My Boating History
Well, like the interest in my other activities, this one also had a definite beginning. For me, that beginning occurred sometime in the mid 1960's on my father's boat at Atlantic City New Jersey. While my father had owned small boats for longer than I've been alive, my earliest clear memories were of his first cabin cruiser, which was just large enough for my family to sleep over on, a 23' Owens. My father used this boat between 1963, and 1965. Then, in '65, he did some horse trading and when the smoke cleared, he ended up the proud owner of a 25' Norwalk, which was powered by the venerable Chrysler 318 ci. "crown" engine. This cabin cruiser had a forward "V" berth, a convertible dinette, and a "standup" bathroom with pressurized water. Two years later he would again trade up. This time to a brand new 29' Owens, equipped with the 327 ci. "backwards" Flagship marinized Chevy engine. The interior of this boat was laid out in a similar fashion to the Norwalk, only it was a few feet bigger, and a little more comfortable. By this time I was a scant 7 years old, but Dad had already allowed me to occasionally pilot this monster. I used to love running through the Absecon Inlet, past the Coast Guard station, Captain Starn's marina, Hackney's restaurant, and finally the rock jetty which marked the transition from the sometimes choppy inlet, to the surging swells of the ocean. There, the sights of pre-casino Atlantic City presented themselves before us in all its glory. The once magnificent Traymore and other equally spectacular hotels, stood proudly as an aging testament to an earlier age of splendor and opulence. Further on, there was the Steeplechase Pier, the Steel Pier, and the dilapidated "Million Dollar Pier", along with many other sights of a city in decline from it's earlier glory days as a place for the rich and famous to cavort, but now serving as a place for the common folk to enjoy the beach and the famous boardwalk.
I never gave it much thought, as I enjoyed my piloting duties, but it seemed to draw the attention of the tour boat passengers to see this little kid operating such a large cabin boat, while my parents calmly sunned themselves in the cockpit. As we passed them by, many of these bewildered tour patrons would point in our direction and some would whip out their little "Instamatic" cameras and take pictures. I never understood what the big deal was. I could also dock this thing which, as a single screw inboard, was a supposedly difficult thing to do. But I never had much difficulty once Dad taught me how to do it right, and I just mimic'ed his actions. On the other hand, Dad only let me dock it if the wind was calm, and the tide wasn't running heavily. I have many memories of boating related activities from that time period, like watching the diving horse jump during the Steel Pier show from our own private seat 200 yards out from the pier. On those few weekends when Dad went down to the boat by himself, I'd watch the Ed Hurst dance show on TV, which broadcast from the Steel Pier back then. As the show panned their cameras out over the ocean, I would look to see if I could see him fishing out there. On at least one occasion, I actually did see him out there. Dad enjoyed fishing, and I fondly remember his many fishing escapades. It wasn't too bad when we used to drift fish in the inlet, and we'd both catch flounders. But when he trolled for Bluefish, I soon realized that I was very prone to seasickness. It only bothered me if I wasn't driving, or if we were going slow. This might be one reason why I prefer high speed boating today. Dad also used me to perform many of the "bilge rat" duties, as I was considerably smaller than he was. It was my job to descend into the cramped, dark and dingy recesses of the bilge and turn on and off the switches and shutoff valves which were down there. It was a fun time, and I learned a lot about boats. But like many other stories, this chapter had an abrupt ending in July of 1969 when my father passed away. My mother could not keep the boat (heck, she didn't even drive a car), and it was sold. Shortly before that, my older brother took his kids and me down to check on it. I tried to twist his arm into taking in out one last time, but he wouldn't go for it. That was the last time I was on a boat until......
