This Memorial Day weekend, Joy and I joined our friends Jeff & Roseanne and Laurel & Mick for a long-scheduled houseboat trip on Lake Shasta.
Because of drought conditions, by Memorial Day, the lake was already at late-summer water levels. At check-in, we learned that Shasta was dropping a foot-and-a-half every day!
Laurel and Mick decided that they’d bring their speedboat (an old, used boat they’ve rarely had a chance to enjoy) so we could leave the houseboat for day excursions.
The houseboat was amazing. The first level had a large galley, two tables with built-in seating for twelve, a living room with satellite TV, two real bedrooms, two “Harry Potter” bedrooms, and two bathrooms. The second deck had the captain’s bedroom suite, a fully-equipped bar with seating for 15, a water slide, and a second pilot’s cockpit so you could steer either from the first or second level. The third deck had a hot tub, a deck big enough for dancing/yoga, and a daybed. That’s where we placed our portable fire pit. All this for six people and two dogs!
Although it was an amazing boat in terms of amenities, it handled like a cement truck driving on ice. Joy and I each took turns driving this beast. You’d think that aiming for a specific point on the horizon would mean, point the “nose” and don’t muck with the helm (steering wheel). Instead, we’d spend our entire time at the helm spinning the wheel one way and then the other. A plot of our path across the water would make you think we were trying to avoid a torpedo. I imagine a Russian sub commander looking at a chart of our path exclaiming, “Igor, look at how well this ship executes Crazy Ivans. Never staying in a straight line for more than a few moments.” It was hard to steer because a) at the best of times the boat’s heft meant that maneuverability was for shit, b) because of the boat’s height, it was susceptible to swirling winds, c) the frickin’ helm had no markings to indicate if you had returned it to a neutral orientation (12 o’clock) or if you’d stopped spinning it at, say, 3’clock.
During the debriefing of how the houseboat worked, the rental employee stressed several things, including:
A. Never go down into the hatch where the motor and generator are situated. He told us this twice.
B. Run the generator at least six hours/day to keep the batteries charged so you can keep lights and appliances working when the motor is turned off (that is, you’re not moving).
C. Keep the sliding glass door at the back of the boat closed when the generator is running or carbon monoxide fumes will get pulled into the houseboat and you’ll die. He didn’t want to read about us in the papers. At the very least, it would set off the carbon monoxide alarms.
D. Be careful climbing the ladders between levels as it’s easy to hit your head.
E. Never sit on the half-height walls that line the second deck near the bow (front) of the boat. It is easy to slide off and he didn’t want to read about us in the papers.
F. When mooring for the evening, don’t be shy. Really “punch it” to get the front of the boat well-anchored on shore, and then pound the two pieces of supplied rebar into land and tie off the boat.
During our tour of the boat, Roseanne, who is the shortest of us, smacked her head while climbing a ladder. I think this was a different ladder than the one that nearly concussed Jeff later in the trip. That collision was loud enough to hear. See caution D.
While moving our possessions onto the boat Laurel and Mick’s golden retriever, Luna, became anxious that she couldn’t see them. She climbed onto the half wall at the bow and then fell/jumped from the second story down to the dock. Miraculously, she was unharmed. See caution E.
Then it was time to start up the houseboat and motor away from the marina.
Things get hazy in terms of timing (what happened which day) but here’s a fairly chronological recounting of our adventures.
Our first attempt at mooring was an utter failure. It is weird to point the houseboat at shore, pick up speed, and ram the boat onto land. Even more so when the lake has dropped so much that you are staring at steep earthen walls. Everything seemed okay at first, though we were dismayed to discover that what looked like dry land was nothing but shin-deep mud, even several feet above water level. But we were undeterred. The houseboat is built with a heavy metal ramp tucked under the bow that you pull out to give yourself a dry walkway. We had just pulled the ramp out and started carrying the rebar posts and sledgehammer onto “land” when the houseboat began sliding away from shore. See caution F. This wouldn’t have been a huge issue except the mud had a firm grasp on the front of the ramp. As the boat slid away, the back end of the ramp came off its tracks. Fortunately, chains kept us from losing the ramp to Shasta’s murky depths. I tossed my wallet and phone onto the boat and jumped, fully clothed, into the water to try to get the ramp back onto its tracks. The boat kept sliding into deeper water and before long I was treading water while struggling with the ramp. (Note: the houseboat floats on two pontoons and the houseboat itself is about two feet above the water, so it’s like a giant rectangular cave under there.)
