Call For a Tow

On Golden Pond

They have more experience and spend more time on the water than any other age group ... tapping into the wisdom of senior boaters.

One night after laboriously transferring diesel fuel from his car's tank to their 38'sailboat's tank, John McPherson and two friends decided to sail from Annapolis, Maryland to Yorktown, Virginia, a distance of 130 miles. Even though it was dark and a little foggy, John said his friends were impatient to get going. There was a nice breeze; why wait until morning? He got out his handheld GPS, punched in a few key waypoints, and they were off.

Unlike stories in the claim files, John's trip that night didn't end in a terrible collision, a fire, a sinking, or even a grounding. It did, however, teach him a lesson about his GPS. He said they were flying through the water at about 8 knots when the GPS began beeping to indicate an approaching waypoint — a green buoy. They began peering off into the darkness when "this big green monster" came zooming up inches away from the boat. He said it was higher than the sailboat's cabin. One of his friends yelled"#@**&%^"we're going to hit!"

They didn't hit, although John said they didn't miss by much either. He'd always thought GPS had a built-in error but that night his handheld model was dead-on accurate. The lesson: He now punches in waypoints that are far enough away to guarantee a miss.

As stories go, this one won't have readers slapping their foreheads in disbelief; anybody who has been on the water probably has one or two that are similar. This isn't an article about spectacular mishaps. We figured boat owners over 70 would have a lot to say about the way they approach boating — what they do and what they don't do, based on their many years of experience.

In the July Seaworthy, we asked boaters over 70 to contact us. First, a brief profile of the ones (almost 100) who did: The average age was a shade under 76 years old and he or she has been boating for 50 years. Florida and Maryland were tied as the states with the most respondents, followed by California, Washington, Michigan and Texas. A total of 26 states were represented.

The respondent's average boat size was 32 feet, with 59% having powerboats and 35% sail. The remaining 6% said they own both a power and a sailboat. These boats don't spend a lot of time at the marina either; almost 80% of the respondents report using their boats 30 days or more a year. Sixty percent said they voyage more than 100 miles from their homeports. That's impressive, and while we don't have statistics for other age groups, it's a safe bet that seniors are actively on the water, on average, much more than any other age group.

While several commented that growing older has meant physical limitations, 97% said that they are as good or better at operating their boats as they were 20 years ago. Seventy-two percent said they are more cautious. Eighty percent do all or most of their boat's maintenance. A majority, 73%, stay in shape by exercising regularly, including swimming, lifting weights, walking, and going to the gym. One member who said he didn't exercise noted, "... but I do all my work on the boat and my dog takes me for a walk several times a day."

The Good Old Days?

One thing quickly became apparent: Few older boaters pine for the good old days of wood boats and clunky flathead engines. Quite the contrary, nobody seems to appreciate the benefits of fiberglass as much as someone who used to start every boating season replacing planks, frames, and fasteners on a wood boat. The enthusiasm seniors show for innovations, ones that most younger people take for granted, is refreshing. Eighty-five-year-old Eugene Boggiatto, for example, said he bought his first outboard, a 25-hp Johnson, in 1950. He said it was among the first ones sold in California and caused quite a stir, "No one could even imagine an outboard motor over 200 hp. WOW!" Also mentioned as making boating safer and more enjoyable were GPS ("remarkable!"), refrigeration, air conditioning, autopilots, more reliable marine engines, DSC, radar, roller furling ("greatest development since sliced bread"), internet Doppler radar, "a lot of nice gadgets," polymer paint, Dacron sails, and the bow thruster. The latter, according to David Clark, a Maryland boater who takes his single-engine trawler to Florida every winter, is a "marriage saver."

Other changes that were noted by most include more and larger boats. Jerre Noe, an 81-year-old in Washington state, says his 28' sailboat, which he's had for 31 years, looks smaller each year in comparison to the ever-larger boats that are on the water. And Joseph Hlavin, Jr. in Arizona notes that while the newer technology has made it easier and safer to go cruising and exploring, the number of people on the water has made boating more difficult.

