A brush with death… literally

Boat projects don’t always go according to plan. Photo by Christopher Birch

September 2022

By Christopher Birch

My career in boat repair has been an odyssey, complete with visits to strange places on both land and sea. Encounters with Cyclops, Sirens and Lotus-Eaters were never part of my work schedule, but sometimes my days would go sideways and unfold like a Greek tragedy. One memorable project from my early years in the business brought me surprisingly close to death.

It was a simple enough job. A loyal customer whose boat lived next to my shop on Long Wharf in Boston needed a broken bilge pump replaced. I ordered an identical pump and planned a follow-up visit to install it.

The pump arrived, and I made my way to the boat on schedule, ready to work. But not long after lifting the floorboards, I realized I had ordered the wrong pump. The outlet on the new pump didn’t match the diameter of the boat’s bilge hose. The project was dead in the water.

A dark wave of frustration swept over me. I had professional standards to uphold and was determined to get this – like every job – done on time. So, I headed off to the store instead of ordering the correct pump for delivery the next day. Odysseus didn’t have a car back in the day, and neither did I. But I knew the MBTA’s Red Line went to Braintree. I also knew there was a West Marine store on Wood Road there. (Actually, I think it was a Bliss Marine store back then but same idea.)

This was before the age of cell phones and Google Maps. Instead, most responsible people owned a spiral-bound Massachusetts road atlas. I was one of those responsible people. I grabbed my atlas and headed for South Station. I planned to study the book and work out a walking route between the Braintree train station and the Braintree marine store while I rode the train.

Somewhere around Wollaston, I realized my walk wouldn’t be easy. The store was on one side of Braintree, and the closest Red Line stop was Quincy Adams, just over the town line, on the other side of Braintree. Between the two spots was a great maw of highways and on-ramps and off-ramps known as the “Braintree Split.”

The most direct walking route involved crossing highways on foot. A second, much longer, but pleasant-looking route (including sidewalks and underpasses) was also an option. But, I was all business that day, and a long, leisurely stroll through Braintree wasn’t what I had in mind. I had a pump to purchase and was determined to have it installed before dark. After all, I had professional standards to uphold. I chose the shorter, direct route.

Sidewalks unfolded before me as I exited the train station, but my chosen course quickly became less welcoming as I made my way to the Crown Colony hotel. After that, pedestrian access was expressly denied. I carried on anyway. First, I had to scramble down a rocky bit, and that was dodgy. Then, I crossed the northbound lanes of Rt. 3 – also dodgy. Next, I faced the southbound lanes of Rt. 3, which provided a tense moment. Cars and trucks bear down with surprising velocity when you are in the business of crossing highways on foot.

Even in my youth, I wasn’t that fast a runner. Out there on the hot macadam of Rt. 3 that summer day, truck horns blared, and cars veered to avoid me, testing the limits of their suspension while doing so. My heart raced. It’s the way the cars leaned as they swerved, with their tires rolling inward with desperate grip, that I still remember most clearly. Upon reflection, I don’t recommend this sort of travel on foot.

At this point in my walk, the many north and southbound lanes of I-93 still lay ahead of me. The little old Rt. 3 crossing had been surprisingly sporty. Beginning to second guess my route, I stopped to take stock of my situation and concluded that I needed a new plan. The problem was that I was trapped in a triangle in the middle of the “Braintree Split,” with cars whizzing by on two sides and a dense thicket of woods on the third side. I consulted my atlas and realized that if I could trailblaze through the woods, on the other side, I’d find a promising route through a residential neighborhood and the South Shore Plaza mall. I dropped down a steep embankment and into the woods with newfound enthusiasm.

These were not Robert Frost sort of woods. The undergrowth was dense with briars due to lack of use by humankind and the animal kingdom. There was just no reason to be there. I was probably the first person to visit that spot of earth in over 50 years. Quite an accomplishment in the urban Northeast Corridor! I wore all my freshly bleeding briar wounds as a badge of honor. Proof positive that professional standards were being upheld at all costs.

After thrashing along in no man’s land for 10 or 20 minutes, I was surprised to come upon a rusty, six-foot-tall chain-link fence overgrown with briars standing squarely in my way. There was no notion of retreating from where I had come. Instead, I threw my atlas over the fence and then climbed up and over. On the way down, a bad thing happened: One of my sneaker shoelaces snagged on the jagged top of the fence, and I found myself hanging upside-down by one foot. The fence had a lot of spring to it, and I couldn’t manage to shake the sneaker free. I also couldn’t slip my foot out of the sneaker because the laces were under steady tension from the springy fence. It was hot, and around me, on all sides, was nothing but dense forestry.

I dangled there for a while, feeling unwell and thinking this would be the end. Sadly, I had told no one of my trip, so my body would likely hang for another 50 years until the next hapless yachtsman came along. Then, I remembered that I had a rigging knife in my pocket. In a herculean burst of energy, I did an inverted sit-up and slashed my foot free from the fence. I landed with a thud on a rock with great relief. In the frenzy, I managed to slash my sneaker, foot, and ankle badly with the knife. Blood gushed – but at least I wasn’t hanging upside down anymore.

I struggled through the rest of the woods with an atlas in one hand and my rigging knife in the other to help cut the briars. Along the way, I was developing my “work first” fashion sense, a look that Curt Schilling would later copy in the footwear department. Eventually, I emerged into civilization. That felt good at first, but the problem with civilization is that some of the people are more civilized than others. As luck would have it, that day, I was met by a boorish gentleman with rage in his eyes. As he saw it, I was the blood-splattered intruder with a knife, and he was the homeowner in his own backyard.

He stood there, menacing me with a shovel while I tried to explain my situation, emphasizing the importance of maintaining professional standards. He was more focused on summoning the police and/or bashing my brains in with his shovel. He understood those woods to be impenetrable. In all his 20-plus years of home ownership, he had never taken my chosen route to the Quincy Adams station. Even though we had just met, he found me to be an unreliable narrator and was blunt with his general assessment of what type of person I was.

I tried to play up the atlas to give myself a bookish look but kept the knife at the ready to balance against the ever-present threat of the shovel. In an attempt at carrot and stick diplomacy, I even offered him the atlas as a housewarming gift. It was a gift he would not accept. Fortunately, the man eventually simmered down, and I managed to gain the sidewalk relatively unscathed and stumble on my way.

More struggles with navigation followed, but I did eventually make it to the marine store that day. Sadly, my triumphant homecoming was short-lived. There was no Queen Penelope waiting for me. Instead, just another harsh reality: The store was sold out of the pump I needed. I should have called ahead to check inventory.

In the cab back to the train station, I sat quietly with my atlas on my lap, a sour expression on my face, dried blood on my limbs, and an evolving understanding of professional standards in my heart.

When you’re self-employed, you will die before anyone fires you for stupidity. I give thanks to Ruleios, “The Greek God of The Bilge,” for sparing my life that day.

True story.

Christopher Birch is the founder of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston. He is now out cruising full-time with his wife, Alex, aboard their 36-foot Morris Justine. Follow their voyage at EagleSevenSailing.com.