After about 20 minutes of two of us swimming underneath the houseboat trying to lift that heavy ramp back into its ill-designed tracks, we gave up and motored off in search of a better mooring spot (metal ramp hanging free beneath the houseboat). Miraculously, we managed to avoid sunken trees that would have grabbed the dangling ramp and rip the bottom of the boat off as we passed by. During our unsuccessful fuckery with the ramp, both Mick and I sliced our hands on the ramp’s sharp edges. (Tony injury #1, Mick injury #1)
Our second mooring spot worked fine. Okay, that’s an exaggeration.
Because it was windy, we decided to moor just behind a small peninsula that probably hadn’t existed ten days ago. We figured having land in front of us as well as along the right (starboard) side of the boat would protect us from the wind. This time we were less shy and rammed the boat into shore hard. Although this location was less muddy, it was also rocky and crumbly. As soil gave way, it was easy to fall and scrape hands and legs on sharp rocks. This is when I picked up many leg injuries (Tony injuries #2-10?). Because the wind was blowing over the newly-formed peninsula and pushing us sideways away from the peninsula, we decided to tie both lines to the right side of the boat. Normally (that is, correctly) the goal is to have ropes tied to either back corner of the houseboat to keep the boat from drifting one way or the other. But across the six of us, we have a lot of advanced degrees, so we tied both ropes to the starboard (right side).
The boat seemed locked in place though we were a bit short of the waterline. A perfect time for the ramp! We managed to retrieve the gangplank and partially connect it to the boat, which resulted in a ramp that got us mostly to shore. We only had to wade the last few steps (which was actually knee-high by the time your feet stopped sinking in the mud). Neither the golden retriever nor our dog wanted anything to do with the ramp. We had carry them down the ramp and then wade to shore so they could pee. Evening dog peeing involved lowering the dogs down to Mick, who was straddling the half-submerged ramp AND a paddle board. No one fell in. Mick has amazing balance!
The shin-deep mud along the shore wasn’t sloppy loose mud. It was a struggle to free either foot and I worried about falling face forward. Unable to free my feet, I would surely drown. Turns out, Jeff was worried about drowning the same way.
Even though this place sucked (literally) and our mooring was terrible, we decided it was good enough. We’d spend the night here. As we got ready for bed we discovered that the generator wouldn’t start. The rental guy had shown us that all you had to do was push a button to get the generator to start. It had worked earlier, but now, nada. Without the generator, we couldn’t run the air conditioner or the dishwasher. Or charge the battery. Not having air conditioning was going to be an issue as the weekend was supposed to be unseasonably hot. We decided to go to bed and hoped things would be better in the morning. See caution B.
During the night, the wind shifted and pushed the houseboat sideways toward the side we’d staked down. The ropes were now doing diddly squat. The starboard side of the boat settled onto land while the left (port) side floated on the receding water. By the time we woke up, water levels had dropped enough that the boat was seriously leaning to port. It reminded me of visiting the ever-so-cheezy Santa Cruz Mystery Spot where you have to walk “uphill” from one side of the room to the other. Because the houseboat wasn’t floating freely, it groaned and creaked and shuddered all night. We were all nervous wrecks. Even the dogs. Mick fretted about the generator, the creaks, and the likelihood that we’d be stuck in the morning. He got up in the middle of the night, untied the two ropes, and hoped for a generator and a wind miracle. I fretted about how we were going to carry the dogs to shore again without drowning.
In the morning we were saddened to see that we hadn’t been visited by angels. The generator was still dead and we were leaning even more. We decided we needed to muscle our way free. Putting the houseboat into reverse with full throttle didn’t move the boat at all. But the winds were shifting in our favor so we decided to wait for them to pick up. Winds eventually twisted the boat away from the peninsula and we broke free. Unfortunately, Mick and Luna were onshore at the time. Mick eventually coaxed Luna onto the paddle board and hand-paddled them back to the houseboat. This was probably the first of many times that I announced that I had no interest in owning a boat.
Excited that we were now floating freely, we decided to moor to this spot again, now that we understood the wind-to-stake dynamics. We crashed our boat into shore, climbed out, and started pounding the rebar stakes into the crumbly soil. But the wind was really gusting. As we began working on the stakes, the winds continued pushing the houseboat sideways, away from the peninsula. As the houseboat drifted, the rope pulled one of the stakes out of the ground. Jeff made a valiant effort to hold on to the rope — long enough for the rope to go taught as it held the stake high above the water, about 10 feet from shore. Long enough for me, as the rope sunk into the water, to hope Jeff tied a really good knot. Jeff is not good at knots.
After a moment of silence for the rebar, we backed the houseboat out, got up a good head of steam, and really jammed the boat into shore. Having only one piece of rebar, we decided to stake the boat to the peninsula so the back end wouldn’t drift toward deeper water. This may be when Mick sliced his hand on the sharp edge of the rebar stake (Mick injury #2).
Earlier Mick has asked if someone would be wiling to drive the speedboat. Except for Mick, none of us had driven a speedboat, but Jeff was willing to learn. Mick gave Jeff a quick summary of how to drive the boat and that was great. Jeff and Roseanne took the speedboat to a nearby marina to buy a replacement rebar stake. The marina didn’t sell stakes, but the manager told Jeff, “I am not going to tell you what to do, but nobody’s around and those boats just there have stakes”. Jeff helped himself to a stake and started walking toward our speedboat. Then he noticed the Shasta County Sheriff. Jeff didn’t turn around to see if the sheriff was following. He just encouraged Roseanne to hurry up and get in the speedboat.
I think it was later that same day that we motored the houseboat to a nearby marina (not the one where they probably had “wanted” posters of Jeff) to see if they could fix our generator. But they rebuffed us because the houseboat belonged to a different rental company. We’d already untied one of the mooring ropes and we’d started pulling away when we discovered we’d tied a rat’s nest of slipknots to one of the dock cleats. It took several minutes of twisting and tugging on various rope loops as well as repositioning the houseboat before we finally freed ourselves. (I am not going to say who tied that 2nd knot, but I will say I tried to tie all knots after that.) I was grateful there were almost no other people at the marina to watch. It sucks to fail. Even more so when there’s an audience. When we got home I looked up videos on proper dock cleat knots.
Once we’d freed ourselves, we motored around until we found a lovely, secluded cove with “real” dirt instead of mud. Even though the ground was dry, it was still more of that rocky, crumbly, treacherous stuff. Over the next days, I lost track of the number of scrapes and cuts to my legs. Roseanne, meanwhile, slipped, fell on her rear, and in an amazing Cirque du Soleil maneuver, kicked a small rock up in the air which hit her in the head. Laurel and Joy on the other hand, were the only ones who escaped without injury. Totally unfair!
We had beached ourselves well enough that we didn’t need the ramp and even secured both lines to well-secured stakes in the correct orientation to the boat. We liked this place so much that we stayed there for the rest of the trip. Because of the constant drop in water level, however, we had to free the boat periodically and ram into shore again right where we’d just been. We eventually got proficient (but not good) at it. Eventually.
When we woke up the second morning, The water had dropped so much the boat was now leaning backward (aft) and the bow was stuck in the mud with no water anywhere near. Welcome back to the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot! — except better than Santa Cruz because our slant shifted 90 degrees from its last appearance. I decided to see if I could free the pontoons enough that the motor would be able to break us free. Armed with a cereal bowl, I climbed down under the boat and spent about 30 minutes under the boat digging. If you ever need someone to help you break out of jail, don’t count on me.
In a fit of inspired thinking, we decided the speedboat would make a makeshift tugboat. We hooked rope between the two boats and began trying to pull the boat free. After several failed attempts, Jeff tried approaching the houseboat from a different angle. That’s when he discovered submerged rocks. And we realized that Mick hadn’t explained the button that raises the propellers when you’re in shallow water. Jeff turned off the speedboat motor to take stock and get advice from Mick. Better informed and feeling confident, Jeff turned the ignition key — and the key broke off in the ignition. I believe they used a kayak paddle to row the speedboat back to the houseboat. Again, I foresee no boat ownership in my future.
Mick dismantled the speedboat’s ignition so we could remove the key remnant. To his dismay, he discovered that his spare key was also bending and on the verge of snapping.
Once Mick had rewired the speedboat and it was functional, he and Laurel drove to the middle of the lake until he had cell service so he could request a mechanic to come out and fix the generator. And then they drove to a Marina in search of a new ignition mechanism. Hours later, the mechanic arrived. He fixed the generator by climbing down into the hatch we weren’t supposed to go into and wiggling a wire at the back of the generator. Turns out, this generator has a design flaw that causes a set of wires in the back to be faulty. Fortunately, we asked the mechanic exactly which wires to wiggle. Over the next few days, we had to climb down into the hatch several times to get the generator working. See caution A. Eventually, even that trick stopped working. Bad news as the days were getting even hotter and we had no air conditioning.
When the generator was running, it was nice to have air conditioning. But, of course, one evening we started up the generator so we could run the dishwasher and forgot to close the back door. The carbon monoxide alarms started blaring. See caution C. Closing the door and windows quieted the alarms. That time.
Our last night on the boat we were all on the upper deck (except the dogs) enjoying the firepit, when we heard a beeping from below. One of the carbon monoxide alarms was blaring. This was odd because the generator had totally given up the ghost hours before. Since the generator wasn’t running, we stopped the alarm by unplugging the electrical wires feeding the detector — we had other detectors in each bedroom, anyway. About two in the morning, all the detectors starting blaring. We pulled the wires on all of them. When we returned the houseboat, the mechanic thought the faulty generator was tripping the detectors. I hate that generator.
Sunday morning Cap’n Mick suggested heading home a day early. Apparently, everyone had been considering this. Within minutes we had literally pulled up stakes and were motoring to our launch point. I was relieved that we weren’t going to use the portable firepit one final night. Even though the manufacturer touts their firepit as safe to use on wood decks, he hadn’t met the six of us!
Several hours later we reached our original marina. After Roseanne and I walked through the litany of operational issues, the service manager asked if we would consider renting from them in the future. I’m not sure how we both managed to keep from saying, “Fuck, no!”
Now we were happy. We’d returned the houseboat and just needed to get the speedboat onto its trailer and head home. It was all gravy now. Silly us. After several attempts, we eventually got the boat correctly positioned on the trailer and securely cinched. Mick just needed to drive his SUV up the ramp and we’d be gone! Mick had driven about a foot when there was a sudden loud clunk. Although we’d checked that the trailer was securely positioned on the trailer hitch, it wasn’t. The trailer had popped off the SUV’s hitch and rolled back slightly. The trailer paused for just a moment, and then there was a loud snap when the safety backup chain broke.
You know those scenes in movies where everything happens in slow motion and all sound stops? It was kind of like that watching the boat and trailer roll down the ramp into Lake Shasta. The trailer would have sunk, but the boat was still attached to it, so the boat kept part of the trailer afloat — for now. At some point, the trailer might pull the boat under as the momentum and weight of the trailer pushed the boat further and further from shore. Then someone pressed the unmute button and I heard screaming and yelling from all directions. People on boats were screaming. People on the dock were screaming. We were screaming. Some people were screaming useful things like, “Don’t let the trailer get away!” or “Free the boat from the trailer!” Other people were simply screaming. I’m pretty sure I was in that last group.
Then I pulled stuff out of my pockets (my phone, my wallet, my car fob) and tossed them on the boat ramp. Fully clothed, I started swimming towards the boat. I was starting to get good at this fully-clothed swimming thing. Fortunately, people waiting to dock their boats literally jumped in to help us. One boater detached our speedboat from the trailer and helped us drag the trailer out of the water while another anonymous stranger jumped in and swam the speedboat back to the dock.
After about 10 minutes of oh-so public chaos on our part, we finally got the trailer back on the hitch and the boat back on the trailer. Then it was time to cinch the back of the boat to the trailer. The first cinch was a cinch. The second one befuddled us all. It wouldn’t loosen. After several minutes of fruitless manipulation, we resorted to using emergency straps Jeff had with him.
I suspect there was a lot of cheering from the marina when they finally saw us drive off. Maybe as loud as the cheering coming from our cars.