There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
-- Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Whether it's exploring the world with your hands on the helm, getting out of sight of land for a few hours, or just cruising the Intracoastal Waterway and enjoying a weekend family picnic on Masonboro Island, the water beckons.
To truly experience its magic requires a boat. Boats symbolize freedom from the workday world, from bills, from traffic and congestion. They provide the freedom to travel to the places of your dreams, and to make lasting memories.
Small or large, powered by engine, wind or man, boats are alive, mystically drawing you to that irresistible freedom even from time itself.
The lure is especially strong in Wrightsville Beach and greater Wilmington, where we are surrounded by water. We have an ocean to the east, the Cape Fear River to the west, the ICWW running north/south, and sounds and creeks in between.
Once you answer the call and get your hands on the boat of your dreams, there's responsibility that comes with the freedom. It is imperative to know how to operate the vessel safely, where to go, what the markers and buoys mean and what equipment you need. Education is key, and there are as many helpful resources as there are boat types. So with a little information and willingness to take on some pre-emptive legwork, anyone can enjoy a lifetime of safely navigating our beautiful waters.
Whether on a paddleboard or at the throttle of a mega sport fishing yacht, a person must obey certain laws and conventions applicable to the waterways. Knowing and observing the basics is safe and courteous, while learning to competently master your own vessel brings a quiet confidence.
As the local population grows, our waterways are becoming increasingly congested, making accidents more likely. Consequently, we have laws and enforcement in an area historically largely exempt from conventional regulation, and efforts like safe boating week, May 19-25 in Wrightsville Beach to emphasize the importance of commonsense seamanship.
"Education is the big thing," says Lt. Meg Morrison of the Cape Fear Sail and Power Squadron. "If there are two boats coming toward you at right angles in both directions, who has the right-of-way?"
While a traditional license is not required to operate a boat, anyone under the age of 30 who operates a vessel with at least a 10-horsepower motor is required to take a boating safety course. On request by law enforcement, an operator must prove compliance by age or course certification.
Certification courses typically carry a nominal fee and are offered across the area by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, local branches of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the Cape Fear Sail and Power Squadron.
The Cape Fear Sail and Power Squadron is a unit of the United States Power Squadron, a nonprofit dedicated to boating safety and education. It offers courses that help beginners transition from landlubber to mariner by teaching things like who should stand on and who should give way -- and what those terms even mean.
The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 10-01, based in Wrightsville Beach, offers a daylong, in-depth course that covers everything needed to safely enjoy the waters. Experienced Auxiliary members instruct on basic boat knowledge, navigation, rules of the road, trailering your boat, how to handle crowded boat ramps, what to do before getting under way, legal requirements, and how to approach emergencies.
Auxiliary instructor Elias "Lou" Ashey, a retired captain and marine architect, gives students the definitions of the colorful maritime terminology. The bow is the boat's front, the stern is the rear, also called aft, which is also where you find the transom. The gunwale (pronounced gunnel) is the upper edge of the vessel's side. A cleat is a metal fitting on which a line (not a rope) can be fastened. The hull is the main body of the boat, the beam is its widest point.
"Boating and sailing have their own nomenclature," Ashey says.
A boat's freeboard is the distance from its gunwales to the water. Boats with low freeboard are easily boarded but easily swamped. The boat's draft, the measurement from waterline to the lowest point on the boat, is important to know in areas like ours with a lot of shallow water. Starboard means right and port means left.
On larger boats, you may cook in the galley and go below to use the head. You sleep on the berth in your stateroom, but please don't tell someone you are going upstairs. No, that's topside!
You may hear someone state proudly that they can drive a boat. Wrong. Boats are skippered. They can be run. They can be operated. But not driven.
Hull types determine how a boat behaves.
"Displacement hulls push water away and create a bow wake, planing hulls skim across the top of water at speed, and combination (semi-displacement) hulls do a little of both," Ashey says.
Long-distance cruisers seeking efficiency and range typically feature displacement hulls. Boats built for speed for water sports, fishing, or simply getting there more quickly likely have planing designs, which are found on everything from small center consoles to large sport fishing yachts commonly called battle-wagons.
