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The give and take of etiquette at sea

I’ve always known about etiquette. I just haven’t been sure about how to say it. I don’t usually use French words, and I think etiquette is one of them.

Crowded waterways are ripe with opportunities for breaches of etiquette.

I took the language long ago in my small rural Southern high school and learned how to say “Polly voo Frances,” but that’s about it. I spent the first few weeks in class trying to figure out what it was that Polly did to Frances, but I finally came to the conclusion that since both of the ladies were probably French it had to be well beyond my experience level.

In the many years since then I’m proud to say that etiquette has become very much within my experience level. Many of my learning experiences have been on the water. These experiences may have been out of step with the crowds because the crowds tend to want to do their stepping on shore, but I think they’re meaningful.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I think it was a much nicer world out here in the past. I remember sitting under a palm tree in the Bahamas, talking to Capt. Lou Kennedy as he told me about a German U-boat captain who at the beginning of World War II surfaced and gave Capt. Lou and his men the opportunity to take to their boats, with survival supplies, before the U-boat sank their ship. It was probably the last, perhaps the only, sailing cargo vessel sunk by a modern sub.

The horrible progress of WWII rapidly killed that kind of etiquette at sea. But we pleasure boaters haven’t needed a war. As more and more people have stepped from the shore into boats, there seems to have grown a loss of etiquette. Like so many other forms of pollution, it’s trickling out from the dirt.

On shore you don’t dare honk at another car these days, no matter what the idiot driver did. You’re afraid of road rage. It can get you anything from a flipped digit to a game of bumper cars. So you look straight ahead and grimace, hoping it’ll be taken as a smile.

On the water, of course, “honking” has a very different meaning. We have sound signals. You know — two whistles if I want to overtake you on your port side, and that sort of thing. The problem is that few of the masses know what two whistles means, much less one. Many seem to take offense when you give a sound signal, which to them is just that “damn guy honking at me.” A five-whistle signal is likely to start a war. The one saving thing is that the primary mode of reactive aggression on the water seems to be flipping the bird … and I don’t mean the parakeet.

I suppose this means there’s still hope out here. I think digit flipping is second nature out where it’s wet and more relaxed. It’s like flipping on the GPS to see where you aren’t or flipping on the depth finder to see why you’re not moving or flipping on a trim tab toggle to make that bottle of beer slide to your side of the boat so you can reach it without getting up. I can’t imagine doing a trip up or down the ICW without a few birds of the middle finger type, both coming and going. Over the years I’ve gotten used to it.

All bets are off when a waker gets waked.

But not only are the number of birds out here increasing with the passage of time, there are other not-so-subtle changes in the area of etiquette. Often they’re associated with throwing a huge wake. This has involved a process of natural evolution. As boats have gotten bigger and faster, flipping the bird is out of the question because you’re usually holding on for dear life with everything you’ve got if you’re the victim of a bad wake. If you’re the perp, you don’t care. The VHF became the weapon of choice.

The internationally recognized bad-wake signal is the phrase “you a**hole” resonating on channel 16. It “gets even” with not only the wake perp but everyone else, women and children included, within VHF range if they are listening to their radios. But the cesspool deepens. Everyone on the water now seems to be so occupied with cellphone calls and texting and “apping” that they’re often not listening to the VHF and don’t hear the insult they’ve just received. And victims certainly don’t know how to call the perp on his cellphone, unless it’s a fellow member of the yacht club. A wasted insult is a sad thing. We need an app for this. Start the app, and your phone insults all other cellphones within range, much like the old days of mass VHF insults.

These developments are unfortunate because breaches of etiquette aren’t as much fun when we can’t all share. Once we were almost thrown onto the bank in a narrow dredged cut in North Carolina by a fast-moving trawler. As if the jarring lurch wasn’t enough, he proceeded ahead so fast I didn’t even have time to show him my better side.

Soon we heard him yelling to another boat on the VHF. It seems this other boat was faster than he was and had thrown him a wake so big that it dumped his fax machine and computer onto the deck and, perhaps of greater injury, dumped his mega-mug of hot coffee into his lap, which, one would judge from the obscenities, changed certain inherent characteristics forever.

We could hear the two skippers trading threats and insults for more than a half hour as they traveled along, finally reaching that ultimate crescendo: “You’ll hear from my lawyer.”

Then the reply: “Send him on. I am a lawyer.”

And then: “Well, so am I … what … did you cheat your way through law school?”

