Skip to main content

Joy (Stick) Ride to Key West

The whole thing started with a simple, straightforward question. I was standing under a chandelier at a cocktail reception at the Atlanta Boat Show, with a glass of Perrier in one hand and a toothpick-skewered scallop in the other, when Tom Duncan, Sea Ray’s ad agency guy, eased alongside and asked, "So Bill, if you have room on one of the long boat trips you sometimes do for the magazine, could I maybe go? I mean, I represent a bunch of companies in the marine business, and I’d like to see what this cruising thing is all about."


Duncan’s request seemed heartfelt and unrelated to business concerns and considerations. In fact, it put me in mind of several occasions during my youth when I’d been so dang antsy to take a ride in somebody’s new boat that I’d just sidestepped all niceties and hit ‘em with a forthright request.

"Sure, Tom," I replied. "We oughta be able to come up with somethin’ somewhere down the line."

The nebulousness of the promise lasted about two seconds. A Sea Ray honcho standing nearby overheard our conversation and jumped in with both deckshoe-shod feet. "I’ve got just the thing, Pike," enthused marketing VP Rob Noyes, "Our 48 Sundancer with the new Zeus drives. You name the spot you want to cruise, and I’ll have the boat waiting for you, fueled up, and ready to rock."

The project instantly took on a life of its own. Phone calls ensued, along with e-mails, and a brainstorming dinner at the next big boat show. While Noyes was pushing for a far-out destination, like the Bahamas or Cuba, I ultimately decided on something more prosaic: a four-day run from Miami to Key West and back. I figured such a modest, commonly traveled route would give Duncan a true, real-world coastal cruising experience. And I also figured the Florida Keys would make an excellent testing venue for a pod-type propulsion system, given the prevalence of shallow water, reefs, vaguely marked channels, and quirky, out-of-the-way marinas. Our trip would be the first, lengthy Zeus-propelled jaunt undertaken by a magazine, and chances were we’d encounter everything I’ve just mentioned as well as some other pleasant surprises.

We arrived at Miami Beach Marina on a Monday in late-April: Duncan, me, and Jeffery Salter, who was joining us to shoot photography but also, like Duncan, to hone his understanding of the joys and vicissitudes of long-distance boating. I figured I’d get ‘em both off to a rousing start with dinner at Miami Beach’s most famous restaurant, Joe’s Stone Crab. After all, they’d both arrived fairly late in the day, thereby putting the boots to the five- to six-hour, day-one, straight-shot run to Key West I’d been planning. And dallying in Miami overnight, it seemed, would ensure the most orderly transition possible into cruise mode the next morning. "The trip’s starting off quite well," Duncan opined toward the tail end of his Chipotle Spiced Snapper. "You said a mouthful, brother," agreed Salter.

We hit the trail right after sunup. And yeah, the departure itself was rough. Long ago, during my commercial seafaring days, I suppose I’d have uttered a few colorful remarks under such circumstances, but, having gained a little wisdom over the years perhaps, I simply stayed calm. After proffering a few tactful suggestions, I gave Duncan and Salter enough leisure to figure out how to appropriately deal with mooring lines, shorepower switches and cords, and all the other little chores that put a boat right for going to sea. Admittedly a major-league contributor to all this sweetness and light was the joystick-controlled dockside maneuverability of Zeus pod drives. After determining that only the faintest tweak of the joystick was necessary to position the 48 virtually anywhere in her slip and keep her there, I got immediately and totally cool with the slow and sometimes confusing nature of activities on deck. In fact, well before we’d left the marina, my supervisorial chant had become, "Take your time, guys...don’t worry about it."

Hawk Channel, a broad, sometimes surprisingly shallow stretch of blue-green-tropical water with the necklace-like Keys to the West and weather-buffering reefs to the East, was pancake-flat as I headed south that morning, but it was also fraught with the occasional lobster-pot buoy and some chunks of floating debris. An engineer at Sea Ray had told me earlier that the most sensible and efficient cruise setting for the 48’s two 542-bhp Cummins MerCruiser QSC8.3-550 diesels was about 2700 rpm, which would engender a cruise speed of 32 mph and a total fuel burn of about 45 gph.

I ran at the suggested speed, of course, and let the Zeus computer-adjust our trim tabs automatically for the most part, and unfortunately grew increasingly uncomfortable with one of our not-yet-ready-for-prime-time prototype’s few design glitches: a relatively high running attitude at speed. Indeed, the only way I could see over the bow while driving (even with both tabs fully deployed) was to stretch my 5'11" frame to its full stature and hover there, a position that shortly resulted in a literal and lingering pain in the neck.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.