A career in yacht design doesn’t happen by accident. In my case, the cruising adventures I had as a kid had a lot to do with my passion for boats. This is the story of one of those adventures.
“My dad asked if we want to drive south tomorrow and help his buddies deliver a 70-foot Hattie up to St. Paul,” my high school friend Zach said over the phone. Well, yeah. I’m 16, it’s the height of summer. A week on board a 70-foot Hatteras motoryacht sounds great.
My parents were good with it, so the next day Zach and four of his dad’s friends arrived in a Chevy Suburban towing a trailer full of gear and dozens of 8-foot two-by-fours. We lumbered 400 miles south from St. Paul. Upon arrival I discovered that the vessel in question was not, in fact, a beautiful Hatteras motoryacht but a 70-foot “Mattie,” a 30-year-old rusty steel houseboat nearing the end of its serviceable life as a private vessel. We were there as cheap labor to demo the boat’s interior as we plodded against the current of the mighty Mississippi back to St. Paul, where the boat would become a dinner cruiser.
The old tub’s new owner assigned duties the first evening. Ours was food. With 600 dollars of cash in hand, Zach and I drove the Suburban into downtown Quincy, Illinois. Giving two teenage boys the responsibility of procuring a week’s provisions for six guys is a matter of questionable judgment but we sallied forth aisle by aisle, loading carts with dozens of frozen pizzas, Oreos, chips and Mountain Dew.
The Suburban loaded, I turned the key, released the parking brake and yanked that sinewy old GM transmission lever into reverse. A little tip of the gas pedal and … nothing. A touch more gas. Noise, but the ‘Burban was not backing down. After several attempts we knew we were in a pickle. This was 1989, before everyone and their chihuahua had a phone, so with a bricked SUV we were faced with the prospect of carrying 300 pounds of groceries to the boat, in the dark. In what we quickly determined with our limited 16-year-old street smarts was not exactly Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
I sheepishly flagged down a cop who had just appeared. He tucked his squad behind the Chevy and sized up the situation; two kids at 10:00 p.m. with a lifetime supply of Twizzlers and out-of-state plates. Since it wasn’t my truck, I didn’t have a clue what the problem was, but one of Quincy’s finest soon got us on the move after a few whacks at the parking brake cable with his night stick.
The 70-footer was underpowered with stern drives, which were ancient even then. Immediately upon our morning departure, the tie bar connecting the steering outdrive to the slave outdrive took a dive into the river. Hilarity ensued. Mere moments after releasing the port stern line, I stood at the transom corner watching helplessly as this big steel barge broadsided a concrete mooring bollard a half mile downstream of the first of 21 locks we were to traverse over the next week. The sound of the boat shuddering and launching steel shrapnel into the air is one I still remember.
Our boat was barely steerable now. And one engine was stuck in reverse so the skipper managed to back down into the lock chamber. Using one of the aforementioned two-by-fours, the 6-foot, 7-inch owner of the boat fashioned a makeshift tie bar between the outdrives while the lock flooded. For “safety’s sake,” four of us held his ankles while he dangled his torso over the transom and hung between the drives. By the time those lock gates opened, his work was done. We backed up the river a half mile, managed to engage forward and made the 180-degree turn. That wooden tie bar never failed over the next 466 miles of our remarkable journey.
More calamity and hilarity ensued throughout the week, capped by shoving this 20-foot-wide rusty sled through a 14-foot-wide clearing of trees guarding the entrance to the small harbor where we’d successfully delivered the not-Hatteras motoryacht. Making memories!
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