When I see the ads for gorgeous boats zipping around on placid waters or sitting in idyllic coves with really good-looking people on them, I have two equally powerful reactions. One is: “What a lot of hooey! That supermodel won’t be so super when she’s crashing around in three-foot chop getting her fillings knocked out. And look at that puny little [plastic, cheap brass, pot metal] doo-hickey. I'll give it about a month of [salt water, direct sunlight, physical abuse] before it turns [yellow, green, brown] and craps out.”
The other reaction is: “Man, I want that boat."
Depending on the boat in the ad, I want it for diving, singlehanded sailing, marine rescue, harbor cruising, long-distance cruising, power-weekending, or fishing. And I don't even fish.
Both of these reactions are valid for the experienced boat addict, because boating always brings with it two powerfully opposed yet complementary elements: Agony and Ecstasy. Yin and Yang. Triumph and Tragedy. Thesis and Antithesis. You get the picture.
Maybe that’s what makes boats so compelling. They’re not trivial. Not a single one of them. Not a superyacht, not a kayak. They are adventure, and commitment, and joy. They keep you up at night dreaming and fantasizing and planning. They get your senses all flared up.
But let's take a step back and consider what that "negative" side of boating -- the "yin" side -- really means. It's too often swept under the rug by people trying to sell boats and promote boating when, in my opinion, it should somehow be used as a selling point. Because it's there, it's part of the game, and it's not going away.
If you want real, lasting enjoyment as a boat owner, you'll need to get there by one of three paths:
- Bring a good set of skills ranging from fiberglass maintenance to engine mechanics.
- Have a lot of friends and mentors with those skills, and be a good student.
- Arrive rich.
But even if you arrive rich and can pay others to do the work, I believe you'll still be better off getting your own hands dirty.
I got my first boat – it was a Styrofoam sailboat – when I was seven. I was in boats all day, every day, every summer. I worked in a boatyard when I was in high school and college decades ago. I’ve spent most of my life messing about in boats and writing about them. Nevertheless, I've always belonged to group #2, the student group. None of the necessary skills have come to me naturally, unless you can call sheer bullheadedness a skill. They've come gradually, through years and years of breakage and frustration and self-doubt. Luckily I’ve always had lots of boat-talented mentors and friends. Even so, I’ve also had more than a few moments wondering what the hell I was doing in a pastime that involves so much difficulty and expense.
And here's where I make my case for the joys of the hacksaw.
If you can’t learn to love hacksawing in a cramped space with skin coming off your knuckles at every stroke and sweat pouring from your brow, you cannot really love boating as much as it can be loved. This is the sad truth about those who pay others to do the work. They’re missing much of the fun -- because running a boat that you maintain yourself is a whole lot more enjoyable than running one that has been maintained by someone else’s concentration, effort, dedication, and understanding.
When you do your own repair and maintenance work, you’ll find that the ratio of work to carefree boating will be, at best, roughly 1:1. Put another way, for every hour you spend with things running pretty well and your spouse all smiles and the kids having a blast, you’re going to be working on the boat for at least an equal amount of time. Sometimes the ratio is more like 3:1 or worse, especially when you’re working on a fixer-upper.
As for knowledge and skill, it doesn't matter where you start on the spectrum — there’s always someone smarter and more skilled than you, and all the way up the chain the smarter ones (at least all the ones I've known) are willing to share their secrets with you.
But you have to be willing to learn. Maybe there are two subsets of people who can’t screw in a light bulb — one who says, “Oh, I can’t even screw in a lightbulb. I don't really DO lightbulbs.” And one who says, “I can’t even screw in a lightbulb. I think I’m going to keep trying.”
When you finally screw in that lightbulb successfully (it's your third - you broke the first two), you get a feeling of satisfaction. The next time it’s easier. With momentum comes confidence. And, where boats are concerned, that’s when you start breaking things that are a lot more expensive than light bulbs. So you regain your humility and just go on learning and busting stuff along the way, but gradually getting a little more competent all the time.
Here’s something else. When experienced boat people hang around together, they discuss hacksaws and hose a lot more than they talk about the supermodels they've had lounging around the cockpit – although I’m sure that would be everyone’s preference. They talk about alternators and epoxy and stuffing boxes and exhaust elbows and sea strainers and joker valves. If you don’t know what a joker valve is, picture the lips on someone giving you the raspberry.
But what’s coming through the lips of the joker valve isn’t air. It’s a lot worse than air.
Here's another thing: A lot of the fun in boating has to do with the stories you collect, and you can’t have a good collection of stories without some maintenance adventures. But maintenance yarns are really boring if you don’t do your own work.
“We were in the middle of the channel and the engine died. We got a tow in. Then I called my mechanic.”
Is that a good story? No, that’s a boring story. But I could tell you a story about changing a joker valve while heeled over offshore in rough weather that would make you laugh and cry and throw up all at the same time.
Entropy rules the world, and it is the nature of all things to break. Thanks to the environment they operate in, it is the nature of boats to break more often and in less convenient places.
Because preventive maintenance and unexpected breakage are both inevitable, you might as well learn to embrace the entropy, transform it from pain to pleasure, and make it your own. Then both the maintenance that prevents breakage, plus the repair of the breakage that comes anyway, are challenges that are satisfying to overcome.
There are also some problems on boats that come from poor design, poor installation, poor materials, or some combination of all of the above. Those things have to be fixed permanently, replaced with something better, or taken off the boat for good – because they will never stop haunting and annoying you.
Other problems come from things being installed on board that never should have been there in the first place. I won’t be specific here because maybe you like plumbed-in air-conditioning on your boat and I would rather have a couple of good hatches and 12-volt fans, and we’re never going to agree. If you’re OK maintaining the extra through-hull valve, the strainer, the pump, the wiring, and the generator or extra battery power to run it when your shore-power umbilicus is removed, good for you. I’m OK with not being perfectly comfortable.
Another example. I bought a very used boat with a 15-gallon holding tank and an electric toilet with a macerator. The contents of the holding tank had long ago turned to dry pellets. The hoses were all clogged and needed replacing. The macerator was clogged and dead. The only thing that worked was the electric head pump. It made a sort of screeching noise as if it was frustrated with life, and had been for a long time. With great sweaty effort (and, incidentally, my hacksaw) I pulled the whole miserable system out of the boat and replaced it with a five-gallon self-contained toilet, because that’s all my family needs, and I’m perfectly willing to empty it ashore. Since nobody else has to do it, everyone's happy.
Whenever possible I get rid of bothersome things and move toward simplicity. I discovered long ago that removing the offending item entirely and then replacing it with something less fancy and easier to fix usually works for me. At first it might have been that I wasn't good at repairs, but I also realized that there were certain things on boats that I didn’t like because they took my time away from what I did like.
Years ago I got into arguments with marketing people who insisted on portraying boating (sailing, in that case) as something beautiful, fun, and easy — again with supermodels lying all over everything and calm, gin-clear waters and flowers on the table down below. My argument was that sailing is definitely beautiful, but rarely in the ways portrayed in advertisements. And it is definitely fun. But it's not always easy, especially when you’re new to it. And it’s not usually very comfortable. And a lot of the beauty comes from it not being so easy. I wanted to find a way to express those things. But I was firmly assured, no doubt correctly, that it's hard to get people excited about scraped knuckles and sweat.
Boat ownership takes hard work and setbacks, but if you stick with it those things yield rewards that are much better than what glossy ads can ever show -- rewards like skills, understanding, and self-reliance, which are handy both on and off the boat.
Well, obviously the marketing people won the argument because all boating ads, whether for sail or power, are pretty much like they’ve always been. But if you’re new to the game, I’m here to tell you — you ought to pick up a hacksaw. Even if you're a rich supermodel.