Etiquette On The Water

By Tom Neale

Sometimes there seems to be a difference between shore side etiquette and etiquette on the water. But maybe not.

Photo of Tom Neale at the helm of his boatA good passing.

On shore you don't dare honk at another car these days, no matter what the "idiot" driver just did. You're afraid of road rage. It can get you anything from a middle finger salute to a deadly game of bumper cars. So you look straight ahead and grimace, hoping it'll be taken as a smile. On the water "honking" has had a very different meaning. We have "sound signals." You know what I mean: two whistles if I want to overtake you on your port, and that sort of thing. It used to be that folks on the water had a fair understanding of that. But now, more and more of the masses who are bobbing around out here don't have a clue about what two whistles mean, much less one. Many seem to take offense when you give a sound signal (which to them is just "that damn guy honking at me"). A five whistle signal is likely to start a war.

But as modern day mariners enjoy their "access to the water," they've bought with them some of the quieter shore side traditions of etiquette. The primary mode of responding to a perceived breach of kindness on the water, at least the inland waterways where we're close enough to see the message, seems to be flipping the bird ... and I don't mean the parakeet. I suppose this means there's still hope. At least it's not a very noisy insult. I think digit flipping is second nature out here where the world is wet and more relaxed. It's like flipping on a GPS to see where you aren't or flipping on the depth finder to see why you're not moving or flipping on a trim tab toggle to make that bottle of beer slide to your side of the boat so you can reach it without getting up. I can't imagine doing a trip up or down the ICW without seeing a few birds of the middle digit type. Never mind that they aren't feathered. Over the years I've gotten used to it. And to sweeten the pot, I'm sure that the EPA is delighted to know that the number of birds out here has been dramatically increasing with the passage of time and influx of boaters. But times are a-changing.

Most of the time in the near past, the birds have been associated with another more unique maritime phenomenon. It's called a huge wake. This is not the kind of wake where you have an unseemly party over the departure of a dearly deceased, or a nearly extinct creature (like me). This is a manmade phenomenon which has evolved as part of the process of natural evolution. These huge wakes come from boats, all travelling at just the wrong speed. And paradoxically, as pleasure boats have gotten bigger and faster, many of those operating them have gotten more and more like the dodo bird in terms of intelligent operation. Whether you have a big or little boat, there's a speed that's going to throw the boat's worst possible wake, and that's typically perceived as the ideal passing speed. But it's gotten so bad it's made flipping the bird often out of the question because you're usually holding on for dear life with everything you've got if you're the victim of a huge wake. Your flipping finger is tightly curled around the stanchion or the wheel. This is unfortunate because the bird was a kinder more genteel insult, usually seen only by the intended recipient.

But don't be discouraged, because as progress has prevailed we boaters have developed a better weapon of choice to voice discontent: the VHF. The internationally recognized bad wake signal of the VHF is the phrase "you a**hole" resonating on 16, 09 or whatever other channel the skipper or his guests forgot to switch off from. I suppose this is the weapon of choice because it "gets even" with not only the waker perp but everyone else, women and children included, within VHF range. But the march of etiquette evolution has dampened the effectiveness of even this time honored manner of insult. For it to be effective, your target has to be listening to his radio.

But everyone on the water now seems to be so occupied with cell phone calls and texting and "apping" that they're often not listening to the VHF and can't hear the insult they've just received. And wake victims certainly don't know how to call the perp on his cell phone unless it's maybe a fellow member of the yacht club. A wasted insult is a sad thing. We're losing a bit of our bond of humanity when we can't insult effectively. We need an app for this. You touch the app button and your phone insults all other cell phones within range, much like the old days of mass VHF insults.

On the brighter side, as boating has developed, there have also developed many new opportunities for etiquette in boating. Any time one gets a chance to be polite, one ought to avail himself of the opportunity. Take, for example, docking etiquette. There are several rules. The first is that you never watch the other guy from your safely docked boat, unless you really hate him. Another is that, while not watching, you stand on the dock ready to take his lines or help fend him. This is particularly helpful because it gives the docking skipper the opportunity to scream at you instead of his wife when he creams the boat in the next slip. Of course, if that's your boat, it gives you extra opportunity to show your charm.

In modern times, the crowning challenge and thus achievement — if you get it right — is pump-out etiquette. The problem is that there's some issue as to getting it right. For example, how do you hand the hose to the guy in line behind you? Surely you don't hand over the business end first, perhaps as you're explaining, I forgot which way to turn it off — you might want to check... Or do you try to turn slightly, sidle up to him, and hand him the handle first as he's desperately trying to avoid getting too close to you because he was watching you do your business and saw the mess you made all over your boat, the dock, yourself and everyone around you? Obviously, the ultimately polite thing to do would be to say: Would you like to share my gloves? But I've never gotten a yes to that. Actually, come to think of it, I've seldom seen anybody waiting in line behind me to do the pump-out. What a wasted opportunity! 

Tom Neale is Technical Editor of BoatUS Magazine, with a lifetime of liveaboard and cruising experience. Read more of Tom Neale's articles here.

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— Published: September 2015

Tom's Tips On Boating Etiquette

  • We're much more reliant on each other out on the water when something goes wrong. While there's usually help available, it often can't be as quick and thorough as on shore.
  • You very seldom see anyone not jumping to help on the water, but if you get into trouble you may be glad you've been "nice."
  • When there's a problem, use the best means of communication you have to talk to appropriate authorities if necessary. Your report should be factual, calm and informative.
  • But remember, there are going to be unpleasant situations on the water, just because you're on the water. Always try to be tolerant.
  • The best guide for courtesy and getting along on the water are the Rules of the Road. Check them out thoroughly. You'll be pleasantly surprised and glad you did.



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