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THE FUN OF BOATS
Americans love boats, and unlike most love affairs this one has an impressive batch of statistics indicating just how strong it is. Last year during the peak season 7 million boats carried an average of 20 million people onto the water each weekend. Not many of them were as lavish as the cruisers shown here rafted up for a swimming party. But these days even a modest outboard rig costs about $700, and the total annual outlay for all boating in the U.S. is $2 billion. There is one other notable statistic that concerns the pleasure boatman—the accident rate. Although the number of boats on U.S. waters has increased almost 300% in the past 15 years, accidents have increased only a little. Most of this is due to plain good luck—the aquatic mob scenes on the big weekends have been blessed by an absence of sudden storms. Some of it is due to the nature of the sport—a wise yachtsman who plans a trip for comfort, for convenience and for fun also plans for safety. For the fact is that fun boating is good boating. To keep it fun, to suggest good boating practices to the novice, and to remind the expert, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has prepared a four-part series on the best ways to enjoy your boat, starting on the next page with ideas for the owners of 4.5 million outboards.
Ten years ago, when Bill and Mike—the oldest of my four boys—and I launched a small outboard boat on the Rock River near our home in Rockford, Ill., the boys did not know much about boats. Since then we have traveled well over 10,000 miles together—fishing, water skiing and cruising. We have been down the Mississippi and the Missouri, across the Great Lakes, through the Bahamas and even over to Cuba twice. I trust Bill and Mike in these small powerboats now; they have learned how to handle themselves sensibly when they are aboard. And in teaching them I have relearned some of the basic rules of good boating.
For example, look at the drawing above, showing the five of us enjoying an afternoon swim. Everyone is relaxed, but there is no carelessness. Although the engine is off, I am at the wheel, ready to start the boat if it drifts too far from a swimmer. Mike, age 17, is using the boarding ladder instead of trying to scramble over the high topsides. Seven-year-old Dan, who isn't a strong swimmer, is wearing a life jacket. The inner tube that Bill, 20, is tending, provides something for 11-year-old Rick to rest on while he is waiting to come up the ladder. The older boys apply these practices by reflex now. The younger ones arc just beginning to learn, and if I can instill in them the importance of being sensible, I know they will have more fun out on the water in the years ahead.
A sensible attitude—common sense, we used to call it, until it was found to be so uncommon—should be the basis of all boating pleasure. But coast guardsmen, harbor masters, and boating dealers agree that it is the hardest thing to instill in a boat owner. In Miami some years ago I watched a novice boat buyer put down cash for a new runabout and engine. Then, without asking any questions or waiting for instructions, he jumped aboard, started the engine and began backing out of the slip. There was, of course, no law to stop him; anyone can buy a boat, and no driver's examination or pilot's license is yet required for pleasure craft. Before this particular tyro had moved a hundred yards he was overboard, floundering in the water, his boat spinning in the channel currents. Both were rescued, fortunately, but afterward the dealer made a remark that has stayed with me ever since. "I don't get it," he said. "A guy may spend months learning to fly a plane, but he'll gamble his comfort and safety that he knows by instinct how to handle a boat."
I don't get it, either. Boating knowledge doesn't just come to a man; it's got to be learned, and then practiced. The most important lesson I've learned is that the more I know the more fun boating becomes. And, after all, unless a person is a professional fisherman, a Navy man or the captain of a ferry or tug there is not one sensible reason to be out in a boat except to enjoy oneself. Boating without know-how is not fun. Usually it's uncomfortable, sometimes it's dangerous and always it's foolish. It is foolish because the means of acquiring boating knowledge is so readily available. The U.S. Power Squadrons, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, many YMCAs and some boat dealers offer free courses in water skills and safety.
The time to begin being sensible is when first selecting a boat. Unfortunately there are unsafe boats sold every day; the best precaution against them is a reputable dealer. My first concern is where and how a boat will be used. For fishing I want a beamy boat that provides stability for people to move around when playing fish. On small inland lakes, where waters are generally calm, a flat-bottom boat is fine; but a flat bottom will have difficulty in the swell and chop of offshore fishing. Water skiing requires speed and power (25-horsepower minimum); round-chine hulls allow you to make fast turns without flopping over, and low freeboard affords easy recovery of skiers. For long-distance cruising, I look for high freeboard for security in rough weather.
I'm wary of self-bailing plugs after twice seeing boats sunk at dockside in Florida because the owners forgot to close the plugs. A double transom or a well for mounting the engine is essential; on a sudden stop a stern wave may swamp a boat without one. Flotation devices such as block Styrofoam are essential; without them most powerboats will sink if they capsize. And finally, don't let the glitter of fancy chromework influence your choice of a boat. Chrome doesn't float and does very little to hold a boat together.
I tend to be conservative about engine horsepower. Low horsepower is cheaper and, I think, safer in the long run. The biggest engine I ever owned was 35-horsepower. It pulled a water skier, got me where I was going and back, could be started by hand if the battery failed—in fact, it did everything a bigger engine would do except go faster. Analogies between boat engines and high-horsepower automobiles are as wrong as they are frequent. Boats are not like automobiles. Boats have no brakes. Boats turn from their source of power, the stern. A light boat pushed to high speeds by an oversized engine is hard to control. I don't condemn big engines; a bigger boat needs a bigger engine. But let the men who make the engines decide how big. Carl Kiekhaefer, president of the Kiekhaefer Corporation, which developed the Mercury 100-horsepower outboard, says flatly, "We didn't build the 100 for wild-haired speed maniacs. We developed higher horsepower, not to make boats go faster, but to give the public the extra comfort and safety of larger boats." The Outboard Boating Club of America, a research firm, affixes a plate specifying horsepower ranges and maximum weight load for each of their boats; Mercury dealers subscribe to the Boathouse Bulletin Service, which recommends engine sizes according to boat model and water conditions where the boat will be used. Other dealers have similar services, but if none is available it is wise to write the manufacturer asking his recommendations before buying an engine.
As a lawyer I perhaps am more impressed than most people with the desirability of knowing the rules of the road. The Federal Boating Act prescribes a fine up to $2,000, a year in jail maximum or both for recklessly operating a boat. Unfortunately, the rules are not as clear as many jiffy boating pamphlets imply. It is true enough that I am responsible for damage caused by my wake. True, when backing my stern becomes my bow. And true, when my boat is passing yours or you are approaching on my right, that the burden is on me to get out of your way. But what happens if my wake damages your boat because you were tied up to a channel buoy (a federal offense in itself)? Or if, when backing, my boat hits yours, and you're backing too? Or if we're in the New York Narrows and I have the right of way, but you're the Queen Mary? In cases like these, the out-boarder must rely on the sensible attitude he has, hopefully, developed—meaning he should move to avoid accident regardless who has right of way. Article 27 of Rules of the Road states: "In obeying and construing these rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision, and to any special circumstances which may render a departure from the above rules necessary in order to avoid immediate danger."