Raising the Bar with Flora

(Earnest Announcer): When we last left our store-rey, our intrepid trio, having completed their gig on Long Island Sound, was hurtling across the water’s surface at 8 knots, maximum speed for their trusty steed, the 1906 oyster boat Flora. Steering this bucket of bolts was Jeff Barnhart, faithful first mate Art Doran snoozing in the captain’s chair by his side, with Captain Stu Ingersoll sawing logs at the back of the wheelhouse in the only berth onboard…

Jeff: Thanks, Winchell, I’ll take it from here! (For the complete backstory, read “More-a the Flora,” TST December 2021)

“Hey, Artie,” I yelled, waking him, “look at this!”

He came to my side, a regular Smee.

“What is that ahead of us?”

“Gee, I don’t know, Jeff…it looks like a road…!?!…”

Sha-WUMPF!! I had expertly steered Flora onto a sandbar running perpendicular to our course. I was braced by the wheel, but Art crashed into the gauges and other nautical and navigational whatsits while Stu was thrown out of his bunk, sliding across the deck like a cannonball.

Stu sputtered, “What in tarnation goes on here?” Yes, those were his actual words; it wasn’t only his physical appearance that caused people to compare him to W.C. Fields.

Art recovered first, exclaiming, “We’ve hit a sandbar!”

Listen to Angela Verbrugge: Love for Connoisseurs

Stu looked perplexed. “There wasn’t one here when we came out. The tide must’ve gone out. Well, it can’t be that bad…let’s take a look.”

We trundled out onto the deck to inspect the situation. Stu turned to look at me and queried, “You DID keep the compass at 332o, didn’t you?”

“Aye Aye, Cap’n!” I bellowed (I’d always wanted to say that phrase, but had been hoping for a happier circumstance in which to use it…).

Stu said dejectedly, “Then this is my fault.”

Art returned, “Aw, don’t be so hard on yourself, big guy.”

Stu raised his chin and intoned, “No, No, I have to bear the blame as Captain of this ship. There is only one thing left to do.”

At this point I was worried he was going to hurl himself overboard to a watery death but two things assuaged my fears. The first was that Flora was grounded in less than six inches of water so the only thing Stu might suffer by jumping over the side would be a broken limb from the 10-foot drop. The second was his asking, “Is there any beer left?”

“No,” Art sadly answered, “You drank all the Colorado Koolaid.” (For our subscribers from CO, the only state that does not use this nickname, I’ll clarify that Art was referring to the gallon of Coors Stu had consumed during the day.)

“Too bad, but that means we should waste no time in freeing ourselves from this predicament.”

“What do you suggest we do, Stu, get out and push?” I asked rather crossly.

He rejoined, “We haven’t taken a look at how far on this sandbar we are. We may still be more afloat than aground.”

We weren’t. Flora was three-quarters onto the sandbar and there was no way she was going to float off until the tide came up.

Stu suggested, “If we run around the deck we might be able to loosen her.” So that’s what we did for the next 10 minutes. The absurdity of the tableau did not escape me even then and still makes me shake my head in utter disbelief: three men, identically dressed in vintage clothing complete with boater hats, shuffling from port to starboard then bow to stern, trying with their paltry 600 lbs (260 of which Stu contributed) to dislodge a 50-ton vessel.

Flora in the 1970's
Flora in the 1970’s

Art and Stu collapsed onto the piano bench at the red piano (“Flora of Essex,” TST August 2021.). “No use,” Art panted, “She won’t budge.”

“Well, there’s only one thing left to do,” Stu said once again. I wasn’t going to be fooled twice; I knew he had no plans of doing the honorable thing and drowning himself. This certainty was confirmed when he announced, “Let’s eat!”

It was 11 pm by now, and we were a bit peckish; trying to move a huge boat by Bojangling on it gives one an appetite: try it someday, you’ll see. Luckily, our soot-covered guests had departed so quickly they had left most of their victuals behind.

Stu summed up our situation around a gargantuan chicken leg, “After our repast, I shall contact the US Coast Guard. They’ll send out a ship to tow us off the bar and we’ll be on our way. They’ll likely not get to us until tomorrow morning since we aren’t in mortal peril, so we’ll have to spend the night on the boat.”

