Tow Boat Tow Boat

Frank Mann, Jr.

© Copyright 2012 by Frank Mann, Jr.


Frank and Mel with the big fish.

             It made kind of a funny noise when I turned the key. Sometimes you had to crank it for a few seconds but usually it fired right up. Everything I’d read or heard about Evinrude E-Tech outboards was very positive – innovative new technology that made a 2-stroke motor sound and run like a four stroke, and they only needed routine servicing every 300 hours, rather than every 100 as was standard on most other outboards. The engine was only four years old and the fellow I bought it from 6 weeks ago claimed it had only about 200 hours run time. The four times I had taken it out (including three trips 20+ miles off shore) it ran like a champ. And I just had a new power windlass installed to automatically raise and lower the anchor to save wear and tear on my aging crew. This next fishing trip was sure to be the best yet.

So it was more than a little disappointing when the engine didn’t start that morning. My two older daughters, who had threatened to go fishing with me several times before but never actually showed up, actually did show up 5 minutes early. My good friend and reliable crew Dyer Drake, was right on time, rod in hand ready to fish. I turned the key again and heard the same funny noise only weaker and slower this time. Maybe it’s a battery problem.

I moved the cooler I had just loaded with two 20-pound bags of ice so I could open the front hatch to access the batteries. I gingerly backed into the open hatch and lowered my 250 pound semi-svelte body into the center console, bravely ignoring the lingering pain from the ham string I ruptured two weeks earlier when trying to water ski (not recommended at 50 years old without extensive stretching before hand). The battery connections seemed to be snug on both batteries. Removing the caps revealed slightly low water levels in 3 of the 12 cells. Topped those off and replaced the caps.

I climbed out of the center console to go get my battery tester and charger. Why I didn’t get those items before I climbed in “the hole” the first time I’m not sure. After climbing the steps up from the dock (my ham string really wasn’t bothering me much at all, much) I retrieved the tester and charger from the garage on the far side (of course) of the house. Returned to the boat and lowered my bulk into the center console again. The battery tester showed only about 11.75 volts on each battery. Lets hook up my fancy “smart” battery charger that’s supposed to have a 75-amp “insta-start” setting that never seemed to actually work. Still, it did have a 25-amp rapid charge setting that usually worked, at least until the charger’s “smart” brain told it to shut off because the batteries were fully charged.

Got the clamps hooked up (positive to positive, negative to negative on the first try), selected the correct battery type and hit the charge switch whereupon I was greeted with a familiar “hum” indicating the batteries were charging. The digital display indicated a steadily increasing amperage output…for about 30 seconds. Then the “hum” stopped. The “smart” charger decided the batteries were fully charged even though my tester was only showing 11.83 volts. Reset everything on the charger and tried again. After another 30 seconds we’re up to 11.86 volts. Well, lets try to start the engine again and see what happens. Not much.

After repeating the “charger set-up, charge for 30 seconds” routine several more times with no better results, I decided it was time to pull out the big guns, which I didn’t have. I’ve always wanted one of those “super duper, charge and start every car on your block all at once” battery chargers on wheels. Now seemed like a good time to get one. “Dyer, get in the truck. We’re going to Sears”.

Fifteen minutes later we walk in the front door of the Sears auto department. On the very first shelf we see 3 of my dream chargers…all on sale! The biggest one boasts 275 instant starting amps. “This one will jump start the space shuttle”, says Dyer. “That’s the one we’re getting”, says I. It took a few minutes to find someone willing to sell it to us but we eventually completed our purchase and headed back home. After a few minutes “assembling” the handle and deciding not to “assemble” the wheels on the new super charger (and climbing into the “hole” one more time) everything is hooked up and ready to give it a try. I push the 275-amp insta-start button and am rewarded with a very strong hum. “Cross your fingers everyone and think positive thoughts. The engine is going to start” I say with all the feigned confidence I can muster. I hold my breath and turn the key. Vrrrrmmmm! Followed by the sweet “purrrr” of a running outboard. It worked! We’re going fishing!

The boat was already loaded with all our gear so after loading my crew and only a slight struggle getting the boat off the lift in low tide we were headed down the canal to open water. I tried calling my friend, Eric (I’ve changed his name to protect the guilty) who we were supposed to be meeting in his boat at the mouth of the river 30 minutes ago but only got his voice mail. Oh well, we’ll try him again when we stop for fuel.

Out in the channel. Everything seems to be working fine. “Hold on everybody, we’re taking off”. Throttle down. The boat leaps out of the water and up on a plane like I’ve come to expect. I had the trim tabs fixed when the boat was in the shop having the windlass installed and they seem to be working. With an unbalanced load I’m able to level out the boat and set the trim for a smooth, economical ride. This is great! Everything is working. It’s a beautiful day. We’re gonna catch some fish.

We stop for fuel after an uneventful 30-minute run. I try Eric again but still no answer. After topping off the tank with a quick $200, it’s time for the moment of truth. I close my eyes and turn the key. The Evinrude E-Tech 250 roars to life without a moment’s hesitation. We’re headed off shore!

It takes about an hour running in 2 – 3 foot seas to get to the first waypoint I have marked in my GPS. As I pull back on the throttle and the boat settles into the water I announce, “We’re here”. “Thank god!” say both daughters. It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride.

I’m a little bit hesitant to turn off the motor now that we’re out of sight of land but I do so with all the confidence of a man who has Tow Boat insurance. Lines in the water and we decide to drift for a bit until some one gets a hit. After 15 minutes no bites but the wind is moving us pretty quickly over the surface making it difficult to get our lines to the bottom 50 feet below. Lets try this new windlass.

Because the windlass can use quite a lot of power, I want to start the engine first so we don’t run down our questionable batteries. The engine fires right up and I breath a secret sigh of relief. After getting a few kinks out of the new anchor line the windlass works great. No one is happier than Dyer since he would have been my human windlass if the electric one hadn’t worked.

Engine off again, my confidence growing with each stop and start. We fish for 30 minutes but no luck. Lets try another spot about 7 more miles out. The engine starts again and we crank in the anchor, automatically. The girls realize it’s a little bit smoother ride behind the console, rather than on the bench seat in front, so they crowd in between Dyer and me for the 15-minute run.

The GPS says we’re here. We drift fish for a while then start getting some bites so we drop anchor. Everyone starts catching fish – grunts, snapper and even some small grouper. Eventually I hook a monster and get a 25-inch “keeper” grouper on the boat. Twenty minutes later daughter Melanie hooks what she thinks is a small freight train. After a minute of fighting she hands the rod to me and I eventually pull in a 27-inch keeper. Way to go Melanie! That’s the biggest fish yet caught on this boat.

We’ve been at it quite a while. We’ve got 2 nice fish on board and an hour and half ride home. Time to go. I turn the key. “Chung, chung, chung, chung”. Hmmm. The motor is not starting. Lets try again. “Chung, chung, chung, chung, chung”. Hmmm. Still not starting. Lets fish a little longer and then try again. Sometimes just waiting a while fixes things.

Thirty minutes later I try again. Still no joy. One more try. Nothing. Oh well, we have Tow Boat insurance. Time to call. Hope we have cell phone service since the VHF radio isn’t working.

My iPhone has a signal. I get Tow Boat dispatch on the line and give them our GPS coordinates. It’s about 3:30. Tow Boat can’t give us an exact ETA, we’re pretty far out, but a boat should be to us in 45 minutes to an hour. The dispatcher says he’ll have the captain call me direct when he’s outside Sanibel.

Its 5:00. No phone call yet; no Tow Boat. I decide to call again for a status check. “No one is available to take your call right now. Please leave a message and we’ll call you back as soon as possible”. You’re kidding. I call the emergency tow line and get voice mail! At least we still have bait. Guess I’ll fish some more.

After 20 minutes and losing 6 baits to some cunning sea creature, I call Tow Boat again. A human answers this time. “The boat is on the way, Captain says he’ll be to you in 30 minutes” says dispatcher George. As I hang up, Daughter Haley’s 20-year-old eyes spy a boat on the horizon. My 50-year-old eyes don’t see a thing but with the aid of the binoculars I confirm Haley’s sighting. About 30 minutes later Captain Tom arrives in what appears to be the first Tow Boat ever made.

It’s too rough to try jump-starting from boat to boat, but Captain Tom has a spare battery. He thinks he can pull along side long enough to hand it off to me. I think about how hard it will be to pass a battery between two pitching and rolling boats and how fast a battery will sink. “Sure, lets give it a try”, I say.

After securing three large rubber bumpers to the side of his boat, Captain Tom pulls along side. My crew expertly holds the boats together as steadily as possible. Tom lifts the battery and swings it out to me over the aft gunwale. I grab both ends of the battery (there is no handle) and swing it into our boat and immediately down on the deck. Damn, this is a heavy battery, but at least we got it in the boat.

Back into the center console “hole” where I spend 15 minutes disconnecting one of my batteries and connecting the new battery. “Give it a try”, I tell Dyer (I’m not climbing out of the hole until I’m sure I’m done in there). Dyer turns the key. The engine turns over with surprising strength but won’t fire. “Try it again”. Same result. I climb out of the hole and yell to Captain Tom. “Looks like we’re going to need a tow”.

We get the towline secured and we’re under way. The seas have calmed down a little bit so we’re able to make about 8 knots without too much trouble; faster than I expected but not the 35 knots we were making on the hour and a half trip out. It’s going to be a long ride but with any luck we’ll make it to port just as the sun is setting. I kick back on the leaning post and breakout the peanuts.

We’ve been underway for almost 2 hours. I’ve been able to see the tip of Sanibel for a while now but it seems like we’re never going to get there. The skies are pretty clear over us but I can see thunderclouds to the South and East. Although the girls are ready to be home, Dyer and I have been enjoying the sunset cruise. Suddenly, Captain Tom pulls back on the throttle. Both boats slow to a stop. We’re a mile off Sanibel; I can see the North end of Fort Myers beach that we have to go around to get to Moss Marina. Captain Tom steps to the stern of his boat and yells, “My engine is over heating. We’ll have to call another boat”. “Are you serious”, I think to myself? We need a towboat for the towboat? This can’t be happening.

To make an already long story not quite as long to read as it took us to get home, I’ll wrap up by simply telling you that the second, somewhat newer, towboat arrived about an hour later. An hour and a half after that we were safely docked at Moss Marina where my wife had just arrived in my pickup truck. After loading all the rods and the rest of our gear in the back of the truck and leaving a note for the dock master, we all piled in the front of the truck and headed home – at 10:30 pm., exactly 12 hours after we set out that morning.

As for my friend Eric, who was supposed to go with us and add the safety of a second boat, turns out he was arrested for DUI the night before and was still in jail when we were supposed to meet up with him. So, all in all--considering it didn’t rain, we actually caught fish, and all made it home safely--it was a pretty good day.


When I called Moss Marina at 8:30 the next morning they had already gotten my note and moved the boat from the end of the dock to a more secure slip. They couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. I’m not sure if that’s because I left the note on the back of one of my judicial business cards or if they just treat everyone like that. Anyhow, they have an Evinrude E-Tech certified mechanic who will be able to get to work on the motor first thing Monday morning. With a little luck, we’ll be fishing again next weekend. I want to try a new spot 30 miles off shore. Want to go with us?

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