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Nautical aversion due to Capt. Smitty

I hate boats. I hate motorboats, sailboats, boats of any kind, including those Caribbean pleasure boats people say they love so much. I've read stories of fires and plagues sweeping those top-heavy behemoths, including the tragic story of one that recently ran aground off Italy. I've even endured a four-way roll in the belly of a troop transport for three days as hurricane-force winds battered it off the Aleutian Islands. But none of those is the main reason I hate boats. The reason is Smitty.

Sometime around 1950, my friend Sievers invited me along on his friend Smitty's cabin cruiser. We and a few others met at a marina, where we boarded and I met Smitty for the first time. With eyes darting suspiciously under his captain's cap, he seemed odd, but not unusually so. I became wary, though, when he called to someone on a docked boat, "What is the weather forecast?" Pointing to the blue sky, the other said, "Good."

Below deck, Smitty unfurled his navigation maps on the table and explained in Navy jargon what the swirls and numbers meant. His seeming expertise reassured me as we entered the Niagara River and cruised out over the lake toward Sunset Beach. Suddenly, the boat surged and tipped right, its nose rising on the throaty roar of the engine.

"Body afloat starboard!" Smitty shouted, "Body afloat starboard!" We all dashed to the side, only to see a drowned groundhog bobbing on the waves. My stomach knotted when he then muttered, "Now which way do I go?" Keeping the shoreline to our left was apparently beyond his nautical expertise.

We were about two miles from land when we heard Smitty crying, "Fire!" Rushing below, we found him choking on smoke from a grease fire, which we quickly smothered. Not long after, we heard him screaming, "We're sinking! Man the bilges!" Not knowing a bilge from my belly, nerves fraying, I scrambled to find a life jacket, certain I was to become fish bait. Somehow we managed to stay afloat.

About 50 yards off Sunset, Smitty cupped his hands around his mouth and called the numbers painted on a boat -- the only boat in sight: "Ahoy there, 6165. Ahoy there, 6165. What is depth of water?" Closer to the beach, the man in rowboat 6165 dipped his oar and raised it, showing a depth less than 2 feet.

Dropping anchor, we jumped off one side into waist-high water and waded in, while Smitty tossed a dinghy off the other side and climbed in. For 20 minutes we watched him paddle in circles to shore.

Late that day I boarded again, tense and dreading the trip back. Almost home, with a clammy darkness shrouding the swirling Niagara, I heard the depth gauge pinging ominously and saw it oscillating between 5 and 7 feet. Ahead, as the Peace Bridge loomed large out of the night before us, Smitty panicked, crying out that he forgot which channel to take under the arches. Picturing jagged rocks tearing the boat asunder and my corpse washing over the falls, I scrambled to the deck, my nerves shredding.

"I'm swimming for it!" I yelled, flipping off my loafers, ready to dive overboard. Smitty called after me, mocking, "What chance do you have in a 15-mile-an-hour current?"

Miraculously, we survived, but my psyche has never quite healed. Since that long-ago day, my aversion to boats has remained unabated. It is a regrettable passion I owe entirely to Captain Smitty.

James Costa Jr., a retired teacher who lives in Elma, prefers to stay on dry land.