(occurred 2005; written September 29, 2008)
I've wrecked, or been party to wrecking, quite a few vehicles during my driving career. I definitely do not think of myself a poor driver considering I am still alive and possess all of my limbs despite receiving a motorcycle endorsement back in 1994. However, that also doesn’t mean I haven’t been more aggressive than the next guy or unfortunately been in the wrong place at the worst time. Most of the time, it came down to circumstance rather than blatant error - this is a story about one such incident.
I have personally totaled, wrecked, or severely dented everything: a few Oldsmobiles; a 1971 Beetle; a 1972 Super Beetle; a 1979 El Camino; countless sportbikes; one personal watercraft (I was t-boned and cracked the hull); my scooters (this is fairly normal for me, although there was that time I flipped one); mountain bikes; dirtbikes (one resulted in a hip fracture); a Segway. I'm a terrible gauger of risk. Aside from the watercraft, there’s nothing out of the ordinary there. Aircraft is not on the list, thankfully …yet. My buddy Ross crashed in a helicopter without me, though. Bastard. A good number of people probably all have a list fairly similar to mine. But have you ever wrecked a boat? I wasn't always driving the boats, but I have been in three that were wrecked. The second time is definitely worth elaboration.
I returned to Erie for a friend’s wedding back in 2005 and had made plans to hang out with my old riding friend, Mike. When I first met Mike, I was working at Cycle City of Erie as he was buying a brand new sportbike and the salesman invited him on our weekly shop ride. It wasn't long before the two of us were hanging out on a regular basis and I eventually felt like a part of his family. We became close friends quickly and we would get into (and out of) a lot of trouble together over the next few years before I left for Tampa. There were a lot of good times that I can recall and certainly some lost memories. Plus, anytime you factored in his younger brother, Dan, there was usually a story in the making.
Dan had purchased a mid-sized boat less than two weeks prior to my vacation back home, so we made plans to take it out on Lake Erie. Dan, Mike and I left a dock in Presque Isle Bay near Dobbins Landing, beginning our long journey to meet the rest of the their family at a bar and grill about fifteen miles east up the shoreline. It took a while to get out of the bay and finally bring it up to a fun speed. Once out on the open lake, it got bit a choppy, but we enjoyed the wave-jumping. We docked the boat and walked up to the restaurant with a deck that overlooked Lake Erie to meet up with the fam. If you knew them, you would know two things: they are a very friendly family and they enjoy a drink or four. Mike and Dan also have another younger brother and sister – the whole family was there, along with mom and dad. We were by no means obnoxious, but people just naturally take notice to a group that size enjoying dinner together. After many, many stories and a few more rounds, the sun was beginning to set. It was getting darker and subsequently cooler - it was time to make our way back to the original dock.
We had been at the restaurant for quite a few hours. Combine that with a large meal and our high tolerances at the time - with as many drinks as we did have, it wasn’t going to do much damage to us on the open water. We were buzzed …more happy than actually drunk. Our biggest concern was actually that the chop had gotten worse with the temperature drop. It was going to take even longer to get ourselves back to Presque Isle. We unhooked the boat and slowly made our way clear of the dock amidst the rolling water.
At that age, there’s a little bit of a show off in all us. So, when you are driving your new speedboat, you can’t help but flex its muscles now and then - especially when it’s getting late and you want to get home fast. Despite the rougher water, Dan made his way out of there faster than we had gone on the way over. The boat was getting some pretty big air off the crest of each wave and was subsequently slamming down immediately after. Up and down, the motor revved loudly as it left the water before being muffled again upon abrupt re-entry. It was harsh, but to us it was like a carnival ride or a mechanical bull. The three of us were clutching what we could, grinning and clentching our teeth at the same time while we braced ourselves for each impact. We were about 100 yards from the dock, so were still in plain view of those left on the restaurant deck...
Up, down, up, down, up, S-M-A-S-H!!!
Shattering into a million pieces, the windshield rained at us as Dan powered down the engine. As the boat came to a slow drift and we got our bearings, we erupted with laughter. Sure the boat was messed-up, there was glass everywhere, we each suffered minor cuts from the flying safety glass, but that sudden shock was ridiculous. We went from childish glee to sheer terror to utter disbelief to doubling over from painful laughter. We quickly checked each other over to make sure we were alright. Aside from a few small cuts that were bleeding out, there were no major injuries. But there was no way we were going to drive the boat back, so we limped it back to the restaurant where we could get it on a trailer.
