Finally, after months of delay and frustration, we were told the aluminum boat was ready. At last, I could get out into the middle of the harbors and finish my summer research. I was already so far behind. I had been at war with myself about it, partially chastising myself for surveying after the spawning season is over because the last survey was done through the peak of the season, and the other half feeling that the delay would actually provide more accurate results precisely for the same reason. The population would be more evenly distributed, I told myself. Still, I was eager to get out there as soon as possible because the crabs would eventually start to move offshore.
I picked the boat up at the repair shop where it had been sitting waiting to be fixed for around three months. The mechanic attached the trailer to my Jeep, and I was on my way. When I arrived at the estuarine reserve where we park our boats (on land, on trailers) I realized that I hadn’t ever backed up with a trailer attached. I would have to back the trailer into its appointed spot on the grass, never mind backing down the boat ramps. I realized that the vehicle/trailer composite have to trace an S or C shape, because the path they follow together is sinuous. If the trailer has to turn to the left, you have to turn the wheel to the right. It is totally counterintuitive until you spend a few hours trying to actually get things to work the way they seem in your mind. Those hours are comprised of almost hitting trees, dumpsters, and other boats interspersed with moments of squinting at nothing in particular, gripping the steering wheel and saying to yourself, “OK, I want the trailer to turn to the left, but not too far left, so if I turn the wheel to the right, the trailer will turn and start to go left, and right as it turns left I should turn left to straighten it out…”
Backing up a trailer is a much more difficult task than it seems, and in a way that’s exactly why it’s hard. If you’re the one in the vehicle, observers will gladly give you advice and tell you how to turn, but it won’t be of much use. Men at boat ramps (always the men, for some reason) tell you to put your hands under the steering wheel because then the trailer is going where your hands are. Others volunteer to lift the trailer to straighten it out if you get too far off course, something that other people at the boat ramp may then deem as “cheating.” On a few occasions, I had people get so frustrated that they decided to do it for me. That’s humbling. I don’t like feeling like I’m incapable and need to be rescued. It doesn’t help my ego, even though 15 minutes later I’m likely to be swimming full speed against strong currents and free-diving for horseshoe crabs, both activities that an incapable woman in need of rescue might not be able to accomplish. We eventually got good at putting the boat in the water, and had managed to finish surveying Stage Harbor. Barnstable Harbor was next, and Alison and Chuck came with me. We loaded all our equipment into the boat, got in, and went to start up the engine. It coughed once. Then the starter pleadingly reiterated the same phrase over and over. It wasn’t starting. The sun was getting hotter, and we were floating dead in the water, luckily not too far from the dock. Chuck rowed us over to the dock closest to the repair shop at the nearby marina. After a quick inspection by the guy working there we found out that our spark plugs were wet. They didn’t have plugs for our engine, and rather selflessly suggested that we row across the inlet to the other marina. We tied up next to various pleasure craft with huge engines and protruding fishing poles. Alison went to talk to the people inside and find our spark plugs while Chuck and I tried not to overheat. As seems to be the case with boats, or perhaps just my luck, we put in the new spark plugs, gapped them appropriately (one bonus of having calipers with you), and ended up with an engine that still wouldn’t start. The guy at the marina said he could fix it in a couple weeks. We decided just to take it back to our repair shop. Chuck rowed back to the ramp while I stewed literally and figuratively.
When I returned to the lab and told my fellow students about the disappointing day, one of them said, “Why don’t you just use the skiff? It’s just sitting there at the reserve.” It is hard to feel elated and pissed off at the same time, but I somehow managed. My research could continue as planned, provided the skiff motor functioned, but why hadn’t anyone told me about this before? I spent months waiting for the boat to be fixed, and there was another one the entire time. Fortunately, my need to get back onto the water overruled my need for a diatribe, and by the time I was out on the skiff the next day I had mostly forgotten about it.