Volume XVII, Issue 24 # June 18 - June 24, 2009

Bay Reflections

My Father

Two years ago Dad broke down and bought a brand-new motor. It died at launching. He swears it’s working great now, and he wants to take me for a ride this weekend.

The Dr. Kevorkian of outboard motors

by Jane Elkin

When I was a little girl I bragged that my father could do anything. My scope of experience has widened considerably since then, but I’m still willing to stand by that assertion for the most part. Okay, he can’t do brain surgery or design a spaceship, but he can fix just about anything. Really, just about anything.

A repairman never crossed our threshold, and our cars never went to the garage because Dad took care of it all: plumbing, wiring, drywall, roofing, masonry, landscaping, auto mechanics and auto body work. He built two houses and a camper, renovated an historic home, kept a parade of used cars running all by himself — and all within a span of twenty years. If there’s one thing I learned from him, it’s that there is nothing you can’t teach yourself to do as well as a professional if the financial motive is great enough and you get enough practice. Well, almost nothing.

Everyone has some inherent weakness. Superman had his kryptonite, and my father’s undoing is outboard motors. Try as he might, he just can’t seem to keep one in good working order. In fact, I would venture to say that his mere presence seems to have a deleterious effect on their health … but only when they’re in the water.

It all started with an old 14-horsepower Johnson. Army green with a bulbous head, it was no beauty, but it was perfect for the 14-footer we used to putt around Bauneg Beg Pond in Sanford, Maine. Horsepower was inconsequential when we kids were little. We fished, we sneaked up on sun turtles and we learned to aquaplane, the baby step of learning to water ski. As I think back on it now, I realize that was his most reliable motor, but then Dad was more reliable in those days, too. Once a month, like clockwork, he would run it onto a sandbar. “Son of a B,” he’d gently curse under his breath. Then he’d raise the motor out of the water, bum a bobby pin off my mother and use it to replace the propeller’s broken cotter pin.

By the time Mom cut her hair, he’d moved on to a bigger motor with bigger problems. We kids had grown to the point we were wedged three abreast in the back seat and becoming proficient water skiers. The old Johnson just didn’t cut it anymore, so Dad bought a bigger, newer Mercury from a coworker. He was thrilled with the great deal he’d gotten. But I thought that black Mercury looked sinister and alien with its tall, angular head and streamlined grooves. Three weeks later we were still grounded as he fine-tuned the throttle. Clamped to a wooden beam suspended between two trees, it churned up an impressive wake in the trashcan full of water where Dad tested it, but once hooked up to the boat, it wouldn’t start. Or, worse yet, it would work just long enough to propel us to the middle of the lake before it would conk out. I don’t recall how he finally fixed or replaced that motor, but I do have vivid memories of him and my brothers swimming the boat home like Tritons with tow ropes tied round their chests.

Eventually Dad took to the ocean in bigger boats with bigger motors, but it was always the same old story: a fixer-upper that wasn’t quite up to the task. I’ll never forget being stranded at the mouth of the Piscataqua River in an outgoing tide, the seventh strongest current in the world, with waves lapping over the stern and Dad threatening the motor with bodily harm if it didn’t shape up. Sitting on the bow, I practiced being small and silent until a drunken yachter rescued us.

I suspect Dad bestows a water allergy on every motor he touches. He’s been boating a lot with a friend these last few years, and her ancient little motor finally needed a tracheotomy to keep it viable. It looked pitiful with a hole in its head where the ripcord should be. It’s something to do with regulating the oxygen flow in the gas line. As if one handicap weren’t enough, though, when they took me cruising in that rig we had to stop periodically to disentangle sea weed from the propeller so it wouldn’t seize up all together.

Two years ago Dad finally broke down and bought a brand-new motor. It died at launching. He swears it’s working great now, and he wants to take me for a ride this weekend.

If you’re cruising the New Hampshire seacoast, keep your eye peeled for a stalled outboard with a middle-aged woman huddled on the bow, trying to look small and silent. We’d appreciate a tow.