By Tom Neale, 7/1/2004


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The good thing about dropping your car keys overboard is that you hardly notice it. They don’t even splash on you as they, and your day, go down the tubes. The outboard is a different story. The splash from that can half drown you, which is a good thing because it prepares you for jumping in after it.

I’ve found over the years that it’s much more pleasant if I drop an outboard off the stern of my dinghy. The sea just parts, to let it slide in with a few contented gurgles. The only way to drop it from the deck without the deluge is to do it while standing up there over the dinghy as you try to lower it down into the dinghy. It makes much less of a splash as it passes through the dinghy floor on its way to the bottom. A few years back I found the perfect compromise. I dropped the outboard from deck level, but the dinghy was attached. The splash wasn’t bad at all because they landed upside down.

Of course there are many drops between the extremes of outboards and keys. One of my favorites is grocery items. The trick is to have that hole rip in the bottom of the bag when it’s just between the dock and the deck. It’s fun to stand there spread eagled holding a diminishing bag trying to guess what’s making the sounds. The practiced ear can readily discern between the subtle sigh of a cucumber slipping through the waves, the unrelenting sploosh of a large tin can of tomatoes, or the uniquely personal and strangely embarrassing plunk of a navel orange.

Submerged Outboards

After Hurricane Hugo pillaged the small shrimping village of McClellanville, South Carolina, the local citizens were on their own as the media, National Guard, and FEMA concentrated on areas of high density population. The storm surge had risen to roof top level. Almost everything had been under the salty ocean waters. Within a day or so, with no help from the outside, they had electric and gasoline pumps and generators running.

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I’ve found that I get a second chance if I manage to get all the groceries aboard. All I have to do is to wait until I’m cooking the stuff. Mel doesn’t have this problem, because she always cooks below in the galley. But being the Man that I am, I like to prove myself at the charcoal grill hanging over the stern. We all prefer to show our prowess at charcoal grilling to our guests, and I’m no exception. Some people have a tradition of passing the plate; I have one of tipping the plate, unless I’ve managed to tip the entire grill first. I’ve found that it’s better to drop steak over instead of chicken. Chicken is much too labor intensive. It never goes over until after I’ve spent a lot of time carefully turning it and brushing on Colonel Whoever’s Special Chicken Stuff. I realize that I could save a lot of effort and drop the chicken over when I start cooking, but then I’d spoil the evening. My friends would lose the opportunity to have all that fun standing around and telling me “Tom, you’re going to drop that chicken–I’m telling you man, you’re going to drop that chicken, ” as I indignantly deny the obvious—until it happens. But whether its steak or chicken you drop, they still get to say all through dinner, “Why didn’t you drop these beans instead.”

You’d think that tool boxes would be more fun than grocery bags. There could be a huge variety of splashes here, but it doesn’t work out this way for me. Tool boxes are specially designed for the purpose. As I step over the abyss, holding tightly to the handle on the top of the box, the bottom just gracefully swings away on its hinge, so that everything has a chance to hit the drink at once. Long ago I started using tool boxes with trays hinged at the top. This design still allows the big stuff in the bottom of the box to fall out in a clump, but those valuable little tools I’ve carefully stored in the trays take a little longer to go so that I can stand there remembering how much trouble I had finding them in the first place.

I like to delay the thrill of the splash by dropping things on deck first, especially things that are very small, really valuable, and important. Standing there watching it bounce gives you more of a thrill than watching reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club. Sometimes it stops safely in the scuppers, along with all the seeds from the bird drops, and sometimes it goes merrily on its way right over the gunn’le. This phenomenon raises one of the most hotly debated issues in all the centuries of seafaring tradition. Do you lunge and grab for it or do you just stand there and watch. Many claim that the odds are much better if you just watch; that it’ll come to rest on deck, even though you may die of anxiety while you’re waiting. Others claim that you should lunge and dive after it to keep it from going over. I usually do both; coolly standing with a smirk on my face as the thing totters and wobbles around and around on deck for an eternity, and then diving head first into the fray (and stanchions and jerry jugs and cleats) to knock it overboard just before it stops. If the process took long enough, I’d take bets. I figure if I could always bet on it going overboard I’d come up a winner no matter what.

I haven’t decided whether I prefer accidentally dropping things overboard out in the ocean where it’s miles deep and hopeless, or in shallow water where I can dive down and try to retrieve it. And if it’s a shallow water drop, I haven’t decided whether I’d rather it be muddy or of the famed “crystal clear” variety of the islands. There’s a certain excitement in groping around in muddy water 10 feet down, wondering about the precise identity of all those little things going through my fingers as my fingers go through the mud. There is no such mystery in many anchorages in the Bahamas and Caribbean where you can see the tidbit resting peacefully on the sand, just waiting to come home. You get to see everything down there, including the barracuda waiting for you to come down. Unlike the EPA, barracuda think a drop off a boat is Manna from heaven. They swoop in with utter delight. I dropped a dime once and the Barrie snapped it up before it hit the bottom. I haven’t had one eat an outboard yet; that’s one of the reasons its usually considered in knowledgeable boating circles that the best thing is to drop over only the large outboards. Some of my island friends just leave the “tingum” down there until it’s needed again. They figure that’s as good a place as any to keep it, especially with the Barrie hanging around to watch over it. You don’t have all this to worry about if you can just manage to hold your accidents until you’re over several miles of ocean.

Then there is the issue of floaters versus sinkers. We’ve discussed some of the problems with the sinkers. Dropping things that float presents another set of issues. Do I reach after it with a boathook or a crab net until I drop that too? Do I stealthily slip into the water and swim after it, hoping that what I can’t see won’t get me? Or do I hop in the dinghy and close in, leaning over to snatch it up with my bare hands until my glasses slip off my sweaty nose at which point I’m lucky to find my boat again, never mind the floater.

And adding insult to injury are the few fine folks usually standing on the shore pointing and snidely commenting among themselves about my environmental incorrectness. They way they see it, you can drop a hundred dollar bill over and as soon as it hits the water it becomes illegal litter. The way I see it, that special lock nut which cost a dime when I bought it is worth a thousand bucks when I drop it over. I’m not littering. I’m just accidentally contributing to the economy.

I’d rather contribute to the Chez Nous economy, which is why I’ve been trying really hard to not accidentally drop stuff overboard anymore. I prefer to drop it in the bilge instead. I’ve dropped so much stuff in there that I consider my bilge to be my retirement account. Some day I’m going to get up the nerve to withdraw it all. I’ll be so rich I can retire, and drop the subject.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale