certain conditions there can be interesting challenges, even with a rowboat. In recovering a boat from the flooded Ohio River in winter, one wants to avoid wading out into the floating ice if possible. However, an empty trailer backed into the river at right angles will immediately be swept to a 45 degree angle by the current.

Having beached the boat upstream (perhaps hiring passing urchins to hold on to the boat while going for one's car and trailer), one gets the trailer in as best one can. Setting the brake securely (having the car slide smoothly into the river is quite depressing), one returns to the boat and pushes it strongly out into the stream while holding the long bow rope (painter). Then, as it's being swept past the trailer, one hauls in vigorously. It takes nice timing, but a successful recovery will impress the bystanders.

There are, unfortunately, less interesting problems associated with boat ramps, even in summer. Public ramps aren't usually as tastefully located as yacht clubs, and many are way up coves or rivers. Even if there's tide and the water is theoretically salt, you can spend half a day rowing without getting to anything that looks like ocean. In the meantime, powerboats chug through the oily water while fishermen on the bridges, whose hooks you have to avoid, catch mangy-looking quasi-marine creatures. In the worst cases, it's better to row in circles on the decorative little artificial lake in a new housing development.

While there do exist some good public or semi-public launching sites for small boats, particularly in Maine, they're surprisingly few. Much of the North American coastline consists of sand beaches. Most are public, and, if the surf is low, that's fine. If it's not prohibited (which it often is), you drag your boat a few hundred yards from parking lot to water. You wade out guiding the boat through the waves, and then hop in.

If the surf is at all significant, as it usually is on most West Coast beaches, that won't work. The boat will be upended, and it may well be dropped on top of you. The descendants of Fletcher Christian and his HMS BOUNTY friends can launch their big rowing boats through the enormous surf of their little Pacific Island, a surf which frustrated all attempts to bring the mutineers to justice. But these people have little else to do from one century to another. They've developed the right boats and the right techniques. There are also people who ride unicycles and juggle bowling pins at the same time, but that sort of thing is out of the question for most people.

The best alternative is to go to the dime store or discount house and buy an inflatable boat. They're cheap, and they can be blown up by mouth, about fifty five puffs. They're usually marked, "For beach and pool use only", in the hope that your heirs won't sue them if you drown. In fact, these are excellent little boats that I have used in three oceans. They were once made of rubber (I still call them "rubber"), and are now made of funny plastic stuff. However, this funny stuff seems to be at least as durable as the rubber.

One shouldn't be put off by the fact that these boats don't have screw-in valves but the little nipple-like ones found on cheap air mattresses. They mostly stay stuck in, and, even if one pops open when you're rowing, the boat deflates only very slowly. The valve is in plain sight right in front of you, and it's easy to pop it back in.

The smallest inflatable boat on the shelves, if not the only one, is likely to be advertized for two persons. You will notice, however, that the accompanying picture shows, not two adults of reasonable size, but a child and an adult. In practice, you can just manage to put a child in the stern. I rowed my daughter along the coast of southern England when she was about eight while she sang songs, both nautical and otherwise, to encourage me to go faster. However, the weight of even a child distorts the bottom of the boat so that it doesn't leave the water cleanly. It's folly to take anyone of any considerable size in your boat, at least unless you have something other than rowing in mind. Even the boats advertized as three-person, typically with a man, woman, and child unrealistically happy in the picture, are really one- person, albeit with lots of room for equipment.

The weak point of these boats is often the flimsiness of the oars sold to be used with them. Some are little tiny things with thin aluminum shafts that will break in the most ordinary conditions. The problem is that everything that goes with the boat has to fit into the box that goes on the shelf. There just isn't any way of getting a decent oar to collapse to that extent.

It is, however, possible to separately buy much more substantial two-piece oars. If they don't fit into the oarlocks, you can make rope oarlocks, using bungee cords to hold them in position. Unless you are actually living on the streets, the price of this equipment should present no problem.

Let's now suppose that you're a young associate in a law firm specializing in personal injury cases in southern Ohio. You've managed to get a little time off a couple of weeks before Christmas, and you've persuaded your wife to stop in Charleston, South Carolina en route to visiting her family. Having gotten your rubber boat and its equipment stashed in the trunk of your car, you set out early in the morning with your wife and three small children. You arrive in the outskirts of Charleston in the early afternoon.

The children have fought continuously in the back seat. At this point, your daughter bites her brother's finger so painfully that your wife has to turn around and lean over the seat to quell the arising anarchy. While keeping one hand on the wheel, you caress your wife somewhat intimately with the other, which she doesn't appreciate. After the ensuing dust has settled, you drive on in silence until you are stopped by a red light and hear your daughter say to her brother,

"Johny, let me kiss your finger and make it well."

A finger is offered tentatively, and she takes it gently in her hands. She then bites it again, harder this time. You think this is cute. Your wife, however, remonstrates,

"If you keep encouraging her, she'll grow up to be a queen of the double-cross!"

Replying to this obviously exaggerated accusation, you say some things that might better have been left unsaid. The resulting friction, added to a good deal that has gone before, makes the front seat almost as much a battle zone as the back one. If you were towing a boat and proposed giving the local sights a miss in order to find a boat ramp somewhere in the nether regions, there would be serious trouble. Instead, you head straight for the historic district.

