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Maritime mythology: tales from the deep

Tom debunks a dozen boating myths, from foolproof navigation to ‘good’ anchorages and anchor buoys.

The mythology of the sea has given rise to stories such as “Moby Dick,” “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and even “The Little Mermaid.” But there is other maritime mythology that, although more mundane, is a bit more relevant to you and me. Here are a dozen of the less romantic myths, and I’ll bet you know of many more.

I just ran aground in the 'middle' of the channel. Uh-huh.

MYTH: You can catch fish if you can get the local expert fisherman to tell you the location of his secret spot.

He isn’t going to tell you his secret hole. He might tell me because he knows I couldn’t catch a fish if the fish were a cold and I fell into the hole. But the average normal human isn’t going to want anyone else to catch the fish in his spot. Fish are personal, and so are secret locations. He’ll tell you about someplace else. So whenever we ask a question like that, we should expect the good fisherman to either lie or tell the truth in such a way that you don’t know what he’s saying. Like lawyers.

Or like my Bahamian friends when I first started hanging out there years ago and hadn’t learned how to find lobster. They’d always say, “Over there and around de corner,” while crossing their arms in front of their chest and pointing in opposite directions. The only way to find fish is to find your own secret spot. You’ll also find lots of friends, because that’s where everybody else will be.

MYTH: Sailors are cheap.

Sure we are, but so are a lot of powerboaters. I’ve got a motorsailer. This makes me an expert on the subject because I’m cheap both ways. I’m double-cheap. But there are some who put me to shame. I’ll never forget watching the owner of a new trawler that cost well over a million bucks. After brushing away the young lady who was working the fuel pump, he blithely bent over and started to stick the high-pressure fuel hose into his water fill. She politely and quickly stopped him, so not a drop of that red, smelly stuff got into his water supply. It would have cost thousands of dollars to get the tank cleaned so he could use it again without smelling and tasting diesel. He didn’t tip her a dime.

And I didn’t see this but was told, by a marina operator on the Intracoastal Waterway, about a fleet of about eight sailboats, all around 30 feet, gliding into his fuel dock one morning, taking all the available space. The boats were not local. They were making their way south for the winter. The inhabitants of these boats walked pets, completely filled the marina trash receptacles with huge garbage bags, took on water, and visited the bathrooms and showers. During this exceedingly long time, while several huge, fuel-thirsty boats were irately circling, each of the boats took on a few gallons of diesel until the total was 103 gallons. They then demanded the 100-plus-gallon discount for the combined bill.

But is it really fair to say that any boater is cheap? Unless he stole it, he bought a boat. Paying all that money for a boat is about as far from cheap as you can get.

MYTH: You should always use anchor buoys.

An anchor buoy is usually a Clorox bottle or something similar that is tied to your anchor, typically at the opposite end to which the chain is attached, and floats on the surface over the anchor. It’s used by some cruisers who anchor overnight. Over the years, I’ve asked them why they use anchor buoys. “So I’ll know where the anchor is,” some have said. To which the obvious next question would be, “Well, if you don’t know that, how the heck did you find your way here?”

Some say, “This tells other skippers where my anchor is, and, therefore, they won’t anchor too close.” I’ve known some skippers who actually put out fake anchor buoys to make others believe they have inordinate lengths of rode, thus making them anchor far away.

So why do some of us have sailboats? Because when the time is right to sail, it's one of the most beautiful things in the world to do.

Others say, “Well, if the anchor gets snagged, it will help me in pulling it out backward.” This has merit, particularly if you’re anchoring over a bottom with a lot of debris. We should avoid anchoring in places like that, but it’s not always possible.

However, there are serious problems with using anchor buoys. Many times, dinghies or other boats coming through the harbor at night won’t see an anchor buoy and will snag its line. This can cause many problems, including the capsizing of small dinghies. It can also result in the anchor being pulled out by the anchor buoy line, which acts as a trip line. The boat, with the owner sleeping aboard, blissful in the assurance that he “knows where his anchor is,” drifts away to perhaps collide with another anchored boat or the beach.

There is yet one more anchor buoy scenario that happens quite frequently but is seldom thought of by the folks who can’t remember where they dropped the hook. The boat is anchored for the night, its anchor marked by the buoy. As usually happens, the tide and/or current changes in the night, and the boat drifts back over its anchor to hang from the opposite direction. Or perhaps the boat circles about between wind and current in the vicinity of the anchor. Quite often, the anchor buoy line will snag in the boat’s keel, rudder, stabilizers or, most likely, the propeller. As the boat tugs about, it trips the anchor. The anchor can’t reset because it’s now being pulled along backward.

