More money, fewer problems? Not really

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I’ve always wondered whether cruising would be more fun if I had a lot of money. I can’t speak from a wealth of experience, but I do believe that a ton or two of money would make a difference. But some of us have to just get by on seamanship, which may be more valuable than the bucks.

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We saw what money can do some years ago when we were hanging out at a beautiful island in the far eastern Bahamas, although I’m not sure that a little el cheapo chart reading wouldn’t have been better.

It had taken us weeks to get there from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and we were enjoying our wonderful, relaxed island time. One afternoon, as we were sitting on the hill looking out on the flat-calm ocean, we saw a huge go-fast boat screaming in toward the harbor.

A flat-calm ocean is great for making time if you’re on a fast boat, but when the light is wrong the water can be just like a mirror. In the Bahamas, the best navigation often is done by reading the water. You look down into it and see the bottom or look ahead and see the changes in color and patterns. The gentleman skimming along on this mirror wasn’t doing either. He was following his chart plotter. It had a waypoint punched in but clearly didn’t have much information about the reefs surrounding the island. There’s only one way through. It requires a lot of care and caution to navigate the passage, but that didn’t matter on this afternoon because the guy wasn’t anywhere near that narrow passage.

The sound of obscenely expensive stainless steel props hitting reef at ultra-high rpm is screamingly awesome … unless the props are on your boat. Which they weren’t, so that won’t ever be a problem for me, unless I win the lottery, and probably not even then. This sound was even more awesome than usual, and we realized why when the locals finally got him to the dock. Those props were so high-tech they had multiple banks of blades, although you couldn’t tell how “multiple” because they were all wrapped around each other.

There's more than one way to remedy a prop failure.

Rumor quickly spread around the island that they cost about $15,000 — each. The gentleman, no doubt, had money, but he also had a problem. He had to get to San Juan, Puerto Rico, by the next day, having left Fort Lauderdale in calm seas much earlier in the day. His trip would have taken me perhaps a month, not only because I have a slow boat but also because of my overwhelming fetish for caution. It was clear that this gentleman was accustomed to having his way when he wanted his way, and he had thought he was going to just “drive” to San Juan in a couple of days, no matter what. But he wasn’t going to have it his way this time.

If this had been our boat, Chez Nous, money would have been no problem because I wouldn’t have had it in the first place. Money wasn’t a problem for him because he obviously had plenty of it. But he had other problems. He immediately called Fort Lauderdale on his sat phone and arranged for someone to fly out two propellers. No problem. He not only had a fast boat, but he also had a fast plane, and the trip wouldn’t take much more than a few hours. It didn’t, but then the problems began.

Two employees were on the plane. They not only had the job of flying the plane and shepherding the props, but also had to install them in paradise. After a considerable amount of circling to convince themselves that what they were seeing below was actually a landing strip, they landed in the one clearing on the island big enough to land in — kind of — and found that it was, indeed, the landing strip, if not exactly up to their expectations.

They promptly whipped out their cellphones to call the “Boss” and have him pick them up. At that time, cellphones out there were about as useful as whispering at a Rolling Stones concert. In most places you didn’t get a weak signal; you got no signal. So Boss, who had seen his plane circling, was waiting in his boat for the two guys with the $15,000 props. The guys were stuck at the airstrip, wondering why there wasn’t a welcoming party and wondering what they should do.

This being a typical paradise landing strip, it was hot and dusty, with so many mosquitoes that local pilots laughed about having to make instrument landings. There weren’t any taxis available because there weren’t any taxis on the island. Even if they could have called Boss on their cellphones, he wouldn’t have been able to pick them up. He had refused to accept the one rental car on the island, even though the car’s owner had patiently explained that the two flat tires weren’t all that bad because they were only flat on one side — the bottom. The other car on the island had a problem with its transmission. It didn’t have one.

Tom would rather not shell out a fistful of dollars to have someone else do his boat work.

There was also an old Ford F150 pickup with a Peterbilt sign wired to the grill. It was not only running, but it also had great air conditioning because none of the windows would roll up. The only problem was that we happened to be in it at the time, having some fun dragging a cloud of dust around the island.

