Before I was a biker, I was a boater. Before I became a boater, I was just a guy who wanted a boat. But all that changed on July 4, 1990 when I was thrust into the world of recreational boating by the makers of Royal Crown Cola. Let me tell you about that.
It had been a typical 4th of July holiday in Bensenville, where my wife and I lived at the time. I had been grilling outside and drinking copious amounts of Diet RC Cola. In fact I had been drinking cans of Diet RC for weeks, because of a contest they had been running at the time. Specially marked cases of the product had been proclaiming, “Win A Boat Instantly!”
So there I was, doing some dishes in my kitchen. I had just drained another can of Diet RC and was tossing my can into the trash when I remembered the contest. I literally stopped in mid-toss, drew my hand back away from the trash bin, brought the empty can up to my right eye, and peered inside to see the winning code printed across the bottom.
I put the can down and stared straight ahead, stunned into disbelief. After taking a breath or two, I put the empty can back up to my right eye and looked inside again.
Now my heart was racing. I had just come that close to throwing a 17-foot Bayliner into the kitchen trash bin. But I hadn’t thrown it out. There I stood, alone in my kitchen, still just a little bit dumbfounded by the whole thing as I stared at the winning can in my hand. I had to tell Karen. I wanted to call out to her so eloquently, “My dear, come see what I have here,” but instead I began bellowing at the top of my lungs, “Boat!” That wasn’t what I’d meant to say or how I’d meant to say it, but that’s all that came out, again and again. “Boat! Boat!”
My poor wife came scrambling into the kitchen at top speed, probably expecting to find that an ocean liner had somehow crashed into our heavily wooded back yard. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
I still couldn’t say any multisyllabic words, so I held the can out to her and said, “Look!”
Karen looked at me as one might look at a deranged lunatic wielding a bloody machete. Ever so tentatively, she reached out, accepted the empty can, and held it up to one eye. Her other eye popped open when she realized what she was seeing. Then seized by the same excitement, she began to yell at the top of her lungs, “Boat! Boat!” I’m sure we sounded like a couple of overgrown Muppets on Sesame Street. Eventually we regained the gift of human speech, but that’s pretty much how it started.
Months later, we took possession of the craft. While at the dealership, no fewer than three people jokingly cautioned us about remembering to install the boat’s drain plug. First there was the business manager, who collected the sales tax for which we were responsible, executed various forms, and otherwise gave us legal possession of our new boat. “Here’s all your documentation, here are your two keys… oh, and here is your drain plug.” She handed over a plastic bag with the little brass plug inside. “Don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!”
Then there was the young man who took us up on the boat to give a crash course in what and where everything was. The last thing he said was, “Did they give you the drain plug?” I nodded. “Good! Well, don’t forget to put it in. Ha!”
Finally there was the guy who helped me hitch the trailer to the back of our tow vehicle, a 1980 AMC Eagle (we were people of simple means back then, as we pretty much are now). As I got into the car, he called out after me, “Hey, you know the drain plug is out. Did they…” I held up the little plastic bag and waved it back and forth. “Ah, good! Now don’t forget to put it in. Ha! Ha!” I shook my head, smiling. Don’t forget to put the drain plug in… What kind of an idiot did they take me for, anyway?
I’ll never forget the first time we took that boat out. We had hauled the boat up to my in-laws’ place in Kenosha. Yes, it was a bit of a drive from our home, but they lived a lot closer to water than we did and had ample space in which to store the boat and trailer, when we weren’t using it—which turned out to be most of the time. I still remember what great pains we had taken to ensure that we had everything before leaving Bensenville. We had picked up a lot of essential equipment in preparation for our maiden voyage: PFD’s, dock lines, anchor and rode, a chart of Lake Michigan, 2-way marine radio, air horn, first aid kit, and on and on and on. Then there were the few things that had come with the boat, like the ignition key, hitch lock key, operating manual, and—oh, yes—the drain plug, which I stuffed down into my right front jeans pocket, so as not to leave it behind.
A couple of hours later, we were at Kenosha Harbor, preparing to launch our Sweet 17 for the first time. Karen and I were both a little nervous, having never launched a boat before, but we had gone over the process many times on our way up from Illinois and worked as a team to ensure a smooth execution on the ramp. Right.
I was at the wheel, trying very hard to look cool as I backed the trailer into position on the ramp. Karen stood on the dock, signaling and calling out helpful directions. “A little left… A little more.. Straighten out… Go right… No, right… No, your other right… Wait! Okay, pull forward and straighten out.” You get the idea.
We were finally lined up relatively straight on the ramp. I set the car’s parking brake and got out so that the two of us could make ready. We removed all the tie downs, fastened the dock lines and fenders, and unhooked the bow eye safety chain. Karen took the dock lines into her hands and stepped out onto the dock as I got back into the car and began backing down the ramp. Slowly, slowly, slowly I went until the boat floated free and Karen drew the lines in. She would stay with the boat at the dock while I went and parked the tow vehicle. That hadn’t been so bad! I felt proud as I drove away and up toward the parking lot.
I pulled into an open parking space, shut off the car and got out. Being the conscientious sort, the last thing I did before shutting the car door was to feel my right pocket for the car keys. I slapped my hand down against my right leg… and felt that little brass drain plug.
Dale Earnhardt would have been proud to see how fast I sent that car and trailer across the parking lot and down the hill, back toward the launch ramps. As I barreled down the hill, I could see Karen waving frantically and pulling on the dock lines for all she was worth as the back end of the boat sank lower and lower into the water. She didn’t even have to direct me as I backed down the ramp—not that she could have, anyway.
I put the back end of the trailer as far into the water as I dared to, set the parking brake, and flew onto the deck to help my wife draw the boat forward, its bow now pointing up toward the top of the ramp as though to say, “Get me up there now!” It took some doing to winch the boat onto the trailer, but we got it done. Then, with the bow eye chain safely in place, I hauled my boat, trailer, and quite a few gallons of Kenosha harbor up to the top of the ramp, where we let the incline and gravity help drain the water out.
While we were standing there, another couple pulled in on the opposite side of the same dock. The man hopped onto the dock and began walking up toward the parking area, to retrieve his tow vehicle and trailer. He paused as he passed us, glanced at the water streaming out the back of the Sweet 17 and deduced, “Forgot to put the drain plug in, eh?” His tone was not the least bit unkind as he said this. Rather, he just looked at me knowingly and nodded, his gray hairs catching the sunlight as he did so. I felt a little better after that.
We did get out on Lake Michigan, once we had gotten everything relatively dried off, and had a wonderful time out on the water. I felt rather skipper-like as we skimmed the waves, waving at other boaters and observing people on shore as they watched us passing by. Gulls flew overhead. The sun shined down upon us. Despite a rather challenging start, it turned out to be a good day.
In the months and years that passed, I made a point of furthering my boating knowledge. I took a safe boating class offered by the United States Power Squadrons, then went on to join the Chicago Power Squadron, became instructor qualified and began teaching sessions of the course myself. One year I even won an award for my teaching efforts. My students always appreciated the stories I offered as real-world examples of certain principles they were trying to learn, but my drain plug story always got the biggest laughs.
Until next time…