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During my commercial fishing career I was never accused of having the sharpest ship in the fleet. Lot of the fishermen would tell me how a bucket of paint and a gallon of muriatic acid would do wonders for the look of my ship. As always, I had a comeback. I’d say, “I would rather my boat look like it had made a million bucks than look like a million bucks.”

One night out on a fishing trip I was awakened to something touching my ankle. I jerked my foot and looked down to see a rat. Instead of this rat scurrying off, he just sat back on his two hind legs, folded his two front legs and stared at me as if we knew one another. The rat appeared wet.

I threw a T-shirt at him, and he ran off. This was one of the strangest rat encounters I had ever had. Best I could tell, this rat had been sitting there licking my ankle at 2 a.m.

So later that day I had asked one of my crew to look under my bunk and see if he could find any signs that a rat was living there. Maybe this strange encounter was just a dream? He looked under the bunk and, seeing my collection of stuff, asked what all that “junk” was for.

I quoted a mentor of mine, an old skipper: “Use what you’ve got, and you will never need what you have not.” The only rat my crew found that day was my inner pack rat. He went back to business just shaking his head.

Then came a day when we were blown in behind the Marquesas Keys. Just a little too much time listening to the stereo and running the cabin fans, and we found ourselves without enough battery power to fire up the main engine. My crew thought we should be shooting off flares and trying to flag down passing seaplanes.

I looked under my bunk to see what we could do, using what we got.

I had found an old section of a commercial electric fishing reel, just the mid-section with the handle and the pulley with a belt sheave. I propped this up in front of the main engine and fastened it to the stringer, I then attached the alternator belt to the electric reel pulley and each of us took turns hand-cranking the reel. When we turned the pulley as fast as we could, the reduction gear did its work, and we would see the amp gauge move.

Still, we tried for an hour or so and, even though we got some more juice flowing to the battery, it was never sufficient to start the engine.

I went back below my bunk and found a 2-by-6-by-about-4-foot piece of wood. With my crew holding one end, I used a filet knife and, by dragging it toward me, started carving. There was never any shortage of beer and ice on my boat so after a few beers and more carving, we had fabricated a very impressive propeller.

I took the alternator off the engine and fastened it to where the electric motor would have been on the electric reel. The reason we were behind the Marquesas Keys to begin with was the strong winds. I fastened the propeller to this contraption, and when I went topside and stood up, my new homemade wind generator started to spin so fast I was barely able to get away before it took my head off.

With wires running to the battery I looked at the voltmeter. We were charging as if the alternator were still attached to a running engine. In less than an hour I pushed the starter button and the engine fired right up. The junk under my bunk had been justified.

We never did find that rat, but I did see some droppings on the gunwales. Lot of times these rats swim from island to island. Maybe this one had climbed up the anchor line just to say hello. Maybe in past lives we were family.

Capt. Billy Rawson, a career commercial fisherman from the Florida Keys, has worked recovering treasure from ships sunk in the Caribbean.