A Night Time Cruise In a Rubber Raft?
....A case where fortune was definitely favoring the foolish.
Have you ever done something totally foolish in your younger days? No, I'm not talking about getting a tattoo, or a nipple ring. No, I'm talking about something truly foolhearty where, if things had turned out just a bit differently, you might not be here to tell about it. Yea, I guess it's normal for most guys do some crazy things in their wild youth. Whether drag racing their cars, driving a little drunk, to performing risky daredevil stunts in the hope of impressing some hot girl, all while simultaneously trying to avoid becoming that year's next Darwin Award candidate, it's all part of the game. If you've ever hollered "Hey y'all (or "you'se guys") watch this!" before doing something crazy, you're one of those people.
I've always considered myself to be a person of sound rational thinking. Even my "wild" youth period was tame compared to most guys in my age group. I was not much of a risk taker, as I was acutely aware of the dangers and normally thought otherwise of risky activities. But there have been a few instances in my life where I did take a few unnecessary risks. This blatant deviation from my "play it safe at all costs" behavior was not due to any sudden desire to throw caution to the wind and live dangerously. No, worse than that, it was mostly because I was either simply not aware of, or grossly underestimated the nature or severity of the risks involved. In other words, in my ignorance, I didn't think I was really doing anything dangerous. This is the story of one such case.
Back in the beginning of the 1982 boating season, my newly found friend Art and I were down at Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, readying his 26' Pacemaker for the upcoming summer season. That Saturday afternoon, we had unwinterized the engine, fitted out the things that needed to be fitted, caulked up all the seems between the hull planking (You had to do this for wooden boats), and painted the bottom. We were pretty much ready to roll. The marina operator had grabbed up the boat with the travel lift, and had placed it in the water late in the afternoon. With a plank hulled wooden boat, the boat has to sit in the lift slings for several hours for the wood to swell up and seal up the leaks. Before that happens, there's nothing preventing the boat from quickly sinking to the bottom except for the cradle on the travel lift. When they leave the boat on the slings, they let the boat settle just below the normal waterline so that the upper hull side planks swell as well. This results in there being about 3 or 4 inches of water on the cabin floor, which makes the boat pretty much uninhabitable until the planks swell up enough that the bilge pump is able to pump more water out than what leaks in. So rather than wade through ankle-deep cabin water, Art and I went out to eat dinner and check out some of the local area. A few hours later we returned only to see a couple of inches of water still in the cabin. So now what? Well, we were always drinking beer at the marina, and this night was no exception and we were feeling pretty good. So Art suggests that we take his inflatable rubber raft out in the bay. I, someone who never passes up an opportunity to get out on the water, said "sure why not". Now before I go any further, I have to explain that this raft was not a military, commercial, or even a Coast Guard approved life raft. No, this raft was basically one of those "K-Mart blue light specials", only one or two steps above a swimming pool toy. It was also small. One normal sized adult could sit in it comfortably. But here we were, two 6' tall guys about to sit in this thing and paddle around in "big water". That should have been warning #1, but for some reason, the raft seemed bigger at the time, which may have had something to do with our condition of mind, which was in an altered state due to our usual sensibility inhibitor; Beer. Yea, when you drink a lot of beer, your fears diminish along with your normally sound judgment. To make matters worse, we decided to turn our raft-bound voyage into a "booze cruise", by bringing along even more beer with us. There is also this unwritten cosmic formula, where things always seem to happen in threes, so to round off our axis of potential disasters, we also brought along a bundle of bottle rockets, which we intended to shoot while we aimlessly floated around the bay. The one thing that we should have brought along, life jackets, were conspicuously missing, probably because Art didn't have any. So, with little further contemplation, and seemingly oblivious to the potential dangers, we drove the short distance to the public dock (one block away), and pumped up the raft with a 12V inflator. The sun had set a couple of hours ago, and it had become pretty dark by now, with only the pole-mounted lights of the public dock to see by. We carried the freshly inflated raft to the edge of the water at the bottom of the boat launch, and ever so carefully set ourselves down into it at opposite ends of the raft facing each other, with our beer and fireworks sitting between us. With a single plastic paddle to propel ourselves, we set off on our adventure. As might be expected, we were not able to stay totally dry for long as water either seeped or splashed into the bottom. The water temperature in the bay was still fairly cool as it was still the beginning of the season, but it didn't seem to bother us all that much as our shorts got progressively wetter. At first, Art had the crazy idea that we could paddle all the way over to Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island at the other side of the bay, and hit a bar or two over there. But after about 10 minutes of intensive