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The Fokker U 2

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook )

The Fokker U 2

During a three or four year period around 1980 in Connecticut, Eddie Mainville owned a boat he named the "Fokker U 2". I am not sure about the genesis of that name but Ed seemed quite taken with it and chuckled whenever he spoke it. It was a twenty-foot fiberglass runabout with a deep V bow and tall transom powered by a large Chevy V-6 inboard/outboard. A long windshield sat in front of two large seats at the end of the covered bow area. From the interior of the boat, an opening allowed access to a storage area located in the bow. Additional seating, along with cooler wells and storage, was located behind the two large captain's seats. The boat came with a standard trailer that rode well and the craft was easy to launch and recover. Over the years when Ed called the Fokker U 2 his own, I can say with some surety that everyone who boated with him has a story to tell.

Ed's first adventure in the boat was a scuba diving trip that he and his friend Stan organized for some friends on Long Island Sound. The four left the Hartford area early on a hot Friday afternoon during the summer and drove down to Niantic on the Connecticut shore. They loaded the boat with diving gear, firewood, camping equipment, and coolers before heading out across the sound for New York. One of the four knew of a deserted stretch of sandspit off the end of Long Island where they could set up a base camp for the weekend.

They set out on a southerly course leading toward the tip of Long Island and the well-laden craft made steady progress through the smooth low ocean swells. They cruised around the end of the island into the open bay and eventually found the deserted stretch of beach that would serve as a campsite. Eddie maneuvered through and around rocky shallows and shoals, and pulled the boat onto the sand of the beach where everyone helped with unloading.

There was one thing said about Eddie that was always true, he loved speed and the joy he felt in motion. As Ed began to change out of his shorts into jeans, he decided it was time to see how the boat would perform empty of people and cargo, the slow pace of their heavily laden ride over from Niantic gnawing at him. When the craft was empty, Eddie and Stan got back on board and left instructions for the others to build a large fire to mark the location of camp, Eddie and Stan set out for Block Island Sound to see what the "Fokker U 2" could do wide open, both of them barefoot and wearing nothing but their underwear.

The runabout, now free of the weight of cargo and people, flew through the water and they guided the craft through a series of high-velocity turns, laughing like school kids over the freedom and speed of it all. Each took a turn at the throttle before the growing dark of evening said it was time to return to camp. Ed spun around to the west and they surveyed the horizon in an attempt to get their bearings. Spread out before them sat a wide expanse of dark land belonging to the long jaws of the eastern end of Long Island, two fingers of land that formed a large wild-looking alligator's mouth around Gardiners Bay, with Montauk to the south and Orient Point to the north. Out on this horizon, a horizon getting darker by the minute, a dozen fires sat burning on beaches located at various angles and distances from the boat.

Stan and Ed made their best guess as to which fire sat located at their base camp and slowly headed off towards the flame. When they discovered that the fire was not base camp, the true nature of their situation became apparent; they had seen and heard water breaking over the top of rocks near the surface and both realized that they could not cruise around in the dark going from fire to fire, oblivious to reef and shoal. They found open water, dropped an anchor, and spent a miserable night in their underwear huddled together in the enclosure under the bow, occasionally emerging to assess their location and determine if the Fokker U 2 had drifted.

At first light, Ed motored down the coast until he spied a distant gas sign. He pulled up alongside the dock of the marina as the morning crowd of anglers and locals gathered around the boat to gaze at what the tide had brought in, both Ed and Stan sitting in their underwear, bodies purple with cold. Ed told the manager what had transpired during the night. Not only did they have no clothes, they had no money or credit cards. The manager showed his assessment of Ed by giving him ten gallons of gas and two coffees on the cuff, and then showed Ed on a map places where his camp might be located.

Eventually, Ed found base camp and pulled the Fokker U 2 up on the beach as their friends danced and waved wildly; the two left behind on the beach had feared the worst when Stan and Ed failed to return from the ride on the previous night. Ed and Stan put on clothes, enjoyed a hot breakfast by the fire, and napped in the warmth of the sun. Later, Ed returned to the marina to pay for the gas and coffees, and left the manager a twenty-dollar tip.

