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Ft Lauderdale

After Breath’s maiden voyage landed us in Ft. Lauderdale I checked the want ads for work and applied for a boat-building job. I liked the foreman of Scholl Marine, Jim, who interviewed me briefly before hiring me. He was a sailor, too, and he understood that I’d be moving on when I saved up some money.

My first job was to grind the keel of a big, old, boat, an unpleasant job that required lying on your back with the keel inches away from your nose. Jim called for volunteers, but no one responded—so I offered to help, and he and I started at it with a will, wielding heavy grinders.

An important phone call from a very wealthy prospective client came for Jim. Meanwhile, cocooned in earmuffs, goggles, and respirator, enveloped by the din of the grinder, and shielded by the hull, I didn’t notice that it had started to rain. Just as I realized that the cement was getting wet, Jim reappeared and ran to pull the plug on my tool.

“Oh! It’s raining…” I observed, coming out of my fog.

“I guess! We don’t pay you enough to risk your life, you know.” But he was impressed enough to give me a ride home.

It didn’t take long to see that Jim was brilliant. He had worked for the Gougeon brothers (WEST Epoxy) and was an expert boat builder. He had built a racing trimaran, which he said was one of the two fastest boats in Florida. He took us out one day in a 5-knot breeze and the thing accelerated so fast, I felt G forces press me back against my seat. It was built of one/eighth inch aircraft grade plywood with, if I remember right, half inch fir frames all WESTed together. He was pushing the envelope… and went out sailing on a day with some wind and came home late with one pontoon strapped to the hull. Like I said, he was pushing the envelope, big time.

Jim’s brilliance went way beyond technical expertise to the way he dealt with a problem. Whenever somebody screwed up, he never wasted a minute casting blame or giving vent to frustration. Instead, Jim would get very still, listen, consider the ramifications come up with the solution, and give instructions—all in a low voice.

After a month or so Jim invited us to bring Breath up the river to the shop. We could have a free slip there, and it would save me a half hour’s transport time morning and evening. Jim called up the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers to request that the draw bridge over State Rd 84 be opened for us the coming Monday at eight a.m.

The official refused the request right off the bat. “Too much trouble for just one boat. It’s been a year since it was last opened. Prob’ly rusted shut.” He hung up. I was disappointed, but Jim, a tight set to his jaw, rummaged through the office bookshelf, came up with a code of regulations, perused it for a few minutes, then called the same number again.

“Do you have a copy of the regulations pertaining to that bridge? Good…may I direct your attention to page 63? It says in my copy that you are obliged…obliged… to open that bridge upon request with three days’ notice. I’m giving you notice, now. When can we expect the bridge to be opened?

Long pause, then a disgruntled reply. “Eight a.m. next Monday. And your sailboat damn well better be there…on the dot—it’ll be morning rush hour.”

We got up at dawn to make sure we were there. At five minutes before eight we called the bridge, the keeper told us to stand by, and then a bell started ringing and red lights flashing. A barricade lowered into place and the steady stream of 60 mph traffic came to a halt and immediately started backing up. With a great screech and banging the drawbridge began to rise.

It raised just enough to make driving over it impossible, then creaked to a stop with a groan of stressed metal. Stuck… it couldn’t move up or down. The cars couldn’t get through and neither could we. State Road 84 is an extremely busy artery carrying people in and out of Ft. Lauderdale. Within minutes traffic was backed up for a mile. Horns brayed in protest, drivers got out of their cars

Meanwhile, two men in blue work suits started banging the frozen part of the bridge with sledgehammers. A helicopter came clattering low over the scene, POLICE written on its side. Patrol cars arrived up the gravel shoulder, blue lights slowly revolving. Finally a truck arrived with a steam cannon. Gouts of steam blasted out, hissing and roaring, to expand the frozen joint. Then the hammer men stepped back in.

Another helicopter, TV news, buffeted the air overhead. The motorists were really leaning on their horns now, baying like infuriated hounds. We heard on the radio, “State road 84 is not where you want to be this morning, folks, it’s backed up five miles west from the bridge—looks like the problem is a little sailboat trying to get through and the bridge is stuck …man it’s a mess down there!”

One burly type leaned over the guard rail, bellowed something unintelligible and grasping his arm, pumped the air with a clenched fist. I wondered how many of the drivers had guns, how many were unstable or downright psychotic—prone to road rage. I don’t know how far the traffic was backed up when the bridge finally opened enough to let us through.

We put the pedal to the metal.

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