By John K. Fulweiler, Esq.

Jesse James likes him a lobster roll. You know him…ex-husband to Sandra Bullock, denim-wearing, flattop-rocking, chopper-making TV personality. I was slugging a Diet Coke and lobster roll when he sat down next to me, both of us with a Newport harbor view. I’m no fanboy and so I ate and ran, leaving him to perspire in his getup (he hadn’t yet broken out his Nantucket Reds).

But what if Jesse decides to go down to the lonely sea and sky and he buys a boat and he hires me as his maritime lawyer to “ride pillion,” as the British say? What advice would this Coast Guard-credentialed and licensed lawyer offer?

Keep it classy. You have a good eye for a ‘line,’ so buy something that sits well in the water. Don’t buy new. Buy something with a little salt on it ‘cause that’ll mean a lot of the shakes, rattles and leaks have been sorted. Start with something you can drive without a crew. Don’t worry the electronics; all that wizardry you won’t hardly ever use. Get a good compass and figure out how to use it. And for sweet’s sake, don’t go buying one of those setups with colored LED lighting below the waterline.

You and I might share a sweet spot for a ‘sleeper,’ like Paul Newman’s old Volvo wagon with its five-liter V-8 and manual Ford T5 trans all tucked under the hood, quiet-like. I once owned twenty-six feet of baby blue Awlgrip and white powder-coated T-top with the only hint of its big block engine being the ten-inch exhaust. So if speed is your thing, buy something that’s fast as opposed to just looking fast.

And when you find your ride, get a good surveyor who isn’t bedding the broker. You need a surveyor with the experience to find the fiberglass delamination and bad tabbing, and the fortitude to tell you. Plus, get a surveyor who knows the kind of boat you intend to buy. If you can find a naval architect who does surveys, that’s the best in my opinion. I know a great guy who’ll roll a beer between his palms and tell you horror stories about the things he sees in some of these fiberglass builds. I could introduce you.

When you get the new vessel to the dock, spend time figuring out where the life jackets are and how many you have, and the same goes for the flares and your horn. Ask someone to show you how to use a stern, spring and bow line – it’s an art. Keep a paper chart aboard. Take a boating class and consider working toward getting a Merchant Mariner credential. Too much? Okay, at least take the safe boating course because there’s decent stuff in there. Understand how many and where each of your thru-hull valves is located. Pull up the engine hatch (I’m assuming you bought an inboard as opposed to some bolt-on packaged power) and study the raw water and exhaust lines. Sometimes a boat will sink itself when one of those lines goes and the running engine keeps pumping water into the boat. If you’re ever flooding and can’t figure the source, give those lines a look. Drop your ensign when the sun sets.

When you’re underway, remember it’s not Route 66. Keep your eyes open and swivel your head. Those trying to shed the workweek with beer and sun sometimes inadvertently set up collision courses. And that’s another thing – every vessel is obligated to take action to avoid a collision, so don’t be standing on principle. If there’s a risk of collision, take positive action. My twelve-year-old daughter will make an exaggerated move in her little Whaler to let everyone know she’s trying to steer clear. Pull your fenders in right after leaving the dock.

If you think a hardtail chopper has a tough ride, try hitting a big wake on a plane. That experience can turn passengers into pinballs. Spend time learning how your hull rides and figure out the safest spot for passengers before pushing the throttles forward. Wear a life jacket when you go offshore and I know you’re snickering ‘cause you don’t wear skid-lids, but read my book called A SWIM. That little tale about a guy who fell off his boat in Block Island Sound might change your mind. If you buy a jet drive, learn their quirks. Slow down and mind the wake you throw, because the maritime law basically imposes strict liability for any damage caused by your wake. Generally pass other boats port-to-port. Make sure your running lights work and use them.

The call of the running tide is strong, so don’t get mad if you find yourself doing more boating than motorcycling. And remember, rumor was Jimmy Dean used to wander the docks in cowboy boots with topsider soles so it doesn’t matter what you wear when the sea fever hits.

This article is provided for your general information, is not legal opinion and should not be relied upon. Always seek legal counsel to understand your rights and remedies.

Underway and making way. ■


John K. Fulweiler, Esq. is a Proctor-in-Admiralty representing individuals and small businesses in maritime matters including personal injury claims throughout the East and Gulf Coasts and with his office in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at 1-800-383-MAYDAY (6293) or john@saltwaterlaw.com, or visit his website at saltwaterlaw.com.