Still cracking-up, we hopped onto the dock. Of course, everyone had seen it – including a man blocking our way onto land. He kept us from advancing down the boardwalk, informed the three of us that he was an off-duty marine official (he flashed some sort of identification card) and he was detaining us until the on-duty authorities he had just called could arrive. The three of us stood there half-retarded and dumbfounded – it didn’t make much sense. None of us thought we were unable to operate a boat, nor were we aware of any laws overly prohibiting the mixing of boating and moderate alcohol that was consumed on dry land. But this “marine official” (we’ll call him Barney) informed us that we were recklessly operating the boat, causing an accident that resulted in horrible, bodily harm to the guy in the front passenger seat. Me?! Essentially, he was saying that my head went through the windshield because Dan was plastered. He didn’t care what we had to say at this point - Barney Fife had his man. He was suffering from the disease “Gung-Ho” – he was hellbent on getting us into trouble.
Of course, we were nervous since we really didn’t know any better at that point. We were worried that Dan was going to get slapped with a DUI since we assumed this guy knew what he was talking about. Something pumping your adrenaline like that can completely flush mild inebriation out of your system pretty fast. Factor in that none of us were obviously intoxicated to begin with, and you have three, sober young men who simply damaged their own property. We stood there for about five minutes while small amounts of blood very slowly ran down our legs and arms before clotting. Not knowing any better, we rinsed a lot of it off with the lake water – somehow, we didn’t get a staph infection. Mike and Dan's father came down, was unable to talk any sense into Barney, and so headed home to get a boat trailer. A lone fire and rescue truck was the first to make it on-scene. A technician jumped out with a massive first aid kit in-tow and purposefully made his way to us on the dock.
EMT (genuinely concerned): “Hey, which one of you guys’ head went through the windshield?”
I could tell that the EMT was steadily growing irritated, but it had nothing to do directly with the three of us. I was starting to worry less and less about the threats of Barney. Apparently not wanting to make the trip for nothing, the EMT put a practically pointless bandage on Dan’s shin, warned us of staph infections, closed the lid on his kit and lugged it back to the truck. This is about the same time a Pennsylvania State Trooper rolled up. He got out of his cruiser for some quick info from the med-tech before making his way to the three us still on the dock.
Trooper: “Who’s the owner of the boat? The operator?”
That's when we knew we were solidly in the clear, but ole Barney was not – the tables had turned and Barney knew it, too. Barney was this cookie-cut man probably about 45 years old. His large head had a generic, widows-peaked buzz-cut, he was over-weight and had the standard-issue beard just so people could tell where his chin ended and his neck began. We found out that Barney was somewhere along the lines of a park ranger, but not quite. It’s a little-known fact that bonafide park rangers have a good bit of authority, but this guy didn’t. I joke by saying Barney was a glorified groundskeeper – the guy in the green shirt, shorts and hat with the long white socks that drives the golf-cart around national parks, emptying trashcans.
Barney thought he had hit it big in witnessing a nautical DUI resulting in serious cranial trauma, then being the first (and only) person to dial 911 to report the incident. He then overextended his questionable authority in detaining three hooligans from loading their boat. The State Trooper thought otherwise of Barney's heroism. He took Barney aside, found out Barney’s credentials and then explained to him, quite emphatically, that false alarms and exaggerated emergency calls like this are a waste of government funds and threaten resources which could be helping others in actual need. To add insult to injury during this berating, an ambulance and a second fire truck pulled up followed closely by a local television station's news van. It could not have been more perfect of a moment. We all watched the television crew’s faces turn from beaming excitement to stoic sadness (yes, they were mildly depressed that nobody was hurt – totally understandable in the small town since this was potentially big news). They didn’t come over to us or even film us from afar, but shot some quick footage of all the parked emergency vehicles before packing up and slowly making their way back out of the cramped dock area along with the fire department. The incident made the late news that night. This isn’t the first time I was involved in an event but anonymously made the news: there was this Christmas we stole a manger scene and then the time when we demolished hundreds of mail boxes …but we were kids back then – stupid, mischievous kids being featured on the local nightly news.
It took about thirty minutes for the Coast Guard to arrive since they had come from where we had originally started …coincidently, we actually passed these guys going in the opposite direction early into our journey to meet the family. The Trooper (long done with Barney who had immediately made a bee line for his truck to leave with his tail between his legs) told the Coasties what had happened before conceding authority to them and making his way to his cruiser to finally leave.
The Coast Guard was required to check the boat out and ultimately cited Dan for not having a whistle on-board – I think it was only a warning. While two of them continued to examine the boat, its registration, and its contents, we spoke with the other three. All of them were very cool and even remembered passing us earlier that evening. They explained that although this type of accident is very rare, it is not entirely uncommon. The windshield may have had some sort of tiny stress fracture from the previous owner and the hull might’ve flexed just right to pop/smash it out. By the time the Coasties had finished filling out an accident report for Dan's insurance, it was well into the dark evening. Dan and Mike’s dad had returned earlier with the trailer and we could finally all get back to our business. Thanks, Barney.
"Well, I'll be dogged - they're all dying in that boat!"
We eventually learned from other witnesses that Barney actually mistook our unexplainable, uproarious laughter way out on the water for terrified screams of pain, suffering and anguish. Sorry, Barney …we’re weird like that.
CrankyGypsy (established 2001)