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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

“Keep it straight dammit!” the captain, my dad, ordered.

I was 12-years-old. My hairless knuckles choked the plastic steering wheel. I clutched the throttle with my right hand and gradually moved the numbers on the dashboard speedometer.

Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Fifty.

Our fishing vessel, an ’85 Alumacraft Backtroller, also known as “a piece of crap,” floundered through the choppy waters of Big Sand Lake, about an hour’s drive north of Kenora, Ont.

I took one look behind me. My dad’s beer-padded torso was wrapped around the back of the boat, straddled beside the motor, as he thrashed about in an attempt to save our lives.

I’m no expert in the matter, but I can confirm that boats do not float when there’s a hole in them. Our problem was as simple as that.

Nautically speaking, the bilge plug allows a boat to drain water accumulated inside by means of waves or small cracks. Water pools in the bottom of the craft, known as the bilge. When the boat is on land, you drain the water by removing, you guessed it, the bilge plug.

Well It wasn’t until we cast our hooks out and dad cracked his first early morning vacation ale that we noticed we were lowering gracefully into the lake.

We had forgotten to put the plug back in, leaving it in our pickup parked nearly 15 kilometres away on shore. A broom-handle size hole was now mercilessly sucking in water. Cue the string quartet. We’re going down. A father-son bonding experience was sinking into a front page news headline.

Rear admiral Dad had a plan: first, lift the rear of the boat out of the water enough to expose the hole. Then, plug the hole. Then, survive. Then, never tell Mom. Ever.

“Everything to the bow!” Dad yelled. There was a lot of yelling.

Like battle-ready sandbaggers, we frantically hucked all the weight we had to the front of our ship: tackle boxes, jerry cans and worn-down red coolers filled with soda, beer and squished bologna sandwiches. All of it obstructed my vision as I took control of the craft.

Dad leapt into position, a position that put him half-a-ruler away from a propeller spinning the speed of 50 horsepower. In every sense of the phrase, we had to sink or swim, and we had to swim fast.

So Little Gilligan and the Skipper sped ahead. The throttle was horizontal and then some. Our beloved piece of crap entered a new realm of mobility as it transformed into a blur of periwinkle blue.

The wake we created, combined with the weight we dispersed, began to slowly expose the plug-less hole. Dad reached his arm down but it was still too far. I saw the fear in his eyes as I clung, petrified, to the wheel, keeping our path straight over the open lake. Like the machine I was steering, my eyes began to fill with water.

Dads weren’t supposed to be scared. But this was the kind of fear even the most iron-willed protector couldn’t hide. He was far too aware of the churning waters waiting below us, and the lives he’d heard it claimed. He knew no amount of swimming lessons could win against this lake.

Nonetheless, just like the time on the roller coaster at Valley Fair or when Mr. McMurtry yelled at me in fourth-grade gym, Dad showed me how to fight every tear and find peace of mind.

My mom gently wiped tears away with a kiss. My Dad made you suck tears back into your eye sockets. Both always brought me the same feeling of reassurance.

“Buck up, bud. We’ll be fine. Just keep us moving” Dad croaked.

He looked me in the eye, gulped one last gulp, then leaned overboard as far as his body could go, filling the treacherous hole with a makeshift rubber plug made from the end of a fishing rod.

His legs came crashing back down into the boat, he lifted up his head, sunburnt and rippled with veins, and smiled – it was a grin that said everything that just happened, happened just as he expected it would.

I eased off on the throttle. My heartbeat slowed down, too. We messed up a high-five. Dad took the wheel with a happy dance and a laugh vibrating with adrenaline. No more water would get into our boat. We were fine. Just like Dad said.

Our Alumacraft would go on to fight the elements, and my father, many more times in her life. Once, the screws started to unwind from the floor panels during a long ride back from the Dalles area of the Winnipeg River. Then there was the trip on Cygnet Lake when the steering wheel snapped off. I can count on one hand how many times we loaded it onto the boat trailer without Dad dropping a barrage of f-bombs.

That old “piece of crap” never hit water without giving us an issue, and it never left water without teaching us a lesson.

Every day on it was an adventure, not because of the fishing or the sightseeing, but because of the sheer chaos that boat could unleash, which also allowed us to grow closer than any better equipped made-for-TV father-son cliché on a lake could.

Whenever I feel hopeless, I think back to the countless breakdowns, mishaps and near-death experiences we drove away from with quivering smiles.

Sometimes life’s a boat with no bilge plug. Just buck up and keep moving.

Zac Easton lives in Winnipeg.

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