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The sky of early morning was pale lemon yellow, and the Gulf Stream lay flat. Already the buildings of Miami Beach had dropped below the rim of the horizon. Our wake etched a long path astern, almost like the vapor trail of a jet, as flying fish skittered nervously from under the bow.
Perched on the bridge of the Envoy, I felt a slight sensation of unreality. We had cast off from the Palm Bay Club after a swim, had breakfasted on leaving Biscayne Bay, and now Bimini was a low smudge to starboard. A few minutes more and we had come onto the Great Bahama Bank. Once again I was awed by the wonder and beauty of it: a sand plateau of thousands of square miles covered by crystal water, color dictated by the depth and character of the bottom. Involuntarily I pulled back the throttles as North Rock came abeam. After the purple abyss of the Gulf Stream, there didn't seem enough water to float a dinghy, but then reason told me there was at least a fathom under the keel, so off we went again planing over a pastel carpet of greens and blues.
"Come for a long weekend and I'll show you a new dimension in cruising," Dick Bertram had said. "You can't believe what you can do in three or four days with a fast boat, without a sense of hurry. And I promise you'll be comfortable."
Already it seemed an understatement. We had loafed across the Gulf Stream in slightly over two hours, the twin V-12 turbocharged series-71 General Motors diesels muted into the background. Our cruising speed was better than 20 knots, yet the 63-foot fiber-glass hull was capable of 25.5 knots, just under 30 land miles. Withal, Envoy provided the amenities of a home afloat—nay, of a luxury penthouse: reverse air conditioning, piped stereo music, valance lights on dimmer switches, an oversized bed in the master stateroom, even a sauna bath. The all-electric galley included a dishwasher, a walk-in larder, a reserve deepfreeze, a washer-dryer for ship's laundry and a dinette seating four. There was a salon for formal entertaining, and a large afterdeck for casual loafing, served by its own bar and ice-cube maker. The lower steering station was snug behind a wraparound safety-glass windshield, while the flying bridge duplicated controls and formed a fair-weather solarium.
But without the ability to go to sea all this would have added up to nothing to impress a sailor. Two weeks before, I had been aboard on a test run when small-craft warnings had been flying for three days. A strong norther blowing against the current of the Gulf Stream was stirring up a witch's caldron. The morning radio forecast predicted seas of eight to 12 feet, bigger than the average yachtsman might encounter in a lifetime. Not another boat was in sight. Sullen graybeards awaited as we cleared the breakwater, but Dick Bertram did not slow below cruising speed. Envoy lifted to the first wave, porpoised into the next and kept going, taking aboard nothing more solid than spray.
My thoughts went back 10 years. Then, in almost identical conditions, the 31-foot Moppie had roared out of Government Cut to set a new record for the Miami-Nassau course, which I reported in SI (April 25, 1960). A whole new concept was that day introduced to the world of powerboating. Ray Hunt's deep-V hull design, incorporating longitudinal strakes to promote planing and act as spray deflectors, had proved that speed could be combined with offshore ability. Moppie could be driven hard into steep head seas, rolled very little in the trough and could track straight before following crests, a situation in which traditional underbodies would go dangerously out of control. Every successful ocean-racing powerboat since has been a modification of the same basic form.
Yet Moppie was more than a competitive breakthrough. As Dick Bertram puts it, "After that race, the phone calls, wires and letters started coming. A lot of people wanted boats like Moppie, so we turned her into a plug, cast a mold off her and started making copies in fiber glass." As the famed Bertram 31, the basic design has been further tested in waters from Tahiti to the Aegean, serving well as sports fisherman, commuter, tender, patrol boat and just plain family cruiser. The 1,000th identical twin of the prototype hull on which I rode as navigator a decade ago will be launched in April, a unique record in an industry where recently changes have come fast.
Envoy is the culmination of Dick Bertram's goal of incorporating the same characteristics in a larger package. If a new ingredient has been added, it is comfort. Size at sea does not necessarily make for more safety, but it does provide easier riding in normal conditions. Now we sped smoothly over whitecaps kicked up by a freshening breeze, while ahead a cluster of humps appeared on the horizon. Before 3 o'clock Great Stirrup Cay was abeam, a long low islet of gray limestone and sparse vegetation, saved from being drab by palms waving above crescents of dazzling sand that were lapped by multihued waves. As always, the beauty of the Bahamas stems from the surrounding sea.
Within another few minutes we were over the side and in that water—as clear as the clearest pool, or a mountain stream, or gin in a tumbler—looking through masks at tropic fish iridescent against a backdrop of bizarre coral forms. Envoy lay snugly anchored. We had covered the 120 miles from Miami in six hours. Before me a small grouper appeared from behind a rock. I tried to spear him but missed, and Dick missed, too. We swam on, not really caring, rounding a point where the bottom dropped away and depths became shadowy, but saw no big fish until we were almost back to Envoy. Then a grand-daddy grouper poked his nose out of a cave. We missed again. This time we cared, but the grouper thumbed his fins at us and vanished into a labyrinth of narrow passages.
Back aboard Envoy there awaited compensations. As the sun went down a full moon lifted. For a time we were wordless as both sky and sea ran the gamut of color. Ashore the lighthouse winked on, the revolving beam filtered by palm fronds, and tropic night sounds began. It was Great Stirrup Cay as I have known it since first stealing in aboard the venerable Temptress as an escapee from higher education—a dropout, in modern parlance—answering an advertisement for hands to man a ketch West Indies bound. Great Stirrup is part of the Bahamas that remains almost as it was before Columbus made his first landfall farther down the archipelago.