Yarns Of A Seafarer


June 09, 1991|By Dave Barry

Summer is nearly here again, and as the official spokesman for the recreational boating industry, I've been asked to remind you that boating is a fun and relaxing family activity with very little likelihood that your boat will sink and you'll wind up bobbing helplessly in the water while sharks chew on your legs as if they were a pair of giant Slim Jims, provided that you follow proper nautical procedures.

Fortunately I can tell you what these procedures are, because I am a veteran "salt" and the owner of a small motorboat, named Buster Boat. I spend many happy hours at Buster's helm, and I always feel totally safe, because I know that (a) most nautical dangers can be avoided through careful preparation, good seamanship and common sense; and (b) Buster is sitting on a trailer in my yard. The biggest danger there is spiders, which like to make webs on Buster's seats because they've figured out that, statistically, Buster is less likely to wind up in the water than our house is.

Sometimes, when I'm sitting at the helm, killing spiders with the anchor, scanning the horizon of my yard for potential boating hazards, I turn on Buster's radio and listen to the Marine Forecast, which is always saying things like: "Barometer leaning to the southwest at 15 to 37 knots." As a recreational boater, you should be familiar with these nautical terms. For example, a "knot" means "about a mile an hour." There is a sound nautical reason why they don't come right out and say "about a mile an hour," namely, they want you, the recreational boater, to feel stupid. They used to be less subtle about it: In the old days, the Marine Forecast consisted entirely of a guy telling recreational-boater jokes. ("How many recreational boaters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "They can't! Sharks have chewed off their arms!")

The Marine Forecast is always telling you obvious things, such as which way the wind is blowing, which you can figure out for yourself just by watching the motion of your spider webs. They never tell you about the serious boating hazards, which are located -- write down this Boating Safety Tip -- under the water. It turns out that although the water is basically flat on top, underneath there are large hostile objects such as reefs and shoals (or "forecastles") that have been carelessly strewn around, often smack dab in the path of recreational boaters.

I discovered this shocking fact recently when some friends visited us in Miami, and in a foolish effort to trick them into thinking that we sometimes go out on our boat, we actually went out on our boat. It was a good day for boating, with the barometer gusting at about 47 liters of mercury, and we had no problems until I decided to make the boat go forward. For some reason, motorboats are designed to go at only two speeds: "Virtually Stopped" and "Airborne."

We were traveling along at Virtually Stopped, which seemed inadequate -- barnacles were passing us -- so I inched the throttle forward just a teensy bit and Whoooomm, suddenly we were passengers on the Space Shuttle Buster. Every few feet Buster would launch himself completely out of the water and attain such an altitude that at any moment you expected flight attendants to appear with the beverage cart, and then wham, Buster would crash down onto a particularly hard patch of water, causing our food and possessions and spiders to bounce overboard.

In this relaxing and recreational manner we lurched toward downtown Miami, with me shouting out the various points of interest. "I think that's a drug dealer!" I would shout. Or: "There goes another possible drug dealer!" I was gesturing toward these long, sleek motorboats with about 14 engines apiece that you see roaring around the Miami waters driven by men with no apparent occupation other than polishing their neck jewelry.

So it was a pleasant tropical scene, with the wind blowing and the sea foaming and the sun glinting off the narcotics traffickers. As the captain, I was feeling that pleasant sense of well-being that comes from being in total command and not realizing that you are heading directly toward a large underwater pile of sand.

I would say we hit it at about 630 knots, so that when Buster skidded to a cartoon-style stop, we were in about 6 inches of water, a depth that the U.S. Coast Guard recommends for craft classified as "Popsicle sticks or smaller." This meant that, to push Buster off the sand, my friend John and I had to go into the water, which lapped threateningly around our lower shins. Probably the only thing that saved our lives was that the dreaded Man-Eating But Really Flat Shark was not around.

So we did survive, and I'm already looking forward to our next recreational boating outing, possibly as soon as the next century. Perhaps, if you're a boater, you'll see me out there! I'll be the one wearing shin guards.

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