Das Boot (The Boat)

Out into the big blue, all my feverish thoughts of imminent disaster and incompetence fell free of my mental propeller – here was freedom.

Ever since going out on my first charter fishing trip 15 years ago on a visit to Perth, I have harboured (uh-huh) a deeply held dream and yearning to be able to journey out on the ocean in a boat of my own and catch fish.

A few weeks ago, that dream finally surfaced when myself, Midshipman Jules and our two trusty deck-hands, Jacob and Nathan, journeyed out of the mouth of the Swan River into the Indian Ocean aboard the good-ship Banjo (OK you’ll have probably realised by now this blog is going to be awash with tortured, twee pseudo-nautical references – so strap yourself in and swallow your sea-allusion sickness pills, it’s going to be a choppy ride).

OK, Banjo is more an 18-foot aluminum trailer-boat than a ship, and I only own a quarter of her, having recently bought into a syndicate of sea-faring medicos who own her. But she is a worthy vessel with a powerful 115 hp engine and this arrangement gets me out on the water without having to be minted enough to buy my own boat, plus I seem to have enough difficulty backing my car down our narrow driveway let alone a hefty boat trailer complete with boat. And as I have painfully learned, backing boat trailers for clueless Luddites like me is a mind-bendingly challenging exercise – but more of that later. So being able to have the trailered boat parked up on a nearby mate’s verge, is another win that made part-owning seem to be the way to go. On the other hand, with part-ownership comes greater responsibility and if I am honest, I was shitting it cocking something up and screwing up the boat’s engine, hull or sinking the whole darn fishing party with me, my mate and our two sons aboard. It had only been a couple of months since I’d got my skipper’s ticket – a confusing term for POM’s like me – I mean why would the skipper of his own vessel need a ticket to voyage in partly his own boat? Another example of rip-off WA, perhaps????

A skipper’s ticket is of course a driver’s licence for ‘boaties’ as the recreational fleet’s legions are referred to – and after taking a theory exam and passing a practical test out on Hillary’s boat harbor under the tutelage of the very affable, knowledgeable and reassuring Carl (I can heartily recommend his service for anyone wanting to get their skipper’s ticket), I was the proud owner of a piece of plastic from the Department of Transport giving me the right to navigate the waterways and high seas of Western Australia. There is so bloody much to remember before you’ve even launched the boat – turn the electrics kill-switch on, release and remove the winch strap keeping the boat’s stern firmly held down on the trailer, load up all your gear onto the boat, remove the trailer electrics connector from your car or risk shorting out the trailer’s electrics and whatever you do make sure the bilge drainage bungs are in unless you enjoy that slow sinking feeling etc etc.

In reality, there isn’t that much to remember – but for a first-timer like me of a nervous disposition – remembering this simple checklist is fraught with perils – particularly with the nightmarish prospect of reversing the boat with the trailer back to the ramp once ready to launch let alone getting me and my passengers safely out on the high seas and back. Now I’d chosen possibly one of the busiest boat ramps in Perth to launch on the warmest day of the year at that point and thus the busiest day at the ramp. Not the best timing, when I’d heard tales of ‘ramp rage’ abound with seasoned boaties going off if they are delayed getting their boat in the water by 30 seconds as a result of the guy in front dragging his feet.

Backing up a double-axel trailer where there are dotted lines clearly marked out on the asphalt showing the way – sounds like it should be relatively easy to achieve. If you’ve never done it – try it and see what happens. Basically, as soon as you see the rear of the boat going off course, you’re supposed to make a small movement of the steering wheel to correct it – but here’s the thing – you need to steer the wheel in the opposite direction to what your head conditioned by years of bad reverse-parking tells you. This is physics and how a force (your reversing car) affect moving objects (the trailer) on the other side of a pivot (the tow-bar) so you go right hand down on the wheel and the back of the boat goes left. Armed with this simple logic, you think it’d be relatively simple to back up the boat the 20-odd metres to the water’s edge. It’s a little bit different though when you’ve got queues of (in my mind) tough-looking, no nonsense “whaddya think you’re doing, ya pommy ______” straining at the bit to launch their boats. staring at you, judging you contemptuously as your trailer zig-zags this way and that more acutely than an Olympian slalom skier. By the fourth attempt, my knuckles were bruised with furiously battering the steering wheel, rivers of sweat were pouring down me and the highly activated self-denigrating voice in my head was screaming, “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!”

Ramping it up – launching Banjo on a subsequent trip – it gets easier every time – who knew?

