Back in the early 1980s, a good friend of mine who we'll call Chuckles bought himself a brand new speedboat. Not second hand, mind you. Brand new right off the showroom floor. He christened his new pride and joy Highball, after his soon-to-be favorite cocktail (which is whiskey, club soda and ice for anyone who doesn't know or can't remember), and made plans for the good old maiden voyage. This was in the middle of August, when the air conditioning is the only thing that saves you, the bread winner, from coming completely unglued over the last little stunt the oldest has pulled with the family car, or the teenage daughter's incessant whining about unchaperoned overnight parties and what all the other girls get to do, or the old ball and chain who is agitating for a new dishwasher. The August heat is palpable. It stays in the triple digits during the day and barely cools off at night. Lake Erie looks very promising. A speedboat is just the thing.
The Highball was 28 feet of bright white fiberglass and chrome, with a small cabin that encapsulated a kitchenette, a marine head with shower attachment, and a settee that converted into two bunks. The beast was powered (maybe over-powered) by an inboard GM 455 with two four barrel carburetors, and an outboard drive. The engine compartment was just forward of the stern, and had a pair of nifty trap doors you opened up to look at the beast - and make no mistake, the 455 is a real beast.
So invitations are distributed, and I managed to land one that is good for two people. I suspect the motivation for inviting me had a lot more to do with the girl I was casually dating at the time than anything else. Ditz, the love of my life, was 5'4" and stacked. She was the kind of girl you don't take home to mama, and she favored bikinis that were illegal in 12 States. Ditz had a real attitude, too. One time when some old bag told Ditz that she objected to Ditz's somewhat abbreviated swimwear (bare butt), Ditz obligingly removed her top and asked her detractor if she looked better now. I sure know how to pick 'em, don't I?
So it was me and Ditz, Chuckles and his own ball and chain, Chiclets, who tolerated Chuckles right up until... never mind. And two more couples, Greaseman and his wife Monster, and the other couple Lightweight and Brilliance. Greaseman (not his real name) was a mechanical engineer by trade and by accident; his wife Monster was a jealous, overly possessive little twist who possibly suffered brain damage at some point in her life, and was now a full blown psychotic. No, I'm not kidding, and no, I haven't been drinking. Monster would continually berate Greaseman for looking at other women and thinking thoughts about them, when the reality was just the opposite. Go figure, right? As for Lightweight, two beers put him under the table. He was also an engineer of some stripe, but I never learned what kind. Brilliance was the only person on board that I thought was pretty much okay. She was attractive in that better than average, polite sort of way. I think she was a nurse or something.
So that Saturday morning we managed to assemble at the Harbor View Yacht Club in Point Place, where we had to convince some kind of rent-a-cop that we really did belong there, and we were looking for the Highball, and no, we didn't mean a morning snort. I finally found Chuckles (he was wandering around the marina looking for us), and we got everything sorted out.
I believe I should mention at this time that none of us has any experience with boats or the water, except maybe Ditz who said she dated a guy for a while that had a nice boat, but he turned out to be married, and she was smoking a lot of weed back then anyway so she never remembered much. I can really pick 'em, right? To be fair, my own experience was limited to a canoe and various rivers in Michigan, and that's it.
We piled in, got the five dollar tour, then Chuckles fired up the mill and headed out from the dock. There was a sharp jerk and funny snapping noise, then the Highball went sideways and smacked into the boat next to us. It turned out that Chuckles had forgotten to cast off (untie the ropes that keep the boat from drifting away from the dock), and the line at the stern broke the cleat. We got the line at the bow untied, then we putt-putted sedately over to the gas station without smacking into anything else. Chuckles asked for a full tank, and when the meter on the pump topped $150 without slowing down, I started to have second thoughts about this entire business. Too late. Chuckles passed the hat for gas donations, and I ended up paying $75. The other couples kicked in over $100 each, and Ditz just pulled off her sweatshirt, revealing the top of her bikini, and confessed she didn't have any money with her. Monster got a sour look on her face and whispered something to Greaseman, who just shrugged. Monster folded her arms, glared at the water and started to sulk.
We finally finished fueling up and headed out to sea, following the coast line around to the right when Chiclets pointed out that if we got out of sight of land, we wouldn't know where we were. That's about the time that I realized that I, personally, could never in a million years find my way back to the Harbor View Yacht Club. Everything looks different from the middle of the lake, and there aren't any street signs. Chiclets produced a AAA map and showed us that if we followed the coast we could eventually reach our destination, Put-In Bay (which I misinterpreted as Puttin' Bay, and so couldn't find it on the map). I remember this map business pretty clearly, as this was the moment I chose to break out the Irish coffee I'd been saving for the morning cruise. I passed the Irish around, and very shortly everybody really started to get into the swing of things. Then another speed boat passed us throwing a pretty good rooster tail, and Chuckles hit the throttle.
