Thursday, April 21, in Lorain, Ohio. The forecasts are calling for clearing and gradual warming, but at 8:30 in the morning when I arrive at Spitzer Riverside Marina, it is 42°F, dark, and overcast with wind gusts approaching 40 mph. I am scheduled to launch Valhalla, my 1977 Cape Dory 30, today.
The first thing I do is walk toward the marina office, the tiny, dark space carved out of the warehouse with boat rack storage, an old couch, and a desk from 100 years ago. But before I get there, I see a 10-year-old silver SUV parked at the edge of the paved area in front of the warehouse. The front bumper is nearly hanging over the steel piling wall that separates land from the river.
The driver’s side window is open, and I see Robert sitting behind the wheel with both hands hugging a plastic coffee cup. He is looking out over the river. A beautiful old tug in immaculate condition is pushing a steel barge downriver. The churning wake trails behind, and a slight plume of diesel exhaust streams from the stack. This moment—just seeing him sitting there watching the tug pass by, his fingers grasping the coffee cup nearly pressed to his face but suspending it for a brief moment—this is all what I have grown to expect.
Without even looking at me, without the slightest acknowledgment of who I am, he simply says, with his eyes fixed on the tug, “Are you ready?”
I respond, “Yes,” and he turns to face me and says, “Give me a few minutes to round up my guys.” I answer, “Take your time, but I am concerned about that powerboat”—just upwind from the crane. “I’ll need a hand getting out of the launching well with this wind.”
Robert doesn’t say a word, he simply looks at the tug and barge, and after 25 years of hauls and launches—out of the water in November, into the water in April, 50 times with me in total—I realize that this the most engaging conversation I have ever had with him. “Are you ready?”
I return to my boat and prepare the lines and fenders. I’m not even done when I hear the lift truck pushing the yard trailer approaching. I climb down from Valhalla and remove my ladder. This is it: no more ladder, no more working with my boat sitting in its cradle on the asphalt.
Robert and his crew arrive. No Angel this spring—he lost his foot last year to a medical issue but had still been there to help lift Valhalla last November, hopping around on one leg. But Tommy is here, and a new guy, and I pick up parts of a conversation about Matchbox cars: “I have an entire shoebox full of them from when I was a kid back in the ’60s and your son would love them, and you can have all of them, but sorry, no original boxes.”
(Six months later when I pulled the boat for winter, Angel was back in action, fitted with a prosthetic. It made me appreciate even more the marina management and their commitment to their employees.)
The hydraulic trailer is guided into and around my cradle, and within a few moments Valhalla is lifted from the blocks and is being transported across the boatyard to the waiting boat lift. Once it’s positioned inside, the lift slings are run down, and with some nonverbal discussion and no prompting from me, they are placed exactly right.
I have a brief conversation with Tommy regarding the safety line that ties the two slings together and receive a clear recognition, yes, we all remember last year when the forward sling slipped just as the boat was being lowered into the well, the bow dropped about 18 inches, and all faces went white until we realized that the safety lines had done their job.
With the slings secure, there comes a roar from the lift motor as Robert seems to pour every bit of power into it, the belts screaming and the valves clanking, and slowly Valhalla leaves the confines of the cradle and is suspended in midair. Tommy removes the trailer and Robert lowers Valhalla, watching my face as he positions the suspended boat just right for the final touch-up painting.
I nod, he shuts down the lift, and the crew leaves me to the final moments of preparing for another sailing season. I roughly sand and then paint the area at the bottom of the keel. This only takes a few minutes, but when I finish, I look around and everyone is gone. For nearly 30 minutes I stand there, alone in silence, taking a few pictures and gauging the wind, which is causing considerable movement of my suspended boat.
With the paint now mostly dry, Robert appears and asks once again, “Are you ready?” and I respond with a nod. Robert ascends to the controls of the boat lift, and again the screaming motor dominates the scene. Valhalla rises, and the lift moves about 50 feet as Robert guides the massive tires onto the metal channels on each side of the launching well. With no delay he lowers Valhalla into the murky brown water of the Black River. I grasp the bow rail as it descends before me and quickly climb on board over the rail when it is level with the ground.
Tommy is there to support this maneuver and hold the rail, and by the time I reach the cockpit Valhalla is resting in the water, still embraced by the slings. I turn the ignition key but cannot hear the cranking of the diesel due to the noise coming from the lift. With a quick look at the tachometer and a general vibration, I sense that the engine has started. I jump below to check the bilges, look at the engine to make sure there is no rush of water anywhere, and climb back out to look over the stern to check that cooling water is emerging with the engine exhaust.
Another quick look to Robert that says, “All is well,” and standing in the control booth of the lift, he grabs the headstay with a boathook and backs the lift out to the end of the lifting well, getting me as close to the open water as he can. The wind gusts push against me, but between Robert maintaining my bow and Tommy now positioned on the powerboat with another boathook attached to my port upper shroud, Valhalla effortlessly slides past all the steel hazards, the powerboat, the docks, and five months of snow, ice, and wind. We are cast free.
I wave and thank them all—once again, a perfect launch with barely a word being said. Then I am off into another sailing season on Lake Erie.
Robert Wagner has sailed on Lake Erie his whole life. An accomplished artist, his work can be viewed at robertswagner.com.