Our team's motto was "May Lady Luck ride with you and your race be fast and safe." In this story, we pushed our luck and I learned a valuable lesson.
It began just like every offshore boat race.
Miami is a favourite location for offshore racing and we were no strangers to the procedure. Lou was at the wheel, a position they call "driver," and was busy keeping us clear of the 27 other boats circling counter-clockwise while we were waiting for the pace boat to appear.
Lou loved boat racing. He was one of the oldest competitors in the sport but was tough as nails. Being a wine distributor for the Gallo Wine Company must have been a profitable business because Lou spared no expense when it came to preparing his race boat. I was relatively new to offshore boats after several years of piloting much smaller boats around much smaller race courses.
My job on Miss Gallo Wine was to work the throttles and I was affectionately dubbed "Stickman." On ocean courses, offshore boats will frequently jump clear of the water. When this occurs it is necessary to immediately throttle back in order to prevent engine damage from over-revving.
But that was only half of my job. While the throttles were in my right hand, four trim buttons resided in my left. They operated oversized transom tabs to set the optimum longitudinal balance for maximum speed while maintaining control.
The start boat zipped down the Miami "Cut" and we all roared onto plane behind it. Once the starter figured we were all where he wanted us, the yellow flag went down and up came the green. It was 'throttles full forward.'
Caution was advised as we entered the Atlantic, as ocean passes are known for tricky and uneven water. This route for this event directed the fleet from Miami to Bimini, a distance of just over 55 miles, then northwest to Fort Lauderdale, before heading south back to Miami. Each turn would be marked by a large yacht waving flags for easier identification.
The trip to Bimini seemed easy. We managed to stay close to the front of the pack and our 'air time' was at a minimum. Around Bimini, the waters are usually exceptionally clear. They give the impression of running in just a few inches of water. I was more concerned with depth than I was with waves.
That soon changed.
The Bermuda Triangle has a bad reputation and we were about to experience it's ugly nature first hand. As soon as we made the turn to Fort Lauderdale, the water turned nasty. Building rollers topped with white foam appeared out of nowhere and we were forced to reduce our speed. With over two thirds of fuel in our tanks, we were still quite heavy and that didn't help. The distance between boats grew larger as each boat took a slightly different heading back towards the mainland.
Operating the throttles, I was torn between trying to make good time and trying to deliver a safe speed. Unfortunately when racing, the choice is always clear. Some of our landings were tolerable, but the odd one was brutal. About half way to Fort Lauderdale, we hit a beauty, flying far too long and going headlong into a large oncoming wave.
We came to a punishing stop. Lou crashed to the bottom of the boat and immediately began shouting in pain. Our ride was instantly over.
So there we were - thirty miles from the mainland, being blown by winds, tossing violently in six foot waves and unable to stabilize the boat for fear that the movement could further injure Lou, who was in need of immediate medical help. A bit of a dilemma. What would you do? This isn't a test, but think about what you would do... before I tell you what I did.
When you stop for just a few seconds in any boat race, the race is lost. My priority immediately became helping Lou. I did the best thing that I could. I hit the EPIRB emergency location button and then (gently) tossed Lou into the sea. Floating in the water took the pressure off his back injury. Of course he was wearing proper floatation and very quickly one of the race safety helicopters picked him up. I was versed in first aid training and we had a protocol for these kinds of outcomes. I guided Lou as best I could with the rescue team, and he was up and away towards a local hospital.
I cruised Miss Gallo Wine back to Miami at sensible speeds.
When the boat was back on the trailer, I learned that Lou was in the hospital with a broken lower back. Amazingly, with Lou wearing a full brace, we were back to racing just three weeks later. But I learned a lesson. It was the first truly scary moment of my racing career.
If you plan on going boating for more than a very short trip, put together some serious weather forecasts for yourself before departing. When you have a solid grasp of the weather forecast for your route, your trip is guaranteed to be better. I should have done my own weather research. Because I didn't, Lou was injured. Things happen in racing, but I learned to focus on pre-planning, whether you're racing or just going around the local lake, so that my chances of a smooth day on the water are higher. If you would like to take something away from my story, I encourage you to educate yourself about how to better understand weather reports. You should also learn how to navigate your boat in bad weather.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
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