Race To Hog Island
Learning To Sail Through Near Death Experiences
It’s been an unusual summer. To explain, I moved to Connecticut from California in October of 2009. Family events require a trip across the continent and this year there’s been plenty. On June 1st I had the privilege of being Father-of-the-Bride at my daughter Kelly’s wedding. In August, I returned for my niece Chrissy’s wedding. My new friend Sharon is an avid golfer and much of our summer has been devoted to getting out on the links. We really enjoy playing together and it helps she is twice the golfer I am. As September rolled around and I reflected on the amount of sailing I’d done it didn’t justify the expense of owning a sailboat. Then I received the email from the Seasprite association announcing an end-of-the-season, informal race around Hog Island outside of Bristol Harbor, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island and a mere hundred miles eastward. I had my Mecca.
I took a couple of days prepping Brisa, my 23’ Seasprite, for the voyage getting under way from Dutch Wharf Marina on the Branford River at 11:20, Tuesday, September 3rd. First stop Essex, about five miles up the Connecticut River, a total distance of approximately 33nm. The day was cool and overcast with a 50% chance of rain. As I made Branford Cove the wind was up to fifteen knots. With the motor in idle I stepped to the bow and started to raise the main. An errant wave sent me backwards and as I fell the main halyard ran through my fingers burning all four fingers with an especially deep burn to the index finger. I returned to hoisting the sails and as I cut motor and enteredlong Island Sound it started to rain hard.
Four and five-foot rollers out of the southwest at 2300 slapped Brisa’s starboard aft quarter while the winds, now a steady 18 knots out of the south had us surfing the rollers as we headed northeast south of Faulkner Island at speeds in excess of 7 knts. Making Essex in time to go dancing at the Griswald Inn (the Gris) with my friends looked like a lock. By three o’clock the weather had died down and my speeds approached a more common 4 to 4.5 knots.
For security, I started the motor at the Old Saybrook lighthouse but with a rising tide and good wind at my back I continued up the Connecticut River under sail power. The first bridge you encounter is the Old Lyme Railroad Bridge, a low-lying Bascule bridge carrying Amtrak on its journey up and down the Connecticut coast. My VHF call on channel 13 got the reply, “Hold on Cap, we’ve got a twenty minute delay.” With no one else around I tacked back and forth in front of the bridge practicing my technique while waiting for it to open. Shortly, I heard the bridge operator call out, “Come ahead Cap,” and the short toots of the bridge horn announcing it’s opening. Using both sail and motor to expedite my passage under the open bridge I continued my journey.
I sailed onto the public dock at Essex by 7:30pm where my friend Kearan took the bowline. The public dock is not a floating dock and tide height changes are pretty severe so I tied Brisa up loosely. Kearan and I took some time to drink a little wine she’d brought and catch up. By 8:30 I changed clothes and together we walked up to the Gris to meet Mark and others for a night of dancing to the music of the Shiny Lapel Trio a good ending to a good day.
The next morning I woke to an Asian couple expertly catching crabs off the dock and fishing. I rolled out of the V-berth and stumbled up the main street for coffee and something to eat at Olive Oyl’s. By 8:30am, hot egg burrito and coffee at my side, I motored away from the dock and began my journey downriver on the outgoing tide.
As I passed under the I-95 bridge I called the Old Lyme Railroad Bridge operator for an update on the next opening; again a delay. I motored in a zigzag pattern waiting for the toots announcing the bridge opening. With a hundred yards to spare my motor died. I pulled the starter rope and it coughed to life. I was on high alert now. The river current combined with the outgoing tide was sweeping Brisa rapidly towards the bridge. Without the motor I was in serious trouble. I had elected to make the down river passage with my sails down. My boom was raised to give me headroom. The motor slowed and then stopped, several pulls on the starter rope and nothing. I had closed half the distance to the bridge already and though the bridge was now opening I was not lined up to go through the open part. Instead I was being swept to the fixed portion of the bridge west of the raised portion. My mast, reaching thirty-three feet into the air was not going to mix well with the bridge bottom barely twenty feet above water line. I was now in serious trouble. I leapt to the main and raised it as quickly as I could but there was no time to lower the boom. Still, though the sail shape was lousy, I was getting some steerage but it was too late, I was between the bridge abutments with the bridge barely a hundred feet away. Flying back to the cockpit I pulled again on the starter rope, once, twice, three times, varoom. I threw the transmission into forward and headed Brisa up river. I aimed for the corner of the abutment thinking to tie off if possible. Waving furiously at a powerboat approaching from up river I learned a new lesson on the water, not everyone comes to a boaters rescue. As I approached the front of the abutment, a mere fifteen feet from rounding it and freedom the motor died. Using my last bit of momentum and the small help from wind on the main I made it to the angled side of the pointed abutment where large bolts protruded. Leaping again to starbord-midships I grasped the bolts and found I was able to pull Brisa forward. As her bow cleared the front of the abutment the current caught her bow and with one final pull she pivoted around the front and we drifted through the raised portion of the bridge to the tooting sounds announcing it’s closing.
