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Big-boat envy? Just blow it away

When a megayacht is far beyond your means, a good horn will do a lot for ego gratification

I've had this problem all my life. I always want it a little bigger. Most people with boats seem to share this idiosyncrasy, but they just want bigger boats. I've always wanted bigger boats, too, but it goes much deeper with me. I also want bigger stuff on whatever boat I have.

Though not a small boat, Chez Nous is often not the biggest in the harbor.

When I say "bigger," I don't necessarily mean size. I have an equal opportunity inferiority complex. I can be happy with just about anything on my boat that's bigger and better or more yachty or more shippy or that makes me feel, well, that I might get more attention and more respect.

I haven't been alone in this need to be noticed. I remember one winter in the Bahamas there was a big guy with one of the biggest boats in the harbor. He liked to make this known. He also had one of the biggest dinghies in the harbor. Heck, it wasn't even a dinghy. It was a fiberglass runabout probably around 20 feet with a huge outboard.

With such a big tender, he had a very thick painter. It was thicker than the anchor line on most boats. He didn't want that dinghy to break free as he paraded it - tethered to the stern of his big sailing yacht - around the harbor. And there was the theft issue, he'd say. His dinghy was a surefire target for anyone into dinghy theft and this is a popular pastime for many. You'd have to chew on that rope with a cable cutter for maybe a half-hour or more. A hacksaw would take at least as long, he said.

But wait, there was more. In order to push his extra-big boat pulling that extra-big dinghy with the extra-big outboard, he had a huge diesel shoehorned into his engine space. It looked big enough for a tugboat - but a sailboat? And, of course, he had a very large prop to match this power. He liked to talk about it all and show it off whenever he got the chance.

He was doing just this one day, racing across the harbor (under power, of course), looking at all the admirers who were looking at him. The story was that he missed seeing the island freighter heading through the harbor until it was almost too late. When he did see it he had to shift to neutral and then hard into reverse to avoid a collision. With all this power in the bilge, tragedy was averted, if at the slight expense of a crumpled bow rail on the dinghy as it crashed into the stern, leaving considerable scarring.

Unwilling to let anyone see that his ego was ruffled, he nonchalantly shifted into forward and pushed the throttle to the wall. The big engine roared to life and the big boat powerfully surged forward. The big dinghy suddenly jerked forward like a bat out of hell and crashed into the stern of the mother ship, again coming to a complete stop, though this time pinned tightly to the transom, trying with all its might to get under the transom.

Next came an unforgettable grinding and tearing of metal and fiberglass from the bowels of the mother ship. Then all was quiet, both boats drifting helplessly in the middle of the harbor. The big dinghy's big rope had gotten wrapped in the big propeller of the big mother ship. The extra-heavy shaft and coupling came to a sudden stop, but the big, extra-powerful motor just kept on firing, pushing those pistons up and down until it pulled itself free from the mounts and turned over in the bilge.

*     *     *

They say we learn from others' mistakes, but that's never helped me. I started out so early with my passion for bigger and better that it was well ingrained by the time I could learn from others. Maybe this was because I started out with a 12-foot pine rowboat that not only was one of the smallest boats on the river, but was so simple I really couldn't do much to mess it up with grand accoutrements.

My desire to move up - coupled with my losing battle with rot - had me in an 18-foot skiff by the time I was about 14. Even then I began to crave a ship, or at least a big yacht-boat. Not exactly being in the position to acquire one, I started improving what I had. I got some big sheets of exterior-grade plywood, a lot of screws and a handsaw, and built a cabin on the bow. It was long enough to sleep in, so I built a plywood bunk along one side. But this entire concoction was woefully incomplete without portholes. I always wanted to sit "inside" on a boat and look out portholes, as they did in the big battleships on "Victory at Sea."

As luck would have it, a derelict World War II admiral's barge lay rotten and dying up in the marsh across the river. The Navy always likes its admirals, and whichever admirals rode in this launch must have been very special people. The steel cabin structures had some of the finest and largest solid brass portholes I had ever imagined.