Best buddies Stu Ingersoll and Art Doran on a more casual gig. (courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

Art asked, “But isn’t there a chance the tide will come in far enough to set us afloat again?”

Stu shook his head, chicken shards dropping onto his tie, “Sadly, when Jeff hit the sandbar, the tide was only a quarter of its way out. We’re headed for low tide; the next high tide won’t be until 8 am.”

I piped up, “Maybe we won’t need the Coast Guard if they can’t get here until tomorrow morning! The rising tide might do the trick.”

Stu replied, “If it doesn’t, and I’m becoming convinced it won’t, we’d be stuck here for several hours more waiting for them unless I radio them now.” Having consumed his customary inordinate amount of food, he lumbered up the stairs to the wheelhouse to place his call.

Art looked at me. “Want to play some tunes?”

“Well, there’s nothing left to eat so we might as well serenade the gulls.”

Jeff Barnhart pounding the piano and crooning on the Flora. (photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

We had just started whacking away at “Over the Waves” when Stu came down to the deck. “Good news,” he proclaimed, “The Coast Guard will arrive at 10 am! Everything is working out wonderfully. There’s only one thing left to do.” This third time, I knew exactly what was coming up. “Let’s get some shut-eye!”

Stu expressed much sorrow that there was only one bunk onboard and that Art and I could either sleep in the wheelhouse or on-deck. As we both knew firsthand how loudly Stu snored, we opted for the deck; summer nights on Long Island Sound can get chilly, but we were manly men!

I finally fell asleep around midnight, head safe under the overhang of the port side of the boat—no seagull surprises for me!—only to wake up at 4 am with my head crunched into the side of the boat and my entire body contorting from the 40-degree angle created by Flora’s settling onto her side during the low tide.

I leapt up and climbed across to starboard, looking overboard to see the ground 30 feet away. No one else was awake yet. Art had found a hammock and had set it up, so his position represented the boat’s initial one; it would be fun seeing him try to get out of it when he awoke.

I was getting bored enough that I had resorted to trying to fit (albeit slightly slowed down) lyrics to “Gilligans Island” into the melody (albeit slightly sped up) of “Amazing Grace” [N.B.:  turns out you can do this if you fancy—try it, and please don’t give me any sanctimonious clap-trap about this being blasphemous, given the circumstance I was in and the nautical provenance of both ditties].

I leapt overboard on the port side to explore. All I found were some angry crabs and a sign standing in 4 inches of water warning me “Do not stand here! Danger of DROWNING!” Dejectedly, I climbed back onboard to find Art half out of the hammock, unable to reach the deck. I only laughed for about five minutes before I went to help him. Stu emerged and whined, “This is going to make it harder for the Coast Guard to help us…”

Jeff Barnhart surrounded by banjos on the Flora. (photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

And it did. At 10 am the Coast Guard arrived with a Medium Endurance Cutter to tow us, and that ship blew an engine trying to haul Flora off the sandbar. Three hours later, they sent a High Endurance Cutter that finally managed the Herculean task. Stu started up the engine—mercifully sans explosion, which might’ve caused the Coast Guard to detain us—thanked the servicemen, the Captain of whom presented Stu with a hefty bill for services rendered…and for a blown engine…and we were OFF!

I’m afraid our exeunt wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. Some of the pistons were damaged in the collision, so our top speed was half the original one: 4 knots, equal to 4.6 mph. We were no longer “Pokita-pokita”-ing; we were “Pokita-CLANG-Pokita-CLANG”-ing. We still had 25 miles to go.

Stu was, wisely, steering once again, so I wandered around the deck and ran into Art, scribbling madly with a pencil stub in a small, grimy notebook. “What’re you doing, Art?” I asked.

Flora in 1991. (photo courtesy Jeff Barnhart)

“I’m figuring out how much I made per hour on this gig,” he muttered. “Let’s see, we left yesterday at 10 am and we’ll get back around 10 pm tonight. Carry the one, divide by 36…I made 17 cents an hour!”

I haven’t been behind the wheel of a craft of any size since, but I’d like to try again sometime. Want to join me? I know a great (sand)bar where the gin is cold but the piano’s hot…

Jeff Barnhart is an internationally renowned pianist, vocalist, arranger, bandleader, recording artist, ASCAP composer, educator and entertainer. Visit him online at www.jeffbarnhart.com. Email: [email protected]

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