We've all been there. You're cruising along on your own, everything is nice and peaceful. But up ahead there's a confused mess of boats and wakes - typical weekend traffic. In a few minutes you'll be in the thick of it, and even though you've encountered such situations before, you're a little unsure about your next move. You hate to admit it, but you're not in complete control.
The one place where a boater must always be in complete control is on the racecourse. During competition, you have to cross wakes, pass boats, be passed, and run rubrail to rubrail - all in the heat of battle. Knowing the proper moves for each situation makes the difference between winning, losing, or - sometimes - crashing. So we turned to Reggie Fountain, a world-renowned champion racer with an office that looks like a trophy shop, to show you how to handle a boat when surrounded by others.
For his version of traffic school, Fountain put us on one of his new 35 Lightnings and had us square off against a Fountain 42 Lightning. His point: to teach you how to effectively manage tight situations instead of letting them get the best of you. Staying in control and safe is his primary mission. Although he used high-performance boats for these lessons, they are definitely not limited to the go-fast crowd. These lessons can be applied by any driver in any kind of boat, whether you're out relaxing on a Sunday afternoon in your cruiser, competing in a bass tournament, or bombing around the lake in your family runabout.
Before you can go out and play, Fountain has a little homework for you. You must create a point of reference for the positions of your boat's trim indicators, so it's necessary to learn to level the drives and tabs. This is easiest to do when the boat is out of the water, but it can be done in the water if you don't mind going below while at the dock and getting wet. Line up the tabs and the drives' anti-ventilation plates with a straightedge along the boat's bottom. This is their neutral position, which you should mark on your indicators at the helm.
As we powered up and let go the lines, Fountain made a telling statement, one that obviously came from his background on the racecourse: "When you leave the dock, your goal is self-preservation. Unless you know the experience level of the drivers around you, assume they don't know what they're doing." We could relate to that.
Leaving the channel en route to open water, we hit the gas and got up on plane. Before we gained too much speed, Fountain gestured toward the horizon, telling us to keep our eyes up and look far ahead, not just at the water right in front of the boat. He also stressed the need to use peripheral vision. The idea is to see and forecast situations long before you have to confront them, giving you time and room to plan your reactions. "See that big cruiser about a half mile ahead, running at about 20 mph?" Fountain yelled over the wind blast. "You'll be dealing with its wake real soon." This advice is similar to what is taught in auto and motorcycle road-racing schools: Plan ahead by focusing on where you'll be in about 12 seconds, which when running at 40 mph, means about 700 feet. Also be aware that your hands tend to turn the wheel toward where your eyes are looking. If you stare at that log in front of you, you'll likely run over it instead of going around it. Keep an eye on your surroundings, and don't fixate on any one object for too long.