Am I wrong or is boating just an exercise in frustration? As of August 4th the boat was in the water, but it had neither motor nor registration. I could row around in the marina (if I could row), but I couldn’t take a motorboat out into the bay without risk of getting a ticket. “And they’re out there,” the boss growled as he lowered the boat into the water with the big forklift and canvas slings. Meanwhile, my man in the boat business—we’ll call him Pete—dragged out the little three-horsepower motor he let me use last year, after I ruined his old fifteen-horsepower motor, and dug up a plastic gas can. “This is MINE,” he said with emphasis, handing me the can. I felt guilty all week for not returning it.
The first chance I got, I went to the gas station and put six dollars’ worth of high-test in Pete’s gas can. While holstering the gas pump, I noticed a puddle spreading beneath the can. It had a leak: two thin streams were squirting out of it. I found my duct tape, but then decided that rather than repair the gas can I should just put the gas in my car—in my car’s gas tank, that is—and I spilt some more gas trying to do that. I set the can on a plastic bag in the trunk and drove to the boatyard, seething. It’s not bad enough that Pete sends me out into the bay with a motor that conks out if you look at it funny (though, to be fair, I’m the one who ruined the original motor by repeatedly trying to re-start it when it was already overcooked); now he sends me out with a leaky gas can. I thanked Pete, with what sarcasm I could muster, for lending me a leaky gas can and told him I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He laughed.
Too many of my boating stories end with getting towed. Early in the season, Pete told me that he had sent my old motor to a mechanic named Abdul for repair. That motor had first conked out on me three years ago, and Pete had tried to fix, and the boss had had a look at it, and I kept going out on the bay to test it, and it kept crapping out on me, forcing an ignominious return under tow. Even the little air-cooled three-horsepower, the eggbeater, that I fell back on and that Pete swore was “foolproof” made a fool out of me. How was I to know it held only a half a cup of gas? I went for a short trip, neglecting to carry an extra gallon, ran out of gas, and was struggling to row across the channel when the boss took pity on me, mounted his jet ski, rode to my rescue, and towed me in. It felt like a scene out of a Western.
Seeing me in the boatyard with the leaky gas can, Pete was reminded of Abdul and the old outboard motor. He called, and Abdul was there, at his mysterious operation in Meadowmere. “It’s right behind the Bay House,” Pete said. The Bay House is a bar and restaurant tucked behind Kennedy Airport, at the head of Jamaica Bay, beyond Far Rockaway. “The second house on the left. There are two cranes in the yard.”
So suddenly, instead of going to Buster’s or Pep Boys to price a new outboard motor, which had been my hidden agenda for the day, I found myself on the way to Meadowmere to meet Abdul. On my way, I passed a Dunkin’ Donuts and decided to indulge my weakness for a cup of coffee. Even that wasn’t easy. The parking lot had only blue-painted handicapped spots or spots paved with crushed glass. Eventually—after driving the wrong way through the drive-through and trying to get back onto the street where there was no curb cut—I realized that the blue-painted handicapped spots were obsolete, and only one spot, with a sign, was for the handicapped. Inside the Dunkin’ Donuts, I thought, Maybe a cinnamon doughnut . . . The girl said they had no cinnamon doughnuts, only munchkins. What I thought was: I don’t want no stupid munchkins, bitch! What I said was “OK, then I won’t have a doughnut.” My eye fell on a tray of chocolate-glazed, but at that point I was highly conscious of (1) my habit of eating in response to frustration and (2) the ever-increasing level of that frustration, which would take a doughnut the size of an innertube for a semi to assuage. In the car, the shoulder restraint of my seat belt, which is designed to automatically strangle me when I turn the key in the ignition, pushed the cup of coffee, which I was holding in my left hand, into my face. Even that little plastic bit on the lid I could not get to stick in the indentation.
The road to the Bay House was closed to all but local traffic—they were doing some kind of work on it. It seemed unlikely that there was anyplace to go down that road, but the Bay House was open. Because of the new moon, the tide had been extra high and the road was muddy. I parked at the restaurant and walked back to the junkyard (that is, the industrial park). No sign of Abdul. I had to call Pete, who called Abdul, who met me in the road. Mud swamped my sandals and squidged between my toes.
I expected Abdul to have dreadlocks, but he had fluffy black hair in a brush cut. He explained that the motor, tucked under a blue tarp, runs, but it needs a new head: you have to go slowly, and only for about an hour. In other words, the same thing was wrong with it as before: it goes for a while, but the head is warped, so the coolant doesn’t circulate, and it overheats. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea massima culpa. Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault—all right, already, I ruined the motor, but must I pay for it forever? I was supposed to go slow for a half hour and then turn around and try to make it home? That was my future on Jamaica Bay? Abdul showed me some other ancient motors he was working on, including a seven-horsepower Johnson, which he said he’d give me when it was fixed. I squidged back through the mud to the car, pulled up to the junkyard fence, and Abdul wedged the old fifteen-horsepower albatross in my trunk.
I returned to the marina in a spasm of resignation. It seemed as if some higher power just did not want me out on the bay. Either that or the marina wanted a new scapegoat. Before I showed up, they had Francis of Assisi. His boat spent whole seasons out of the water with engine trouble, and when he finally got it into the bay, he’d hit a floating tree trunk or something. Now he has a jet ski, and when he sees me coming he’s the first one to say, “Uh-oh. Call out the Coast Guard!”
Pete, to his credit, was mad at Abdul for giving me the motor. He said that Abdul was supposed to have found a new head and installed it before giving the motor back to me. While Pete was tinkering with the little three-horsepower, I quizzed some of the regulars: Shouldn’t I just buy a new motor? Francis of Assisi nodded sagely. Why was Pete against it? “I love Pete to death, but he’s Mr. Flimflam,” the boss said. “He wouldn’t spend a dime to see the Statue of Liberty piss.”
Pete handed the little three-horsepower to me, expecting me to hump it down to the boat and mount it myself, but I was afraid I’d drop it overboard, so I offered him twenty dollars to help. He refused the money, but got a hand truck and wheeled the motor down the gangplank and over to the slip, and I got in the boat and he coached me where to set the motor on the transom. Then he said, “Let’s see if you still know how it works.” You can start it cold, but it was already hot, and you have to remember to open the little vent on top so air can go in, and set the little lever on the gas filter (or whatever) so gas can go in. I had forgotten both those things. And, oh yeah, you have to push the propeller down into the water. And set the throttle on start or slow. And pull the cord.
So I was set. But first I had to get gas. And wash the mud off my feet. At one of those gas-station minimarts I bought a red plastic two-gallon gas can for twelve dollars (Pete thought me extravagant) and filled it with high-test. Then I went back into the store and bought a six-pack of Amstel Light. Now I was ready for my maiden voyage.
* * *
I am still sort of pitching from it. I feel like I’m still on the water. The table is going back and forth. The house is pitching.
I get in the boat. I array my things. I’d baled it out earlier: about six inches of rainwater. I try the motor, just to see if it starts, and it does, but I let it idle as I go about my business, trying to figure out which end of the boat to untie first, and it stalls. OK, I’ll re-start it once I’m out of the slip. I shove off, but I can’t re-start the motor and I’m drifting into this big rusty barge. I tie up to a piling, and when I get the motor started I’m heading directly into the barge. Pete yells from the dock, “There’s something in front of you!” I know that. “Do you remember reverse?” What I remember is that on this dinky little excuse for a motor there is no reverse. “Turn the motor around!” he yells.
Finally I get out of the marina under power. My intention is to go west, but the tide is coming in, and my three horses are no match for it. Also, whenever I try to give the engine more power, or less power, or make any adjustment, it cuts out on me. So I’m trying to start the motor as the current is taking me under the trestle bridge, backwards. I grab an oar just in time to fend off the bridge, and decide I’ll go east after all. On the other side of the bridge, there’s a whirlpool. (Pete scoffs when I tell him this later. “That’s an eddy,” he says, and explains how the current separates at the bridge pilings and then comes back together.) I’m desperately out of control. This demonstration of woeful, woeful seamanship has lasted less than five minutes—all I can do is try to row back to the marina. Suddenly I notice that I have only one oar. Well, at least now I have a mission: I’ve got to get that other oar back. I’m not exactly rowing (I hate that in rowing you face away from where you’re going), but trying my best, with one oar, to propel myself toward the other oar, floating at a tantalizing distance. Whenever I get near enough to try to snag it, I have to ship my remaining oar, the boat loses momentum, and the errant oar drifts out of reach. Round and round and round I go, approaching it from clockwise and counterclockwise. I know I can’t row back with only one oar, so I just keep trying, and in the effort I let go of my despair, because I'm busy chasing the oar . . . Finally I haul it aboard by its big flat white working blade.
Now that I’m out here and have nothing to bump into (and no audience) and am being carried up the bay, and can’t row home against the tide even with two oars, I decide I may as well try once again to master the intricacies of the goddam internal-combustion engine. I get it started, but it sputters out. I do not panic. I try to be systematic and make sure I’m doing the simple things right. I touch the part where Pete made sure the sparkplug worked. It’s in there snug. Then I remember that to row I had shut the gas valve and closed the air cap so that I could angle the motor up and thereby reduce drag (I thought). So I give it air, I give it gas: it coughs into life like a victim of drowning resuscitated. I aim for the big rusty barge that marks the marina, on the far side of the bridge and the other side of the channel, and go for it.
But it is very slow going. And I am feeling very foolish. The only object of this voyage is to end it. I seem never to get past the mouth of the marina two basins down from mine. I’m tempted to row along with the motor. But again I’m safe here, I have hours before sunset, and I can play with the motor a little. Giddyup. The third horse starts to pull his weight. The land goes by a little faster. I aim for one of the passages under the bridge. I weave back and forth a lot, negotiating the wakes of other boats. I make it under the bridge and head into the marina. If I pass it up, it is going to be hard to make the turn once the current is pushing me again. But I make it. I twist the throttle to slow down approaching my slip, but now it won’t slow down. I don’t want to stop by crashing into the dock or into somebody’s forty-five-thousand-dollar vessel. Turning, I cut the engine and drift into my slip and grab the dock. Now I can’t find the line that it would be so easy to slip over the cleat on the dock, but I hold on with the spring line. Turns out I’m sitting on the loop I’m looking for. I slip it over the cleat and try to pull it tight, and now the bow splays out. I’m holding two lines at once, which means I’ve got no hand left to tie a knot. So I hold one line down with my foot and tie three big knots in the other. Then I climb out and grab the fancy hook on the line at the bow and secure it. I gauge the length of the spring line and wrap it around the cleat inside the boat. I close the cap on the gas tank and adjust the lever of the gas filter and tilt the motor up. Whew. I made it.
I’m carrying my bag and my new gas can and my backpack up the gangplank to the trailer-office. They’re all there, sitting outside: Pete, Francis of Assisi, the boss, his buddy the cop. “She made it!” someone shouts. They applaud. I bow, feeling the first tiny surge of pleasure in this outing, the first return on a large deposit of frustration.