Taking the plunge, finally buying the boat and giving a nod to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
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Captured in action by Sam Hurst -- Cooper talks, Woster listens

Except for his online aversions, which are similar to mine, John Cooper could probably start a business called Boat Advisors.

I could be the subject of his first TV ad, fashioned after the Home Advisor TV commercials, with a twist.

Have you seen the commercial where the two guys are sitting on the couch watching TV when the first guy says: “I want to get a bar put in over there. Do you know any good contractors?”

The second guy says: “Yeah, I might …

And the first guy interrupts: “Nice! Get me a bunch of quotes, check the reviews and verify the credentials and qualifications, then go ahead and book the best guy for Tuesday at 2. Look at me, getting stuff done today!”

As the first guy grins and the second guy looks perplexed, a third voice comes in: “You can’t expect your neighbor to do everything Home Advisor can do.”

Of course, you can’t expect that. Nor could I have expected John Cooper to do everything he did — which was on a Home Advisor service scale and beyond — when it came to finding me a boat. He found one, then contacted the owner, talked about the price, checked the boat over, took it for a test drive and wrote out a check. Then he delivered it to my driveway, which happens to be, oh, 175 miles or so from his driveway.

Did I say he lives in Pierre and I live in Rapid City? Yeah.

Cooper fixed some wiring issues in that boat, too, without being asked or charging me. And on the day he arrived in Rapid City with the boat in tow, he also took me up to Sheridan Lake. There he offered some on-the-ramp, on-the-water tips on unloading and loading, cruising and backing, trimming and tilting and steering and stopping.

Those were some pretty essential things for a self-confessed mechanical idiot like me, a guy who has almost-non-existent maintenance skills and has spent his life avoiding complexities in fishing. Instead I've wandered along or wading in streams, rivers and lakes with a fishing rod in hand, either casting a fly or pitching a jig, almost always without live bait attached.

Pretty simple. Sometimes pretty effective.

When I have actually taken to the water, it was usually in a canoe or a kayak or a little double-oared pontoon with a single seat, any of which can ride in or on my pickup. My only experience with motorboats and trailers has been with obliging friends, including Cooper, who is now busy, bit by bit, filling me in on all the things I didn’t learn throughout a relatively long fishing life of not owning a boat.

Waiting for retirement to take the plunge

It’s an unusual thing, I think, for a fellow to reach the beyond-ripe-old age of 67 before buying his first boat.

First real boat, I mean, and not the small, paddle-or-oar-powered floaters that, until this month, comprised the entirety of the Woster fleet.

That’s the Kevin Woster fleet, I mean. My brother, Jim, owned a nice little runabout for a short time a long time ago. And my brother, Terry, the inland seaman of the family, has owned a succession of ski boats, ranging in size from small to substantial, none of which sported a trolling motor or live well or depth finder.

The guy doesn’t fish, after all. Go figure.

I’m the only serious angler among Henry and Marie Woster’s five grown-up children, and I’ve managed to do almost all of my fishing without the assistance of a motorized watercraft. Until now. Or until soon, I should say. Very soon.

I haven’t actually launched the little boat myself yet. But that big mariner moment is coming, giving me a sense of excitement and justifiable trepidation. I expect a lot of things to go wrong for me as a boat owner and boat operator. I expect many of them to be my own doing.

Over the past 30 or 40 years, I studiously resisted the urge — which usually came in the spring —to invest in a real boat, known more casually in the boating community as a hole in the water where you pour your money. Over those years, I had envied friends with good fishing boats that helped them catch walleyes and other desirable species during the times of the year when shore fishing is an arduous, sometimes-masochistic endeavor.

Boats matter especially during the summer, when the water warms and fish like walleyes tend to abandon shoreline areas for deeper, less accessible haunts. With a boat, you can pursue them. With a pair of waders, well, you just bid them goodbye until fall.

So boats have long had an appeal that came with a significant price tag.

Boats and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

During the years I was avoiding a boat purchase, I was also fighting the urge — again, usually in the spring — to buy a motorcycle. But those I have owned, unlike boats. I rode a succession of motorcycles growing up, dirt bikes mostly and generally off the beaten path.

