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Five Great Boat-Handling Tips From a Photo-Boat Driver

Five seamanship skills learned while driving on the edge to get the shot.

January 11, 2016
Driving a photo-boat is a fun and stressful job. Staying safe requires a sharp focus on certain seamanship skills. Mike Fuller Group
Keeping the photographers and videographers on their feet is only part of the job. Mike Fuller Group
It takes specialized equipment, a trained eye and competent captain to capture the perfect shot. Mike Fuller Group
Running boats in close proximity presents many challenges. Mike Fuller Group
Ensuring the safety of your crew is paramount for any captain. Mike Fuller Group
Clear communication can help avoid any nasty surprises. Mike Fuller Group
Familiarizing yourself with the boat before bringing on passengers can lessen the chance of any accidents while on the water. Mike Fuller Group
Going slow gives time to correct your green passengers who sometimes become too helpful. Mike Fuller Group
Every boat handles in its own way and can present unique challenges. Mike Fuller Group
Boating safely is key to having a great on the water. Mike Fuller Group
The Fuller Group’s 28-foot custom hull, named Photoboat, is the right tool for the job. It came out of a custom mold 24 years ago in Naples, Florida, and to this day works the inland waterways 10 to 12 months a year. It’s a full 28 feet with the bow pulpit. An 8-foot-6-inch beam allows plenty of walkaround room, and the large cuddy provides gear stowage. Two 100-gallon fuel tanks, fore and aft, feed Yamaha F250 V-6 outboards. With a full load of fuel and people, and wings flying high, this boat will reach 62 mph. Sitting still in the wind is no problem with the Talon shallow-water anchor. Adjust your angle to your subject with the hidden 25-foot push pole. Need a low-angle, high-speed motor close-up? Pop out a 20-inch-by-20-inch porthole between the tower and the cuddy and put your camera 8 inches above the waterline. ­Prefer a shot from directly behind the subject boat? Underway stability and a large foredeck serves you well. Need a running shot from directly above? No sweat. Wings attach to the top of each side of the tower, putting the photographer’s feet 12 feet above the water and 11 feet out from ­Photoboat to get the shot. Mike Fuller Group
When operating a boat in close quarters, consciously try to keep your hands and shoulders relaxed in order to facilitate quick responses at the helm. Driving tense could slow down your reaction times at the wheel. West Marine
Be vigilant at the throttles while working around the dock and remember that slow is the way to go. West Marine

My longtime photographer-friend and mentor, Mike Fuller, is leaning out over the photo boat’s bow rail 12 feet in front of me, gesticulating with his hands and flashing a big grin to the driver and passenger of the boat that’s running 25 mph just inches off my port side. My eyes are on Fuller for only a second, but my concern for his well-being is at an all-time high. My peripheral vision keeps tabs on his footing and his stance while my primary focus shifts to the proximity of the riverbank streaking by. My eyes pan back to the small jet boat now tucked a mere inch or two under the spread of our bow. I’m locked in. One wrong move by me and we all could be in for a very bad day.

For me, it’s just another day at the office. I am a photo-boat captain. My clients consist of boatbuilders, engine manufacturers and various outdoor product lines. The demands of the photographers, clients and environments in which I operate have chiseled me into a paranoid boater. The slightest errors can result in lost shots and lost time. Bigger errors can cost thousands of dollars and garner the attention of insurance companies. Success comes from proper training, years of experience and a good dose of telepathy. The lessons are not always learned the easy way. The following is a checklist of five that matter most and will make you a better boater.

Driving in Traffic: “Turn us around, and we’ll do it again.”
My photographer often communicates that to me without speaking.

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Today’s assignment: driving in a river barely wide enough to run two boats side by side. We met our subject-boat driver only 15 minutes prior to leaving the dock, but he’s going to run this river left of center as quickly and as safely as he can while he and his passenger not only ignore the 28-foot photo boat running next to them but also keep smiling. I can tell by the way his head is swiveling in our direction that he is uncomfortable.

My job is to keep Fuller on the bow, not only on his feet but also in the exact-same spot in relation to that jet boat — regardless of turns, wake, speed, alligators or logs, or mistakes that the other boat driver might make. I’ll remain locked into this position until I see a finger behind his back, indicating he wants to be closer, farther away, in front or farther back. I’ll make the necessary adjustments and comply as quickly as possible. If I make those adjustments successfully, his footing won’t change. If I am slightly off or a little herky-jerky on the throttles, he’ll stumble, hopefully regain his footing, and be significantly less friendly to me.

The wakes of our boats wash up the riverbanks and slosh back toward the middle. There isn’t a straight segment longer than 20 yards, so running at 25 mph in this configuration requires constant calculations. What is the other boat doing? Do I have room to make it through here without running aground? Are we centered enough in the river? When is he going to start his next turn? How’s our depth? Is that overhanging branch too low for my tower to clear?

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Keeping my boat locked into position requires more throttle on the outside of a turn and less on the inside. I consciously try to keep my shoulders and hands relaxed. Suddenly, Fuller turns to me with a huge grin, gives me the “kill it” signal followed by a spinning finger that means “turn us around and we’ll do it again,” and turns his face back to the wind.

