Is it possible to be environmentally friendly and manly at the same time?
Our manliest captain on staff investigates.
For purposes of both edification and entertainment, let’s consider here the first encounter I ever had with an electric outboard. It took place two years ago and the little 3-hp jewel was thumb-screwed to the transom of a jaunty RIB, which was tied to a big cruiser’s swim platform, the underside of which was slapping against a modest morning chop on Block Island’s Great Salt Pond. Champlin’s Marina, an illustrious old place, hovered amid the mists ashore, harboring in its shadows the promise of breakfast.
I jumped into the RIB, worked my way astern to the outboard’s tiller arm, sat down and watched the rest of the crew come aboard. Once I’d figured out the delicacies of shifting gears and throttle response, somebody tossed off the painter at the bow and away we went, heading for Champlin’s. It was a spectacular summer morning although, sadly, a bit of turbulence was stirring at the bottom of my mind.
On the one hand, I could plainly see that the little electric outboard was doing a fine job. We were moving smartly along toward the marina, a veritable paragon of environmentally friendly electric propulsion. Which was great—I loved it! But on the other hand, there was this ongoing, high-pitched wheeeeeee! emanating from the motor. It was part and parcel of its personality, apparently. And, at least at the time, this sound did not strike me as being a particularly manly one, especially in light of my tendency to (how shall I put this?) envision myself in a certain way.
“Wheeeeeee!” I mocked the little outboard condescendingly, as I swung the RIB into the dinghy dock. “Wheeeeeee!” The fact that I was being a jerk only half occurred to me.
A similar episode transpired during a big boat show just a few months later. I was finishing up a sea trial on another RIB (albeit a larger one with a more powerful electric outboard) and was feeling pretty darn impressed with the whole deal.
But then, that dang turbulence thing came up again. While backing the RIB into a slip using a flimsy plastic binnacle control that had virtually no detentes (what a piece of junk!), I mistakenly shifted into forward gear while going astern, thereby precipitating total boathandling chaos in the presence of witnesses. Oh, what a fracas! Especially for a guy with a tendency to envision himself in a certain way.
“Cheesy control … cheesy control,” I yelped after tying up. I reinforced the remonstrance with a nod toward the RIB and a tough, manly tone, only half guessing at the time that, in order to re-establish my dignity at all costs, I was impugning not just the binnacle control but the credibility of a decent little boat and a fine, environmentally friendly, electric outboard product.
You never know you’ve got a problem until you know you’ve got a problem, right? Recently, at a backcountry ramp in northwestern Florida, I was preparing to launch a small boat with a 5-hp propane-powered outboard on her transom. And while I was getting stuff organized, a few guys came over to give the outboard a look. Their curiosity had been piqued, I guess, by seeing me heft a barbecue-grill-type propane tank into the stern, along with a lengthy fuel-delivery hose.
“What you got there, man?” chided the spokesman, a portly fellow with a bright-red “Make Fishing Great Again” ballcap, wraparound sunglasses, a Wyatt Earp mustache and an ingenuous smile. I figured he knew exactly what he was looking at. He’d posed the question for comedic purposes only. “You gonna go fishin’ with that thing or you gonna grill you up some hamburgers? Har, har, har.”
As I returned the old boy’s grin, it dawned on me. What this joker was doing I’d been doing for months, maybe even years. Under the influence of some weird, half-baked, testosterone-driven misunderstanding of manliness, I’d been subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—belittling and disparaging some very fine examples of alternative marine propulsion.
“No, man, not hamburgers,” I replied with semi-serious alarm. “Cheeseburgers, man. Cheeseburgers!”