Brisa and I had escaped but it was close, too close. Mere seconds and feet separated us from disaster. Nothing about the situation screamed I was a competent sailor. I had made one serious error. I’d distrusted my sailing skills to the point I relied on the motor over sail. With sails up you have an alternate source of power and steerage.
I had a decision to make, return home or continue with my journey without a motor. Exiting Old Saybrook channel I turned east electing to continue and committing myself to sailing on and off of all docks, moorings and anchorages. The morning breezes were light out of the south and we moved along at 3 and 4 knots depending on individual puffs. By one in the afternoon the sound was flat. The only breath of wind was the air exiting my lungs. I texted my friends who were following my journey;
“Do you know what you call a sailboat with no wind and no motor? Adrift.”
I spun lazily off Bartlett Reef outside Niantic, catching every brief puff of wind to continue my journey eastward. Around four in the afternoon the offshore breezes picked up slightly and I made it into Fisher Sound. The chart showed an inviting looking anchorage in Mason Pt cove. As I sailed into the cove located between Mason’s Pt and Enders Island I located several unused moorings. I sailed onto the most central one and barnacled on. I was too tired to worry about the embarrassment of some returning boater telling me to get off their mooring. As luck would have it I had the cove to myself and after securing Brisa I settled down to a light supper and then to bed. Unable to read for more than twenty minutes it was lights out by eight. But, not before I thanked the good lord for not wanting me home just yet.
Morning brought a light breeze and by 7:00am I sailed off my mooring and pointed east through the second half of Fisher sound. The morning breeze continued to stiffen and rather than wait until it was dangerous to do so I double reefed the main. No sooner had I secured the double reef than the wind died and once again I was adrift. I shook out the reef and went back to the process of chasing down every little puff I could find; mostly to stay off Latimer Reef. The outgoing tide was sweeping me gently eastward but I hoped for more wind to safely navigate Watch Hill passage; a narrow and potentially dangerous opening to the Atlantic if the tides are not timed correctly.
As I cleared the wind shadow of Fisher Island soft breezes began to caress my sails. Clearing red nun #2 marking the entrance to Watch Hill passage by only a few yards I set out into the Atlantic for my 16nm journey to Pt Judith and the left turn into Narragansett Bay.
Again the perfect south wind coming over my starboard beam just aft of center gave me a broad reach that had me surfing down the face of six foot rollers in excess of 7knts. The occasional wave would curl and slap the side of Brisa hard drenching me in spray. The day was hazy and as I sailed eastward beyond the three-mile mark, land disappeared from sight as it curled northward away from my rhumb line. The next three hours was dead reckoning with Pt Judith only coming into view when I was one nautical mile out. I knew I was never very far from shore but still, it requires a sailor’s trust in the compass to overcome the fear of seeing only open water.
By 1pm, having passed Pt Judith’s red marker # 2 to port, I turned north heading for the east channel entrance into Narragansett harbor. I had been steering manually most of the day as the following seas, pushing the stern first one way then another, played havoc with the auto navigation. The Atlantic rollers to stern produced more of the same as I manually steered to counteract the loss of control as we surfed down the face of each roller. By four in the afternoon I passed under the Narragansett Bridge from Jamestown into Newport. Pointing Brisa’s bow into Potter Cove at the Northwest base of the bridge she sailed onto the anchorage where I began securing her. With everything in order I settled down to look at messages on my phone. Sharon, who lives in Torrington, CT. was reporting rain. Not having checked my radar app for a couple of days I opened it up to see if there was any storm activity in the area. Uuuuaaaahhhh!, I gasped, nothing but large amounts of orange and red heading our way blanketed the screen.