The four basic engine types -- outboard, inboard-outboard (stern-drive), inboard, and jet -- dictate vessel behavior. Outboards and stern drives offer directional thrust and are more maneuverable in confined spaces than most inboards, which must keep a certain speed to maintain steerage. Jets, commonly seen on personal watercraft, are tricky and counterintuitive in turns.
"Due to their inherent instability, personal watercraft, while a lot of fun, are the most dangerous vessels on the water," Ashey says.
Bob Licursi, another Auxiliary instructor, is well versed in navigation and the "rules of the road," which tell boaters what to do when encountering another vessel. These rules are voluminous and detailed in various seamanship tomes typically studied by budding professional captains. Most need only a working knowledge of the basics and a touch of courtesy to safely enjoy our waters.
"Navigation aids are those red and green things all over the place that tell us which way to go, and regulatory markers alerting us to hazards, swim areas, no-wake zones and the like," Licursi says. "Rules of the road tell us how to behave when encountering other boats head-on, crossing, and overtaking."
Boating laws and conventions apply to all vessels, defined as any floating object that transports people or goods from one place to another.
"This definition includes paddleboards," Licursi says. "Trying to reach the paddleboard community is a big problem right now."
Speed limits do not exist on the water per se. Pilots are expected to use common sense and adjust to conditions.
"There are no speed limits other than no-wake zones," Licursi says. "Weather, visibility, tide, congestion, wind and vessel type control your boat. You must always maintain a proper lookout and safe speed. Boating requires you to think ahead and have backup plans."
Don't look only at what's in front of you. Be mindful of your surroundings, including and especially those behind you -- to your aft.
"Always mind your speed," says Nick Giachino, fleet commander for the Wrightsville Beach Coast Guard Auxiliary. "If you run aground at high speed, ugly things can happen."
Like a driver navigating a rainstorm, a boater who encounters unfamiliar waters or experiences hesitations should slow down.
Boat retailers and rental companies aren't required to check compliance with the state's boating safety laws, but many promote compliance and offer courses of their own.
Victoria Tinney coordinates boat safety courses at MarineMax in Wrightsville Beach. One very popular course, Women on Water, is offered free and encourages women to take the helm. The roughly three-hour class includes classroom and on-the-water work.
"We cover boat terminology, safety, equipment, rules of the road and basic knots," Tinney says. "We provide hands-on practical application on one of our boats. Each participant pulls away from the dock, operates the boat and then docks it."
Captain Tim Hicks, who instructs the MarineMax courses, says docking is a crucial skill in boat safety.
"When docking, don't come in any faster than you're willing to hit the dock," Hicks advises. "Slow down and try to always think ahead three or four steps."
Docking is largely a matter of feel. With experience, boaters learn to read winds, currents, wave action, and their vessel's own behavior and with practice attain proficiency in virtually any set of circumstances.
Becoming a skilled operator can minimize the potential for damaging a vessel, but experts advise investing in towing insurance. Powerboats have mechanical parts that fail. There's an old saying that there are three types of boaters: those who have been towed, those who will be towed, and those who will be towed again.
For many, boats and beer is the perfect match for a hot summer day, but it's best to always designate a sober operator for the waterways. Just as on land, there are serious consequences for breaking the law.
"Underage drinking on boats and islands is a consistent problem, especially around big holiday weekends -- Memorial Day, July Fourth and Labor Day," says Sgt. C. L. Smith, an 8-year veteran with the Marine Unit of the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office. "Anyone on the waters during those times will notice a beefed-up law enforcement presence, and anyone with a .08 or greater blood alcohol level can be cited for Boating While Impaired. Lots of folks enjoy drinking on their boats. The law allows it; just don't let your blood alcohol level go over the legal limit."
Smith also cites boaters for careless and reckless operation. He frequently encounters offenders who have rented boats or personal watercraft and simply lack knowledge of the laws. He prefers to educate before ticketing, checking vessels for proper safety equipment. The safety equipment required -- life jackets, fire extinguishers, lights, whistles and horns, and flares -- depends on boat length.
The most important law, Licursi says, is simple and straightforward: "Thou shalt not collide with another boat!"
Or put another way, use common sense. This one concept will keep you out of a lot of trouble and result in summer after summer of safe seamanship.