Yes, I was right back in my “I’m an incompetent loser” mode of thinking crafted through years of anxiety and low self-esteem. I was not so much physically reversing as mentally regressing and all the blokes stood around looking on may as well have all been my dad interrogating me, “Why are you doing it that way when it’s so obviously wrong? WHY, BEN, WHY????” But was I going to be beaten? Abso-effing-lutely – I practically dove out of the car when Jules asked me if I wanted him to have a go. I’m not proud of this craven capitulation – but we could have been there another hour and sparked a ramp riot before I got it right. I was slightly gratified to see Jules struggling a bit with it too – but he had some previous trailer reversing experience and he got there a hell of a lot quicker than I would have done. Next, the bloody boat wouldn’t slide off the trailer like everyone else’s – I later learned this is because of the shallowness of the ramp, the shape of our trailer and also my tow-bar not being of a sufficient height to angle the trailer steeper. What it meant was we had to furiously pitch and rock the boat to get it off after I had driven up the ramp reversed quickly and slammed the breaks on several times to try and jolt the boat off the rollers. More stress, and by the time we had her off and I had taken the car and trailer around to the car park I was a nervous wreck, also highly conscious of time slipping away.

I raced up to the meter to get my ticket with my bank card – I followed the instructions, but when it asked me to punch in the time I wanted my ticket ‘til, I pressed a number on the key pad, but it just came up saying I needed to pay three dollars. This was a bit strange as I had read that the good people of City of East Fremantle charged boaties the exorbitant amount of 12 bucks to park at the ramp. But I was in a rush and I figured they’d finally seen sense and charged a much more reasonable standard rate – so I grabbed my ticket, stuck it on the dash and ran to the ramp.  Jules had the boat ready for us to go, so I jumped in and tried to turn over the motor. It didn’t want to know, it nearly started up a couple of times, but then stopped – so I pushed up the choke even further and tried turning over her again – it wasn’t making a very flash noise and there was an oily smoke smell emanating from the engine. “Er, Ben – aren’t you supposed to lower the prop into the water first?” asked Jules. Oh shit – schoolboy error number one. Yes indeed a water-borne propeller needs water to turn surprisingly enough – and the absence of water can actually be pretty damaging to the engine. Having lowered the prop in allowed the petrol to drain from the engine having completely over-choked it, finally she turned over and I nervously began to back her out.

And then the fun really began…steering a boat is not like steering a car – as soon as you turn the steering wheel, the car responds – unless it’s a 1960s Russian Lada – and pretty much instantaneously moves in the direction the wheels are pointing. With a boat though, you have to wait for flow of water to fold around the rudder and for the bow of the boat to swing around in line with the course upon which you have turned. My panicky instinct was to turn harder when the boat didn’t swing around as quickly as I’d anticipated – the boat’s course then overturned and I’d furiously batter the steering wheel back the other way like Jurgen Prochnow did dodging depth-charges as the captain of the doomed German U-boat in the classic submarine thriller Das Boot.

Except, we weren’t in a submarine (yet) and this wasn’t Das Boot – this was one of the busiest days of the year on the Swan River not far from the river mouth at Fremantle and the boat channel in the middle of the river resembled Henley Regatta in full swing with a bloody flotilla of vessels from humble ‘tinnies’ to floating ‘gin-palace’ luxury cruisers descending down the river en masse. And then there was me in the middle of it tacking around like a drunken sailor on an ice-rink. I felt like a teenager having his first driving lesson and could barely contain my panic – particularly when we started to drift into the oncoming boat traffic coming upstream and I furiously tried to turn back onto the right course only to somehow manage locking the wheel down with the result that we ended up going around and around in tight small circles. The boys loved it lying on the deck of the boat as if it was some kind of fare-ride – for me though I was in my own private, dark tunnel of horror. “What do I do, Jules, what do I do???” I spluttered. Why the hell Jules would know I don’t know, but I was desperate.

V is for victory,  a volatile mind and very relieved having managed to steer the boat out of going around and around in tight little circles.

Finally, I managed to break out of it and while we were bound for the shore, I had the presence of mind to this time gently turn the boat around and get back onto the right side of the boat channel. Practically crying with grief and ignoring the boys pleading to “Do it again! Do it again!” I turned to Jules, who, usually one of the most unflappable people I know, now had the slightest look of concern on his face. “Er…you did say you’d passed your skipper’s ticket, right?” he said unwittingly giving me another opportunity to bash myself up with my incompetence stick. But having managed to steer our way through the old Fremantle railway bridge, the river opened up into the container ship/cruise liner harbour and suddenly we were steaming out alongside a host of other vessels whose skippers friendlily waved at us and us back at them and now we were part of the boatie flotilla.

My sense of exasperation was replaced with a sense of anticipation as we neared the river mouth which then turned into exhilaration as we passed out of the eight-knot speed limit zone and I began to open the throttle up. It felt like we’d been taxiing down the runway until this point and now were finally taking off. And then we were away bouncing over the bow-waves of the other boats and out into the big blue…and all my feverish thoughts of imminent disaster and my perceived incompetence fell free of my mental propeller and here was freedom.

