The Way Boating Was,50 Years Ago

If you're curious about how boating may have changed in the last 50 years, there is no better place to start than the January 1961 Boat Show issue of Yachting magazine. The issue has over 500 pages, with articles by such revered boating icons as Eric Hiscock and Bill Robinson. Today, the broad range of topics, both power and sail together, would have to be covered in a dozen or more different boating magazines: sailing in Tahiti; equipping an outboard cruiser; the Bermuda Race; a visit to Lake Meade aboard a 22-foot trailerable runabout; how to be a better navigator; racing catamarans; offshore fishing; hydroplane racing; and step-by-step instructions on how to rig and tune a racing sailboat.

The fading, mostly black and white pages are a time capsule of the way life was on the water a half-century ago. Some of the differences in boating are immediately obvious, like the boats themselves. Most were still being made of wood, but the benefits of fiberglass had become widely recognized and boats made of fiberglass were no longer a novelty. There were also advertisements for a surprising number of steel and aluminum boats. Not so surprisingly, perhaps, is that most of the boats were drop-dead gorgeous, but there were also a few with futuristic styling that, mercifully, never caught on.

The term "yachting" 50 years ago was much more inclusive; the magazine has photos of wealthy Wall Street types on stately megayachts as well as families scooting along in their 14-foot aluminum runabouts. Other distinctions of note include puffy hairstyles for women as well as fancy yachting caps and well-ironed khakis for men. National chandleries like West Marine were still years away and no one yet imagined that there might someday be discounts on marine equipment. There are ads for an automatic direction finder that cost $895, a six-channel VHF marine radio that cost almost $600, and a freshwater pump that cost $175. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the average family income in 1961 was a modest $5,700 — $475 a month.

For those who measure change with statistics, the magazine's "Washington Report" said there were 2,356,374 boats registered by state and federal authorities, although it noted numbering and titling had only been mandated by the federal government two years earlier and the numbers were still unreliable. Unofficial estimates of pleasure craft of all types, according to the same report, were as high as 8 million. That's less than half the number of boats on the water today.

Whether you pine for the good old days or not, there is one unfortunate statistic in the 50-year-old magazine that separates the two eras more than wood boats, puffy hairdos, or fancy yachting caps: In 1960, the year before the magazine was published, the fatality rate was 33.4 per 100,000 boaters. Since then, according to the Coast Guard, the fatality rate has been steadily decreasing by an average of 4.6 percent annually. In 2009, the most recent reporting year, the rate was 5.6 per 100,000 — a decline of almost 600 percent. That sort of improvement doesn't happen by accident; it's a credit to organizations like BoatUS, the American Boat & Yacht Council, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Power Squadron. And while there is still room for improvement, it's nice to know that as far as safety is concerned, boating is headed in the right direction. 

— Published: April 2011