The second and third floor verandahs looking out over gardens are quite nice. Although you have recently had a sort of lunch on the road, you keep a sharp lookout for a restaurant whose prices might not be absurd. Suddenly, on a busy street only a block or two from the waterfront, you see one. Stopping the car at a red light, you jump out and pop open the trunk. You there shoulder the pack with your rubber boat and oars. Pointing to the restaurant, you call out to your wife, "I'll meet you-all there at seven." The light has now turned green, and, amid honking horns, your wife has little chance to argue as she moves into the driver's seat and screeches off. You are quickly lost in the crowds of tourists.

Arriving at E. Bay Street, you find only private property surrounding the various docks and floats. There would be no opportunity at all to launch an ordinary rowboat. You may feel slightly eccentric as you sit on the sidewalk blowing up your rubber boat, but it's perfectly legal to do so.

The accepted way of carrying an inflated boat is to put it on your back with the bow above, and resting on, your head. It sticks there nicely, even with the mostly empty pack on your back, and you carry the oars in your hands. Since the bottoms of these boats are often black, you look like a giant cockroach from the rear. However, Charleston has lots of giant cockroaches of its own, and they don't mind a few visitors.

The trick is to find an area which no one seems to be actively defending. You then go through a gate or, occasionally, over a fence. In this case, you see a wharf behind a fallen-down fence, which you quickly cross. There are some missing planks, and a strong odor of mixed oil and creosote, but you find a ladder going down to the water. You lower the boat by the rope, and then descend the ladder. It's covered with gunk and has a broken rung or two, but you know exactly how to sue the property owner if you're injured. In the event, you descend safely, settle yourself properly in the boat, and you're off. There's plenty of room for your pack, with your water and food in it, in the stern.

Charleston has strong tides, but you have a good boat which even has outer and inner inflatable chambers (It's a Sea Eagle, but you never see the same trade name twice running). You also have nice big plastic oars. Once out in the stream, you row pleasurably on a beautiful sunny December day as the tide sweeps you across the harbor and out past Fort Sumter.

By this time, you're used to rowing rubber boats. When you first got in one, it felt as if you could row only with your wrists and forearms, taking quick little strokes. It wasn't long, however, before you found yourself bracing your feet on the pontoon and taking regular strokes. You thus find yourself zipping over the modest waves of what seems to be, despite the fact of its being winter, a southern summer ocean. Funny, rather comical-looking, birds fly overhead, and a nuclear submarine passes with no noise or fuss whatever. You suppose that it could easily blow away some country whose foreign policy proves to be inconvenient, or even counter- productive.

You didn't have time to check any tide tables when you set out, but, after a couple of hours, you turn back for the harbor entrance. It's slow going, but you suppose that the tide will soon turn and speed you back. An hour later, it still hasn't turned. Of course, there are two goodish rivers, the Cooper and the Ashley, emptying into Charleston harbor, and so the combined current going out is much stronger than that coming back in. You also discover that Charleston isn't Miami in the winter. A person in wet shorts and a moist tee shirt begins to feel a little cool as night falls. Anyhow, since you have to get back, you do.

Your landing, as if to make up for the long slow haul back, is even more successful than your launch. You pass a float on which some dozen young men in uniform seem to be celebrating. It later turns out that they're cadets at the Citadel, the military college at Charleston. Anyhow, even though it looks as if they're on the point of either de- pantsing each other or throwing each other overboard, they're certainly welcoming. You are quickly assisted from your boat, and it turns out that people who are really quite drunk can very efficiently deflate your boat and strap it to your pack. This may have something to do with the fact that many battles, particularly in Russia, have been won by people in similar condition.

The helpfulness of the cadets allows you to arrive at the restaurant only slightly late. Your family is already seated, and your wife doesn't make scenes in public. Moreover, your wet and somewhat pitiable appearance arouses concern. In fact, the rubber boater is used to arriving wet at restaurants, and you notice that the wooden chair on which you sit can be repeatedly wiped with a paper napkin as you gradually dry off. Hot food appears quickly, and all seems to be well in your environment as you make up stories about the daring deeds of Citadel cadets to amuse your children.

This outing of yours wouln't have been feasible with a kayak. Among my many kayaks there is a kevlar Seda Vagabond which weighs hardly anything, and which can really be carried over hill and dale. However, even though it's only thirteen feet, it's hard to carry it along a busy city street without knocking people in the head. More important, it's highly conspicuous, and that makes infiltration more difficult.

With a rubber boat, you can charge right into a posh yacht club. It helps to smile with confidence at people as you look slightly over the tops of their heads. In any case, you carry the uninflated boat negligently under your arm, and people hardly notice it. The process of inflating it is less dignified, but there's always some obscure nook where it can be executed.

A kayak is hard to maneuver through the doors and rooms you may have to pass through to get to the water. Moreover, the stewards all know that their members don't kayak. Kayaks are thought to be symbolic of counter-cultural attitudes and left-wing politics.

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