Titanic Fears

Confessions of a reluctant passenger.

I was reminded recently of a rather odd quirk of mine. I do not like going to sea unless I am doing so at the helm of my own boat. I'm no narcissist mind you—if it's bigger than a splinter, I call a surgeon. And while I don't care for fly-by-wire, video-game air travel, I've never bothered with flying lessons. It's just that when I set out to sea on other folks' boats, I feel like a cast member in Titanic. I admit it...I'm a lousy passenger.

I suspect it all began at the beginning— with my Dad's first boat. Dad believed in the popular old saw if it flies or floats—rent it! As freeloaders, we had a good deal of experience on large yachts, thanks to other family members who were not wise to his credo. In 1968 my father caved in to my prompting and finally bought a new boat—a 23-foot Thunderbird Formula. Since he considered himself a seasoned yachtsman, he assumed that driving such a small "yacht" would come naturally. It didn't. After replacing the bowrail half a dozen times, he agreed to allow me to give him a few pointers. These lessons ended when a dockmaster complimented him on his "grandson's" helmsmanship. Ultimately, he found pleasure cruising boat shows and managed to screw more stuff onto the boat then he ever knocked off.

I graduated to the boat business in 1980 and one of my first assignments as a yacht designer was with the late Tom Fexas. Tom was a good guy, a good designer, and a good boat handler. Unfortunately, he had tired of the helm and the South Florida sun. As a consequence, I often found myself aboard one of his signature Midnight Laces looking over the shoulders of Lace-lusting lubbers taking test-drives. The bent wheels and mangled rubrails were a given—however, a life threatening right-of-way dispute on the narrow New River in Ft. Lauderdale was another matter. We found ourselves playing chicken with the Jungle Queen, designed by Tom's competitor the late, great Jack Hargrave. It seemed for a moment that the snot-nosed Lace and the seasoned tour boat were going to get physical. We were saved by the spasmodic, white-knuckled response of the lubber at the Lace's helm, who favored a brush with the seawall to decapitation by the faux sternwheeler.

I realized that yacht design and product demos were dangerous, so I became an "expert" and began writing 22 years ago. My recent epiphany came in the company of other "experts" on a tour of waterfront watering holes, where capable watermen tend to congregate. I shall refrain from naming names. However, I can reveal that our crew included several captains, a marine engineer, a yacht designer, and a veteran of multiple trans- Atlantic passages. With the sun setting, our reluctantly sober designated captain tired of our banter, declared the adventure over, and herded us into the boat. After 20 minutes running at speed in the darkness I began to relax, figuring our captain's local knowledge might save us. Then I noticed him fiddling with the chart plotter and searching its small display for the channel. I thought of Captain Smith (of Titanic) and moved to the rear of the boat. I imagined the headlines…"So-called 'experts' lost at sea...what were they thinking?"

Moments later I noticed something whiz by a few feet to port. “What was that?” shouted our fearless captain. My first thought was an iceberg, but it turned out to be a steel marker. Other experts onboard noticed my death grip and I was joined astern by a fellow who runs a 150-footer and another who served as a deckhand on the Ark. A reduction in speed was ordered—we were lost, but this would not be Titanic. Given the Skipper and our three-hour tour, it wound up being more like “Gilligan’s Island!”