Now that personal watercraft have made it on the list of the BSA’s council-approved activities, this North Carolina camp has revved up a program that satisfies the need for speed—and for safety.
IT’S QUIET ON THE CLAY-SPECKLED shores of the Pamlico River. Fishermen silently toss crab pots into the brackish water, home to scuttling armies of blue crab. A baitfish does a belly flop.
Here, in the Pamlico Sound on the southern coast of eastern North Carolina, not much happens before 9 a.m. besides dropping the day’s fishing lines. Kudzu, with its invasive vine-arms, slows the hurried pace of everyday life to an amble. That’s until a harmony of varrroooms explodes across the lapping banks. Seagulls take flight when six Sea-Doos cruise along the shoreline of Pamlico Sea Base, a Boy Scout camp in the East Carolina Council.
Members of Crew 615 from Florissant, Mo., have spent the past half-hour practicing steering maneuvers on the personal watercraft while keeping the boats slowly moving forward. The leader of the fleet, staff instructor Jordan Byrum, Order of the Arrow lodge chief for the council’s Croatan Lodge, shouts over the motors. “All right, I want everyone to get in line and give it a little juice,” he says with a thick Southern drawl. “Just get a feel for how the bow of the boat comes out of the water. But, whatever you do, don’t bury the throttle.”
Riding in pairs, the Venturers and leaders slowly fall in line behind Byrum. The group, wearing matching life jackets, steers out into the open like a row of ducks. Doug Stone, a volunteer with the crew, and Venturer Alex Braun share a seat on a navy-blue Sea-Doo, following about 30 or 40 feet behind the boat in front of them. Braun, a 17-year-old who has never driven a personal watercraft before, grips the T-shaped handlebars and squeezes the throttle tighter, exclaiming, “I could see how your hand would get tired from this.” The nose of each boat rises up out of the water as the Sea-Doos speed up to reach about 10 miles per hour.
At the end of a stretch of shoreline, the watercraft regroup, and it’s time to switch drivers—a balancing tango that sends one teenage boy into the warm water. He laughs off his misstep, climbs back on board, and plops into the driver’s seat. Another teen motions a squeezing of the throttle—as if he’s revving a motorcycle—and impatiently asks Byrum, “When are we gonna go fast?”
It’s an expected dilemma at any camp that puts Scouts in the driver’s seats of personal watercraft.
The personal watercraft activity, a newly minted council-level program, aims to educate Scouts and Venturers (age 15 and older) on watercraft safety and stewardship of lakes and rivers. The upswing: The need for speed is universal among most teens, serving as an alluring recruiting and retention tool for waterside camps. But how do you toss teens a key to a powerful machine while keeping safety a top priority?
To address Scouts’ motor-loving interests and the need to amplify recruiting and retention efforts at camps across the country, the BSA initiated a personal watercraft, or PWC, pilot program in 2010, testing the success of personal watercraft at camps nationwide. As of fall 2011, the PWC program is now supported for council use only among approved camps; the program is not available for unit use.
Scout Executive Ray Franks, with the East Carolina Council, and Reggie Cahoon, former camp director at Pamlico Sea Base, jumped at the idea to rev up the camp’s summer programs with Sea-Doos. At the time, the camp’s primary focus was non-motorized boating, such as sea kayaking.
These motorized water scooters, on the other hand, use an inboard jet engine to propel the watercraft. Several brands exist on the market, including Jet Ski by Kawasaki, WaveRunners by Yamaha, and Sea-Doos. The boats range in price from about $6,000 to $10,000 and up, depending on size and power.
The East Carolina Council purchased six Sea-Doos to begin the pilot program at Pamlico, a sea base located next door to Camp Boddie. “Initially, Pamlico opened with only ocean kayaking trips to attract [older] boys,” Cahoon says. “And the jet skis are another way to keep the older boys coming back to the sea base.”
Research conducted by the BSA during the PWC program’s pilot stage confirms its powerful retention capabilities. Pat Wellen, research director at the BSA, says more than 81.2 percent of youth who did not take part in the PWC program at their camp said they would return to take part in the program next year. Eighty-seven percent of youth who did try the PWC program said they would return to participate again.
