Parents were screaming. Children were gripping the side rails. The whirl of the propeller was high and shrill. Our pontoon boat was sinking…and the band played on.
My grandparents had built their home beside a Minnesotan lake, only a few miles from my childhood home. This enabled us to spend our summers experimenting with canoes and sailboats, catching fish and stalking turtles. There was always something to do on the lake.
One of our greatest joys was the pontoon boat. Somewhere along the way my Grandpa Jack had picked it up, most likely from a junk yard. It was a rather simple boat, with two aluminum floats, a plywood platform covered with worn fabric, and an old motor. While the creaky old vessel was never able to pull around a water skier or inner tube, my grandpa would putter us grandkids around the lake so we could have a picnic and a swim.
Away from the sandy shore we could practice our flips and dives for the enthusiastic spectators, our grandparents. For a child, the thrill of the open water was intense. If you swam underneath the boat you had to keep your head low so as not to get the cobwebs and angry spiders on your face. But if you stayed too long in the water, you imagined the snapping turtles and Northern Pike coming up to taste a couple toes. The effect was similar to someone trying to crouch under a short table and then swim at the same time. It was good fun.
Yet for all the enjoyment we had found on that old boat, we never would have guessed of its pending betrayal. My aunt, uncle, and two cousins had come out to visit and the powers that be had decided on an evening pontoon ride. Between our two families and my grandparents we were a group of thirteen, easily inside the limits for some of the new boats sold today. But, as we were to find out, too many for our aging pontoon boat.
The excursion, which was later christened as “The Three Hour Tour” (complete with its own Gulligan’s Island melody), started off just fine. Everyone found a spot, whether on old plastic chairs, standing by the railings, or laying on blankets out front. While it was clear that we were riding low in the water, it obviously did not deter any of the adults in the group. For us kids, we didn’t care as long as we got to jump off.
But below all the laughter and sun, something sinister was happening. Unbeknownst to us, sometime that summer the aluminum pontoons had eroded and begun to leak. While still sufficiently buoyant to keep the pontoon afloat, they had slowly taken in more and more water, storing it up so as to make its final Titanic voyage. And apparently, for the groaning old pontoon boat, that last hurrah would need to take place in the deepest section of the lake.
Whenever we went out on my Grandpa Jack would take soundings of the depth of the lake. Since an average depth finder would have doubled the value of the boat, my grandfather measured it by letting down the anchor and marking the spot on the rope. Why he did this, I have no idea, but it kept him happy. This day was no different. As we approached the middle of the lake he began to work his way from the back of the pontoon boat toward the front, stepping past coolers, and over children, anchor in hand. Fortuitously, an eighty year old man with a boat anchor combined to make the exact weight needed to offset the balance of the pontoon boat. As the weight began to shift, the water in the leaking pontoons followed the gravitational pull to the lowest place, and pandemonium broke out.
The propellor leapt from the water, whirling and whining. Everyone began screaming, and sliding on the deck. My aunt was yelling about throwing the children over to free them from the undertow. My brother and my cousin were floating in the water. Fishing poles, beach blankets, and an assortment of other lake paraphernalia was all lazily making its way to the sandy bottom. From any other observer on the lake, we looked like Moby Dick had come from the depths and was taking us under.
As the cousins and picnic gear floated off the front of the deck, the water began to run in the opposite direction within the pontoons. The back of the boat came down with a large splash, creaking and groaning, threatening to come apart like Huckleberry Finn’s raft.
The minutes following a near death experience are unique. I don’t remember any moment of silence, but rather someone pulling my Grandpa Jack and his anchor to the back of the boat, probably threatening to tie him to the helm. There was also my aunt who took the extra few moments of life to go around and kiss everyone and thank them for being alive.
The old pontoon boat was eventually retired, a second time, and we looked to other watercrafts to satisfy our nautical urges. But that old pontoon boat turned submarine will always hold a special place deep in my heart…about as deep as the bottom of the lake.