Fast forward to the spring of 1974. I was now a 14 year old teenager and I had been invited to spend some weekends at the lakeside vacation home of a radio friend (Whitey), on Lake Wallenpaupack, in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. Whitey had an 18' blue metalflake 1971 Sidewinder jet boat, powered by a 455 ci. Oldsmobile engine and coupled to a Berkeley jet drive. I had been used to salt water boating and larger, heavier cabin boats which never went more than about 25 MPH, so it was a major new experience for me to feel the neck snapping acceleration as this relatively small boat literally leapt on plane and ran up to around 60 MPH. It was like an "E" ticket thrill ride, until I finally got used to it. I spent 2 summers up at the lake and discovered two new loves; performance boating, and freshwater lakes.
For the next 6 years, I had very limited exposure to boating. An occasional ride in a neighbor's boat down on my local waterway the Schuylkill River, was pretty much it. I started to give some serious thought about buying a boat of my own. I was hooked on jet boats and wanted a fast one, but the cost was still prohibitive and my funds were a little short, as I had only just started working full time. But I was in the process of saving up for that eventual day.
At the end of 1981, I met Art, another radio friend, and I found out that he had two boats; A 14' Crosby, with a Mercury 50 HP outboard, and a 26' Pacemaker cabin boat, which he kept down at Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. We ended up spending the following summer horsing around, drinking beer, and anchoring out and filling the air with alcohol inspired guitar music, and some slightly off-key vocals. Art's Pacemaker was laid-out very similar to my father's boats and it brought back many of my childhood recollections of salt water boating. It would become clear by the end of that summer, that my plans for purchasing a boat would get bumped up in priority.
That fall, I ended up trading Art my 1972 Ford pickup truck for his 14' Crosby. Not exactly the jet powered rocket that I originally set my sights on. But it floated, ran and, best of all, it was now mine. I could still save up for a better boat in the future, but at least I had the means to get on the water now. I could not wait until that next spring, when the weather warmed up enough to get the boat ready to run. It was barely April and I already had the motor mounted and I was working feverously to get the boat ready. A much needed tune-up, a little lube here and there, and a few adjustments, and she was ready to go. Top speed for the Crosby was about 36 MPH. Not exactly a speed demon, but I could pull a (lightweight) skier with it. I, along with my soon-to-be-wife, used that boat for the remainder of 1983 and for another season after that. I would then sell it in 1985.
The fall of 1983 also had me wanting a boat which I could keep down at the shore (Art was still down there), and sleep out on. It just so happened that a guy I knew had just the thing, a 1970 Westwind 23', with an OMC stringer stern drive and a cuddy cabin. Its 231ci. V6 engine had spun bearings, and I figured that I could pick it up cheap, and have the motor rebuilt. So come November (why do I always end up buying boats at the end of the season?), I purchased this 23 footer and began cleaning it up (It was full of tree crud). The next spring, I had the engine rebuilt, and I installed it and prepared for a season of "fun" in Barnegat Bay.
At this point, I should also reflect on just how foolishly naive and crazy I was about towing capacity and safety back then. I initially had for a tow vehicle, a 1968 International Scout with a 266 ci. engine and a 3 speed manual transmission. While this little Jeep-like SUV had no problem pulling the 14' Crosby, it was only equipped with a class 1 hitch, which is normally rated for a 2000 Lb maximum towed load. That little tidbit didn't deter me from attempting to pull the 23' Westwind with it, which weighed considerably more. To make matters worse, the Westwind's trailer had been fitted with electric brakes (Why anyone would put electric brakes on a boat trailer which got regularly dipped in salt water, is beyond me) which, of course, did not work. So as I found myself taking this boat down to a local garage with a hoist, in order to put the freshly rebuilt engine back in, I realized en-route that the brakes on the Scout would not safely stop within a reasonably safe distance, from any speed above a slow crawl down the long hill which I had to descend. But I took it slow and carefully, and somehow I made it. I put the boat engine back in, and then made the equally harrowing trip back UP the hill ( I couldn't shift above 2nd gear), and back home. The lesson learned here was that I needed a beefier tow vehicle. So I did just that and picked up a 1976 Ford F-150 4X4, with a 360 ci. engine and a 4 speed manual transmission with a "creeper" 1st gear. But once again, my propensity toward being overly frugal, overrode any good sense that I might've otherwise had then. Instead of simply paying the $150 or so to have a good class 3 frame mounted hitch installed, I instead had a friend fabricate one and weld it up for free. And you'd think I would've learned, after the first time trying to use it, as the bumper and hitch mount bent back and almost broke off under the weight of the trailer. But no, it was back to the weld shop for more rigid bracing and another try. This time, the hitch held and I managed to tow the boat all the way down to Barnegat Bay without a "hitch" (bad pun, I know). By the end of the summer, I had traded the truck in for a full-sized Dodge conversion van, and I finally had the good sense to equip it with a proper class 3 frame mounted hitch. I guess fortune really does favor the foolish at times.
