Friday, August 26, 2011


In the comments section of the previous post about the kayak group that attempted to paddle to the mainland sea caves under what had been roughly 24 hours of small craft warnings, kykr13 points out that while there were a dozen comments on the stupidity of the paddlers there were none on the stupidity of the 39' powerboat that apparently just ran into the Ashland harbor breakwall. Both required a response by federal agencies but apparently the powerboat screwup did not raise the ire of the public like the kayaker screwup did. Methinks that if there were a black box recorder on boats, most boating accidents in Wisconsin might occur after the phrase, "Hey, hold my beer and watch this!". Both incidents beg the real question however. If you buy a kayak, are you a kayaker? If you own a big 39' cruiser are you a boater? And if you have a sailboat in a slip in Bayfield are you a sailor? My answer to the question would have to be an unequivocal 'hell no'.

I gave up motorcycling a few years ago when I realized that my 'slightly modified' 1986 Gold Wing Interstate simply insisted on going too fast for my personal safety. I realized this after getting a speeding ticket for going 77 in a 55mph zone. I was actually pretty happy because when I sensed the State Trooper I jammed on both brakes and managed to get down to 77 from 115mph before he triggered the radar lock. At that point I had 30 years of street bike experience. This was during the peak of the Harley 'get on the waiting list' craze. We used to look down at what we called the 20/20 riders, guys that had $20,000 and 20 miles of motorcycle riding experience under their belts. Those guys owned motorcycles but they were not 'bikers' in any sense of the word. There are plenty of people using the water that are in that same position. The VOR and I went sailing last night with my buddy Jonesy and his lovely spouse. He is a sailor and has been for years. A person never needs to wonder if we are coming about, his angles are precise, he knows the waters, and if there is a terminology slip up he will let you immediately know that there are no ropes on a sailboat. He also knows the rules of the water inside and out, crucial on busy Lake Minnetonka, where everything from vintage Chris Craft and the restored steam streetcar ferry Minnehaha to stand up paddlers and jet skis can be found.

The stakes on Lake Superior are exponentially higher than on an inland lake like Minnetonka. Seamanship on Gitchee Gumee involves knowledge of right of way rules, navigation by map, compass and watch as well as the gps, local knowledge of the area of the lake you are on, a keen weather eye, and a strong and honest sense of your ability and the strengths and weaknesses of the craft you are piloting. This whole mix of skills and awareness are what make up seamanship. Seamanship also requires a rather large dose of common sense. While you may legally have the right of way over the Paul R Tregurtha, exercising that right of way would be the act of a suicidal idiot. There are those that might say that having all your sails up as the thunderstorm approaches or heading to the mainland caves with 3'-5 footers and 20-30 knot winds would fall into the same category. So would trying to catch that last lake trout while trolling several miles offshore as the east wind is howling and the front approaches from the west.

Is one stupider than the other? I think not. Egalitarian stupidity encompasses all of the scenarios above. Part of the seamanship thing is an awareness of the other craft on the water and their strengths and weaknesses. Judging speed and angle of approach so you can decide whether to safely pass in front of or wait to pass behind the Island Queen is a good skill to have. Awareness of wind direction and when sailboats are likely to tack is another. If you are in a power boat and a reasonable distance from kayakers do you slow down? (My answer: No. The wake of a boat that is planed out is much less than the wake generated by a boat plowing along at low speed). This watercraft cross training can be surveyed by taking a Power Squadron course, which is a great idea no matter what gets you out on the water. The bottom line is that we are all on the water and we all need to get smarter. In a lot of cases much, much smarter. Read Silbs fine post on seamanship and also Professor Lichen's on when the 'kayaking light' went on. Think about whether the people you are sharing the water with perceive you as a kayaker, sailor, boater or whether, like the 20/20 motorcyclists, just a yokel who happens to have enough money to own the watercraft they are piloting. It is a very crucial distinction for you, the other people on the lake, and the people that may have to risk their lives to save your dumb ass when you get in over your head. Actively pursue getting better at your chosen watersport and at being more aware of your water environment. Everyone benefits.

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