September 27, 2021

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LG: Boat conked out; on to rocks; our fate

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By Mark Frost, Chronicle Editor

Between the constant rain of early summer and the busy-ness of our business and lives, we’d only made it out on our boat twice this season. Weeks ago.

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Austin Isaacs, 18, and Stephanie Barnes, 24, work for their family’s Bolton tow boat business. They answered our call Saturday. Chronicle photo/Mark Frost

Saturday, with blue sky perfection, we finally ventured back out on Lake George.

It was late afternoon. We figured the rush would be over; we’d find an ideal picnic spot.

All was good as we reached the Narrows. I was driving extra slowly because two passengers had conditions that mandated “no bouncing.”

I steered toward Paradise Bay. Then literally I felt powerless. It took me a few seconds to realize the engine had quit. I figured I must have turned it off somehow. I restarted, it chugged a few times, then it died again. Now we realized this was a potentially perilous predicament. We were just east of Artist Rock. The water is shallow. The shore is near and rocky. The breeze from the north carried our boat toward it. The wake from other boats impacted us, too. Our boat scraping rock was imminent and unavoidable.

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Too close a view of rock and water when you’re in an untethered, inoperable motorboat.

I had the presence of mind to raise the trim to its full height, trying to keep the propeller from harm’s way. I was proud of myself for that. Usually it’s my wife Hutch who rises to emergencies.

We hit the rocks slowly but the hull crunched now and each time the water swelled. We were partially buoyant but stuck.

Our boat is nearly 20 years old. This was only our second serious incident. A few years ago — on our first outing of the season — big smoke started spewing from the engine. We thought we were on fire, but it turned out to be far less dangerous. The word we learned that day and forever more was “impeller,” as in “you should probably replace your impeller every year.” Repairs were made, lessons learned, everything copacetic until today.

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Mark writes: I call this photo ‘Woman mulling whether to file for divorce.’ Mark Frost photos

We always carried a well-charged two-way radio on the boat. The one we used for so long finally gave out last year. Hutch ordered a new one, but it turned out so complicated to operate we hadn’t figured it out yet.

We had only our cell phones, a blunder we won’t make again. Fortunately we got a signal, not a sure thing around the lake. I called 9-1-1. I assumed I was talking to Warren County, but I realized later that’s a presumption.

She had trouble hearing me but we conveyed the situation, its urgency but no injuries. She said she’d send help.

Several boats stopped to offer assistance. A good samaritan, whose name turned out to be Glenn, dived off one and swam over. With a dead engine, we weren’t looking to be dislodged even if he could. Had a good talk.

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Isaac is 18, Stephanie is 24. Reassuring to see people so young so good at their jobs. Mark Frost photos

Most boats went by softly, but one roared past, turning up wake that added to our hull scaping the rocks.

A Lake George Park Commission patrol boat arrived soon enough. The officer could see we’d need a tow, looked up the number and told it to us, said he’d keep an eye on us until they got there. It was a Bolton number. Operative question: Were we taking on water? We didn’t seem to be. Said they’d be there in about half an hour.

It turned out to be two young people in a Boston Whaler that was only about 18 feet long. Austin Isaacs of Bolton drove the boat. He’s all of 18 years old. Obviously been around boats all his life. Masterful maneuvering.

I asked how long he’s been doing this work. “I’ve been working at the marina since I was able to legally,” when he was 14, Isaac said. He was as polite and engaging as he is capable.

Co-worker Stephanie Barnes is 24 and turns out to be Austin’s aunt. Same friendliness and capability. She graduated from Warrensburg, lives now in Glens Falls.

Both wore red shirts that had their names and a trademark logo Tow BoatU.S. Stephanie said their family owns the Bolton tow business and she and Isaac will be taking it over. Great occupation with implicit job security. No matter what happens, how rich the lake gets, there will always be engine failures or boat crashes.

Now having had the experience of being high and dry, I can tell you I wasn’t worried about how much it would cost to get us extricated and normalized. You’re thinking, first, good there are no injuries; second, let’s try to minimize damage to the vessel; and third, let’s get the heck out of here.

Austin said they may receive a dozen or more tow calls on a weekend. They said their real tow boat was out on another call when they took the Whaler to aid us.

Austin eyeballed our situation from his boat. “This is not gonna be pretty,” he said.

They tied a line from their boat to ours and gently pulled. It took a couple of tries. More scraping. I used a pole tying to help separate us from the rock. Austin soon had us pulled out to deep enough water. He said the extraction was so easy they wouldn’t charge us for it. He said typically you’re charged by the length of your boat.

Austin encouraged us to try to start the boat again, thinking maybe we wouldn’t need a tow after all. He asked how much we’d used the boat so far this season. He wasn’t surprised when we said hardly at all. I think he figured that was our issue.

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Sat back & relaxed. Glad to be free of the rocks, on our way to our marina.

He had us push the button to get us out of gear so we could rev the engine high if it did start. He said he thought it might just be flooded. No luck restarting, though.

We resigned ourselves to be towed. Stephanie explained that the fee is $280 an hour, from when they left their dock to when they get back to it after depositing us in our boat at our marina. Fine by me. We were glad for the rescue.

Stephanie asked if we had towing insurance. We’d never even thought about it.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I remember reading that Warren Buffett owns a boat tow business, just as he owns GEICO insurance. I searched the Internet when we got home. Yes, his company Berkshire Hathaway owns BoatU.S. When you go to their site, they look to sign you up right now for towing insurance at a price — for a freshwater lake — not much more than $100 a year. I haven’t researched it to know what that actually covers. Anyway, a boat towing business with an insurance sales component is exactly the kind of under-the-radar, meeting-an-actual-need enterprise that Buffett built his billions by.

The business owned by Stephanie’s and Austin’s family is the Bolton cog in a network huge and national. I hope every unit operates as well as their seems to.

Saturday night we were home in time to cook on the gas grill what we’d planned to cook over charcoal on Lake George.

Monday our marina mechanic took a look at the boat. Told Hutch he found some wetness, that it needed a tune-up, that he ran it for a while out on the lake with no recurrence of the problem. The hull, he said, was scratched but intact.

We’re cleared to resume our Lake George boat life, though Hutch expresses lingering wariness. That will give way, I think, on the next nice day that we have free hours.

Distressing episode, yes, but quickly overcome. Life happens, lessons learned, nice acquaintances made, even a Chronicle story to tell. Lucked out yet again.

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