A colorful occupation: Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Capt. Nate Birch and his trusty dog, Bill, resting in the launch Delayed Gratification after an exhaustive PFD count.

June 2022

By Christopher Birch

Throughout my work as a launch driver, I came across many things floating in Boston Harbor. I found a pair of blue jeans. They were woman’s pants, so I gifted them to my mother. The fit was a bit big on her, but she appreciated the gesture and wore them cinched up with a belt when she worked in her garden. I found a square black Russian rabbit fur hat that I wore while driving the boat on cooler evenings. The biggest thing I found was a 40-foot sailboat floating aimlessly with no one aboard. I caught it and brought it to an empty mooring on a hip-tow. Eventually, the owner was found, and he confessed that he hadn’t yet mastered the art of tying a mooring line to a bow cleat. (Tip your launch drivers! One day, they may save your bacon.)

I drove a launch for eight summers early in my life and maintain a fraternal bond with those still in that business. No matter what boat I’m driving nowadays, I instinctively hang in reverse on a breast line at the dock, like I’m back driving the launch. Crew? What would I need crew for? The launch driver just lands the boat. I still have a hard time delegating line handling duty, especially the bit about explaining the how and why of it all.

My launch, Delayed Gratification, was a Herreshoff Pilot powered by a green, 7hp, single-cylinder Volvo Penta diesel engine. She was once the showboat for Volvo Penta (I suspect she had a different name then) before being pressed into service as a passenger-carrying launch. The Volvo people liked to brag to showgoers about their little engine that could power the heavy launch. Well, it did – sort of – unless there was a stiff headwind. When she finally did get going, stopping her again took significant planning. Resolving steering errors and route planning snafus with an extra thrust of power wasn’t an option. In retrospect, it was an excellent way to learn boat handling skills.

Eventually, this launch was repowered with a larger red Westerbeke and then again with a newer gray Yanmar. The same pink vein of diesel fuel powering them all. The history under that engine cover is a rainbow of color.

The launch belonged then – and still belongs today – to the Boston Harbor Sailing Club. The club offers lessons and racing in their Soling fleet and sailing in their cruising boats ranging from 26 feet to 39 feet. Privately owned boats also dot the mooring field as seasonal customers and transient visitors come and go. I drove crews out to them all. For some of the sailing students, it was their first time on a boat.

Early in my tenure as a launch driver, the club acquired a second launch. She was named Instant Gratification – naturally. This boat was also a Herreshoff Pilot and had one of those red engines. Two boats offered the opportunity for more deferred maintenance. As a result, one usually had a significant ailment that put it entirely out of commission.

When the remaining in-service launch also broke down, my backup vessel was a rowboat with a pair of undersized blue oars, ferrying two passengers at a time. Even for someone like me, who loves to row, that was a lot of rowing. Considering that it was Boston, and it was the `80s if you were around, you knew that the harbor water was famous for its filth. But, when the choice was to swim to clear a line from the prop or row for the rest of the day, I was quick to jump over the side and clear the prop.

Those blue oars rested on the rowboat seats, tormenting me every morning when I arrived at work. “Check your fluids,” they told me. If the black engine oil, green coolant, red transmission fluid, pink fuel, and clear bilge water were all on their marks and all true to color, I might get through the day without rowing anyone anywhere. Smart to check.

When things went south mechanically, despite the fluid check, learning how to bleed a fuel line and change a raw water pump impeller or an engine mount felt like a good investment of my time. This was pre-Google and pre-YouTube, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. The blue oars provided the will, and my boss, Mark, showed the way. He didn’t rush down and solve my problems, but he always talked me through them patiently, quick with an engine part when I needed one.

Imagine my thrill when a few years ago, my son, Nate, landed a launch driving job. And not just any launch boat, but Delayed Gratification at the Boston Harbor Sailing Club.

Remember to check the fluids, Nate – the blue oars are lurking. No matter what work you end up doing long-term, there will always be fluids of one sort or another to check, and launch driving is excellent preparation for that.

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.