June 6, 2010

Today, I Was Not A Butthead


Today, I was not a butthead.

But, I probably should have been.

I was down at the boat again, doing this week's chores (do they never end?). A beautiful, late spring day.

The birds were shining. The sun was singing.

June was playing something of the coquette, teasing with just a hint of the warmth she can show when she's in a better mood.

For me, it was enough, though. I was in shorts and sandals as I scrubbed down the cockpit.

Then, a flash of sail between the rows of tethered boats.

Not the usual stately march of a keelboat headed out to do battle.

This had the quick stops and starts of a butterfly - a light dinghy was being tossed about by the unsettled puffs that were playing through the alleys and avenues of boats.

A sixteen year old kid was marauding the marina in a tiny sailboat, learning the ways of tiller and sheet. He had some of the moves down, and was showboating for whoever might be watching.

But puffs were new to him. He'd yet to learn about bearing off in the lulls. And he seemed a bit too surprised by what overtook him after a lull. I had once been a marauder of marinas.

And then I noticed. No lifejacket.

He was wearing just shorts and tee shirt.

I thought about the warm sun and the cold water. I thought about the puffs. A year ago, I wouldn't have given it much thought beyond that.

But my thoughts immediately went to Carol Annes's friend, a much more experienced sailor than the kid in the dinghy, who, for reasons no one will ever know, disappeared into waters probably no colder than these.

What to do? Should I chase after this kid I did not know and yell across the water for him to put on a lifejacket?

What are the odds he would have listened? What are the odds he'd think I was a total butthead? What are the odds that other adults in the marina would have thought me a total butthead?

In the end, I did what most of us do in situations like this. I just let it go. One of the worst crimes you can commit today is to be an uncool butthead.

But the moment stayed in my head and wouldn't go away. It stirred the old questions of personal responsibility.

To whom are we responsible? Ourselves? Our community? Our god?

When I was growing up in the '60s and '70s, these questions were the focus of much public debate. I've watched all of that gradually slide into the 'me generation'. It seems that today most of us have all that we can do just getting through the day keeping the wolves from our own door without worrying about what's happening out in the forest.

So, was I a bigger butthead for not being a butthead?

What would you have done?



  1. I was that kid thirty-three years ago, and I can tell you the only time I wore a life jacket was when the RC insisted. Otherwise, it was tucked neatly under the hiking strap and pushed to the back of the laser cockpit. I may have even clipped it to the strap so if I flipped, the life jacket would not fall out and float away. It was not nearly as common for kids, or anyone, to wear PFDs in the 60's and 70's. Especially if you were at all concerned about getting an even tan. Petty, I know, but let's face it. It's the truth.

    I would like to think that I would have said something, because of what we've all been hearing lately regarding boating accidents. I would then be a hipocrite, because I admittedly still don't wear one myself.

    I can say however, that I think about life jackets a whole lot more than I ever have, and some day soon, I'm gonna get a good new one to wear. Til then I suppose I'm a butthead. But if you said something to that kid, O Docker, you would never have been a butthead in my book.

  2. I admit it, I don't wear one either most times. And rowers have more excuse for not wearing them than sailors (they get sweaty and can catch on the handles) and because rowboats don't have that huge flappy canvas thing whose sole function seems to be to tip you in the water, rowing is inherently safer.
    But I wear a pfd if I am beyond swimming distance of the shore. And I never, ever mock anyone else for wearing one.

  3. You're supposed to bear off in lulls? Why did nobody tell me this before?

  4. You're supposed to bear off in lulls? Why did nobody tell me this before?

  5. O Docker, there's a problem with your blog. It's posting my comments twice.

  6. O Docker, there's a problem with your blog. It's posting my comments twice.

  7. I wonder how my generation survived. We didn't wear seat belts. we rode in the back of pickups. We didn't wear helmets every time we did anything. We didn't wear PFDs.

    We now have to compete with either some unknown person in trapped in an anecdote or some statistical amalgam squished in some horrific way.

    "If I hadn't worn my helmet, seatbelt, and PFD I would have been dead." No, we really don't know that but as we age, we lose that sense of immortality and by extension, everyone else's is gone as well.

    Sometimes freak circumstances align and bad things happen. We try to find some way that something might have been averted. Sometimes it could have, sometimes not. Hindsight is not 20/20. It is clouded and twisted with all kinds that might have worked or not.

    Maybe if we do something with some risk we might have some freak accident. It also likely that as we can cower in our safe homes we get hit by an asteroid or a tree falling down or slip in the tub.

    More likely we will all stay indoors and die from diabetes and heart disease than the from some small imagined risk of something active. Things seem to be heading that way.

