The Round Years: 40

A signature story.

The twelve cylinder Detroit Diesels rumbled like a muscle car as we approached the dock lined with 40 black balloons. The mate, who had commandeered the PA system, led a deckload of sodden passengers in a chorus of Happy Birthday. The song went rather well, I thought, considering the passengers had just been pelted with sea spray hard as bird shot and witnessed Assateague ponies copulating wildly.

(In all fairness, the ponies were wild and the passengers not above photographing and filming what came naturally.)

Some mothers covered their children’s eyes while others zoomed in with their camcorders.

I brought the Sea Rocket alongside the dock and the crew made fast, then discharged our deck load with practiced efficiency. The passengers filed off with wet clothes clinging to their bodies and tennis shoes squelching. They had gotten their money’s worth and, in some cases, more.

The Sea Rocket was billed as the world’s biggest speed boat. It was marketing hype, admittedly, but at 73 feet she was undeniably large. Except for a slightly raised platform where the helmsman stood, the deck was unobstructed from bow to stern and seated 135 passengers. We boarded those passengers at Gator’s dock in Ocean City, carried them across the bay to Assateague Island, then into the open Atlantic. That, at least, was the plan. Sometimes it didn’t go according to plan.

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The Sea Rocket on a calm day.  Note the gratuitous rooster tail. Photo attribution: fstopcove.com

I once ran aground in the soft mud while jockeying for a better view of the ponies. We shifted the passengers like movable ballast, crowding them aft to lighten the bow until we could break free of the mud’s suction. The passengers thought it part of the show and gave a cheer when we were once again afloat.

The spray rose from her bow, hung motionless, then fell thundering on the foredeck. It fell relentlessly, torrentially, biblically.

And the ponies weren’t always amorous. Sometimes they didn’t even show. When they did perform, however, some mothers covered their children’s eyes while others zoomed in with their camcorders.

After Assateague Island, I turned the Rocket’s bow towards the inlet. The crew began shrugging into their foul weather gear and securing their sun glasses with lanyards like goggles. The passengers often thought it part of the show until I pushed the throttles forward and the trim tabs down.

On the windward leg the Rocket would often bury her bow in the swell, the spray would rise in a parabolic arc then drive into the passengers on the aft deck with the combined speed of the wind and the boat. On a brisk day that could approach 40 knots. Salt spray driven at that speed stings. People tucked their head between their legs in self-defense.

Throughout the windward leg passengers on the foredeck felt themselves  protected by special dispensation. The spray arced over their heads, leaving them untouched. They pointed and laughed as their fellow passengers on the aft deck squealed and writhed with each impact until we turned and headed back through the inlet.

The deep ocean waves began to build as they approached the inlet and felt the bottom shoaling beneath them. The Rocket surfed down the face of the waves. The spray rose from her bow, hung motionless, then fell thundering on the foredeck. It fell relentlessly, torrentially, biblically. By the time we returned to the dock decorated with black balloons and the mate singing Happy Birthday, everyone who had bought a ticket was thoroughly soaked.

It was the last trip of the day. The crew at Gator’s had a round of drinks waiting for us at the bar—Tequila shooters were popular at the time. It was my fortieth birthday. I don’t clearly remember the rest of the night. I think it had something to do with a Ferris wheel. At some point a reporter for the local paper photographed the crew of the Rocket. It’s the only photograph I have of us all together—suntanned, grinning, and drunk as sailors.

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The crew of the Rocket celebrating my 40th at a bar on Ocean City inlet (I’m the guy with a hat.)  Linda, my wife, is the one hoisting a beer. The grainy photo is from a local newspaper. Click for enlarged image.

Related posts: Riding the Rocket

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

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