License to Thrill

A session at Land Rover Driving School proves surprisingly similar to certain watery adventures.

So there I was... deep in the Canadian wilderness at the helm of a brand- new $74,000 Range Rover perched precariously atop what seemed little more than a rockslide. Curiously, it was boats, not cars, that were on my mind. As I inched my way along the top of a slick boulder her stern lifted off the ground, her port wheel ventilated and she began to broach-yikes! "You already have three Land Rovers. The remains of a fourth is more than our garage and wallet can handle," warned Nelia. While I prepared to abandon ship, the Land Rover collected herself and made a flawless computer-guided descent-wow!

It wasn't my first experience with Land Rover. I encountered the legendary British marque as crew, when I signed on for a voyage across the Masai Mara 35 years ago. Like my first ride in a boat, the experience changed my life; and I have been loyal to both modes of transport ever since. I figured I'd done pretty much everything there was to do off-road until I signed up for the Land Rover Experience Driving School. But my four-wheel fleet is somewhat dated and the sophisticated late-model technology I encountered was a far cry from the heel-and-toe clutching and braking I was familiar with. After a day of computer-controlled ascents and descents along a five-mile trail with a name that sounded to me something like "Le Crush" (quite appropriate), I began to appreciate how technology had transformed a "hey, watch this," Dukes of Hazzard approach to something "Q" might have come up with for 007.

All of which reminded me of an experience I'd had just a few weeks before while cruising the Bahamas. Given that my office wall is decorated with impressive scrolls documenting my knowledge of salty subjects, you might figure that I've done pretty much everything there is to do with a boat. And you'd be right. But even the most-seasoned salt can be challenged when dumb luck and poor judgment are in play. As I am something of a heel-and-toe boater, it wasn't easy to abandon tradition-but I had no choice.

I was a victim of my own shortcoming-impatience-a defect I typically suffer whenever we decide to return home from a long cruise. The float plan was a fairly simple one that included a leg from Spanish Cay to West End. To shave off an hour or so I had opted to transit Indian Cay Channel-a convenient exit from Little Bahama Bank into deep water. To be sure, it is only a "channel" in the Bahamian sense of the word. That is, it is really more of a shortcut and like most Bahamian shortcuts the way is shallow, poorly marked and suffers a current that cruises well above idle speed with no predictable course. What's worse, the slightest error in track will reduce your wheels (propellers in this case) to scrap metal.

Skinny Bahamian water is best tackled with the sunlight behind your shoulder. Unfortunately, after running five hours from Spanish Cay, the only light in the sky was the static-electric sort. Less than a yard into the channel, black clouds and lightning engulfed us and the rain became so thick I could not see our 13 Whaler in tow. Of course, I had no choice but to proceed as the tide was falling and anchoring was impossible-timing is everything! As I yawed down what I hoped was the channel, I avoided looking at the depth sounder as its report was discouraging. Even with the radar's rain clutter pegged, I was engulfed in a red ball so I posted a lookout to keep an eye out for anyone foolish enough to have found themselves in the same spot. Virtually blind, I was left with only Anhinga's primary GPS/plotter and a hand-held backup. While both are painfully accurate, the cartography available in the Bahamas predates Admiral Nelson. What's more, each unit relied on a different chart system and offered a different suggestion as to the best course of action. I split the difference by wiggling the autopilot knob in the hopes of avoiding electrocution via Anhinga's stainless steel wheel. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised and more than slightly relieved when the sounder confirmed that we had cleared the bank.

The Range Rover survived my command as well and given this accomplishment I now have what you might call a "license to thrill"-a certificate for completing Land Rover's "Experience." As for "The Coyle Boating Experience," we gathered a somewhat less cerebral reward. Once clear of the bank, the only challenge that remained was securing Anhinga to the dock at Old Bahama Bay and collecting my trophy at the bar-a cold Kalik(s).