When the outboard cries for help

Published on April 18th, 2022

When valuables are dropped into the water, there’s that helpless feeling as they fade out of view. But David Ginsburg recalls an incident when another option was chosen.


Back in the 1980s, we were motor sailing on a Rogers 26 at dusk around Greenbury Point, returning to Whitehall Creek from a Wednesday night race in Annapolis, MD.

My buddy was sitting, leaning with his back to the starboard lifeline and his legs stretched across the cockpit and I am opposite, stretched out on the port side. Another guy is in the pit.

The owner, who was famously cheap and would conveniently “forget” to bring beer when it was his turn and drink our beer instead (but that is another story), was on the helm. His outboard was also famously unreliable for other reasons.

We were up to beer number 2 or 3 when the outboard starting making an unfamiliar and odd rattling sound. We looked over in time to see the motor had separated from the boat and the sound was more muffled, like a slowly sinking Yamaha crying for help.

Events then moved in slow motion and fast-forward at the same time.

The next scene was in slow motion with the motor suspended upright on the surface, still following behind the boat. Then time sped up; the motor made a coughing sound and noiselessly sank. Then in slow motion again we see the owner, still holding his beer, diving over the lifelines, in shirt, shoes, and long khaki pants in perfect form like an arrow hitting the bullseye where the last ripples of water left by the motor remained.

Suddenly, everything was quiet. Really quiet. No motor, no splashing – nothing. We were stunned. Dusk was turning to night. Everyone sat frozen in the same position. Nobody moved. I was new to sailing at that time and had no idea what to do.

I looked at my buddy. He was still seated, sipping his beer, and saying something like “serves him right for drinking our beer and being too cheap or lazy to tie a tether to the motor.” Then it was quiet again for what felt like a long time but was probably only several seconds.

Next, there was a sudden splashing sound and a motor shoots out of the water next to the boat like an apparition or that movie scene where a hand shoots out of the murky water. Only this time, one end of the hand is holding the end of the motor and the other end of the hand is coincidentally connected to the rest of owner.

We grab the motor, pull the motor and owner on deck together, re-mount the motor, pull the cord, start it up and go back to drinking beer while the owner drip dries off the back. It could not have taken more than a minute. Nobody seemed surprised that the motor should restart. Nobody wanted to talk about what we just witnessed.

Later we asked the owner what he thought was going to happen. First, he was concerned about pushing off the bottom – it was only 7-8 feet deep – as his feet would get stuck in the Chesapeake muck. He hoped if he raised the motor, and it was somewhere near the boat, someone would grab it. That was his only plan. After that he was out of air and options.

In the gloaming, as the red markers to the creek entrance begin to flash, the owner looks around, patting himself, as if he lost something or making sure he is not dreaming. Can you pass me another beer he asks, I must have lost mine.

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