I sold my last dirt bike before heading for college. But early in my first marriage, before our two kids came along, I bought a small road bike, a Honda CB 360. No Harley that one, it was still slightly larger than the Honda Super Hawk 305 that Robert Pirsig and his son, Chris, rode from the Twin Cities to San Francisco and back. Their adventure shaped the road-trip basis for Pirsig’s 1974 best-seller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

So I figured if Pirsig and son could ride that Super Hawk halfway across the country and back, my 360 ought to easily take me on trips without so many miles or so much zen. The trips included the ride from Sioux Falls, where I then lived and covered outdoor recreation and natural resources for the Argus Leader, to Pierre for state Game, Fish & Parks Commission meetings. With a small tent and sleeping bag tied on the back of the bike, I had transportation and lodging at a Pirsig-like level.

But the 360 left our house for good soon after our son arrived in the spring of 1992.

Eight years later, I bought a larger road bike — a Kawasaki 750 Vulcan — when that first marriage crashed and I was looking for a go-a-little-crazy alternative to some of the more self-destructive options I had seen others try during and after a divorce.

Actually, I didn’t buy the motorcycle; I traded my 7-year-old Dodge Dakota pickup for it, which left me — a suddenly single father of two — with only two-wheeled transportation to get the kids to and from the sitter’s and the school. That phase couldn’t last long, however, because chilly or wet weather complicated the kid carting business.

So I sold the Vulcan and bought a beat-up old SUV, effectively ending the motorcycle-engaged part of my life. But I lusted after motorcycles each spring, somehow managing to never again to pull out the checkbook or trade anything with four wheels for something with only two.

I managed the same tenuous discipline with boats, until this spring, which was perhaps my most unproductive spring of fishing in a decade. It was cold. It was wet. The water was muddy and high. The fishing wasn’t much fun, or very reliable. The fish weren’t very cooperative. I was in kind of a bad mood. Which is a bad way to be when you’re fishing.

And as I drove back from one particularly disappointing morning of casting down at Angostura, I passed a fish-cleaning station. There vehicles with boats in tow were parked and guys with electric knives and smiles to match were busy cleaning their walleyes. I decided, in passing, that I was old enough to give in to the boat desire, on a small, affordable scale, of course.

Turning to the Zen master of watercraft

So I asked my friend Cooper, a former federal game warden and past secretary of the state Game, Fish & Parks Department, if he would look around for a decent, relatively inexpensive fishing boat for me. Coop knows boats. He bought his first when he was 13 years old. It was a small, car-top-carried boat with a small outboard that his grandpa would help him load up and drive to a lake 18 miles from his California home. There at the lake, Coop would spend the weekend alone, with his boat and fishing gear, to be picked up Sunday night or Monday morning.

He grew into a Navy guy, with experience that included river boat commands during the Vietnam War, something that taught him a lot more than how to tie a secure knot. And he has run boats for work and for pleasure — mostly fishing, but also duck hunting — ever since.

So, he’s a pretty good guy to ask for help, one known for giving more than expected, in this case in a, uh, Boat Advisor sort of way.

I asked Coop to keep an eye out for a boat, expecting I’d get a call sometime this fall when people decided it was time to sell. Then I would take over from there, checking the boat out and deciding whether it was worth the money, a chore I wasn’t expecting to enjoy or do very well.

Instead, on July 27th I picked up my cell phone to find voicemail from Cooper that went something like this: “Woost, this is Coop. Hey, there’s a guy here in Pierre who’s looking to sell a 16-foot Lund Challenger, 1991, with a little-newer 60-horse Mercury outboard and trailer.  The trailer's only four or five years old. It’s got a trolling motor and Lowrance electronics. It’s an older boat but it could still be in pretty good shape. They're well made. If you’re interested, I could run over and take a look at it.”

I was interested, so Coop ran over and took a look. To me, that meant going over and taking a look, then telling me what he saw. To Coop, that meant talking to the guy, examining the boat inside and out, and under, including the rivets, and getting a price: $3,500.

