At the boat ramp, it’s easy to spot first-time boat owners as they back to the water, their trailers careening wildly like pinballs at an arcade. Whoops. There goes a taillight: 200 points.
Before I was old enough to drive legally, I was already an expert at the counterintuitive act of backing up a two-wheel trailer. I learned how the summer I was 14 years old when Dad assigned me to garbage detail at our family’s Minnesota fishing resort. Every morning, I drove through camp pulling a small trailer to pick up garbage at the cabins.
The first time I backed a boat down a ramp, I enjoyed showing off my expert skill to my bride, Valerie. However, back at the ramp at the end of the day, I paid close attention to the guy ahead of us hauling out. I’d never done that part before. Would our rear-engine Corvair be capable of hauling out our 16-foot fiberglass runabout? How far back should I position the trailer? What if the ramp was slick?
Our turn came and Valerie and I loaded easily, no problem. When she gave the all-clear, I nervously shifted into first, released the emergency brake, and slowly accelerated. The Corvair’s rear wheels started to slip. Before I could step on the brake, the car slid backwards. Hmm. Problem. I tried again. The rear bumper ended up in the water, its engine not far above it.
I panicked and floored it. The rear tires quit singing only when the Corvair’s engine slid underwater and died with a gurgle and a hiss. The emergency brake wouldn’t hold the load. My foot on the brake was all that was keeping the car from sleeping with the fishes.
The guy who hauled out before us saw my dilemma. He tied a yellow ski rope to our bumper and got back in his car to pull me out.
Reluctantly, I took my foot off the brake when the rope tightened. The car inched forward. I was saved! Then the rope snapped. The loose end flicked against my windshield like a yellow snake. The Corvair slid farther under. Water was just below the rear windows. My right leg on the brake trembled with fatigue. Now what?
To help out, Valerie pointed at our partially submerged car and made squealing noises. This attracted the attention of a passing log truck driver who kindly stopped, hooked up our front axle with a log chain, and, as easily as pulling trees up hills, towed our car, boat and me to a nearby garage. Several hours later, I paid the auto mechanic $75 and headed for home.
I still can’t launch a boat without recalling that first time. When the rubber meets a slick ramp, I get a little nervous. Don’t we all?
Paul Sullivan has never met a cabin he didn’t like.