Once out at our fishing spot, we caught plenty of fish, big fat sand whiting, belligerent flathead, a scarlet red  goat fish which the boys said looked like a Pokémon and, at one point, a huge Kraken-like squid emerged after one of the fish Jakey was bringing in, grabbed it before letting go and skulking off back to the inky blue depths. Jules managed to capture it on his Go-pro – so no end of excitement there.

And for a while, I was truly happy that my dream of catching fish from a boat, with my family and friends was finally being realised. But a distant squall of fresh anxiety loomed on my mental horizon – the prospect of getting the boat back in, back on the trailer and back on my mate’s verge loomed in the back of my mind. All was relaxed and good until the landing at the jetty. This was a manoeuvre I was yet to master, having nearly put one of the other boat-owners, Steve, into the drink when trying to execute it during my boat induction. “That was shit,” was Steve’s candid assessment of my landing on that occasion – so needless to say, this was one part of the maiden voyage ‘solo’ I was dreading.

Basically, you slowly and quietly steer the boat to the point on the jetty where you want the stern of the boat to go, then within a boat’s length or so, you put the throttle into neutral, drift in and then put the throttle briefly into reverse when close which acts as a break. The stern then ever so gently nudges the jetty and you then steer hard into the jetty bringing the bow of the boat up alongside it smartly and smoothly – allowing you or one of your passengers to tether the boat securely to one of the jetty pylons. I’d so over-gunned the reverse when I’d done it with Steve, I nearly pitched him into the water – so this time around, I was determined not to overdo it to the extent I didn’t hit reverse in time and we didn’t so much nudge onto the jetty as slam into it. Jules was on his game though and leapt up off the boat and got us hitched up in no time at all – once more I was grateful to Jules for his assistance helping save the day. Even more so, when he readily agreed to back up the trailer to the ramp to retrieve the boat, saving that particular headache. I wasn’t so grateful to find a $120 parking ticket underneath my windscreen wiper when I got to the car. I checked the ticket I’d bought and it had indeed expired at 9:20 am – it was now past midday. When I checked the meter, it appeared there were up and down buttons at the base of the meter underneath all the buttons with numbers on them – and reading the complicated instructions more closely – these were the buttons I was supposed to use to enter the time I wanted the ticket to run up until. I am sure I wouldn’t have been the first to fall foul of this.

Oh well, the main thing was we were back on dry land and after a bit of a rigmarole we were able to get the boat back on the trailer. I took her back to Jules’ place to wash her down and felt the tension of the last few hours finally begin to drain from my body and mind like so much corrosive bilge water. Having unloaded the boat, proudly shown off my catch to Sue, Jule’s lovely missus, all I needed to do was fill up the boat with petrol and drop it back at my mate’s verge. Except to get the boat back on my mate’s verge, you have to reverse the boat at an angle betwixt a lamppost and a tree. And when I got there, there was a battered old Fiat parked up blocking my angle of entry into the verge, which would have made the exercise slightly less excruciatingly torturous than it proved to be. Thankfully, my mate’s sub-tenant showed up – a nice Portuguese or Latin-American or Spanish bloke. He offered to assist directing me in, however, when I explained to him the difficulties of backing up a boat trailer, he shrugged and said, “Well, sorry, you’re on your own then.” Thankfully, it was him just being drole and after about 45 minutes of executing a 63-point turn, we had her back in place. Jubilant, I went around the back of the boat to put the bricks behind the wheels as a fail-safe to the break to stop the trailer rolling backwards. As I got back up, I violently cracked my head on one of the sturdy tree branches. I clutched my dizzy, singing head, swearing profusely and was reminded of the old Samurai adage – “After the battle, tighten up the helmet straps.”

By now it was a stinking hot day and when I finally pulled into our house, I rolled out of the car, drenched in sweat and fell on to the driveway and kissed the hot bricks beneath me – thanking God for our safe passage and return. A simple punt out on a trailer boat had felt like a voyage of epic proportions in my volatile mind – but as with every journey in life there have been learnings:

  1. Despite all the work I’ve done on myself, I still have very active tendencies to catastrophize (aka drama-queenery), self-flagellate and chronically people-please.
  2. This is OK, though, my journey continues to be about progress and not perfection and I need to continue to cut myself some slack when doing stuff for the first time.
  3. I’ll always get through with a little help from my friends and with friends like Jules, I really don’t have too much to worry about.
  4. It’s often when it feels like things are their most uncomfortable and unknown that there is the best learning to be had and if we can navigate our way through, an ocean of possibilities and freedom awaits us.
  5. Read the fecking instructions on parking meters properly.
  6. Consider wearing a crash helmet when putting the boat to bed.
  7. I may well need to find another boat syndicate to join after the guys in my current one read this.
Happy boating, happy fishing, happy camper – Jacob landing his ‘Pokémon fish’.

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