Don’t Be a Googan: The Unwritten Rules of Boating

Don’t Be a Googan: The Unwritten Rules of Boating

I don’t recall the first time I heard the word “googan,” but, growing up along the Florida Coast, the word has been a part of the local vernacular for as long as I can remember.

It’s a phrase used by the fishing community in reference to a boater or angler who, whether intentionally or not, acts with pure stupidity, obliviousness, or blatant disregard for other boaters, anglers, marine laws, and the environment. The definition varies slightly within local cultures, customs, and acceptable behaviors of an area, but at the core—googans do dumb shit.

Even if you’re just learning about them, googans have been around since boats had motors. The term is thought to have originated in the 1980s, yet there are many theories about the exact source. Some say it stemmed from the tight-knit surf fishing community of Montauk, New York. Others argue an old salt of the Florida Keys coined the word. Regardless, it’s grown in popularity and definition thanks to the rise of the Internet and inevitable googan reproduction.

In 2018, there were an estimated 12 million registered boats in the U.S. and over 87 million adults participating in the activity of boating, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Overall, the United States contains 264,837 square miles of water, including inland and coastal waters. That’s only about two acres per boater. And did I mention, poorly-trained?

Unlike driving a car, boaters aren’t required to pass any tests or earn any licenses. All you need to operate a boat in many states is, well, a boat. Some states require certain ages, usually teens, to complete a boater education course, but I’ve never heard the lawman ask  to see a grown adult’s boater education card.

Many people consider boating a birthright. Dad propped you up at the helm with a life jacket, probably way too young, and rattled off the “rules of the road” between sips of Budweiser. “Red, right, return,” he’d say as a navigational lesson on channel markers, or, “Never do what that guy just did,” as you witness a boat catapulting off a submerged sandbar.

The point here is that boating knowledge is either passed down, learned from experience, or disregarded completely. Formal training is traditionally reserved for on-the-water professionals, like the OUPV Captain’s License course for fishing guides, or the U.S. Coast Guard’s Able Seaman certification. Which leads us back to the most untrained, incompetent population of all—the googans.

Now, let’s be clear: no one has to be a googan. Through simple due diligence and willingness to learn, anyone can be a competent, safe, and courteous boater both on and off the water. If you’re not sure whether you’re toeing the line of googanism, read on for some common faux pas and unsolicited advice on what not to do.

At the Ramp
As the only thing standing between you and the water, a hectic boat ramp can become an inescapable source of frustration on an otherwise beautiful boating day. The key, simply stated: be quick, efficient, and courteous.

Prepare your boat even before pulling onto the launch lane. Untying ropes, loading gear onto the boat, fiddling with the motor, and any form of lingering or hanging out should be done off to the side to avoid blocking the ramp and creating unnecessary delays.

Trailer backing can be intimidating but is easily mastered with a little practice—but not at the ramp. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does have to be quick. Take up only one lane, even if you think there’s no one else around, and turn off your headlights so you don’t blind anyone ahead of you. When tying off to the dock, be sure your boat is out of the right of way, giving other boaters space to launch and land while you park or wait for passengers.

When loading back on the trailer, always, always, always, be sure your boat is properly positioned and that it’s latched, strapped, or tied down before driving off. I’ve witnessed boats fall completely off the trailer from lack of oversight.

These same rules apply for kayakers and those with personal vessels like jet skis or wave runners.

On the Water
Spoiler alert: there are actual laws on the water. The U.S. Coast Guard provides an excellent resource for state and federal regulations. But this isn’t the place and I’m not the law, so we’ll stick to examining a few common, unwritten misbehaviors. Simply stated: distance, speed, and personal conduct.

Every day, I witness boat operators riding too close to other boats, which is dangerous for obvious reasons, but also disruptive because a trailing wake can swamp a stationary boat and toss passengers around. This is especially frustrating for folks fishing in a small area like a narrow river or shallow flat where an unwelcome wake or engine noise will spook anything that might have been lurking beneath the surface.

The most prominent, albeit hilarious, googan offense is running aground. Sandbars aren’t always visible above the surface and varying tides can alter the risk. Taking time to familiarize yourself with an area can save you a world of heartache and embarrassment. Use GPS, navigational charts, or Google Maps to examine waterways and locate shallow areas, sandbars, and rocky bottoms in advance. If you do find yourself in a hairy situation, there are a few tactics you can try before calling for help.

No Wake Zones offer another easy place to spot googans—they’re the ones blowing through at top speed. The obvious fix here is area familiarization—know the local regulations, and understand how to read markers.

Don’t anchor in a channel; this is the nautical equivalent of laying down on a busy highway. Channels are easily identified by a trail of red and green markers on either side, indicating the safe paths of travel and aiding in navigation. Green markers should be on your starboard side when traveling toward open waters. Red markers should be starboard when returning from open waters.

If boating at night, you’re required to turn on your vessel’s navigation lights. A red and a green light should be located on the bow (red to port and green to starboard) and a white light on the stern and masthead, a boat’s highest point. This arrangement allows others not only to see you at night, but to understand the orientation and course of your boat in relation to theirs. Lights at night—sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised.

One too many beers and too little food during a hot sunny day on the water can turn even the most competent seaman into a raging googan. Enforcement surrounding boating under the influence is typically laxer than driving a car, but you should approach it the same way. Always make sure one member of your party stays sober enough to return everyone to the dock safely. Alcohol is linked to hundreds of boating accidents and deaths every year.

When you add fishing, the list of potential offenses swells. Googans are notorious for disregarding fishing laws and regulations; keeping fish that are undersized, over-limit, or out of season; fishing prohibited areas; leaving trash; and encroaching on other anglers. These are all behaviors to be avoided.

Don’t Be a Googan
While the growth of the googan epidemic is cause for comic relief, let it also be a reminder about the importance of safe boating.

In 2017, the the U.S. Coast Guard reported 4,291 accidents that involved 658 deaths and 2,629 injuries as a result of recreational boating accidents. The top five contributing factors in accidents were operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, machinery failure, and alcohol.  Eighty-one percent of deaths occurred on boats where the operator did not receive boating safety instruction. Not only do incompetent boaters cause more accidents, the accidents they cause are more severe.

As waterways become increasingly congested with the rise in registered vessels and inexperienced boaters, it just makes sense to remove yourself from the googan equation. This is easily done by slowing down, getting educated, practicing safe boating techniques, and using common sense.

To help combat the epidemic, be sure to warn your friends or loved ones if they begin displaying googanistic symptoms and undesirable behaviors on the water. For your convenience, the advice in this article can be boiled down to four little words of admonishment: “Don’t be a googan.”

Featured image via Jack Riley.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article