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Out of Gas

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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While I was a student at U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School in Orlando, four of my classmates and I decided to rent a boat from the base's Special Services department and spend a weekend snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. We had all been to the park before, and we figured we knew where to go, and it would be cheaper to rent our own boat, split five ways, than to go on the tour boats. That would also give us much more time on the reefs.

Saturday was rained out. We drove around the Keys, visited Key West, but there was no way we were going out to sea in a little open boat that day.

Sunday was a little more promising. The rain was gone, but it was still overcast, and a bit windy on the ocean side of Key Largo. Still, not to lose the whole weekend, we launched the boat at the motel's trailer ramp, and headed down Florida Bay for the canal that led to the Atlantic Ocean and the park.

Five U.S. Navy Sailors in a boat, and I was the only one who knew how to operate an outboard engine and drive a boat.

As is often the case with rental equipment, the boat had had a rough life. The worst was the throttle. It was so touchy that even the slightest twist, such as an accidental nudge while steering, might take it all the way from idle speed to full-speed ahead. Or turn it just a hair too far in the other direction, and the engine would stall, leaving no way to steer. I had to be very careful in heavy traffic.

And heavy traffic there was. The canal was an endless stream of small boats heading back and forth through the passage under the two bridges of the Overseas Highway. I maneuvered through the northbound traffic, got into position among the southbound traffic, and tried not to hit any boats or bridge piers while wrestling the hair-trigger throttle, all the while having to maintain steerage speed while being pushed along by the stiff current in the narrow confines of the canal.

At last we were out in the open sea. No traffic, no current, no bridge piers. Just a stiff offshore breeze kicking up some choppy waves that got larger as we got farther from land.

We anchored in a likely-looking spot and commenced diving.

It was rather disappointing. Our spot was not as likely-looking from underwater, and the choppy sea was churning up a chalky murk that reduced visibility to just a few feet.

Not much fun.

After a bit, we decided that our big snorkeling weekend was over. We climbed back into the boat, took off our masks and fins, and headed back in.

Going against the waves was quite different from the rolling ride on the way out! As we reached the top of the first wave, half the wave went under the boat, and half came into the boat!

I quickly turned broadside, parallel to the waves and shore, so we would roll over the waves rather than smash through them. I looked at the canal, three miles upwind. I would have to cross a thousand waves to get there. How could we get back?

I hit upon a plan. The canal was just a little to the left of a line perpendicular to the waves. So, I would head a little to the right of the canal, then as we approached the top of a wave, I would throw the tiller into a hard left turn. That would throw the starboard gunwale up, and maybe we would get over the wave without taking on much water.

It worked!

Up the face of the wave ... Hard left! ... Find the canal as we headed down the back of the wave ... Up the next wave ... Hard left! ...

I knew that this zig-zag course, together with the work of fighting the oncoming waves, was consuming much more fuel than normal, but there was nothing I could do about it. I didn't even have a second to look at the fuel gauge. Just concentrate on my seamanship.

As we got closer to Key Largo, the waves abated, but we were back into heavy traffic. I still had to concentrate on maneuvering, not hitting anything, that cranky throttle, and now battling the current that flowed against us. (At least, going against the current made it easier to maintain steerage speed.)

Finally, we were back on the glassy-smooth Florida Bay, clear of the canal, clear of the current, and clear of traffic. I could now manage a look at the fuel gauge.

Empty.

I scanned the shoreline for a gas station. There was one, just a couple hundred yards away. I pointed the boat toward it, and ran out of gas.

Plan B: Break out the oars.

Five U.S. Navy Sailors in a boat, and I was the only one who knew how to row.

The problem with Plan B was that the boat was rather wide and the oars rather short. I had to row with my arms at full stretch, and still I was practically rowing with my fingers. I wasn't getting any leverage, and we weren't getting anywhere.

Plan C: The two strongest guys would each take an oar, while I sat in the back of the boat and told them what to do.

The problem with Plan C was that the strongest guy was about twice as strong as the second-strongest guy. We were going around in circles.

Plan D: The two strongest guys would each take an oar out of the oarlocks and use it as a paddle. Paddling is less efficient than rowing, but it's more intuitive. You can see where you're going, and make instant corrections if you get off course.

We were finally approaching the gas station.

As we got within about fifteen yards, a man came out of the back of the house and walked toward the dock. He met us at the pumps and said, "I'm closed on Sundays, but I can see you boys need help!"

He sold us the gas.




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