Most of Ed’s yachting adventures began down near the Connecticut shore, primarily in Waterford, just east of Niantic on the other side of a small bay that opened into Long Island Sound. A boat launch was located just north of route 156 on the east side of the bridge that connected the two towns, and Ed often launched his runabout there. Close by sat the popular bar and restaurant, Uncs on the Bay, and Ed's yachting companions usually stopped in for a beer and a sandwich. Many great days had their start at Uncs; some days entailed sedate cruises through Long Island Sound while others were wild romps over every wave and wake available.

On one summer day, Stan and Ed came down from the Hartford area for an afternoon of fun on Long Island Sound. Needing a bathroom break, they stopped at Uncs first and ate a quick lunch. Leaving the bar, Eddie backed the trailer down into the water with Stan in the boat. When the craft was afloat, it sat dead in the water, the revving engine providing no effect. Stan tilted up the stern drive to discover that someone had stolen the prop while the two had enjoyed lunch in the bar. At least, Eddie noted, the thief was decent enough to leave the expensive marine nut that secured the prop in place.

If our plans involved visiting Long Island, we invariably stopped in Greenport. Ed had made friends with the manager of a marina located close to downtown. We would leave the bay in Niantic and head south towards Long Island, passing by Orient Point to the east before swinging around to the west and running on to Greenport. Ed would leave the runabout at the marina and they would gas it up and secure it to a dock out of the way. From the marina, we walked a few blocks into town to a bar and restaurant called the ‘Rhumb Line’, a nautical term for a ship’s course that crossed all lines of longitude at the same angle. We would take a table in the bar and enjoy steamed or fried clams along with a few cold beers. Then it was back to the ‘Fokker U 2’ to continue on with our exploration of the eastern end of Long Island or cruise out into Block Island Sound before returning to Niantic and the drive north towards Hartford and to home. On one trip to Greenport with Ed and two of his brothers, the entertainment involved going through a bag of M-80s that someone had given us. On another trip, we enjoyed a day of high-speed travel on a flat Long Island Sound empty of other boats; a severe weather warning broadcasted earlier had never materialized. On that day after leaving Greenport, our friend Steve water-skied for almost two hours. Ed drove the runabout and I was the spotter, and Ed had the throttle wide open for long straights and into tight turns that launched Steve on spectacular wipeouts or flying wake jumps. He sat in the water after his final wipeout, exhausted and blue, and said, "I'm done". He handed us the skis and we helped him up the small ladder in the stern and back into the boat. Steve took off his life vest and got into dry clothes; Ed turned off the engine and we all sat for a while, drifting quietly in the summer sun on Long Island Sound, enjoying a cold beverage. We were all around thirty years old in those days, and oh, how we raged against the dying of the light.

The biggest trips I ever made with Eddie in the ‘Fokker U 2’ began on early summer mornings when we would meet at the Wethersfield Cove south of Hartford. The cove, situated on the west bank of the river, had a public boat launch and parking area. After launching the runabout, we would navigate down the Connecticut River south to its mouth in the town of Old Saybrook some thirty-five miles away. In Old Saybrook, we followed the channel to deep water and cruised out into the briny ocean swells of Long Island Sound. Once in open deep water we continued south and east towards the end of Long Island or Block Island Sound, as well as an eventual stop at the Rhumb Line for food and refreshments. All these excursions were wonderful daylong summer adventures and depending how much time we spent ashore, or what we did while boating around, we might cruise well over 150 miles before our day was complete and that included navigating a long stretch of tidal river channel at slower speeds on each leg of the voyage.

I made this long boat trip on three separate occasions and the most memorable of those was a cruise that my wife Loretta and I took with Ed and his girlfriend Diane. We met Ed and Diane early one Saturday morning at the Wethersfield Cove and threw a tote bag on the boat containing our sweaters and sundries. Ed and Diane had plenty of snacks onboard as well as a large cooler containing beer, wine, and soda.

The journey began by motoring underneath Interstate 91 to exit the cove and then we turned right to make our way southwards on the Connecticut River. In a few minutes, we passed under the Putnam Bridge, a long span high above us carrying another highway over the river. The next stretch of water was wild looking, and the river made long sweeping turns as it flowed south with gnarly trees and roots lining the banks and floodplains beyond. Below these turns, the waterway straightened a bit before gently swinging to the west and we passed underneath the route 66 bridge in Middletown. After the bridge, the river turned hard to the east before swinging to the south and then southeast. We went under the classic steel shape of the route 82 bridge at East Haddam and past the iconic form of the Goodspeed Opera House. A little farther south, we had our first view of Gillette Castle, the landmark home of the late actor William Gillette, constructed on the east bank of the river atop a ridge of hills called the Seven Sisters, its stone battlements looming above us backlit by the morning sun. Eventually we cruised under the large bridge carrying Interstate 95 over the Connecticut River, and past Saybrook Point. Continuing on the channel we found ourselves in the open expanse of Long Island Sound where Ed put the throttle down and pointed the bow for Orient Point on the east end of Long Island, visible on the far horizon to the south.

