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I was 16 and the sole passenger in a 13-foot Whaler speeding across a black waterway at 30 knots under a moonless sky in the wee hours of July 5, 1990.

The skipper was my best buddy, a high school friend who today is the captain of a large yacht. The Whaler’s two-stroke Evinrude wailed as the red and green running lights on the bow oscillated hypnotically towards the blackness. Those old 13 Whalers seemed determined to porpoise their passengers to sleep that way, but we stayed alert. I turned my head casually as we flew past a 9-foot-tall, unlit steel nun buoy floating just 5 feet away.

Thirteen hours earlier, it was the morning of July 4 and I was drinking orange juice on a wooded beach in my swim trunks. Like many of those summer weekends, my parents allowed me to invite my high school buddy, Ryan, to spend time on the Prince family boat. As usual, we’d be at the big beach where a dozen or so families would convene bow-in because there’s no meaningful tide on the beautiful St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in northwestern Wisconsin.

Local_Knowledge

Ryan had orange juice, too, as well as his usual healthy dose of cockiness as our mutual friend, the future captain, arrived from 5 miles upstream in the Whaler, which served as the tender to his dad’s Chris-Craft Commander. Ryan liked to play tough guy, and when he discovered last night’s bottle of Tabasco on a nearby beach table, he shook the remains into his O.J. and guzzled it down. We watched, unimpressed and curious as to what would happen. What happened next was ugly to witness but ended in 20 seconds and was covered with a thin veneer of sand halfway between the bow of our boat and the fire pit.

Back to the wee hours of July 5: The sudden proximity of a semi-submerged structure of this magnitude might cause panic among the unsuspecting, but we knew it was there even if we couldn’t see it until we were 50 feet out. We had grown up on these waters and we knew them like the backs of our hands. We had analog ways of navigating in the dark without the need for today’s dimmed electronic screens stifling our night vision.

It was coming up on 1 a.m., three hours after the Fourth of July fireworks display had “oooh-ed” and “ahhh-ed” the hundreds of boats assembled in the no-wake pool on the St. Croix. The inebriated had retired and the parents were snug in their berths. Tabasco Ryan had long since thrown in the towel after losing his breakfast on the beach. So, my buddy and I, both holding watercraft operator’s permits, took off in the Whaler en route to a waterfront joint where we knew we could shoot darts, drink Coke and devour mini tacos until we got tired. Both knowing the dead-reckoning line between the marina inlet and the flashing light atop a TV tower 8 miles down river, my buddy hit the throttle. We knew we’d be east of the potentially deadly, unlit nun buoy without any further guidance.

The ability to navigate in the darkness without a nav screen, even a dimmed one, provides a level of night vision unavailable to those tethered to today’s devices. It’s confidence-inspiring in a small boat. But like the dwindling number of teens who can drive a Honda with a manual transmission today, I doubt too many forego their Apple maps in order to navigate life with their own eyes.

After darts and tacos, we headed further down river a mile or two where we could crash out on the Prince boat. My buddy cut the engine 100 yards out and we quietly pulled the Whaler up on the beach.

Not needing an electronic nanny had preserved enough night vision that I spotted that Tabasco stain, covered with a thin layer of sand halfway between the bow of our boat and the fire pit, just one step before I needed to.

A little local knowledge goes a long way.

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

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