‘Does everyone have a boat now?’ How a wet, uncomfortable and unsteady place became an Instagram favorite

Every summer, social media fills up with yacht selfies that have become the latest measure of success

Posing on a yacht – images like this may have popped up on your phone several times today.
Posing on a yacht – images like this may have popped up on your phone several times today.Razvan Chisu (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

In 2018, actor Brays Efe was fed up with seeing all his Instagram contacts on boats while he was stuck working in Madrid. So he recorded a short video that goes viral every summer. “Why are you all on boats? Does everyone have a boat now? I’ve never been close to a boat or even touched one.” Brays later said that he recorded his famous video after waking up one weekend “... surrounded by asphalt, while everyone else was out there boating in their stories... I mean, who would’ve thought it would resonate so much and go viral every summer for the last five years? Honestly, if I had known, I would’ve combed my hair!”

Brays’ video went viral because he stated the obvious – not many people are into boating yet Instagram is full of photos of people on boats. People sunbathing on deck, pretending to break champagne bottles on the stern, and for extra points, people fake-steering the boat. When we post photos on social media, we strive to associate ourselves with the values embodied by the objects captured in those photos. In the case of yachts, these values are exclusivity, wealth and boldness. But as Brays explained, “When I made the video, I already knew that some influencers rent boats for the day and bring several different swimsuits to shoot content for the entire summer. Social media can be so deceptive, right? You see someone apparently having a fantastic summer day, but they’re actually lying around in their bedrooms!”

A short, wet history of boating

What’s so significant about sailing the seas? As author David Abulafia wrote in The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (Oxford University Press, 2019), maritime travel has profoundly shaped our world and continues to exert its influence in our modern times. Vast cargo ships plying the oceans still drive the global economy. These vast waters not only act as boundaries between continents, but also hide captivating mysteries within their depths, leading to unfortunate tragedies like the Titan submersible implosion. But for most of us, the sea is a patch of water and a coastline where we can splash around, swim, sip a cocktail at a beach bar and rent a beach house. Our encounters with the sea are usually limited to beach trips. But not so long ago, beaches were marshy and unappealing pieces of real estate. Now they are the focal point of the tourism industry.

However, those with the means choose a different path when the summer heat is upon us. No beach trips for them. No sandy feet, noisy neighbors or fighting for a spot under an umbrella. They observe us mortals with aloof amusement from a boat, sailing with carefree abandon, basking in the sun and striking magnificent poses for social media.

King Charles II of England is recognized as one of the pioneers who, in the 17th century, envisioned the transformation of the essential and practical art of sailing into an enjoyable pastime. This marked the birth of recreational boating, which has been historically associated with European aristocracy and royal houses. More recently, it was embraced by the well-off who established prestigious yacht clubs (the first was founded in 1720, in Cork, Ireland) to indulge their passion. Leisurely sails gradually evolved into spirited amateur regattas and global competitions like the renowned America’s Cup. During the 20th century, when diesel engines began powering big vessels, someone came up with the idea of building small motorboats for recreation.

Woody Harrelson, Mia Benson, Ruben Östlund, Henrik Dorsin
Woody Harrelson, Mia Benson, Ruben Östlund and Henrik Dorsin in 'The Triangle of Sadness' (2022), a film that pokes fun at influencers and boats.

In Spain, most marinas were built during the economic growth period known as “desarrollismo” (roughly 1959-1973). However, the number of moorings off the country’s coast keeps on rising. According to industry data, Spain currently boasts approximately 140,000 leisure boats. While this figure may seem modest in comparison to Mediterranean counterparts like Greece and Italy (which have double the number), Spaniards have become accustomed to coexisting harmoniously with a variety of recreational watercraft, from majestic yachts to nimble sailboats and roaring jet skis.

Posers vs. true believers

Although he’s under 30, Jesús Ros is a professional sailor and sailing instructor with over 20 years of experience. “Even though I work on sailboats all year, I also spend my vacations on one,” he said. “You can anchor somewhere and watch sunrises and sunsets wherever you want, travel without fuel and experience a freedom similar to a motorhome.” According to Ros, the boating world is a mix of true believers who sail for sport and pleasure and “the posers.”

“Showing off doesn’t really go well with boating because there’s so much to learn,” said Ros. “There’s meteorology, since we rely on the wind for everything, a specific vocabulary, how the boat behaves (always a bit unstable and tilting), and how to safely conduct basic maneuvers... What you’ll mostly see on Instagram are sunset pics (because let’s be honest, Sunday sailors don’t want to wake up early), with the boat anchored near the coast or moored at the marina. You may see a boat that’s actually underway, but it’s probably using the engine instead of sails.”

A quick look at WhatsApp groups for maritime rescue workers, club and port sailors, and instructors from sailing or diving schools reveals that summer nights on the coasts are always full of drama. Even before the peak season, the Mar Menor coastal saltwater lagoon (southeast Spain) has experienced multiple incidents: boats running out of fuel (the skipper has to pay for the rescue), a large vessel left high and dry on a pedestrian walkway, and unfortunately, a fatal jet ski accident.

Antonio Padial, head of the Maritime Rescue Center in Valencia (which also serves the merchant navy and the fishing fleet), says that more than half of their summertime incidents involve recreational boats. The center (a unit in Spain’s Ministry of Public Works that provides assistance in Spanish territorial waters) responds to all sorts of problems, but primarily “boat propulsion and steering system failures, incidents of water ingress, groundings, fires, sinking and occasional medical emergencies that require evacuation.” Nevertheless, Padial prefers to say the incidents are usually caused by imprudence and overconfidence rather than labeling them as reckless. Most common are “insufficient fuel for a crossing, attempting to enter a cove that’s too shallow for the boat, and encroaching upon a designated swimming area,” said Padial.

For the showoffs mocked by Brays Efe, Padial advises a thorough review of safety guidelines available online. “The captain or boat owner should give a comprehensive pre-departure briefing to all passengers, highlighting the locations and proper usage of safety equipment,” said Padial.

Narrow, wet and unsteady

During that summer of 2018, Brays was finally able to get on a boat. “It was pretty uncomfortable,” he said, “you know, when you have to share a small space with a bunch of drunks. It’s not my thing.” Except for the extremely large yachts typically owned by billionaires and plutocrats, most boats are narrow, wet and unsteady – everything is constantly moving. And experienced sailors talk about anxious times when “the seas are high and you have to trim the sails constantly.” Or about storms during which “there’s only time to munch on some bread and cheese, and squeeze in a quick 10-minute nap.”

As Alessandro Baricco wrote in The Game, social media tends to disseminate slick content that is devoid of the nuances, bumps and rough edges of life. Instagram photos only scratch the surface of the profound experience of boating. Yet, those willing to face the challenge will be rewarded with the fulfilling sensation of effortlessly gliding through the water and conquering the elements. It’s an enduring adventure cherished by humanity throughout the ages.

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