The Company You Keep

Be mindful of whom you take on your boat because some people can get you into trouble
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My mother is awesome. I could write a book about the wisdom she’s passed on to me over the years. Her lessons always contain a memorable phrase—often borrowed—that help an idea stick.

“Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” That gem from George Bernard Shaw capped off her lesson on arguments and conflicts. “Opportunity isn’t going to knock on the door. It’s busy out there working.” That was Mom’s version of Thomas Edison. She used this to get me off the couch as a teenager.

But it was her Ben Franklin that I saw in action most during search-and-rescue work. “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” Franklin and Mom were right. You live by the company you keep. At sea, the wrong people can ruin more than your reputation. They can literally ruin your life. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three types of people I won’t go to sea with.

The Partier. No one ever made me angry by giving me a bottle of Scotch. I’m not against alcohol on boats, and in some cases, I require it. For sure, no one should drink while operating a vessel, but I’ve been on enough boat-based wine tours to appreciate the safe mixing of alcohol and water. However, anyone who drinks to excess brings risk aboard. Putting aside the discomfort of watching your old frat buddy lose his lunch while you’re trying to eat yours, intoxicated passengers can hurt themselves and others—and they’re useless in an emergency. Boats at sea are unstable; you don’t need someone whose sea legs get worse with every mile. I’ve seen too many drunk passengers and captains create havoc for all on board. I’ll never set foot on a boat with anyone who has a substance abuse problem.

The Clueless. My first boss as a rescue swimmer, Mike Odom, nearly lost his life while saving three guys who had no business crewing a sailboat. It’s fine to boat with a novice; every boater in the world has a first day at sea. But the guy has to know he is a novice. He has to understand his limitations and accept the reality of who is in charge. Write this down: There should always be at least a 2:1 ratio of experienced to novice boaters on any trip. The clueless can be dangerous. They can divide your attention and require more looking after. The worst kind of novices—the ones I refuse to boat with—are beginners who are unwilling to admit that they are beginners. The ocean is no place for rookies who are too proud or insecure to admit ignorance. They have to understand that the three times they drove their father’s Carolina Skiff won’t make them your first mate. If a passenger is unable to admit he or she has limited experience, you should think twice about taking them to sea.

The Captain. I’m probably going to hurt some feelings here, but boaters who refer to themselves as “captain” scare me. I know, you worked hard to get your six-pack license. The test was difficult and you only made up some of your sea time on your     application. However, believing that your title alone makes you able to handle yourself out there is dangerous. It doesn’t.

Perhaps I’m biased. Most “captains” I’ve met were whining at the end of a hoist cable after abandoning their boats. A person with an overabundance of confidence gives me the willies. Humility is a hallmark of every captain I’ve ever felt safe around. Consider the words of Starbuck, the young chief mate of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of a whale.” That quote hangs over my office door for a reason. A fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.

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How do you judge this fearlessness in a boat operator you don’t know well? Ask him to tell you about a mistake he made that almost got him in trouble at sea. If he can’t tell you about one, then he’s a novice or a “captain.” Be mindful of whom you take on your boat. Mom was right: Whom you hang out with does matter.

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.