Earlier this month, I learned how to drive an airboat. Here’s a short clip of the voyage, and even if you turn the sound all the way up (not recommended!), it still won’t be as loud as it was in real life:
Florida woman drives airboat, doesn’t pitch passengers into swamp. pic.twitter.com/jWYUaeIbNJ
— Betty Cracker (@bettycrackerfl) May 1, 2022
I dislike airboats. They are obnoxiously loud, and I believe they’re more disturbing to wildlife than regular boats. (Belief based on personal observations, not science.) I mildly disliked them before we moved to our swamp redoubt in 2018, but I really cannot abide them now that they roar past our house regularly, drowning out conversations, the radio or television, etc.
That said, it occurred to me a while back that I know how to pilot every other type of vessel that operates in this area except airboats. So I figured I should learn, in case of zombie apocalypse or something, when I might have to escape in whatever craft is handy.
I knew there was only one person to teach me, the same dude who taught me to canoe, sail, drive motorboats of all other types and sizes, dock a large boat on a windy day and back a truck down a crooked ramp to launch a boat at low tide: Dad.
Conveniently, he has an airboat and was willing to let me drive it. He warned that the steering was “squirrely” and that novice airboat drivers were liable to pitch themselves and passengers in the water if they screw up. Maybe he was trying to scare me off, but it didn’t work.
On the appointed day, he showed up at our dock, and I climbed aboard. Having been an airboat passenger a few times, I knew that you steer airboats with a stick that goes forward and backward to move the rudders behind the giant airplane prop at the stern of the boat.
When I climbed into the driver’s seat, I asked Dad if moving the stick forward would make us turn right and moving it backward left or vice-versa. Dad said it doesn’t matter; he told me to just move the stick when we get underway, and it would all make sense. He was right.
Another thing to know about airboats: anything that’s not properly stowed can blow into the prop and get chopped to bits. Dad told me he’d recently lost a shirt that way; he’d been wearing layers on a cool day and, while stopped, had hung an outer shirt on the back of a seat when it warmed up. The shirt got sucked into the prop and chewed up.
Airboats have a gas pedal. After operating throttles on tillers and in cockpits on regular boats for so many years, it was odd to use a gas pedal, but at least I’m familiar with that from cars. There’s no reverse, but that’s okay because you can turn around on land if you have to.
The steering goes away completely on an airboat when you take your foot off the gas. The boat just slides on the surface of the water like a curling stone sliding across ice until you press the gas pedal to push air through the rudders again.
I went slowly at first to get my bearings, and, following his usual teaching methods, Dad repeatedly shouted at me to stop being such a chickenshit so I’d speed up. It worked until we came upon a blockage in a channel, and I slowed down again.
There was a thick, floating patch of vegetation across the channel — a clump large enough to conceal a fallen tree, I worried. Dad tapped my shoulder and shouted “JUST GO!” So I did, and fortunately there was NOT a fallen tree to pitch the old man and me into the gator-infested swamp.
Anyway, Florida Woman card punched. It was fun. Loud! But fun.