Or, the day I challenged the Coast Guard
By Brian Doyle
May 9, 2014
I owned a boat once, years ago. It was small and red and seven feet long exactly; a child and I measured it with a ruler. It was variously called a dinghy, a rowboat, a coracle, a currach, and (by my neighbor, who disliked it) that thing in your yard. It weighed about 70 pounds and could be dragged here and there like a small refrigerator if you put your legs into it. It was made of some mysterious incredible stubborn material that was apparently indestructible because many times that boat banged into wharves and jetties and rocks and other boats and while it bruised, it never broke.
It was given to me by as a wedding present by the woman who married me. This was when we lived by the Atlantic Ocean, on Joe Beach, near Boston. I would row my boat out into the tiny bay and just putter around watching the cormorants at work. Occasionally I would ponder fishing, but I never got around to it. Sometimes I would just row laps around the bay for fun. Once I rowed into a tidal tunnel called Swallow Cave, but the tide started coming in, and I backed out twice as fast as I had rowed in. One time I rowed around the edge of the bay into the open water of Boston Harbor proper, and the wash from a tanker nearly swamped me, so I rowed back into the bay, abashed.
One time a Coast Guard cutter poked its nose into the bay and a man in the bow spoke into a bullhorn and told me to ship my oars!, a riveting phrase I had never heard before. The cutter was close by, and its wash was making my boat rock uncomfortably. I was annoyed and used rude language, and I was issued a citation for not being registered properly with the maritime authorities of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and not carrying personal flotation devices. By law I was required to report to the harbormaster in my town, which I did the next day, and the harbormaster laughed so hard he sprained his face. As far as I can tell the only regulation you have not broken in that thing is the law that you cannot go more than five miles an hour in the bay, he said. Other than that I think you have flouted most of the laws of the sea, not to mention nonpayment of fees and failure to display a mooring decal. Here’s a mooring decal, on the house. You owe me a beer.
I pointed out that I moored my boat in my yard, and sometimes up on the back porch if there was a storm coming, and he started laughing helplessly again and said you better go now before I have a heart attack. Wait until I tell the wife that you got pulled over by the Coast Guard in that thing. Wait until I tell her not only did you get pulled over but you gave the guy grief about being pulled over. That’s the funniest thing I ever heard. Not in a million years would it have occurred to me that you could get pulled over in that bucket of a boat. This might be the best day I ever had as harbormaster. I tell you what—I owe you a beer. Take another decal in case you lose the first one. You better go now—I have to get some work done, and if you stay here glaring at me like that I am just going to laugh the rest of the day.
Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland magazine and the author of many books, most recently the novel Chicago.