The blissfully snoozing skipper awakens as he notices the feeling of being “under way,” or as the boat hits another or a nearby shoal. He rushes on deck, sees he has dragged anchor, and immediately hits the start button to save the boat. As soon as the engine goes into gear, the prop tightly wraps the buoy line, raising the anchor off the bottom so there is absolutely nothing down there to slow the boat’s drift toward disaster. And the boat is now powerless, with a line attached to an anchor wrapped around the prop. At least the skipper knows where the anchor is.

MYTH: You should carry as many spare parts as possible.

This sounds good, but the flip side is that whatever you have a spare part for will never break. This means you’re carrying around a lot of spare, rusty parts, and everything else breaks. My solution has been to buy parts, spray them with rust preventative, store them, inspect them often, and carry as many tools as I can, as well as a wide variety of repair material, such as JB Weld, scrap aluminum, steel and wood so I can fix things when I can’t replace them.

MYTH: It’s OK to take a nap on watch at sea.

We and a few other cruisers were waiting for a good weather pattern in which to head to sea for a passage of several days and nights. We were talking about things like how hard it is to stay awake on watch at night until you get into the swing of the trip, how hard it is to figure out what’s going on around you in the dark, and how boring standing watch can be when nothing is happening but how the last thing you want is for something to be happening.

“Hell,” said an older, somewhat irascible skipper, “what do you mean by standing watch? The only thing I watch when I’m out there at night is television.” As luck and good fortune would have it, he never had a problem.

Another friend was making his way across the Great Bahama Bank one night and was dutifully trying to stay awake on watch. He didn’t. As he snoozed away, he hit a small rocky island in the Bimini chain. He was under power, not sail, and making good speed. His boat was on autopilot, and it steered itself through a cluster of boats anchored just to the east of the island, mercifully not hitting any. If it had hit one, the other boat would have probably sunk very quickly. This is because the boat plowing blindly on was built of steel. This, and the fact that its plates were good, saved the boat and the family on board when she hit the island.

I can go on forever telling stories of disaster stemming from people not keeping adequate watch at night — and in the daytime. These sometimes result in fatalities. When you’re out at night there’s a tendency to feel that you’re in a mighty big, empty ocean and there’s not much to worry about. The problem is that it’s not so empty anymore.

From big things you can see, like ships, to big things you can’t see, like mostly submerged containers, the ocean and inland waters are full of obstructions. Even when you’re awake and watching the radar and making regular visual sweeps with a good pair of binoculars, you can miss things.

Once, when we were far offshore in the dark of the night, a submarine surfaced right beside us. There were no lights. We first knew it was there because of the sound. Some say you would hit things that you can’t see anyway, even if you were watching. Perhaps, but it’s less likely. And if you do hit something while you’re asleep, it normally takes time to awaken, bring your mind to sharpness, assess the situation and react. This time may be the delay that leaves you with little or no time to react — and potentially dangerous consequences.

MYTH: Modern equipment makes running a boat almost foolproof.

It depends upon which fool you’re talking about. How about the fool who races back from Block Island to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island at high speed in the fog? His radar may have a perimeter intrusion alarm. His GPS/chart plotter interfaced with the autopilot knows where he is, what geographical features to avoid, and where he wants to go. His depth finder sounds an alarm if the water gets too shallow. His AIS system, depending on the type, can alert him to the proximity of other vessels so equipped and even alert the other vessels. What’s to worry?

The radar might not see a small wooden boat or a container. It may have a blind area. The best of plotters and digital cartography can display errors resulting from flawed GPS signals or aids to navigation that were moved a day or so ago. (Hitting a large bell buoy can roast your toast.) Most pleasure boats probably have no type of AIS on board. The bottom line is that all of this modern equipment helps us immensely, but it doesn’t abrogate the need to also be attentive and watch and keep track of what’s going on the old-fashioned way.

I still follow much of the same routine as I did when I was exploring Chesapeake Bay in my 18-foot “cabin cruiser” skiff back in the late 1950s. But I don’t want to go back to those “good old days” and lose my modern equipment. Doing it the old-

fashioned way is much easier — and more effective with modern tools. On Chez Nous, this fool has a good depth finder with a backup, a radar and a Standard Horizon CP300i chart plotter with C-Map Max cartography. These make an amazing difference, from anchoring in tight creeks to offshore navigation.

But we also plot our position on paper charts and keep constant lookout all around. However, we can do these better because of modern technology. For example, it’s much easier to work with that paper chart with the LED LightDivider from Weems and Plath. Each leg has a small red LED that illuminates the chart at night. And I like the precision adjustment wheel in its center, which makes it easy to get exact angles and keep them.

Even the ancient art of eyeballing through binoculars has improved. Once, during very limited visibility, we thought we saw a “ghost” target on radar that we figured was really nothing. We’d been keeping watch all around but hadn’t noticed anything out there.