Much of the seniors' concerns is that today's boats, while larger, better equipped, and prevalent in much greater numbers, tend to have owners who lack experience and are often inconsiderate: "Many operators seem to be more aggressive now and less cautious"; "too many boaters with too little knowledge"; "too many boats with only one speed — wide open"; "some real jerks throwing up big wakes"; "a lot more careless people," and, "they don't seem to know what they're doing ... " were just a few of the comments. Clay Kirksey, a 78-year-old in Tennessee, notes wryly that he has to keep in mind other boats may be as ignorant of the Rules of the Road as he was when he started boating. The near encounters can sometimes be dangerous. In the past year, Rich Dillion in New York said he was almost run down three times by overtaking boats: "In each case, the boats were at least 40' long and apparently on autopilot. There was no one in sight.

It's no wonder then that seniors, many of whom are members of the Power Squadron and/or the Coast Guard Auxiliary, often mentioned the need for more education. Robert Brennan who does his boating on Long Island Sound, summed it up best, "If I could, I'd insist that every boat operator take and pass a Power Squadron or Coast Guard Auxiliary course with special emphasis on 'courtesy afloat' chapters."

While the quotes below certainly don't constitute a boating course or even a chapter, you'll find some valuable insights, large and small, learned over many lifetimes of boating. It's remarkable the number of accidents in the claim files that could have been prevented by following their advice.

On Growing Old on the Water

"I read articles about older people and their depression, health problems, and loneliness ... All they need is a boat." Jack McPherson, Washington state

"I was sitting on my boat yesterday drinking a cup of tea. I got to figuring the cost of owning a boat and then I went on to try and justify the cost. As an arbitrary figure, I assumed that a day underway is worth $100. It would cost at least that much to rent a boat for a few hours. Then I assumed that having a place to drop in, make a cup of tea, have lunch, maybe drink a beer and putter around was worth $25 per visit. I estimated that in the past two years I have justified over $11,000 worth of sailing and puttering. That's a lot less expensive than visiting a psychiatrist or a doctor every time something feels amiss." Jack McPherson, Washington state

"Old dogs can learn new tricks, including building muscle, respiratory and cardiac capacity. Anyone who does not exercise regularly is making a deliberate decision not to feel as well as they might and to accept a lesser quality of life. They will be forced off the water long before their time." Barrie Smith, Florida

"Boating is, and has always been, the single greatest joy of my life. Making it safer — being out on safety patrol as an Auxiliarist at least once a week — is now my main occupation." Thomas Shaw, North Carolina

"I am completely convinced that boating helps keep me young!" Carmine Ippolito, New York

"[My husband] died that winter at the age of 76 ... I decided to keep the boat and attempt single-handed sailing. I ventured out alone, first onto the Portage River and then the lake. I was scared. Was I good at sailing? No, I did a few 360° tacks and couldn't always get the main up all the way. But I learn more every time I go out and it's good to be back on the water." Joanne Leussing, Ohio

On Boat Handling at the Dock

"Your wallet can be a good teacher. I came into the dock way too quickly and destroyed my bow pulpit and anchor against a steel piling. Now I approach at a barely perceptible speed." Mark Rosen, Florida

"I backed out of the slip and started my turn down the line of docked boats to the channel but was immediately swept into the port pilings and three sport fishing boats. The culprit was a six-knot cross current rushing toward Lake Worth Inlet. Subsequently, the claims appraiser at BoatUS told me I was the 12th boater that year to have the same thing happen to them. My mistake was not asking about such conditions; however, I fault the dockmaster for not warning all transient boaters of such conditions." Stu Dance, Maryland

"We were told on the radio that there was only a 'little current.' The current turned out to be so strong and the docking instructions so bad that once we were in position for the slip, maneuverability was impossible and we hit another boat. After that, we only select marinas that are in basins with no current." Bob and Glenna Davis, North Carolina

