I’m on record as being a lily-livered water sissy. I don’t like being in a boat unless the sea is calm, the sky is clear, and the water temperature is above deadly.
It has certainly crossed my mind that, given my abject cowardice, oyster farmer wasn’t the most prudent choice of occupation. Growing shellfish means being out on the water on cold days, windy days, crappy days.
Luckily, most places we go are very shallow. And we go there at low tide, when it’s even shallower. It’s hard to drown in water that isn’t over your head. Possible, certainly – but hard.
So I was pretty comfortable when we took our new boat out for its inaugural working trip. We loaded it up with oyster trays, put in at the Millway ramp, and motored out into the harbor.
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Barnstable Harbor is a network of sandbars and eel-grass islands, interspersed with channels that are just barely navigable at low tide. The channels aren’t marked, so you just have to know. And it isn’t good enough to have known last year, because the sands shift and the channels change.
Oh, and there are rocks. Big rocks. Just under the surface.
When the water is low, you can get a pretty good idea of where the channels are just by looking. The darker the surface, the deeper the water. But there are spots where there just doesn’t seem to be much water at all, and it’s only experience that teaches you to bear left instead of right.
Even the most experienced navigators – the guys who are out there every day – run aground regularly. Outboard motor props aren’t expected to last more than a season, since they’re regularly forced through sand.
Given the difficulty of finding the channel, my inclination would be to creep along, watching carefully for sand bars and obstacles. Unfortunately, that’s not a viable strategy because it doesn’t take into account the Flats Boat Conundrum.
If you’re going to be navigating waters like Barnstable Harbor, you need a boat designed for the purpose – a flat bottomed boat with a very small draft. But there’s draft, and then there’s draft. When we’re loaded with gear, gas, me, and Kevin, we might draft 10 or 11 inches – at rest. But a boat’s minimum draft isn’t when it’s at rest – it’s when it’s on plane.
When you bring a boat up to speed, the engine bites into the water, pulling the stern down and pushing the bow up. That’s your maximum draft. But then you speed up, and there’s a speed at which the boat evens out, and goes skimming over the surface of the water. That’s on plane, and it’s your minimum draft. When we’re on plane our draft is probably two or three inches shallower than when we’re at rest.
When you’re in water like the water in Barnstable Harbor, those two or three inches make a difference. Sometimes they make all the differences; there are areas that you can’t get through unless you’re on plane. So, the more dangerous the water is, the faster you have to go. That’s the Flats Boat Conundrum. You can’t just creep along and watch for obstacles. You have to floor it, and brace for impact.
Just the thing for a lily-livered water sissy.