I picked up our Steiner Commander XP C 7x50 binoculars and started sweeping. These binocs gather light exceptionally well — even starlight — making it much easier to see things in the dark. They also have a stabilized bearing compass so I could tell Mel at the helm where this ghost was (if I saw it) in relation to our boat. A special coating on the lens sheds water, so you can quickly wash them when they take spray. What I saw was a huge unlit Navy ship nearby that was apparently constructed so it was nearly invisible to our radar. I guess they saw me, but I had no indication that they did.

MYTH: Just follow that boat.

I can’t count the number of times we’ve been winding down the ICW and followed conversations on the VHF among boaters who not only frequently talk on channel 16 but who are worried about getting through a tricky area and say, “We’ll just follow that boat ahead.”

The logic seems simple. First, he’s ahead, so he must know something. Second, if he goes aground we’ll see him and will know to go around or stop. Let me give you fair warning: Just because I’m in front of somebody else doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. It may mean I don’t have enough sense to not know how clueless I am.

A few years back we were heading north out of the Alligator River in North Carolina and into Albemarle Sound. A year or so before, the entrance channel had changed, doglegging far over to the west, where the water is much deeper than the rapidly shoaling old channel. The aids to navigation had been changed.

We had posted the information in East Coast Alerts on the BoatU.S. Web site (, click on the “Tom Neale” button in the middle of the home page). We were following the new channel when we looked back to our southeast to see a string of boats heading out the old channel, following a big boat and skipper who “had been cruising before” and was eager to boast of that fact and explain that he knew where he was going. We hailed them on 16 to warn them about the channel change, but they all kept following the big boat in the lead. The big lead boat bumped. He bumped so hard that he pushed over the shoal and into deeper water. The second boat bumped. The third boat bumped. Each boat bumped, including two sailboats that had a long and difficult task of getting unglued from the bottom.

MYTH: Ride a cold front south.

Books, magazine articles and bar-stool sailors often talk about hitching a ride south in the fall on the back of a cold front. It makes sense — you’d think. A well-behaved cold front blows through with squalls and shifting wind, but then its frontal boundary passes and a crisp strong steady northwest follows it as the high builds. Gradually — sometimes within 24 hours, sometimes later, sometimes sooner — it clocks around to the northeast. This provides a great ride, first in the lee of the shore to get you well out to sea and, when the winds are northeast, to continue heading on down in deeper, calmer water. So the story goes. But you never really know whether a cold front is going to be well-behaved.

I’ll never forget watching a single-hander, tied near us in a marina in Morehead City, N.C., eagerly preparing to take off south. We were in the marina because a strong front was coming, and there wasn’t any anchorage nearby that was acceptable. The fellow on the other boat was scrambling all over it, making things ready. I asked him if he’d been listening to the weather — if he didn’t want to wait. “Oh yes,” he said, “it’s a strong front coming. It’s just what I need. I’m going to ride it down.”

That evening, as the front began to blow through, he sailed out of Beaufort Inlet. It’s an easy inlet, but it can be an easy inlet to hell. That’s because up and down the coast lies what is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” To the north, Cape Hatteras pushes out toward the Gulf Stream, playing havoc with seas and weather. To the south, Frying Pan Shoal at Cape Fear thrusts out 35 miles into the Atlantic, often just a few feet beneath the surface. To the east, the Gulf Stream races northward, its warm waters making mincemeat of forecasters’ predictions of what the air above will do, and its northward current making leaping monsters of what would otherwise be relatively orderly, although huge, swells.

As the black-night wind turned cold and seas began to careen around the boat, the man’s frantic call for help, faint but clear enough, radiated out over the air. He had tied himself to his steering pedestal. The boat was breaking up. Waves were sweeping her. And then he stopped transmitting. So far as we know, he was never seen again.

Riding a cold front down the coast sounds good in theory, but the ocean is no respecter of theory. Sometimes this tactic works well, and the trip is great — but not always. When the fronts cross over the water, they begin to change. When they reach the warm Gulf Stream, they change even more. And cold adds to fatigue, and fatigue adds to helplessness and poor judgment. Time after time, we’ve known of boats and crews to meet peril because skippers followed some popular oft-spoken concept that makes sense over beer in a bar. But the ocean makes its own sense.

MYTH: It’s a “good” anchorage.

You read about them in the guide books. Some guide books are almost exclusively dedicated to good anchorages, and that’s great, because anchoring is a cornerstone of cruising. It’s one of the nicest things about being on a boat. But ask yourself, Good anchorage for whom? Good anchorage for what kind of boat? Good anchorage for how many boats? Good anchorage when?

