Tue March 21, 2006
Commentary: A Three Hour Cruise
By Jim Nolan
Buffalo, NY – At first glance, my father has little in common with Gilligan of Gilligan's Island. But the resemblance became all too clear to an unlucky group of partiers who were invited to celebrate his 40th birthday on a 38-foot cabin cruiser on the Niagara River. It was 1969, and it was meant to be a three-hour tour.
Much of the details of this historic voyage are, for reasons you'll discover, at best hazily recollected by my father. So I decided to interview actual witnesses to his legendary lapse of judgment that left the boat completely disabled and headed towards the deadly 170-foot drop of Niagara Falls.
The trip started out with little indication of the coming debacle. The owner of the boat, life-long West Ferry Street resident Tim Urban, felt comfortable allowing my father, an old Navy hand, to skipper the boat. The six couples along likewise felt my father's hand at the helm posed little risk to them or the future security of the 14 children they had collectively left at home.
For a while, they were right. Leaving Jafco Marina, they circled Grand Island, consuming the chicken salad sandwiches my mother made and, as Tim carefully puts it, "adult beverages." Returning toward Jafco, my father decided they should tootle up to the Lake, which they did, passing under the Peace Bridge along the way.
It was then that Tim made the fateful decision to tell my father that he was under no circumstances to pull a particular switch on the console. The wisdom of telling this to Dad can, in the luxury of hindsight, be called into question. Because my father immediately pulled said switch, instantly rendering the boat without power.
"Tim, do you think in retrospect it was a bad decision to let Dad be skipper for a while?"
"Yes, that was a big mistake."
Pulled by the strong 13-knot current of Lake Erie emptying into the river, the boat reversed coarse, heading inexorably towards the immense steel-plated supports of the Peace Bridge.
It would take a psychologist greater than Dr. Phil to understand my father's motivation for pulling the forbidden switch. I suspect the real reason was he was seized by what Melville called "he imp of the perverse," a creature that makes you take nonsensical actions.
Genny Cream Ales offer a less literary explanation.
The radio having no power, Tim fired off distress flares just before the Chris Craft shot past the bridge supports, coming within five feet of the vessel turning into splinters. Tim tells me that cars in Fort Erie honked at them in appreciation for the show they were putting on.
After also narrowly missing the Massachusetts Intake and the International Railroad Bridge, Tim decided to drop anchor. It finally took hold in the middle of the river not far from Jafco. They weren't going to go over the Falls; their children would not be orphaned. Soon the Coast Guard came and towed them back to the marina. Tim tells me the shaken guests did not wait around to help him fill out the paperwork with the Coast Guard.
I recently asked one of the guests, Marcy Brett, for her recollections.
"Jim, as I recall we thought maybe we were doomed so we sat around composing death notices for the Buffalo News."
I asked her a final question.
"Marcy, what if we organized another boat trip to reenact the steps of that trip in the summer. Would you and Jay be interested in going on another trip because my dad's really interested in being skipper again of a boat."
"Well, we have to think about it I'd guess seeing that the first one was so iffy. But seeing it's your dad I would say we'd probably ultimately say yes. Are you going to be in town? We would want you on the boat with us this time."
"Oh, I'm not getting on boat with my dad being the skipper, are you kidding?"
Commentator Jim Nolan is a New York City advertising executive who listens to WBFO on his trips back home.
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