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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Head Boats: The Good, The Bad & “Quality Time”


Head Boat “Quality Time” at Happy Bay, St. Martin, as seen
from the cockpit of out boat.  At this point, the majority of their
passengers had already left their boat, but before Quality Time
hit our boat! As Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson wryly quips,
“Objects… may be closer than they appear.”  They were.

If you’ve ever been a fan of Clint Eastwood movies, or spaghetti westerns, you’ve heard of “The Good, TheBad & The Ugly.”   Similarly, among “head boats” there is The Good, The Bad and “Quality Time.”

What is a “Head Boat”? 
A little explanation.… Cruising friends Scott and Kim Dickens of Bella Blue introduced us to the “head boat” term  

Among the recreational boats we encounter these days, there are
  • Locals:  they have a “home base” where they spend most of their time and typically don’t venture too far from there
  • Charter boats:  are rental boats booked through a charter company, rented generally for the day or longer, but usually less than a month, sometimes with a crew to “drive,” cook, etc. or, more commonly as a “bare boat” where the renters, whether they know how to handle boats or not, act as captain and crew.
  • Cruisers: much like a motor home, cruisers “live” on the boat and it’s also their primary mode of travel – we (Wayne & Dana aka “Galley Wench Tales) are cruisers
  • Head boats” are predominantly in popular tourist areas, usually large catamarans with a professional captain and crew who provide tours most likely booked through cruise liners, following a predetermined route, with rigid departure and return times.  Because they’re usually carrying 40 or more passengers, you see lots of heads on them; hence the “head boat” moniker.


The Good
This is where I went with Snorkel Bob in Maui.
Awesome trip, competently run.
Good head boats, in my opinion, provide their passengers a positive, enlightening experience.  At the very least, they do it safely, smoothly and are minimally invasive to the environment, flora and fauna, including any homo sapiens in the area.  Snorkel Bobs, in Maui, for example, does a great job taking snorkelers and divers to Molokini.  We arrived, without fanfare, before anyone else was there, and we beat a hasty exit as the other hordes of boats descended upon the same spot. The snorkeling visibility was a phenomenal110 feet, in a reef rich with vibrant and varied life where we looked but did not touch… coral, a dense multitude of colorful tropical fish, moray eels…. We arrived and returned without incident.  It was 15 years ago and I still recall it clearly.

Our headboat crew, feeling no pain, fully anesthetized
as they did indeed heartily inhale their herbal campfire.
The Bad
While we got a killer deal and enjoyed a fabulous sunset cruise on a catamaran head boat in St. Lucia (click here for more about that), the crew was clearly content to kick off the sail, stoned.  Before we left the dock, they smilingly lit up some serious spliffs, the size of big, fat Cuban cigars.  The herbal campfire scent, unmistakable.  About midway through the cruise, the boat’s steering failed, though the crew fixed it within a half hour.  The sails never came up, though we’ve since noticed on most head boats, regardless of whether sailing conditions are perfect or not, they almost always strictly motor.  Typical of most head boats we’ve encountered, anyone within a mile of us had little choice but to hear our boat’s music, whether they liked it or not.

Quality Time, anchored a more reasonable distance
from us in Grande Case.
Quality Time
New Year’s Day, we were startled when head boat Quality Time whipped past us, with its 40 or so passengers, many curiously staring down into our cockpit from only 15 feet away.  Suffice to say, we were not suitably dressed at the time (use your imagination).  Less than a boat length from us, Quality Time dropped anchor.  We did our best pantomime of head shaking and casting dirty looks about Quality Time’s overly close proximity.  About 10 minutes later, Quality Time drifted, hitting us.  Specifically, their bow sprit punched the GPS antennae on our boat, dislodging it. Understandably, I believe, I loudly expressed my extreme displeasure with a number of three finger salutes and using the words "f---ing incompetence!" repeatedly.

To their credit, the first mate, and later, the captain came by to apologize and ask if any harm was done.  As Wayne was able to re-attach our antennae. Our issue was less about damage and more about the invasion -- being hit by a 40-passenger boat whose captain should know better than unnecessarily anchoring too close to another boat.  However, excuses of “I just do what the captain says” and “Not wanting to inconvenience their passengers” sandwiching their half-hearted apology just didn’t cut it for me.  (Click here to read How toApologize with Aplomb.)

Still pissed off, and not much of one for undirected anger, I emailed their booking company, who I discovered through some online sleuthing. Again, to their credit, they responded within a few hours of my email.  “The Captain … has been with us for some 4 years and we have not had complaint or observed impolite operations previously.  I called the captain and he admits he ended up closer to your vessel than was prudent. He explained the eddies and a wind shift caught him unawares, resulting in the contact with your vessel.  He assures me he will endeavor to keep a better distance in future.”

If anyone neglected their deoderant that morning, everyone
in this dinghy would be painfully aware.
A week and a half later, exiting our boat cabin in Grande Case (not far from Happy Bay), guess who we saw newly anchored next door?  Quality Time!  This time they anchored a good 3+ boat lengths away. Whilst they ferried their passengers to shore, we did wonder what about their maximum dinghy weight capacity.   They carried 10-12 folks at a go.  Our small dinghy’s maximum weight including the motor, is 750 pounds, or about non-overweight 4 adults. Even with only the two of us, and we’re not that heavy, it’s painfully slow.  Quality Time’s dinghy was a little larger, though certainly less than twice ours’ size.  Dinghy overloading is not something unique to Quality Time.  Remember the (lack of) life boats on the Titanic?  Fortunately, there are no icebergs here.

Scott and Kim Dickens, cruisers
on the sailboat Bella Blue who
introduced us to the term,
“head boat.”
There you have it – the Good, the Bad and “Quality Time” head boats.  As for me, I’m just very happy we now can travel where we want via our own boat, a captained by the man I trust with my life.