Friday, March 4, 2011

What’s the Difference Between a Boater and a Mercury Salesman?

It’s been a long nine months without my new Hake Seaward 26RK sailboat, but the helm seat track—despite being a revolutionary prototype design--was an accident waiting to happen. As a beat-up old quadriplegic (who just turned 60!), I’ve determined to return to sailing after a lifetime away from my favorite pastime. In fact, I set out to see if there was a sailboat designer out there who would be willing to help me create a moderately priced/sized sailboat that nearly anyone—be they old, weak, disabled, or whatever—could sail single-handed. After several prominent companies backpedaled, Nike Hake, at Hake Yachts in Stuart, Florida, stepped right up and said: “we can do this!”

Nick took my initial concepts and either improved them considerably, or came up with something better. In the case of my helm seat track, he did that twice! Among the many challenges for a wheelchair user on a 26’ sailboat was figuring out how to move around the cockpit. Despite the fact that today’s wheelchairs are both stronger and lighter, unless you’re talking about a multi-million dollar mega-boat, using one onboard is out of the question. So Nick Hake designed a curved traveler track that the back of my helm seat attached to via two ordinary cars, he put wheels sideways on the front of the seat, and, like magic, I could ride around the bench from port to starboard and back with relative ease. Simple and ingenious! Well, as it turns out, except when crossing a moderately sized trough.

The first time my open-stern Seaward slipped into a decent trough and shot up the other side, the helm seat’s front wheels rose up off the bench; and, had I not been locked in with the aft stay immediately behind my right shoulder blade, I’m pretty sure I’d have flipped back into the Atlantic, helm seat and all, and I would have found myself fumbling wildly with the Velcro release on my seat belt/shoulder straps….if, that is, if I hadn’t been knocked out on the way into the water! When Nick came down and checked it out, he agreed immediately that we needed a more stable approach.

Nine months later, after dancing furiously with several tubing fabricators, Nick sent the Eleanor P back to the Keys with a new track system worthy of a first rate rollercoaster. The twin tubular rails secure the seat rollers fore and aft, and the only way I’m going in the drink is if I capsize the old girl! So that leads me back to my initial question: “What’s the difference between a boater and a Mercury salesman?” Tim DeVries is the sales manager at Hake, and even years after a sale, he takes his customers more seriously than any salesman I’ve ever met. Instead of sending a couple guys down, he came himself, and as it turns out, he and his assistant, Rob, had to rig and launch the Eleanor P at the nearby Hawk’s Cay Resort, in gusty 25-30 mph winds.

The Mercury engine folks come to the famous Florida Keys resort every year for a company to-do, and they had a couple of in-service tents set up next to the boat ramp, so there were usually a half dozen or more sales types coming and going, sitting around drinking coffee, and gawking at Tim and Rob as they struggled to raise the rigging in the mini-gale. At one point, as Rob strained to lock in the mast foot and connect the wiring, Tim, on tip-toes, was pushing against the swaying mast crutch with all his might. (I should admit, at this point, that by adding a solar panel above the cockpit, and Gerry-rigging a new, higher mast crutch assembly, I had inadvertently made his job much more difficult.) If Tim slipped, and my mast crutch snapped or bent in the wind, my solar panel would be toast, so I rolled over behind the trailer where the aft stay hung down on the ground and scooped it up onto my lap. I backed my wheelchair awkwardly into the wind, locked the brakes, and wrapped the stay cable around both my gimpy arms in an effort to take some of the pressure off Tim. Twenty feet away, in the shade of their tents, team Mercury watched with great interest…but not one of them made the slightest move toward pitching in. By the time Rob began hoisting the mast, my gimpy hands were numb-er than usual, and I was very glad to release the stay.

A few minutes later, Tim was backing down the boat ramp, and I was giving Rob directions to my slip. One piloting mistake coming off the inaccessible loading dock, or one stall-out by the 15 hp Yanmar which hadn’t run in nine months, and the Eleanor P would be dashed on the rocks by the relentless wind and waves. I couldn’t do anything to help, so as Rob took the helm, Tim tried to design a combination of docking line maneuvers to at least help turn the little sloop into the wind before he had to let go of the lines. Once again, and now a mere ten feet away, the Mercury sales guys sipped their coffee and stared. I couldn’t help wondering if it was because I had a Yanmar, not a Mercury, engine. There seemed no good way to launch, until a 75-year-old guest at the resort, a man who’d stopped by on his way to the marina store to admire the boat earlier, returned. He took one look at the scene, hurried out onto the dock, and took one of the lines from Tim. Like the three of us, he was a boater, had been since he was a kid.

Well, I’ve finally got my boat back, Tim and Rob are safely back in Stuart, and that old man said he’d be anxiously waiting to hear whether his bid was enough to buy a forty-something foot Island Packard. I’m sending out good vibes for him…which is more than I can say for the folks at Mercury. We crazy old sailors have to stick together, and like it or not, everybody needs an extra hand now and then.

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