I chose the best, but the threads on the bolts holding them had long since congealed into immovable obstinacy. Undaunted, I went to work with a cold chisel, big hammer and crowbar, and after several days in the sweltering sun, fighting off mosquitoes and snakes, I had the portholes out. I cleaned them up as well as possible, that being not very. Years of neglect had pitted and scarred the brass, and there was no way you could see through the glass. But I managed to get them to the point where they would open and close and I couldn't have been happier.

And yes, they were big. It was like having huge picture windows in that rough little cabin. But they were so heavy that, coupled with the weight of the cabin and bunk, they weighed down the bow so much that I had to move my bilge pump to the pointy end and carve out the transom so I could lower the outboard enough to keep the prop from cavitating. Before all this, the boat had planed. Now it seemed to be permanently dedicated to diving.

On my sea trial I noticed that the water climbed up the bow, washed along the cabin and splashed into the boat at a rate far greater than would be suitable for continuation of flotation. So I got some more plywood, pulled out the saw and made some tall washboards running aft from the cabin. These, of course, added to the weight and newly acquired bow-down feature, but I really didn't care as long as the water wasn't coming through those huge brass portholes.

I cruised bow-down with pride for several years until I got my next boat and traded in my boat with the admiral's portholes. The owner gave me a pretty decent trade-in and I thought I'd done very well until I heard that he immediately burned the boat, saved the portholes and sold them for more than the cost of my entire new boat. It was becoming clear that I wasn't destined to be a tycoon-investor yacht owner, despite my ego.

*     *     *

Eventually my wife, Mel, and I did get a boat with a factory-built cabin; it was also our first cruising sailboat. It was only 27 feet, but to my delight it already had bigger stuff. The previous owner had been a racer and there was a regular foresail (looked pretty big to me), a really big foresail and then a really, really big foresail. Foresails are, to say the least, conspicuous, and if you want to show off, I thought, they would be just the thing. They aren't like those bigger and bigger flat-panel TVs everybody is getting these days, which hide down below in some wet place, only to be seen when the owner pushes a button to make them slide up. You have to grandly pull them up in public view.

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The first really windy day we went sailing was in the broad York River of the lower Chesapeake. There were lots of boats out there - a great audience. I was ready to score some points with the crowd. We put up the main and the smallest foresail and surged along, with me straining at the tiller trying to keep that sail not only full of wind, but also maximally visible to the crowds. This included keeping it out of the water, an issue with which I was becoming more and more aware and was more and more in denial about. But having surged along for 15 or more minutes and survived, I decided it was time for the crowd to see my even bigger sail.

Hanging on for dear life, I got the working foresail down, hanked on the next one and got it up and flying. Marital harmony was sorely suffering by this time because Mel doesn't share my love of showing off. Nor does she share my propensity for stupidity. With far too much rag up for the wind, we careened from one side of the river to the other, with me leaning back, pulling the tiller, and Mel trying to keep her feet dry as wave after wave curled over whichever side was down at the moment. My thrill was reinforced as I saw people in other boats pointing. I should have figured out why they were pointing, but that was beyond the scope of my self-analysis.

I've always heard of the "finale," so I figured it was time to go for the biggest one while I still had Mel willing to stay on deck. (Actually, I think she was afraid to go below because of the likelihood of capsizing.) Being new to this kind of sailing, I was really impressed with the fact that this big sail had some pretty fancy colors. There was no way anyone could miss the next act. The guy who sold me the boat called it a spinnaker. Having grown up in the upriver country where the closest thing to sailing was rigging old bedsheets to oars, I wasn't very familiar with the term, but I liked the way it sounded.

You had to pull this thing up out of a bag that had been stuffed before I got the boat. And you had to rig it to a pole. Now all of you folks who do this all the time are probably thinking: What's the big deal? The big deal was that I'd never done it and was clueless about what was to come once the genie got out of the bag.

First, it got on the wrong side of the mast. Then it wrapped around the forestay. Then it unwrapped (I wasn't sure how) and got in the water. Then it started to drag the boat over until I corrected with the tiller, at which time it became firmly entangled under the hull. As the crowd watched in awe - not the kind of awe I had wanted - we disentangled the mess, turned on the very little Atomic 4 and limped home. Among other things, I learned that I'd maybe better go after more manageable bigger things - like a megayacht.

*     *     *

I still haven't graduated to a megayacht and I know I never will, but I try to compensate. I've always felt that, other than size, there's one thing that really makes a megayacht - or a steamboat, or a cruise liner or any other big boat - really stand out. It's the horn.

If you normally drive around in a megayacht you probably won't appreciate what I'm about to say because you never have to worry about whether people know when you are coming, or when you have gotten there or when you want to leave. But on a little boat, all of the above can be a real problem.

Bridges first come to mind. Although some of the finest people are bridge tenders, a few tend to be hard of hearing at times, at least at the times I've needed to get through. Nowadays you can call them on the VHF - if they'll answer - but when I first began trying to go through bridges we didn't have one of those newfangled gadgets. You had to make a loud noise unto the bridge tender.

When I started out with my first boat in the Tidewater rivers of rural Virginia, I didn't really have a problem. My boat was short enough to get under any bridges I wanted. (There were only two within a 100-mile radius.) If I took the oarlocks out and lay down, she could squeak under in about 2 or 3 feet of vertical clearance.

But the time came when I finally thought I needed a horn (about age 13). I got one of those long tin things that was sold in the hardware store with hunting goods. The man said that if I blew it, just about anything might respond. I bought it because I couldn't afford anything else and there was nothing else on the shelf anyway. I wasn't really sure whether I wanted just about anything to come running, so it took me a long time to get up enough nerve to blow the thing. But when I did, it sounded grand. I felt very important. And I was also happy that nothing much came that I would want to tell about. I figured this horn would do.

The tin horn lasted a long time, but eventually I began to read about rules saying you had to have regulation horns, whether you wanted to or not. I also read of various unpleasant legal things that could happen to you if you didn't. I was beginning to realize that the government had all sorts of concerns about how I was to live my life and this was one of them.

Always wanting to please the government, I set out to buy an uptown horn that was officially "approved," even though it didn't come with any grandiose claims of all the things that would come running if you blew it. Today, we all know and love these horns. To me, at the time, it was quite an invention - a shiny, chrome-coated trumpet with a can full of "air" screwed to its base.

A few years earlier, I never would have imagined that I'd be buying cans of air and paying lots of money for the privilege, but I was learning fast about how to be impressive. I was also beginning to learn that government bureaucrats, in all their infinite wisdom, actually wanted you to do things like buying cans of air. So I used this rig for years, even though I always hated it.

Blowing it required superhuman attributes. I had to hold it, pull the lever and hold a finger in each ear at the same time. And to make matters worse, I could never see when I blew it because the sound hurt so badly that I would tightly close my eyes. There were a few other problems. One was that I was destitute (some things never change) and couldn't bring myself to throw away one of those air cans until it was empty. So, of course, it always reached empty in the middle of a really important blow and just dribbled out weak little humiliating blats.

I was sure that these blats were nowhere close to meeting the regulatory requirements of the government. There was nothing in the books about one long blast and one short blat. I began to dread coming to bridges because I'd never know when I was going to be humiliated again or, even worse, arrested because of an illegal blat. I knew no bridge tender could interpret my dribbling blats, and I imagined government officials hiding in the cars passing over, ready to pounce and bust me because of my lack of adequate sound paraphernalia. All of this got worse and worse through the years, giving me an increasing inferiority complex and a steadily growing passion to own a big - really, really big - horn.

And I guess there was another problem, too, come to think of it. Even when my little horn blew properly, for whatever distance the Coast Guard required it to blow (when there was enough air in the can), I felt that it just didn't get the attention my boat deserved. My boat, to me, has never been just any old boat. It's "my boat," and that's important to me, even though it may not be to anyone else.

This hit home hard when the day came to open my very first bridge with my horn on a can. I closed my eyes and held my ears and pulled the lever. Despite the loud noise, nothing happened. The horn blew, no question about that, but when I opened my eyes there was Mel crouched down at the helm, holding her ears and there was the bridge, getting closer and closer, with no sign of activity except an occasional car rolling along with people pointing out the window at the boat (probably laughing at my little horn.)

