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Immutable Axioms

There is little we can be certain about when boating. Except for these things.

Over the years, I’ve gathered some nuggets of wisdom that you won’t find in Chapman’s Piloting & Seamanship or any other tome that purports to tell you everything you need to know.

I’m not sure what to call these nuggets—maxims, old saws, axioms—but you might best call them “pearls,” for they will ring true many times in your boating adventures.

My mother collected these pearls as other people collect stamps or baseball cards, and she taped and thumbtacked them to her bulletin board. These little truisms are as close as skippers get to haiku, that deceptively simple Japanese poetry where less says much. Most of these have been acquired through hard experience, although a few were passed down to me by mentors who had, yes, learned them that way.

You certainly could lump many of these under Murphy’s Law—the explanation that covers everything that goes awry—but these are more nautically specific than the cover-everything Murphyism that “if anything can go wrong, it will.”

So, let’s call them Caswell’s Laws of Boating. I didn’t bother with explanations because they’re simple to understand, but, if you don’t comprehend any of them, well, just stick around. Spend enough time playing with boats, and you’ll understand them all. 

Never let your boat take you someplace your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier.

The Axioms

  • Stainless steel isn’t. 
  • Painting the bottom of your boat or varnishing a caprail will require 2 ounces more paint than is contained in any standard can.
  • A weather forecast is just a horoscope with numbers.
  • The depth of the bilge where engine parts fall is always the exact length of your arm’s reach, plus 1 inch.
  • In every repair, a little blood must flow.
  • The likelihood of reverse-gear failure is directly proportional to the speed at which the dock is approaching.
  • It’s far better to be on shore wishing you were out there, than to be out there wishing you were on shore.
  • No boat is impressed by your years of experience.
  • Charter boats always sleep two fewer than advertised.
  • The best weather occurs the day before departure.
  • The second-best weather occurs the day after you return.
  • The most likely location for a deck leak is directly over the owner’s bunk.
  • The part most likely to break is the most expensive, the hardest to replace or both.
  • The two most dangerous words in boating are “watch this.”
  • If you can step down into a life raft, it’s not yet time to go.
  • Leak-proof ports and hatches aren’t.
  • Three things always get skippers in trouble: weather, weather and weather.
  • Never buy the Mark I version of anything.
  • Salt water will flow through the following items, in order of decreasing frequency: GPS, electrical system, bedding, bilge pump, marine toilet, engine cooling system.
  • Never let your boat take you someplace your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier.
  • If you have an anchorage all to yourself, all subsequent boats will anchor right on top of you.
  • The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.
  • Interchangeable parts aren’t.
  • Depthsounders are only accurate when confirming that you are aground.
  • If you have a new boat with no problems, start worrying.
  • The farther ahead you plan, the more likely things will go wrong.
  • Everything is much easier to take apart than to put back together.
  • Any order that can be misunderstood will be.
  • When all else fails, read the manual.
  • Always have a Plan B.
  • Hot engine parts look exactly like cold engine parts.
  • Murphy was right: Anything that can happen, will, and at the worst time.

Though it was more than 30 years ago, I can still clearly recall standing with my father and mother in a boatyard, tired and stained from having just finished painting the bottom of our boat. As we watched, a huge sag formed and grew, dragging the thick reddish paint downward into several drips. My mother looked at the two of us, shrugged her paint-spattered shoulders, and said cheerfully, “Oh, well. You’d never notice it from a galloping horse.”

Now there was someone who really understood Caswell’s Laws of Boating.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue.