I know my knots, but I am not an Eagle Scout. To my regret and the eternal disappointment of my Eagle Scout father, my advancement fizzled out at the rank of Life Scout. When I turned 15, I was counseled by my dad, who was also my Scoutmaster, that it was time to buckle down and crank through one “boring” Boy Scout merit badge after another required for the Eagle rank — Citizenship in the World and Personal Management, for example — before I turned 16 and became distracted by cars and girls. He pointed out that earning the Eagle rank would make me a member of an elite fraternity, add a sterling line to my resume, and help me meet the right kind of women. With typical teen disdain, I dismissed his advice, and that was that.
I recently shared this sad saga over the Boating roundtable with editors Kevin Falvey and Pete McDonald as we reminisced on our Scouting careers. All three of us were Scouts, and we all were drawn to the watery aspects of the program — evidence on my green sash are merit badges in Swimming, Lifesaving, Rowing and Canoeing.
“You know,” Editor-in-Chief Falvey said, “there’s a merit badge for motorboating.”
We looked at each other — three of us with a combined tenure of 67 years serving the world’s largest powerboat magazine. Three former Scouts. No Motorboating Boy Scout merit badge in the crew.
“Somebody has to get the Motorboating merit badge,” Falvey declared.
I saw in this assignment a chance at a little redemption. I could never fill the gaping Eagle-size hole in my resume, but I could at least stitch a 13th badge to my sash.
Now I needed a merit badge counselor and some boat-crazy Scouts. A call to my local Scout council office got me hooked up with Scoutmaster Brian Rose of Troop 77 in Greenville, Wisconsin. Rose owns a boat and has served as the Motorboating merit badge counselor in past seasons. Rose had six Scouts interested in earning the badge with me, and he told me my first step would be to complete and pass the online Wisconsin Boating Safety course, which covers about 75 percent of the Boy Scout merit badge requirements. Then we’d meet for an on-the-water session.
Wisconsin charges $29.95 for the course but only if you pass. It takes about three and a half hours to go through the material, and the pages are timed and often have interactive features that make it impossible to just click, click, click. I groaned when I opened the first chapter of the first section, “Parts of a Boat,” where I would learn to identify and then click on “bow” and “stern” and “gunwale.” (An unfair complaint because I am not the average new boater.) It got better, and I did learn a few things. I’d never noticed, for example, that the red buoys are nuns and the green ones are cans — so that when silhouetted against the sun, one can still tell which side to stay on — because we don’t see serious buoys frequently on my home water. I also don’t do much night boating, so the material on reading navigational lights was a good refresher. Two key take-aways: stay away from sailboats and assume everyone else on the water is oblivious.
I passed six section quizzes to earn a shot at the final 60-question exam and scored 100 percent on my way to earning the Boy Scout merit badge. But I’ve got to say, it seems like everyone is supposed to pass the final. Many of the four multiple-choice answers were ridiculous; sometimes three out of four were obviously wrong. I’ve concluded the point of the exam is actually to make you read the material and hopefully absorb something. If you do that and have not consumed a six-pack of PBR in the process, you will pass the final.
On the Water
Bona fide and certified as safe by the Badger State, I arrived at the Fritse Park launch ramp on Little Lake Butte des Morts on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The Scouts arrived in full neckerchief uniform (my father would approve), including the burly and bearded Scoutmaster Rose, who had slept in a tent during a thunderstorm Saturday night while backpacking with some other Scouts. The seaworthy Scouts ranged in age from 11 to 17, and two, 14-year-old Aaron and 16-year-old Bailey, elicited my Eagle envy. These young men were prepared for cars and girls. Rose towed in Bama Rose, his Johnson-powered Sea Nymph SS195, and two dads showed up with bowriders. We sat in a circle on a pavilion patio and talked through safety and first-aid topics. Rose quizzed us on life-jacket types. Then he dropped to the floor — CPR test! The Scouts knew the drill.
We moved to the boats. More quizzing on boat terminology, sound signals and flares. Stating the importance of the drain plug, Rose ran through his winterizing routine for the Johnson. The Scouts had obviously paid attention to the online course; one quoted the “rule of thirds” fuel-management technique. We launched, two Scouts and an adult to each boat, onto the murky water of Little Lake Butte des Morts. This was a great body of water for our outing, which included red and green markers (red, right, return from Green Bay), other boats towing tubers and boarders, paddle boarders, a low trestle, and a stiff current due to the overnight rain. Aaron took the helm of the Sea Nymph and, with great caution, began to throttle up. The bow stayed high for a long, long time. I started to cringe, not having seen the horizon for 10 or 12 seconds. “Gun it, kid!” I was thinking. Rose stayed calm and told him to try again with more aggression on the throttle.
We dropped and retrieved the anchor and secured Bama Rose against the current. We demonstrated how to approach a dock after coming around into the current. We scooped some trash from the lake. Then it was back to the ramp where we went over launch and retrieve etiquette, and Rose backed down the roller trailer. After each Scout took a turn winching the boat to the stop, we pushed it back onto the water and let the next take his turn.
And that was it — we all earned the Motorboating merit badge. It’s difficult to gauge a teenage boy’s enthusiasm for anything. They are prone to shrugging. Bailey, Mike and Josh had some powerboat experience and were there for the badge. Aaron had another motive on his mind.
“My aunt has a Jet Ski,” the Eagle Scout explained. “If I pass the boating safety course, I can drive it.”
There’s some passion. Welcome to the club, young man. Red, right, return.
Boating Has Merit
According to the Boy Scouts of America, Motorboating was added to the merit badge roster in 1961. The BSA created 57 original merit badges in 1911, some of which still exist (Camping, Cooking, Archery and Bugling). Others have been discontinued (Blacksmithing, for example, was dropped in 1952) or renamed. The original Seamanship merit badge was split into Motorboating and Small Boat Sailing. The program keeps revising requirements and adding or dropping merit badges in an effort to broaden the Scouting program and reflect new technologies and interests. There are currently 136 merit badges, each offering Scouts a chance to learn a new skill, trade or hobby, including recent merit badge additions Animation and Digital Technology. According to BSA headquarters, 596,218 Motorboating merit badges have been earned in the 55 years since the badge’s inception — that’s almost 11,000 Scouts annually exposed to a solid foundation in powerboating, a rate that’s held up through the past decade. This has to be a good thing for our sport.
There’s a booklet, called a pamphlet, for each merit badge, which serves as a guide through the requirements. The current 84-page edition of the Motorboating merit badge pamphlet was written by K. Gregory Tucker, a Scouting volunteer who has written or contributed to a number of merit badge pamphlets on aquatics and health-related topics. For this edition, he referenced a number of essential books on boating and navigation. The BSA also regularly consults with experts in the field, including those from the North American Safe Boating Campaign, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety Resource Center, and U.S. Sailing Association.
The requirements for a Motorboating merit badge are quite comprehensive and include understanding the rules of the road and aids to navigation, basic powerboat handling skills, all aspects of boating safety, and even knowing the basics of launching and retrieving a trailer boat, and winterizing a boat and engine. I thought I might get hung up on requirement 2(a), “complete BSA swimmer test,” but I found my card from camp in 1974 and figured I’d be grandfathered in. Requirement 4(b), “have a permit to operate a motorboat if required by the laws of your state,” revealed another gaping hole in my personal resume. I’ve never completed the State of Wisconsin Boating Safety Education program. It’s not required for someone my age, but I should be setting a good example.