The Pelican Pete Stories
Part I - Setting Out
The other day I got thinking
about stories about cruising aboard boats, especially stories
from older books. Some of those old writings conveyed a real
feeling of adventure, even for ordinary coastal cruises in sheltered
waters. And that started me thinking about the effects of trips
in small boats, and how the experience can be altogether different
from that in larger, more luxurious vessels. Well a few years
back I bought a converted lifeboat from a fellow up the St.
John’s River. I figured that qualified as a smaller boat
these days, so I thought I’d write about some of our adventures.
The General Brock
Cut the Lines Loose
Pete stopped on the dock and
looked at the boat. “I don’t know Dad, looks in
pretty rough shape,” he said. Pete had come down to help
me take the General home. “The main thing is the engine,
Pete. It sounded OK when he started it,” I answered, “Let’s
get this oil changed.” The “General Brock”
was a thirty-five year old lifeboat. The hull was 24 foot of
riveted steel with an outboard rudder, and the engine was a
four cylinder 40 horse Perkins diesel. The General was double-ended
but apple-cheeked; pointy both ends, but only at the last possible
moment. The previous owner found the boat looking sad on the
hard at some Navy auction. He put in a low bid and to his surprise
he had a boat; nobody else bid. He was a good carpenter, and
he did a good job on a low cabin forward, and a nice cockpit
aft. But that was a few years back. Now the paint was shot.
The bimini was torn and black with mildew. We scrubbed as best
we could before setting off, but the General still looked….well,
lets say he looked sort of disreputable, like an older guy who
had had the world by the tail twenty years ago, but was now
a little down on his luck. But we'd change that when we got
home. Sandblast the hull, fill a few holes, fit a new wheel,
some paint and varnish, a new bimini. He'd be a gentleman again.
So a couple of hours later Pete
and I backed the General out of his berth. We had over 500 miles
to get home, first north along the St. John’s River to
Jacksonville, then south along the east coast of Florida, west
through the Okeechobee, then north again along the west coast
to Tampa. “Let’s see what he’ll do,”
I said, and I pushed the throttle forward. Pete had his eye
on the GPS, “Five knots, five and a half, six, six and
a half, seven…Oooo seven point one, two.” “That’s
all she wrote, Pete,” I hollered over the racket, “Look
at that trench we’re digging in the river!” Every
rivet in the General’s hull was rattling and the wheel
was pulling hard to starboard. I pulled the throttle back. “What’s
that, Pete?” “Six, five point eight,” he answered.
“There,” I said, “That’s about it if
we want to keep our sanity.” Pete didn’t say anything,
but he did take another wistful look at the GPS. Such are the
ways of double-ended displacement hulls.
It was late in the day when we
entered Lake George. We figured on stopping at a spring part
way up the lake. But it was full of beer-swilling rednecks in
fizzboats, so we pushed on. I thought we could reach the top
of the lake before dark, but I hadn't planned well enough. When
night came, we found ourselves in cold rain, stiff wind and
a substantial chop, an hour from shelter. Our little cruiser
had no windshield. Pete took the wheel, reading the compass
with a flashlight, trying to duck the spray coming over the
bow. I read the chart and GPS from below. He wouldn't let me
take a turn at the wheel. "No sense our both getting wet,"
he said, water dripping from his nose and chin. We dropped the
hook right where the GPS told us to, never saw a light or the
shore. Pete came below soaked to the skin, shivering and smiling.
The morning dawned clear, calm
and cold. We were no more than a hundred yards from shore, tucked
into a little bay like we were supposed to be - magic thing,
GPS. Pete seemed different, more solid, no longer a kid at all.
He hadn't changed overnight of course, but the way I thought
of him had.
Pete and I settled into a comfortable
routine. Up at dawn, haul anchor and get underway. Chow down
on some breakfast while we slid down river. Then we’d
keep a lookout for a spot to grab some lunch, some ice, and
some fixings for supper. We’d get fifty or sixty miles
in, then we’d find a sheltered spot to drop the hook for
the night. Two or three days went by like that, one blending
into the next. We passed surprisingly empty riverbanks, slid
over shallows and under railway and highway bridges. We chugged
through the bustling port of Jacksonville, dodging the freighters
and tugs. And around Jacksonville, we ran into salt water. We
could see and hear the difference in the way the wake foamed.
Just past the city, we joined the Intracoastal Waterway and
turned south. The General’s old engine never missed a
beat, but that was about to change. I guess it was predictable,
but we didn’t know enough then to expect it.
About a day south of Jacksonville,
we stopped for some fuel. When we filled the tank, we stirred
up ten years worth of sediment. Fifteen minutes after we left
the fuel dock, the General started to slow down. I upped the
throttle - nothing. Five more minutes and the engine was pretty
well at an idle, so we stopped, opened hatches, and started
to poke around. It turned out that the previous owner had had
the good sense to install a strainer ahead of the fuel filter,
and it was plugged with black goo. We cleaned it out, bled the
engine and started off again. Half-hour later, we were stopped,
same thing. Well, after a couple more cycles we knew we had
to do something else, but what? Supper, that was the obvious
course of action. Supper, a little rum and coke, a good night’s
sleep, and the answer would come in the morning. Given a viable
choice between supper and decisive action, the true sailor knows
what to do.
Sure enough, next day after breakfast,
Pete and I were in an inventive frame of mind. The lazarette
yielded up a plastic funnel, and a five-gallon jerry can. A
local bait shop sold us an outboard motor fuel line with a priming
bulb. The hanging locker provided a coat hanger, and the galley
donated a roll of paper towels. We spliced into the diesel fuel
line and pulled it through a new hole in the deck into the cockpit.
The coat hanger wire got bent into a spiral inside the funnel,
to make a spacer. Inside of that went a folded paper towel.
The squeeze bulb filled the funnel filter with dirty fuel, after
which it drained into the jerry can. And the engine sucked the
filtered fuel out of the can. So did it work? Sure did. The
black crap that those paper towels collected! About 4 funnels
of diesel and the build-up was enough to pretty well stop the
flow. We went three hundred miles squeezing and straining one
half hour out of every two. We used up four rolls of paper towels.
Pete and I developed forearms like Popeye’s. And the engine
never missed a beat for the rest of the trip. Well, except when
it got rough in Lake Okeechobee, but that’s another story.
…to be continued