There followed a delighted and raucous cacophony of comment from fellow boaters. It was so good that the Coasties didn’t even come on with their usual admonition of “take your idle traffic to a working channel.” Ah, for the good old days when we better shared our rudeness. But sometimes you have to wonder whatever happened to the “gentle lapping of waves on the hull” and the “sweet song of the breeze in the rigging” and all that sort of stuff that causes people to step from the shore.

Is there really a polite way to hand the pumpout hose to the next boat in line?

We’re not even immune far out on the high seas. One afternoon as we were sailing across the Gulf Stream, headed for the Bahamas, a very large, very fast go-fast boat zoomed in on us, traveling from south to north. As his hull grew closer and closer and larger and larger, I realized he didn’t see us. I doubt he was even looking. I thought he was going to plow right over us. This wouldn’t have been very courteous.

I reversed course, and he sped by. We couldn’t see anyone at the wheel. Around half an hour later he was returning, this time running north to south. Suddenly he veered toward us and came alongside, the boat quivering from its rapid deceleration (thank you, Lord). The skipper, whom we could now see, yelled, “Hey buddy, which way to the Bahamas?” I returned his earlier discourtesy with etiquette. I pointed west, and he roared off in the general direction of Miami.

We continued our trip, enjoying the satisfying glow of, for once, knowing I’d done something exceptionally polite. I imagine I saved his life or at least his boat, considering the nature of the rocky cuts ahead and his navigational prowess.

There are many opportunities for etiquette in boating, and perhaps, on a more positive note, we should consider some of these. Take pumpout etiquette. How do you hand the hose to the guy in line behind you? Surely you don’t hand over the business end first. Do you try to turn slightly and hand him the handle first as he’s desperately trying to avoid getting too close to you because he was watching you do your business and saw the mess you made all over your boat, the dock, yourself and those around you? Obviously, the ultimately polite thing to do would be to say: “Would you like to share my gloves? But I’ve never gotten a yes to that.

Then there’s docking etiquette. There are several rules. The first is that you never watch the other guy from your safely docked boat unless you really hate him. Another is that, while not watching, you stand on the dock ready to take his lines or help fend him off if a dock person is taking his lines. This is particularly helpful because it gives the docking skipper the opportunity to scream at you instead of his wife as the party at fault when he creams the boat in the next slip. Of course, if that’s your boat, it gives you a chance to show your charm, as well.

And then there’s etiquette at the ramp. Being mostly associated with the dirt part of our planet, rather than the water part, a few boaters at the ramp scene provide stellar examples. I like the part where they don’t even think about getting their boat ready until they’ve backed it and the trailer onto the ramp. Then they begin transferring mountains of junk from the car to the boat, stowing it all, checking to see if the running lights and bilge pump work, rigging a painter and running off to get some ice. Of course, the ice excursion is when the waiting boaters get the chance to pull out the transom plug that the perpetrator has just inserted.

Anchoring etiquette is perhaps most discussed when the subject pops up. We’ve all seen folks anchoring on top of other boats or immediately upwind in a storm. We once watched as a woman on the bowsprit of the hapless downwind boat slashed with a machete every time the newcomer’s stern closed with her bow. And then there are the guys who lay out 200 feet of rode in anchorages with 10-foot depths and also put out a dozen fake anchor buoys around the boat so that they can “claim” their bottom.

And some guys come into an anchorage where every boat has one hook deployed, nicely swinging together as the current changes. The perp anchors in the middle and puts out two hooks so he collides with one or more boats with every change of the tide. This is when the prudent mariner rigs not fenders but wrecking balls over the side. Cushioned from your boat, they tend to discourage the excessive camaraderie obviously craved by the double-anchored perp.

Being discourteous to ships can have dire results.

And we can’t leave out sailboats with “right of way.” We’ve all seen sailboats beating across ahead of tankers and container ships in narrow channels because the skippers thought they had the right of way. I’ve seen sailboats, with skippers trying to save fuel, tack upwind in the narrow channels of the ICW.

They usually learn their lesson when they try to tack through a bridge — never mind that it’s normally illegal — and suddenly find the wind veering from all directions, deflected by the structure. Bridges are very unforgiving when you run into them — or when they close on you because the bridge tender assumes you must have passed through 15 minutes ago, not realizing you’re down there still trying to tack.

Sometimes this idea of expecting etiquette on the water feels like a losing proposition. So I’m going to stop worrying about it and try to remember how things were when I was growing up in the country, where you’d just “be nice.” It’s a lot easier to think about and a lot easier to pronounce.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.