Drive My Boat

By Tom Neale, 11/17/2005


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I just love it when somebody tells me how to drive my boat. It’s not that I think that I know it all, it’s just that I think that I know most of it all. I mean, I do own a boat, you know. There are some who say that only an idiot would buy a boat. (Come to think of it, I believe I’ve said that.) But call me what you want, when I’m at MY wheel on MY boat, I’m THE CAPTAIN. Until my wife says, “move over honey,” so she can get us out of the shoals that just materialized out of nowhere, probably from some earthquake or unreported volcano.

It takes a lot to buy a boat, so at least I ought to be respected for that. It takes, first of all, money. Come to think of it, that’s what it takes last of all too—and in between. And even though I might not be able to come up with all of that money on the spot, the fact that I can sign on the line should mean that I must know something. And then, when I go out to Nautical Nellie’s Boating Boutique and buy that captain’s cap with all the gold braid, the question about whether I know what I’m doing should be put to rest once and for all.

So when I’m tooling down the waterway, I’ve got to wonder why some of the bridge tenders think they know more about driving my boat than I do. Like when I’ve been waiting forty five minutes for a scheduled opening and the wind and the tide are trying their best to push me into the bridge and the channel is so narrow that I can’t turn around without bow thrusters and a prayer.

I’ve seen what happens when you hit a bridge. They usually close the thing down for an infinity so they can check it to be sure that no cars are going to fall off, never mind that it’s just a dinky little boat that hit those big cement columns and that the boat crumpled like a wet potato chip when it hit. And you have to explain to the Coast Guard and (worst of all) your insurance how come you couldn’t see that bridge or stay out of its way. So I get a little miffed when I’ve been fighting wind and current backing and filling and thrusting and praying almost an hour trying to keep off the bank and to keep off the bridge and some bridge tender says, “You’ll have to bring it all the way up to my fender system before I start to open. I don’t want to hold up any cars.”

A lot of these bridges take close to ten minutes to open, some longer when you consider that first they have to blow a siren or horn, they have to flash lights, then they have to lower gates, then they have to lock gates, then they have to undo all of the above and do it all over again after some dedicated jogger on crutches hobbles off the span. And only then do they start their swing or lift. In the meantime, the person in the bridge house—the little house up top with the aircondoo and television and telephone and comfortable chair and CONTROL PANEL—is telling me to bring it up to the fenders, never mind that I’ve been fighting like crazy to keep it off the fenders so that none of those important people in cars will have to detour and my potato chip won’t crumble.


1. Asking for an opening that you don’t need is illegal and people are getting fined for it, particularly in Florida. This means that we have to take down antennae and also other collapsible stuff like fishing gear. Sometimes the bridge tenders will report the boat but the boat owner won’t know he’s been reported until he gets a letter from the government informing him that he owes a hefty sum.

2. I’ve found that usually (note I said “usually”), when a bridge tender is asking me to do something that I shouldn’t do with regard to the operation of my boat, it works to courteously and professionally give him a brief explanation of my maneuvers and to tell him that, despite what it looks like, I won’t unnecessarily delay the opening.

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What do you do when a bridge tender is telling you how to run your boat and you know that what he’s saying isn’t a peachy keen idea? Do you say, “You run your bridge and I’ll run my boat?” I’m afraid to do that because he might say, “Sure I’ll run my bridge and I’ll wait another hour before I open.” We’ve heard things like this. Or do you say, “Sure, I’ll bring’er right up to the fenders and when I hit would you like to step aboard for a cup of coffee or, better still, a beer?” Or do I say, crisply, “Roger that,” move forward a few inches and then ignore the request? Or maybe it’s best to just explain the situation. “Bridge Tender, I’d love to bring’er up to your fenders but I’ve got a 3 knot current and a 25 knot wind trying to stick my spar through your window and up your operations center and if you don’t mind, please sir or ma’am (I’ve found that it’s very important to get that last part right), I’m going to hold’er back a bit to save us both some problems. But I promise on Scout’s honor that I won’t keep you or any cars waiting. I’ll scoot right on through as soon as you get’er open, and if you’re ready to copy, here’s my credit card number to seal the deal.”

There are lots of good bridge tenders out there. Some are retired boaters, some are foolish enough to still be doing it. Most are true professionals who do a great job and who go the extra mile to help out boaters every day. But there are a few who aren’t accustomed to sitting up higher than anyone else in front of a “CONTROL PANEL and pushing buttons and pulling levers. To these folks, a little flex of the old bicep seems to be a natural right.

I’ve seen some interesting things with bridges over the years. I’ve seen them close on boats. (This is never very convenient.) I’ve seen one bridge tender tell a tug boat captain pushing a barge weighing about fifty jillion tons being pushed in turn by a 3.5 knot current, “You’ll have to stop. I’m not going to open for you because one of my gates isn’t working right.” And this when the tug was only a few hundred feet away! I’ve heard one bridge tender indignantly ask the skipper of a large military boat, “Did you break my bridge? You’ll have to stop right there and make a report.” This was after the skipper had worked near miracles to get the boat through the bridge that shouldn’t be there in the first place because the current and channel configuration are very bad and there’s a new high rise nearby. I’ve seen bridge tenders argue with boat operators about how fast the boat is going even though they’re not on the boat and the boat operator is looking at his SOG on the GPS screen, his speed in the water log, and his radar.

But I’ve also seen some interesting things with boaters. A few days ago we heard a guy on a big yacht going through all the bridges in Norfolk, VA. He didn’t have a clue as to which bridge he was approaching. Even after he went through one and was told, he still didn’t know which was the next one. This means he either had no charts or guide books or didn’t know how to use them. I’ve seen boaters ask for openings when all they needed to do for clearance was turn a thumb screw and lower an antenna. I’ve seen boaters scoot through bridges in front of heavy lumbering tugs and barges which could barely maneuver and which were being pushed by strong current. I’ve seen boaters try to pass through swing bridges on the wrong side of the fenders and get stuck in the opening so that the bridge can’t close. I guess if I were a bridge tender I would have seen a lot more. So maybe that’s why some of them feel we don’t know how to drive our boats.

But the bottom line is that we’re ultimately responsible for our boat’s operation. That means we’ve gotta know what to do, know how to do it, and do it well. If we don’t and something goes wrong, we’re the ones in the soup, (literally and figuratively), not the bridge tender. So I’ll run my own boat, and do my best to maintain a courteous and professional attitude when someone driving a bridge decides he can do it better. And one of those times I’m going to tell a bridge tender: Sir (or Ma’am), if you think that in the next ten years you can make half as many mistakes on this boat as I’ve managed to make in just the last week, you’re hired. Come on down. You can drive it.


Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale