"Easy There, Pal"
A few years ago in Bimini, we met a couple on a smaller boat who seemed quite apprehensive about making the crossing back to the U.S. mainland. They asked if they could buddy boat with us. I said fine, but “you need to make your own weather decision” and—you should have seen their faces when I added—“as long as you understand that basically we will be there to rescue the survivors.”
In talking with them, we realized that no matter what kind of problem they encountered, regardless of wave and wind conditions in the middle of the Florida Straits, they expected us to be there to fix it for them, or tow them to the United States. These are surprisingly common expectations among people new to buddy boating, and it’s important for experienced boaters to make clear that such expectations are completely wrong.
Buddy boating—either cruising with other boats, or spending time together docked or anchored at a destination—can be rewarding and fun. Having a buddy boat nearby during an open-water crossing also can be comforting.
But if you see a posting similar to this one on a cruising website, beware: “Looking for boating buddy. I recently purchased my first boat and I am just beginning to learn about navigation and all of the boat’s systems. I intend to cross to the Bahamas, departing two weeks from now, on January 18, and I want at least one other boat to accompany me.”
This person clearly knows nothing about making a crossing to the Bahamas (or any other body of open water) and is fixated on leaving on a specific date. He never mentions any concern about the weather. He has not done his homework as to charts or navigation, and he shouldn’t go anywhere until he understands all of his boat’s systems.
Experienced cruisers know that when you consider voyaging to the Bahamas in January, there are often cold fronts with north-component winds, making the Florida Straits (and the Gulf Stream) a treacherous place. Those same veterans know that in winter and early spring, they may have to wait a week or more for a weather window. These same considerations apply to navigation across open waters anywhere.
Cruising with one or several boats also can give inexperienced cruisers false reliance; they depend on someone else to make decisions for them. To prevent this, when we do travel with another boat, we always use that line: “Our ability to assist you, depending on conditions, may very well be limited to rescuing the survivors.”
That may sound harsh, but it’s not. And we are happy to explain why.
First, we can’t swim over to your boat to help with a mechanical problem, or dive under it to clear your fouled prop—while the stern of your boat pounds violently up and down in a seaway, ready to injure any diver. Launching a dinghy is also risky, especially from an upper deck. That maneuver is sometimes impossible in open waters. If there are two people aboard the assisting boat, and one of them leaves to render aid, is the remaining person competent to operate the boat?
Second, we can’t raft up with you. Rafting in dead-calm inland waters is tricky; we’ve experienced enough problems and damage under the calmest conditions that we just don’t raft up anymore, even in the best weather.
Third, we can’t (and won’t) tow your boat. Towing another boat in open waters is a dangerous procedure. Cleats, even if they appear robust, are not designed for towing; lines may snap under heavy strain, or cleats may be ripped out, whipping around and injuring people. Towing also may not be covered by your insurance. Even in coastal waterways or open waters in dead-calm conditions, towing another boat can turn into a nightmare with just one large passing wake. Do you really intend to enter an inlet with the tow, or pass through a bridge? Some towboat captains will delay a trip for a week or longer, waiting for the calmest possible conditions for a long, open--water tow. The U.S. Coast Guard requires commercial towers to be licensed—for good reason.
Fourth, we can’t help you put out a fire. Statistically, almost all onboard fires need to be controlled in the first five minutes. After that, it’s likely you will need to get off the boat.
Fifth, we won’t make the decision for you about the weather. Even long-term cruisers regularly underestimate wind and wave conditions. After all, the weather is unpredictable, and it often does not match the forecast. Experienced captains evaluate the forecast in relation to the seaworthiness of their boat (not yours) and to their own level (not yours) of seamanship. Thus, it is your call whether to go. It can be difficult for a buddy boater to say, “I’m staying back and waiting for better weather,” but it’s sometimes necessary for safety and comfort—and your happy boating future. More than one spouse, after a nasty trip in heavy weather, has gotten off the boat and said, “I’m never going back on that boat again.”
All of these guidelines apply to open-water passages in whitecap or rougher conditions. There may be times when some rules can be flexible, for instance, where the water is calm or shallow enough to anchor, allowing you to lend assistance comfortably. And of course, we should always do whatever we can to render assistance to another boat anywhere. But in open waters, especially rough waters, the options can be limited.
You are the captain of your boat, and responsibility rests only with you. Even in a buddy-boating situation, all boaters must do their own planning, make their own decisions and be totally self-reliant.