Boat Handling in Rough Weather

"Unknown to me, the harbor had shoaled badly in the winter storms and, with the following sea, we got in trouble. By the time I realized it and took the helm from my crewmember, it was too late. We broached and rolled over. There was no loss of life or serious injuries but the boat was a total loss. What did I learn from it? You're never so experienced that you can make assumptions about anything on the water. I should have been at the wheel. I'll let my crew run the boat now only when conditions are good. At night or in poor weather, I'm at the wheel." Miles Stray, Connecticut

"I was caught out in a norther for two nights while single handing from Key West to Burnt Store Marina. I lost the anchor and dinghy and became very cold, tired and hungry, which is my definition of an adventure." Dr. John Raffensperger, Illinois

"Being an excitable type, I was articulating everything, including how dumb I was to start us out from Solomons at 1600 hours without really knowing how far we'd have to go to get in somewhere. The more I wrung my hands and moaned at our predicament, the more my friend Dave Ballantyne revealed the temperament that led him to flying choppers in the Marines. As time passed, he replied less and less to my spoutings and would say calmly as we worked our way into the Little Choptank, 'I think I see our next green flasher.' We finally dropped anchor in about 10 feet of water and rode out the storm through the night. Dave was amazed as daylight returned that we were nowhere near the shore in any direction. Not knowing the Chesapeake, he assumed that 10 feet of water naturally meant you were right up next to something. What I learned from that pre-GPS caper is (1) to imagine the entire trip in advance, to the extent possible, (2) to be sure you allow daylight if you're in unfamiliar waters, and (3) above all, stay calm and FOCUS if you can!" Dave Bowes, Maryland

On Alcohol and Boating

"I lost a winch handle over the side after drinking a beer 25 years ago. Since then, I only drink under conditions of severe hypothermia." John Raffensperger, MD, Lake Michigan

"When I was younger, it took at least a six-pack of beer to make the boat move. Now I have at least as much fun with Gatorade." Henry Gattone, Georgia

"Drinking anything stronger than juice or water underway is stupid." David Kessler, Washington state

On Weather

"One mistake was not sticking to my judgment when there was a bad weather forecast. I bowed to peer pressure and left a secure harbor for a 45-mile trip." Bradley Whitney, Massachusetts

"My biggest mistake was not checking the weather before taking a 160-mile offshore trip." James Taylor, Texas

"I learned that the Chesapeake is not a quiet lake. We were caught below the Rappahannock River headed south with a strong north wind. The waves were steep and we broached twice, breaking three windows. The mirror on the saloon wall and all the furniture was thrown into the galley. A passenger said, 'If I ever see another tree, I'll never go boating again.' When we finally reached Hampton Roads, I was only able to turn right by ducking into the lee of a large freighter, which kept the waves off my starboard side.Now I'm more careful to monitor the weather channel as well as the forecast on the marine radio. We also don't go south of Solomons Island." Jack Stickley, Maryland

"Over the years, you are simply more aware of how quickly things can change from pleasant to damn unpleasant. So you avoid those situations whenever possible." Barrie Smith, Florida

"Within minutes, the sun came out and the sea calmed. A number of elementary conclusions can be drawn. We will not soon play 'dodge 'em' with a Chesapeake thunderstorm. We will not belay the mainsheet under any circumstances and we will always, as we did, explain basic safety provisions to any passengers, particularly inexperienced ones." Rear Admiral NOAA (Ret.) Harley D. Nygren, Virginia

"When there's only the weekend to sail, one tends to go out even if the weather is not good. We now pick our weather and have stayed at anchorages for a few days waiting for fog to lift or storms to pass." Arthur Krieger, New York

"I would rather be in the marina wishing we were on the water than on the water wishing we were in the marina." Bob and Glenna Davis, North Carolina

On Running Inlets

"Many years ago, I was on my dock and heard that the football tuna were running about 10 miles offshore. I jumped in my 24' SeaRay and headed out. But instead of being cautious, I foolishly took a shortcut and went out of Moriches Inlet. There wasn't enough water and a wave hit and swung the boat sideways. Another wave blew out all of the windows. What did I learn from this? Have respect for the water and don't take chances just for a fish." Carmine Ippolito, New York

"On the way in, I broadcast inlet conditions on Ch. 68 (the fishing chit-chat channel) so the others can consider the situation." Alan Reff, New York

On Using Charts

"We were approaching the Richelieu River Bridge and hadn't sighted any day markers or buoys. We started to pass under one of the two 50' spans when a boater behind us sounded warning blasts on his horn. He then went through a 25' span on the west bank. We were suddenly in four feet of water with a strong (seven- to eight-knot) current. We carefully spotted the two (badly faded) day markers. The bridge is marked on the chart and we had not checked the chart carefully before approaching the bridge. It is now highlighted on our chart!" Ron and Doris Alderman, Vermont

"A storm three years earlier had closed the channel we'd selected on the chart. The markers still remained, but [the channel] didn't exist. We learned that using local knowledge is critical. It's important to call ahead to dockmasters or TowBoatUS" Joseph Hlavin, Jr., Florida

"We thought we should have been there by now and checking the depth readings with the chart, we found we were south of Block Island and heading for Portugal. The Loran was installed shortly thereafter." Arthur Krieger, New York

"They were ahead of us and we simply followed behind. Suddenly I saw a rock shaped like a fence post sticking about a foot out of the water. It was only six feet away. Lesson: You've got to read the chart, regardless of circumstances." Joanne Leussing, Ohio

On Maintenance

"I have become almost obsessive about preventative maintenance. Each spring I go through all the systems checking operation, looking for corrosion, bad wiring, cracked impellers, blockages or reduced water flows, etc. My goal is to get through the boating season without breakdowns or failures. Occasional oversights have kept me humble." John Rutter, Washington state

On Boating at Night

"I don't like to boat at night. Years ago it seemed like a great adventure. One night we thought we were seeing the city lights of Catalina and it ended up being a tug towing two barges with long lines between them and lots of lights. As we approached the barge in the darkness, I realized by the time/distance that it could not be the island, and changed my course just in time to pass around the barge tow line." Ed Snyder, California

"I've learned that when you're tired, you make mistakes." Kelly Beyer, Tennessee

On Modern Electronics

"We left Perry Sound in Georgian Bay, headed for Kilarney. Several hours out, the GPS went out — later turned out to be an opening in the antenna cable. About 100 miles later, we were several miles off course, ending up on Triangle shoals NE of Kilarney. The boat took a good pounding and the rudder was damaged but no leaks and we continued sailing all summer. Lessons learned: If you are going to depend on GPS, have a backup. Lesson 2: Don't lose traditional navigating skills." Jack Behrend, Illinois

On Autopilots

I'd just as soon forget this but it won't go away: I was sitting happily on the flybridge of our sportfisher with no one else aboard. I was headed to a yacht club and noticed I was flying the wrong burgee. Protocol overrode clear thinking and I went forward. The wind had been picking up and the boat topped a wave and swung 90° into a bank. What did I learn? Accident-free records are meant to be broken and autopilots can help." Wilbur Tapscott, San Francisco Bay

"Don't touch the automatic pilot after dark." Kelly Beyer, Tennessee

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Observations

"After several mishaps, I got the message and started doing a lot of READING about all facets of boating." George Fisher, Texas

"I learn something every trip. I think [checklists] are more important than people realize. They often permit the operator to see something that is not quite the way it was the last time." Charles Ford, Maryland

"I've learned to 'think like a river' — stay on the outside at the bends for best depths." Kelly Beyer, Tennessee

"I no longer forget to put the plug in the bilge drain." Dean Kessler, Sr., Puget Sound

"I told the crew the symptoms of dragging anchor and then ignored them myself when they occurred. We went up on a lee shore… I spent most of the night working on it." Dan Allen, Maine

"Over the past five years I've been racing my Tartan single-handed. I'm not trying to make a statement; it's a great teacher and great fun. Single-handing places a premium on making sure everything works the way it is supposed to and is properly maintained. You learn to think ahead. The downside is there is no one to yell at or blame." Barrie Smith, Florida

"I have had to teach my husband the controls ... there should always be another person able to bring the boat in." Ursula Yanno, Florida