The Pelton Family Goes Boating 1 – The Inboard

It is true that certain diseases run in families. If your Grandfather died of a heart attack, and your father did too, you probably shouldn’t join the Obese Men’s Marathon Club. Our family was no exception. The malady we all suffer from is known as the “Somethin’ for Nothin” Disease” or more commonly “SFND.”

A person with SFND convinces himself that instead of buying a product that was designed and manufactured by experts, he can save money by cobbling a substitute together out of some old washing machine parts, twenty feet of bailing wire, a broom handle, and duct tape. And when that fails, does he admit defeat and buy the manufactured thing? Nope. It’s back to the junkyard for another wheelbarrow load of junk, more duct tape, and a can of WD40.

In the spring of 1960, The Old Man decided he wanted to be a Power Boat Guy. I don’t know if he saw pyramids of beautiful girls water-skiing through Cypress Gardens on TV, or studied some picture in a magazine of a handsome guy in a little yachting cap piloting his sexy runabout across a tree-lined lake. Whatever it was, it started a fire in him that smoldered for the rest of his days. Here was the hobby for him. It required no particular skill or coordination, no talent was necessary, and you could look cool doing it right from the beginning.

I think the first thing he acquired was the little yachting cap, the kind with two anchors and a life preserver embroidered on the front above a patent leather bill. Then he started shopping for a boat. The new fiberglass-hulled lightweight runabouts were all the rage at the time, but the prices asked gave him palpitations. Within a few days,  his SFND had kicked in and he went looking for a deal on something he could fix up.  What he found was a handmade wooden speedboat. It had an inboard engine and came with its own trailer. It was dirt-cheap and the guy selling it had soon convinced the Old Man that all he had to do was a simple ring-and-valve job on the engine and he’d be the hero of the docks. The seller even towed it over and parked it, on its trailer, in our driveway.

My older brother Chuck was the motorhead of the family. He and several of his grease-monk friends would spend hours working on a 20 year-old Plymouth with a Cadillac flathead V8 engine. It was a cool-looking hot rod that, unfortunately, had a warped driveshaft. At any speed above 40 mph the car would vibrate enough  to rattle your teeth.

Rather than pay a mechanic to rebuild the boat’s engine, The Old Man decided that Chuck and he could do it themselves. After all, the Old Man and several friends had kept a beat-up Model T running while they were in High School years before in Casper. Chuck, not immune to the ravages of SFND, was easily recruited and they set to work. During the two months of skinned knuckles, colorful language, and throwing of wrenches that it took them to do the job, The Old Man bought a used Ford Econoline Van that had been turned into a camper. He had visions of a moonlit night, the boat pulled up on a beach somewhere, him sleeping comfortably in the van, and the boys, in a nearby tent, peacefully snoozing.

The weekend after the engine finally came to life the boat, on its trailer, was hitched to the little van. The three oldest brothers – Chuck, my next older brother Lewis, and I – piled into the van. With the Old Man at the wheel, we set off for nearby Lake Hattie.

Far from the tree-lined setting of the Old Man’s dreams, Lake Hattie sits in the middle of the Wyoming sagebrush desert where trees are as scarce as warm days in December. There were some hardy souls who had built summer cabins there and others who’d brought trailers and parked them along the lake. The Old Man, smiling proudly, his yachting cap on the back of his head, paraded his new boat past the locals, then stopped at the boat ramp.

A boat ramp is a wide strip of concrete that descends down the bank and into the water where it continues for another  twenty feet or so at the same angle. The technique of launching a boat is to back the trailer down the ramp until the rear of the boat is in the water. Then you unhook the boat from the trailer and push it backwards until it is off the trailer and floating free. The boat is then maneuvered over to the dock, either by rope or under power, where it is tied up. This is followed by friends and family, carrying coolers, water skis, and life jackets, who jump in and soon take off for a day of boating fun.

By the time the trailer holding our new boat got into the water, the Old Man was already starting to seethe.  It is difficult to back a trailer under any circumstances, but trying to do so while looking through the window curtains on a camper van can be maddening.  It took him at least a half dozen tries before he finally got the trailer wet. When he thought it was in far enough, the Old Man set the brake and stepped out. The first thing he saw was a group of the locals lined up to watch. So he plastered a toothy grin on his face and tried to swallow the angry snarl that was trying to force its way out. His walk was somewhere between a saunter and a stomp.

In a faux-hearty voice he said, “okay, boys! Let’s push her off.”

All four of us each got a grip, put our backs into it, and heaved. The boat didn’t budge. Again we tried. And yet again. A couple of men from the small crowd watching came over to help but it was no use.  A boat that heavy would never slide out of that trailer. It was like trying to push a beached Sperm Whale back into the water. We would have to float it off.

The Old Man fired up the little van, put it in reverse, and slowly backed further down the ramp. When the van’s rear bumper was completely under water and the exhaust pipe was blowing bubbles, Chuck yelled, “She’s floating off!”

Within minutes we were tied up at the dock, the van and trailer had been parked, and we were jumping into the boat. Frustration forgotten, the Old Man practically whistled as he climbed into the seat behind the steering wheel and turned the key. After only a few coughs and hiccups, the big V8 roared to life, it’s deep rumble announcing to those watching that the Nautical Peltons had arrived.

The Old Man pushed the lever forward, pressed his foot down on the accelerator and with a throaty snarl, the boat mosied out into the lake. It didn’t hightail it into the lake, it didn’t zoom, or tear, or fly like the wind. It mosied. The Old Man had his foot pressed down to the floorboard, the engine screamed with all the fury its 200 plus horsepower could muster, great gouts of water were being churned up behind the boat by the propeller, and the boat itself was moving at about 12 miles per hour.

If there is one thing that gives powerboating its thrill, it would be the principle of “planing” or “getting up on the plane.” At a certain speed, a boat hull will rise up out of the water and skim along the surface. The heavier the boat, the more speed, and therefore more power, it takes to achieve the effect. But some boats are just too heavy and have to make their way slowly pushing through the water rather than rising up on top of it – tugboats, barges, garbage scows, and the Old Man’s new toy.

As long as we were out there, we tried to water ski. But a water skier needs a certain minimum speed to get up on the plane as well. The boat wasn’t quite doing it. Each of us tried skiing, each of us got worn out quickly just fighting the water, and each of us soon gave it up.

Getting the boat back on the trailer and out of the water was even more of an adventure than floating it off had been.  Again the Old Man had to nearly submerge the back end of the van to get the trailer deep enough that the boat could be floated back onto it. When it was on and strapped down, the Old Man climbed into the van, stepped on the gas, and let out the clutch. The little van shuddered and strained under the load. It was actually moving ahead, though very slowly, when it began to smoke and smell. Afraid the engine was on fire, the Old Man turned the key off and shut it down. Being familiar with the smell, Chuck told him It was the clutch plate that was burning. And now, since its exhaust pipe was under water, the van would not start. The Old Man had to suffer the humiliation of seeking out Joe, one of the locals who owned a big, four wheel drive Power Wagon and asking him to come down and pull us out.

We found a big tractor tire inner tube that we could pull around with the boat and that was enough fun to keep us going back to Lake Hattie that Summer. But between replacing fried clutch plates and having to go find Joe with the Power Wagon, the Old Man was beginning to hate the little van.