We traveled across Long Island Sound and cruised into Gardiners Bay where Ed swung the boat around to the west. As was the custom, we lunched at the Rhumb Line and then spent time walking around the shops of Greenport before returning to the Fokker U 2. From the marina, we swung around the northeast tip of Long Island and eventually made our way to the Connecticut coast near Harkness Memorial Park where we turned westwards to cruise towards Old Saybrook and the mouth of the Connecticut River keeping the boat about a half mile offshore. We passed by Niantic and then the beach at Old Lyme where Rhetta and I had held our wedding reception in 1974.

We finally arrived back at the mouth of the river and began our long trip north. As soon as the boat passed under the tall bridge in Old Saybrook it seemed much later in the day here between the riverbanks as compared to the openness of Long Island Sound. The four of us had been in the sun the entire day and for the first time we felt a real chill, so we donned shirts and sweaters then continued north on the flow, fighting not only the current but the tide as well. We reached Gillette Castle, this time the battlements stood bathed in the last rays of the afternoon sun. We continued northwards and reached the hard left turn in the river that would take us to the route 66 bridge and our final turn to the north. The day was noticeably darker and traffic on the river seemed markedly reduced. For the first time we voiced our concerns on making the cove before nightfall and Ed pushed the throttle down as we motored under the bridge and began the final stretch up towards Wethersfield.

We reached the final series of turns in the river and the scenery along the banks, which was unique and interesting in the light of morning heading south, was now foreign and foreboding as the trees and roots formed a flat gnarled-looking black border along each side of the boat. In the brightness of the summer day, we were two couples enjoying a great boating adventure along an idyllic river. Now, sitting in the dark, we were four ebony shapes, quiet and indistinct, each with their own vision of a personal heart of darkness lurking close by in the blackness of the night.

Total darkness was coming fast and just as Ed and I discussed our options, the engine started stuttering and we began to run out of gas. Ed had an emergency five-gallon can but the marina had not refilled it. Ed poured the small amount of gas at the bottom of the can into the boat's tank. One option Ed mentioned was securing the boat to a tree on the bank and searching for a road. Darkness now enveloped us and I was determined not to get out of the boat into the water, mindful of the tree branches and other snags and hazards that the river carried unseen in the swift dark flow below us.

Then, as if in a dream, we heard a noise approaching from upstream. In the memories of what I recall from that night, I still hear the "chuff", "chuff", "chuff" of the African Queen or of an ivory steamer plying the waters of the Congo; I am sure it was not a steamship but I was spellbound by the moment. A bright spotlight lit up the surface of the river in front of the boat's running lights and, as it neared us, we yelled, "Ahoy!" and "Help!" The boat throttled back and slowed down to come alongside us.

Ed asked the dark figure of the other captain if he knew where the entrance to the Wethersfield Cove was. The figure grabbed the spotlight, which he had mounted to a platform atop a pole, and swung the beam around until it pointed directly back upstream. We saw a bright reflective sign anchored on top of a cement column about one hundred yards away.

"There it is," a voice said.

We said our thanks and quickly got underway. The unknown captain stayed motionless with the beam of his light squarely on the sign until we reached the column and made a left turn at the entrance to the cove. In a few seconds, the lights of civilization, of houses and cars, came into view. Even if the engine went dead out we were now close enough to the boat launch to row ourselves in with the oars. We had made it, another grand adventure completed.

So ends my brief saga of the Fokker U 2, at least for those adventures I am fortunate enough to know of. When you were in that boat with Ed, your anticipation for the moment rose, because you knew that a new adventure was within your grasp on the horizon. In many ways, that last story about the day Loretta and I spent with Ed and Diane serves as a mirror for the way Ed lived his life; he savored it to the fullest from sunrise to sunset, pushing all the margins along the way, and anyone who lived it with him was all the richer for it.