The tides of the Hudson rise and fall as much as six feet in September, in the northern Hudson Valley, depending on the phase of the moon. The tides rise and fall twice a day, so you get two high tides and two low tides, roughly every 6 hours and 5 minutes. My fortunes over the last week have been like the tides, up and down, up again, down again, never abruptly, but noticeably, and, perhaps, predictably.
There was hardly a waking moment between the Friday before my launch and the Friday that I had to abandon ship that I wasn’t either working on the boat, working at my job, driving from my job to work on the boat or vice versa, or sleeping. During the four days before I launched the “finished” boat, I didn’t even shower. I slept between 3 and 5 hours per night.
On Saturday, August 26th, I left Albany for New Baltimore at 9 a.m., having worked till 11 the evening before. The whole point of building the boat was to raise awareness about the book I wrote about my experiences on the Hudson River, so first I checked on the progress of the sign my mother was painting.
The sign on the top, with the stencils still taped on, needed a second coat of yellow paint, while the bottom sign needed three coats of polyurethane on either side to protect it from the water. Painting the second coat of yellow took most of my time. After every few letters I sprayed a coat of poly on the other sign. Then I drove down to the island where the boat was tied to Jake’s dock. I unloaded some supplies I’d bought at Lowes and Walmart for Monday’s planned construction work. Then I drove home, sent emails to reporters, bookstores, restaurants, etc, until I had to leave for work 3:30-11:30. The next day, Sunday, was similar except I worked on the second sign and drove back to Albany in order to leave for work 2-9:30, and do my correspondence after.
Monday, August 28th, was supposed to be the big day to finish the cabin, get the windmills wired, and try out my 2nd outboard motor. (I’d decided, once again, to supplement the wind power with an outboard motor, because I’d used the electric motor for only an hour since putting it in the water a month earlier, to go 100-feet from Jake’s dock to the landing at Barren Island and back, yet when I’d used the motor on Sunday it barely pushed the boat against a 5 mph wind).
I was excited to go to New Baltimore on Monday and woke up at 6 a.m., like I was getting ready to catch a flight to NOLA. Monday was my first day off in five days and the last I’d have off before I set sail three days later. Having to drive to New Baltimore and back, and clean things up, etc, each time I had a morning to work on the boat, ate up a lot of time. On Monday I figured I’d lined up all the dominoes and now I’d drop them into the “finished” pile one by one.
On the way to New Baltimore I stopped by my friend Justin’s house. He’d a left an outboard motor and gas tank in his barn for me. He said it ran good the last time it was used, and I could have it for $150 (a good price for an outboard) if I wanted it. I’d told him I’d try it out first and let him know, because I’d already bought one outboard motor which was supposed to work, but I couldn’t get it running. So I pulled up to his barn and loaded his 50-lb outboard and gas tank into the passenger seat of my 2005 Ford Taurus sedan. I dropped them off in my parent’s yard and drove to the island (I needed another person to help me carry the motor down the island’s steep cement steps) . I kayaked across Colwell Cove to the boat, pulled the tarps off, stacked the anchor and other junk onto the dock so I’d have room to work on the deck, and then I trolled back to the shore, eager to work in the crisp, cool, late-August morning river air.
This was the high tide; it began to ebb, and continued, through the end of Monday.
The first problem I tackled was the cabin. I didn’t want a cabin made of plywood, because I didn’t want i) the extra weight; or, ii) the wood to act as a sail, shoving my boat over the water instead of where I tried to pilot it. So the cabin was made of 1″ pine frames, over which I would unroll canvas. I’d gotten a dozen reeds of bamboo which a local restaurant was throwing out after using them as decor. My plan was to slide the bamboo over the 1″ cabin joists to look like tiki. But when I carried the bamboo down to the shore I saw that i) they weren’t hollow but had thin disks baffling the inside every foot or so, which were impossible to knock out without splitting the wood; and, ii) most of the reeds were either too narrow to slide over the boards or too thick so that the hole on the inside of the reed was too small. So after trying to knock to inner discs out, cut them out, etc, I gave up trying to make any supports out of the bamboo, and started cutting and screwing more wood and brackets to strengthen the cabin walls. Unfortunately, after I’d added extra joists, diagonal buttresses, etc, it was hard to get in and out of the cabin from the sides of the boat. Now whenever you got onto the boat you had to crouch under a horizontal board two-feet off the deck. And it didn’t really strengthen the cabin walls.
