Sep 11 2012
My skiff, the Tashmoo, was looking a little disheveled these past few weeks, ignored by me and never even taken out for a spin to keep her bottom clean, her engine purring and her various weak links not-so weak. Being ashamed of the beard of barnacles that rimmed the waterline, I pulled her out of the water on Sunday in between rain showers, rowing out for the first time in a month to see how she was doing.
Everything had gone to hell. The barnacles were merely a clue to the real neglect that lay within. The steering was frozen. The bilge pump had failed and nearly a foot of rain water sloshed over everything. The power tilt that raises and lowers the motor wasn’t working either. I was a bad owner and I had to pay.
So I bailed the rain water out, let the motor drop down into position, fired it up and let it cough and stutter for a few minutes while I whacked the steering rod with a clam rake and wrestled with the wheel until finally the salt and corrosion let loose and the motor would steer again. I cast off the mooring, backed away from the dinghy, and ran down the little channel out into to the harbor to open up the throttle (making sure Jared the harbormaster wasn’t around to bust me for making a wake). I pulled the transom plugs and put the boat up on a plane to drain the rest of the rainwater, noting that it didn’t take more than one weekend and a couple of tropical squalls to drive everyone off of Cotuit Bay for the season. I had the place to myself.
Water drained, I put the plugs back in and returned to the landing to haul the boat and deal with its ailments. I horsed the motor up without the power tilt, tossed out the little danforth anchor and backed the trailer down the concrete ramp with the Polar Bear Drowner, my wife’s bizarrely over-sized SUV. The trailer bounced over the cracks in the ramp, submerged itself with a gust of bubbles, and when the rear tires were in the water I stopped, put the car in park, and set the emergency brake.
Back to the skiff, back to the balky motor, and out I drove into a tight circle to line up the bow with the license plate of the car for a gentle slide up onto the 12 year-old trailer’s rollers (which I had to rebuild at considerable cost of many bloody knuckles two years ago). The barnacles crunched as the hull slipped up the rollers. As I listened with some satisfaction as the parasites-with-the-world’s-longest-penis-in-relation-to-their-body-size got flattened. Of course the Karma God decided to bend me over and teach me a lesson for my barnacle murder. An immense fart bubble surfaced from the general vicinity of the starboard trailer tire. It had gone flat. Ruptured. Deflated. Punctured.
Now a long digression on boat trailers. First you spend $1000 to $2000 dollars for a galvanized frame equipped with a winch, a hitch, a set of rubber rollers and an axle bracing two wheels, two bearings, and two big old-fashioned looking leaf-springs. Add a pair of red brake lights, safety chains, wiring harness, and you end up with a recipe for perfect failure. Murphy in Murphy’s Law makes his home inside a boat trailer. He comes out when the trailer is rolling at 60 miles per hour through the South Station tunnel in Boston, the Cross Bronx in New York, or the middle of a crowded boat ramp on Labor Day.
Trailers are meant to humiliate men in many ways. First is the ass-backwards way they have to be backed up. This is a serious test of one’s saltiness here on Cape Cod. I have seen Federal judges fail at trailer backing. Turn the steering wheel one way and the trailer goes another. If you don’t back up trailers for a living then every time you do it you have to rewire your brain, craning your gaze backwards over the seats and out the back window at the barely visible end of the trailer which swings wildly one way and then the other as you spin the steering wheel to and fro.
Now submerge this contraption in saltwater and watch it slowly die. The first thing to go are the brake lights. They submerge, flood and short out almost instantly (which is why the commercial clammers rip them off and rewire them onto a 2×4″ that they strap on top of the boat where the electrics will stay dry. You can assiduously rinse your trailer off with fresh water each and every time you use it, but that won’t stop the cancer.
So now you get your boat onto the trailer. My cousin Pete says his YouTube guilty pleasure is trailer bloopers. I strongly recommend the genre as a leading example of man’s penchant for public humiliation and failure. There are many ways to screw things up. You can gun the boat onto the trailer in what we locally call a Bass Master Exit; you can clean, wax and preen over the boat while parked on the ramp and a dozen other trailers wait their turn, or you can be intoxicated and drive away with the wife and kids still sitting in the boat like beauty queens on a Rose Bowl float.
Driving a trailer with a boat on it is a total sphincter-clenching hell. I have seen boats bounce right off the trailer because the driver didn’t secure it with tie-down straps. But the real devil is the hubs, where the ball bearings let the wheels spin around the medieval axle. Trailer owners are told to be very paranoid about their hubs. My trailer, which is a dozen years old, has never had any hub maintenance. Why should it? I only use the thing three times a year to go from my yard (behind the tin shed known as Little Jamaica) to the launch ramp at the bottom of Old Shore road (an even 400-meter round trip). The first round trip is in February after the ice leaves the harbor so I can go clamming, the second is in September to clean the bottom after the messy summer, and the third is in December to get the boat out before the ice. I don’t drive the boat to New Jersey, New Hampshire, or even Barnstable. I just haul it up and down the Ropes Hill to and from my yard. In those 12 years I would estimate the trailer has done maybe 50 miles of driving. So why worry about the bearings?
