Reporter’s Notebook; River adventure ends with a sinking sensation
Boats. I’ve had mixed results with boats. From the time I bought my first one at age 15, it’s been a love/hate relationship.
I caught a lot of bass and perch in the lakes and rivers back home, but it’s the bad experiences which stand out, especially the one and only time I sunk a boat.
My boats were always projects in progress – old, beat-up aluminum jonboats, which I sanded, sealed and painted, before venturing out onto the bayous or the river.
On that day back in 1988, my brother Marty, his friend Kim and myself headed out to the Neches River to test my latest project – a 14-foot “extra shallow and narrow” boat, with a 1963 Chrysler 20 hp outboard.
The motor was built back in the days when a 10 hp weighed about 60 pounds. I could barely lift the 20 hp motor, which must have weighed close to 100 pounds.
We launched the craft without incident and headed out into the river channel. I noted with some trepidation that the waterline was about two and a half inches below the gunwales of the boat.
However, there were no leaks and the motor – well, it was running about as good as any 24-year-old Chrysler product could.
Kim and Marty were talking and I was concentrating on my steering. Marty, who tops 6 feet and at the time weighed over 200 pounds, was sitting on the floor in the front of the boat, facing back toward me, with his arms on the sides. Kim was in the middle seat, facing forward, and I was at the back, operating the outboard.
Disaster came without warning – at least for me.
“We’re going to sink,” Kim yelled, as she jumped out of what appeared to be a perfectly safe boat, into the river.
I had just enough time to think “Hmm, that’s pretty weird,” before I saw the wave.
Ocean-sized waves are not the norm on the Neches River, which is usually smooth as glass – and brown as mud. This one was fully three and a half feet high.
It poured over Marty’s head and filled the boat, which then dove bow-first like a submarine into the river.
When the stern went under I was still sitting at the outboard, and had discovered the true meaning of cussing like a sailor.
The boat capsized and flipped over, dumping Marty, myself, the ice chest, and the gas tank into the brown, murky, water, where we joined Kim, who was already treading water and holding one arm up to keep her watch from getting wet.
The boat was floating upside down, with the outboard still attached.
Perhaps my irrational and unreasoning hatred for personal watercraft dates from that day.
The culprits behind the wave were a group of kids in a speed boat, making high wakes for others on Jet Skis to jump.
To their credit, they pulled all of us out of the water, and towed our boat to drain all the water out of it.
We all came out of the experience a little damp and disoriented.
Later that day I checked the motor, cleaned it out and ran it for a while, then put the whole rig in the classified ads.
I never took it back to the river – and my next boat was substantially bigger and safer.
John Bayless is the news editor of the Sierra Sun.
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