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I hate when things go kerplunk, then sink

The only good thing about dropping your car keys overboard is that they don’t splash you. You hardly even notice that dainty little “plink” as your keys and your day go down the tubes.

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However, your typical outboard is an entirely different story. The splash when you drop that over can half-drown you.

You get so wet that you don’t even mind jumping in to get it. If you can manage to just gently drop it off the stern of your dinghy it really isn’t too bad. The sea just parts to let it slide on in with a few gurgles.

If you’re still holding on to the starting cord, you can simply reel it back in. But until I was shown up by a mechanical expert, I found over my years of dropping things that the best way to drop over an outboard from the deck is to have my dinghy positioned directly underneath. It makes much less of a splash as it passes through the dinghy floor on its way to the bottom.

One day a mechanical genius friend of mine perfected an even better way, and he tried it with my outboard and dinghy. John Schwartz, of Marine Lift Technology in Fort Lauderdale, built a beautiful hydraulically operated dinghy lift/swim platform for me. With the push of a button the entire platform is designed to come up to deck level, lifting dinghy, me and a lot of cargo. He took careful measurements while we were in Fort Lauderdale, but we couldn’t wait for it to be fabricated, so we traveled on up the coast to the Chesapeake.

John fabricated the assembly precisely to his specs, put it all in the back of his pickup truck, and he and his wife, Linda, traveled all the way from Fort Lauderdale to Virginia to install it. Now, everyone knows that boat work never goes as planned, particularly something as complex as this. And it certainly doesn’t go as planned when your shop is more than a thousand miles from the boat. But the job went exactly as John had planned, to my utter amazement.

It was an astounding, miraculous accomplishment in the universe of boat work. John drove the dinghy with its 25-hp outboard onto the lift. He did this prior to installing the finishing touch of the teak cradle, just to see how well the lift would perform. He actually stood in the dinghy as he pushed the button and it rose toward the heavens (and my aft deck). We were all cheering and yelling, we were so impressed. John was so impressed he did a little jig and stepped out of the dinghy onto the deck to better admire his work. Suddenly, without his weight and without the cradle, the dinghy flipped and went over upside-down.

I learned then that if you’re going to drop an outboard and a dinghy, it’s better to do it upside-down because this controls the splash … somewhat. It was what we in the industry call a “self-contained drop.” The dinghy began swiftly floating down-current, the lower unit of the outboard dry in the breeze.

Unfortunately, all of my diving spears and other gear dropped to the bottom of the river. Fortunately, my anchor did the same, so the dinghy quickly stopped and swung upside-down, bow into the current, awaiting retrieval. It was all very convenient.

We flipped the dinghy, which floated because it had positive buoyancy. John got the engine going quickly, and that lift has worked beautifully for more than 13 years of heavy use. It was a perfect two-fer: I got a great product and learned the ideal way to drop an outboard overboard. John has made many more of these for other boats, but I don’t think he has tested them in quite the same way.

Losing your dinner

You never know what you'll haul up. That must've been some party!

Of course, there are more moderate drops between the extremes of dinghies and keys. One of my favorites is assorted grocery items. There are many ways to do this, but the best method is to have a hole rip in the bottom of the bag when it’s just between the dock and the deck.

It’s fun to stand there spread-eagled, holding a diminishing bag and trying to guess what’s making which sounds. The practiced ear can readily discern among the subtle sigh of a cucumber slipping through the waves, the firm sploosh of a large tin can of tomatoes, and the uniquely personal and strangely embarrassing plunk of a small navel orange.

Like so many things, this was much better in the olden days before the advent of plastic. Plastic bags definitely interfere with artful grocery droppings. Even snagging them on a stanchion as you swing them over seldom makes a rip. No, with plastic you pretty much have to drop the entire bag and hope that what’s in it is heavy enough to push the bag not only under the surface but also deep into the mud so the turtles won’t eat it.

I’ve never actually seen a turtle eat a plastic bag but I’ve heard they do, which is one of the reasons I prefer to drop from paper. This method usually leaves the bag in your hand with a nice hole in the bottom so that you can lend it to a friend you don’t particularly like.

Actually, like everything else I carry, I try to avoid grocery bag drops. I try to wait until I’m cooking the stuff before I drop it. The best time for this is when I’m cooking for guests on the charcoal grill hanging over the stern. Some people have a tradition of passing the plate. I have a tradition of tipping the plate, unless I’ve managed to tip the entire grill first.

I prefer to drop steak over instead of chicken because chicken is too labor-intensive. It generally doesn’t go over until after I’ve spent a lot of time brushing on Colonel Whoever’s Special Chicken Stuff. I realize that I could save a lot of effort and drop the chicken over before I start cooking, but then I’d spoil the evening. My friends wouldn’t have all that fun standing around and telling me, “Tom, you’re going to drop that chicken. I’m telling you, man, you’re going to drop that chicken.”

