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So you think you have boat problems...

By Roger Wiltz

On Tuesday, Aug. 6, I went fishing by myself beneath the Fort Randall Dam. The water that was down was readily apparent, but I just didn't realize how low it was.

I backed my boat down the concrete ramp on the Gregory County side, set the Dodge in park, engaged the emergency brake when I neared the water's edge and prepared to embark. This included loading my gear and disconnecting the trailer's winch hook from the bow of the boat. I then raised the engine, removed the straps from the transom and climbed back into my pickup. I slowly backed up.

My boat will generally float free of the trailer when the bottom of my trailer fenders touch the water. Before I got that far, I heard a crash! My trailer axle had gone over a cliff at the end of the concrete! Now my boat was floating away from the trailer! Had a partner been along, he would have held onto the boat with a rope. When I'm alone, I push the boat from the trailer and secure it to the dock with a rope.

I shifted the truck into park, cut the engine and piled into the water, clothes and all, to catch my boat. This was idiotic on my part. What if I had become exhausted before catching my boat? As it was, I thoroughly soaked everything in my billfold.

In relating this mishap to a friend, I was told that Don, a mutual friend, had a similar experience. In order to keep fact and fiction separate, I went to see Don. Yes, Don had a similar experience. His boat, a Lund that was much heavier and longer than my modest craft, was totaled. The blow actually bent the boat, and the Lund people didn't hesitate in recommending a "total" to the insurance people.

Upon learning of Don's experience, the Army Corps of Engineers people promptly filled the end of the boat ramp area with rock. Our local COE people also offered to help Don make a claim for damages with their people. I commend them for their immediate action, and in looking back, I should have gone right to them Tuesday afternoon when my incident occurred.

Because low water is frequent beneath the Randall Dam, backing a boat trailer onto rock is not a long term solution. Our COE needs to lower the water and extend the ramp properly with concrete.

* * * * * * * * * *

I frequently allude to fishing with my partner Jerry. Recently, Jerry's boat, a fishing machine with a Mercury four-stroke engine, Minn-kota trolling motor, live-well, rod storage and all the necessary electronics, was completely destroyed by fire. Though it was an aluminum boat, the only recognizable portion of the remaining craft was what was left of the engine and kicker engine.

The covered boat and trailer had been parked next to Jerry's home and alongside his car. Had it not been for a courageous and quick-thinking neighbor, who towed the burning boat to a safer area, the home and car would probably have been destroyed.

As far as the cause of the fire is concerned, I won't speculate as I am not knowledgeable in this area. However, because the destruction was so complete, I don't believe anyone will ever determine the cause of the fire.

Might we learn anything from Jerry's tragedy? One of my first thoughts upon learning of the fire was my own personal situation. At our Wisconsin home, we have a similar boat parked in our attached garage. Like Jerry's boat, it carries two batteries. In the future, I think I will disconnect the batteries when the boat is not in use. As I write this, my sons-in-law use the boat. I will pass this safety precaution onto them.

While in Mitchell one day, I talked to Dave Dringman, a friend and member of the Cabela's marine technical staff, about the fire. I asked about potential trouble areas in a boat. Dave told me that the electrical circuitry in a boat is wired with in-line fuses. If there is a short, the fuse will pop before things begin to heat up. A spark or hot wire probably started the fire, but Dave had no ideas as to where.

In looking back at a lifetime of boat handling, I once left my live-well motor running after trailering the boat. Fortunately, I heard the motor when I put the boat in the garage. Today, I wouldn't hear that motor. However, an in-line fuse would cut the power when the little motor heated up. Jerry's fire mystery will probably remain unsolved.

Both of the Wiltz boats are insured for liability only. If our boat burns, we're out a boat. Is this smart on my part? I'll take my chances.

When I was an undergraduate student at South Dakota State University in 1960-1964, full-time tuition was a set fee -- 12 semester hours or 20 semester hours cost the same. I've always watched my money closely, and I tended to carry 20 hours in order to get my money's worth. This gave me the opportunity to take a broad range of courses. I probably didn't buy a textbook, but I did go to class and listen. Teaching wise, I'm certified to teach most anything. Pretty scary.

Back then, "The" course on campus was said to be the econ department's personal finance. It should have been a "must take" elective for all. I believe the instructor's name was Errol Johnson, and I came to admire both Mr. Johnson and his advice. When it came to insurance, Johnson believed that if you can afford something, you can afford to lose it. Now you know the source of my philosophy. When it comes to boats and vehicles, the Wiltz family has pretty much lived this way.

Did this practice work out for us? Only partially. Our shed burned down during the winter of 1979-1980. Neither our boat nor our restored 1929 Model A Ford Sport Coupe were covered. The car especially was a great loss. However, looking at 48 years of additional insurance premiums over our married life, we may be a few bucks ahead. I can say that Mr. Johnson's advice on investing money has paid significant dividends.

Next week we'll look at the coming deer seasons among other things.