Swamp Writer: Delta Heckler

As I recall, a friend of my brother Reid’s says he has a pontoon boat that sunk in Lake Martin. All he requires of the transaction is for Reid to haul it away.

Once Reid restores the engine and patches the pontoons, we strip her of everything except the railings and build a steering console and storage box out of treated plywood.  We accessorize her with a CD player, utility plug for a Q-Beam and PA system. Finally, we purchase plastic lawn chairs and scatter them about the deck. My father describes her as the “most God-awful, redneck thing he’s ever seen.” Reid and I describe her as “perfect.” After testing and approving the PA system, we name her the Delta Heckler.

The pontoon boat creates a whole new dimension of entertainment. Although sluggish and unwieldy, she is the ideal party barge – a roomy, unhurried ride. We tie the jon boats to the back and load gear and friends onto the deck and set out for the swamp camp.

One problem with the Heckler is her ability to fool us into believing she can drive herself: she is so listless and turns so slowly. Once underway, it is not uncommon for the driver to walk to the front of the boat and join the rest of the passengers. Thereafter, it is unclear whose responsibility it is to adjust course as the river bend comes closer.

- Sponsors -

And sometimes it is fun to purposefully forget. The first time the boat runs aground at full-bore, people are thrown to the deck and rolled out into the swamp, but no one is hurt.  Once we push our vessel back into the river, we see that she still floats. From then on, violent beaching of the Heckler ranks with alligator catching and kitchen music as an amusement.       

As an additional bonus, the Heckler is also ideal at running the narrow backwater creeks. Instead of taking the turns like a downhill skier, one can drive the boat straight ahead, and bounce across the juts of land on one pontoon. After several trial runs, we perfect the technique: passengers rush to the on-water side of the boat just before the opposite side runs aground. This lifts the on-ground side enough to keep the boat moving at top speed.

This is the beginning of the end for the Heckler. It isn’t long before the pontoons begin leaking again, this time from wearing the aluminum thin on the bottom. She begins sinking in the boat slip from slow leaks. We haul her out and take her to a shade tree welder who does even more damage. Finally, we slap pancake-size patches of J-B Weld on the bottom, and that becomes the solution of choice when new leaks occur.

“Is the Heckler floatin’?” is now the first question asked when planning excursions to the swamp camp. And it is probably better when the answer is “no.” The pontoons have been patched so many times that just because she still floats in the stall doesn’t mean she won’t start leaking when loaded with gear and passengers.

Last Rides

I am in my bunk when an early riser wakes me. “The pontoon boat sank last night, ” he says.

“How bad?”

“One side is totally submerged.”

I close my eyes again and roll over.   “It’s all right, then.”

Later that morning, Reid and I ask everyone aboard to stand towards the front left to level the boat. This helps enough to keep the fuel cans from floating around in the back. Then we crank the engine and begin our five mile journey back to the landing.

Mile two: The passengers huddle together  and perch on the tip of the good pontoon like men with alligators snapping at them. Water flows over my feet at the steering console, and I begin to lose my nerve. By the time we see the landing, the back of the engine is under water, and its white exhaust bubbles behind us. If we slow, we are going down. I aim for the cement boat ramp and keep the throttle down.

The sunken side of the boat rides so low that we run aground about six feet before the ramp. My passengers leap off, and the bow rises into the air like the Titanic so that I have to hold onto the steering wheel to keep from falling backward.

We connect the Heckler to a tow strap and then tie the other end to someone’s trailer hitch. It is one of the most awful sounds I’ve ever heard – the Heckler getting lynched up the cement. I know that even when the water drains, there may be little life left in our old girl. Then I look back at the engine. It is completely submerged. The heart of the thing drowned.

We eventually get the motor running again and patch the pontoons. We return the Heckler to her stall, but she is never the same. Like an old racehorse that just doesn’t have it anymore. I start getting more calls at work about the Heckler sinking, and it just becomes too much of a hassle. I have to put her out to pasture. Now, she sits in my yard under the mulberry tree, stained purple with berry juice. I’m pretty sure my wife thinks about her even more than I do these days. MB

Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in September, has already received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.

text by Watt Key • illustration by kelan mercer

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!