The Road Taken

By Jack Gilbert

In his journey down the meandering river of life, one man spent years searching for something that was always right under the keel of his boat.

Captain Jack at helm of his boatJack Gilbert at the helm of Days Off.

My love for the water started early. I never fought taking a bath. I loved the rain and anything to do with water. My parents shared my love for it. We were always taking swimming lessons at the local YMCA or at the lake on the other side of town. Every vacation I can remember was spent at a lake or beach. As I got older, I joined the Boy Scouts and was introduced to canoeing. By the time I was 12, I had every boating and swimming merit badge offered, and I'd done my mile swim in record time.

Little Captain Jack with siblings in 1963I will be a Captain someday. Little Captain Jack 1963 (far left) and his siblings.

When I was in my early 20s, my friend Mitchell and I were having a beer at the local pub one night when he confided that he'd spent all of his college book-grant money at the bar. Mitchell was — and still is — a serious bass fisherman, and during the previous summer he'd bought a 12-foot Mirror Craft that he hauled around in the bed of his pickup. After a few hours at the bar, I owned my first boat, and Mitchell had money to buy books on Monday morning.

Around the same time, my father, an avid outdoorsman, retired his aging Cox pop-up trailer and bought a 32-foot Holiday camper to use at a seasonal campsite down the shore. The Holiday needed some work, so my dad, my brother-in-law Kenny, and I formed a partnership to get it and the boat ready for the next summer. We gutted the Cox camper to the frame, and a neighbor welded on an extension so we could convert it into a boat trailer. With new cabinets and plumbing installed in the Holiday, a fresh coat of paint on the Mirror Craft hull, and carpeted bunks installed on our Cox boat trailer, the only thing we were missing was an outboard.

Soon after, I was driving home from work one winter night and saw a 6-hp Montgomery Ward outboard in a pile of trash. I took it home, cleaned the carburetor, and replaced the fuel pump. When I pulled the cord, the little motor sprang to life. We had ourselves a boat!

We happily ran it around Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, and the nearby backwaters that first summer. The following spring, we discovered an island and spent more than an hour transporting our entourage there for a picnic. Then we spent another hour transporting everyone back. My dad looked at me with all of the clarity of Police Chief Martin Brody in the movie Jaws and said, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

17-foot Fleetcraft runaboutGilbert's 17-foot Fleetcraft runabout and the Holiday camper at Sea Isle City, New Jersey.

We looked at a lot of boats and settled on an old 17-foot Fleetcraft runabout with a 65-hp Mercury outboard. We fished late, taught ourselves to water-ski, and had just about every boating adventure and mishap you can imagine. But as our family dynamics unfolded and matured, our boating excursions dissipated. I found the love of my life, and my family grew. Life became a series of different adventures: softball, T-ball, basketball, and cheerleading. Boating took a back seat.

The Winds Change

One day, my dad asked if I wanted a military-issue six-man raft he'd picked up at an estate sale. I was flipping boats at the time, so I knew all of the ins and outs of titling them. I jumped at the offer, fabricated a floor and an engine mount, strapped on a 35-pound-thrust trolling motor, and I was back on the water. My family and I had a lot of fun with that raft on long runs in New Jersey's river's and reservoirs.

Bass fishing at Round Valley ReservoirBass fishing at Round Valley Reservoir.

In 1991, my bearing changed once again. Feeling the need to get more serious about work, and needing to make more money, I opened an automotive machine shop in the back of a screen-printing shop — where we rebuilt automotive and marine engines, had boring bars and honing machines, and did good work. But one night when I was driving home, I heard an ad for a career counseling service on the radio. The voice said, "Are you doing what you love?" Out loud I heard myself say, "No!" That was it. Finally I realized that I loved boating, boats, and the water. Two weeks later, I was signed up for a certificate course in marine mechanics and started looking for a larger building so I could open up a marine mechanic shop and add boat repair to the front end of the business.

We ended up around the corner with new equipment and more space for the machine shop, two bays for boat repair, a nice engine assembly/clean room, and a cozy office. We even had some extra room, so we opened a ship's store with parts and accessories.

One big perk of the job: We had boats at our disposal. We'd rig up a boat for the lakes and rivers one year, then have a great offshore striper boat the next, and maybe a bowrider with a new tube and a set of waterskis the following summer. We had a good run, but by 1999 the bills were piling up faster than the profits, and we decided it was time to close the shop. We auctioned off our equipment and emptied our building — the week before Hurricane Floyd struck. Downtown was hit hard. Our former building had 16 feet of water in it. Other buildings and homes fared worse.

Good Luck And Bad

I had to pivot. I took a job running the engine-building division of my biggest competitor and resumed flipping boats in my spare time. I got involved with a local automotive racing team — a bunch of kids with metal sticking out of their faces and their engine blocks. They went from Camaros to Eagle Talons to Mitsubishis. By the time they got to the Mitsubishi Evolution, they were master programmers. Their fingers flew as fast as their engines revved. I left my job to join the race team in opening up a state-of-the-art engine-building shop. We had all of the best stuff: a Rotler 65A block center and head machine, Sunnen hones, balancing equipment, you name it. We also had a golden ticket: We had just made 1,000-hp out of 2-liter engine. We had the fastest Evolution in the world. We were on magazine covers.

As everyone knows, hopes and dreams and fast cars don't translate into money, so I had to move on. During my first week of unemployment, I drafted an outline for a marine-mechanics course and presented it to the local vocational school. They accepted it! The next day, I got a call from the owner of the engine shop I was running before I went off with the race team. He asked if I'd consider coming back and offered me a better package than I had when I left. So I went back. I tweaked the notes for my marine-mechanics course and started teaching at the vocational school.

All this time, my wife, Kim, was not a fan of boating. We'd recently purchased a nice 17-foot bowrider with a 90-hp Mercury outboard, and the kids and I were on the water every weekend and sometimes after work during the week. We visited the Statue of Liberty at sunset and took daring trips down Matawan Creek while wondering how a shark ever made it that far. Kim put limits on our journeys, but we always went a bit farther. She was just being careful. She liked the boat only when she was sure she could swim to shore.

Life Is A Circle

One summer night that changed. Suddenly, there was this new person on the boat list. We were cruising across Raritan Bay and a tugboat came up on our port. My wife looked up at the tower and waved at the captain. Then she looked at me and said, "You should be doing that. You should get your captain's license." It was a eureka moment for me. That October, I enrolled in captain school, did well, and earned my OUPV and Master licenses with a towing endorsement.

Rafting on the Delaware Raritan CanalCaptain Jack with his son, Jack, and daughter, Jessica, in the six-man raft on the Delaware Raritan Canal.

These days, I no longer build engines or flip boats, but I do have a nice shop setup in my garage with everything I could want to work on my boat. I also own Captain Jack's Boating School, which teaches the New Jersey/New York Boating Safety Certificate Course in 13 locations. The school also offers captain's-license classes and Red Cross First Aid, CPR, and AED training at multiple locations throughout the tri-state area.

Jake and Kayla in lifejackets"No, really. We're having fun and like the boat, Grandpa." Jake and Kayla, the fourth generation of Gilberts aboard.

As I sit here looking out the window at my little cabin cruiser all wrapped up and covered in snow in the backyard, I think back on my unlikely boating life. I think how often I tried to move into more "serious" professions over the years, but boating always drew me back. Then I think of all boating has given me — most important, a closeness with my family that I never would have had otherwise. My plotted course certainly hasn't been straight, but it's been scenic. I realize, finally, that I am living my dream after all. Coincidentally, I discovered it where it has always been — right under my boat. 

— Published: October/November 2017

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