Raging Ripples

By Tom Neale, 3/20/2008


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Raging ripples

We were cruising along in a 24 foot express cruiser with some friends. The place was southwest Florida, the day was sunny and the time could have been just about anytime. The seas in the Gulf of Mexico were in the process of building to three to fives, with wind picking up, sending small waves even across the inland waters. So we were hanging out in the channels of the mangroves. There’s a Gulf Coast ICW there and other waterways so that you can cruise along for hours—days even—without going out into the Gulf. It’s beautiful and you never get bored.

But somebody was bored, I guess. He was on a dock extending from one of the yards off one of the houses. We’d left the more remote mangroves and were heading slowly along a channel with yards and homes on one side and mangroves on the other. We were going slow. There was a minimum wake sign and, besides, we wanted to go slow. It was that kind of day. A good kind of day. The inboard/outboard gas Volvo was barely purring under its hatch and we were enjoying talking with friends. It’s hard to do that when you’re going fast and you can’t hear each other over motor noise and wind rush.

About Wakes

1. Take very seriously this thing about being responsible for our wakes. It’s very true.

2. There are areas where enforcement is severe. We’ve even seen bridges refuse to open because “aggrieved” parties on shore called and asked them to hold the boat which had inflicted damage until the law arrived.

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So we didn’t have any problem hearing the loud yelling coming from the shore. We didn’t have any problem hearing every word. They weren’t what you’d call nice words—unless maybe you’d been born during a bar fight. They were coming from the guy on the dock. We turned, concerned that he may have fallen over or stepped on a fish hook or sat on a boat hook—or something—considering all the noise. As it turned out, we could hear him so well not just because we were going slow, and not just because he was yelling loud, but also because he was yelling at us.

I looked at my friend, whose boat we were in, and who was at the wheel. I thought maybe he knew the guy and there was some kind of friendly joke going on. I could tell from the look on his face that he didn’t know the guy, and that he wasn’t about to laugh. The yelling continued, as we watched, sort of stunned. Then it was accompanied by some jumping up and down and pointing at us. Well, no, he really wasn’t pointing at us. He was pointing at our stern. And one of the words he was yelling, (one of the much nicer words he was yelling) was “wake.” After we got through the antics and superheated verbosity, we realized he was yelling at us about our wake. OK.

We looked at our wake, or what we could see of it. There just wasn’t much there to see. There was a wake, sure, if you wanted to use that word for ripples. And this guy was very unhappy about ours—ours that we could hardly see. By the time we figured all this out, we were past the dock and the guy had his sights zeroed in on the next boat.

Kayak Making a Wake

Now, I don’t like it either when somebody throws a troublesome wake. In the past we’ve suffered far more than inconvenience from bad wakes. We’ve suffered damage and injury. And the fact that “Chez Nous” is an ocean going boat doesn’t really make much difference if I’m in a narrow channel like many in the ICW. I’m usually not rigged for running in the ocean when I’m running inside. The boat isn’t secured for the ocean. And wakes, if they’re bad enough, can cause trouble even for an ocean going boat if they’re confined to the walls of a narrow shallow channel. They can even toss the victim boat out of the channel into the shallows. I’ve known of people to get badly hurt from bad wakes. I’ve known of boats to be severely damaged on rocks from bad wakes. And I’ve seen shores along waterways crumble and slide into the channel over the years of traveling the coast. I’ve seen front yards of homes that have been overlooking a quiet creek or river for many decades eroding into the water, finally succumbing not to the weather and waves that they’ve survived for so long, but to man made wakes that they’ve endured for only a few years. So I don’t like bad wakes either. But what about “minimum” wakes? And what about “no wakes?”

One of many things that some politicians and bureaucrats don’t seem to know is that it’s virtually impossible for most boats to move through the water without some wake. The boat pushes water aside in order to move through it. That makes waves or undulations or little hills or whatever you want to call it. It’s also called a wake. Yet there are signs all over the place saying “no wake.”

Sure, most of us know what they mean, and have no trouble with the concept. We get along and have a good time and keep people happy. But when some sign is telling me it’s against the law to do something that I can’t help doing (like making “no” wake when I’m moving a boat through the water) it leaves me a little uneasy. Because all it takes is some malcontent on the shore or in a smaller boat (or maybe in a police boat) to make a complaint that I’m making a wake, and I’ve got to pay a fine or come back some later day and try to convince a judge who may have never been on the water a day in his life that sure, I was making a “wake” even though the sign said “no wake,” but that it really wasn’t what the legislature was talking about (assuming it knew what it was talking about).

NO WAKE means different things to different people. And while it’s unfortunately true that a few boaters don’t care about throwing wakes—some even brag about it— most of us handle the vagueness of the concept just by exercising good judgment and by being good neighbors. But, as there are a few bozos on boats, there are also a few on the shore. For example, there’s the crowd (and there are more and more of them) who are moving in to live on the water because it’s the thing to do. And when they get their new home and set up their lawn chairs they decide they don’t like a lot of things about the water, like boats. It’s like moving to the mountains and then complaining about high altitudes. And they complain to their local politicians who pass laws that, while sometimes very helpful, are sometimes ridiculous.

Wake on a Plane

We laughed for years at signs north of Ft. Lauderdale in the ICW saying, as I recall, that the speed limit was 25 MPH and that you couldn’t throw a wake over 3 inches. Sure, there was some credibility here because in some boats if you go fast enough you throw almost no wake. But this zone was in a narrow canal full of boats and bordered with cement bulkheads, docks, waterside bars and restaurants and other canals emptying into it like side streets with no stop lights, yield or stop signs. And in our motorsailer we throw a 3 inch wake going only around 3 knots—which, at times, can be hardly enough to gain steerage. There are places in South Carolina near Myrtle Beach where I couldn’t imagine putting a house near the water. But a lot of people did. And now banks are caving into the ICW where you must maintain enough speed for good steerage because the channel sides have rocks and there’s often a lot of current.

We watched the guy yelling on the dock. The ripples (OK, “wakes” in the eye of that beholder) barely moved his small boat. I wondered if he survived the day without a stroke, because lots of other boats, also moving very slowly, were also throwing raging ripples his way. I couldn’t help but thinking that maybe he’d be happier retiring to a nice home in the desert. And us? We immediately slowed down. Even more. To a crippled turtle crawl. We still had a nice day on the water and we didn’t want to ruin anyone else’s day, no matter what his problem. Life is short, it’s a small world, and we all need to try to get along.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale