Bent Prop Boss

By Tom Neale, 8/26/2004


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The narrow approach to the harbor of the tiny island twisted and turned through about a mile of very serious and very shallow reef. The 65 foot go fast boat didn’t twist and turn. It sped in, straight and true. After all, he knew where he wanted to go. He wanted to go down to the BVI, roughly 1,200 miles further south. This island, 350 miles southeast of Miami, was going to be a “great” fuel stop. I guess he thought we were all jumping and waving because we were glad to see him coming, although we’d never seen him before. He didn’t wave back, which is a good thing. It was a good thing that he was holding on to something when the propellers creamed into the rock. If he hadn’t been, he’d have kept on going without the boat.

Rumors spread fast on small tropical islands, and this one was no exception—especially since there were only a few dozen people there and most of them were asleep. The rumor was that his props cost $15,000 apiece. To some, this would be a problem. It wouldn’t be a problem on “Chez Nous,” because we wouldn’t have the money no matter what. And it wasn’t a problem to the gentleman in the go fast boat, because he obviously had plenty of it.

He immediately cranked up his satellite phone and called Ft. Lauderdale to arrange for someone to fly out two more props. The island’s landing strip wasn’t exactly what you’d call an airport. Usually there was only around one landing a week and most of those were by accident. So we all knew when the private plane with the boat’s propellers approached. The two men landed at the strip in paradise and promptly whipped out their cell phones to call the boss to come pick them up. Cell phones out here are about as useful as bow thrusters on a kayak. So boss was waiting in his boat for the two guys with the $15,000 props and the guys were stuck at the airstrip wondering what to do. This being a typical paradise landing strip, it was hot and dusty with so many mosquitoes that planes have to make instrument take offs because no one can see out the windows. There weren’t any taxis because there aren’t any taxis on the island. Even if they could have called boss, he wouldn’t have been able to pick them up.

Tom’s Bent Prop Tips

1. When going through shallow water in a small boat, it helps to not only tilt the engine, but to move crew forward. Go Slow!

2. Even a larger boat will noticeably “feel” the bank if you’re getting too close to the side of a channel or the bottom. This has to do with the fact that the hull is able to displace and compress a lesser amount of water as it moves because of the proximity of the ground. Also, your wake behind you will be affected, changing its characteristics. And the wake spreading off to the side will break suddenly on a shallow submerged bank. Be sensitive to this when running. It may prevent a bent prop or a grounding.

Click Here for More Tips

Boss hadn’t been interested in the one rental car even though the car’s owner had patiently explained that the two flats weren’t all that bad. They were “only flat on one side,” he said “--- the bottom.” The other car on the island had a problem with its transmission. It didn’t have one. That left a Ford pickup truck with a Peterbuilt sign wired to the grill. It was fully air conditioned because none of the windows would roll up. It just happened to be running at the time and we just happened to be in it at the time, having great fun dragging a cloud of dust around the island. We also just happened to pass by the strip shortly after the plane landed.

When you see a fresh swarm of mosquitoes surrounding a new plane and two guys scowling at their cell phones on an island which just got electricity three years ago, you naturally stop to ask. They knew they had landed on the right island---the plane had GPS. But they couldn’t understand why no one was there to pick them up. The wild long horn cows and goats that they had seen running through the brush as they had descended discouraged treks into the unknown. The back of our truck had even better air conditioning than the cab, so they eagerly hopped in when we told them we’d take them, their diving gear and the propellers to boss. He was waiting right where the boat had glided to a stop, near a fish cleaning dock.

Fish cleaning docks at most tropical paradise islands I’ve ever visited come equipped with their own garbage disposal units. They’re called sharks. Obligingly, they hang out waiting for nice chunks of food to splash into the water. Obligingly, the guys jumped into the water with propellers and a prayer (they were obviously connected), and by the next day the boss was on his way down island again, plugging along through the crystal clear waters at 50 knots looking, I suppose, for another rock and more fuel. He carried no spare props and no paper charts. I guess he felt that spares slowed him down and paper charts weren’t needed because he had a GPS telling him which way to go and a cute little icon moving across some very nice electronic charts—never mind that he had a problem figuring out how to work them (pushing the zoom button would have showed the passage through the reefs)—and never mind that he didn’t have a spare electronic chart plotter for such a long trip.

So I’m wondering whether his bent prop was less of a problem for him than my various bent props have been to me over the years, considering the fact that he had all that money—and luck. I don’t usually bend props on my big boat. I just bend the keel. But I’ve bent a bunch of props on my outboards. (And no, Mr. Police Man, never on reef or sea grass or manatees or anything else environmentally incorrect.) As a matter of fact, I’d just bent one a few days before “Boss” arrived. I was in my dinghy trying to find my way into a mangrove swamp across some sand flats. I’d been running up on a plane to get an extra inch or two; I just hadn’t realized that what I really needed was another inch or three. I can bend props out of stupidity just like the rich guys can; it’s just that my stupidity is on a more basic level. We do use C-Map electronic charts on our big boat. We’ve been amazed at how helpful they’ve been for us. And we wouldn’t be out here without paper charts as well. But the dinghy is a different matter. Often, where I go in the dinghy hasn’t even been charted. That’s part of the fun of a dinghy. I do have a depth finder in it, but that outboard propeller is always good for the decimal point readings. Bent props are a great equalizer of seafaring humanity. We’re all gonna do it, one way or the other. Some of us just deal with it differently.

As far as I know, “Boss” got to the BVI in the next few days. I hung out at the island a few more weeks, got a few lobsters and groupers, and did some wind surfing. Then I sailed west to Exuma. This wasn’t the BVI, but it had two great virtues. It was downwind and had an outboard shop with a lot of junk motors. My only problem was to find one with a prop that had more blades than mine.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale