Murphy Meets & Beats the Salmon Seeker

by John L. Beath

Someone once said, "A boat is nothing but a bottomless hole in which to throw one's money." Don't know exactly who made the statement, but I guarantee, they knew something about owning a boat.

If you've never owned a boat, it's hard to imagine what life with one can be. The misfortune, I mean pleasure of boat ownership involves mega trust and mega money -- if not now, later. Boat owners put their trust in the boat manufacturer, motor maker and whoever did or didn't remember to put the plug in. It's hard to imagine anyone trusting their life to a boat after considering everything that can and eventually will go wrong. Why I trust my life to my simple little 18-foot puddle jumper is beyond me. Where I live and fish, the water stays a bone-numbing 50-some degrees -- year 'round.

Murphy's Law, the undeniable law that states, "if it can go wrong, it will," should be etched forever into the dashboard of every boat. Not wanting to become a victim of Murphy's Law, my preparations for the first weekend salmon derby of 1994 began early on the third Friday in January, one week before the derby. As any angler knows, proper preparation is the key to success -- a lot of dumb luck also helps, but I bank on preparation when possible.

Yes, banking can and will be a very large part of successful derby fishing. After all, preparation of a boat means going to the bank often to withdraw the necessary funds a boat needs to keep it floating and moving while it floats -- hopefully.

The first trip of the season is usually considered a "shakedown" trip or in simple terms, a boat-induced robbery trip. This first trip reveals how much money is needed to keep the boat in tip-top condition, which not only means floating, but moving under power. Before the shakedown trip, I discovered a broken gas cap on my trolling motor's portable tank. No problem I thought, any marine store should have a replacement cap.

Three long, miserable hours and three marine stores later, a replacement cap finally made its way into a second hand brown lunch bag full of other stuff my boat had to have in order to run.

The first rule when going to a marine store is take lots of money. Upon entering a marine store, undoubtedly you will remember half a dozen items you might need. And, of course, half a dozen items you forgot you needed and half a dozen more you didn't know you needed until you saw them staring at you like a puppy at the dog pound. Always make a list and take four times the amount of money you think you will need.

Why four times the money? you ask. Simple. Anytime anyone enters a marine store -- a store where the owner has the legal right to inflate prices many times over -- the boat owner is sure to purchase twice what they need. Plus several items they don't need, but can't live without. With every trip to the marine store, boaters continually prove the power of "trickle down" economics. It's really quite simple, buy it or the boat will trickle to the bottom of the ocean! Therefore, bring lots of money, picture ID, at least two credit cards and a promissory note giving your first born away if you need an item and can't pay!

With the replacement cap in one hand and a gallon of $22 dollar outboard oil in the other, I could now proclaim myself prepared. Wrong... I still needed gas to go with the oil, the reason for the replacement cap.

After filling two boat tanks and two truck tanks that totaled just under 50 bucks, I was finally ready to head home. A shakedown cruise, executed from the safety of my driveway, would be my first actual outing of the year with my boat, the Salmon Seeker.

The pre-float check began without incident. I couldn't actually float the boat since it still rested securely and strategically on the trailer in front of my garage. I eagerly climbed from the driveway and into the driver's seat, my favorite seat in the boat. My son, Chris (we call him Boy, for short) aimed the hose at the windshield to simulate rain. Had it not been for the real rain, his efforts might have been noticed and rewarded.

From the driver's seat, I could easily check the electronics, batteries and other high-tech controls and gadgets. Everything seemed to check out fine. Even the single windshield wiper actually worked. I've always wondered why most small boats only have one windshield wiper. Come to think of it, maybe they design them that way for safety reasons. I don't know of many people who would go with me if they could see past their nose in some of the storms I've navigated. Yea, it's a safety thing all right -- safety in numbers.

Just like a small child left in a hot car with the window down, I immediately started playing with the steering wheel. My imagination took me from my driveway to Florida and then to the San Juan Islands. I love trolling so that's what I began to imagine. Suddenly, an imaginary log popped up, dead ahead, not ten feet off the bow. Not wanting to collide, imaginary or not, I tried to spin the steering wheel left or right but nothing happened.

