Google “beautiful boats” and you will be treated to an assortment of large yachts, some sailboats and many powerboats, but mostly all new and all expensive. They are beautiful, but those who don’t know anything about boats think they need one of those to maximize joy. Owners privileged enough to gather at the Monaco Yacht Show, the most-exclusive annual gathering of yachts on earth, explain their ambitious outlook to reporters: they’re never satisfied with any boat because next year someone will have something bigger, something “better.” Those who know boats will tell you those owners have an abundance of wealth, but not an abundance of wisdom.
An abundance of wisdom is possessed by the old hands found at yacht clubs catering to the middle and upper-middle economic classes. They’re fond of saying “You can have just as much fun in a seven-foot dinghy as you can on a 70-footer.” I didn’t believe the man who first told me that as I gawked at the 70-footer at the end of the dock: a sleek, white, Italian behemoth whose slanted lines, height and presence declared, “I am king here.” That is what the newcomer sees.
It’s the owner of the 70-footer who will, over drinks, tell you that the old hand is right. That the owner had just as much fun as a teen with a 10-foot skiff that was half-rotted at the core, and the most joy ever when he attached an even older 9-horsepower outboard to its transom and got it to work. Talk with anyone who has spent their life around boats and they’ll tell you it’s a universal phenomenon: there’s value and beauty in every boat.
The rugged center console toward the back of the marina doesn’t catch the eye of many guests who walk by, but it is much loved by those who like to fish, and much easier to take out than the larger, fancy sport-fishing vessels. It also gives the fisherman a more intimate experience, being closer to the water, than its million-dollar counterparts do. And it doesn’t take a crew to clean up afterward.
Trawlers are slow, and very few outsiders find them attractive, but boaters appreciate how they glide through the water — “displace” is how they say it — with remarkable ease and fuel efficiency. They are as efficient and reliable as it gets, and they’re valued for that.
The aged houseboat that almost never leaves the dock looks bleak and even sympathetic to the outsider. But it maximizes affordable living space for the elder gentleman who lives alone, though is now not alone among a community of boaters.
And the oldest boats are still valued, too. With an old boat there’s a solemn reverence that it has been through more waves and more storms than we have. When it sails it may be slow, but it’s admired and venerated for that experience.
Some people spend their weekends on boats that don’t even run anymore, and yet they love them. They may have been abused or neglected, and their engines are now too damaged to repair. But as long as they’re still floating they bring happiness to people around them. What outsiders don’t understand is that being in a yacht club is not so much about boating as it is about being around boats, and being around the people who like boats. A boat does not even have to move to bring joy to the people around it.
This phenomenon that is true for boats doesn’t apply to cars or airplanes. I haven’t figured out why it applies to boats, but boats helped me to see that it does apply to people.
A man caught me staring at his boat as he worked to launch it one morning on the ramp. I didn’t realize I was rudely staring at its deformities until he announced a friendly “Hi there.” I quickly realized my eyes had been drawn to his boat that appeared to have two or three attempts of do-it-yourself bottom paint to go along with some do-it-yourself caulking repairs and what appeared to be an aftermarket windshield that didn’t quite look right, all sitting upon an oversized trailer that must have thought itself a wheelchair.
Caught off guard, I replied “Nice boat!” and I was able to sound convincing only because my ability to lie has been honed over years at the poker table. The equipment in the back of his truck revealed him to be a tradesman, and the roughness of his tan and his physique suggested he was someone who worked hard for that boat.
“Yeah, she’s ugly, but I love her,” he replied with a smile.
Before I had a chance to fake a compliment or change the subject, a female voice from the passenger side of the truck shouted, “Yeah, that’s how I feel about him, too!”
I hadn’t realized anyone was even in the truck, but he realized the value in that boat, and she realized the value in him. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the first time she’s enjoyed using that line. Jokes must have some element of truth to them to be funny. But something told me that those two are just as happy as the couple who own the 70-footer. And he knows that his boat is not ugly.
Twenty years in medicine has introduced me to many people who are never going to show up on a Google search of beautiful people. But Google, as helpful as it tries to be, does not understand boats, or people.
In medicine you will meet people who express worthlessness because they feel defiled by age; disfigured by disease, or war; rendered immobile by accident or injury; and children born with differences that attract unwanted stares. I never knew what to say to them. But now I do. I tell them that all boats are beautiful.