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by Sarath Peiris
Sarath Peiris
Sarath Peiris

Almost a year has passed since our family's last vacation and, as I look into the expectant eyes of my eight-year-old son Taylor, I realize time's here to deliver on a rash promise, made under some duress, in the waning hours of last summer's holiday.

"Sure buddy," I had said with feigned confidence, as we reloaded the (t)rusty 1987 Chev Caprice wagon for the four-hour trip home to Saskatoon from our annual getaway spot on Lac des Isles. "We'll bring Uncle Rick's boat again next year and you'll get the first tube ride."

Had I been rational at that point, I'd have told the bummed-out kid that there'd be no more boats, begged, borrowed or bought, in our future; that my health, self-respect and sanity dictated that I sever all ties with any craft invented to traverse water by means mechanical. It's not as if the straight talk could have made him feel worse than he was feeling already. Besides, kids are resilient and he'd have soon got over it.

Instead, temples throbbing as I choked back imaginatively conjugated versions of the seven words George Carlin says can't be uttered on TV, I suggested the return engagement as I hitched up to the giant rust pile that serves as our family transportation the boat which had, within hours of our joyful arrival, turned me into the Rodney Dangerfield of Big Island Cove resort.

That was almost a year ago. Now that Donna and I are checking her lists twice and packing into boxes what seems like our entire worldly belongings for the annual two-weeks of "roughing it" at the rented cabin, talk is amazingly turning to when might be a good time to make the two-hour trip south, to Rick's home at Craven, to again pick up the boat.

Maybe it's some primal yearning to master the water from which all life sprung eons ago; maybe it's the possibility that this year, at long last, we'll actually get to skim the cool, clear Lac des Isles at high speed in the flashy, definitely flashy, 60-horsepower Sylvan Sea Monster festooned with fishing gadget decals of all manner; or it just may be that boating is like childbirth -- the longer the period between doing it, the easier it is to forget the pain, the crowds of curious strangers gathered around you offering helpful suggestions. . . .

In retrospect, I should have foreseen the entire humiliating experience the moment I pulled up at Rick's home last summer to pick up the boat on which I'd had basic training a few weeks earlier. The boat-trailer combination that had seemed so manageable behind Rick's van suddenly loomed gigantic when hitched to my low-slung wagon.

But, hey, I had the holiday spirit and the utter confidence that comes from not having the vaguest notion of what's really going on. So what if the boat trailer registration was due to expire while we were on holidays? We'd just renew it in Saskatoon before we headed north. As for the non-functional trailer lights, likely just a burned-out bulb that I'd replace before too long.

Back in Saskatoon, fixing the registration was a breezy forty bucks; as for the lights, it was nothing that a new wiring harness and a few hours of crawling under the trailer contraption didn't put right. The experience of having gravel embedded in one's back and regions farther south was rendered all the more joyful by several helpful neighbors who dropped by to assure me that the job was simple. Then, in conspiratorial tones, they'd inform me that none of their boat trailer lights worked, either.

Among the proffered solutions: "I just make sure I get where I'm going before it gets dark."

Devil Boat (aka The Sylvan Sea Monster).
Devil Boat (aka The Sylvan Sea Monster).

Suffice to say when the trailer tire lost pressure overnight, I would discover that a spare was nonexistent (how do you jack up a loaded boat trailer, anyway?) and that local tire dealers observe the Sabbath. Of course, it was nothing that a few pounds of air from the neighborhood gas station and an overnight prayer vigil didn't fix before we finally headed out.

Let's simply gloss over the nail-biting experience of navigating the lumbering Sea Monster along the then single-lane highway to North Battleford before we arrived at the resort several hours later than planned.

Leroy, the ever-helpful resort proprietor, offered to get the mighty Sea Monster launched with the aid of his tractor. The look on his face, after I'd nearly wiped out several bystanders in attempting to back up the trailer to a suitable parking spot, suggested that he knew only too well what he was in for over the next fortnight.

Early next morning, I headed down to the dock, where Leroy had helped me tether the boat after stocking it with required oars and bailing bucket.

Oh, what a sight she was, shiny blue and white, bobbing gently on the placid water.

"Hey, nice combo," called out a fellow boat-guy as he prepared to head off for a day's fishing. I gathered he was referring to the 60-horse Johnson on the 16.5-foot Sylvan, not my new Speedo shorts with matching T-shirt. "Thanks," I nodded, with a proprietary air. I could explain the boat's ownership later.

Having studied the owner's manual cover to cover, I knew what was to be done. I hooked up the gas tank, primed the line, checked the oil. All set. Except, when I turned on the ignition to lower the motor, nothing. Not so much as a whine.

