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Bottom Painting

Text and Photograph by David Swanson

Note: This story takes place a long time ago, and in Wrightsville Beach, not on the Neuse River. The story is true as best remembered by the person that told it, but the names have been changed to protect those involved.

The Subject of the Incident.

Back in the mid-1980's, the man I'll call Dave was in his early 20's and single, and owned a lovely little yawl that cost way more than he could afford. Between his boat payment, slip rent at the cheapest marina around, and beer, there was little money left for things like boat maintenance.

The jungle that grew on the bottom of Dave's little yawl forced him to take action. There was no money for a haul out and bottom job, so Dave hatched a plan. His boat only drew 18", and the tidal range was around three feet. Dave would beach the boat in a protected spot on a high tide, wait for the water to go out, then clean and paint the bottom on one side. The next tide, he could do the same thing for the other side.

Finding affordable bottom paint was a challenge. Dave was able to barter some labor helping Don, the local Hunter sailboat dealer in exchange for two quarts of Interlux's finest cheapest bottom paint. Some scouting around soon turned up an excellent flat, protected beach behind Masonboro Island right near the inlet in Wrightsville. A look at the calendar and tide tables revealed that the Friday after Thanksgiving was a full moon, with high tide early in the morning and late in the afternoon - perfect for the task. Even the weather forecast was favorable - 60's, sunny skies, and light winds.

Dave headed out early Friday morning with a borrowed dinghy in tow. He arrived at the designated spot at high tide and ran the boat gently onto the sand. Soon Dave was able to start evicting the sea squirts, barnacles, and related flora and fauna that had taken up residence on his beloved craft. By the time the water had completely receded from under the boat Dave was standing on a smelly pile of dead sea creatures, trying to tape off the waterline in a somewhat straight line. He dismissed offers to help tow his boat off the beach and ignored comments about "that sailboat that was wrecked by the inlet." Soon the painting was done and the long wait for the returning tide began. Dave treated himself to some leftover turkey and settled in for a nap, feeling quite pleased with himself.

As daylight waned, Dave watched the incoming tide approach his landlocked vessel. The water began flowing around the stubby keel, and then under the hard turn of the bilge where it rested on the sand. Slowly the yawl began to right itself, moving closer to being able to break free of the land.

Then it stopped.

The flow of water onto the beach stopped and began to recede. Dave realized that the evening tide was not going to be as high as the morning one, and it was not going to lift the boat off of the bottom. Panic ensued. The boat could be stuck there for a month, until the next full moon high tide. Or even longer - what if that tide wasn't high enough? He couldn't afford to have a barge and crane come and lift the craft into the water, and his insurance would surely not cover this. What if someone "salvaged" the boat while he was gone?

Dave leaped into action. He tried pushing the boat into deeper water. Then he tried digging a trench with an oar from the dinghy. He put the anchor out into deeper water and tried winching the boat off. He heeled the boat over by hoisting the flooded dinghy with the boom on the low side of the boat. Nothing worked. The boat was well and truly stuck.

Dave took stock of his situation. Maybe the morning tide would be higher and he would be able to float off. If not, he would take the dinghy and row back to the marina to see if there was anyone around that could help or at least provide some fresh ideas. Dave spent some more time digging with an oar around the keel of the boat and back towards deeper water and making sure the dinghy and anchor were ready for the morning attempt. Then he pulled off his wet,sandy jeans and curled up on a slanted berth to try to get some sleep.

Dave heard the rising water rather than saw it. Overnight a thick fog had rolled in. Anxiously climbing out of bed and off the boat, he felt the water begin to work its magic on the immobilized craft. But when the water stopped rising, the boat still did not move.

The Site of the Incident.

Desperation again set in. Dave cranked on the winch until the anchor line was as taut as a violin string. He climbed on the boom to try to heel the boat farther over. He ran the boat motor full speed in reverse. Nothing. Then Dave remembered something he had heard around the docks. He put the outboard into forward and gunned the engine for several minutes. Then he put the motor back in reverse. This time the boat moved. Barely, almost imperceptibly, the yawl began to slide over the sand.

Abruptly the motor stopped, and the boat stopped with it. Dave jumped back into the water and quickly found that the anchor line was wrapped around the propeller. He pushed and rocked the boat with all his might, and gradually the boat slid into the deeper water. Finally, she was afloat, and began drifting away with the tide. Unfortunately, Dave was still standing in knee-deep water on the sand. With a lunging grab he managed to catch the flooded dingy attached to the boom and pull himself back onto the yawl.

Dave retrieved the anchor but he could not free the line from the propeller. With no motor, Dave hoisted the mainsail and sailed back up the ICW toward the marina. Instead of trying to sail into his slip Dave sailed up to the long face dock at the ritzy marina across the waterway. As he attempted to tie up, Jenny the dockmaster hurried over. She helped Dave pull the outboard motor onto the dock, and the two of them were finally able to cut the line loose. Jenny hurriedly cast him off and Dave putt-putted back to his slip.

Once the sailboat was securely tied up in the slip, Dave gathered his shower kit and headed up to the marina bathroom. Arriving at the marina office and bathroom, he found a young couple that were interested in one of the Hunter sailboats for sale. Don the yacht broker was no where to be seen so Dave carefully pried open the locked window to the office, reached in and unlocked the door - a trick he learned from Don, who often forgot his key after a late evening of drunken debauchery. Dave then arranged a ladder against the Hunter in question and unlocked it, and even handed the couple a color brochure. The couple seemed thankful but nervous, and left after a quick tour of the sailboat.

By now Dave was pretty much dead on his feet. He staggered into the marina showers and started the water running so it would be good and nearly warm when he got in. He pulled off his shirt and dropped it on the floor, then reached to undo his pants.

He wasn't wearing any.

In his haste to get the boat floating, Dave had forgotten to pull his jeans back on. Adrenalin and fear had distracted him to the point where he did not realize he was wearing only a shirt and his underwear.

Epilogue. The couple did not come back and buy the Hunter sailboat. Jenny stopped hanging around Dave's marina in her spare time. Dave worked enough overtime at the plant to afford to haul his yawl out and complete the bottom painting before the next spring. He went on to have many adventures in that boat, including being washed overboard at night offshore while sailing alone (he was wearing a harness and survived), and extinguishing a galley fire by carrying the flaming stove topside and throwing it into the water off Beaufort while wearing no clothes at all. But those are stories for another day.

Text and Photograph by David Swanson.