My apparent foolishness, and misplaced frugality, did not extend to just the trailer and hitch however. I also had some crusty engine exhaust manifolds on the boat's engine which, by any account, should have been replaced. But once again, my cheap side showed through and I ended up trying to salvage what I had. I was not totally successful, as a few of the water passages remained partially clogged. But in spite of all that, I had a decent summer with the boat. It never sank and it ran ok although, for whatever reason, the oil pressure seemed to drop off if you ran it above 3000 RPM (Which you had to do to keep it on plane) for any length of time. I was afraid of spinning the bearings again, so I never ventured very far and spent a lot of time running off-plane. A trip out to the "68" buoy and back was about it for me. By the end of the summer of 1984, a sharp rise in the cost of dock space, issues with kenneling a large dog every weekend, and rain seemingly every other weekend, sort of put the "damper" (here we go with the puns again) on my salt water boating experience, and ended my stay at the marina. Plus I was still feeling that need for speed (The 23 footer hit maybe 28 MPH, in a tail wind), and since Art had just bought a jet boat, I figured it was about time that I finally gave in to my inner desires, and I entered the high performance arena.
At the end of August 1984 (Here we go with the end of season purchases again), I bought a 1975 Tahiti 18' Jet boat with a 460 ci. Ford engine, and a Berkeley jet drive. This boat had over the transom open headers, which made it a very loud and proud ride. Fortunately, this was before the local municipalities started getting really strict with noise, so I didn't get into any real trouble with the local waterways policemen. Although on one river outing, a local Fish Commission officer did threaten to bring down his "dec-E-bell" meter and test it. I wondered how a guy who couldn't even pronounce "decibel", could figure out how to work it..... This boat would do between 60 and 62 MPH. It also had a "Jet-o-vator" adjustable nozzle trim control. While it didn't seem to affect the top end speed all that much, it did put out a nice rooster tail which looked good, unless of course, you happened to be skiing behind the boat (Evil Grin!). I brought this boat down for the Labor Day end-of-season bash in Barnegat Bay. Lucky for Art that I did, or he might still be sitting on that sandbar....
In 1985, the 23' Westwind spent most of the season sitting on the trailer in my yard, with the exception of the weekend of the local regatta. I towed that behemoth down to the local launch ramp and, with the help of a bunch of friends, (Ironic, since I later towed a 24' boat by myself, with little trouble) launched it in the Schuylkill river for a day of partying. We had 11 people at one point hanging out on the boat, while we were anchored and watching the races. Most of the rest of that year would see the Tahiti serving primary duty as river racer and ski platform, with an occasional weekend jaunt up to Lake Wallenpaupack. I finally taught my wife to water ski behind this boat, and I managed to suppress the overwhelming temptation to kick up the rooster tail while she was skiing.
