In this issue, you’ll learn about this year’s dramatic increase in first-time boat buyers, and the rise in accidents that has occurred as a result of so many newcomers on the water. Safety experts say many of these people are making thoughtless mistakes, in large part because they don’t have enough education, be it formal training at a certification class or informal schooling from friends who have boats.
Some of the most competent skippers I know learned the ropes from their parents, who taught skills as well as respect for a certain way of doing things, for the nuances of seamanship. I’ve always enjoyed spending time with these boaters, as they seem to value nautical tradition and know how to make a day on the water really special by allowing passengers to feel they are in good, capable hands.
I didn’t grow up in a boating family, but I was lucky to get an introduction to the sport through the people I met at my first job out of college, at a marine magazine. There, I spent time on the water with experts like Capt. Bill Brogdon, who was the Seamanship columnist at the time. With a distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard, Bill generously shared his deep knowledge of the finer points of navigation, but he also took the time to teach and re-teach the basics, without ever rolling an eye.
We were cruising Tampa Bay near the Sunshine Skyway, with freighters coming and going, when Bill let me take the wheel. I asked him if we were in the way of one of those ships. He said, “If you even think there’s a risk of a collision with a ship, then there probably is. Take early action.”
And then there was Betty Cook, an offshore powerboat racer who took boating education to a highly specialized level. When she joined the male-dominated sport in 1970, driving a high-speed boat over ocean waves at 100 mph, she was dismissed as a wealthy housewife looking for excitement. She proved the critics wrong, most notably after winning her first world championship in 1977.
When I met her at the Miami Boat Show in the late ’80s, she was wearing a necklace encrusted with diamonds in the shape of an anchor, to commemorate that victory. She offered some driving advice that day, should I ever decide to take up racing. When you take off from the top of a wave, she cautioned, land keel first. No corrections in midair. You have to dig the boat out of certain swells and guide it back up on plane. The point, she said, was not to let the boat hurt itself.
I was also tutored by Bob Stearns, a fishing columnist and an exceptional angler with a couple of records to his credit. Bob, who died last September, would introduce me to his friends at boat shows—people like Lefty Kreh, Billy Pate and Chico Fernandez, all-stars of saltwater light-tackle fishing at the time. Bob knew a lot about boats too, particularly skiffs, and he’d shore up my knowledge of that type of powerboat when we did sea trials. If you buy one, he’d caution, don’t make the common mistake of getting an engine that’s too big. It just makes it harder to pole. You don’t need to be pushing all that dead weight around.
Today, I continue to learn about the sport from colleagues and contributors, including Pat Mundus, who writes the Seamanship column for Soundings. I asked Pat who taught her about boats. Her list included her father, Frank Mundus. “He was of the ‘learn by doing’ school,” she says. “He’d let me try to figure things out first. Then he’d show me the better way. He was right. I think you learn more when things don’t work out, as long as no one gets hurt.”
Her father also encouraged her to face her fears when cruising. “If something intimidated me, he’d say, ‘Conquer your fear by getting good at what scares you. Then you won’t be afraid of it anymore.’”
Is there a person who introduced you to boating, or taught you a valuable lesson about the sport—a parent, friend or co-worker? If so, please share your story with Soundings. I’d like to share it here, so we can all become better boaters.
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.