I know what you’re thinking when you see the above headline ...
Airboat owners are thinking, “Here we go again! Another hater who doesn’t understand our culture! You know, the equivalent of “You bought a home next to an airport and now you want to complain? Not fair!”
The rest of you are thinking, “Finally!”
Let me start by saying I get it. For over 10 years, I competed in sanctioned motorcycle hare scrambles and enduro races across the southern states. These events were held deep in the woods on miles of single track trails. In order to train and be competitive, my team cut nearly 100 miles of trails in multiple riding areas throughout northwest Florida to ride on.
In 2003 dirt bike manufacturers began replacing the quieter 2-stroke engines with more powerful 4-stroke engines which were louder with sound that carried a greater distance. Some of the new dirt bikes were so loud, neighbors near our riding areas complained to law enforcement. Many of us modified our bikes to keep them quiet while a small minority did not see a problem making an unreasonable amount of noise that bothered everyone within earshot. Ultimately, those few people caused us to lose all of our riding areas and even some motocross tracks. Extinct!
I have lived on Lake Henderson long enough to experience the same mistakes being made by airboat owners. Some have baffles and mufflers where the main sound heard is the whirling of the propeller with a noise level that is reasonable. Others seem to have a complete disregard for their sport, using pipes that are louder than a modified dragster that can be heard for several miles. This type of behavior will cause airboats to be sanctioned, hurting the majority of owners.
Usually, noncommercial airboats have one or two people onboard. The rest of us mortals scratch our heads in wonder how one or two people can make enough noise to frustrate and anger dozens? If you have to wear headphones to operate your boat so the sound level won’t ruin your hearing, you might be too loud! When the sound of an airboat causes others to struggle to hear in their own living room, that is a problem.
I read a recent article where law enforcement says they can’t catch the few with loud engines. More on that in a moment.
It is ironic that as a professional musician, I’ve been well paid to perform over my career yet, if I plugged in my guitar and played at half the sound level of the louder airboats, I would be ticketed and fined ... and we’re talking music, not a roaring V8!
Last week we were on Lake Davis moving along at 20 mph. Up ahead I could see a group of airboats navigating one of the channels nearly a half mile away. I could still hear their engines over the motor on my own boat!
Some may ask themselves, “Who cares?” The public cares. Groups have formed in different parts of the country to stop loud street bikes. They are angry and organized as well as effective at drumming loud motorcycles out of some communities completely. They see “needlessly loud” vehicles as negatively effecting their quality of life. Airboats are risking the same fate.
How to fix this and keep airboats from becoming extinct?
1. Airboat owners that have taken steps to make their vessel’s noise level acceptable need to convince their louder counterparts to get quieter pipes, mufflers or baffles before they ruin it for all of them. In other words, promote that “it’s not cool to be loud!”
2. Airboat dealers need to consider the cost of a shrinking market that will be caused by a continued loss of areas to run the boats they sell. Nowhere to run them less boat sales.
3. Law enforcement has the tools to fix the problem immediately. In less than five minutes, they can print a list of all airboat owners in Citrus County. They could then require all airboats to pass a sound test, especially at the throttle level they require to go up on land! In off-road motorcycle racing, the event organizers require each rider to have their motorcycle tested for sound using an inexpensive decibel meter. The bike’s sound is checked at 1/2 throttle and 3/4 throttle. Law enforcement can do the same with airboats to flag the noise offenders.
4. Others on local waterways could report offenders to law enforcement by using the registration numbers on the bow of the airboat.
A 1960s TV show called “Gentle Ben” took place in the Everglades. In nearly every episode, airboats were being used. Back then, in the middle of the Everglades, it made sense. Now that Citrus County is welcoming new homeowners daily, the sound level and noise (created a by a few) could ruin the sport for many.
If airboat enthusiasts don’t think their sport could become so restricted as to become extinct on Citrus County waterways, remember what happened to the motorcycle trails I mentioned.
Being on the water is freedom. It represents everything we Floridians love about our state. Airboats are fun to ride in. They can access areas nobody else gets to see. I imagine for airboat owners it is the same experience I had accessing areas deep in the woods where no one else has been. I just hope local enthusiasts organize and stop the noisy minority before they lose their rights like we did.
Some technologies become extinct when the cost of continuing is greater than moving on. CB radios, oil lamps, steam powered locomotives and plain old telephone lines to name a few. If you are reading this on your phone remember, we used to make calls in phone booths using quarters ... not anymore.
R.M. Reynolds is the author of “Selling Public Health” and a resident of Inverness. He lives on Lake Henderson.