We just happened to pass by the landing strip shortly after the plane had landed. When you’re on an island that just got electricity a few years ago and you see a fresh swarm of mosquitoes surrounding a fancy plane and two guys who are standing there slapping themselves and scowling at their cellphones, you naturally stop to ask. They knew they had landed on the right island — they had seen Boss’s boat at the dock as they approached — but they didn’t understand how they were going to get the props, not to mention themselves, to the dock. The wild longhorn cows and goats they had seen running through the brush as they landed discouraged treks into the unknown.

The back of our truck had even better air conditioning than the cab, so they eagerly hopped in when we told them we’d take them to Boss, carrying with them the props, tools and scuba gear. He was waiting right where the boat had glided to a stop near a fish-cleaning dock, with its normal entourage of sharks waiting for their next dinner of fish giblets and heads. Nobody thanked us, but that was OK because we were busy getting a good spot to see the show.

After some discussion about who was going in first and the division of labor required by the job, not to mention the possible division of body parts, and after a remarkable diatribe from Boss, the point of which was very clear, the guys hopped into the water with the props and a prayer. I guess the sharks preferred fish because by the end of the day the new props were installed and nobody had been bitten. The next day, Boss was on his way down-island again, plugging along through the crystal-clear water at 60 knots, looking for San Juan, barring a meeting with some other rock. All he’d had to do was spend money and sit back drinking Kalik beer. He never carried spares, he said, because they slowed him down.

The poor man's depth finder is a transducer mounted to PVC pipe that's pushed down into the water when needed.

I carry spares because I can’t afford not to, being at the opposite end of the affluence spectrum. And unlike Mr. Boss, I didn’t have to worry about being slowed down because I couldn’t go fast in the first place. I will admit, however, that in my earlier days on the water I didn’t carry spare props, not only because of poverty but also for other reasons. One was that the cabin I built on the bow of one of my early skiffs was so heavy that the boat cruised on a reverse plane. The bow was continuously trying to dive while the stern was so high in the air I never had to worry about my prop hitting bottom. I was lucky if it hit the water.

When I became more of a high-tech boater I had my poor man’s depth finder. It was a transducer mounted to the bottom of a long PVC pipe attached to the transom of my dinghy with a U-bolt. If I worried about hitting the bottom, I reached back and pushed the pipe down so that the transducer sent me the signal by hitting the bottom before the prop. If I tired of being told where it was too shallow, I just pulled the pipe up. This definitely made me appreciate the need for spares. But they weren’t necessarily a rich man’s spares. For example, instead of carrying a spare propeller for my dinghy’s outboard, I carried fat screws and a screwdriver and, as backup spares for those spares, square-cut masonry nails and a hammer.

In my earlier outboard days, even though I hardly had a penny in my pocket, I felt wealthy if I had a few shear pins in my pocket. When the prop hit a rock in those days, it broke its shear pin and started spinning on the shaft. The correct shear pin could fix a free-spinning prop quickly and easily. Shear pins were cheap, so I was always wealthy, except when I put on the wrong shorts, the ones with the holes in the pockets.

But the world steadily improved until we reached the point that this most perfect of easy fixes morphed into something much less practical and much more expensive (along with the rest of boating). The prop is now affixed to its hub not by cheap shear pins but by rubber inserts. When you hit the bottom — which is what outboards, at least mine, naturally do — you tear it and then have to send it to a special shop to have it replaced, or buy another prop, which may be the cheaper option. This may be a good idea for outboard manufacturers. They say it’s good for me, too, because the torn rubber will hold a little and allow me to limp home slowly. It’s actually a bad idea for me because I’m usually far out in the boondocks, where you can neither ship nor buy a prop. And I usually strip my inserts so thoroughly that I couldn’t limp home if it were across a narrow creek and I had a long paddle.

So poverty has taught me a lesson. If I strip my rubber insert, I screw enough of those fat screws into said insert so that it expands and once again holds the prop to the shaft, albeit a bit poorly. If that doesn’t work, I hammer enough of those square-cut nails into the insert so that I hopefully get the same temporary fix. It’ll get me back to my mother ship, if not San Juan. And I feel awfully good screwing those inserts and even better beating on any part of my outboard with a hammer.

Poverty is like that: It can make you feel good. Of course, being on a boat can make you feel good, too. Surely there is a lesson in all this. Because although poverty doesn’t get you into a boat, a boat can sure get you into poverty. So I’ll stop whining about money. I’ll enjoy my boat and just figure out more ways to enjoy the poverty it brings me.

May 2015 issue