Boats are humbling things. Murphy’s Law — “what can go wrong, will go wrong” — has two corollaries. First, Murphy was an optimist. Second, Murphy was a sailor.
Take our 27-foot cutter, Silversark. Every spring she goes into the water. Every fall she comes out. Every year, Murphy thumps us.
So here we are with the boat sitting on its trailer at the lip of the concrete launching ramp — three tons of slick wet boat, 13 feet high, waiting to come up the ramp. A brutal old black Jeep pickup pulled it this far up, but now the Jeep’s four wheels are all slipping in seaweed and pebbles. It’s a bitter October evening in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, raw and damp, cold as a banker’s heart. A whistling wind slices along the wharf. Friends and I have been at this all day and most of yesterday. And now here we are in the blackness, stuck. Can’t move forward, can’t go back.
Every year you think you’ve got the system down pat. Gonna be smooth as a buttered eel. Roll the trailer into the water, float the boat over it, pull them in together. Every year old Neptune chuckles, brooding on mischief, the white-bearded black-hearted bastard. The trailer doesn’t roll deep enough into the water. You’ve thought of that — you tied a rope to it. You clamber down on a floating dock and pull. Nope. A friend joins you. Nope. A third friend arrives. The rope lets go, and all three topple backwards into the water, plop-plop-plop, one on top of the other.
You really *can* hear laughter from underwater. You really can.
We use a long chain to pull the trailer back to the ramp once the boat is on it. My chain was old and rusty. Time for a new one. The expert at the rigging shop insisted I buy chain hooks, too. No, I said. I just tie the chain and use a shackle to keep it tied.
“Look, buddy,” said the expert. “Somebody gets hurt, you get sued. You gotta use the right equipment. Can’t go trustin’ a shackle. Use a hook.” Seemed to me a hook would slip off. No way, he said. And his talk about lawsuits and safety had rattled me.
Bought the chain hook. Tied the chain to the tongue, pushed the trailer in. It went too far. My buddy Bill tugged the chain. Up it came, rattling along, the empty hook trailing behind it.
“Slipped right off,” said Bill.
Now we had to haul the trailer back to re-attach the chain. But without having the chain attached you have no way to haul the trailer back. Rowed out in an inflatable dinghy, skittering over the sunken trailer, and tried to hook a rope on the tongue. Nope. Tried to lasso it with a piece of chain. Nope. Finally dropped an anchor on the trailer, hooked a cross-bar, hauled it back.
Sank the trailer again. Got the boat tied in place over the trailer. Needed a backhoe to pull it out. We’ve got three backhoes around here. One was broken down. Another was busy. Third fellow said he’d come at noon.
He didn’t. At 2:00 I hunted him down in Arichat, seven miles away. He said he’d phoned at 1:00 to let me know he couldn’t be there at 12:00, and nobody answered. Well, naturally: I was down on the wharf, waiting for a backhoe. But he could come at 4:00.
He didn’t. At 5:00 I went to the service station. Sobbed on Russell’s shoulder. Russell contemplated his beefy Jeep. Maybe….
At 6:00 Russell backed down the ramp. We hooked up the chain. The truck roared. The boat and trailer lurched, bucked and rose from the water. As the trailer reached the lip of the ramp, Russell’s wheels spun helplessly.
“What if I hooked onto Russell?” Kevin said. We tied Kevin’s little Tracker to the Jeep. More roaring engines. The boat came halfway up the ramp. Then both trucks spun.
What if I hooked onto Kevin? We tied my little Dodge pickup nose-to-nose with the Tracker. Bill directed us. I backed up, taking the strain, then Kevin, then Russell. Three engines roared. The boat wobbled slowly up the ramp. Russell was steering south. Kevin slewed sideways, all four wheels spinning, heading west. I aimed south east, pulling Kevin straight. My wheels spun. Locked together, the three trucks skidded and tugged, wheels churning, gravel flying in the darkness, dust whirling in the headlights. Silversark heaved up onto the road.
My truck stopped abruptly, tailgate against a power pole. All hands were choking and laughing. But the boat, tall and wet, stood on the dry land.
Every autumn, I think of the Newfoundland undertaker’s threat to his delinquent client: “You’re t’ree months behind payin’ on yer mother’s grave, now. If we don’t see the cash Monday, b’y, up she comes.”
Yes, b’y. One way or another, Up she comes. And that’s it, thank God, for another year.