Volume 13, Issue 29 ~ July 21 - 27, 2005

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10 Tips to Getting Along on the Water
by Pat Piper

Bad manners roil the water and ruin perfectly good days

There are three things in life each of us wants to avoid:
  1. People who want to tell you about their recent airplane trip.
  2. Anything having to do with Paris Hilton.
  3. Rude boaters.

Most of us can steer clear of the first two. But where there’s water, there are rude boaters.

Surveys offer us the startling conclusion that society is becoming ever less polite. Some attribute rudeness to living in times so fast that we don’t have a chance to gather our manners before we rush out the door. Others, I among them, are convinced people have just become dumber, despite all the information so readily available. In dumber times, rudeness increases because we aren’t smart enough to know any better.

Look at dumb this way: We need to take a driving test before we get a license to drive a car. But we can buy and drive a 46-foot cigarette boat that can hit 100 miles per hour, and we don’t have to have a license or know a thing about right-of-way rules on the water. I’m not advocating a test be required; I’m just pointing out an all-too-obvious fact. Boating is still a great way to spend some free time but, let me tell you, entering a channel into a Chesapeake Bay marina takes defensive skills akin to those needed to cross the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at 7:40am. It ain’t pretty.

Fourteen states — all with navigable water — make no requirement that boaters know anything about boating. Maryland requires anyone born after 1972 to take a safety class approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. Virginia requires a class only for 14- and 15-year-olds who operate a personal watercraft; ignorance is sufficient qualification for driving anything else.

You’re about to encounter 10 occasions of trouble: places, habits and situations sure to leave you debating whether to categorize your fellow boaters as rude people who own boats and do dumb things or stupid people who own boats and do what comes naturally.

If you’re on the water as you read this, take a look around every time you hit the end of a paragraph. You’ll see what I’m talking about.

1. Marinas
Not everyone at your marina wants to meet your St. Bernard, and not everyone at your marina wants to hear your arguments. Pick up after your dog. Don’t leave fish coolers lying on the dock or crab lines tied to its pilings. Keep power cords and hoses neatly coiled so nobody will trip over them in the darkness. Life will be good for your neighbors.

2. Guests
Once on the Chesapeake, I took some friends who had never been on a boat out sailing. The winds were out of the north at 12 knots, and we had a great sail over to Poplar Island — almost. After a period of silence, and after we were in the middle of the shipping channel, one leaned over the side and lost her lunch. Since I had been brought up with a boat always nearby, I had never warned, much less thought about, what a boat can do to one’s sense of equilibrium.

If you are inviting people to go out, let them know what to expect. Predict what the weather will be like and suggest what they should bring. Let them know where you intend to go and how long they’ll be out. Show them where the life jackets are and how to put them on. Then, let someone on land know your float plan, including your cell phone number, so you have a link to land if something goes wrong.

3. Boat ramps
Most of the time, things run smoothly as boat owners launch or retrieve their boats with trailers and tow vehicles. But when things go wrong, ramps are the motherlode of bad manners and clueless people at work. I know families that gather at a crowded boat ramp on a holiday weekend with video cameras hoping to sell the tape to Bloopers and Blunders.

Some boat ramps have only a single or double lane. While waiting in line to launch, it is common courtesy to spend the time moving items from the back of the truck into the boat so as not to waste even more time when the boat has reached the bottom of the ramp. After all, others are waiting in line.

Once the boat is in the water and docked, another all-too-common mistake is leaving the boat close to the ramp, thus blocking the next person from being able to launch or retrieve his boat.

4. Gas docks
There’s a story told of a boater who pulled up to a gas dock in Chicago and told the attendant he wanted to fill the tanks. Then he disappeared. Three hours later he came back and threw a fit because his boat had been moved to a nearby slip; he was being charged not only for the fuel but also for slip rental. The boater had never been to Chicago and wanted to have lunch downtown.

There are 17 million boats in the United States, and chances are good that more than one is going to need fuel at the same place and time. Buy the fuel, buy the ice, keep your guests within calling distance, say thank you to the gas dock employees and get out so another boater can tie up and use the space.

5. Channels
At the entrance to channels from bodies of water all around the country, power boaters push the limits and drop the throttle within a few feet of the first channel marker. This creates a huge wake that other boats have to deal with coming in and going out. Such rude dumbness is in the DNA of a lot of people.

The channel into Deale is a spectacular place to watch and hear the exchanges between boaters entering and returning from the Bay. Most often, trouble is the result of a passing boat throwing a large wake that pitches other boats being passed — and spilling drinks. Channels have maximum speed limits, usually six knots, but a boat’s hull shape and waterline length can produce a large wake even if the boat is operating within the limit.

The courteous thing to do is be patient and don’t pass a boat in the first place. If you are the boat being passed, slow down and let the speedboat get by that much faster.

6. Radio channels
I can sit on my sailboat in Deale on a Saturday and hear boater after boater asking if anyone else can hear their transmissions over VHF radio. Typically, they’re asking for their radio check on Channel 16 or Channel 9, which are designated for two things: initial contact with the Coast Guard by any boater in distress and boaters trying to contact each other with a plan to switch to another channel once contact is made. I’m sure most of these folks are nice enough people even though they are clueless as to why Channel 16 exists. Use Channels 67, 68, 71, 72 or 78A to ask for a radio check.

7. Crossing another boat
If two cars stop at the same time and both have a stop sign, you may recall from drivers’ ed that the car to the immediate right has the right of way. So too with boats on an intersecting course. The boat to the right has rights. If you are the “privileged vessel,” nonetheless remain warry, as the other boat, appropriately called the “burdened vessel,” may not know the rule. We live in a me-first world, but it’s a good idea to steer away momentarily rather than risk that you know more than the other boater.

8. Intersection of sail and power
By law, a sailboat has the right of way over powerboats. Too many powerboaters break this law, cutting in on and roiling the water for sailors.

But too many sailboaters misconstrue this right as a free pass to go wherever they desire — including through a group of fishing boats. While the rule may imply that a sailor can stay on course, common courtesy suggests the sailor stay out of the way of boats that are fishing or trolling lines. Look at it this way: the Chesapeake Bay is 35 miles wide at the Potomac River and three to four miles wide at Aberdeen. Why does anybody need to get in the way of somebody else?

That said, I’ve been out on my sailboat with a terrific 30-degree heel and had to come about (turn around is another way to say it) because another sailboat was cruising along with both sails up and its engine on. You can’t work both sides of the street — especially on the water. A sailboat with sails up but with its engine running is considered a powerboat. Sure I could have held my course and slammed into the other boat while screaming right of way! But the rules of the water stress an often-missed point: Do everything possible to avoid a collision, regardless of who has the right of way.

9. Sharing space at anchorage
If there is little wind, I like anchoring along the shoreline just south of Fairhaven along the first of the Calvert cliffs. It’s a good place for quiet time. But all too often, I’ll be sound asleep — and then some yahoo on a jetski slices right past. Other times, it’s loud kids who start the screaming routine in a boat that has anchored just a few feet away. Then, when there’s a wind switch and all the boats shift positions as a result, I find myself fending my neighbor’s boat because she didn’t allow enough room for the boat’s swing on its anchor line.

Why? One neighbor too close for comfort said, “We want to be near a sailboat because we know we won’t run aground.”

Music is another issue. I love “Layla,” and I love anything by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. But that doesn’t mean everyone in the anchorage is there for my music selection. Keep the volume down.

10. Fishing
Ronald Reagan once said the 11th Commandment was never speak ill of a fellow Republican. That’s not it at all. It’s never tell another about a fishing hole your friend took you to.

About the Author

Pat Piper has just updated Chapman’s Boating Etiquette from Sterling Publishing. He grew up with boats, and his parents taught him to say please and thank you.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.