Stalking the wily clam

Days don’t get any better than yesterday. Spring came in on a southwesterly breeze, so I opened the morning with a beach walk with Daphne and the dogs, followed it with a fast 90-minute bike ride to Sandy Neck, then started the ritual of re-commissioning the Tashmoo for another season of clamming, fishing, and expeditions to Dead Neck.

Tashmoo 18 The battery was dead, victim of a defective bilge pump, and the tool “borrowers” had made off with the trickle charger, so off to the hardware store for a new charger, which, upon return, was too smart for its own good and would not permit its “microprocessor logic!” to bring the battery back to life. I took Fisher to his last YMCA basketball game, calling the mechanically inclined Cousin Pete on his cell phone to see if he could sort out the charger while I was rooting in the stands.

Returning 90 minutes later, Pete had sorted out the charger and there were electrical signs of life, enough so that we pulled oun our waders, collected the clam rakes, licenses, baskets and buckets, and made ready to launch and be off to the clam flats.

Once in the water, we dropped the engine, gave it a crank and … nothing. There wasn’t nearly enough charge to get the engine alive after three cold months of inactivity. Pete took the car to the house, grabbed some jumper cables, and in a move out of the handbook of stupid things not to do in saltwater, we got the nose of the car close enough to the boat battery to get the jumper cables on and crank the Honda four-stroke back to life.

That was a very good sign and optimism filled the hearts of the clamming crew. Pete reparked the car, my son Eliot climbed aboard — yelling at us because he insisted of listening to iPod for the rest of the afternoon and instantly turned into our version of Forrest Gump, unresponsive to all questions, louder than a deaf codger for anything he cared to share — and we pushed off from the beach with an oar, lowering the idling engine until we were ready to click into gear and head out to the head of the harbor.

Bad move. The boat always stalls out the first time it goes into gear, and this time it stalled again. Now we were fifty feet away from the beach and the engine hadn’t been running enough to get another crank’s worth of charge into the battery. I tried, we crossed our fingers, but alas, the boat needed to be paddled back to the boat ramp, the car un-parked and brought back down the water’s edge, and again we jump started. This time waiting ten minutes before getting back into gear.

This time it worked and we winged across the Bay at full throttled to the cove where the clams were. I ran us aground in the shallows and nearly lost the engine — an unacceptable outcome given there was not another start in the battery yet — but recovered nicely in time to jump aboard in my waders and push us back into the channel.

We unloaded and left the engine running at an idle, something I don’t like to do as idling outboards get overheated and foul the plugs, but the clams were calling and the day was waning into the late afternoon. Pete took his new Ribb jerk rake — a mini two-handle bullrake — and I dropped to my knees and started pawing through the cold mud for steamers while he worked the inlet for cherrystones and Eliot walked in circles, iPod distracted and ignoring my waves to come over and work the productive section of flat I had found.

Pete and Eliot digging steamers I waded into the cove and raked some quahogs for stuffed quahogs and Clams Casino — doing pretty well but paying for the effort this morning with pulled muscles in my shoulders and back — while Eliot and Pete continued to fill the steamer bucket. Lost in the reveries of basking in the sun and the smell of the clam mud, watching a beautifully restored biplane fly low over us and waggle its wings when I saluted it with my rake, I remembered with a jolt that the outboard had been idling for an hour with no attention.

I returned to the flats, took a turn on the Jerk Rake (I didn’t like it so much, and prefer my basket-rake) and started packing up our gear for the return to the mooring and a post-clam beer.

When I waded out to the boat I didn’t hear anything — a normal enough condition given the silence of the Honda, but, to our horror, the engine was off, the ignition switch was on, and we got one crank, a quick start, then deadness.

We were hosed. There was no walking home for help. Only a long, long paddle back to the mainland in the approaching darkness.

Pete opened his cellphone and called his foreman, Greg, who had been out on the water earlier that afternoon. We were in luck, he was at his mooring only a half-mile away. Fortunately we had the jumper cables, so when Greg arrived we were able to give it a start. The engine wasn’t happy though. The gas left in the tank was a bit messy — water, over-winter varnish — and it wouldn’t come up to speed. So we rigged a bridle, transferred Pete and Eliot to Greg’s boat, and towed me ashore, the more ignomious of outcomes.

Oh well. Pete and I knew what would happen when we left the hard with a weak battery, but it was too good a day not to clam. As we drank the post-clam beer and watched the sun set pink behind the library, we had a good laugh at our knuckle-headedness, and agreed, had Greg not been afloat to come save us, it would have had a much worst outcome than it did.

Today the battery should have a full night’s worth of charging in it, I will buy new gas, and we’ll make a return to top off the clam baskets and get some more steamers for tonight’s clam fest of fried clams, Clams Casino, and Ultimate Stuffies. It’s another great spring day here in Cotuit, no thoughts of returning to Raleigh for the week are permitted to cloud my mood, all children are upstairs in the beds, and all, given a working boat, should be right with the world.

Bucket O' Clams