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Warning: Cigarettes are dangerous to the health of your ears while sailing

2018 November 1

I thought they would roar off into the sunset after “Miami Vice,” the TV show that showcased their macho glory, went off the air.

That didn’t happen, but then I was sure the $4-per-gallon-plus gasoline price spike of a decade ago that raised their cost of operation to more than $500 an hour would ensure their demise.


That didn’t happen either, but then I figured that the Great Recession, which rendered wretched excess not only politically incorrect but unaffordable for many, would seal their fate.

Wrong again.

The subject of these misguided musings was cigarette boats. Which proves that I’m a lame prognosticator of boating culture trends and that wishful thinking does not work, for these beasts are still with us. More numerous than ever, more obnoxious than ever.

We sailors don’t have any sort of exclusive right to enjoy the water in our special way, of course, and most of the sailors I know are content to share their patches of the oceans and lakes with just about any manner of watercraft, motorized or not. Some of us have even come to terms with the variation known as personal watercraft or jet skis. I liken them to mosquitoes at a patio party—annoying but usually not enough to ruin the fun.

But cigarette boats? Sorry, there’s a limit to the aural insult our waters and those who ply them should have to tolerate, and cigarette boats exceed that limit by too many decibels to count.

I’m referring to cigarette boats with unmuffled exhausts. You can get these sleek, muscular, incredibly fast, surprisingly seaworthy speedboats with underwater exhaust systems like conventional, much less noisy powerboats have. A certain type of cigarette boat owner opts instead to blast the outrageous sound of massive engines into the open air.

The ear-splitting racket is optional, but it seems to be the most compelling feature of cigarette boats for some devotees. See, the noise attracts attention. It shouts, “Look at me! Look at my fabulous boat! Be awed by the thunder it produces! Be amazed by its astonishing speed.”

Some of the names seen on cigarette boats may offer insights into the image their owners are cultivating as commanders of these uberpotent water machines. The likes of Badass and Predator. 

My personal favorite is the one emblazoned on the gaudy topsides of a cigarette boat that haunts SAILING’s home port. The name is Mine’s Bigger. (I have plenty of witnesses to attest I’m not making this up.)

I will leave it to someone with an advanced psychology degree to parse the meaning of this moniker, but if it applies to the size of the boat, it’s an obsolete claim. Cigarette boats of 50 feet or longer now dwarf the 38-foot Mine’s Bigger. I don’t suppose Mine Used to be Bigger would be a catchy name.

A spanking new cigarette boat nearly in the 50-foot class drew a crowd last summer at a dock beside a ramp where I was launching an inflatable boat. The cigarette boat was crowdworthy for sure, with bold graphics accentuating the fearsome demeanor of something that looked more like a weapon than pleasure boat, and the owner was not about to let the opportunity go to waste. 

He pushed some buttons that lifted the covers over the more than 1,000 horsepower’s worth of chromed engines, apparently so that they could be properly admired, started the V-8s and revved them repeatedly with bursts of explosive reports so loud they seemed to take the oxygen out of the air. Some in the crowd covered their ears, and a child cried, but others looked—I hate to write it—awestruck. The owner beamed. I untied the inflatable and headed for my sailboat, my outboard soundless amid the din. 

Readers may detect a similarity in this behavior to that of riders of motorcycles modified to be outrageously loud, say one of the big Harley-Davidsons affectionately known as hogs fitted with illegal exhaust systems. Like their brethren in the amplified cigarette boat cult, when parked they will rev off a few crackling reports with the engine in neutral to attract an audience before the main act of taking off with decibel explosions refreshed with throttle bursts at each gear shift.

The big cigarette boat’s dockside performance was merely the prelude to several hours of full-throttle roaring to and fro outside of the harbor. I’ve found this to be fairly typical behavior, the point being not to get somewhere, but to be seen and heard. Especially heard.

Sailors are not alone in being offended by this behavior, but it’s probably safe to say we suffer more. Among the gifts of sailing that we treasure is the ability to visit a quiet world where the sounds we add to those made by nature are gentle and fitting, the gurgle of a stern wave, the lapping of wavelets on the bow, the creak of a block, the ruffle of a luffing sail. Sailors are rewarded by this auditory peace, and we honor it.

What to do about those who dishonor it? Some ports have passed decibel laws making unmuffled cigarette boat noise illegal. These ordinances are probably hard to enforce (good luck catching a cigarette boat that can go nearly 100 miles per hour), and do we really want more cops on the water? 

Better to just shape a course to the quiet offshore world we seek. Cigarette boats aren’t likely to follow. It’s not that they can’t—their extreme deep-vee hulls can handle choppy seas. But they won’t. They need a bigger audience than a few sailors.

And speaking of cigarette boat names, I did see one in a YouTube video that deserves credit for honesty and a refreshing bit of self-mockery: Fastidiots.