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Not Ready For Prime Time

Our writer’s television debut makes a big splash—literally.

Illustration by Gil AdamsA while ago I flew to the Côte d’Azur to test a new motoryacht—a big, fast machine with surface drives. It was very much a bateau du jour , and several of my regular magazine clients were interested. One of these was a glossy Italian publication run by charming people who paid quickly and didn’t even ask me to write in Italian. Trouble was, they also had a cable- TV channel, and their staff writers were expected to be presenters as well, ad-libbing their insights during boat tests while the camera rolled. They had frequently asked me if I would do this too, and I had tried to explain, in my clearest English, that with no experience in front of the camera I really wasn’t qualified for the task. Besides, I’ve watched camera crews: Everything takes hours. Thanks, but I’d stick with my notebook and pen.

At the appointed hour I arrived at the boat to find a woman with a big furry microphone and a man with a video camera and tripod. I said hello. They said buongiorno. Then they said,“Mr. Alan...?”

My clearest English had obviously not been clear enough. The message had not gotten through. Here was a crew, expecting to work. But they were freelancers too. Crestfallen, they explained that there was no Plan B—if I didn’t help, they had no tape. I heard myself saying, “OK—but just this once.”

As we burbled out to sea, the cameraman setup his gear opposite the helm station while the sound lady rigged her furry microphone to a boom. It was a big, open dayboat, so there was plenty of space and light. Once clear of the harbor, up on plane at about 20 knots, the skipper handed her over to me and said, “Don’t go fast.”

This was an odd thing to say to someone who is just about to see how fast a boat will go. Perhaps I should have asked him what he meant, but I didn’t. I had a camera crew to impress. I had to try and make sense . I eased the throttles forward and accelerated to about 35 knots—nowhere near this 50-ton monster’s maximum— and turning to the camera with my best BBC voice I eased the big motor yacht into a turn. The sound lady smiled encouragingly. The cameraman gave a thumbs-up.

People often describe dramatic events as happening in slow motion, but this one happened really quickly. The bow dug in and the stern whipped out, and before I could react we were going backward in an enormous sheet of spray. The cameraman and his tripod were upside down. The sound lady was sprawled across them. I don’t know how much tape they shot, but it ought to be a YouTube classic.

When the spray had settled and the captain had stopped shouting at me, we looked at the trim gauges—the tabs were almost fully down, where he had left them after getting the boat up onto plane. I hadn’t checked. With all that lift at the stern, and surface drives, there wasn’t much in the water back there. My turn, though gentle, was enough to break the hull’s tenuous grip. The result was as inevitable as it was spectacular. To cap it all, the spin had snapped off one of the satcom domes at its mounting, leaving it hanging by a wire.

On the upside, the shipyard didn’t ask me to pay for the damage. And the magazine never asked me to do TV for them again.