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Before the RIB boom, the Whaler was the sailor’s powerboat

2010 September 1

I was standing on a dock waiting for my ship to come in … no, wait, that sounds like the beginning of a metaphor. Let me start again. I was standing on a dock down in the islands waiting for my ferry to arrive, and idly watching a bunch of kids racing dinghies around the harbor. At one point, a Boston Whaler sped through the fleet, dodging nimbly in and out of the youngsters. Next to me, a young man wearing a Mt. Gay regatta shirt turned and said, voice dripping with scorn, "Powerboats are just lame, aren't they?"

Drawing myself up and summoning my best haughty tone, I said, "Son, you be real mindful
of what you're saying. There's
two things a real sailor never blasphemes: motherhood and Boston Whalers!"

If you sail, it's almost certain that you've been aboard a Whaler. Today, inflatable boats are in,
but back a couple of decades, Whalers were everywhere on the sailing scene.

If you learned to sail in dinghies, you were probably rescued by Whalers. As you were ferried ashore from a moored boat, the club tender was often a Boston Whaler. If you raced in a junior program, your sailing instructor probably yelled at you from a Whaler. And if you were unlucky enough to be stopped by the water cops, they were often aboard
a Whaler.

In the sailing community, powerboats are held in universally low esteem for a lot of good reasons. As a kid crewing for adults, I remember a real drifter where even the cigarette smoke went straight up, and one of the adults ripping off a chain of very adult words after a powerboat went past and its wake rolled any prayer of wind from our sails. Powerboats were the ones that beat us to the best moorings, left their generators rattling all night long, and were usually the first to drag anchor in a breeze. They were, and still are, regarded as a necessary evil by sailors, although I recall from my teenage days that the prettiest girls were often aboard powerboats. But that's a tale for another column.

Why were Boston Whalers so popular? Well, they claimed they couldn't sink, and the early ads for Whalers showed the inventor sawing one in half and then rowing away, still afloat.

So, because of their innate safety, Boston Whalers became de rigueur as rescue boats and junior program boats around yacht clubs and at sailing centers. A mark of someone who had been around was the ability to reach over the gunwale of a Whaler from in the water, feel around, and find the little hidden bronze bars that served as cleats. It was a badge of "been here, done this before."

The first time I laid eyes on a Boston Whaler was when the boat dealer I worked for on weekends became the first Whaler dealer on the West Coast. One day a large wooden box arrived, and my high school chum Jon and I were sent to unpack a 13-foot Whaler.

We tore into the wood box with crowbars and soon had a pile of lumber lying around a rather
peculiarly shaped blue and white plastic container.

"What do you think it is?", said Jon. "I dunno," I replied as the elder. "Perhaps it's a molded cover and the boat's inside."

Luckily, the owner of the dealership intervened before we attacked the Whaler with crowbars to find the real boat. It just didn't look like any boat we'd ever seen.

I came to know that light blue interior intimately a few years later as a junior instructor for my yacht club that had a 16-foot Whaler for my use. It was during that long, hot summer that I learned to both love and hate that boat. It could pound your fillings out in a chop. The ads were right, though: it couldn't sink. But it could sure fill with water.

That summer, the Snipes had a North American championship at our club and I volunteered to run the Whaler as a rescue boat. The regatta drew a lot of inland lake sailors who weren't familiar with ocean swells, especially when the winds blew into the 30s and the seas turned into breakers. The fleet was soon decimated, and my radio was frantic, "Get the crews, leave the boats, get all the people!"

There were capsized Snipes everywhere, and my Whaler was soon filled like a New York subway at rush hour, with all of us standing thigh-deep in water, which was pouring over the rails as we fished more and more crews out.

I raced through the inlet to the club, dropping off weary crews to squish toward hot showers, and returned to retrieve the boats. Obviously, Snipes didn't have the double-floors that now make capsizing a momentary inconvenience. No, these Snipes turned into water-logged sleds that weighed tons.

At first, we were wrestling the boats bow-first onto the Whaler, which allowed enough water to slosh out so they would float. Then a Coast Guard 40-footer, crewed by a bunch of scared kids my age, arrived on the scene with a pump like an elephant nose. They would drop that into a Snipe cockpit, a burst of smoke would come from their diesel engine, and the water would be sucked out of the Snipe faster than you read this line. Of course, it also sucked out everything else: mainsheet cleat, jib sheets, hiking straps … all gone. When we finally headed back to the club after dark, wet and bone-weary, we had a long line of Snipes in tow like ducklings.

A few years ago, I returned to my old yacht club and there at the dock was that same Boston Whaler four decades later. It was kind of beat-up but, hey, so am I. I went down and sat in it, remembering a long summer behind that chipped metal wheel. The interior had been repainted about the same blue with a 49-cent brush, and the rubber rail had been replaced by padded canvas.

But when I ran my hand down the gunwale, I could still feel the dents, five, ten, more, from where we'd pulled the Snipes out until their daggerboards hit the rail as we emptied them. They were still there, like notches on a gunslinger's pistol.

This may seem a non-sailing column but, in fact, it's really about the essence of sailing. Not to mention a lot of great memories.