Once, we had a family of four aboard, including two preteen children. They were all hungry. So was I. But I dropped each and every part of two chickens into the creek when I tipped the grill. If you’re one of those people who hasn’t been blessed with dropping all of the cut-up sections of two chickens into the creek, you may not know that, like some other things, they float — unless you cook them long enough to burn all of the fat out before you drop them.

And chicken parts, being somewhat aerodynamic in shape, don’t have a great tendency to drift away on the tide, not even the wings. They just hang out down there around the dock, causing hungry bellies to growl. The crabs never come soon enough. Of course, the seagulls do, but we all know what seagulls drop. So all during dinner I had to listen to my guests say, “Tom, why didn’t you drop these beans instead?”

You’d think toolbox drops would be even more fun than grocery bags. There are so many things in my toolboxes that they could provide an infinite variety of splashes. But it doesn’t work out this way. The bottom of my box just gracefully swings away on its hinge because I always forget to tightly fasten that latch that’s supposed to keep the box closed.

With this tactic, everything has a chance to hit the drink at once. You don’t even know whether it’s a screwdriver slipping in pointed-end first or a digital volt/ohm meter that contentedly bubbles as it settles out of sight. That’s why long ago I started using toolboxes with trays hinged at the top. The big stuff in the bottom of the box still falls out in a clump, but those valuable little tools you have carefully stored in the trays take a little longer to go so that you can stand there remembering how much trouble you had finding them in the first place.

I prefer to delay the thrill of the splash by dropping things on the deck or dock first, especially things that are very small, really valuable and immensely important. Standing there watching it bounce around gives you quite a thrill. Sometimes it stops safely in the scuppers, along with all of the seeds from the bird drops, and sometimes it bounces merrily on its way right over the gunwale.

For even greater thrills and suspense, use the dock. I don’t know what the crack-to-plank ratio is for the typical dock, but I do know that the effect of the ratio is opposite what you’d expect. It’s as if those cracks have some mysterious magnetic pull. I once dropped a stainless bolt that was irreplaceable (under the circumstances) onto a dock, and with all those planks it didn’t even touch wood. It just went straight through a crack. I did drop a fish hook right over a crack, and it went in shank-first and the barb grabbed the wood on the way through. It took a pair of pliers to get it free, at which point I dropped it straight into the water — along with the pliers.

This phenomenon has caused one of the hottest and longest-lasting debates in the ancient and modern annals of seafaring. It is the issue of whether to lunge and grab for what you just dropped or let it do its thing. Many say that if you just stand there and watch, the odds are much better that it will come to rest on deck, even though you may die of anxiety while you wait. Others say you must lunge and dive after it to keep it from going over.

I usually do both. I coolly stand there with a smirk on my face as the thing totters and wobbles around and around on deck for an eternity, and then I totally lose my cool and dive head-first into the fray (and stanchions and jerry jugs and genoa blocks) to knock it overboard just before it stops.

From the top of the mast

I’ve found over the years that if you’re going to drop things on deck, it’s far better to do it from the top of the mast. Of course, if you don’t have a sailboat you miss out on this opportunity but if you do, and if you go to the top of that mast to change (i.e., drop) a light bulb or whatever, you know what I’m talking about. The first rule about dropping things on deck is to be sure that your helper is not under the mast. My helper (my wife) has long learned to be as far away as possible when I’m up there.

The second thing to remember is that you can be fairly confident the thing is going to hit the deck rather than go kerplunk, unless it’s blowing hard enough to blow it off to the side or the boat’s rolling so much that you’re hanging out over the water. In either event, you shouldn’t be up there anyway.

The third thing to remember is that you definitely don’t have to worry about catching it while it’s in the bouncing-around stage. This would involve a swan dive that would have a less than desirable termination. If you’re lucky, the thing might go through the deck or a hatch and be trapped safely below, or at least through a dinghy or Bimini top with similar results. If you’re not so lucky, it may bounce overboard after leaving a sizable deck dent. In any event, the outcome isn’t going to be good, so it’s best to just not worry about it and pull out that spare bulb or whatever that you had in your pocket so you can drop that, too.

It’s a trait of human nature that there are an exceedingly large number of droppers out there. Whenever you have many people doing something, you’re going to run into some oddities (in case you haven’t already noticed). For example, some folks have developed the art of mast-top dropping into an insidious but subtle form of torture.

A mast is full of nuts and bolts. They all play an important role in holding something up — for example, the mast itself or the pulley that supports whoever goes up there. If some skipper has anchored too close to you or committed some other form of heinous indiscretion and you really want to cause some consternation, sneaking past the boat at night and gently placing a hefty stainless steel bolt or nut on the deck in the area under the mast is going to do the trick.

When the hapless skipper finds that nut or bolt he’s got to assume that it’s one of the several million way up there on the mast, each one critical to his well-being. Going up to find the empty bolt hole — all the while wondering whether the mast, a spar or you will fall first — is not the way you want to begin your morning.

Near shore or afar?

At least soemone got dinner when the grill went over the side.

High drops aren’t the only nuance to the art. I haven’t decided whether I prefer accidentally dropping things overboard out in the ocean where it’s miles deep or in shallow water where I can dive and try to retrieve it. And if it’s a shallow-water drop, I haven’t decided whether I’d rather it be muddy or of the famed “crystal clear” variety around the islands.

There’s a certain mystery to groping around in muddy water 10 feet down, wondering about the precise identity of all those little things going through my fingers as they grope the mud. I’ve had pretty good luck at mud diving over the years. I’ve found a valuable ring, several pairs of glasses, a purse, and I’d rather not admit to some of the rest. But you never know until you feel it and get it to the top.

There is no such mystery in many anchorages in the Bahamas, where you can see the tidbit resting peacefully on the sand, just waiting to come home. You get to see everything down there, including the barracuda. Unlike the EPA, those guys think a drop off a boat is manna from heaven. They swoop in with utter delight, especially if the thing is bright and shiny.

Some of my island friends just leave the “tingum” down there until it’s needed again. They figure that’s as good a place as any to keep it, especially with the barrie hanging around to watch it. You don’t have all this to worry about if you can just manage to drop your socket wrench into several miles of ocean.

Then there is the issue of whether it’s better to accidentally drop floaters overboard rather than sinkers. We’ve discussed some of the problems with sinkers. Floaters present another set of issues. Do I reach after it with a boathook or a crab net until I drop that, too? Do I stealthily slip into the water and swim after it, hoping the sharks and barrie that I can’t see won’t hurt me? Or do I hop into the dinghy and close in, leaning over to snatch it up with my bare hands until my glasses slip off my sweaty nose, at which point I’m lucky to find my boat again, never mind the floater or the glasses. Small objects, such as keys on floats, in rough anchorages are the best. You can’t see them when you get really close in your dinghy chase boat, which is the time you run over them and chew them up with your outboard.

And adding insult to injury are the few fine folks usually standing on shore pointing and talking behind the backs of their hands (as though I could actually hear them over all my cussing) thinking I dropped whatever overboard on purpose. The way they see it, you can drop a hundred-dollar bill over, and as soon as it hits the water it becomes litter and escalates global warming. The way I see it, I’d rather drop a hundred-dollar bill than that special lock nut that cost a dime when I bought it but is worth a thousand bucks when I drop it over in the midst of an emergency repair.

Better off in the bilge

I have far less to worry about when I drop the “tingum” into the bilge. I don’t have to worry about barracuda, although sometimes I’ve wondered, and I don’t have to worry about the clarity of the water. Water clarity just isn’t an issue in my bilge. Not only can you not see even a fraction of an inch below the surface, you don’t want to see.

I had a friend who once found, buried deep in the slime of the bilge of his recently purchased very used boat, what he swears to have been a human femur. I don’t know whether there are any femurs down in my bilge, and I really don’t want to know. However, I do know there’s lots of other stuff. I’ve got so much stuff down in my bilge that rather than worry about water clarity, I worry about viscosity. We don’t need a bilge pump; we need a bilge shovel with a long handle.

There are actually some benefits with bilge drops. The viscosity probably has something to do with the fact that my bilge is very deep. It’s so deep that when I drop something into it I can count the seconds before the splash to find out how close we are to sinking. People have been dropping things down there for more than 30 years, probably for that very reason.

When I was young and naïve (when I first got this boat) I bought one of those long grabbing tools to try to retrieve all the stuff I dropped into the bilge. I brought it aboard and started exploring, thinking that pulling up whatever was already down there would give me good practice for when I dropped things later.

Tom's bilge is a treasure trove of dropped objects.

By the time I dropped the third one of these tools down there and saw it settle into the primordial slime after the first two — which I had been unable to find, much less retrieve — I gave up the concept. And I started to think about all of the invaluable stuff that previous owners and boatyard workers have deposited into my bilge in the past. I also began to remember all of the invaluable stuff I’ve contributed.

Money in the bank doesn’t do you any good anymore. They’re printing so much that it’s getting more worthless by the minute. But if you were to go the store and buy the stuff that dropped into my bilge over the years, you’d find that what you pay for it today has steadily increased from the time I dropped it.

So all that stuff is just sitting there, increasing in value and waiting for me to figure out a way to get it out. All I need is the right tools and someone with a lot of courage and very long arms. And a mining permit. There are probably so many riches down there that I could retire — and drop the subject.

March 2014 issue