Wireless Music Onboard

by Herb McLeod - Ottawa, Ontario - Canada

Ahoy mates! If you think this is about water resistant Bluetooth speakers you are going to be sadly mistaken.

Have you had the experience that after a day of boating, finishing up the evening meal and watching the sun set, you are left wondering what to do next? If you are cruising with others there is always: drinking rum, conversation (while trying to avoid politics and too much rum), card games, ghost stories, reading to yourself or reading to others, etc. But what I am going to suggest is consider creating some self-made music.

Small craft cruising and self-made music is a good match. It has wonderful social possibilities, while decreasing your rum consumption and avoiding awkward political conversations. The downside for me was, the only instrument I learned to play as a kid was, a piano (hard to fit into a small boat). Thus, my search for a suitable instrument began; I have looked at jaw harps, penny whistles and harmonicas. Don’t get me wrong, these are fine instruments in themselves, but they never really worked for me. Recently, I met a fellow who was hiking solo through the Blue Ridge Mountains. In his limited backpacking gear, he found room to carry his trumpet. Again a fine instrument, but somehow it does not conjure up images of a fireside sing-along; even if you remember watching the beach scene from Steve Martin’s The Jerk. So for this essay, brass instruments are also out.

Now, after many years, I developed the following criteria for instrument selection:

1) Size and weight (we don’t have a lot of space in our small craft);
2) Moisture resistance and low cost (things gets wet and we don’t want to ruin an expensive instrument);
3) Nothing that requires batteries;
4) Ease of learning (remember you have to be able to smile when playing);
5) One must have the ability to talk, sing, sip rum and eat munchies at the same time (all necessary for one to participate in the soiree).

As stated earlier, over the years I have experimented with jaw harps, penny whistles, harmonicas and they to meet the first three criteria. However, when you are blowing into a pipe or harmonica you cannot sing or talk and should never have any bits of food in your mouth (cleaning peanut bits out of a harmonica is not something one wants to do, fire side, on the beach). As for a jaw harp, well there is only so much twanging one can stand!

Guitars are a nice traditional campfire instrument, but miss out on criteria 1, 2 and 4 and have a “serious” music side that is best avoided. Thus, this brings me to the often maligned ukulele.

Despite the ukulele’s Tiny Tim history, the idea of a “ukulele and boating” did not just fall out of the sky. This instrument actually has a long and fine maritime history. The ukulele evolved from two Portuguese instruments called the braguinha and the rajão which were brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors. I suspect that these sailors used similar criteria for selection of their instrument of choice.

Ukuleles come in various sizes. From smallest to largest they are: soprano, concert, tenor & baritone. The soprano being the smallest, best fits the bill for small craft self-made music. A ukulele is easy to learn. With only two chords you can play sea shanties like Drunken Sailor and with three chords you can literally play thousands of different songs.

Don’t know a thing about music? Don’t worry; there are hundreds of YouTube sites to help you learn. Also, ukulele groups and classes are springing up everywhere, like mushrooms in the forest. Here in Ottawa, I belong to the Bytown Ukulele Group (BUG) which has over 400 members.

Whoa a minute! You might be saying to yourself, what about criteria number two (moisture)? Ukuleles, made of wood, can warp and fall apart when wet! True, but folks, times have changed and as Walter Brooke said to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, “One word… plastics”. Yes, the ideal small boat musical instrument has arrived! It is the rebirth from the 1950’s of the plastic ukulele.

Now, the Consumer Reports part of this essay:

(Please note: I have not attempted any destruction testing of the ukuleles reviewed.)

Over the last several years, I have purchased three plastic ukuleles that meet my selection criteria. They range in price from $95 for the USA made Outdoor Ukulele to somewhere in the $50 range for the Bugs Gear Aqulele and Makala Waterman. How do they sound? In two words, not bad, although none of these match the sound of a solid mahogany soprano. In fact, they all sound quite similar to my ear, with no clear winner. String selection does make a difference, and depending on the strings chosen, you can soften or brighten the sound. The good part is, all three of these can be dunked into the water, shaken out and played (something I would never try with a mahogany ukulele).


Now for the ukuleles in the picture:

Outdoor Ukulele (the all black one): This ukulele is USA built and possibly the toughest of the bunch as it is made from a polycarbonate/fiber composite (I have demonstrated its toughness to friends by using it hit a tennis ball). The one I have is an older model. It has friction peg tuners but the new model now comes with geared tuners (easier to use). Also there is a selection of colours. The Outdoor Ukulele has the widest string spacing of the three which makes finger picking easier (this is the reason the Outdoor Ukulele is the one that I play the most).

Makala Waterman (yellow and black): This is the most traditional and most plastic feeling ukulele of the group. It works fine but the strings are very close together and I find finger picking more difficult. This one comes with a string closure carry sac made of a non-woven material. Like other reviewers of this ukulele, I will note that the silver paint will wear off the frets quickly.

Bugs Gear Aqulele (sapphire and black): This has the most modern or wonky styling depending on your taste. To me, it has a nice heft and smooth feel. It has a slightly wider string spacing compared to the Waterman. It also comes with a nice zip-up carry bag of woven synthetic material.

So there you are. For wireless music onboard, consider a plastic soprano ukulele. Fun, waterproof, cheap, easy to store and easy to play and you cannot help smiling when you play one. Remember the saying, “Music self played is happiness self made”.

11 Comments

  1. There is another great choice. It is called a Fluke and is made in the US ( in Connecticut ). A bit more expensive, but the sound is more melow and much louder. The body is synthetic( same material as the Ovation guitars) and should hold up well in the worst climates.

  2. Lovely. Although I just can’t bring myself to own a plastic one.
    I just have a cheap soprano for boats and camping.

    The concert is my favorite size, though I recently got a tenor, too. I’m not,sure,I like the tenor, as it’s a little big. 🙂

    A note. Although the baritone is “big” it shares tuning with a guitar, that is, the strings are tuned d,g,b,e, so it plays like a guitar.

    Peace,
    Robert

  3. A company called Kala makes a ukulele bass. Tuned like a 4 string bass, puts out a reasonable amount of sound. I bought it to take on work trips so I can practice in the hotel room, and have taken it on a couple of sailing trips too. It is wooden, I store it in the air tanks.

  4. I carry a baritone ukulele in a waterproof case (oversized ziploc). The thought of a plastic stringed instrument makes me dizzy.

  5. Oh my – what a rich topic! Think of dulcimers. A “backpacker” type guitar (tx Gibson). A freakin’ Lute maybe. And what about the woodwind instruments – flute/piccolo, mouth harp… Percussion – grab an empty can and bang on it with a stick! Heck, bang two sticks together! Music of any sort is Good for the Soul. Just do it.

  6. HAH! First Act makes plastic ukes and guitars. I have one of each. (Ostensibly purchased for my granddaughter, but I know better.) $1.99 and $3.99 at the local Salvation Army. A few steps up, and the wooden child sized guitars (own 3) go for $4-$6. If they sink, or swell, or get sprayed on, oh well! The uke will even fit in a kayak.

  7. I have a Fluke and a Makala Waterman. The Fluke’s sound is obviously head and shoulders above the Waterman, but so is the price. It also has a wood sound board and neck. I leave it on dry land. For the $ the Waterman has decent sound, really, and is fun to grab and go and never worry about.

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