What is a WaterBoy?
Story, photos and video by Seth Ellis
What is a WaterBoy? Some people may answer that a WaterBoy is a 1990’s Adam Sandler character, but on the Kenai Peninsula the term is universally known to mean something different.
Two towns in southcentral Alaska have a very unique way of launching and landing boats. In the absence of a traditional harbor, we use the “boat launch.” Here’s how this works. Boats are towed to the boat launch on a trailer. Boats and trailers are dropped off onto the beach and the towing vehicle is parked. At this point, a converted logging skidder connects to the boat trailer and backs the boat out into the surf where the captain, in reverse gear, backs off the trailer. Upon returning to the boat launch, the skidder again backs the trailer into the water and braces for the captain to hit the mark for a smooth landing onto the trailer in order to pull the boat out of the water. Operating the skidder is a two-person job—tractor driver and the WaterBoy.
Being a WaterBoy isn’t an easy job. On an average day in July a WaterBoy can easily be responsible for deploying and retrieving 100+ boats per day. That is 100 times he will put his life on the line to trust 100 boat operators not to make a serious mistake during their landing. In wading gear, the WaterBoy will stand on the tongue of the trailer while it is being backed out into deep enough water for retrieval. Because of the extreme tides and currents in Cook Inlet, an incoming boat will need to maintain a speed of about 6- to 12 knots in order for a smooth landing onto their trailer. When the boat is on the trailer, it needs to be quickly hooked up before the skidder can pull it up the beach and back onto land. This is where the WaterBoy earns his valor. He is literally standing in between a giant skidder and an incoming boat to make a quick hook-up and get the boat and the people on board safely out of the water.
The boat launch is contracted with the State of Alaska and will deploy boats even in unfavorable and unpredictable weather, which is common in Alaska. I am a charter-boat captain and have been using the Ninilchik boat launch for over 10 years. On a day when the waves on the beach are safe to launch doesn’t always mean that it stays safe to land. Many times, I have launched a boat in the morning, in calm water, and come back to 5-foot waves crashing on the beach. In my opinion the boat-launch crew is a group of heroes. While I have seen disasters in these situations, I have never seen the launch crew fail to put their lives on the line to get everyone back to the safety of dry land.
A typical WaterBoy is in their teens/early 20’s. Who else would work such a dangerous job? Most WaterBoys call the trailer/office on the beach where they are employed their home for the summer. The boat launch crew is a tight group of professionals and spend their summer together in work and play. When the work is done, most nights you can find the crew around a bonfire on the beach with local captains and deckhands, sharing stories about the day’s events. If you search the Internet for “the most dangerous jobs” you probably won’t find a description of a WaterBoy. To the small group of people who know and appreciate what a WaterBoy does every day, we tip our hats (and often our hard-earned money) to the local WaterBoy. Thanks guys!
Seth Ellis is a charter-boat captain and owner of Heaven’s Gate Charters.