Singlehanding the Silverado

Driving coast to coast across America's wide-open plains, this CW editor at large rediscovers some voyaging truths while navigating his Chevy "prairie schooner."

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Herb McCormick covered more than 2,500 miles on his drive from Rhode Island to California, and while the two kayaks on top of his truck were the only boats involved in the trip, the demands, the ambiance, and the insights of the solo voyage were strictly bluewater.Herb Mccormick

First off, a mea culpa: If you don't count the pair of Little Wing kayaks mounted to the racks of my 2000 Chevy Silverado pickup truck, the following story has very little actual boating content. It is, however, the tale of a long-distance passage, akin, at least in mileage, to a trip across the broad, blue Atlantic. And before it was through, I'd come to see the "voyage" in much the same light and perspective. Like almost any transoceanic adventure, it had a nervous beginning and a fulfilling conclusion, and the middling parts had many of the attendant emotions one faces on an extended sea journey, ranging from boredom and exhaustion to panic and awe.

I'd set out from my home in Newport, Rhode Island, in early April bound for San Diego on the first, long leg of a journey ultimately aimed for Seattle, where on May 31 I'll set off aboard the 64-foot steel cutter Ocean Watch on an expedition "Around the Americas" (www.aroundtheamericas.org) to raise awareness about ocean conservation and climate change. I approached the trip, which I was making alone, much as I would a solo yacht delivery: I wanted to get to my destination as quickly and efficiently, but also as safely, as possible.

As with any voyage, I'd kept an eye on the weather for several days before shoving off. I'd originally planned on immediately heading south, for a quick visit with friends in Maryland, before charting a course through the southern states toward my westward destination. But a series of violent storms were tracking across Texas and Louisiana all the way to the Carolinas, so I decided instead to bolt directly for Ohio and Indiana before bending south across Illinois, Missouri, and Oklahoma. The lesson? Always remain loose and flexible-and extremely in tune with present and future forecasts-when routing a passage.

On any offshore trip, I always like to put some miles in the bank and push on until I'm very tired before laying my head down for the first time. When sailing offshore, then, I prefer to get going by midday and establish the formal watch schedule beginning right after supper-say, at 2100-and then put the rest of the crew down first and carry on until the midnight change. A creature of habit, I did the same thing on my cross-country drive, putting the Newport Bridge in the rear-view mirror at 1500 and carrying on until I hit a rest area just outside Akron at 1 o'clock in the morning. I zipped into my sleeping bag in the cab of the truck and got four solid hours of slumber-a couple more than I would've at sea, at least, which was great, although I woke up in a rain shower, which wasn't so hot-before once again rolling down the highway.

I'm not much of a coffee drinker-except at sea and on long-distance drives. Since I don't generally imbibe much caffeine, I get a tremendous charge out of it when I do, which is one of the main reasons I use it sparingly. As with most voyages, the first 24 hours passed with me in a slightly groggy state with a hint of an upset stomach. I rolled into Springfield, Missouri, fairly spent and decided to seek the pleasures of a Motel 6. Lesson 2: Listen to your body, stockpile sleep when you can, and never underestimate the simple pleasures and recuperative powers of a solid meal and a hot shower.

Back on the road the next morning, the miles passed swiftly with the benefit of satellite radio, which I highly recommend for any boat negotiating coastal U.S. waters, the waters off Canada and Mexico, and much of the Caribbean. Between the opening games of the baseball season, news and weather, Bob Dylan's excellent Theme Time Radio Hour, and, get this, Jimmy Buffett's 24/7 Margaritaville channel, I couldn't have been more entertained.

One of my favorite times on any offshore trip is the infamous dog watch, from 0300 to 0600. Many sailors hate it, but it's the watch where you get to see the sun rise at sea, which I consider one of the great joys of sailing. In the wide span of human existence, only a small percentage of people earn the right to see the new day begin over expansive waters, which is reason enough, for me, to head out there in the first place.

I mention this because the last time I drove across Arizona and New Mexico on I-40, almost 30 years ago, the desert sunrise left a lasting impression that's stayed with me through the decades. It was every bit as impressive as any dog watch I've done since. With that in mind, I decided again to sleep in the truck to catch another such morning. It was a cold night, and I shivered through a lot of it, but the new dawn was fresh and warm and worth the rather chilly roadside slumber.

It's been said that ocean voyaging can be summed up as long hours of numbing tedium punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror. That's an apt description of my last day before hitting California. A huge southerly breeze was ripping across the prairie, and driving a truck with the equivalent of a 14-foot catamaran secured to the racks proved challenging indeed. It was almost exactly like steering a big boat at night in shifty winds with a spinnaker up. Then, up ahead, in the open desert of Arizona, like fog across a placid sea, I could see a rolling brown cloud blanking out the highway. It was a dust storm, my first ever. We don't, you know, get many of those in Rhode Island.

The storm on land, driven by estimated gusts of at least 50 knots-I ventured outside for the briefest of moments to secure the kayak lashings, a misadventure that left me dealing for weeks thereafter with a thin coating of brown powder in the truck interior-was completely reminiscent of a storm at sea. Vessel management became the primary concern. And I did what I'd likely do in an offshore tempest in which visibility was nil and handling was shaky: I put on my blinkers and pulled off the road. In other words, I hove to.

It turned out to be a good idea. When the blow abated nearly an hour later, in the aftermath lay a jack-knifed semi, a pair of crushed S.U.V.s, and a fleet of ambulances. Heaving to, as it so often is, was the right call.

I crossed the California border late that afternoon, just to say I had, then made a U-turn back to Yuma and checked into another Motel 6. I'd made it from Rhode Island to California in 77 hours, almost the exact time it took me the last time I raced to Bermuda.

And, just as it had in Hamilton, that first cold beer sure tasted good.

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