Reality has an ugly way of ruining dreams -- especially my dreams! This reality would cost at least a couple hundred smackers if I couldn't fix the problem. Maybe a little grease, and my favorite, WD-40 could cure my frozen-stiff steering. If you've never had a locked-up steering wheel, you can't possibly understand how it feels in your hands and the pit of your stomach. It's very much like trying to move a semi-truck without wheels -- it just doesn't work.

After an hour of trying in vain to free the steering, my fishing partner, Hal E. Butt, arrived on the scene to lend moral support and muscle. With only a few hours remaining before launching, we decided to disconnect the steering and rig a tiller handle and forgo any thoughts of using the steering wheel.

Hal and I continued and completed the on-the-trailer shakedown cruise well into the dark hours. Everything else worked perfectly. The boat's lights reflected red and green, for port and starboard, and the stern light glared bright white under the semi-dark light of a full moon. We had nothing left to do except load the boat and clip the battery charger's claw-like pinchers to the battery for an overnight charge -- just in case.

At 4:00 am the next morning, Hal and I gripped full cups of powerful, kill the weak-hearted, wake-'em-up java. My mighty Ford chugged and churned down I-5's dark and dreary pavement toward Anacortes with a fully-loaded boat in tow. When we arrived at the boat launch, the night stars still twinkled bright in the semi-dark cover of the full moon. We definitely needed navigation lights. Before launching, we attached the docking lines and bumpers before flipping the switch to the navigation lights. Unfortunately, the lights failed to shine bright. In fact, they didn't shine at all.

"No problem," I announced. "I'll take them apart, replace a bulb or two and we should be back in business."

Twenty minutes later, the lights worked in the disappearing darkness. The boat slid perfectly off the trailer and into the water with a soft ker-splash. Upon watching the boat float, a familiar feeling of relief overcame me. Anytime a boat floats I'm instantly overcome with relief. However, on this morning I had the uncontrollable need to don my life vest, even though the water resembled a flat, calm parking lot puddle.

As we left the dock, the moment of truth hit us both. The boat floated and the homemade tiller handle attached to my mighty 90-horse outboard actually worked better than either of us dared imagine. My mighty craft skimmed with ease over the water toward our first stop of the morning, Thatcher Pass.

Upon arriving, the electronics revealed a few fish on the bottom. We quickly lowered our herring to the bottom with the aid of our downriggers. Within minutes we had our first hookup - "fish on."

Our "fish" turned out to be planet Earth instead of a giant fish or sea monster. The gripping bottom had apparently reached up without warning and grabbed our downrigger balls and baits, attaching them to the bottom forever like another angler's non-removable tumor.

"No problem," I said between an onslaught of four letter words. "I carry spares."

Sixty bucks worth of replacement gear easily fixed the temporary problem after my hands unclenched from their tight-fisted reaction.

After hours of trolling around several normally productive hot-spots, my rod finally quivered under the pressure of a seven-pound mini chinook. The first fish usually means the beginning of great things to come... Wrong again.

That guy Murphy, who wrote that stupid law I'd fought, without a lawyer, for the past twelve hours, reared his philosophical head and mysteriously made my eight-horse motor quit. No problem, I could troll with my 90-horse outboard motor.

An hour didn't pass when Mr. Murphy decided to fix us good by shutting down my big motor. Yikes!

The chilled waters of the San Juan Islands, or anywhere else for that matter, are no place to be without the use of a motor -- any motor. My distant driveway sounded better with every "non-waking" moment.

With lots of greasy work, I finally managed to get the motor to run, but barely. Instead of spending the night in a plush resort, with the rest of the derby participants, and risking further problems, we chose to call it a day. The ride back to the boat launch felt better with every inch we gained toward the dock.

My boat now sits in the safety of my driveway. The motors don't work and the steering is completely stuck. The navigation lights need new bulbs and sockets. Both downriggers need new cable, balls and releases. My hole in the water, I mean driveway, keeps getting bigger and bigger, no matter how much money I throw in it.

I love being a boater and fisherman with all my heart -- but I'd really love to meet this guy Murphy. If I did meet him, I'd throw him in the hole along with the thousands of dollars I've already thrown in there.

Wait a minute -- he'd be a rich man if I did that.

On second thought, I'll just make him go fishing with me. Like most lawmakers, he'd surely change the law to suit himself! Or he'd learn some new laws, like walking the plank.