In 1986, I would sell both the Westwind and the Tahiti, and would buy a brand new Hydrostream Valero YT. An outboard powered, Mod/VP tunnel/"V" hybrid hull design, this boat would be my fastest to date, reaching speeds of 75 MPH with a 175 HP Mercury Black Max V6 outboard, and a 28" pitch chopper prop. The modified tunnel design lent itself to some strange, un-boat-like handling habits. For instance, this boat would remain almost completelyflat in a turn, instead of heeling over the way a deep "V" hull normally would. The G-forces in those turns took a little getting used to, but were good for a quick rush. The boat also had a tendency to "chine walk" if you advanced the trim a little too far for the speed you were going. The biggest downside to this lightweight boat (boat and engine weighed in at just over 1200 Lbs.), was a propensity to get bounced around if things got too choppy. Fortunately, at this point, I was still spending most of my weekends at the local river, and water surface conditions never really got too far out of hand there. But our occasional trips to Lake Wallenpaupack were often a little on the rough side. Despite the shortcomings in ride comfort however, I would use this boat up until the early summer of 1990, when my expanding boating horizons would force me to make a change.
It's comforting to note here, that as my education of all things boat related grew (and my income as well), my appreciation for safety and good trailering practices increased along with it. My ever changing tow vehicles were all outfitted with the proper hitches, and the lights were always wired correctly. But I was still only running a class 1 trailer. Things would get a little more interesting starting in 1990.......
By 1990, I had been hanging out with a group of people, who I nicknamed the "River Rats", because we usually hung out down at the local river, but we also liked to occasionally venture to other waters for weekend camping trips. In 1989, I had gotten my first taste of Lake Aldred, a dammed up section of the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, Pa. In early 1990, I also added Harvey's Lake (just north of Wilkes Barre Pa.), to the growing list of new waterways. Larger waterways brought about larger wakes and chop, and it wasn't long before the shortcomings in rough water comfort of the Hydrostream starting getting to my wife (And I wasn't all too thrilled with getting my guts shook up either), any time we visited a body of water larger than the local river. Sensing that if I wanted her continued company, I'd better do something to rectify the situation soon. After she got a ride in another friend's 21' Chaparral Villain II, and felt the difference in how a larger boat handled the chop, that was it. The death knell had rung for the Hydrostream. So, in July of 1990 (Hey, I'm getting earlier!), I traded in the Hydrostream for a leftover 1989 22' Sea Ray Pachanga. This boat was powered by the Mercruiser 7.4L 300 HP 454, Bravo One stern drive package. A full 12 MPH slower than the Hydrostream, but a ton classier and much more comfortable in chop. This boat would end up being one of my all-time favorites. The Pachanga would become the workhorse for many multiple tube pulls (We had up to 5), skiers, and just nice cruises. But like most good things, this boat had a downside. I had to keep taking it back for service for what I thought (and the dealer initially confirmed) was excessive drive noise. I missed many weekends while the boat sat in the shop, off and on over the next 3 years. During one such trip, the drive was stolen, and the Sun platform/Engine cover was damaged by someone trying to pry it open (Just open the lid with the electric switch you dimwit thief). In the end (3 years later), it was determined that the noise was "normal" (It took them 3 years and a bunch of parts to figure this out?). Needless to say, I was not comfortable with this hasty conclusion, so I started looking for a new boat in 1994.
Toward the end of 1994, I found a new boat (Here we go back to the end of season stuff again). I wanted a boat laid out as close to the Pachanga as possible, as I really liked the boat, even if the mechanicals gave me the willies. I settled on a 23' Stingray 698 zp. Equipped with a 454 Magnum 350 H.P. Mercruiser, this boat would hit about 68-70 MPH, while retaining many of the advantages of the Pachanga, including a cuddy cabin and plenty of room to lounge. This boat also had the optional bimini top and camper canvas package, which came in handy when we got caught in a quick summer shower while out on the water. The Stingray was ok for the type of boating we had been doing, and it was light on its "feet". Part of the reason why Stingray boats perform so well, is that they are built on the light weight side. This would have a downside, as I was about to find out. Since, like most things in my life, my boating habits were about to change once again.....
