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Grand quest in a small boat

A college professor finds adventure and fulfillment as he strives to span two continents in his 20-foot River Rat

She has sprung a leak. Her main engine overheats. The little outboard sometimes falters. And there are other problems. Kobuk is showing signs of age, so who knows which of us will wear out first.

The view from the pilothouse as Kobuk transits the ICW in South Carolina

In mid-November last year, when Kobuk and I crossed from Cape Eleuthera to the north end of the Exumas, we got to the middle of that 30-mile open-water passage and the Yamaha quit. The main engine took us the rest of the way, but one of these days both engines might act up at the same time, and that is when I'll keep the life vest and the EPIRB very close at hand.

But anyway, we've gotten this far. After 10,000 miles on rivers, lakes and the open ocean, we're in the Bahamas, cruising the Exumas. We started in the fall of 2004 on the Big Horn River in Wyoming, bound for Buenos Aires. Six seasons have passed, and the voyage is now half over, but success in the first half is a poor predictor of what the second half will bring.

Kobuk and I have learned to cope with the kinds of hazards that crop up in different places - currents and shallows on the Missouri, microbursts and unkind chop on the Great Lakes, tides and freighter traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and fog and frisky onshore blows along North Atlantic coasts - but as we head farther south the tropics will bring new challenges that are likely to make the old ones seem irrelevant.

Experience makes a difference, though. We do things now with a level of competence that simply did not exist at the start. When we put in to the Big Horn in October 2004, we were naive. Kobuk was haughtily captive to her own good looks, and I was insufficiently capable of distinguishing between thinking big and wishful thinking.

I knew there wasn't much water in the river, but I idolized Kobuk and figured that together we could do just about anything. We couldn't. We spent seven days on the Big Horn with daytime temperatures in the 50s and frost each night, and Kobuk hung up on snags and sandbars and rocky outcroppings for most of every day. I would labor for hours to free her from one shallow after another, wading in water that would numb my feet in minutes. The labor probably saved me from hypothermia.

When the sun set I would zip on Kobuk's curtains, huddle over the Coleman stove as it heated food and me at the same time, then collapse into a coma from the exhausting work. After a week, we had covered fewer than 10 miles. With snow forecast for the next day, I gave up and got Kobuk hauled out and stored for the winter. When spring finally arrived and the mountain melt was making the rivers flush with water, we tried again a few miles downstream from the fall pullout, and this time the gods smiled.

The idea has always been to do a river trip through North and South America, but to get from one continent to the other we are committed to an island-hopping routine through the Caribbean. This is obviously not playing to Kobuk's strengths, but the islands are usually strung in fairly close proximity to each other.

Most of the open water passages are 20 to 40 miles, any of which can easily be done in a single day. There are, however, five longer crossings - transits of 65 to 100 miles - that have to be navigated on the way to South America, and in these instances contingency planning and picking the proper day will be critical. Already we have completed one of them - the crossing from Florida to the Bahamas. Its distance was only 65 miles, but its status as the first big crossing made it intimidating.

Hampson and Kobuk cruised Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border at the start of the voyage.

Kobuk is not designed for this open ocean stuff. She's a 20-foot inboard-powered, jet-driven riverboat that draws only 1 foot. She's not flat-bottomed, though - she has a shallow deadrise. Her broad beam and scow bow give her a great deal of buoyancy, but when the waves build, her 17 inches of freeboard seem meager, indeed. The secret to survival is to avoid being out there when the waves get big. It's a cat-and-mouse game - constantly waiting in protected waters for the day of favorable winds and waves. Patience is the secret: Never go unless the conditions are very promising.

People struggle to pronounce Kobuk (CO-buck), but it's the right name for her because it recalls a river in Arctic Alaska where I worked in the summer of 1965. It was a grand adventure, and I always intended to return, but so far that hasn't happened. Maybe I'll get Kobuk up there someday and steer her around the final bend that brings into view that little Eskimo village of Shungnak.

All this started 35 years ago in Hawaii, where I became obsessed with building a liveaboard catamaran for world cruising. There were problems - no knowledge of the sea and no money - but I did manage to build a small catamaran in the living room, learn to sail her and then do a little cruising between the islands. It was everything I had dreamed it would be, and I was convinced that soon the "big boat" would be under construction. Years passed and life changed, however, and in the late 1990s I woke up one day in the mountains of Utah and asked myself: Whatever happened to that dream? It was so close, but then it slipped away.

The prospect of building a sailboat only to cruise on the Great Salt Lake was uninspiring, but the odd idea of doing a grand-scale river trip got the juices flowing, and I started to wonder what kind of boat could cross continents yet survive at sea. The winning design ended up being a runabout called the River Rat, a simple hull designed for rivers but with just enough shape to take the curse out of big lake chop and regular ocean roil.

