Boating season is here! There are a lot of boats in Jefferson County, but is anyone aware that those who go out on the water for pleasure have a serious identity problem? What we call ourselves speaks volumes, maybe even more than what we name our boats. Except for plague times, Port Townsend has never missed a Wooden Boat Festival. People love attending its talks, seeing the exhibits, and exploring boats on display, both power and sail—which brings us to the conundrum—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 guys wearing bowties and wielding long sticks, who punt their sweethearts down the River Cam (just google it), or, it’s worn by blue-jacketed dandies coolly watching 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 that it might alarm insurance companies to learn that some people have been keeping boaters hanging on their walls for years, breaking off their edges and letting cockroaches nibble on them.

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 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 around Puget Sound 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.

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.) 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 minds.

15 COMMENTS

  1. I must unfortunately make one criticism of an otherwise excellent essay. The pirate long syllable that precedes “me hearties” does not contain a “G.” “Aaargh” is the sound of pain, maybe anger, often disgust, but the pirate sails forth with a hearty “AARRRRRRRR.” I refer you to The Pirate Song by Time Y. Jones. https://youtu.be/HbH8839181E

    • Ah, yes, matey, good point, but when a pirate is suffering from that old sea-malady known as catarrh, she is apt to spell the greeting as it sounds, as if clearing the windpipes with a fine and throaty “G.” Plus, while your excellent pirate song elicits twitters of delight from its audience, this video, from the Auckland Maritime Museum, instructs viewers on the fine art of saying ARRRRRGH.

  2. You are and continue to be just the best. My good friend Gina is an ” able bodied seaman ” on the Clinton Mukilteo ferry, we call her the Ferry Queen, and she is that for certain. It’s a real class system we’ve got on our ferries. But you my friend, are a class above.

  3. Great job Karen, love especially the cartoon. To add detail to your lexicology, shellback should only be used by those who have crossed the equator, and suffered the associated indignities. If you haven’t then you are an ignominious pollywog.

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