They came, they bought, they boated, they left

October, 2002

By Dodge Morgan

I can sense that an evolution in recreational boating has occurred now that the failed revolution is behind us. The large majority of boaters now are back to knowing what they are doing afloat.

The revolution was a yuppie trend that, like many yuppie lifestyle overshoots, did not take in the long run. A generation of instant satisfaction seekers learned that a boat is not a motorcycle or a pair of skis or trekking boots or a crap table or a lounge chair at an exotic resort. In the halcyon days of sailboat sales, too many purchases were Friday night whims, executed more for cocktail hour one-upmanship than for the commitment required.

The motorcycle dealer could deliver cycle operating competence in a half-hour. Three hours of instruction could get a person, even one as coordinated as a pregnant clam, up and down a snow hill. A simple trip to L.L. Bean would adequately prepare one for a hike. A wad of dough was all that was needed in a casino, and plane tickets and designer jeans would deliver the proper resort experience.

You get a sailboat, or even a powered craft, and you get a serious challenge with it. You get a boat with the intention of actually using it and you get a long learning curve along with it. You drop the mooring pennant and you find yourself in a wonderland of independence, a joyful place where lives can be at stake. Even modern technology does not eliminate the risks and penalties of ignorance. So the boat-owner population bubble has burst. Some inside that boating bubble, of course, stuck with it and are here with us today. Most retreated back to L.L. Bean or traded in for a jetski or took up jumping off bridges on precisely engineered bungee cords.

The reach for boating competence takes more time and effort than almost any other avocation. Maybe flying a light aircraft compares (but nobody sits in an airplane on the taxiway with a margarita in hand watching a sunset). A few have the joy of a sailing mentor to verify a learning-curve climb, but most of us start stupid with no more than an attitude of determination and a flame of desire. I taught myself to sail in a rented 12-foot catboat and, with untypical 15-year-old wisdom, made all possible mistakes close to a Nantucket Sound beach. I was told by wiser souls that my efforts were not to be casual and I took what I was told to heart. The joy of extending the leash from shore alone and the puzzle of fog got me into an intense study of dead reckoning; sixty-D-street became my mantra.

Much later, I extended my book-born celestial navigation lessons experientially during a 49-day crossing from Panama to Hawaii. By the time I arrived, I was coming within a mile or two with fixes. Today, I know that I have just reached the front edge of competence and am not at all deep enough into it to keep me from trouble, only enough to cope with the trouble I get into. I may still act with abandon, but always very carefully so.

There was a time maybe 40 years ago when you could safely assume a crew in a boat knew what they were doing. Those old farts are still on the water, but more often now in trawlers than sailboats because of the persistence of actuarial tables. There is a younger sailing crowd now replacing them. The young bunch has taken up the old traditions. It is a thrill to watch boats tack by these days.

Record-breaking csircumnavigator Dodge Morgan lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.