Above: My family boating when I was a teen. That’s me skiing while my Uncle Harvey takes the wheel of one of the boats we owned. Photo courtesy of Joe Earle.
In the 1960s, sometime around his 50th birthday, my dad bought a boat. A half-century later, I still don’t know why. We were not boating people.
But I was a teenager and a speedy little boat with a big outboard motor and a pair of water skis seemed like a great idea to me. After all, the families of many of our friends in the South Carolina Upstate were buying boats in those days so they could take them out onto Lake Hartwell in futile attempts to beat the summer heat.
My family made a discovery during our boating years. No matter how much we enjoyed our time on the water, we didn’t mix well with boats. We had a hard time keeping them afloat.
That first boat Dad brought home was about 14 feet long, made of wood and could easily tow skiers. There was only one problem: we had nowhere to store it and its shiny new trailer. There wasn’t space to park it in front of our house and it wouldn’t fit in our steep driveway without the risk of an unexpected downhill dash into the woods.
So, my father cut a deal to board our boat in the carport at my uncle’s house. In return, my uncle and our teenaged cousins could use the boat when they wanted. That meant that just about every time we went boating, my teenaged cousins came along.
The first time we went out on a small local lake for a test run, things went swimmingly. We had a fine day: beer was consumed by the adults, the teenagers managed to avoid breaking any bones and everybody got a nice bright sunburn.
But things quickly took a turn. A few Saturdays later, when we hauled boat and trailer back to the lake, we got our first taste of boating trouble.
Everything worked fine at first. We launched the craft from the trailer and everyone walked out a long floating dock and climbed aboard. Dad was driving, or whatever you call it when you’re at the steering wheel of a boat. I was in the front passenger’s seat. My cousins and brother were arrayed in seats behind us.
When Dad gave the engine some gas, instead of heading toward open water, the boat veered toward the wooden dock, which we managed to hit as we picked up speed. We cut a nice gash into the side of the boat.
That was disconcerting, but when we examined the hole, we determined that it was well above the waterline, so we figured no real harm had been done. After spending hours towing the boat to the lake and getting it into the water, we weren’t about to give up that easily, so we decided to go ahead and ski and have repairs made later.
This time, when Dad gave the engine some gas, our little boat took off in a hurry. And it veered again – this time, right into the back end of a much larger boat. I have a vivid memory of my cousins and brother diving from our boat as my father and I wrestled over the steering wheel, each of us thinking we could somehow convince our boat not to hit the much fancier one it was aiming for. We failed. The bigger boat – a beautiful wooden Chris-Craft in my memory – sustained no noticeable damage. Our boat sank.
So we got another boat.
Boat Number Two was a step up. It was longer than our first boat by a foot or two. It was made from Fiberglas. It came with a bigger outboard engine. And it had fins, like a ’56 or ’57 Chevy. It was built to move at high speed across the water.
We teenagers loved it, of course. We went skiing every chance we could. We took to the lake on Saturdays, Sundays, any weekday we could take off school or, in the summers, work. We now were old enough (say 16 or 17) that our parents trusted us to take the boat out without adult supervision.
That worked fine until one hot afternoon when, after a long day of skiing, we loaded the boat onto the trailer for the hot, tiresome drive back to my cousins’ house. There were four of us and we had made loading and unloading the boat a four-boy job. One of us backed the car to position the trailer in the water and on the loading ramp. Another cranked the metal cable that pulled the boat from the water onto to the trail. The other two tied the boat down, attaching the straps that held boat to trailer.
On this Saturday, someone forgot to tie the boat down. That was no problem until we hit the highway back to town. As we turned from a side road onto the highway, the boat slipped off its trailer. Both boat and trailer remained attached to our car, so as the car moved up to highway speed, boat and trailer bounced along behind.
When we realized what was happening and stopped to examine the boat, we saw the fiberglass bottom had been scraped away. What had been the boat’s watertight hull was now little more than a collection of holes. We could look straight through them to the asphalt below.
So we got another boat.
Our third boat was even fancier than the second. It was again longer by a foot or two, wider by a foot or two and had a sunken seating area molded into the bow so passengers could ride there a get a better view. It came with an even bigger outboard engine than the others and was designed for skiing. We teenagers thought it was the classiest thing we’d ever seen. We skied all over Lake Hartwell in that boat.
But, as they say, all things must pass. So, too, did our boat. And like our second boat, the third boat met its maker on land. We were driving through the Clemson University campus when we noticed a boat passing us on the right.
“That looks just like our boat,” I said.
Everyone looked over.
“It is our boat,” someone replied.
“And it’s moving faster than we are,” I said.
It was passing us on the right. In other words, while we were on the road, it was not. The trailer had somehow become detached from the car and had rolled onto the shoulder of the road. Now it was speeding along by itself. As we slowed to watch, it passed us, heading rapidly towards a small, cinder-block box the university had built for use as temporary housing.
All I could think was that at the speed our boat was moving, it would take out that little house and all inside. Luckily, at the last second, it hit a bump and was diverted back onto the road so that it was now racing along in front of us. Now we just had to worry about it hitting other cars. After a couple of minutes, it rolled through a stop sign, somehow dodging traffic as it went, and smashed head-on into a telephone pole.
So we got another boat.
By then, my cousins and I were moving on to summer jobs and distant colleges that kept us too busy or too far from home to use the boat very often. It was left to gather dust in my uncle’s carport. Eventually, one of my cousins sold it.
Our boating days were done.