On a late summer day in 1998, while I was driving alone through the High Plains heat of the Texas Panhandle, I pulled over at a desolate little gas station that had an outdoor phone booth and placed a call to Glen-L Marine. With dust devils swirling across the unpaved ground and flat, barren land stretching to the horizon in all directions, I ordered Glen-L's plans for the River Rat.

It took four years to build her, and that's a story in itself, but from the beginning I was confident that the hull choice was a good one. I was green and ill-informed, but good fortune looked my way, and Kobuk turned out to be fine on rivers, adequate on lakes and game (if not talented) on bluebird days on open water.

The less predictable part of the equation was me. I was 61 in the fall of 2004, an aged novice at long-distance boating, and, especially in the early stages, Kobuk's survival depended on my not doing something dumb. Today, in the Bahamas, the boating conditions do not play to Kobuk's strengths, but at least her pilot has learned a little about what works and what doesn't, when to go and when to hole up.

One of the curious things about being in the Exumas is that they reveal Kobuk's strengths as much as they expose her weaknesses. The Exuma cays are a string of small islands with blue water off their northeastern shores but bays and cuts and shallow banks along their southwestern side. Kobuk excels in these shallows and can hug the shore on the lee sides so effectively that her progress through the chain can proceed even when the wind is streaming over the ocean at 20 knots or more.

The critical thing is to not get more than a few hundred yards offshore and, if that's unavoidable, to then make any zone of exposure something that does not require a frontal assault. Kobuk has a bagful of survival tactics that work well in waters that most offshore cruising boats cannot even enter. She keeps league with the locals who run around in little fishing skiffs and often look on her as the sort of boat they would like to have if they weren't busy lifting lobster and conch from the nearby reefs.

Up at Grand Cay in the Abacos I had a grizzled old local, pencil-thin and espresso-black, hit on me on three different days to sell him Kobuk. "I like dat boat," he'd say. "I gon' buy yo boat."

For more than 20 years I've been an adjunct geography professor at the University of Utah, a marginal position that has suited my incorrigible desire to put impractical dreams ahead of career ambitions. My job never really had a chance of standing in the way of this boat trip.

Kobuk was launched July 4, 2002, and her initial cruise was a few spins around diminutive Rockport Reservoir, not far from Park City in the mountains of Utah. Only then did I awaken to the reality that a long trip on her would be impossible without a steady income and time away from the university campus.

Kobuk was framed by a rainbow in Nove Scotia.

For two years, I worked to put my courses online and then informed the geography department that I was leaving to do the boat trip. I pointed out that I could continue to produce if I was allowed to conduct my courses online, and the department cautiously bought into the idea.

Since then, I've been doing my teaching from Kobuk instead of the podium. Now I carry a laptop with me on Kobuk, but she is not set up with an Internet connection. So at the end of most days - when Kobuk is anchored or tied off somewhere - I go ashore and look around for a Wi-Fi hotspot. They are amazingly easy to find.

Kobuk had to be small. Where she was launched in the Big Horn, it was fewer than 50 yards across, and the channel depth was 3 feet. That first day, the substructure of a bridge snapped off the top of the antenna for the VHF, and the next day the rapid current drew the hull so close to a riverbank that the overhanging branches of a cottonwood tree assaulted Kobuk's cabin top. It was mere good fortune that the cabin was not removed from the hull.

In the days to come, despite her 1-foot draft, Kobuk would run aground again and again as the Missouri River channel darted left and right under cover of silt so thick that a hand in the water would instantly disappear. On a river, smallness is king. You can find overnight protection in a shallow backwater or tied to the branch of an overhanging tree.

In Alton, Ill., for example, Kobuk nosed up to a protected stretch of riverbank directly under the Alton Bridge over the Mississippi (public land, for sure), with an overpriced marina so near I could hear the conversations on the dock. In Wyoming, the law extends private ownership to include riverbanks, so one night when a sheriff drove out to evict us there were no grounds to do so (so to speak) because we were anchored midstream.

In the ocean, smallness would seem to be an unalloyed weakness, but there are advantages. For example, if you wish to anchor in a protected bay, even when others have gotten there first, you can motor in closer to shore and plant yourself in 2 or 3 feet less water than anyone else. Better yet, you can stub an anchor on the beach with a lunch hook off the stern to keep the tide from snagging you.

Even in marinas it can pay to be small because at Kobuk's size it is sometimes possible to tie off at the dinghy dock and go to town. That's what we did at the Vero Beach Municipal Marina, where the boat traffic was ungodly. People didn't know what to make of Kobuk, and we were able to spend the night pretending to be a dinghy for a megayacht.

People often say Kobuk is too small to be at sea, but given the size of the sea, what boat isn't? Whatever the risk, it's easy to manage: Just slow down. Don't go fast, and if there is a question about the weather, don't go at all. Tragedies at sea sometimes occur because of a boat's weaknesses, but usually the cause has more to do with the decisions the captain made.

See related article:

- Packing the essentials abord Kobuk

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue.