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Uncharted Waters: Humility at the Helm

An interesting character from Capt. Bill’s past proves that having a little humility behind the helm is an exemplary trait.

When it comes down to navigation, boat-handling or any other dicey aspect of boating, accepting your limitations is totally cool.

Some years ago, when Power & Motoryacht’s offices were berthed in New York City, I spent many an hour in a giant Manhattan high-rise composed of chrome, steel and glass. But every now and then, this seriously urbanized, decidedly un-boaty setting would produce a genuine, eye-popping adventure. The visit I got one day from my friend Bobby Fitz, officially known in the annals of the New York City Police Department as Det. Robert Fitzgibbons, is one of the best examples.

prm_Bobby_Fitz

“Mr. Pike?” came the query when I picked up the phone. The voice was familiar. It was the head of security down in the lobby, many floors below, at street level. He sounded worried. “There’s a guy here. He says he knows you. But Mr. Pike,” there was a long pause. “I’m not sure about this person…”

“What’s his name?” I asked, knitting my brow. Dark thoughts were gathering. Yeah, I’d complained in a recent boat test report about a set of deeply cracked engine mounts. But I’d included photos to validate the observation. And then there’d been the incomprehensible lack of sightlines I’d cited in another report. Were a few builders unhappy? Of course, but surely, nobody’d put a hit out on me!

“He says his name is Bobby.” replied the guard. “Says he’s a friend.”

“I’ll be right down,” I said, hanging up.

Bobby was working as an undercover cop in those days. And while “in character,” as you might say, he’d simply decided to stop by and say hello. As soon as I spotted him looming beyond the lobby’s velvet ropes, I understood the security honcho’s reticence. Obviously, Bobby’s working environment at the time included some deeply intimidating, frightening-looking folks. “Hey Billy,” he grinned as I struggled with a bad case of semi-recognition. “How you doin’, man?”

The encounter that followed was short but typical. How’s the wife? How’re the kids? How’s the job? Bobby’s concern for others—his genuine, wholehearted interest in them—has always been a calling card, and probably figured into why he became a cop in the first place. But also, the disturbing nature of his appearance that morning, when stacked up alongside the completely sincere, empathic tone of his voice, produced a jarringly unexpected revelation—my friend Bobby Fitz had to be, I decided, one of the most truly macho guys I’d ever crossed courses with.

Bobby retired from New York City’s finest a few years ago and moved to South Florida with his wife, Cheryl. And recently, the couple purchased a boat—a slightly-used Regal—and began learning how to handle and care for her, starting from square-one. Neither of them had ever actually owned a boat before, let alone done any open-water navigation or dockside maneuvering.

“You want to hear what I’ve learned so far?” Bobby asked during a catchup call just the other day. “Man, Billy, I don’t know jack!”

“And listen,” he continued, in a humorously confidential tone, “Cheryl had to run the boat at first, and I handled the lines. I mean, I was just too freaked out, especially when it came to going over to the fuel dock. You know, Cheryl’s calmer with stuff like that. Now, I’m runnin’ the boat a lot too, but that learning curve took a while, buddy. I mean—a WHILE! ”

This straight-forward disclosure, which Bobby subsequently approved as a topic for this particular column, continues to impress me. After all, it’s no secret that a fair amount of pride attends the ownership and operation of virtually every boat, whether new or used, large or small or skippered by a first-timer or a crusty old salt. And this is fine, I suppose. But on the other hand, pride can also goeth before the fall, especially if it generates over-confidence, not only when navigating in open water or maneuvering dockside, but also when performing any number of other boat-related tasks. Does life afloat go way more smoothly and safely when the ego remains ashore, and a little humility prevails?

Ask my good friend, Bobby Fitz.

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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