By now it was 12:30 and I drove home to meet my dad, who was just getting home with my mom from . My mom showed me how the sign looked after she took off the stencil. It needed touch-up work where the yellow had bled. At least two hour’s worth. She had small paint brushes and offered to touch up the sign as Dad and I loaded the outboard motor into Dad’s truck and drove to the island. I kayaked out to the dock, brought the boat back with the electric motor, and Dad and I carried the motor and gas tank down the steep cement steps. We loaded these onto the boat, and Dad got onboard for the first time. I pushed us off and motored us over to a mud beach at the inside of the cove. We had to be in water to start the motor, but I wanted the boat to sit steady while we attached it to the transom. Unfortunately, the water at the beach was too shallow to put the motor onto the transom. So we used the electric motor to go back to the dock and tie up, and then we clamped the motor in place. Aside from the little bit of fiddling we’d done with the 60-year-old Johnson motor earlier in the summer, neither of us had ever even looked at an outboard. So we guessed how to hook up the gas tank to the motor, and I bent over the back of the boat to try to read the instructions on the motor. But the instructions were warn away. So we looked at the various levers and figured out which was the choke and which was the throttle, and guessed that a lever on the side was the shift. We primed the motor, turned the choke on, put the throttle to start, and I stood up to pull the starting rope. On the first pull I hit my head on one of the 1″ beams I’d screwed to the top of the cabin. I cursed and unscrewed that beam. Then I pulled the starting rope ten or twenty more times, and it didn’t seem to want to pull over or do anything. We played around with everything again and it didn’t seem like the fuel was going out of the tank into the engine. The palm ball didn’t even get hard when we primed it. So, frustrated, I motored Dad back to the shore, motored back to the dock (the electric battery now almost dead and moving me only inches every few minutes), tied up the boat, and kayaked back to the island. Dad and I drove home, met Katie who had just arrived from Albany and was helping my mom touch up the sign, and I sat and had a beer.
“My god, this is frustrating,” I said to Mom and Katie, who were hunched over the sign, and Dad, who sat at the other end of the table.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Katie asked.
“Grr. Well, there are ten thousand things that I need to do within the next 48 hours, but they’re all moot unless I can get a damn motor working.”
“What about the electric motor?” my mother asked. “I thought you had the windmills for that?”
“Yes, but the batteries give me like an hour and a half of propulsion apiece before they need to be recharged. But they take like eight hours to be recharged. So if I kill one battery by using it for 1.5 hours, let’s say, then I can hook up the next battery, while the first is recharging. After 1.5 hours I’ll have a second battery that is dead, another that is less than 1/4 charged, and two full batteries. So after 6 hours I’ll have three dead batteries and one that is only 3/4 charged. And the windmills only charge if the wind is blowing. But the electric motor isn’t really that strong for pushing a boat through the wind and the tide. So it’s like, I can use the electric motor if I’m going with the tide, and then by the end of 32 hours, I can use it for another six-hour tide. But on Thursday I’m supposed to go up to Troy, so I’ll be using the motor to go up, and then back down to Albany, and then from Albany back down to Coeymans. That’s going to be like 12 hours worth of traveling. I’d really feel more comfortable if I had a motor. It’s not even about comfort. I don’t think I can get from place to place reliably on the electric motor. I have appointments to make on the book tour–it’s not like other years where I could just drift from place to place.”
“Yeah and you don’t want to get stuck out on the river and the battery dies or something and you’re stuck,” my mom said.
“Yes. But now I am the proud owner of not one but TWO NON-WORKING OUTBOARD MOTORS! Ugh!”
“Well, just relax, baby, we’ll figure something out,” Katie said.
“It’d better be soon, because I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do if we can’t figure it out by tomorrow.”
“You could call Jake and ask him to come down and look at the motor tonight,” Katie said.
“I could call Glen [Peters–our auto mechanic] and see if he knows anything about boat motors,” Dad offered.
“Is there anybody else might have a motor you could use?” Mom asked.
“I did text Jake,” I said to Katie, “and he is coming tonight after his Executive Committee meeting to help me figure it out.”
“Oh! That’s good,” Dad said.
“Yes. And if you could call Glen, I’d love to know if he can take a look at the motor, but I’d need it by Thursday.”
“I donno about that…”
“Well, exactly. It doesn’t solve the problem if I can’t get it before Thursday. Oh!” I touched Katie on the arm. “Remember when we went to your co-worker Kate’s housewarming party, and I was playing Corn Hole with that guy? He said he’d just gotten a new outboard motor right out of the box. Maybe I could rent his for two weeks or something!”