I don't know if any of you have ever been on a real deal, sit-up-and-stop-mumbling power boat captained by an amateur, but I have and I'm never doing it again. The back end sank, the front end reared up, and anyone who wasn't anchored to a seat came within an ace of getting left behind in the wake. I lost my coffee, but I managed to grab the back of a seat with one hand and Ditz with the other before we both went over the stern. Then the Highball slammed into a wave kicked up by the other boat, and our knees buckled. Then we were airborne again, then we hit the water (again), and it kept going like that. I looked back and saw that Lightweight and Brilliance were sitting on the deck in the stern, holding on to the sides of the boat and getting smacked every time the Highball hit the water. I looked forward and saw Chiclets shouting something at Chuckles, who was laughing like a maniac, one hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle. Between the racket of the engine and the constant slamming into the water, you couldn't make yourself heard, and as fast as we were going I figured if we hit anything our number was up. Then we passed our opponent.
I'll never forget this man's expression as we went by him. A kind of cross between Holy Hillbilly Hell and May God Have Mercy On All of Us. Chuckles waved and blew the horn a couple times, and - just as we were maybe 20 feet ahead of him - Chuckles cuts over right across his path. The guy lays on his boat horn and hits his brakes, and we missed him. I don't know by how much, but we did.
'That's it,' I think, 'We're done here. I want out.'
But I had a problem. We were still slamming along, and the ride was so rough that I couldn't make my way to the driver's seat, where I could employ a blunt instrument on the skipper and, in an act of justifiable mutiny, get us all back to good old terra firma. I tried shifting around a little, but Ditz had me in a death grip and her feet were planted. There wasn't anything to do but wait until Chuckles got bored or the Highball broke into pieces and sank. As it turned out, I didn't have to wait all that long.
We slowed up, thankfully. The stern came up a little, the bow came down a little, and we stopped slamming along the water. Lightweight crawled on all fours to the seats and slid into one. Ditz got hold of Brilliance and helped her up, then we sort of passed her along until she could sit down next to Lightweight. I got Ditz settled in the seat across from them, then I got myself forward to have a little talk with Chuckles. I've read that there are such things as belaying pins, and that these pins make excellent clubs. We didn't have a belaying pin on the Highball, but I figured that a beer bottle would work just as well in a pinch. I got up there just in time to hear Chiclets giving Captain Bligh some serious hell.
"I kept yelling at you to slow the fuck down! What is wrong with you? Seriously? Are you fucking crazy?"
Chiclets paused for breath and Chuckles laughed.
"Look, chill out. Go have another beer or somethin'," he told her, then looked over at me.
"Hey Jack. What's up?"
"I'll tell you what the fuck is up. I've had a-fucking-nuff, is what's up. You take us back to the dock, and if you go over fifteen miles an hour you're swimming and I'm driving, and I mean it."
"What are you so pissed about?"
"You about killed us, and that pisses me right off. I'm just whacky that way."
"Well, I think we got problems. The engine isn't running right. I've got it wide open, and all it'll do is three grand."
I take my mind off Chuckles and listen. He's right. The mill is missing like crazy and threatening to stall out. While I watch, the tachometer drops to fifteen hundred, and some black smoke rolls out the exhaust.
This leads to a major discussion about what do we do now. I look around and realize that the closest boat I can see is the guy we pissed off, and he's pulling away from us without looking back. I see a few other boats, but they're miles away and most of them are sailboats. Finally Brilliance cuts through the chatter with a suggestion.
"You know, my car got flooded out once in the rain, and it sounded a lot like this."
This gets a few derisive replies, because we're in a boat and how could the water get to the engine? It couldn't, so you don't know what you're talking about. Just like a woman, right?
While the others are banging their chops about the fix we're in, I listen to the mill, and she's right. It sounds like the plugs and points are wet. So while Ditz fires up a joint (no, I'm not kidding), Brilliance and I open the trap doors to the engine compartment, which is a lot easier to write about than it was to do. The latches are stiff, and I don't have a screwdriver to help me, but we finally get one door open.
The engine compartment is half full of water. That means...
"Hey Skipper, come over here and look at this shit," I yell, heading for the cabin. Because, you see, if the engine compartment is flooded out, there's every chance in the world that the nasty water is in the cabin, which it is. The cabin floor is covered in several inches of water, sloshing around as the boat rolls. And right then the engine conks out. I come up the cabin steps faster than I went down.
"Hey!" I yell, "We're sinking. The whole place is full of water."
Ditz wordlessly offered me her joint. When I declined she offered it to Monster, who shrugged and took a hit. I sure know how to pick 'em, don't I?
We tried the radio, but it turned out that while we could hear other people talking, they either couldn't hear us or were ignoring us. Chuckles said something about a flare gun, but he couldn't seem to find it. Chiclets found a plastic bucket and started bailing water into the little kitchenette sink. After about thirty minutes of this, Brilliance pointed out that the water was rising, and then it was discovered that the little kitchenette sink wasn't hooked up. Any water you put down the sink emptied into the cabinet under the sink, and ran back out to join the water on the floor.