At that price, I was interested in the boat, figuring that if my master-of-disaster reputation for all things mechanical led the boat to a catastrophic conclusion, I wouldn’t be out a big chunk of savings. Or, in the alternative to a disastrous end, I’d also have some extra money for fix-up expenses and improvements on the boat.


I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a boat today


Coop offered to take a cruise on Lake Oahe and check out the boat and the motor. He liked what he saw and felt and heard. So we closed the deal. Or Coop did. He wrote guy a check, and told me to put my own check in the mail to him when I got the chance. I figured I’d pick up the boat at his place in Pierre when I could get a hitch setup on my pickup or SUV and drive to Pierre. Meanwhile, I put a $3,500 check in the mail to Coop.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Coop called again.

“Hey, Woost, Vera and I will be coming out to see her sister there in Rapid before long,” he said. “Why don’t I just tow it out there. Then we can run up to Sheridan Lake or wherever and go over a few things.”

Which seemed like, well, a pretty good deal. A Boat Advisor level deal. Meanwhile, Coop did some more looking at the boat, which had one sonar unit at the console and another up by the trolling motor at the front, which we boatman call the bow. And he decided he didn’t like the front depth finder and found another one in Pierre at a good price, which he offered to buy and install.

“You can pay me for the new unit when I bring the boat out,” he said.

Then after taking a closer look at the wiring in the boat, he decided to make some adjustments. He did some cleaning, too. So it was looking like a pretty darn nice 28-year-old Lund when Coop showed last Saturday. To liven up the Sheridan trip, I called my friend Sam Hurst, an author and documentary film producer in our West Boulevard neighborhood who is busy these days with a book on the 100th Meridian. Sam took a break from the book to join us for a cruise and training session out to Sheridan.

Which went great. I got the first of what I expect to be many lessons from Cooper. Sam got to listen to a Cooper tutorial and relax as we drifted around Sheridan Lake. And we got off the lake just in time to miss a lightning storm and downpour. Who would have figured? Good luck!

Coop wasn’t quite ready to drop the boat off, however. He still wasn’t satisfied with the wiring thing, which he explained to me several times and I still don’t quite understand. So he kept the boat overnight at his sister-in-law’s and did some more work, then delivered to my driveway the next day.

Does this mean I have to learn how to fix stuff?

I was happy. Mary was, well, a bit more concerned. She’s happy that we will have a little boat for fishing outings with grandkids. But she has witnessed close up my limitations in the care and maintenance of motor vehicles and lawn mowers and garden tillers. You know, that stuff. And she knew enough weeks into our marriage to ban me from attempts to fix any plumbing problem in the house, or otherwise make any attempts at home repairs.

The only toolbox we have is hers, and she prefers that I not mess with it unless supervised. 

So, with solid justification, she doubted my abilities and inclination in boat care and maintenance. I didn’t ease her mind any when I opened a box containing a new boat cover, complete with a confusing assortment of snaps and straps, and fell into a bit of a swoon.

“When I look at all those straps and things I just get confused and even fearful and I want to either run away and hide or pile all that stuff up and burn it,” I said in humor, mostly.

“Yeah,” she said. “See, if you’re going to be a boat owner, I think you’re going to have to improve that attitude.”

I said improved attitude was Part One of my boat-buying plan.

“I figure buying this boat will force me, finally, to do that,” I said. “It’ll invigorate my brain, and challenge me to change the way I operate and the way I think about these kinds of things. So I’ll have to stick to it and figure them out if I want this purchase to be successful.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “That’s exactly my concern.”

Oh she of little faith.

But just two days after she made that somewhat unsupportive comment, the new cover was installed and secured on the boat out in the driveway, protecting it from the next rain.

Admittedly, Coop helped with that. OK, mostly he just did it. But I handed him things pulled from that confusing assortment of snaps and straps.  And how did Coop manage to get there for the cover work? Well ...

“Hey Woost,” he said when he called a day or two after he delivered the boat. “I’ve got a dermatology appointment out there tomorrow. Why don’t I get up early and drive out so we can get that boat cover put on before my appointment?”

Why not, indeed?

Which brings me to Part Two of my boat-buying plan: John Cooper.

As long as I can turn to BoatAdvisors.Coop, I should be just fine.