“Do you have his number?”
“Yeah–I texted him pictures of the boat the night I met him. I’m going to text him right now, just as a backup plan.”
So I texted the guy, and Dad called Glen the auto mechanic, and then we ate some homemade tomato pie from Mom’s garden and waited for Jake to get out of his meeting.
After dinner, Katie and I went to the island to do some painting and anything else we might do as we waited for Jake. When we were out on the dock we saw Jackson, Jake’s dog, running along the beach, and then heard Jake shout down to us from atop the steep cement steps. So we trolled back to him and we went through the same steps that Dad and I had gone through with the motor four hours earlier, with no effect. We tried taking the gas tank off of Jake’s sailboat and attaching it to my motor, but the lines had different fixtures. Now it was dusk and Jake had to go home to put his daughter to bed, and all I’d really accomplished on this Monday when I was supposed to get everything done was to put up a couple of support beams and for Mom and Katie to touch up the sign. Very discouraged, we drove back to my parents’ house to debrief them. There, my Dad said he’d spoken to Glen who did know about outboards, and who said he would take a look at mine if we dropped it off to his shop the next day. It was too dark at this point to get the motor from the island, so I told Dad I’d come down the next day so we could get the motor before Dad had to leave with the truck, and he would drop it off to the mechanic. Meanwhile I got a text from the man I’d met playing Corn Hole, and he offered to let me rent his motor. I figured a working motor in hand was worth two non-working motors on hand, so I told him I’d drive up to his house in Cohoes and get the motor that night. I left my parents, drove up to Cohoes, met the guy at 10 p.m., gave him $100 in cash, and for the second time that day I loaded an outboard motor and a gas tank into the passenger seat of my car. I can’t say I loved the idea of having the gas tank in there as I drove, or the expensive motor in the passenger seat as I parked in Center Square. Back in Albany I spent a couple hours corresponding with parties interested in the tour, and making Facebook Event invitations, and went to bed at 2:30, knowing had to get up at 6:30 to drive the borrowed outboard to New Baltimore, because I didn’t want it sitting in my car during the day.
On Tuesday I drove down in the morning and dropped off the borrowed motor. I showed my mom what I was looking to do with the canvass drop cloths functioning like curtains to roll up and down the side of the cabin. I drove to the island to check on the boat and saw Jake’s gas tank floating away. A barge had just passed and the dock and Jake’s sailboat were rocking from the wake, and the red tank was bobbing out into the channel. I a kayak down the steps and paddled out to rescue it. It was good timing, but I’m not sure Jake would consider it fortunate that I was there, since the whole reason the tank was on his dock (and therefore knocked into the water) rather than on his sailboat, was because he took it out to help me get my motor working the previous day. I brought some supplies from the island back to my parent’s house and then it was time to head back to Albany to go to work. I got out at 10 p.m. and, like the night before, spent the night corresponding and doing clerical tasks for the trip.
Wednesday was do-or-die-time. It reminded me of the days before launching one of our rafts back in the two-thousand-and-0’s. I knew I’d be spending the entire day (outside of work) finishing up the boat. I met my friend Nick in New Baltimore at 7 a.m. Right as we arrived, Jake pulled into my parent’s driveway with his trailer. He left it there before going to his New-Teacher Orientation at Coxsackie-Athens. We put the ball-hitch on my father’s truck, and he took my car to his morning job. Nick and I drove to Barren Island, where Nick dropped me off. He drove up to Coeymans with the trailer.
I kayaked out to the boat and used the trolling motor to go up to Coeymans. We backed the truck down the launch ramp and brought the boat onto the trailer. It was difficult tying it to the trailer because the boat is almost sixteen-feet long, while the trailer is only ten-feet. We ran all of the ropes around the front of the boat so it wouldn’t bounce off the trailer on the way back to my parent’s house. By 9 a.m. we were back with the boat.
The first order of business was to attach an outboard motor mount to the back of the boat. An outboard motor mount is a pretty heavy metal hinge that the outboard vices onto. You can adjust a lever on the mount in order to raise the motor out of the water so it doesn’t strike rocks or mud in shallow water or when transporting or launching the boat. I just happened to have an old mount lying around from a 21-foot sailboat I’d bought off of a man from Delmar 4 years earlier, and cut up into pieces. Nick and I went back into the woods and found the mount among a bunch of other odds and ends I’d collected over the years, like the old paddlewheel from Assiduity, another dilapidated speedboat hull I’d gotten for free from Amsterdam NY, two boat trailers, a sunfish, and some sailing masts. We brought the mount back to the boat and bolted it to the transom, or back end, of That’s Life.