Since the Sea-Doos made their first appearance at Pamlico, attendance keeps rising. The summer of 2011 brought the camp’s largest attendance on record, Franks says. Cahoon admits the Sea-Doos are a strong selling point, but the addition of a PWC program takes a hefty amount of planning, safety training, and supervision to ensure smooth operation.
HEAVY HUMIDITY and a sweltering sun greet Crew 615 when the group first arrives on the Carolina coast for a week of camp at Pamlico. The Venturers unload their gear—bags filled mostly with bathing suits and sunscreen—into a handful of cabins in the heart of camp. Then, they head to the main hall.
Time to get down to business: planning the week’s activities. At Pamlico, groups attending the weeklong “Outer Banks (OBX) Adventure” customize their trip, choosing from a long list of watersports. The youth
sit around a long table, while the adults hang back on the outskirts of the room. The leaders are along for the ride, putting the teens in charge of the week’s agenda. Ali Williams, the program director in her third year at Pamlico, takes the helm and grabs a marker to tally votes on a dry-erase board.
“Who wants to sail?” Williams asks.
A smattering of hands raise.
“What about jet-skiing?” she continues.
The Venturers unanimously vote “Yes!”
Motorized watersports, including tube rides behind the camp’s motorboat, aren’t the only activity of interest.
“How about an overnight sea-kayaking trip to the Outer Banks?” Williams inquires.
“Dude! That sounds awesome!” says David Dick, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout and Venturer. His crewmembers agree.
Williams continues, describing the details of the trip to the Outer Banks’ Shackleford Island—from a beach campout to a visit with local wildlife. “Think of it this way: You’ll paddle to a deserted island, pitch a tent, and sleep right next to the Atlantic. In the morning, during breakfast, you might even see wild ponies. They roam free on the island.”
The group decides that Monday will bring Sea-Doos and sailing; Tuesday will begin the overnight sea-kayaking trip; Wednesday will include a trip to Beaufort and Fort Macon, as well as optional deep-sea ocean fishing; and the rest of the week will be “free time” with tube rides, paddle-boarding, and relaxation at the sea base.
WASTING LITTLE TIME the next morning, the group gathers at the camp’s wooden, T-shaped dock after breakfast. Half of the crew will use Sunfish-style sailboats while the remaining Venturers start their introductory lesson in PWC safety.
That’s right: safety. “We’re all about everyone having a good time, enjoying themselves on the jet skis—it’s a cool thing to do,” Cahoon explains. “But these are powerful machines we’re talking about. We start the Scouts off slow and gradually work up to higher speeds.” The Venturers will only reach speeds of about 35 miles per hour, thanks to a special safety key that restricts the speed of each watercraft.
Before the trip to Pamlico, Crew 615 completed an online boater’s safety course, and each attendee passed a swim check. But a large element of the camp’s PWC safety plan rests on the Pamlico staff’s shoulders; these leaders will instruct each group on how to operate the watercraft, as well as supervise the Sea-Doos during each outing. Today, it’s up to Byrum and Williams to keep the drivers in line.
When it’s time for the lesson to begin, the teens and leaders circle around a red Sea-Doo pulled up onto the sandy shore. The group listens closely as the camp staff points out parts of the watercraft: the seat, engine, jet propellers, start and stop push-buttons, and a wrist lanyard that fastens to the machine and cuts the engine if a driver falls off. “These boats aren’t like a car. You’ve got no brakes and no power steering,” says Byrum, who pulls a Sea-Doo up on shore to demonstrate.
Byrum sits atop the boat and moves the steering wheel, pointing back to the rear jets. “You wanna cruise up next to your friend or pull up to a dock? Well, you’ve got another thing coming if you cut the engine and forget that you can’t steer anymore.”
Adds Williams, who stands at the center of the attentive teens and leaders: “The jet ski propels itself forward by sucking up water from the bottom of the boat and shooting the water out these jets at the rear. So if you decide to run over a patch of seaweed, or a bunch of fishing line, or worse, like a rope, the engine will suck it up into the motor, and we’ve got a huge problem.”
