Waving to Other Sailors and Boaters... ALWAYS?

Waving to other boaters and sailors... always or sometimes, while racing and cruising? A SpinSheet columnist's take on it.

Photo by Al Schreitmueller

Going out for an evening sail on a recent Wednesday, I threaded around a line of racers coming in under spinnaker to catch the finish, which on this night was Green 5 near the entrance to Middle River. It was a beautiful sight, a silent procession of 30 to 40 footers ghosting to the line under colorful panels of nylon, together as pretty a painting as you could imagine. As I passed each boat, a hand raised up in the customary wave of acknowledgement to other mariners, it elicited no response. Why, I thought, was my friendly gesture not returned in kind as usual?  I wasn’t just saying “hi”—I was signaling admiration for their craft and dedication to the sport. 

Was I in the way? I didn’t think so, making conscious effort to steer well clear of anyone racing, which on light-air days of summer might not be obvious, but it being a Wednesday, the unofficial chosen day of sailboat racing on the Chesapeake, I was especially aware that boats would be coming in after their races as I was going out to meet the moonlight just for fun. 

Photo by Al Schreitmueller

I started to feel inferior, that perhaps my lazy cruise outbound on a beautiful night didn’t equate to the knowledge, skill, and seamanship required of a racer, and I looked to see if I was guilty of a luffing sail, a sheet in the water, or worse: a fender over the side. Everyone onboard seemed absorbed in teamwork—stowing away their spinnakers, flaking down their mains, and other goings about of clearing the decks after a strenuous afternoon of hard work. Fair enough that they didn’t see me, perhaps. I got that they were regaling in the camaraderie that only race crews hold dear, but would it have killed one of them to acknowledge me? Were they so inherently superior that some code existed that forbade any member of the crew to offer even a hint of reciprocity that might signal tacit approval of my preferred means of enjoying our fair waters? I felt snubbed. 

A friend of mind from the upper Midwest thinks it must be a regional thing. She considers anybody on the water deserves to be there, whether aboard a kayak, SUP, or a megayacht. To her way of thinking, those piloting lowly trailerable daysailers are the equal of the latest sleek J Boats offering, and the wave should be given and returned with esteemed aplomb. She is an unabashed waver. 

Almost everybody gets the wave from me. I make a special effort to wave to occupants of watercraft that most annoy me, perhaps in hope that mutual respect might flourish. This includes jet skis, super loud go-fast boats, party barges of neophytes, runabouts full of shirtless beer swillers, and thoughtless crabbers setting their floats in the middle of the channel. My friend thinks the divide between power and sail is odd, but I’ve heard too many slurs come my way of being a stuck-up lout of a Dockers-wearing windbagger with the personality of Thurston Howell III, thinking the sea is our own and nobody else’s. If only that were true.

Another friend of mine refuses to wave to powerboats, but I think this is flirting with peril. The wave is a homespun nautical tradition not to be forsaken, and applied to all. That pontoon boat might be the one to pull you off a sandbar someday, as a sedan cruiser full of shirtless beer swillers saved me from grounding on a falling tide this summer. I had run the boat aground on purpose to clean the bottom, and time got away from me. Turns out they didn’t much understand sailing, but they were more than willing to help once the ice was broken. We all had a good laugh about it afterward.  

I’ll admit that the bowrider that just cut across my bow might only deserve a slight lift of the hand, and the bozos flying the Confederate flag nothing at all. The big cruiser that waked me at 40 feet climbing up on plane, who didn’t care or more plausibly didn’t even see me got more than the hand. He got an earful on the radio to the marine police and the Coast Guard but to no avail; I didn’t get the boat’s name in the dark. 

Cruising sailors always wave, probably due to numbing boredom or long celibate loneliness. I know this feeling. Once, on a 10-hour motor ride up from Solomons, I saw just one boat. It was nice to elicit human contact from someone with a reciprocated wave. It got me to thinking. Maybe doing the wave shouldn’t just be reserved for us. If only those indifferent racers would join in, maybe we could start something really big. 

~by Steve Allan