My Own Private Titanic 

When you rent a houseboat, bring along a crew.

An African goose is cruising down the slip at Herman and Helen's Marina, out on Venice Island in the Delta. It's perfect: a farmyard fowl in one of the world's most constructed -- and constricted -- environments. He honks hopefully but futilely at a teenage couple, but the two only have eyes for the sleek blue-and-yellow Yamaha Waverider hulking near the goose. It's the boy's birthday, and his eyes are fastened on the watergoing motorcycle as though his chance to ride it might evaporate if he looks away for a second. His girlfriend hugs his arm again and again: what a present, huh? Didn't I get you the best present in the world?

It is my Honey's birthday, too, but being a lot older, we haven't blurted this out to the marina workers. And in keeping with our more mature years, we are renting not a Waverider but a houseboat, on which we plan to spend a lot of time practicing the three Rs: reading, relaxing, and romancing, along with swimming and bird-watching. We want to put civilization behind us, be wild and free as we explore hidden inlets and reedy marshes.

Be careful what you wish for.

This despite my past boating attempts--being rescued by a Texan in a yacht after sinking a rented sailboat in St. Thomas ("You ladies need some help?" he drawled as the four of us treaded water in a tangle of face masks and fins); a hair-raising rafting trip down the American River; a rowboat ride during a thunder-and-lightning storm in the Sierra. If the marina staff had known we were so nautically challenged, they might have given us a few more instructions. Or maybe not.

The man who had organized our houseboat trip had e-mailed me again and again to ask, "How many people? How many cars?" Over and over I answered, "Two people. One car." Yet when we got to Herman and Helen's, we found ready for us an Odyssey, a fifty-foot behemoth complete with dark cherry paneling, a fireplace, a home entertainment center, a hot tub on the roof, and a two-story vertical slide enticing only to the inebriated. Which we suspected was exactly the point.

We made it clear we were not party animals but wished to look at birds and fish and tules. They found us a 35-foot boat named Pelican which, we later discovered, had the day before been impaled on a tree. At least it had become familiar with vegetation.

A fresh-faced young man named Aidan is detailed to show us the ropes, which takes him all of ten minutes of rapid-fire rushing back and forth: here's the horn, here are the running lights, push up this lever to go forward, down to go in reverse, put the bow of the boat into the wind when you anchor, toss the anchor over the side but tie the line off first, the generator goes on here, raise the engine with this switch--until our heads are swimming and our eyes blank as dinner plates. Seeing our panic, he throws in the clincher: "Just call on your cell if you get in trouble."

We don't have a cell phone. We never have. Aidan is not happy to hear this. "Oh," he says. "Well...." He is about to bid us bon voyage.

"Wait!" I say. "How do you stop the boat?"

"Throw it in reverse."

This makes sense after he says it, but it had not been intuitive. Both of us fear there are many such instances: quandaries that could be cleared up with a snippet of information but that will otherwise remain unfathomable once Aidan has departed. So we pelt him with questions: How do you tie the rope around the cleats? What's our draft? What RPM should we maintain? Does it steer like a car? ("Yes and no" was the answer to that one.) How do you bring the anchor up? What are the rules of the road? What side do you pass on? (Aidan thinks I plan to be Mario Andretti but I just want to avoid a head-on collision.)

"I appreciate where you're coming from," Aidan says sympathetically. "I didn't know any of this stuff before I started working here." This isn't comforting, since Aidan's hard-won knowledge can't be mainlined into our veins.And indeed, it all goes wrong so quickly. Honey, who insists on driving, tries to execute Aidan's complicated marina-exiting instructions, which involve backing up really fast into a stand of tules, then swinging the boat around at the last minute. By the time she's figured out the reverse mechanism and how fast is fast, the wind has swung 180 degrees, and we're backing not into tules but into a lot of tied-up boats. I leap off and, with a stiff arm, stop the boat from crashing into someone else's little cruiser. This is something Aidan told us never to do: "Let the dock take the shock, not your body."As we start forward again, a horn begins to howl. A ferry is heading straight for us, and it's on a cable, so it can't alter its course. We can--if only we could figure out how. I end up anchoring us to a cleat while the ferry ambles past fifteen feet from our bow. The Herman-and-Helen boys observe our plight and get us out into the open channel, then hop into a little speedboat and wave bye-bye. Like it or not, we're on our own.

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