Issue: March 2003
Beating The Inner Bimbo

When Clint brought Escort, a 42-foot Kadey-Krogen trawler, home one day, I knew it was way too big a boat for me to handle. Ever. I couldn't even imagine being a capable first mate. There was just no way I could decipher a boat like that. "Clint, my love," I said. "You're going to have to take that boat back to the store and get your money back." "Fat chance," said Clint. And the boat stayed. So we made a deal, Clint and I. He could keep the boat if I could be the boat princess. He would do all the work and I would do my nails and eat bonbons. And that worked out just fine. For about three days. Then I started to get antsy. I was antsy because deep down inside, I really didn't like being so completely dependent on someone who isn't me. And that's when I began to look long and hard at the idea of running that trawler. Why in the world couldn't I?

     Because I was a powerboat bimbo.

     There's simply no other way to say it. I could have taken our 38-foot sailboat to the moon and back, but put me on a powerboat and I'd turn into a complete moron. Sure I could drive it from point A to point B, but never through a bridge or, heaven forbid, into a slip. I was a real wuss about it, but I wasn't alone. In spite of the fact that more women than ever are buying their own boats, taking the helm and applying for their captain's license, I know plenty of seasoned seagoing ladies who still feel completely upwinded by a powerboat. It's as if we smack our heads on a glass hatch at the very thought of running an engine. We're perfectly capable of handling a powerboat. And most of us agree that we should learn how to operate at least our own boat. We just don't want to. We suffer the agonies of Reluctant Captain Syndrome. Something holds us back from actually taking control and being captain of our ship. It could be a girl thing. It could be a cultural thing. It could be a fear thing. . . .

     In my case, it could have been the image of my mother, god bless her, who never once docked our family boat or did anything beyond the occasional stint at the wheel. I have three much older brothers who were ready, willing, able and, moreover, expected to do all the "real" work of running the boat. I was only expected to keep myself from falling overboard. Besides, when I was growing up, I never once saw a woman captain - not on a powerboat, anyway. I never even saw a picture of a woman captain. In my school books the captains had names like Christopher Columbus or Long John Silver. And they didn't wear skirts. Subliminal messages are powerful. They get way deep in our psyches and can be awfully hard to shake.

     Beating that inner bimbo is no picnic, but it is doable and I did it. Not all at once, mind you. But then again, it's not an overnight sort of task. The first thing I had to do was try to define exactly what it was that intimidated me so much about Clint's new pride and joy - and that wasn't too hard. The boat was much bigger than anything I had ever run before. It contained panel after panel of switches that seemingly worked by some dark juju. It had a great big diesel that lurked in the engine room and needed to be fed periodically - by hand, no less. And it would always have to be backed into its slip.

     Pretty intimidating, all right. By comparison, boat princess looked okay. So for a while I made excuses. I disguised myself as Mrs. Noah: "I have so many guests to take care of, I couldn't possibly operate the boat. I have to feed them, clean up after them and keep them from killing each other." Sometimes I was Cleopatra: "Why should I operate the boat? If I'm on the boat, I'm on vacation." Or I'd just plain rebel: "I do my share of running the boat. I read the cruise guides, chart our course, update the logbook, find out where the really good restaurants are . . . I don't need to learn how to drive the damn thing, too." If I felt like Mrs. Bligh, I'd point out that I'd been watching and helping my husband for years. Crossing my fingers I'd say: "I know that I can get myself home if I have to." And if I were feeling totally delusional, I'd make like Mrs. Descartes: "I think therefore I can." Scary!

     Unfortunately, excuses are just that. They got me no closer to being able to run my boat myself, and on close examination, they made me sound pretty silly. So I thought about the learning process itself. Once upon a time I'd taught school. If I could convince high school kids that Shakespeare was the bees knees, I should be able to develop a learning strategy that would make me so excited about powerboats I'd even do homework.

