The courtship was heading in the wrong direction.

Despite his detailed instructions, Jenifer Clark could not find her boyfriend's townhouse - even though she lived all of 15 minutes away.

Ultimately, the boyfriend would learn that Clark is directionally challenged. Her lifelong disability is a suprising one, given that she makes a living helping people navigate some of the most dangerous waters on the planet.

"I can get people halfway across the world," she says, "but I have no sense of direction whatsoever."

Clark's Gulf Stream-current forecasts are considered sine qua nons by hundreds of sailors, racers and fishermen. Of 180 boats in last year's Newport-to-Bermuda race, 120 used forecasts purchased from Clark.

And they are favored by a group highly motivated to get to their destinations as soon as possible: naked rowers.

Benjamin Franklin's understanding of the Gulf Stream was remarkable, but he evidently knew nothing about the stream's variability or the wild and chaotic eddies constantly spun off by the stream.

Boats caught in those eddies, which can be 60 miles wide, can trap a sailboat or rowboat and consign it to a counterproductive 180-mile circle.

Today, thanks primarily to satellite imagery, these eddies can be identified, along with the meanders of the stream. And Clark makes a good living doing just that.

She began her career with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the mid-1970s in a NOAA backwater known as "satellite oceanography." She became particularly interested in the Gulf Stream and began to work up daily charts and circulate them via fax, including her phone number for any questions.

"I was known as the Gulf Stream lady," she says. One day NOAA gave her a raise, a fancy title and a desk job. No more charts. She suspected that the agency was uneasy with the charts' becoming too identified with her. After 28 years of government work, she quit and started her own business a decade ago.

To work up her charts, Clark analyzes several satellite images, including one derived from altimetry data that shows ocean-surface heights. Warm water is lighter, so at the edge of the Gulf Stream the water rises about 3 feet.

Warm eddies, in which the water flows clockwise, can be as much as 2 feet higher than the surrounding ocean. The heavier waters in cold eddies can be 2 feet lower. She consults images interpreted and posted by NOAA, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School.

When she first started assembling her charts, she came upon a stunning realization about the raw material.

"It's all free," she says. "I couldn't believe this stuff was free."

She and her business partner have made enough money to build a mansion outside Annapolis, the site of their offices. That business partner, former NOAA meteorologist Dane Clark, was the man with the elusive townhouse. They were married in 1982.

They sell ocean-current forecasts for $145, or $195 for a combined currents-weather outlook. For $1,500 they will host weekend seminars for the adventurous who want to try rowing across the Atlantic.

The craft used by transatlantic rowers do not resemble the sculls of the Schuykill. They are high-tech vessels equipped with sophisticated communications devices.

The Clarks' customers included members of the Atlantic Wolfs, who row naked, save for a layer of vaseline. Some rowers prefer to go in the buff to avoid rashes they get when water splashes on clothing.

What rowers and sailors learn from Clark is that to get to their destinations, in all probability, they will have to go out of their way. In the North Atlantic, direct routes are the exceptions. "In oceanography, it"s usually not the fastest," says Clark.

She, herself, has come her own circuitous route to the business world, and looking back, she has no regrets about giving up her desk job.

"I make double doing it at home."

She is grateful to her government, and for a current far more confounding to sailors than Ben Franklin could have imagined.



Contact staff writer Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.