He who relies on 'it's a good anchorage' in the guide books without carefully checking it out first is likely to wish he'd gone to a marina.

We’ve read reports of good anchorages that must have been written by early American Indians paddling about in canoes. The channel entrance has long ago shoaled over. Sometimes they’ll shoal over within a season; sometimes all it takes is a grounded barge or huge tree deflecting the current for a few hours.

Early in the 1980s, we stopped to take on fuel in Georgetown, S.C. In a slip nearby was a stinking, mud-covered trawler. Its owners, also covered in mud, were sorrowfully removing sopping and muddy linen, bed sheets, curtains, papers — the stuff of their lives. They had anchored in a beautiful spot the day before. It was described as a “good anchorage.” During the night, the tide turned from flooding to ebbing. The boat, as it swung with the tide, caught on a mud bank at the edge of the current. As the tide — around 7 feet of it — went out, it left the boat heeling precariously down the bank. As it came in, the mud of the bank sucked fast to the hull, which filled with water. The couple had to walk through miles of snake-infested marsh to get help. (There are also alligators in that region.)

Many “good anchorages” are very narrow. You can’t see it from the surface of the water unless you’re skilled at reading the water, but the channel walls may be very close to that little anchor drawn on the chart. This often isn’t obvious even from looking at a chart, because most of those creeks and coves that make good anchorages are seldom, if ever, surveyed. The reporting skipper may have anchored on a night with no wind and enjoyed a perfect evening as his boat swung first upstream and then downstream with the tide. He may not have had the experience to know all the features of the spot. But you may anchor there in a wind blowing across the creek. When the tide turns, your boat will swing out on the wind toward a bank, perhaps grounding as the tide recedes.

There are many other reasons why a so-called “good anchorage” may be bad. Your boat may be much larger, have more windage, and draw more than that of the reporting skipper. Or, because it’s been reported, it may be that there are twice as many boats anchored in the spot than is prudent. He who relies on “it’s a good anchorage” in the guide books without carefully checking it out first is likely to wish he’d gone to a marina.

MYTH: Sailors sail.

Of course we do, except sometimes. And for a lot of us, sometimes is most of the time. Many sailboat owners seldom sail and there’s a simple reason. We want to get somewhere within a finite time period. I’ve noticed over many years on the water that the people who are sailing usually are just out for the afternoon, or maybe going for a weekend overnight to a nearby anchorage. And, incidentally, they also have wind blowing in a reasonably “right” direction.

On long trips up and down the coast, the engine is on most of the time on most sailboats we see. The ICW in many places is too narrow and obstructed by too many bridges and too much traffic to sail. It’s when a passagemaking boat can go offshore that it’s most likely to put up those white things. But boats traveling offshore often will keep the engine running anyway, because the skippers wisely want to make the next safe inlet in plenty of time for daylight, or with room to spare, to avoid that approaching storm or front. Even in Bahamian waters, we’ve noticed that sailboats frequently are under power, because the skippers know they will need good light so they can read the water and avoid the reefs and shoals to get into their destination harbor.

So why do some of us have sailboats? Because when the time is right to sail, it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world to do. At least that’s the way we feel on Chez Nous. I love my motorsailer. I also love my 20-foot center console that can make around 35 knots. But I also have a sailboard that I love. For years I had a small sailing skiff on board that I could throw over and sail after safely motoring into that perfect harbor. And I’m going to get another. (I’m cheap — anybody got a good deal?)

The real myth is that powerboaters don’t like to sail. Most of those who have tried it like it, under the right circumstances. And it’s not unusual to see a powerboat pull into a harbor and

offload a sailboard or sailing skiff and start happily sailing around. It’s called “enjoying it all.”

MYTH: I just ran aground in the middle of the channel.

You’ve heard it. We all have. So many of those calls to the Coast Guard or the tow boats have one thing in common: “I’ve just run aground in the middle of the channel.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say, “I was a dumb @#&%*! and ran right up on a shoal on the wrong side of the buoy.” Or, “I was heading into the inlet and missed it, and I’m sitting here on a big rock on this jetty.”

There are some spots where the “middle of the channel” is too shallow for boats that should be able to float there, particularly since there’s been a lack of dredging, but I’ve seldom noticed that these spots were where the caller for help was stranded. They’re usually calling from the middle of the wrong place. Or maybe it was the “middle of the channel” years ago, when someone drew a magenta line on a chart book. But channels change. I’ve developed my own technique. It’s called “deliberately lying.”

“I’m just sitting here waiting for the tide to go out so I can clean my bottom.”

MYTH: Boating writers know what they’re talking about.

You’ve gotta be kidding. And I’m the little mermaid.

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 August 2009 issue.