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Learning to Drive

Aside from taking the wheel a few times, I hadn’t driven a boat in a year and a half since I’d completed a power boating course with Alison Knights Bramble at the BVI Watersports Centre.

Since I never practiced, I had no captaining confidence whatsoever. I was convinced my crewmates from Alison’s class were all island hopping on RIBs and Boston Whalers while I could barely remember how to tie on a fender.

One evening at Nanny Cay beach bar, my friend Stephan Carney from King Charters assured me that driving a boat was like riding a bike. He asked if I’d like to ‘get in’ time on the water, suggesting several reallife boating situations.

I planned a trip to Soggy Dollar with a lively group of friends who I knew wouldn’t judge my driving. The Sunday of our excursion, I woke up to rough seas and phone calls from nervous pals asking if it was safe to venture out (especially with me as captain).

I was slightly concerned, but Stephan’s relaxed demeanor assuaged my fears. We arrived at A Dock at Nanny Cay to start our day. We loaded the boat with drinks, ice, snacks, and Stephan’s new puppy.

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Stephan relayed some basic procedures with me about leaving the dock. Driving a boat can be confusing. In a car, I instinctively know which way to turn the wheel, but when I’m in a boat, I tend to turn it the wrong way.

Translated, I headed towards the dock as I was reversing instead of away from it and we had our first ‘ding.’ My friends twittered nervously, wondering what they’d signed up for. Several reached for their drinks – perhaps to avoid spillage, or possibly to get sufficiently inebriated to endure my driving. I refrained from having a beverage and jovially shunned my mistake.

By the time we’d left the fuel dock, I was a bit ruffled but determined. I drove out to the center of the Channel, avoiding a fairly large turtle, and Stephan refreshed me on the rules of ‘right of way.’ I watched as a large catamaran seemed to be on a crash course with us, coming across the Channel at a perpendicular angle on my port side.

Stephan insisted I keep course. A few of my crew looked concerned, but the sailors in the bunch seemed relaxed. I wanted to alter course and aim for its stern, but Stephan encouraged me to stay true. He wanted to demonstrate that the cat would pass many boat lengths in front of us as long as it stayed its course—but it didn’t.

The catamaran tacked directly in front of us and was basically aiming right at us. Sure, I was on a little power boat, and I was able to manoeuver around it, but it did freak me out. The big, thundering sail rippled then regained its tautness, and the sailboat passed to our port side instead of crossing in front of us.

The puppy slept behind me through the whole thing. Stephan later advised me that if I had stuck close to shore instead of the middle of the Channel, I would’ve had fewer encounters with sailboats.

Finding calmer seas is something I would’ve liked to have done once we passed Tortola and headed to Jost Van Dyke, but there were no shorelines to protect us on our way to the other island. Some of my crewmembers had lost complete faith, while others were confident in my abilities, admitting that they couldn’t drive any better in such messy wind and waves.

Scary as it was, this was where my education about reading the water commenced. From my limited sailing experience, I had learned to read patches of wind on the surface, but now I had to predict the waves. I started doing a bit of surfing on the crests and gained a feel for the timing of the waves.

A few rogue waves still smacked into the boat, but I had just begun almost enjoying the choppy seas by the time we reached the unbelievably blue shallows at White Bay. I let the boys anchor, assuring them that I’d retained all my anchoring skills from my power boating course.

As they laid the bow and stern anchors, the rest of us packed up our dry bags and donned our sunhats for an afternoon on the beach.

As we all waded to shore, a few of the guys complained that my driving was “too damn slow” while the others applauded my surfing skills. I celebrated with a few painkillers and took the rest of the day off.

The next week, Stephan contacted me about getting in some more practice—this time to another popular power boating destination—The Willy-T. I asked one of my journalist gal pals to tag along, letting her know that she’d also have to take some photos and possibly tolerate a few docking exercises before we went to the infamous floating restaurant and bar.

We used the same boat, SeaKing, and Stephan had me pull out of the spot where the boat was parked on A Dock and pick him up on the fuel dock. This time, I felt a bit more natural as I reversed, despite some canoeing kids nearby, hamming it up for the camera. After a few driving and docking drills around the Nanny Cay docks, we headed over to the Bight.

The sea was calmer than it had been on the previous Sunday, and as Stephan instructed me to get the boat on the plane, I understood what he meant. I could feel the big difference in the smoothness of the ride which I remembered from Alison’s lessons. I was also more confident with fewer people on the boat, and weight distribution was less of an issue.

As I steered the Boston Whaler towards The Willy-T: I experienced a Zen moment where my actions became instinct.

I just hope that I practice my power boating more than I’ve practiced other watersports. The nice thing about King boats is that I can hire one with a captain, so I can have the option of driving without the pressure.

Traci O'Dea, English Lecturer - HLSCC

Traci O'Dea, English Lecturer - HLSCC

Traci O'Dea is a poet, journalist, editor, educator, and essayist. She lives in the British Virgin Islands where she teaches at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. Her work has appeared in Poetry, 32 Poems, Poetry Daily, Bird's Eye View, Virgin Islands Property & Yacht, Limin' Times, and elsewhere. She also serves as an editor for the poetry journal Smartish Pace.
Traci O'Dea, English Lecturer - HLSCC

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