So we blew again. And again. And again. Finally a farmer stopped in the middle of the bridge and got out of his truck. He climbed the ladder up to the bridge house and knocked on the door. The door opened immediately, and after a nice long chat with the gentleman inside, the farmer pointed down toward me. The bridge tender waved, smiled and nodded, "Oh, yes, sure enough."

The farmer backed down the ladder, backed up his truck to the yellow line, the gates went down and the bridge opened. I remember thinking as I passed through the fenders that I probably couldn't rely on that farmer crossing the bridge in his truck every time I needed an opening. Many bridges have slid by since then, but in one way or another, that scene, in one variation or another, has repeated itself often.

*     *     *

But bridges aren't the only disrespecters of little noises. Other boats are, too. I love the Navigation Rules, with helpful instructions of what we are supposed to blow, when and for how long in order to talk with other vessels. Like the "two-whistle pass" that has nothing to do with trains rumbling through the mountains. But have you ever tried doing that on a long trip with a hand-held air horn? Have you ever tried it with a tin hunting horn? Pretty soon you're either deaf or out of air, or both.

Tom can't seem to find the Coast Guard approval certificate for this horn.

Being ever dedicated to safe boating, I finally decided to take decisive action. It was time to buy a big horn that I could mount forward of the wheel, aim ahead and blow remotely - very remotely - with the mere push of a button. I decided to make my boat, at least in this small respect, like a high-class yacht. To some, this is all standard procedure, but to me this was a radical leap into the hitherto inexperienced world of big-time big boating.

I researched diligently and settled for a super-duper, very expensive, cream-of-the-crop dual-trumpet air horn. It even has its own compressor - a very strong one so that I no longer had to worry about running out of air. Its chrome-plated trumpets are spun brass from Italy. (I'm not sure what that's all about, but it's what the advertisement said, and it sounds good to me.) It's one of those that makes the same deep, sonorous sounds that you hear and admire from the very largest of motoryachts and the very finest of cathedral organs.

It took some doing to hook it all up. Sailboats don't have built-in heavy-duty horn compressor wiring running to the cabin top. I finally completed the installation while sailing up the Chesapeake one crisp fall day. I wanted to be far out in the middle for the trial blow so as to not disturb anyone ashore or cause false impressions with all those types who interpret horn signals. I figured if that thing played like it was supposed to, I was going to just enjoy it awhile, the hell with the regulations.

After assembling our daughters around the wheel and offering a silent but fervent prayer, I asked Mel to partake of the honor and push the button for the first time. I couldn't believe it. Nothing happened. I opened my eyes in shocked disappointment to see she was still sitting by the wheel with her eyes closed tightly, one finger in an ear and the other poised over the button. She hadn't gotten the nerve to do it.

With some additional persuasion, she finally pushed the button and, oh, what a sound. It seemed to echo from the Calvert cliffs to the innermost coves of the Choptank. We imagined it rolling up to the rapids of the Susquehanna and funneling out to sea beyond Cape Henry. It was as though Chez Nous were now 250 feet, receiving homage from all. In a word, it was grande.

For the first time in my life, I actually wanted to come to a bridge. I relished the anticipation for weeks until the event finally occurred as we headed south for the winter. I tried to act nonchalantly as I approached, slowed down to prolong the enjoyment of the anticipation, then majestically gave the sonorous one long and one short. I waited a moment for the bridge to begin opening, but nothing happened. The sound was, yes, grande, but the bridge didn't move. There was no corresponding reply, no bells, no gates being lowered - nothing. Nonplussed (but actually happy to have another chance to hear my horn), I blew again. Again, nothing happened on the bridge.

By this time I was circling, being pushed almost beyond control by current and wind. It was just like all of my other bridge-opening days. Nobody up there was paying attention, even though I had that big horn. I couldn't believe it. I blew again, to no avail. Frustrated beyond printable description, I finally called the bridge tender on VHF 13 and haughtily informed him I'd been blowing the proper horn signal to open the bridge.

There was a long pause as he looked around. "Oh, was that you?" he asked. "Are you that little sailboat down there? Well, I didn't know that. I heard a loud horn and was looking for the big boat that I figured was blowing it. I was going to wait till he got here before I opened her up."

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," at

This article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue.