Ten Boating Myths Dispelled

By Charles Fort

Let's set the record straight once and for all on everything from ethanol to life jackets.

Sea monster attacking ship illustrationPhoto: Thinkstock/Estt

From the Kracken to Cthulhu and Hydra to Leviatan, stories of mythical creatures abound in seafaring lore. So, too, are the myths that perpetuate when it comes to modern boat ownership, handling, maintenance, and safety.

Seaworthy is able to bust these common myths because, for 35 years, we've had the unique ability to mine the BoatUS insurance data to spot trends, investigate pretty much any kind of grief a boat can get into, and write about how to avoid it. We sift through thousands of claims files every year looking to turn hunches into facts and translate statistics into information you can use to keep you and your boat safe on the water.

Here's a look at the most common myths we at BoatUS hear over and over. We'll also continue analyzing data and busting myths so you can avoid becoming a statistic.

10. Stainless steel doesn't rust.

Whoever named stainless steel must have been an optimist. Stainless steel certainly can and does rust, though if you know why, you can avoid using it in places where it's less suitable. Most marine-grade stainless used on production boats is from the 300 series. Type 304 is a good multipurpose steel. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is clad with 304. Types 316 and 316L have a slightly higher nickel content and added molybdenum to improve their corrosion resistance over 304 — especially with regard to pitting and corrosion in saltwater environments. There are higher grades as well, such as the type used in dental implants. Most boaters will opt for Type 316 and 316L.

The key to stainless steel is that the chromium in the steel combines with oxygen to form an invisible surface layer of chromium oxide that prevents further corrosion from spreading into the metal's internal structure. Stainless steel actually protects and repairs itself, except in areas where there is a low level of oxygen, such as a stainless-steel screw in a damp deck core. This kind of corrosion is referred to as "crevice corrosion." It can eat into the stainless, causing great weakening. In some cases, cheap plated steel or zinc fasteners are mistaken for stainless steel and then cursed when they begin to rust or crumble. Use stainless steel where it won't be starved of oxygen, and get high-grade stainless fittings from a known supplier. Stainless steel that is attracted by a magnet is not what you want to use on a boat.

9. Ethanol gas (E10) works fine in my car so it should be fine for my boat, too.

Cars go through gas much faster than most boats. You probably fill up your car once a week or so. But ethanol's Achilles heel is that it's hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water. Car fuel systems are closed and under slight pressure, meaning they absorb very little water, and any small amount that gets in will just burn through the engine until it's replaced by fresh fuel next week. But most boat fuel tanks are open to the atmosphere. That little vent you see in your hull allows air to replace fuel as it's used, but it's also an inlet for moisture. A deck fill that even slightly leaks can put a lot of water in your boat's fuel. As enough water gets into your boat's gas tank, the ethanol combines with it, and when there is enough, the ethanol/water mixture separates to the bottom of the tank, right where the fuel pickup is. The result is a stalling — or even a damaged — engine.

8. Boats stored ashore can't sink.

This one is sort of true. Technically a boat on land can't sink underwater, but it can get filled with water during a major storm, which can cause nearly as much damage as if it sank. After a hurricane hits, there are always claims for boats that have submerged engines and electronics even though they're stored ashore. Given enough rain and wind, water will find a way in.

Larger boats need to have all openings made watertight before a major storm hits. Leaking hatches and portlights can also allow lots of water in over time, with a moldy mess the result. Smaller boats often fill with water due to a leaking seat hatch or sole cover. Over long periods of time, a bad enough leak can eventually destroy a boat. Close-fitting covers can avoid "sinking on land," and for small boats, leaving the drain plug out, with the drain clear of debris, is the safest bet. Only in extreme surge events should you leave the plug in so rising water can't come in through the drain. One more thing: Visit your boat often to make sure leaks don't turn into a catastrophe.

7. Sailboats have the right of way.

Lots of powerboat operators may be gleeful to see this myth exposed in print, but don't get too smug because powerboats are still behind sailboats most of the time in the pecking order. But sailboats aren't even halfway up the list. Without getting into too much detail, the pecking order from least to highest privilege is seaplane, power-driven vessel (this means your sailboat, if your engine is on, even if not in gear), sailboat, fishing vessel (commercial, not recreational), vessel constrained by draft (think ship in a narrow channel), vessel restricted in ability to maneuver (such as a dredge or vessel servicing a buoy), and at the top, a vessel not under command (this could be a vessel drifting due to an engine failure or one that's flooding or on fire).

But this is not a hard-and-fast "no exceptions" statement of the rules. We must say to all of this, "except sometimes." See, for example, Rule 2.

6. Drinking aboard is OK as long as there's a designated driver.

Almost half of all boating accidents involve alcohol. And while most of those lay the blame squarely on the skipper, there are plenty of accidents where tipsy passengers take a nasty fall aboard or, worse, fall overboard. An inebriated swimmer — especially one who has fallen off a moving boat — may become so disoriented that he or she can drown before the "designated driver" can return.

A pitching, bouncing boat is a difficult platform to maneuver on. Throw in some alcohol and things can get dangerous. Your best bet is to wait until you're back at the dock to celebrate a great outing.

5. You don't need a life jacket if you're a good swimmer.

Maybe this statistic will change your mind: 90 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. Not some, but the vast majority of drowning victims had no life jacket on.

If you fall off of a boat, you may strike your head on something, leaving you dazed and unable to swim. If the water is cold, you may experience caloric labyrinthitis and/or hyperventilation, as well as hypothermia. Caloric labyrinthitis is an inner ear disturbance associated with sudden temperature drop and causes a person to become disoriented, which explains why someone thrown into the water may sometimes swim down instead of up. Hyperventilation can cause a person to gasp and breathe in water. In very cold water, a swimmer without a life jacket can only survive for a few minutes. Even if you're a champion swimmer, consider wearing your life jacket whenever you're aboard. You can't predict when you'll fall overboard.

4. Older boats are money pits.

This one may have a ring of truth to it for anyone who's ever tried to restore a "classic." But a well-cared-for older boat doesn't have to cost an arm and leg to maintain and may actually be cheaper to keep than a newer boat.

Systems (e.g., plumbing, wiring) are less sophisticated, which means someone who's handy can often do more maintenance and repairs than he or she could on a newer boat with computer controls, electric doodads, and complex engines.

The best older boats to hang onto are often those that were made in large numbers; parts are often easily available and there is usually a large group of enthusiastic supporters online who are willing to share money-saving parts-sourcing and repair tips.

3. Hoses last forever.

Of course this one isn't true. But judging by the hundreds of pictures we see every year of rotten, swollen, leaking hoses, many people seem to think it is.

Hoses live a pretty tough life, especially those that have to handle fuel. For something that can easily sink your boat if it fails, they don't seem to get the attention they deserve. Most manufacturers say that after 10 years, any hose is living on borrowed time. (Hose clamps may last less than half that time.)

Longtime marine surveyor Alison Mazon's response to how long a hose lasts: A hose will last until it can't. In other words, you can't predict when one will give up, so check them regularly and immediately replace any that are questionable. (For more on hoses, see "Choosing The Correct Boat Hose".)

2. Driving a boat is pretty much like driving a car.

This is often where new boaters get into trouble, and it's usually for a couple of reasons. First, the water our boats float upon is, well, fluid, and always moving. Boats simply can't maneuver as well as cars can on asphalt. There are no brakes on boats, and even if there were, once you've stopped, there's nothing to keep you from moving with the wind and current — until you run aground.

Second, the rules that drivers follow (stop at stop signs, one-way only, use your turn signal) go out the door on the water, replaced by inland and international regulations designed to prevent collisions. On a boat, it's also easier to let your guard down because of the seemingly wide-open spaces without traffic controls, which can lead to collisions.

1. Inland lakes and rivers aren't nearly as challenging as the ocean.

Just tell that to someone who boats on the Great Lakes or the Columbia River. Wind over the open water of 307-mile long Lake Michigan allows waves to build up to 20 feet. Lake Superior boasts even higher waves, with heights approaching 30 feet in violent fall storms. Waves on the lakes tend to be steeper and shorter, which makes for a truly uncomfortable (and potentially dangerous) ride when the wind pipes up.

Great Lakes boaters are also familiar with some truly spectacular thunderstorms that whip up in the summer. Boaters on the Columbia River in Washington know that winds frequently gust 40 knots down the narrow gorges and if it opposes the swift current, the waves are very steep. Many inland lakes are well known for violent summer thunderstorms. Whether offshore or inland, checking the latest weather forecast can keep you out of trouble. 

— Published: August/September 2018

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