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Dabbling in DIY? Sometimes the Best Plan of Action is "To Not To"

Ernie was the ultimate DIY boat owner. Until this one time...

With 10 grandkids, we spend a lot of time watching animated features. One of our favorites is Cars, a tale set in a forgotten town along old Route 66. In one scene, the sheriff is berating Mater, the bumpkin tow truck in charge of the impound yard, asking, “What did I tell you about talking to the prisoners?” Mater replies sheepishly, “To not to.” It can be that way with do-it-yourself refits, too. Sometimes it’s best “to not to,” especially when an actual tow truck—or three—might figure into the equation.

Ernie, my neighbor along a protected stretch of South Florida waterfront, was the ultimate DIY boat owner. He owned a 28-footer with a cabin forward, an open aft deck and a single diesel inboard. When the time came to swap out the old engine, Ernie determined the best way to go about it was to employ a Bobcat skid-steer loader fitted with a boom. Since he had no seawall, he asked to use mine so he could position the loader close enough to the boat for the engine swap.

After tying his boat off to a couple of sturdy old live oaks about 30 feet from the seawall, Ernie jumped onto the Bobcat and eased it forward until its front wheels were on the seawall cap. Then he chained the old engine to the boom. So far so good. The engine lifted off the beds fine, but as Ernie started to back up, it became apparent that the engine weighed as much as the Bobcat’s counterweight. The loader tipped up onto its front wheels. The engine crashed onto the deck and slid to the starboard bulwark, and the boat took an immediate 40-degree list.

Ernie’s instinctive reaction was to reverse course in hopes of correcting the problem, but the engine, still chained to the boom, wedged under the gunwale. The Bobcat shot off the seawall, pushing the boat and stretching the nylon mooring lines to their limits. Fortunately, the skid plate beneath the Bobcat’s rear caught on the seawall. The loader stopped, suspended in mid-air above the water with Ernie hyperventilating in place.

When we got Ernie back onto terra firma and assessed the situation, which was changing by the minute as the tide ebbed, it was clear we needed to call for backup.

When the tow truck pulled into my back yard, the driver took one look, shook his head and called a bigger tow truck—one of those Peterbilt rigs you see towing 18-wheelers down the highway. That second driver said he’d try but couldn’t do it alone. Soon I had two giant Peterbilts in my back yard, their million-candlepower floodlights illuminating the scene as darkness fell and the tide continued to drop.

The recovery was ultimately successful, but it left Ernie on the hook for a bill far in excess of what a boatyard would have charged to do the job right the first time. As the three trucks and dozens of spectator boats departed, I said to another neighbor, “Wow, I bet Ernie will never try anything like that again.” He scoffed and said, “Oh, that’s weren’t here for the bottom job.”

A few years prior, as the story goes, Ernie had taken advantage of an extreme autumn tide to suspend the very same boat from the beams beneath a nearby bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. He was on a float happily scraping and painting the bottom at low tide when both the marine patrol and the highway patrol arrived. Unable to decide who had jurisdiction over the airspace between the ICW and the highway, they each departed with a stern warning to Ernie “to not to” ever again.

I suspect they’ll probably just shoot him next time.