Riding the Rocket

"You’re responsible for ruining the life of my child!" The woman was standing in a puddle, her face inches from mine. Her child stood dripping beside her – wet, disheveled, but hardly ruined.

It was my job to get them wet. Not just wet but saturated – wrinkled flesh, t-shirts sagging around their knees, an expression of childish rapture on their faces. Their mothers didn’t wear so well.

Mothers came in two extremes. Either they’d shield their kids from the stinging spray with their own bodies or they’d steal the rain jackets off their children’s back. The theft was mostly symbolic. The jackets we supplied were pitifully inadequate and thin as onion skin.

We told them they’d get wet. When they bought their tickets at the pier, when they boarded the boat, before we left the dock we told them they’d get wet. And afterwards, as they shuffled away, their tennis shoes squelching on the wooden planks, their response was most often quizzical: "I didn’t think we’d get wet."

The crew knew better. As I turned the Sea Rocket’s bow toward the Ocean City inlet, they’d shrug into foul weather gear – pants and jackets with the hoods drawn close and sun glasses worn like goggles. When we came abeam of the of the Ferris wheel and I pressed the throttles full forward, trimming the bow down, and the Detroit Diesels roared and the first spray fell onto the deck, then even the most obtuse passenger realized they’d bought a ticket on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

World’s Largest Speedboat

The Rocket was billed as the "World’s Largest Speedboat," advertising hyperbole mostly, but her 72 foot length and patriotic paint job were impressive. Her twelve cylinder, twin turbo-charged engines were capable of driving her relentlessly in excess of 20 knots.

She operated out of Ocean City, Maryland, a town with a modest and circumspect population of a few thousand in winter but a summer population that blossomed like pond scum. Gangs of adolescent girls roamed the boardwalk at night while the streets echoed with the thundering exhaust of muscle cars. There was so much sexual posturing the town resembled a bird rookery in breeding season. It was a town haunted by a sense of unreality as if Disney had commissioned Hunter S. Thompson to design a theme park without walls.

We carried one hundred and thirty passengers seated on the exposed decks. When the Rocket pitched into a stiff headwind the effect was stunning. Spray would curl from her bow like spindrift from a breaking wave. Driven by an apparent wind of 40 knots, the spray struck with the impact of birdshot. The passengers bent double with their heads tucked between their legs in the classic crash posture. Spray raked the decks fore and aft. Elaborately styled hair collapsed in ruins. Children squealed. And on rough days when the north wind blew and the beaches were abandoned, the life guards alone in their towers would momentarily lose sight of the Rocket when she became buried in her own bow wave.

With the season well advanced we often ran ten times a day and carried 1200 passengers. The logistics were intimidating. Fifteen minutes typically from the time we secured our mooring lines to the time we slipped them again, exchanging one deckload of passengers for another.

The last run of the day especially amused the crew who were by that time slightly shell-shocked. Women came aboard in pantsuits, elegantly coifed and ready for dinner afterwards. They left looking like accident victims. More than one husband personally thanked me for saving him the cost of an expensive restaurant. And a few mothers accused me of ruining their children’s lives.

The woman in pink came onboard for the last run of the day. She was the size, shape and color of the hippos that danced in Disney’s Fantasia, wearing a pink t-shirt and pink shorts. She was accompanied by a dwarfish man with a dark scowl. She must have felt herself graced by some special dispensation; she would not get wet no matter our warnings. When she sat in the most exposed seat on the boat the crew looked at each other like kids behind the teacher’s back.

The initial run north along the beach was uneventful. The prevailing wind was astern. It wasn’t until I turned the Rocket into the wind that the fat lady began to sing, writhing and squealing with the impact of each wave, her hands ineffectively outstretched to defend her enormous body against gallons of salt water launched with the force of a fire hose. Her consort made a comic attempt to shield her body with his own. He ruffled in a threat display whenever I looked aft. And when she left the boat, scowling, her clothes clinging to her mountainous topography, she left behind a pink imprint of her buttocks spanning two seats.

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