The lesson continues on the shore as crewmembers swat away mosquitoes. A critical rule: no horseplay. This includes things like jumping the wakes of boats (something PWC drivers have a reputation for) or zigzag steering. If a camp staffer or one of the adult crew leaders sees any horseplay, the driver will immediately lose his or her privileges.
After the serious part is finished, it’s time for some fun. Life jackets snap together, and the teens split into buddies. Each team of two picks a boat, and the pair must wade out to the end of the dock with their watercraft—the shore is simply too shallow to start the jet engines near the beach. With a push of the green “start” button, they’re off, with Byrum leading the way.
Two hours later, it’s not hard to spot the smiles on the drivers’ faces as they follow behind staff leader Byrum and retreat toward the shoreline. Back on the gritty beach, it’s time for lunch. Crew 615’s leaders walk slowly up the boat ramp, their hair windblown and youthful grins on their faces, as the teens chatter nonstop on the way to the mess hall. Did you see that turn? That was awesome! And still: I wanna see how fast that thing will really go. One crew member asks Williams, “Where are the secret keys? You know, the ones that let you go fast?” She laughs. “Sorry, guys, those are off limits.”
After lunch, the two groups switch activities. Come dinnertime, everyone in Crew 615 has windblown hair and sun-kissed cheeks. And, it’s early to bed, too. Tomorrow brings an arm-burning, sea-kayaking adventure. “Kids’ attention spans are so short these days; it’s great that [Pamlico] gives them the chance to speed up and slow down,” says Steve Matthews, father of crew member Adam. “This place has constant entertainment.”
IT’S DAY 3 AT CAMP—except Crew 615 isn’t actually at camp anymore. Instead, the crewmembers traded their cabins for a tent just 50 feet from rushing ocean waves. The “OBX Adventure” enables crews and troops to venture about an hour’s drive from Pamlico to the Outer Banks, where they travel to a secluded beach by means of ocean kayak. And that’s exactly what Crew 615 did.
Forget about artificial “ocean noise.” Here, at this oceanfront campsite, the crew needed little help falling asleep in their new sandy home. The stillness of morning is a surreal reality for the group—after all, how often do you awake to the rise and fall of ocean waves?
Yesterday, the Venturers paddled across a sound separating the mainland from Harker’s Island to Shackleford Banks, a white sliver of sand on the Cape Lookout National Seashore. The crew members—individually seated in 15-foot ocean kayaks—spent about two and a half hours paddling. Sleep came easily to most of the crew. Now, nearing 7 a.m., the group is slow to rise.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse’s beacon blinks from its position just north of the campsite. Striped white and black, the lighthouse is visible over sand dunes as Crew Advisor Denise Jensen unzips her tent and inspects the sand around her that is speckled with crab footprints. Jensen’s legs and feet are covered in white baby powder—the Pamlico staff’s secret ingredient to a sand-free tent.
Jensen takes a slow walk with a handful of crewmembers down the beach shore to explore the surroundings. When the group is about 200 feet from the campsite, they notice several furry visitors: dark-brown ponies with wildly styled hair.
Jensen and the others freeze in place, their eyes widening.
The ponies keep walking, uninterested in the visitors on their shoreline.
This moment starkly contrasts the go-go-go entertainment at camp, and it’s one that Jensen says made Crew 615’s trip even more special. “Getting to sleep on the beach and seeing the wildlife and history of the area took it one step beyond what we can experience at home,” she adds.
And after a week of practicing and gaining confidence on the personal watercraft, Jensen says the trip and the high-thrill Sea-Doos left the group inspired. “Our crew had become much more social than adventurous, but the experience at Pamlico makes us want to get more active,” adds Jensen. That’s a jet boost to take home for future enjoyment.
Gretchen Sparling is Scouting magazine’s Associate Editor.
Click here to read about Pamlico Sea Base’s successful rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Irene struck the area in August 2011.
Personal Watercraft Safety Tips
- Complete a boating safety course before driving a personal watercraft. Many courses are offered online. Check with your state’s parks and recreation department.
- Always wear a life jacket.
- Fasten and wear the wrist lanyard that serves as an engine-stop accessory.
- Ride in a group with adult supervision.
- When driving the personal watercraft, maintain awareness and a safe distance from other watercrafts.