blub blub blub…

March 2001  San Francisco Bay

I was doing a marine engineering job out on the SF Bay, working on a phase of the Richmond Bridge seismic retrofit. Every day, I and my boat-driver Mel the Porno Rican would fetch our 20′ aluminum survey boat from the Oakland ship channel and transit the Bay at a furious rate of speed, freezing our stones off the whole way. One day was colder than the rest.

We were about halfway into the four-mile trip, deep inside a heavy fog bank mid-bay, and making about 20 knots over the 53-degree water, when we each noticed something was amiss. Maybe Melly-Mel at the helmy-helm felt the pitch of the deck getting steeper. Maybe I noticed the roar of the twin outboard engines deepening, becoming more muffled. The SS Silver Bullet was in trouble!

I stuck my head into the cabin to see what the what what was, and noted not his usual asinine smirk, but a positively stricken look on Mel’s face. Dios mio. Perhaps it was the alarming amounts of water sloshing around in the normally dry bilge. Or it could have been the bright-green patch of water gushing up through a Hole.In.The.Hull. F. We looked at each other. Back at the breach. Back at each other. F again.

It was only about the size of a quarter, so not too bad. Yeah, sort of like strapping into the space shuttle and realizing too late that your window won’t roll up all the way. We were going down, for real. Knowing that cold water will drain body heat 25x faster than cold air, and that in this water I could lose one degree of core temperature for every 3-5 minutes in the drink, I calculated that we would be dead for days before anyone saw our pathetic seagull-splattered heads bobbing in the bay.

So….do we stop and try to stuff the hole? With what? We got no stinking scupper plugs! Or gun it and hope to reach the Richmond marina before the engines go under? Or bail out into the life raft? Um, no. In violation of every OSHA and USCG code I can invent, our life raft sized vessel had no life raft. I had been with the company for about 3 weeks, and naturally had never inventoried or drilled for this eventuality. After all, nobody buys tornado insurance until their trailer flies away, right? And all I could think was: We better shut down because the boss-man will be really pissed if we sink this tin can with the engines wide open – they would be scrap metal. You simple ass! You are soaking wet and have mere minutes until you die a horrible cramping, sinking death with a half-wit bastard clutched to your head telling you he loves you! Think, you retard, think!

Sitting in the oily bilgewater and plugging the hole while crashing through the waves at full speed felt much like being in a washing machine, so we pulled over and tried again for about ten seconds. I tried to stuff it with anything at hand: a rag…a sandwich…a rubber rat (really.) Somehow these heroic attempts failed, water continued to gush in, and things were getting really not funny really fast. Gun it, Mel – Richmond marina.

I climbed up to the point of the bow, trying to offset some of the weight back aft and keep the outboards from drowning while I tried to make a phone call or two. No reception, of course – too far from land. As if anyone would ever find us or even hear our pathetic dying screams in this gray murk. I looked back through the fog at Mel and actually had to tell him to get on the radio (“Que?”) and mayday the Coast Guard now. I tried again to phone them, and then my boss. (Why??) No dice. We were getting closer to the marina, but we were also getting slower, lower and heavier, and water was slopping over the gunwales onto the deck. Doom was closing in. DOOM. Mel either couldn’t work the radio or just as likely, it was broken. I grabbed the two life preservers, the flaregun, an airhorn, my pet monkey, the EPIRB(yeah, right), and prepared to fling my warm pink body overboard and unto the mercy of King Neptune. But first, for some idiot reason, I stowed all the computer gear and my lunch up high inside the cabin. What a doorknob.

And now, the anti-climax: we made it full-throttle at 3 knots to the marina and made a daring, screeching crash-beaching onto the concrete launch ramp just as the Reaper started his deadly swing. We dumped the computer gear on the ramp as our never-proud vessel sank into the shallows, and the marina dudes swung down lickety-split in a high rolling crane to pluck our wounded steed from its watery grave.

As it turned out, a through-hull gauge had broken free during the transit. Typical of my employer’s third-world navy.

The Skipper

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