In traffic, your eyes are always moving and updating the situation on the water. You know where your passengers are and what they are doing. All these factors will add up quickly to let you know how to safely navigate your own vessel and at what speed.

Stopping Short: “You owe me another one.”
When I first learned to drive a photo boat, I heard that line many times.

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One potential problem a new photo-boat driver faces is that he may become distracted by the lovely female model to whom he was just introduced and fail to recognize that the boat he is following is slowing down. So the one thing my first instructor beat into my skull is the fact that coming off plane without checking behind my boat first is dangerous.

The drill worked like this: My instructor, a talented driver named Michael Massey, and I took off simultaneously with our mock subject boat. We ran the lake side by side as if doing a running shot, and then we would shut down, turn around, discuss and repeat. My main objective was to check behind my boat before shutting down.

Underway, Massey tried distracting me in every way possible — standing in front of me to block my view, yelling gibberish at me, jumping from one side of the boat to the other to disrupt our balance, and tossing the remains of a water bottle at my face. He’s a real gem. But he was, after all, playing the roles of both the photographer and the client, and going for accuracy.

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When he gave me the cutthroat “kill it” signal, I throttled down, relieved. But I once again failed to check behind my boat. At the end of the day, I owed him several rounds at the local bar.

It’s a successful teaching method. Now I always check behind my boat before coming off the throttles. It’s a simple turn of the head, but, every now and then, it keeps everybody else’s heads connected to their bodies.

Familiarity Breeds Safety: “Three, two, one … action!”
Another day, another shoot.

Our videographer is straddling an outboard engine, facing the bow of the boat that he is filming. The scene calls for the boat driver to start the engine, shift into gear, and then return to idle before shutting down. Simple enough. The driver gets to step 2 before things unravel. He slips the boat into forward and continues to push the throttle. The boat, already beached, lunges forward, pushing sand and water — and knocks our videographer off his feet. He tosses the camera into the boat as he plunges backward into the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s another anecdote from Table Rock Lake, Missouri: Our first subject-boat driver fires up the 150 hp outboard, glances over his shoulder before backing out, engages the motor and throttles up. Unfortunately, he shifts into forward. People on the dock leap to safety as the wood splinters and the boat rides up the dock and breaks through the safety rails around the slip.

It doesn’t happen often on a photo shoot, but damaged boats and damaged pride go hand in hand with a lack of familiarity at the helm. As a photography crew on the water knows, little nuisances linked to unfamiliarity can become big problems.

Knocking someone off his feet or driving up and over a dock are the extremes. The preventative solution for any boater is to make sure the driver familiarizes him- or herself with operating a specific boat before taking it out for a run. Find out how it feels to shift gears, how fast it moves at idle speed, how quickly it hops onto plane, and how it handles in turns up to 30 mph. Does it blow out in turns or does it bite hard? Does it squat coming onto plane or jump up instantly? When you cut the throttles, does it glide for a long time or come to a quick stop? Does it wander or track true? How does it respond to trim? You don’t want to be surprised by any action when you’re working closely with another boat. The results could be unpleasant.

Communication Breakdown: “Everybody ready?”
I ask that question every time I’m at the helm.

With training and experience, running 50 mph just inches from another boat; making moves in and out, forward and backward; and knowing what your photographer is looking for and getting him perfectly positioned for his shot become the easiest and most-rewarding aspects of the job. However, keeping the crew on the same page is not always as easy. Make sure you have a clear plan for communicating your wishes and commands so that everyone on board knows what you are asking of them.

On the way out, a quick check of the entire deck before throttling up ensures that not only is gear safely stowed, but also that passengers are in a safe place. And, like I said, I never throttle a boat up to plane without first asking, “Everybody ready?” followed by, “Here we go!” It’s the simplest courtesy to all on board, and it’s the easiest way to avoid falls, injuries and dirty looks.

It can be hard to hear at 30 mph, so oftentimes I talk to the photographer via a headset. For the passengers, it’s a good idea to develop a series of hand signals so they know what’s coming next: turning to port, turning to starboard, crossing wakes, speeding up, slowing down … all of these actions need to be communicated to the crew.

Keeping the crew aware can make the difference between an enjoyable time on the water and one of discomfort or, worse, injury.

Rock Around the Dock: “Fiberglass fixes easier than fingers.”
I say this to inexperienced crew all the time.

Sliding up to the dock with a boat full of models and clients, many who are not familiar with boating, seems to inspire an abundance of helpfulness. As we near the dock, the hands start jutting out as if those 10 little fingers have a better chance of stopping a 2-ton boat than the 500 horsepower behind us. I always let everyone on board know before we ever leave and again when we return that hands and feet should stay in the boat around the dock.

“It’s easier to fix the boat than your bones” is another effective comment I regularly utter. Either way, it’s an adequate reminder.

As for boat handling around the dock with a rookie crew, I always recall the words my past instructor shared when I crunched some fiberglass on the photo boat coming in hot to the dock: “Slow is the way to go.”

Another way to remember is via this old turn of phrase: “Slow like a pro, fast like an ass.” Going slow not only allows some wiggle room should things go awry, but it also gives time to correct your green passengers who suddenly become a little too helpful.

If you can remember these things while in command of your boat, even if you may not be ready for professional photo-boat duty, your day on the water will go a lot better.

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