A Boating Conundrum

Karen L. Sullivan
The Haven
Published in
5 min readAug 2, 2022

--

Cartoon by the author

Boating season is in full swing! But did you know that people who go out on the water for pleasure have a serious identity problem? What we call ourselves says a lot, maybe even more than what we name our boats. Who are we, really?

Are we boaters? I have an aversion to that word. It sounds like a suffix-y handle invented by an insurance company. You own a boat (noun), therefore you boat (verb) and thus you are a boater (ugh). Why couldn’t they be more creative? Insurance claims could refer to overboated boatists who did not achieve the proper state of boatness and got de-boated.

Anyway, “boater” is already taken. Back in the 1970s, people who knew better would say, “A boater is a straw hat, not a person.” Yes, a boater is actually a flat-brim straw hat worn by exquisitely bowtied rowers who punt their sweethearts down the River Cam (just google it), or by blue-jacketed dandies who coolly watch yacht races from a verandah while sipping ginger shandies. I asked a friend who’d sailed around the world what she called herself, figuring, if she doesn’t know, nobody does. “Do you call yourself a boater?” said I.

“I had a boater hanging on my wall for years,” she said. “It was my grandpa’s and it got brittle on the edges. I was afraid to mail it one more time, especially to Hawaii where the cockroaches would eat it, so I gave it to my brother, whose kids broke the edges off, and that boater was history.”

“Oh wow,” I said, “I know a few boaters who are brittle around their edges.”

We both agreed it might alarm insurance companies to learn some people have been keeping boaters hanging on their walls for years, breaking off their edges and letting cockroaches nibble on them.

Cartoon by the author

Back in the olden days, people who knew better called themselves “yachtsmen.” Two problems here: “yacht” and “man.” Neither appeals to me, a woman with a workboat. “Yachtsman” also sounds snooty, and “yachtswoman” reminds me of that feminized version of chairman you used to hear before people got used to saying just plain “chair.” They used to say “charwoman.” Maybe someone thought “chairwoman” had too many letters in it? But charwoman sounds like a lady who sweeps out fireplaces. Perhaps “yachtswoman” could be de-snootified — yachtchick, maybe? Yachtlass? Yachtmarm?

Are we “mariners?” Definitely, but if you’re a woman trying to tell a landlubber that you’re a mariner, be prepared for a conversation on baseball and maybe even a “Jeez, aren’t you kind of short for the Major Leagues?”

We’ve ruled out boaters, yachtsmen and mariners. What else is there? Let’s try “cruiser.” A Google search reveals: Beach, Toyota, Harley-Davidson, PT, cabin, warship, someone who’s about to lay a pickup line on you, and… wait for it… Pampers. Yes, a class of diaper is called a Cruiser.

Since cruisers of the boating persuasion have to exhibit some seamanship or else not get very far out at sea, I asked my sailing friend, “How about ‘seamen?’”

“Seamen,” she said, “Hmm. There’s that problem of me saying it over the phone or using it in a talk without giggling.” It was then that I remembered years ago telling a cute “Seaman” who was flirting outrageously with me to “mind his futtock shrouds,” which caused him to blanch and ask what the hell I was talking about. I’ll never do that again.

In New Zealand they call us “boaties,” but honestly, doesn’t that sound like a cute toy you give a baby to play with while you’re changing its cruiser?

We’re left with a collection of obscure nauticalia that includes sea dog, shellback, swab, tar, and Old Salt, but some of those sound like after-shave or tobacco products.

“Sailor” is an obvious choice, but it implies the use of sails, which would exclude powerboat owners. However, the Navy is chock full of “sailors” who aren’t trimming jibs, and car ferries use the word “sailings” to describe their regularly scheduled ho-hum crossings. So do cruise ships. You can be dining on rack of lamb served under crystal chandeliers and drinking a ’96 Margaux while seated in your finery on a perfectly level deck, and you’re a sailor.

Unless you’re a motorhead, though, “sailings” is a lot more romantic to announce over the public address system than, say, “Folks, we’re revving up our fixed-pitch propellers with those roarin’ 3,000 horsepower diesels…” Maybe “sailings” is supposed to make ferry passengers think, “Hey! We’re actually sailing!” Maybe some of them sniff the sea air from their Lexuses and go “Arrrrgh, me hearties!” I like “sailor,” but when it includes all that, I’m not so sure it’s the best word, either.

Cartoon by the author

We’re back to boater, but I find it confusing that there’s always an adjective attached to the word. Being merely boaters isn’t good enough; for the Coast Guard, we’re “Recreational Boaters.” I don’t understand this. Tanker captains aren’t called “Petroleum Boaters.” Grain ship crews aren’t called “Bulk Boaters,” though I bet they’d like to be. A submarine captain isn’t a “Submerged Boater,” and who’d ever live that down anyway? Besides, “Recreational Boater” isn’t always accurate. Sometimes things aren’t all that recreational aboard our boats — like when we’re seasick and no longer recreating. Are we then “Regurgitational Boaters?”

“Pleasure boating” isn’t always accurate, either. Those who stand at the wheel and yell at their mates who struggle to raise the anchor or leap heroically to a dock are actually “Bligh boaters” and their vessels, regardless of rig, are yowlboats.

My friend and I were stumped at what to call this diverse collection of people and their boats. She said, “I like “cruisers” best, but some people think it’s too “ocean” for their inshore friends.”

And that’s the rub: where we all come together is in our imaginations. Somehow we need to make this connection, because most inshore sailors’ lives have offshore dreams. (And offshore sailors sometimes dream of being inshore.) As an offshore sailor I still don’t have a good word to describe us, but one thing is certain: whether we stay close to home waters or go wandering far afield, we’re all voyagers in our own minds.

--

--

Karen L. Sullivan
The Haven

Never ask a woman spooning ice cream out of a half-gallon carton how she’s doing. Top Writer in Satire and Ghastly Cooking. https://karenlsullivan.com/about/