As any good teacher knows, the first principle of teaching is this: If students ain't happy, they ain't gonna learn. Teachers who smile a lot at their students are able to get and keep their students' attention far more than teachers who scowl. Happy students are happy learners. Ergo, I had to make my boat a happy classroom, and that meant two things:

     A) I couldn't wait until I had no other choice. An emergency situation is simply not a good learning environment. No one is smiling.

     B) I would not, under any circumstances, want my true love to teach me the ropes. No one would be smiling then, either.

     I'd have to take control of when I'd do my learning - preferably on a calm, sunshiny day when I had nothing better to do. And I'd have to pick someone to be my instructor - someone who would make me feel relaxed and comfortable. Once I figured out the when and who, I'd be on my way.

     Finding someone to come onboard and teach me Boat Handling 101 was easy. There are plenty of professional captains out there for hire, most of them extremely good-looking and easygoing. Who wouldn't want to spend a day alone afloat with one of them! But being married to a PC kind of guy (a parsimonious curmudgeon), I did the next best thing - I asked some friends if they wanted to go for a ride on my Krogen. They said, golly gee, would they ever! And I said, okay but you have to teach me how to operate it. And they said, golly gee, so you mean a really long ride! Big joke.

     I generously gave Clint veto power over the list of would-be teachers, and he eliminated one of my ex-boyfriends and the really buff aerobics instructor named Ramon. Mel Gibson never wrote back. That left me with Jan Miles, who just happens to be captain of the Pride of Baltimore II, and Marcus Thomas, who just happens to be captain of the workboat Endurance.

     Finding the when was harder. Jan and I compared calendars and finally found a Monday when we both were free. Wonder of wonders, it turned out to be a lovely, calm, sunshiny day - very auspicious, I thought; the gods were smiling. Jan was very thorough. He showed me around the engine room and pointed to things with funny names, none of which I can remember without my notes. He showed me how to check the oil and the coolant. Then he introduced me to our batteries and the generator, and he showed me what switches to switch and in what order. And he said that whether you call it a thingamabob or a generator switch, it still works when you push the button. Eureka! And it can set other thingamabobs in motion. It's a matter of sequence, not terminology, and has nothing to do with juju (well, maybe a little bit of juju). He showed me how to operate the anchor windlass - how to whack it just so with a winch handle, for example. And with the anchor up we went for a ride.

     Once under way he had me maneuver up to imaginary lines or position myself off a clam line or buoy. "Come to within three feet of that daymarker so I can see it out the side door, and hold her dead in the water there until I count to fifteen," Jan said, without even looking up from the magazine he was reading. It reminded me of when I had my learner's permit and my father would sit in the back seat, barking instructions between chapters of his Perry Mason mystery.

     Wonder of wonders, I was having fun and I was smiling. I was comfortable, relaxed and learning. And there were more Eureka moments. Like when Jan was watching me handle the wheel, and he pointed out that I was driving the boat like I was sailing. I was using the wheel gently and slowly, as if I was afraid of spilling the wind out of the sails if I moved too quickly (creature of habit, I guess). So it was quite liberating to spend a few minutes just turning the boat this way and that, palming the wheel like I was driving a race boat. I couldn't hit anything out on the wide open river (no one was around to hit), so I was willing to experiment and take risks. Jan made me mindful of the wind and current, and he made me maneuver with headwinds and beam winds. I got lots of practice.

     Finally we headed for the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where we pulled in and out of the bulkhead, like at a gas dock. Several times Jan reminded me that being aboard a boat is hardly new to me. I knew where the boat needed to go, and I knew intuitively how to get it there. He suggested that I allow myself to "feel the Force" and stop trying to think myself out of good instincts. That's really hard to do. It probably requires some juju, or at least an ample libation of rum.


     By the time Marcus came onboard, a few weeks later, I could get under way and out into the river by myself (I'd been practicing). It was like a test. He crossed his arms and watched as I checked the oil and engine coolant. He gave a thumbs up when I started the generator and then started the engine. He gave me a knowing smile when I whacked the anchor windlass just so. And he watched the creek go by as I followed the unmarked channel through the Oak Creek Bridge and into the Miles River. "What do you need me for?" he asked. Plenty, I told him as I aimed for the museum docks.

