Jenny Takes Days Off
By Jack Gilbert
The first time I saw days off was around 1997, when she came into my shop with a no-start issue. She was a 19-foot Sea Ray cuddy, standard off-white hull with blood-red highlights. The owner was a local, an older guy with a thick Italian accent and a station wagon full of kids. I did a lower-unit service and tune-up, and they were on their way to Lake George for their summer vacation. The owner told me they only used the boat once a year. I don't know why I was impressed with that boat. At the time I was into fishing machines or boats that went too fast for their own good, but I remembered her, and she ended up coming back to me.
Three years ago, I got a call from my friend Billy. He'd just picked up a boat and it needed an engine. I was the guy to call: I spent most of my life building engines and was more than happy to help an old friend. The boat got its engine, went in the water, and a few weeks later Billy moved away down to the Virginia coast, taking the boat with him. I'd never even seen this new boat of his.
Billy and his family ended back up North the next fall. The boat had had a few problems, and my phone was ringing again. I got to see the boat and darn if it wasn't Days Off! Didn't look much different than she did last time I saw her. I helped Billy get the engine up and running again, but a few weeks later the boat ended up on a shoal with the prop shaft split in two. Billy called to tell me the boat had to go. He just couldn't put another dime into her. I'd just sold my latest project, so I bought Days Off from Billy, replaced the outdrive, hydraulics, and a host of other things. We've used her for the last two years with no complaints and she's a good boat. The grandkids love her, and the kids all fight about who's next on the boat. My pet name for my wife has been "Jenny" or "Mrs. Gump," after Forrest Gump's love interest (which, yep, would make me Forrest), so I decided to change the boat's name to Jenny.
I Googled "changing your boat's name" and there were pages and pages of history and superstitions. History I get, but superstition? I drive the same road, to the same ramp, most of the time, and have for 20 years. There's a railroad trestle just down the road and I always honk my horn as I pass under. Once on the way out for safe passage, and once on the way home for a little luck on the highway. So maybe I'm not one to take risks with that stuff. Wikipedia had some good advice about ridding your boat of its old name and giving it a new one. Appeasement of the Greek, Mayan, or Viking gods of water and wind seemed to be recommended. Aegir and his wife Ran, Poseidon, Neptune, and Boreas Ð which gods should I appease? And how? All of them, I supposed. I noticed a pattern. There are gods of the seas and gods of the wind in all lore. They just have different names in different places and times in literature. There are gods of the deep. There are gods of thunder. There are many ways to go.
So I hand-sanded off the old name, 600-grit with my fingers, so I didn't upset the gelcoat (or the god of something). The lore says that no remnants of the old name can remain, so I sanded until every shadow was gone. I compounded and rubbed by hand until you could see nothing from any angle. There was nothing left of Days Off but a memory.
I have many talents, but hand-lettering a boat name is not one of them. I went to the BoatUS website and started experimenting. Mrs. Gump came up with a nice font that looked a lot like the lettering on Forrest's shrimp boat. Perfect. But then panic set in. The boat was going out the next morning. She can't go out without a name. I didn't even want to Google that scenario. So over to the craft store we went, where they had nothing but cheap vinyl. It would have to do until we got our real graphics later.
My son Jack had volunteered to take this year's shakedown cruise and aid in the name-changing ritual. A lot of work had been done to the boat in the last few weeks and some adjustments were inevitable. Extra tools and parts were put in the box. Pre-departure checklist, float plan, document and safety check done, we hit the road. I honked the horn as we passed underneath the railroad trestle. It seemed to have extra meaning that day. Jenny was tied to the dock with her blower on. I lowered the outdrive and handed Jack an airport bottle of my favorite blackberry brandy and began my recitation as he emptied the offering on the bow.
"I appeal to you, gods of the waters and the winds. I beg you to strike this vessel's name from the annals of time and allow me to christen her Jenny on this day. Aegir and his wife Ran; Poseidon and Neptune; all of the great gods of the sea and keepers of the deep; Boreas, keeper of the North wind; Notus, keeper of the South wind; Eurus, keeper of the dreaded East wind; Zephyr of the West wind; and Thor, god of Thunder; I beg you to give Jenny safe passage in your domains." I turned the key and she fired on the first stroke. Jenny was flawless, if maybe a bit awkward in her shift. When I gave her wide-open throttle, she set a new top speed and flew like the wind that day.
Back home, Jenny was washed, covered, and tucked away in the driveway. The craft-store letters barely had made it through the day. We ended up back on the BoatUS website that night. Little "e" and capital "JNNY" was the way it came out, just like on Forrest's shrimping boat.
She ran proud the next few weekends, until one day midseason the very gods I sought to appease were hiding in the reeds and tall grass on the bend just half a click from the Edison Launch. One of the gods snapped a branch and the others laughed. Thor held the base of a small log in one hand and massaged the other end with his palm. The gods nodded in agreement, and suddenly Jenny sacrificed a coupler. We were dead in the water. There was a crowd on the boat that day; I just managed to get the anchor out before we hit the shore. I spotted a center console to starboard, and waved them over.
"Hey, Captain Jack! It's me, Mike. I was in your Captain's Course last fall." Mike and his dad towed us back to their ramp and my guests headed off to the beach to make the best of the day.
It ended up being the engine coupler. The outdrive and engine would have to come out. There's a silver lining to every cloud, and of course it could have been worse. A few days later, I was telling a friend this story. He wandered into the back room of his shop and came back with a brand-new coupler: "Is this the one?" He'd bought surplus parts a few years back for his Sea Ray with a V8 Ford onboard. The GM coupler was in one of the boxes and he tossed it up on a shelf, hoping it would be of use some day.
The next Sunday, Jenny hit the water for her second shakedown run of the year. I was nervous rounding that bend past the Edison ramp but the gods were nowhere to be seen. The VHF crackled as I passed the spot where she was hooked up for the tow, but the gods had moved on to new mischief. I don't think I said more than 30 words the whole six hours we were on the water (very out of character). Afraid to tempt anything, on the way home I reminded myself to honk the horn when I went under the bridge.
Jack Gilbert lives in New Jersey with his wife and children and runs a boating school offering the state certificate course and the USCG captain and master courses.
— Published: April/May 2014
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