Is That Water in the Cabin?
September 1989 — Closing Day of Yacht Season
It was a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon and, here we were, another 24-hour shift at Station Three. Our Fireboat was just sitting alone in the Marina itching to be cruising the waters around town. Alameda is an island surrounded with Navy and civilian ships, barges, marinas and creosoted piers just waiting to burn.
I had worked my way into A-Shift Boat Trainer, a position which gave me some pull to spend more time doing the job I loved. From childhood, having grown up boating, fishing, and water skiing in these waters, I knew most of the sunken hazards, tidal currents, and mud flats to be maneuvered.
Picking up the phone, I called the shift commander at Station One asking him to check with the duty chief, to see if we could run the boat this afternoon to improve our skill. The reply was affirmative; maybe I should have felt a little guilty, but Neptune was calling. What the chief didn’t know was that there were thousands of boats out for the final day of yacht season, decorated with flags, streamers and people.
We joined in the celebration, our boat shooting streams of water from all truants at every conceivable type of watercraft, with people waving, bikini clad girls smiling, and teasing the three uniformed studs. Our normal boundaries were from the San Leandro Bay to the mouth of the estuary. Arriving at San Francisco Bay, all these boats were leaving us as our leash became tight.
We cruised back and forth as our boat seemed to be straining at its tether. It was more than three red-blooded men could handle. The pull was magnetic. I could swear I heard the water say, “You know, there’s not a wave in sight and your boat really needs to be run hard, to blow out the carbon.”
“Hey guys, let’s just run out to the end of the channel marker.”
It seemed good, and I swore the guys to a blood oath of silence. We’re off to the last buoy. “That was fast, do you suppose we could just go as far as Yerba Buena Island? I’m sure we can get back fast if a call comes in.”
This is what my job was about…helping people, and sometimes even helping ourselves.
Hmm, that was easy, as I think to myself, What if we circumnavigate Yerba Buena? The boat is running great, the tanks are full. What could possibly go wrong? Besides, who’s gonna know?
Yeah, right. With the thousands of boats out today, who’s going to know? What if the chief of the department just happened to be on one of the boats waving at us? Is our job really worth that little? Hmm, at this minute, with the sea calling and brains saturated with salt water, we’ll be okay. Full throttle ahead!
As we disappeared around the lea side of the island, I admit to thinking, I do have a wife and kids, a mortgage, and what was a great job. I think I’ll hold my breath until we arrive back at that now-distant channel marker. Boat, don’t fail me now. As we passed that beautiful channel buoy, I think to myself that was really dumb! Maybe they should make a movie about us called “Dumb and Dumber.”
With our fun winding down, and back home in the channel still afloat, we returned to a normal patrol while the boat settled into a slow idle. I was at the wheel and calmly returned to waving and looking. In my day-dreaming state, something seemed different about the boat…it was sitting lower in the water. As my eyes focused ahead, I could see the bow wake showing a little above the deck. That was not good.
“Hey guys, does something seem different about the boat?”
I opened the cabin door and stepped down into two feet of water. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and feeling. Apparently, the boat, under full power, was bow high as we cruised around the bay. The force of the high speed had opened a seam in the keel, and it started taking on water, which moved to the stern.
As we slowed in the Estuary, the water started running forward which caused the boat to be nose heavy. Now the bow was tilting lower than the stern and that was not normal. We had 30 feet of water below and, yeah, it was warm, but I hadn’t packed my trunks.
Yelling to the crew, “We’re sinking! Get the syphon hose out and hook it to the pump! We’ll try to rescue our own boat. That’s a first!” The guys had never tested the syphon. Luckily, I had. “Hook it to number two discharge and start the engine.” I grabbed the radio trying to be cool, “Fireboat to Central.”
“Central, go ahead.”
“We are in the Estuary near the Rusty Pelican and about to sink.” I think, if the pump doesn’t work, we’ll have to beach it in the mud, which will make my name Lt. Mud for the rest of my very short career. I was hoping for an open boat slip. “Could you dispatch Truck Two with the portable pump? We need them now.”
“Roger, fireboat can you give us your exact location?”
The pump engine actually started, which was a miracle in itself, and water started to flow out of the boat which was a good thing; we just might make it. Ah, yachting. Isn’t life grand? With water now spraying out of the syphon hose and irritating passing boats, we pulled into an open slip but we were still not out of the woods. We were not sure how much water was coming in and if our pump would handle it. Truck Two arrived, pump in hand, and we started making headway. Then a crowd gathered, including the duty chief, to see what all the commotion was about. As I pondered, do I tell him the whole truth or just trim it to the bare essentials? I think I’ll go for the bare essentials.
As long as the chief wasn’t on a boat in the bay and none of the 20,000 boaters turned us in, what could happen? Between the two pumps, we were able to dry out the bilges to see that the leak was small. The chief decided to have us take the boat to the shipyard and put it on the ways. Our job was to hold our breath, move slow with the portable pump on board, and hope for the best. We did, it did, and we became heroes for saving the boat, at least for the moment. That was, if I believed a firefighter could keep a secret. With relief, looking back thirty years, our secret was kept, and I got my retirement. Sometimes we receive wisdom from wise people, sometimes from life experiences, and sometimes from a swift kick in the butt. Whatever works and, in this case, that mistake was never repeated.
Many times, in the past, rolling up on an emergency (be it fire, car accident, broken leg, or a child with his head stuck in a railing), after evaluating and fixing the need, we might ask the question, “What were you thinking?” That was really dumb! From now on I won’t be so quick to judge, having moved into the same category as the civilians we served. We live and sometimes we die. This is what my job was about…helping people, and sometimes even helping ourselves.
David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.