We formed a bucket brigade, and after an hour's hard work we got the water low enough to fire up the engine and head for shore. That's when I learned a hard lesson about human kindness and generosity.
I can't say for sure just where we were. By the time we reached land, it was maybe 2:00 PM, and that August sun was hotter than hell. Ditz stripped down to her string bikini and oiled herself up, then started an animated conversation about tan lines with Chuckles and Greaseman. Somewhere along the line Chiclets made a mad dash for the rail and almost made it in time, so there was a mess to clean up. Then, right on cue, Monster said something to Greaseman, who said something back. Then right out of the blue, without any warning at all, Monster turned around and daintily ralphed into the cooler.
As I remember all this, I don't know, I truly do not know what exactly happened next. Chuckles got as far as saying, "Son of a - " and Ditz pushed past him, grabbed Monster and pushed her over the rail. Maybe Ditz was trying to help get her pointed in a safe direction, I don't know. I only know that Greaseman reached out and grabbed her by her waistband, and her pants came off.
So he's got hold of her Daisy Dukes, but they're down around her knees and her bare butt is right on the rail, right up there, with the rest of her hanging over the side in the water. She's screaming bloody blue murder, and there's a long beat while everyone is drawing a breath - then we all start to laugh. I couldn't help it. I actually felt sorry for her, but the more she and Greaseman struggled, the longer it was taking to get her up and get her pants on.
Monster finally got her Daisy Dukes sorted out, and she and Greaseman separated to opposite ends of the boat. Ditz tried to cheer Monster up a little by telling her a story about when she, Ditz, forgot to put her panties on and was at a real high class cocktail party, when... but I don't think Monster was getting the point. That's about the time Greaseman started drinking in earnest, and Ditz broke out another joint.
We still weren't running on eight cylinders, but after an eternity or two of rough running we got within a hundred yards or so of the land, and we saw a dock. We're saved!
No such luck.
We pulled up to the dock, and there's a guy there. He's short, kind of old, and he's dressed in shorts and a tee shirt. He's got a pole with him, with a nasty looking hook on the end of it.
"This is a private dock. You can't dock here."
"We're sinking!" Chuckles yells, "Give us a little help!"
"Nope. Get out of here. This is a private dock."
And so help me, he thumps the sharp end of the pole into the side of the Highball, braces himself, and pushes us off. What the hell is this shit?
"Look," I say in my best reasonable, charming voice, "we really are sinking. We've got water coming into the boat, and the engine is going to stall out."
"Not my boat, not my problem. This is a private dock. You can't dock here."
"So what do we do?" Chuckles says, sounding a little desperate.
"I don't care, so long as you do it somewhere else."
And that was that. I'll spare you the parting comments, none of which bear repeating and all of which promise bad luck on the dock owner. We kept going, staying within sight of land and bailing the boat out. Between the heat, the beer, and the pot, it's a wonder one of us didn't come down with heat stroke. But when you're young, you can do all kinds of foolish things and nothing much happens.
But enough is enough, and after a few hours of bailing we gave out. There wasn't one of us with the energy to bail the water out anymore, and twenty minutes later the engine quit for the final time. I got up and started bailing again, but it was all I could do to lift half a bucket of water. We tried flagging down other boats, but when they saw us the boaters would smile cheerfully, wave, and keep right on going. It wasn't until Ditz pulled off her top and waved at three teenagers in an aluminum dingy that we got some help.
The three boy goggled at Ditz, laughed at us, and towed us to a marina. Not the place we started from, but one a long way away. (Ed's Marina? I don't remember the name.) From there, Chuckles put a few hundred bucks on his credit card getting the Highball out of the water, and then we found the cause of our misery. It turns out that all boats have a plug in the stern, and our plug had fallen out. That was were the water was coming in, you see. The plug.
We must have looked pretty sorry, because a guy coming in from a fishing trip offered us a ride to the Harbor View Yacht Club in his pick up truck. We rode in the back, and Ditz, being no dummy, rode in the shotgun seat. She kept her top on.
Before we left, Chuckles started making noises about chipping in on the repair bill, and I actually laughed. He looked a bit pissed about it, but in truth what I really wanted was a sack and twenty-five pounds of cement. Some assembly required. I did get a certain amount of payback, because Chiclets made a fuss about feeling sick and not liking the water anyway, and climbed into the bed of the pickup with the rest of us. Chuckles was left to sail the Highball back to the Harbor View Yacht Club by himself. He watched us pulling out with a look of complete disbelief on his face until Chiclets flipped him the bird. I had a feeling that relationship had hit a turning point of some kind.
And that's the voyage of the SS Highball.