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Driving Fool

That particular morning it took a while to secure my footing and clear my head. The boat lacked a predictable motion. Indeed, the day we departed south Florida, our weather forecaster called for a “complex” weather pattern of dueling highs and lows extending over most of our course from the Bahamas to the Virgin Islands. He got it right.

The previous night I would have preferred to forge ahead and cruise over the black, glum depths of the Tongue of the Ocean, before turning left across the shallow Exuma Bank. If we correctly managed our speed, we would approach the cut at Big Farmer’s Cay as the sun peeled through the horizon to illuminate our path into Exuma Sound. Perpetual motion was key to our endeavor. 

Yet after 19 hours at sea, my suggestion that we should skip Chub Cay and power on resulted in bone-piercing looks from the boat’s owner, Bob, and his friend Peter. We anchored off Chub for the night.

Now our plan was to follow the aforementioned course, but with the benefit of daylight and rest. The wind blew 25 knots with gusts beyond 30. Seas ran 5 to 7 feet, with larger swells sneaking into the mix. A variety of cloud types sauntered across the sky: In one direction there was bright sunshine, in the other, rain and foreboding darkness. 

The sea tossed buckets of water toward the deck adding an irritant to the uncomfortable circumstances. Below, there was a symphony of protests from various cabinets and lockers stocked with items better suited for marina life, not beam seas in the Northeast Providence Channel. Sensing a crew revolt, Bob and I retreated to the pilothouse to review our course options. I said a little prayer that he would not suggest we take a more easterly course and head for Nassau. 

Nope, perpetual motion was still his plan, but hopefully with a little more comfort in the offing. We realized we were in one of those situations where the boat was certainly able to take more than we could. An exclamation point was inserted with the sound of Peter retching the contents of his stomach into the galley sink. (He wiped his mouth and returned to the bridge to finish his watch with a smile, tapping the autopilot’s NAV button twice to follow our route.)

The stalwart Fleming 55 threw her shoulder into the stacked seas, while Bob and I reviewed charts and discussed alternative course scenarios. Chart books, dividers, pencils, flashlights, reading glasses, cell phones, and cruising guides skidded across horizontal surfaces. Hmm, how can we make this a little more comfortable without losing too much time? I dwelled on the challenge, hoping a solution would seep into my salt-brined brain. Ah ha! Got it! 

I turned to Bob, looked him square in the eye, and said, “I’ll drive the boat.” Bob—a very seasoned bluewater cruiser—looked at me like I’d just told him the meaning of life. Then indeed, I put the autopilot on standby, placed two hands on the wheel—I mean actually touched the wheel—and drove the tough little ship over the seas. I ignored the thin blue course line on the chartplotter and looked around me at the sea state, while keeping an eye on Clifton Point on New Providence. When I could, I would crab back toward our rhumbline. 

Well I’ll be! It all came back to me. I could do more than simply push buttons on a chartplotter and autopilot. I remembered how to drive and feel the sea state. Here we were surrounded by $50,000 worth of electronics trying to figure out how we could make ourselves more comfortable. Weather patterns, how they interact, and how they generate sea conditions have remained constant throughout time. The physics remains the same, and the skills I learned long ago are just as relevant, even in a world of glass bridges. It just took a little discomfort to remind me to stop pushing buttons and touching screens, and look outside. Back to the basics is another way to get back home.

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