Why worry indeed. My friend David Rickel had saved a phone message from my other buddy Doctor Dan, who borrowed Mister Rickel’s old trailer to fetch a new Cotuit Skiff he had built from New Canaan back to the Cape for its maiden voyage in Cotuit. There are many things wrong in that previous sentence.
First: Cotuit Skiff. Cotuit Skiff’s are where trailers go to die. There is still a 100 yard groove in the hill on Putnam Avenue from Old Post Road to Lowell Avenue because one eager Skiff owner lost their trailer wheel and decided to forge onwards and dragged the stub of the axle through the pavement like a plow. I have seen skiffs fall off of trailers. I have seen 30 of them get hauled in a single afternoon to beat an oncoming hurricane, and each and every time some trailer fails under the pressure. Skiff trailers are particularly neglected to the point that only one or two are known to be trustworthy thanks to the care of their owners. The rest are failures waiting to happen.
Second: “Borrowed.” A trailer which can be borrowed is a trailer that is unloved, un-maintained, and likely to fail once it gets a mile away from the thicket of briar and golden rod where it rusted for the years before the borrower arrived looking for a favor.
Third: Route 95. Combine a skiff with a questionably maintained trailer with an interstate highway …. the result is the phone message from Doctor Dan to Mister Rickel. This recording occurred one afternoon in June in 1993 and was made in the breakdown lane of Route 195 on the old elevated highway that used to twist through Providence, Rhode Island. The bearing had seized, overheated and eventually caught on fire, forcing Doctor Dan to pull over and throw handfuls of road sand onto it. The phone call, if transcribed, roughly went something like this (add in the sound of semis barreling past in the background at 70 mph).
“DAVID RICKEL. IT IS DOCTOR DAN. YOUR TRAILER IS ON FIRE! WHAT SHOULD I DO? ARE YOU THERE? PICK UP!”
Mister Rickel eventually called Doctor Dan and told him to strip off the license plate (which had expired anyway, no one ever remembers to register their trailer in Cotuit) and abandon the wreckage where it lay. This was done, and doubtlessly the Rhode Island State Police will read this and track Dan down to collect their fine for abandoning a menace to the public safety on their highway.
Back to last Sunday. So I see the big stale air bubble float up from the rough area of the punctured tire, sigh, and do what every good Cotusion would do, I forge on and drag it up the hill to the house anyway. The plate is expired. The brake lights don’t work. The only thing good about the situation is there isn’t a swarm of yellow jackets living inside of the trailer like there was six years ago, a swarm that got very annoyed when I backed their nest into the bay and ruined their lives.
I got into the Polar Bear Drowner, and dragged the mess up Old Shore Road, watching the flat tire shred itself in the right rearview mirror. A quick left onto Main Street, 50 yards to the drive way and I was home, safe and unobserved by the Barnstable Police Department.
I unhooked the hitch from the ball, listened to the beard of barnacles gasp and sputter in the air, and examined the disaster before me. Here was 2000 pounds of Fiberglas and Honda sitting on 12 years of corroded Karavan trailer, with a flat tire. So off to the hardware store I went for a jack, a lug wrench, a can of Fix-A-Flat, some Liquid Wrench and a lot of false hope.
Once equipped I spent an hour in the gloaming banging and squirting and swearing at the five lug nuts that were so corroded they had blossomed into fat little roses of rust. After scaling off that rust, I was left with little lug-nut ghosts that weren’t going to budge for any man. Stymied, I broke out a scraper and a rubber mallet, spread a blue tarp under the hull, and knocked off about 20 pounds of barnacles, cleaning up with an application of that lovely substance called Hull Cleaner.
Yesterday Cousin Pete came over with an electric impact wrench and was able to get two of the lug nuts off. The third sheared off, leaving a stub of half a bolt. So now it was time to call in the professionals. I phoned Peck’s Boats and John Peck came over, inspected the sad wreck, and told me to buy a new trailer. Sure, I said, my new trailer is spending its Freshman year in college, and that doesn’t solve the dilemma of what to do with the boat still sitting on the broken one. John asked me if I had used heat on the lugs. Sure, I said, brandishing my new propane torch. He sneered — for John builds his own trailers, big monsters that can haul 50 foot sailboats from Cape Cod to Florida and back again — and said he would be back with a real torch.
Soon enough he bounced over the lawn in his Subaru. In the back were two huge cylinders and a torch. He hooked it all up, sparked it ablaze and set to cutting the frozen nuts off with pure hissing acetylene, sparks popping and snapping over his head while I looked on stupidly trying not to look at the light. Five minutes later and the wheel was on the ground, the lug bolts banged out, and I was ready to go wheel and tire shopping.
I suppose, once the boat is back in the water, I could consider doing away with the concept of a trailer altogether, and do what this brilliant jet-ski owner has done.