Leroy to the rescue again, as a curious but small crowd gathered to watch the proceedings. Turns out that, somewhere along the way, while loading up our spanking new Sea-Biscuit and other toys with the potential for endless hours of fun on the water, we'd managed to flick on the toggle switch for the boat's running lights and drained the newly installed battery. No problem, said Leroy; a few hours on the charger in his shop and the battery would be set to go.

The battery topped up, Donna, I and the kids had headed out, cruising by our familiar haunts with the happy grins of the ignorant. We didn't spot the blue herons that occasionally grace the shore of the big island from whence the lake gets its name, but looking for them was half the fun. I imagined us heading to fertile fishing grounds in days to come, maybe even the never-visited Ranger Bay (don't all northern lakes have one?) where all the other boat guys brag of catching the big pike and perch.

Oh yes, this boating thing was going to work out just fine.

Geez, what a nice evening for a boat cruise.
Geez, what a nice evening for a boat cruise.

The next day was as glorious a summer day as a vacationer could hope for. Cloudless skies, temperatures in the mid-30s, barely a breath of wind -- what a day for Donna to christen the Ski-Biscuit. What fun she was having, smiling widely as the biscuit skimmed across the water, bouncing in the boat's wake. Soon, our daughter Caitlin got on the tube, a grin of delight replacing white knuckles as the ride wore on. Then her beach friend Vicky joined her, their hoots of joy ringing across the tranquil lake.

Yes, this boating thing was working out just fine.

Finally, it was Taylor's turn. I brought the boat close to shore and shut off the motor. We helped him clamber aboard the tube with assurances that I wouldn't go fast, that I'd take care not to dump him, that mom was at the ready to offer any help.

In the boat, I ran through the checklist, lowered the motor and turned the key. Only this time, there was plenty of sputtering from the motor, but little else. A tell-tale slick on the water confirmed my suspicion that the darn thing was flooded. Oh well, we'd all play on the beach while things cleared up.

An hour later, more valiant sputters but no starting. Two hours later, nothing had changed, except that the slick was spreading faster than the rust on our wagon.

Help eventually arrived in the form of Vicky's family, cruising by in their brand-new mega- thousand-dollar water craft. Explaining that outboard motors sometimes were hard to start in hot weather -- I think he was being diplomatic with an obvious idiot -- Lorne Olson fiddled with it until it sputtered to life and let it run a while before shutting it off.

Oh well, there's always the beach.
Oh well, there's always the beach.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in carefree abandon as we got rides in the Olsons' boat, tubing to our hearts' content and frolicking as the day demanded. It wasn't until they departed and we got on our boat that it happened again. Sputter, sputter sputter. Drip, drip, drip.

As Donna and I did a credible imitation of dray horses in waist-deep water, towing the boat with the kids in it toward the dock about half a mile away, it struck me that this was a new low, even for a man who had attracted curious onlookers the year before by getting his fishing line snagged in a tree across the camp road and in the opposite direction from the lake.

The days that followed, to be blunt, were a nightmare for me and high fun for those who'd witnessed our arrival with a boat that virtually screamed out: "Look at me, I'm a pro."

How quickly the worms turn.

The very people who'd showed up during my first glorious hours on the dock to admire the Sea Monster and seek advice on the best fishing spots were now full of smart-aleck comments.

"Your pants are sure wet a lot for guy who owns a boat," offered one wag.

"Hey, how's the fishing out there?" called out a big mouth bass(tard) kid who witnessed us rowing back the boat which had sputtered and died just yards away from the dock.

The ritual was the same almost every morning: I'd go to the boat, fiddle with the switches, turn the ignition key and watch the gas drip into the water as the motor sputtered; spectators would gather, newcomers offering advice and the jaded veterans silently observing with knowing smiles, as I tried to coax to life a contraption we'd hauled hundreds of miles with such high hopes.

Sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn't just stick to this.
Sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn't just stick to this.

On the one day the Johnson -- the pejorative is intentional -- did rise from the dead and we cast off to a smattering of cheers, it was only to return within minutes because a gosh-awful beeping had began from somewhere in the control panel. It wasn't too long after that that Leroy helped me haul the Loch Mess Monster out of its watery home, tarp it down and safely stow it away where it couldn't further damage my ego.

Looking back a year later, I can laugh. Yes, I sure was wet too often for a guy who had a boat. And no, I wouldn't have believed it either if some goof was trying to blame his boating troubles on a brother-in-law who wasn't around to defend himself.

So as I look into the expectant eyes of my eight-year-old, I've almost convinced myself that, this year, he will finally get the promised tube ride on Uncle Rick's boat; this year, the boating thing's going to work out just fine.

Yet I wonder. . . . When did the Olsons say they were taking their vacation?

Sarath Peiris, a journalist with the StarPhoenix newspaper in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, clearly enjoys hurting himself: please see Waterworks II.

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