paddling, we realized that the distance was just too great for paddle power alone. So we quit that quest and decided instead to just meander around the bay. As we paddled further away from the public dock, the quiet of the still and windless night became apparent. The bay was, fortunately for us, glass smooth. The moon was out, and the night was on the cool side, but still pleasant. It was really a classic Zen moment. So we celebrated this existential surrealism by popping the top on another pair of beers. The quiet and serenity of the Zen, was about to be replaced by the silliness of intoxication. As I finished my beer, we now had the bottle from which to launch our barrage of bottle rockets. We started off by shooting bottle rockets at the shadows of the nearby small marsh islands. But they neither fought back nor reacted at all, so that became boring relatively quickly. We then turned our attention toward the now distant public dock. We unleashed a barrage of rockets in that direction and managed to scare off a couple of teenagers who were looking for love in the shadows of the public dock's bandstand gazebo. I guess, the sudden appearance of popping rockets all around them broke their "concentration". They could not figure out where the pops were coming from, so they just left. We then discovered that a rocket shot straight into the water would continue on and explode with a visible flash further underwater. We then started shooting underwater torpedoes, much to the chagrin of the local fish population I'm sure. This alternating air-sea attack lasted until we ran out of rockets. By this time I noticed that the raft seemed to be getting softer. We had been out for over an hour, and now it appeared that we had a slow leak. As I felt around the outer edge of the raft, I located a slow, but steady stream of small bubbles floating to the surface of the water. Oh Shit!, we're sinking in the middle of the bay! Well, it wasn't exactly the middle of the bay, but we were about 1/2 mile out from our point of departure. Suddenly, returning to terra firma had become our top priority. It took us well over an hour to get as far out as we were, but it took less than half of that time to return as we took turns frantically paddling with our single paddle. Well, we eventually made it back to the public dock, and we hauled our semi-soaked butts out of our slowly deflating raft, and back on to hard dry land. As usual, we really didn't contemplate how close to disaster we had just come but rather, we just laughed it off, and (you guessed it!) popped the top on yet another beer. We went back to the Pacemaker still sitting on the slings, and were happy to see that the bilge pump was now pumping out water faster than it was seeping in and the floor in the cabin was free of water. So as we found ourselves tired from the night's adventure, we went aboard and bunked down for the night. And so another story comes to a happy ending, and earning a place in my personal history.............
Now, some 25+ years later as I write up this little memory, I'm sitting here contemplating the recklessness of our "adventure". So I tried to come up with all the potentially bad things which could have happened, but thankfully didn't.
Well, the first, and probably most important, thing was that we didn't have personal floatation devices. Had the raft deflated, capsized, or we somehow fell out, we were far enough away from land that a swim would have worn us out, and drowning was a distinct possibility. A PFD would have prevented that. In the words of Dora the Explorer: "Lifejackets, so we can be safe". If you have small children, you know what I'm talking about. If not, don't worry, I'm really not on drugs, trust me.
Then there was the fact that we were out in the dead of night without so much as a flashlight or some other means to illuminate our presence. If someone had been out there in a boat (we saw no one else fortunately), it was possible that we could have been run down. Death by boat prop? Not a pretty thought.
Then there was the issue of the raft itself. It was not really designed for what were were using it for, and it was likely that we were overloading it. Then there was the slow leak. I don't know if the leak was there when we started, or whether it developed as a result of us overloading the raft. In any case, the raft was not a dual chamber raft like Coast Guard approved products and had it gotten worse, the whole thing would have likely deflated.
Related to that was the issue of the time of year and the water temperature. When the Titanic sunk and 1500 people died, most of them died from hypothermia, not drowning. While the water temperature in Barnegat Bay in June is quite a bit warmer than the north Atlantic in April, it was still cold enough to have an effect if we had found ourselves suddenly immersed in the water far from shore.
Only 1 paddle? Sheesh, it was tough enough to row a boat to begin with (where's that big block Chevy when you need it?). But using a single paddle was asking for trouble. We were lucky that the wind and weather were stable. If a stiff wind would have started pushing us further out, we might not have had enough paddle power to get back.
And last, but certainly not least, was our semi-intoxicated state of mind. I don't remember ever being drop dead drunk at anytime I was on the boat, but the beer was always there, and it flowed freely. Being in a less than sober state of mind could have made it tougher to swim ashore or may have precipitated some other problem.
Yep, this little outing could have cost either one or both of us our lives, had things gone horribly wrong. But fortune was favoring the foolish that night, and I can now look back at this and laugh. But kids, please don't try this at home.......