Launching a boat can bring about ground teeth, divorce, tics, scraped boats, and a great desire to be someplace else. But like death and taxes, launching is an inevitable part of a boater's life. It's a toss-up of which of the three is the keener test of one's equanimity.
Whenever my husband Terry and I approach a boat ramp my body tenses and my conversation wanes. Tight lipped, biting an invisible bullet, I view the eminent launch as a certain flirtation with calamity. Not counting the time a chuckhole ate our trailer tire, there has been been little in our boating history to account for my launchitis (an overwhelming fear of of launching).
It was not until I was in forced attendance at a Lake Union, Washington, boat ramp that I realized launchitis is a common disease. What a relief! I had thought this irrational fear was unique to my aberrant personality. But soon I realized that although the symptoms vary, the affliction can easily be diagnosed. Just look for a glazed expression and marked personality changes as soon as the launch begins.
This revelation snuck up on me while my mind was on my stomach. We were looking for a water side restaurant at Lake Union when Terry spies a Nordica 20. This salty double-ender sailboat, built in Ontario, Canada, is making its maiden launch.
Terry, a marine writer and boat freak chooses a boat launch over lunch and wants some pictures of the Nordica launch. I wonder down to a grassy bank above the ramp with camera, lenses, and assorted paraphernalia to wait.
The pervasiveness of the disease begins to dawn on me when a man saunters down to look the ramp over. He has a tanned face, wrinkles around his eyes from squinting at horizons, sun-bleached hair, faded jeans, a jaunty hat and laid back world-weary look. He has to be sailor.
We were looking for a water side restaurant at Lake Union
As Mr. Sailor walks back to his car, his body speeds up and he quickly leaps into the Volvo and revs it up, zooms down the ramp with his classic wood sailboat and ends up off the ramp into the mud.
His partner, waiting at the bottom of the ramp, murmurs "Wait, wait." I recognize her frozen smile. She is too stricken with launchitis to yell "Stop, you idiot!"
Mr. Sailor jumps out of the Volvo to look. "How the hell did that happen?", he yells. He yanks at the light-weight trailer made from bicycle wheels, straightening it out and returns to the Volvo and lines the rig up correctly, looking around jerkily to see if anyone saw his Jekyll and Hyde act. With everyone into their own thing, Mr. Sailor smiles and saunters over to the couple trying to rig the Nordica.
A joyous laugh shifts my focus back to the ramp. A tall, slender woman is entertaining her three companions with a story punctuated by hand motions when she is interrupted by another boater who just launched. "We're just about done, you can go for your rig." He says.
The tall woman heads up the ramp calling out, "I'm ready for a great day." A new Ford pickup towing an 18' Bayliner eases down the ramp, stopping five feet from the water. A woman jumps out of the truck to direct the trailer on down. At first I didn't recognize the woman who had been joking a minute ago. Launchitis had set her face to that of a top sergeant. Her motions were quick and decisive. Under the full force of the disease she is sure she is the only one who can handle this situation.
She unhooks the boat leads it off the trailer and over to the dock to tie up. A couple holding hands and a slender man join her, standing on the dock as Take Charge climbs into the boat.
"Get me the rugs!" She barks at the thin nervous man.
He scurries off, trailed by the other man.
Take Charge readies the boat while the other woman looks on with a blank expression until she speaks, "how much do you pay for this boat?"
"$266 a month," is the curt reply.
The other woman whistles before moving off to help unload the pickup. Take Charge fires up the boat engine. Skinny and boyfriend return with carpets, coolers, clothes, a raft and beer. They stand frozen on the dock as Take Charge orders the gear aboard and stows it. Her mouth is tight, there is no conversation. "Park the truck, for Chrissake!" She orders.
The men return and are allowed to board. Take charge jumps out, casts off, jumps in, shoves the throttle/gear in, grins and says, "hand me a beer!"
Launchitis induced personality changes are a revelation in human behavior, but for pure entertainment, give me the screamer.
The Lake Union Screamer starts out calmly behind the wheel of a polished maroon station wagon. He backs down a 16' Boston Whaler stopping short of the lake edge. Two teen age girls emerge from the car blowing bubble gum. They are dark haired beauties, in shorts and halters. Looks like quality time with dad at the lake.
Father leans out the car window yelling, "Dani, stand on the trailer tongue."
Dani hitches up her halter and blows another bubble.
Still hanging out the window father shouts, "are you standing on the trailer?"
Bubbles shrugs her shoulders and mumbles, "I'll get my feet wet."
Father's face reddens. It has to to maintain the volume. "Dammit! Stand on the trailer, dummy. It's the only way to get launched."
Bubbles sighs, and climbs on the trailer. Dad yells "Is it loose yet? What's holding it up? Are you standing on the trailer?"
By this time the boat 's in the water as far as it can go.
A bystander, an older gentleman, can't take it any longer. "Your transom hooks are on."
Screamer suddenly stops shouting and looks at the old man like he just came in from Mars.
"Sonuvabitch!” He roars, and pulls the boat back out of the water, bolts out of the car and stomps back to unhook the transom straps. The girls fiddle with their halters and giggle. The red faced screamer glares at them, climbs in the car and backs down again yelling, "Dani, is it straight?"
"IS IT STRAIGHT YET?"
By now everyone at the dock is helping just to get them underway and out of there. However, the helpful fellow boaters are smiling at each other, though eyebrows are raised.
I understand the smiles. Screamer touches a sympathetic chord in most of us who see ourselves in similar stress events. Launchitis is after all a human disease. But I must admit that there were boaters there who showed no symptoms. Their behavior merits a brief discussion prompted by the author's desire for honest reporting which overcomes a deep seated hostility--
Perfection is not a human condition.
Among perfect boaters there is no one member of the crew that stands out from the others. Sure of their skills, each crewman works together to launch. Examples: A young couple swing down and launch a narrow 17' double ended wooden sailboat. They rig, launch, and set sail in less than 5 minutes without a word. An 18' Swampscott Dory is put in smoothly by rolling the boat on big bumpers, and is rowed smartly away. Two men rig and launch a traditional 15' wooden boat fitted out with marlinespike rope fenders in 5 minutes. A woman in a fishnet sweater and faded jeans motors up in up in a Boston Whaler as a man drives the car and trailer to the ramp. Working quickly and silently they are gone in under 4 minutes.
Such efficiency should have been a joy to watch. But it wasn't. It was downright depressing. No launch should occur without some small display of tension. If for no other reason than to make those of us succumbed by launchitis more at ease. If someone ahead of us launches smoothly
and with good humor it only intensifies the odds that something will happen to us. Then it hit me. Maybe these perfect boat launchers have the symptoms but they are so buried that when faced with a true emergency they'll fall apart. While the rest of us, whether tight lipped or screaming, will be fully prepared for an emergency having gone through so many dress rehearsals.
It's a thin possibility, but I hope that that is some comfort to the Nordica crew. After an hour and a half of the dock circus we had had it, stomachs growling took precedence over launching photos. We left the Nordica halfway in the water with the winch line of the trailer wedged into the bowline.
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