Extreme Boating

Being prepared for the sea is smart, but when is enough enough?

boater safety
Illustrated by Steve Haefele.Steve Haefele

My pal Tom called last week grousing that our other pal, Bill, takes boating too seriously: “Bill preps for a cruise as though it was a zombie apocalypse. Is it really necessary to subject your guests to lifeboat drills on a trip down Biscayne Bay to the Florida Keys? One could practically walk.”

I attempted a dockside intervention.

“Bill’s read too many disaster-at-sea stories,” he insisted.

Bill suggested that Tom shares some of his genetics with Capt. Edward John Smith of Titanic fame.

“If there were icebergs in the Florida Straits,” he said, “Tom would find ’em.”

The truth is that Bill is a belt-and-suspenders type of guy. He’s a triple Type A. Tom prefers elastic to drawstring. He prepares for a Keys cruise as though he were riding his bike to the convenience store to grab a six-pack. Tom goes to sea with 12 moldy life jackets and an exhausted flare kit that dates back to the ark. “The mirror and whistle still work,” he protested.

Bill has survived survival-at-sea training and admits that he insists his guests practice putting on survival suits. “I’m not a stickler. I give ’em extra time,” Bill said, recommending that 60 seconds zip-to-dip is best. In case all else fails, he carries an assortment of personal locator beacons, and his life raft is fitted with a hydrostatic release.

Tom is a cellphone captain and prefers late-model rides with warranty service. If he had a wrench to turn, he admits, there would be few places aboard he could do so effectively. “I’m afraid if something breaks, the best I could do is whack it with a hammer,” he said. He carries one, of course, swimming in the bilge in a rust-filled tool bag with a few petrified hose clamps and impellers. “If the head craps out,” he said, “would you rather have an expert handy or a wrench?” Good point.

Bill carries a proper toolbox and a library of repair manuals. His “parts department” would consume several aisles of a marine mart and includes spares for his most popular spares. He insists that one can never depend on others after leaving the dock, sharing the story of a warranty failure aboard his last ride. “The rudder decided to part company with the boat in Panama on a Friday, and the builder suggested I call the parts department on Monday,” he said. The man makes a point.

While Bill’s bridge looks like a marine-electronics display at the boat show, he still carries paper charts and a compass just in case. Tom claims he’s got the high-tech advantage with an iPad and considers his iPhone the backup. “GPS/chart plotter, sounder, weather — there’s a marine app for practically everything these days,” he argued. “And ya can’t order a pizza on a $2,000 plotter.”

Tom and Bill are both reasonable folks and very experienced yachtsmen. I proposed a compromise. Bill agreed that, in the future, those who ship aboard for the inside passage to the Keys would not be fitted for survival suits. Tom promised to update his communications and safety gear, and to invest in basic tools and spares.

The zombie apocalypse was averted. Now I’m prepping for my own trip to the Keys: cold beer for the green flash!