It is the ultimate white-knuckle experience, a roller-coaster ride so disturbing and severe that many opt out before giving it a try. It is the distillation of every fear you’ve ever had brewed into a gut-wrenching, breath-robbing sucker punch, a mix of terror, panic and adrenaline like no other.
Base jumping? Hardly. Big-wave surfing? Not even close.
No, my friends, I’m talking about teaching a soon-to-be 16-year-old boy to drive a car. My sainted ex-wife and I are currently on this—I’m not even sure how to classify it—mission. Those of you who’ve done it and lived to tell about it are laughing softly and shaking your heads, relishing your survival and feeling our pain. Those of you who haven’t, well, you’re in for a treat, especially if your almost-16-year-old boy thinks you are the stupidest person on the planet. (Trust me, he does.)
So what does this have to with powerboating? Well, about 10 years ago this month I taught my son, Alex, to drive a boat. Yes, do the math, he was all of six years old. Of course I didn’t plop him behind the wheel on a stack of books, open a cold one and yell, “Let her rip, son!” I sat him on my lap and let him steer. I let him push forward the throttles and see how the boat reacted to it. I asked him to continually look ahead and tell me what he saw. And of course, he was never out of his personal flotation device.
With us that day was Bob Gonsalves and his son, Casey. Gonsalves handles media relations for Yamaha Watercraft, and personal watercraft used to be part of my “beat” at Powerboat magazine before Brett Becker, the editor at the time, wisely decided that PWC had no place in that particular title. Casey and Alex were roughly the same age, so Gonsalves and I took turns with boys behind the wheel.
Truth be told, we spent most of our time with the boat’s twin engines, connected to jet pumps for propulsion, shut off and the boys diving from the boat to the water again and again. Our ride that day was on the ill-fated Yamaha XR1800, which never caught on with consumers for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that it was the wrong boat for the existing market. (Since then, Yamaha has developed a world-beating line of jet boats.)
I watched Casey and Alex closely that day. At first, neither of them wanted to take the wheel. But as the afternoon progressed, at least between the diving-off-the-boat sessions, the boys got more confident. They began to enjoy the freedom and control that comes with driving a powerboat. I’m not sure they understood the responsibility that comes with it, but neither of them did anything wild or unpredictable that day. So at least at some basic level, they got it.
I watch my son drive my truck today, and though he still needs to learn the handling differences between a Honda Ridgeline and his mother’s luxury sedan—if we missed that last mini-van by a quarter inch on our way to last week’s baseball practice we were damn lucky—I see the same look of joy in his face. And for a moment I see him as a six-year-old kid who had one of the coolest days of his life, in a boat.
OK, maybe I’m over-stating. At least I think he’s experiencing joy. He rarely talks to me, much less smiles. He is, after all, almost 16 years old.
Editor’s Note: Boats.com bi-weekly columnist Matt Trulio is the editor at large for Powerboat magazine. He started with the magazine in 1994. Trulio’s original story of teaching his son (who turns 16 on Sept. 17) to drive a boat, is available here.