MUSKOKAN - The prevailing image of Muskoka cottagers is that every single one is a proficient boater.
Bill Jennings offers tips on the finer points of getting a boat up on plane.
And why shouldn’t they be? Every cottage has a dock and often multiple boats. A cottage weekend is about fun on the water, so surely everyone who spends time in Muskoka knows how to boat and to boat well. Right?
The reality, though, can be quite different. New cottage owners often discover in their first summer that boating isn’t quite as easy as it looks. And in many established cottages the lines are clearly drawn between boaters and passengers: those who sit in the left-hand seat can spend years on the water without ever learning how to start, navigate or safely operate the boat.
“I’m deck fluff,” one lifelong Muskoka resident admitted to me in a recent conversation. “I’ve spent my entire life on these lakes, but ask me how to get to the Kettles and I haven’t a clue.”
I can relate to her feelings. In more than a decade of writing about cottages in Muskoka, I’ve been on many dozens of boats. I got my Pleasure Craft Operator Card (PCOC, or boating licence) in 2003, not long after the government started phasing them in. I’ve travelled repeatedly on all of the region’s large lakes and quite a few of the smaller ones.
And that counts for exactly zero when the wind whips Lake Muskoka into a chop, half-a-dozen boats are trying to get into the same channel, and I’m the one in charge of a boat full of slightly nervous passengers.
At such times, I — like a great many other boaters — end up scratching my head and trying to feel my way through the situation without making any serious mistakes.
So when Bill Jennings offered to take me out for a boating lesson, I leapt at the chance.
Jennings is one of the country’s top boat writers, a member of the Power Boating Hall of Fame who has tested and reviewed over 1,400 boats in his career. He has also spent many years training boaters, and used to own one of the largest providers of PCOC cards in the country. But he’s also well aware that a PCOC is just the beginning of good boater training.
While on the Muskoka Lakes Association board, Jennings was active in training and running the marine patrol team, work that earned him a special award from the Canadian Association for Safe Boating. A winter resident of the Fort Myers area in Florida, Jennings also began training firefighters, sheriffs and deputies to become more proficient boaters. The success of those programs led him to create the Power Boating Academy, and offer a broad range of boating courses during his summer hours in Muskoka.
While any discussion of boating safety soon raises questions of enforcement — there are many in the marine safety field who feel that on-water training should be a mandatory part of boat licensing — Jennings says it’s important to remember why most people go boating in the first place: to have fun.
“You have to keep the fun in it,” he said.
The best reason to take a boating course, he said, is the same reason most adults take any course: the better you are at something, the more you enjoy it. “Why do people take tennis lessons or golf lessons? To become a better tennis player or golfer,” he said.
While our day of training was billed as on-the-water training, the first part of it was conducted shoreside. “Ground school,” Jennings calls it (he’s also a proficient pilot who flies volunteer missions for the U.S. Coast Guard.) Tied up at the dock, three of us — we were joined by a friend who had just obtained her PCOC card — sat in the boat and discussed a broad range of boating matters.
Some were elements that we had done in our PCOC training — the location of safety equipment and the difference between life-jackets and PFDs, for example. Others involved simply growing our understanding of how boats operate.
Using a simple bathtub toy boat, Jennings offered concise explanations of planing and displacement, discussing aerodynamics and hydrodynamics and — more importantly — how understanding these things will help us better control the boat in a range of situations.
Like any experienced boater, Jennings has a range of tips and suggestions. Many were simple, like running through a checklist of “welcome aboard” items any time I take on a new passenger, or creating a waterproof supply kit with everything from sunscreen to aspirin to a few simple tools, and carrying it with me every time I board. Taken together, though, these simple suggestions can add up to a more pleasurable trip for everyone aboard.
Out on the water, we started on a range of drills. Under Jennings’ supervision we practised getting onto plane more smoothly, turning back quickly in an impromptu “man overboard” drill when my hat flew off, and cutting across others’ wakes with a minimum of bounce. We practised nosing in to a buoy to control the boat more precisely, then went to a dock for practice docking — both nose-in and the more challenging stern-first approach. We learned how to turn the boat 180 degrees in a narrow channel, and how to quickly tell if our steering is centred.
Jennings also helped us explore the limits of our 18-foot bowrider.
“Let’s see how sharply this will turn,” he said at one point, talking me through a turn that was much sharper than any I would have felt comfortable doing unaided. (In his more advanced courses, Jennings teaches how to safely do a “standing turn,” a manoeuvre that involves standing the boat on its stern and spinning it 180 degrees.)
After four hours on the water, did we feel we were expert boaters? No. Expertise in boating, as in most things, only comes with a combination of training and practice. There are other courses, including those offered by the Canadian Power and Sail Squadrons, as well as Jennings’ Power Boating Academy.
What we got, though, was a better understanding of what we were doing, a few tips to avoid doing it badly, and motivation to keep training and practising to become ever better at this hobby we — like so many Muskokans — enjoy.