Next, we made a cover for the center console, to stow small items. It always helps to have a second guy when you’re running a piece of plywood across a table saw. Then we measured and drew out the hatches to cut in the deck so I’d have access to the space in the canoes to store my equipment. The problem was cutting those hatches out. My circular saw is broken, or dull, or something, and burned more than it cut. So I asked my mom if she’d call my Uncle Paul, who is a carpenter, and see if he’d come down and cut the hatches for me while I was at work that night. He said he would. Nick had to leave around 10:30 a.m.. I helped my mom with the canvass coverings she was making for the cabin, then headed up the Napa in Ravena to buy three deep-cycle marine batteries. These cost $349. That included $30 in savings because I returned three old batteries and there is a kind of deposit or credit you get when buying a new battery if you return the core from an old one. Unfortunately the batteries weren’t in stock and the clerk said I’d have to pick them up at 7:30 a.m. the next morning (the morning of my launch). I ensured with the clerk that the batteries would come charged, because I’d have no time to charge them, and he said that they would. Next I went down to Coeymans Marina and bought the “coast guard package”–which is to say, the items which the State mandates I must have on board my vessel. These included a four-pack of flares ($34.25), a white stern light ($20.99), a red/green bow light ($16.95), a throwable life preserver ($16.19) and some other items I needed to finish my boat, for a total cost of $166.49. I’d been saving $10 every shift I worked since last November for the boat, and this finally depleted my budget. I brought the supplies back to New Baltimore, checked on my mom’s progress, and we realized I’d need to buy two more drop cloths to complete the canvas covering for the deck, one more set of hinges, and four more pieces of 1″ boards. I told them I’d pick up the items on my way back down to New Baltimore that evening, then set off for Albany to work my serving shift.
Luckily, it was a slow night, and my coworkers, the manager and the owner of El Loco were sympathetic to my book sale endeavor. They let me leave at 6:30. I went to Lowes and Walmart (to get the food and other provisions for the trip) and got to New Baltimore at quarter ’til eight. My parents and Uncle Paul were working on the boat under the floodlights of the workshop. Uncle Paul had cut the hatches into the deck and put hinges in place, and drilled holes and ran bungie cords through to close them. This opened up a ton of space. My mother was in the process of sweeping the deck with a broom, because it had gotten covered with mud and pebbles while I worked on it at Barren Island. At the back of the boat I saw that they had attached the motor to the motor mount. After showing me the improvements (Uncle Paul said the price for the work was to take his son, my cousin, Pauly Junior, out on the boat when the trip was over), my dad left to bring Uncle Paul home, my mother went inside with the drop clothes I’d bought at Lowes to make the rest of the cabin walls, and I brought some 2x4s out of the workshop to build the poles that would hold the windmills up under the floodlight. The windmills rotate on 2″ diameter pipes, through which the wires run down. To attach these, I cut 2x4s to the correct height, then used a jigsaw and a chisel to cut 2″ slots in the 4″ sides of the 2x4s, then I lowered the windmill mounts in and duct taped them in place. You’d be surprised how well this holds. This was the same process we’d used to attach the windmills to Assembly Required in 2010 and they held all the way to NYC in 15 mph winds 150 miles. Once I’d bolted these vertical boards to the deck I ran a horizontal board connecting the posts halfway up. By then my Dad was home and we built a frame for holding the gas tank for the outboard motor in place, with a bungie to keep it from popping out. Dad then went inside to help my mom with the canvass flaps for the cabin as I cleaned the boat off, put all the tools away, and loaded the back of his truck with all the supplies I would need for the next day. My mom finished the canvass sides just as I finished cleaning and loading–12:30 a.m.. I drove home to sleep for four hours.
Thursday, August 31, was launch day. I woke up at 6 a.m. and drove to New Baltimore. My mom realized she had sewed one of the canvass sides incorrectly, so we took it apart and she started re-glueing it. Dad and I drove to Napa to get the three 60-pound deep-cycle marine batteries, and I bought 5 gallons of gas. Back home we mixed the gas in a 50::1 ratio with marine 2-stoke oil and put it in the boat’s gas tank. Then we noticed that the trailer had a flat tire. So we brought out my grandfather’s old air-compressor and filled the tire. Then we backed up the truck and it took my dad, mom and I about a half an hour to maneuver the trailer with the heavy-as-hell boat hanging 6-feet off the back into place above the ball-hitch on the truck, lower it, and snap it into place. I got into my car and followed my parents as they drove slowly down their driveway. At the bottom of the driveway, which is steep, the back of one of the canoes scraped the pavement. My dad stopped, but I told him to keep going, because we probably wouldn’t go over another section of road as steep as their driveway.
My plan had been to have the boat in the water at Henry Hudson Park, which is ten miles north of New Baltimore and about 15 miles south of Troy (where I was meeting a reporter that afternoon) at 9 a.m.. But it was 9 a.m. already, and we had to creep along the road because every bounce sent the back of the boat bottoming. I got more and more nervous as we turned onto 144, which runs along the river up to Albany, and started to accumulate traffic behind us. Over one bump a washer came bouncing off the boat and almost hit my car. As we got into Coeymans, where the road is full of potholes, I thought the boat might hit the ground again. Worse, I feared that my parents might get pulled over and a cop would tell us we couldn’t have the boat on the road. So I called my mom on her cellphone and said “Let’s just launch in Coeymans. If the motor works I can make up the time.” So we turned down to Coeymans Marina.
Dad backed the boat back, as Mom and I directed him, down the boat launch, until Jake’s tires were nearly submerged. Then Dad and I took off our shoes and waded into the water to untie the boat as Mom stood on shore with a length of line. Once the boat was untied we tried to lift the front off the trailer, because the back was in the water. It took a series of back and forth lifts to get it off, but we lifted it and pushed it down into the water with a splash. Once tied, I jumped aboard and opened the hatches to load the supplies from the back of the truck. I was startled to see a foot of water in the port hull. It had never leaked before, but if there was that much water in the hull, it must have a massive hole, I thought. Maybe the hole was made when the boat scraped the driveway. I couldn’t tell how fast the water was coming in. As my mom held the boat and my dad started unloading the truck I ran over to Coeymans Marina to buy a bilge-pump (a battery powered kind of sump pump), for $50. I ran back and hooked it up to the battery to pump the water out. This took about fifteen minutes, and once the water was pumped out, it didn’t seem to flood again. I decided that the boat wasn’t leaking; rather, when Dad and I pushed her off the trailer into the water, the back of the left canoe had gotten pushed under the water and scooped the water up.
By now it was 10:30–an hour-and-a-half later and 8 miles south of where I’d planned to launch. We started loading the supplies on board and putting the windmills in place and bolting the boat together. A couple of older men gathered around the dock and watched us. Dad had to run home for a hammer and an adjustable wrench. One of the onlookers came over and gave us a hammer without our asking, and we were thankful for it. He asked what we were doing, but seemed exceedingly shy and a share skeptical. By the time we’d loaded the supplies onboard, and screwed in the boards that needed to be screwed, and bolted in the boards that needed to be bolted, it was after noon. Mom started to tell me how she planned to affix the canvass to the frame of the cabin, but I exclaimed that I had to just throw the stuff on board and get going, because I was running out of time. Likewise, Dad tried to suggest how to run the fuel line to the motor so it was out of the way, and different ways to load the supplies onto the boat. Finally I said “I’ve got to just try out this motor already, because if it doesn’t work this whole trip is over!” So we primed the motor, set the choke, Dad and Mom got off the boat, and I pulled the cord. On the third try she started, then began to stall.
“Kill the choke now!” Dad shouted.
I did, and the motor roared to life. Immediately I moved away from the dock. This motor made much more momentum than the trolling motor. Rather than turning on a dime, I started arcing from the dock awkwardly.
“Watch where you’re going, now!” Dad shouted. Indeed, I was headed right for the boats docked at Coeymans Marina. I jerked the motor around and twisted in a 180. Then I turned the throttle lever and twisted her down to a troll. Still I was moving away from the dock. I twisted the motor to face south, toward Barren Island, in order to take the channel around the mile of rocks in the middle of the river, at the end of which was a buoy, where I would turn to port and head north again. After just a moment I was already 50 feet from the dock where my parent’s stood. My mom was shouting to me, but I couldn’t hear her over the motor.
“I can’t hear you!” I shouted, moving rapidly downstream. “I’ll call you in a few minutes. Thank you!”
I saw them nod and stand watching me on the dock. Every second, they grew smaller from my perspective. I sat down and looked toward the buoys in front of me, and glanced back at the motor, which I’d need to learn how to use on the fly. My trip had begun.