I’ve always harbored spy fantasies. As a kid, I was entranced in equal measure by the comical, retro clumsiness on Get Smart and the quick-minded finesse displayed on MacGyver. Jennifer Garner’s physical and mental prowess on Alias fueled many a college reverie. Mission Impossible—particularly the first film (“Red light! Green light!”)—will always hold a special place in my heart. And of course, there was, as there always will be, the one and only James Bond, whose suave air, in-control demeanor—even while things explode around him—and globe-trotting glamour made him a far more appealing aspirational figure than his damsel-in-distress Bond girls (most of whom end up dead anyway).
There is perhaps no more iconic Bond trope than a slick boat chase scene. He has driven motorboats, yachts and even a gondola through locales as varied as Louisiana, the Thames and Venice, among others, the wind ruffling his hair just so as he out-maneuvers his pursuers. As a native New Yorker, the closest I’ve come to fulfilling this fantasy was an ill-fated sailing class at summer camp in Maine, during which I managed to capsize my small ship with the youngest camper—all 8 years of her—on board. Thus, when Lexus debuted its first ever concept sport yacht in Miami earlier this month and offered me the chance to drive it, I jumped at the chance, then said many an advance prayer for those aboard.
As part of a push to become more of a lifestyle brand and potentially move beyond concrete roads, Lexus enlisted Marquis-Carver Yacht Group to help them build their first ever sport yacht. The result is a 42-foot long metallic creation whose carbon-fiber reinforced plastic exterior—similar to the structure used in race cars—resembles a shark as it cuts through the water. Its engines, partially visible through a neat glass panel near the boat’s stern, are also based on those in Lexus vehicles and can take the sport yacht to speeds of 43 knots (or 49 miles per hour). Oh, and it’s awfully pretty. The upper deck has white leather seating that can accommodate around six people, while a passenger cabin—for another six or so people—has air conditioning; hand-painted decorative glass panels; a galley with a two-burner stove and fridge; and an impressive audio-video entertainment system. The Lexus Sport Yacht is a concept, meaning there are no plans for production (though that’s not writing off a future such creation). This was a one-of-a-kind vessel I was about to drive—no pressure.
And so on an alternately sunny and rain-streaked afternoon, I found myself at a mansion on Di Lido Island on Biscayne Bay, filled with feelings of brimming excitement and nervous sweat-inducing fear. I have yet to pass my road test for a driver’s license and here I was about to steer a massive boat carrying a coterie of passengers.
“In America, in most states, you don’t need a license to drive a boat that’s under 50 feet,” said Paul Williamsen, an executive with Lexus International as he led me to the dock and gave me a tour.
I had pretty much abstained from coffee to avoid shaky hands on the steering wheel, so my shaken martini would certainly be coming much later. Overseeing my lesson were Rob Parmentier and Randy Peterson, the chief executive and the engineering manager, respectively, of Marquis Yachts LLC. They waved me towards the white leather captain’s seat, which looked like something out of a Star Trek movie (and in which I never actually sat), as Randy proceeded to pull out of the dock using small, controlled movements of what appeared to be a joystick.
“See what he’s doing there? He’s using the bow thruster. It’s very intuitive and easy. Like playing a video game!” said Rob. Anyone who has ever seen me steer a Nintendo Mario Kart knows this is not a confidence-inducing statement.
As we made our way to more open water, Randy and Rob began explaining to me the various instruments in front of me. A touchscreen flashed with alarmingly high numbers and enough metrics to suggest we were getting ready for lift-off (for those who actually drive boats, the screen provides GPS navigation, digital charts, surface radar and underwater sonar information). Unlike a car, you use only your hands in driving a boat. Besides the steering wheel and the aforementioned joystick (really only used in tight spaces and for docking as it registers very small movements), there are two side-by-side levers that control both the speed and help with steering as they affect the rudders.
“This is your throttle,” said Rob, pointing to the levers. “You push it backward to go into reverse; that’s how you brake. Boats don’t have brakes.” Well, doesn’t that sound safe.
There was more.
“A lot of people, when they steer a boat, they tend to over steer,” Rob continued. “And they don’t understand why it’s not moving. Boats have slower reaction times. And when you’re going faster, it reacts faster to the steering.”
It was unlikely we were going to hit full speed given, A) I had no idea what I was doing and B) most Miami waterways have slower speed limits and manatee protection laws. And even though things seemed deceptively comfortable, given the lack of lane changes and signaling that you would normally worry about with a car, Randy warned me to not get too comfortable.
“Just because there’s water everywhere, doesn’t mean you can drive everywhere. You have to know where the channels are and the currents and what areas are shallow,” he cautioned.
And with that, he put the throttle up to 25 knots (28.7 miles per hour) and handed the steering wheel over to me. Instinctively, I made small adjustments with the wheel to keep us on a straight path towards one of the two bridges between which our lesson took place. The movements felt smooth. Thanks to the boat’s slower response time, there wasn’t the same jerkiness one experiences with a first-time car driver.
“See this line,” said Randy pointing at a moving tick mark on the screen. “That tells you how far to the left or right you have the rudders. But you still have to adjust for the current to keep the boat going straight.”
When Randy had me slow down so we could turn around and do another pass, my passengers didn’t go flying forward. While steering us around did take a bit more muscle than a car would, the process felt much more fluid.
And then it was time for me to plane. For those—like me—unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it refers to when a vessel goes at a fast enough speed that the hull (or front of the boat) lifts out of the water. Its effect looks particularly well, badass in profile, as if I was Crockett and Tubbs in Miami Vice. It also means if you are petite like me and barely able to see over the hull when it is flat you won’t be able to see a damn thing.
“It takes a little while to kick in, but once it does and it’s in plane, it will go fast,” said Randy as he encouraged me to ratchet up the throttle to 26 or so knots. “And at first, you won’t be able to see because the front will ride up. So you have to be careful.”
But when I planed, I planed. And despite the fact that the hull took an alarmingly long time to settle back down and I was driving completely blind, I felt like I was flying. If some Cold War Russian spy has been chasing me, I’m pretty sure I could have outrun him.
After about forty minutes of the maritime equivalent of wind sprints between those two bridges, we had to head back to the island. Under Randy’s impressively calm but watchful eye, I steered the boat a bit closer to the shore.
“Those poles are not your friends,” he murmured gently when I drew uncomfortably close.
Eventually, he took the controls from me to dock us properly, and safely. After all, 007 was never really known for his parking skills.
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