In June, 1976, when the girls were 9, 7, and 10 months old, our family of five packed up more than a dozen suitcases and headed to Miami, Florida, to board our new boat and bring it back to Detroit. The plan was to travel the Miami River to the Intracoastal Waterway and head north. We motored up the East Coast, sometimes by Intracoastal, sometimes by Atlantic Ocean, depending on the weather. We eventually entered New York Harbor, passed the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers, motored up the Hudson River to the New York State Barge Canal (formerly known as the Erie Canal), worked our way through a series of locks in the Welland Canal and arrived in Lake Ontario, then Lake Erie, the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. Even though the children were young, I thought this would be an educational adventure for the whole family.
It was educational, but not in the way I imagined.
Our boat, a 47-foot Chris Craft double cabin Commander, was not brand new; it was built in 1969 but was in excellent shape. Only one owner before us. The aft cabin had two single beds for the adults; the V-bunk had two bunks for Daughters No. 1 and 2; and Daughter No. 3’s Port A Crib fit perfectly on the floor space of the side cabin.
The boat, which would later be named Punch List, had a generator, air conditioning, heat, and all the usual galley equipment – a small refrigerator, a three-burner electric stove, a microwave and frightfully skimpy storage space.
A friend of our family, a teenage boy, came along to help with this undertaking. He slept on a pull-out sofa bed in the salon and helped with docking, engine-room work, chrome polishing, teak cleaning, deck swabbing, piloting, etc. He occasionally doubled as a babysitter. He was a delightful young man and the kids loved him.
We were looking forward to this adventure, which we figured would take about four weeks. What could go wrong?
For starters, we arrived in Miami with our stack of luggage on the hottest, steamiest day of the year. It was 104 degrees. The humidity was probably 99 percent. We cranked up the air conditioning and began to unpack.
Within an hour, something went wrong.
Daughter No. 2 tried to close a stubborn hatch and it slammed down, hard, on her hand. She screamed. Blood gushed. The wound was so deep I could see the bones in her fingers.
For sure, this injury needed stitches. The harbormaster offered to drive us to the office of a doctor he knew. I wrapped her hand in a dish towel and we climbed into his truck.
The doctor, who was Cuban, didn’t speak English. I don’t speak Spanish. He examined the wound and found someone in a nearby office to translate for me while he stitched her up and wrapped her hand in a huge sculptural design of gauze and tape.
“Doctor says don’t get it wet for a week,” the translator told us. The harbormaster drove us back to the boat, where the patient displayed her injured hand to admiring fans.
But the cabin smelled funny. The upholstery and carpet cleaners had been there while we were at the doctor’s office. They cleaned the upholstery and carpet with strong chemicals that lingered in the air, emitting an awful smell. The odor was overwhelming in the closed cabin even though the air conditioning was chugging along like a trooper.
Within a few minutes, I started to feel dizzy and sick.
“The fumes! They’re toxic! We’re all going to pass out and die!” (Did I mention my tendency to overreact?) I ran around the cabin opening windows. I bundled the children in their life jackets and sent them up to the deck for fresh air. The two men (did I mention their tendency to under-react?) waved me away and continued working in the engine room.
With the windows open, the fumes eventually dissipated and we were able to close them up and cool the interior again, but I wondered how much time Daughters No. 1 and 3 and the two men had spent inhaling those awful chemicals. I wondered if it had affected their brains.
So --- because her hand got crushed on the first day of our trip and because I took her to get stitched up -- Daughter No. 2 and I are the only ones who have escaped brain damage.
This explains why we’re the smartest members of our family.