  8. That's another way of looking at it.

  9. I'm not saying that PFD's will automatically save everyone who falls in the water.

    I know almost nothing about those kind of statistics. I do know that a lot of people who die in boating accidents weren't wearing a PFD.

    And I guess I'm something of a wuss, in that I've always worn a PFD in my dinghy sailing days and in keelboats. But that's probably because the water I've sailed in has always been very cold.

    The only place I haven't worn PFD's while sailing was in the Caribbean, where the first thing you usually want to do when you get to a new anchorage is jump in the water.

    But this post wasn't really about wearing PFD's. I was wondering to what degree we stick our noses in other people's business when we perceive they're putting themselves in harm's way. And should we feel obligated to do so?

    I'd guess most of us don't, anymore, and I wonder if we used to more than we do now.

    Maybe I just wonder too much.

  10. Tillerman, how do you like my new plan for doubling the number of comments?

  11. Well, I really wasn't picking on you. I was really commenting on the state of things as they are now.

    We have been ingrained with this whole mentality of "I know what's best for you and you are not up to the decision of evaluating your own risks."

    As an example, I skate outdoors (bear in mind that I am a fat 50 year old man.) I bike. I sail. I work with dangerous tools. Depending on the situation, I decide what level of protection I will wear. Sometimes I think the situation warrants safety gear and sometimes not.

    The problem is that everyone wants to step in and decide that they know better what the situation warrants. They think that they are only "trying to do the right thing" and take that choice away from others. They think "If only people do what I think is right, the world will be safe."

    Some lessons can only be learned first hand. It doesn't matter how many times someone tells you "If you do that you will put out someone's eye." or "Do this and you will die a horrible death!"

    It is much like an immune system. When we do things that scare or hurt us, we learn to gauge the situation. If we live in a protective bubble, we have no basis for making a rational evaluation of new situations.

    I think you did the right thing by not being a Butthead.

  12. Yeah, butt if you did say something, it would have been cool too. I'm more inclined these days to say or at least to think something, due to the fact that I have two children who depend on me. They can ignore me and disrespect me all day long. But at the end of the day, they are in my arms and laying across the top of me and not wanting to go to bed. I say from now on, never hesitate to say something, even if it makes you look like a Butt-insky.

  13. There are always alternatives to calling out if you don't feel comfortable doing that.

    In some places, adults or youth are required to wear life preservers in open craft. If this is true in your area, then the local authorities would be interested in discussing safety rules with the young person.

    Or, you could just keep an eye on the youth.

    Or, if you want to creep him out, just follow in a small motorboat -- and tell him why if he asks.

    Or you could let the dockmaster or harbormaster know.

    O Docker, there's a problem with your blog. It's not making my comments look brilliant.

  14. Pat, don't worry. Your comments are always brilliant. Even if you are a Butte-insky.

  15. suppose something happened...would you have been a butthead?

    It is a big topic these days about wearing or not wearing. I always do, but I worn a helmet on my motorcyle before it was law.

    would I have yelled, only if he went past me, yes. If I had to cross the marina , no.

  16. Ah, there's the rub, Zen, he was far enough that I would have had to shout, and I'm no good at that without my caps lock key.

    Sorry Pat, trying to sort out Tillerman's double-posting issues, I switched off the encabulator.

  17. There is also the issue of maturity. Yes, adults should be able to make decisions for themselves. Adults have (or at least we hope they have) the ability to process information and evaluate the risks they are taking.

    Children, however, are not necessarily able to make sensible decisions. According to some psychological research, the human brain can't make rational decisions of this sort until about the age of 27. And certainly preteens and young teens don't have the foundation of experience that would inform their decisions.

    OTOH, I don't know that I would (or could) have done any different than you did. Ultimately, the responsibility for this kid's failure to wear a life jacket was his parents'. You might have shouted a suggestion to him to wear a PFD, but that probably would not have done any good.

    If all goes well, this kid will grow up, experience many sailing situations in which a life jacket is desirable, and get into the habit of wearing one. If things do not go well, this kid will die because he wasn't wearing one, and his parents will tear themselves up with guilt for not making him wear one.

    But neither of those outcomes will be your fault.

  18. Good question Carol Anne, when do young adults have the right to make their own decisions about PFDs etc?

    If its any consolation O Docker I wouldn't have yelled either: I saved that for crew that thought mooring lines could magically set all by themselves.

  19. JP, I guess we both feel a little sheepish about yelling at people.

  20. In New Mexico, youth 12 and under are required to wear PFDs on most boats, but everybody is required to wear a life jacket on small open craft such as canoes. Some states such as NY also have time-of-year (cold months of the year) requirements.

    Also, youth born after 1 Jan. 1989 aren't allowed to operate a boat on their own in NM unless they are age 13 and have completed a safety class, such as the one I'll be teaching this month at Heron Lake.