Chartering a boat is an ancient and honorable transaction thanks to which a reputable and responsible yachtsman temporarily without a yacht can—with time, trouble and money, through the medium of his broker and with the advice and consent of various lawyers and insurance underwriters—sail away in another man's boat.
In recent years, however, a menacing variation on this traditional gambit has cropped up along the waterfronts. This is boat rental, or, as it might better be called, "instant charter"—or just plain "U-Sink-It." It is based on the highly questionable premise that anyone who can rent or drive a car can rent or drive a boat, and it generates an alarm that borders on panic in coast guardsmen, insurance agents and genuine yachtsmen.
Despite the fact that companies devoted to drive-yourself boat rentals tend to close almost as fast as they open because of the prohibitive cost of insurance, new ones bursting with optimism still appear. It is significant that one of the most optimistic of all has just opened up in that cloud-cuckoo land, the New York World's Fair, and that it is licensed by the Avis Company, which is only No. 2 in car rentals—and apparently doesn't know when it's well off.
If you are 21 or over, can drive a car, know your right from your left and can tell the difference between land and water, Avis will rent you for a day or a week a 28-foot cabin cruiser worth approximately $11,000 and powered by 130 impatient mechanical horses, eager to trample on anyone in their way. Says the instruction sheet handed to every customer with blue water in his eyes and a yen to skipper his own yacht, "We offer a safe, comfortable and exciting vacation afloat for those who have never operated a boat or for seasoned skippers" If—as seems likely—your knowledge of the rules of the road (i.e., the vitally important basic traffic laws of navigation) is slight, you get a little booklet called Anchors Aweigh! A Family Guide to Boating. In case you find yourself on collision course at flank speed with a $350,000 yacht or the Queen Elizabeth, all you have to do is pick up Family Guide and turn to page 11.
"We don't care if the man who rents our boat can read a compass," says Sidney Ochs, one of the optimists who runs the show. "We sell visual navigation, and if he's in doubt, we tell him to go to the nearest buoy"—on the chance, presumably, that someone will be sitting on the buoy to tell him what to do next.
The 28-foot single-screw cabin cruiser that Avis rents has four or five bunks and comes complete with all the life jackets and other gear specified by the U.S. Coast Guard. Avis supplies other gear that is not required, such as a spatula, bottle opener, scouring powder, percolator, small pot and a marine compass for those who can read it. The fee per day is $60 (on weekdays) or $75 (on Saturday or Sunday, when the traffic is heavy). For a week the charge is $300. A slight additional fee covers such things as disposable sheets, pillows, towels or extra life preservers, and the renter pays for all the gasoline he burns.
All of Avis' boats were designed with one thought in mind: indestructability. They are made of steel almost as tough as armor plate. A special V strut guards the propeller and a heavy wooden shoe protects the rudder and bottom. The engine nestles in a separate water- and fume-tight compartment. "We once had an engine explode," boasts Ochs proudly, "and all that happened was the hatches blew off. The boat didn't leak a drop."
Paul Emerson, who runs Sportsman Yacht Rentals in Newport Beach, Calif., a whole continent away, is far less trusting than Ochs. "We take customers out to see if they can operate a boat," he says. "And if they can't, we won't rent." Emerson's caution has helped Sportsman Rentals build a small, steady clientele of repeaters, but it hasn't given him much confidence for the future. "This is our third year in business," he says. "We'll try it one more year and if we don't make it big, that will be it."
What's killing Emerson is the $10 extra a day he has to charge for insurance, and the likelihood of the rate staying that low is small. One day not long ago a happy family of novice boaters rented a craft from Sportsman Rentals to go to Catalina. "When they got back," says Paul, "the bottom was loose. They had broken the hard top of the cabin. The front windshield was gone. The steps were broken off. The dinette table had no legs and a charcoal burner they used for a cookout had burned a hole in the deck." Insurance payoff: $800.
One renter who has managed to survive in the drive-yourself boat business because of his own salt-horse intuition is 57-year-old Tony Cerqua of Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Tony owns 18 husky, red-topped, black-hulled boats with Tony's U-Drive-It emblazoned on their sides, and he has been in the rental business for 16 years with the loss of only one boat.
A closet-sized wheelhouse rooted up from some ancient vessel and plopped down on a dock, Tony's headquarters is crammed with old pumps, solenoids, batteries, fishing rods and foul-weather gear. It is a far cry from the plush headquarters at Avis, but its air can dissipate the phony front of a novice in seconds. Before renting a boat, Tony puts prospective customers through his own particular brand of inquisition. "We won't let no greenhorns out there even if they stand on their heads and beg me. 'If you want to kill yourself go out and do it in your car,' I tell them." But even tough Tony has to admit that "once in a while a jerk does slip through our fingers. Then we got troubles."
Oddly enough, even though sailboats are far trickier to handle, the business of renting sailboats is less risky than renting powerboats. One reason is that people who can't sail usually know it. But not always. One man who claimed to have served his apprenticeship in "70-foot sloops" rented a fast racing catamaran from Jerry Wood of Annapolis Boat Rental, Inc., got in irons a few yards off the dock and somehow managed to sail backwards the full length of a creek until he ran aground.
Since the ground in question was a mudbank and the boat was ruggedly built, no harm was done except to the skipper's ego and Wood's nerves. At sea, however, such nutty navigation might have proved far from funny. The real menace of the instant yachtsman is not to the man who rents the boat or even to the insurance company. It is to other yachtsmen.
U-Drive-It boat operations are virtually free of all governmental control. Adequate insurance coverage protects the renter. But it offers small comfort to the experienced sailor who, in a sudden fog or quick squall, finds himself rammed by the instant skipper who can't read a compass or who thinks he has the right of way when he hasn't. It offers even less comfort to the coast guardsman who may have to risk his life rescuing the fool. As one Coast Guard commander said helplessly, "There is no way to prevent anyone from going out in a boat. We can only caution them."