Thursday, April 30, 2015

"The Unbearable Loudness of Boating"

Springtime. When the seagulls soar overhead, eyeballing scraps from fish boats and the terns begin squawking at 6 AM like prehistoric birds--hence our gate's nickname "Jurassic Dock."   It's also the time of year when we awake to the sound of bow thrusters and engines in full reverse--the morning stillness broken by shouting couples screaming directions--or arguing about directions not clearly given. Yes indeed, it is boating season.

It occurred to me this morning, as I sipped my second cuppa' joe and observed the frustrated couple screaming back and forth as they sidled into the large empty bay across from me, that not enough attention is given to the aesthetics of yachting. No, wait--let me explain. I know exactly what you're thinking... There is ample attention given to the accoutrements of yachting, the vessels, the clothing, the gear, yes. But there is so much more to being a classy boater than the amount of gleaming brass on the transom or size of the yacht club's burgee on the bow pulpit. I'm talking here about manners, etiquette... the aesthetics of handling those big, shiny boats.

At the risk of sounding like a judgmental snob (a potentially accurate observation some say), let me elaborate briefly.

Those of us who live and work around boats consistently, are accustomed to a certain status quo of serenity, relatively speaking. Even when there is urgent work or duties to be performed, there is a stubborn tranquility around the commercial dock. When voices are raised it draws our attention. When shouting is heard, we impulsively stop what we're doing (yep, even if it's drinking coffee), and ascertain if help is needed. Most of the time help is not required--but every so often it is.

Last spring over--you guessed it, our morning coffee, we heard just such a noise. Actually, I thought it had been a gull shrieking, but Jeff discerned a woman's voice and jumped into action immediately. Two boats down, a woman had missed her footing and slipped off the bull-rail. By the time we arrived, her husband had managed to pull her out of the water. She was shaken and cold, but fine.

In preparation for their season's opening, the fish boats begin to load their gear. The occasional shout or command can be heard, however the ones that are making all of the noise are usually the new deckhands. Seasoned crewmembers are efficient and economical with their words and for the most part, a whole lot of work gets accomplished on the commercial boats by keeping the communication at a conversation level.

When I worked as mate on the 160-foot Zodiac, I trained my deckhands to watch for hand signals. All commands when we came into dock were silent. If the captain was bringing her in, I would station myself midship and relay the critical information he needed by our standardized hand signals. This practice allowed the captain to concentrate on his job and the rest of my crew to remain alert--using their eyes and ears instead of their mouths. Dock lines could be tossed ashore with just a nod instead of shouts, the winch operator knew when to power down on the bowline with just a finger gesture and knew when to make it fast by watching for the helmsman's crossed fists above his head. Smoothly run, safely operated. Classy.

On a vessel the size of Zodiac, it's fairly important that orders are given to and by a few select officers. I don't mind saying that it's pretty damn impressive to watch a 200-ton tall ship slide into her slip (in reverse), without a word from her crew.
... Aesthetics.

Don't get me wrong, it can be amusing to sit at anchor with a drink in our hands and watch the calamity that often ensues as boats arrive to anchor. That is to say, sometimes it is amusing, other times it is just downright annoying--or worse, frightening. I've witnessed some pretty abusive relationships on boats coming into dock or getting their hook down. It upsets me as a fellow boater and as a person who has trained sailors. And it doesn't have to be that way.

Some boaters use the wireless headsets when maneuvering in close quarters or anchoring. These hands-free devices work pretty effectively, and definitely cut out the noise. There's no denying that they lend an air of professionalism to a ship's crew. However I've been in the Ballard locks (of all places) and watched what happens when headsets crap out: frantic family members start screaming out of sheer desperation. 
I believe that devising your own set of hand signals--and becoming comfortable using them, is the most practical method. Add on the electronics afterward, but you can always rely on the old-school method should batteries die or earpieces fall into the drink.

The ultimate answer might lie in the hands of instructors. If novice boaters learn the right way to communicate--and the reasons for doing so from the very start, the problem may weed itself out eventually. There's a lot to be said for peer pressure. After all, nobody wants to be *THAT* boat...  

Anyway, as the cruising season progresses, I'm going to try and remember to give credit to those who practice proper etiquette and display the kind of manners that I wish everybody did. I can't really change others behavior, but I'm going to certainly give props to those around us who demonstrate good seamanship.

              I just wish the damn seagulls would get the hint.    
~ Chris



  1. The risk of sounding like a judgemental snob was achieved.

  2. I know, right? It's like a super power.

  3. I totally understand where you're coming from. I'm reading Joshua Slocum's Sailing Around the World Alone now, and it's interesting how boating of that era had an aura of reverence and a certain etiquette.

  4. Thanks God we are not living in the old world. Where people had no luxuries and the life was miserable.