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Pulled over in Puss.

October 4, 2007

Since I added Puss, an aged catboat, to our fleet some years ago, I have been discovering the advantages of sailing that had never occurred to me in 35 years at the throttle. Just the other night, as I was wafting along with a cold Kalik in hand and my son, Jake, at the tiller, I realized a savings of 25 bucks-a pittance to a powerboater perhaps, but a year’s worth of diesel aboard Puss. The amount is my estimate of the penalty that might have been levied had I been motoring.

At the heart of the problem was Puss’ electrical system (a generous description), which is, at best, temperamental. The contempt her builder had for modern marine accessories is evident in the thought he devoted to installing them. Her navigation lighting, for example, is a hodgepodge of fossilized fittings, cobbled together and placed more or less out of sight. We have adapted to this handicap by defending ourselves against stinkpots (a term I use only when sailing) with a portable spotlight.

On this particular occasion, I was armed with the light when the gray shadow of a muscle boat at speed appeared astern. As Puss would not reveal herself on this fellow’s chart plotter, I thought it prudent to alert him to our position in self-defense. To my surprise, he altered course in our direction and replied with a beam of equal intensity and a flashing blue light. I should have known most of the street cops in South Florida have given up their beats for boating.

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For a moment I thought we might have been taken for refugees, however, I dismissed this thought. Although Puss’ rig has been gnarled by age, she is as American as a Norman Rockwell print. As we sailed along, the officer circled us, apparently sizing up the situation. Most water cops avoid sailing craft as others avoid speeding automobiles during inclement weather. Apprehending rag baggers (a term I use only when motoring) is simply not covered in water-cop school-there’s no money in it. This fellow, however, was fresh from the doughnut shop and ready for action.

Noting the law enforcement vessel’s scuffed topsides and exhausted fenders, it occurred to me that the officer was trying to figure out how to pull us over. Always prepared (we use PFDs as backrests), I rummaged through Puss’ bowels looking for her whistle and mirror. While I am a master with engines and throttles, controlling Puss is an altogether different matter-she has a mind of her own and tends to be stubborn and vindictive. She has dispatched more than one victim with her 25-foot boom and has a distinct disregard for authority. My God, I thought, simple tax collection could escalate into assault and battery.

Given the circumstances, I signaled my distress by staring up at the sail and shrugging. I was blessed; the officer decided to take pity instead of my credit card. Studying Puss from a safe distance, he made his assessment: “Your port running light is out.

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I dropped my beverage and peered in disbelief at the atrophied, antique fixture. “Oh my, I had no idea,” I said. “Thank you, sir, for pointing this out.” A sharp thwack with the heel of my hoof yielded a dim but satisfying twinkle. Puss is such a tease.

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