During the 1995 season, the "River Rats" expanded their boating horizons once again. We started becoming more frequent visitors to the Delaware River, and the Chesapeake Bay. Both of these waterways got pretty choppy on a busy weekend. The size of the boats there increased considerably, and we also had to deal with an occasional commercial ship or tug. The Stingray started pounding the chop fairly hard, which felt like a case of deja-vu reminiscent of the Hydrostream in comparison, and it didn't feel all that solid when it did. By the end of 1995, when it was clear that we would be spending more time at these larger waterways (a heck of a lot larger, and much more interesting than the local river), I started thinking about another boat with a deeper "V". When I started seeing longitudinal stress cracks developing under the hull of the Stingray, that made up my mind.
In July of 1996, I traded the Stingray in for a 24' Checkmate Convincor 242, with a 502 ci. Chevy engine and Mercruiser Bravo 1 stern drive. A foot longer than the Stingray, and almost 1000 Lbs heavier (and 70+ more horsepower), it still managed to hit between 68 and 70 MPH. More importantly, this boat sliced through most wakes and chop, like a knife through butter. This boat was a true "offshore" style performance boat, with drop down bolster seats, and a very short windshield. It also had a 24 degree deadrise, which helped it to slice through the water. But it also made it very sensitive to weight distribution, and it heeled over greatly when turning. I added trim tabs to help out in these areas. This boat was just what the doctor ordered for those jaunts to the larger waterways. We were finally set, or so I thought.....
Not surprisingly, after only 2 seasons, my lifestyle would once again take another turn. In 1998, my wife started losing interest in making the long trek to the Chesapeake every weekend, and she never really liked the Delaware. What used to be an every weekend activity turned into a twice a month activity, and I found myself alone on many trips. After having the Chesapeake Bay as my playground, the local Schuylkill River seemed like a bathtub by comparison, and I grew bored with it. In 1999, boating took a back seat to preparing to move to a new home. My wife was also pregnant, so boating was pretty much out for her, although we did manage to make one trip to Lake Wallenpaupack.
As of 2005: I still have the Checkmate. But now that my increasingly limited spare time is divided between "daddy duties", chores around our new home, and other activities, I don't get out in the boat much. The last two years (2003 & 2004) had me taking the boat out only 3 times each. A dismal contrast to what I had been doing in years past. I still hold out hope that conditions will change a bit again (They always do), and I'll have more opportunities to get out in the future.
The Future: Who really knows? My family situation is changing year to year. On one hand, I'd like to have a larger cabin boat again which I could spend a weekend on, and cruise big water like the Chesapeake without the hassle of trailering. On the other hand, I'd also like a smaller, easier to trailer and easier for the wife to handle boat, so that we can enjoy skiing and tubing on local waters, with a minimum of hassle. I can't realistically afford both (unless I want something very old, and/or in need of work). Both my wife and I like Lake Wallenpaupack, but I wouldn't want keep a large cabin boat there (Lake rules do not allow overnighting). A smaller boat might also be a regression to the days of pounding on rough water. I don't yet know whether my daughter will inherit my love for boating, and much of my decision depends on this.
So many variables, so little time. Fortunately, it's not a decision that I have to make right now.....
Update 2007: Well it looks like smaller and ski/tube friendly boat won out as I sold the Checkmate last year and picked up an Azure AZ-228. This boat has a much more family oriented layout and amenities. It's also heavy enough that it doesn't pound in typical lake chop. It's also considerably slower than the Checkmate and I'm still adjusting to this, and trying to squeeze every ounce of performance that I can out of it. So the book is still open on my boating history.......
Update 2013: I've completed my 6th season with the Azure. While not the high speed rockets of my younger days, this boat has proven itself to be a very dependable and comfortable platform for family related water activities. I've also settled on Lake Wallenpaupack as my primary waterway, and I have a seasonal campsite there which makes for the ideal summer getaway.