     Marcus is a waterman, and I've always marveled at the way watermen can roar in and out of docks unscathed. I wanted him to show me how to do that aboard my single-screw trawler.

     Marcus was more hands on than Jan. "Watch me," he said, and he swept up to the bulkhead and goosed the gears and the throttle until Escort shimmied neatly into place. He had barely touched the wheel. "Your turn." I sidled the boat into position and tentatively tried to edge her into the dock. I was still about six feet away. "Try again," Marcus said. "Use a little more speed so you can build momentum."

     Momentum? Was he crazy? I had 21 tons of boat moving through the water and she wasn't going to stop on a dime. I got back into position to make another run and eased the throttle the eensiest bit forward. "Use your engine, honey," Marcus said. "Do it like I showed you." And he showed me again. In one fluid motion he jammed the throttle forward, then back, goosing the boat ahead. With his other hand he flipped the gearshift into neutral, then reverse, and goosed the throttle again. The boat stopped in her tracks, as if she'd cocked an ear and was listening. Marcus flipped the sticks again and the boat began swinging her hips into the dock.

     My turn again. I got the boat into position. Then with Marcus chanting, "Forward. Power. Neutral. Reverse. Power. Neutral . . ." I had Escort doing the sideways shimmy. (Okay, I stripped the gears a few times. Not pretty.) I was still a little ways from the dock, but not so far that I couldn't have tossed a line to someone. I was as good as in.

     Marcus made me do it again. And again. And again. Until finally, I could work the sticks and feel the boat move where I wanted her. "Use your engine, honey," Marcus repeated. Why not? She's got one, after all - a big one. And it likes to kick up a froth.

     My lessons were over, at least for a while. Clint and I had places to go, people to see, and we'd be using the boat. That was a good thing, because I was able to keep practicing. The more I ran the boat, the more confident I became. Then came the final exam: I had to bring the boat back to our brand new slip on Oak Creek all by myself. I wouldn't just be anchoring in the middle of a soft-shouldered and forgiving cove. I'd be backing up between parallel pilings and making her fast - bow lines, spring lines, the works. And I'd be alone.

     I was glad no one was watching, but as it happened, I pulled the boat in without any trouble at all. I felt the Force. I used the engine. I was home free. Beginner's luck, I'm sure. And nice flat calm at that. But I did it. And it wasn't such a big deal after all. I know I can do it again. And if there's a crosswind, well, it will probably just take me longer.

     In all honesty, I'd rather not operate my own boat. It's still a pretty big bear, and I'd just as soon leave things to Captain Clint, who likes to drive (thrills at the very thought of it). But now when it's raining, I can be prissy and make Clint go out and raise the anchor or handle the dock lines while I stay cozy in the pilothouse. And if I'm in a hurry to get somewhere (and I usually am) I can get the boat under way before he has even rolled out of bed in the morning. I consider myself a Basically Independent Motor Boat Operator - a bimbo of the better sort. I can't begin to name the parts of the engine without my crib sheet. I'd prefer not to change the oil. When we have friends on board, I still slide into my Mrs. Noah routine. But sometimes when we're alone, just the two of us, I turn into Janie the Pirate Queen and I can handle that boat with the best of them.

     How does Clint feel about all this? Not long after I'd had these sessions with Jan and Marcus, Clint and I were tootling along somewhere. I was at the wheel, and I heard the engine make a funny sound. "What's that noise?" I said. Well, by the way Clint reacted, you'd think I'd lost 50 pounds and slipped on something from Victoria's Secret. It was certainly the first time I'd ever heard the engine ping, because it was the first time I'd actually been listening. And Clint says that was the moment when he knew I was truly in the captain's seat.

That made him a very happy camper. Me too.