September 23, 2009

When Freddy let me drive.

When Freddy let me drive.
Ever do sixty miles an hour 18 inches above the water?

My godfather and my folks next door neighbor was a man named Fred who had grown up on the Niagara River in New York State.
To hear Fred tell it his father had destroyed at least the first, if not first several (it could get a little vague), old boats he'd managed to acquire as a boy, as being unsafe, and he would have no son of his going over the falls!
By the time I met him, Fred had grown and matured into a 6'3 roundfaced crewcut man who was the kindest human being I ever knew.
Funny, strong, smart, he became my surrogate Father while my Dad worked overseas.
We lived on one of the deeper estuaries of the Halifax River, Indian Lagoon system that drained and filled twice daily though Ponce Inlet between Daytona and New Symrna Beach Florida.

Fred went through a number of boats before buying his pride and joy, the earlier boats were not extraordinary.. a few outboards, a medium sized day cruiser..
Ah but about 1963 somewhere he found what in it's early day had been a Captains gig on some smaller naval craft.
A HIGGINS BOAT. This wonderful old wooden craft had been kept up pretty well or Fred would never have touched her, she got a new coat of top quality varnish a classic rubbing with aluminum foil where needed and a complete carb rebuild and inspection.

Fred was chief mechanic at Volusia Aviation for many years, working there the day the stroke came on him a few months before retirement...

And he had a goal. He wanted to own a boat that would do sixty miles an hour over the water.
For those of you who aren't wet inclined your average ski boat might, wide open make thirty, or thirty-five miles an hour.

This was cooking.

All was well till he bought the 'offy' carbs. OFFENHAUSER carburetors were THE thing in the Grand Prix racing circuit in the mid to late sixties, and how he got them shoe-horned on this inboard I'll never know but they worked.

They worked rather wonderfully. The GOAL was in sight! Most of the running was done over the measured mile that Fred had mapped out in the Intracoastal Waterway channel about three miles from our houses.

Where I came in, outside of grabbing every 'check ride' I could get by hanging around out at the dock any time I heard a tool clank next door, was that these carbs weren't really designed for a boat, the hammering and banging of the hull at speed made the carbs go out of adjustment.

So I got to drive.

Imagine a 8-10 year old boy, growing up close to the newest, largest race track in the country getting to pilot a craft on the water well in excess of fifty miles an hour.


In later years I realized that there were times he was simply messing with me.

When Freddy Let Me Drive
Part II

(Coast of Florida, 1963-65ish, near Ponce Inlet)

My godfather, a man named Fred, had purchased a former captains gig, an 18 foot long WWII vintage Higgins inboard speedboat. Inboards were not common or favored on the east coast of central Florida in the sixties, outboards having the ability to be beaten over oyster and sand bars and continue to operate.
Inboard rigs usually have a single shaft per engine coming through the bottom of the hull and up into what is essentially a auto style engine inside the boat. They don't take kindly to beating.

Fred's goal was to achieve sixty miles per hour on the water in a craft he owned. To make this a reality he'd purchased a set of OFFENHAUSER racing carburetors for this boat.

I was the next door neighbor kid, eight or ten years old.

The new carbs on the boat, all I ever remember him calling her was "the HIGGINS", were not made for beating at speed over rough terrain or intracoastal waterway chop. They would produce amazing bursts of power, and then go out of adjustment. Fred was a big guy but he couldn't be in two places at once, someone holding the wheel was needed when you'd get that sort of engine surge.

So I became the pilot.

As I said at the end of part one of this little story there were times he was simply messing with me.
We'd be beating down the Intracoastal at over fifty miles an hour, him in the back fiddling with the jets on the carbs and without any warning whatsoever the power would just cease.
The Higgins was a tight, sweet little craft, and in years to come I realized that she'd probably have walked a stern wave her length without broaching, but I was eight years old...

A boat that is going that fast is cutting through an amazing amount of water, that's why you get wakes that 'V' away from the boat.
As all readers who have messed about in boats know when you chop the power several things happen.

One, all the water you've been pushing through says 'AH HA!' and rushes for the stern..
Two, the stern (hopefully) rises, the bow comes down off plane, and the boat settles into the water.

My swimming abilities were of the 'oh shit' and try to claw back to the dock category.

The first time we were beating down the line at about fifty plus in this thing, me with an eight year old death grip on the wheel, and the power chopped I knew what it meant to see your life pass before your eyes.

To start with there were more power losses than I now think were likely.
I think Fred was teaching me how to handle a boat and a powerful one at that.

The day would go like that, me at the wheel Fred in the back, up and down his measured mile, a few houses to the east of us, but otherwise nothing but the river, the sun, mangroves, and each other.

At the end of the afternoon he'd take the wheel, we'd go out almost to the inlet at twenty five or thirty which was damned fast as is, and as he'd come back towards Mill Creek and the run.
He'd line her up and as we passed his mark he'd firewall the throttle. The old boat would come up to where I doubt there was much beyond a foot of it touching the water at any given time, and run in a roar that sounded like an airboat with a bad cold.
The stopwatch told the tale, we would get SO close.. easing her back down onto plane Fred'd say, "well that was pretty damn good", and grin.

I often see people now who have such trouble bringing boats into trailers on ramps and smile to hear the best advice Fred ever gave me..

"It's all sailing" he'd say. "If it's wind sailing the power is on top and there are different rules, if it's power sailing the power is on the bottom but the boat handles the same."
"Move the hull through the water, don't try to move the water around the hull."

The funny thing is that I'm not sure we ever made the run he was after.
In addition to the JFK murder, my closest friend in those days, a cousin a half dozen years older than me killed himself and three others in a Chevy Corvair he'd only had a few weeks, trying to move a Oak tree at close to a hundred miles an hour.

Things go out of focus for awhile there.

Fred lived until 1982, was the man who explained women to me, (best as any man can to another), and his wife, the Lady Caroline still lives in that area, and is a dear dear friend.
[Sadly she passed away in 2006].

My favorite memory of Fred is a funny little moment.
He used to buy, then repair, and paint older cars in his garage so often the tools would be spread from the dock to the attached garage on the street.
I shagged a lot of tools as a kid. I learned the difference between a half inch and seven sixteenths socket by footsore experience and it taught me much.
One day though, Fred who was a great believer in MARVEL Mystery Oil, sent me to the shop for his oilcan, the kind that had a lever pump built onto it. "And DON'T squirt it on the way back!" says he.
Opening my mouth he gave me a look I remember to this day and said quietly, "I SAW you last time.".

Move the hull through the water, not the water around the boat.


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