I had a couple of hours to prepare and started by removing the Genoa from the bow and brought it down below. I re-rolled the main onto the mast as tightly as possible to reduce windage. Removing my second and never used anchor from its locker I discovered the anchor line to be short and there were breaks in the line at both ends. Cutting away the damaged ends shortened the line more. My set of the main anchor revealed a water depth of approximately 20’ and I had let out approximately 80 for a 4-to-1 rode. I now let out another 60’ for a 7-to-1 rode. Pulling the sixty feet back in again I tossed the second anchor as far to port as possible. When Brisa drifted far enough back to secure the second anchor’s line it looked as if it was disappearing almost straight down. I yanked on it to feel the set and it broke loose almost immediately. I needed more line on the second anchor.
Rode is the amount of line from anchor to bow. The more rode you have the better your anchor will hold due to the catenary or amount of sag in the anchor line. Conversely, it increases the arc swing your boat can pass through as tide and wind shift. In a crowded anchorage this can be a problem but I was alone in Potter Cove.
I had three strand line, half-an-inch thick and 60’ long I used for docking. Getting out my book of knots I sat crossed leg on Brisa’s bow and tied the two lines of different size and texture together using a double sheepshank. Again I pulled in line from the main anchor until I could give the second anchor a good toss. I let line from the main anchor until line on the second anchor went taut. Pulling in the remaining slack in the main left approximately 120” feet of rode on the main and another 80’ of rode on the second anchor. I had secured Brisa as best I could. Now came the waiting.
Potter Cove was a fortuitous choice to anchor. Protected by Narragansett Island not more than two hundred yards to our west and the storm coming in from the west there was some protection. As the front hit Brisa swung around on her anchors and took up the slack. Gusts were recorded in the area up to 55’mph. All I know is my little Seasprite shuddered mightily for the next twenty minutes but the anchors did not budge more than ten or so feet from their original set point. I have an Anchor Alert app on my phone that records drift. The two Danforths dug in and held firm. Though winds were strong off and on for the next couple of hours I went to sleep content with my work.
What a pig of a day! Mind you, if you were ashore it was an absolutely gorgeous day. Narragansett bay was a mirror, not a hint of wind and the temperature was mild. I could see people playing golf on the Newport side and I hated them, mostly because I wasn’t out there with them, I was again adrift with only ten miles to go to reach my destination. Arrgh!
The incoming tide was drifting me in the right direction but the minor puffs of wind produced no more than half a knot of speed, barely enough to give steerage. What was worse, my plans to sail across the southern tip of Gould Island was turning into a race between the slowly flowing tide to the north and my lack of movement east. In slow motion I watched as the only conclusion to my current path ended in Brisa being beached on “Gould Island’s southern tip. Surrendering to the inevitable I made one of the slowest almost not to happen tacks to port and decided on a run up Gould Island’s western side. North of Gould I would duck in under Prudence Island’s southern tip and make my final reach to Bristol harbor, a mooring at Bristol Harbor Yacht club, a shower and a cocktail –ahhhh!
The approaching tug and barge threw a wrinkle in my plans. With no wind and motor I had about as much steerage as the barge. He has to make his decisions ten miles in advance. I sailed achingly on a starboard tack west across the channel believing I could close with the shore enough to let the barge pass before returning to a port tack to east. He must have been going as slow as me. Running out of navigable water I executed an agonizingly slow tack back to starboard believing I could now complete a leg east before the barge would pass. Imagine two snails in a chariot race. As I reached the center of the channel it became clear I had overestimated my speed or the barge’s speed but now it was getting to close. That and the wind had died again. I pulled on the starter rope and the motor sprang to life –for about thirty seconds but it was enough to push me into a small puff that carried me across the channel and out of harm’s way.
More puffs were blowing and I was able to sail through one ripple after another. Reaching the channel heading up the east side of Prudence Island the wind became steady out of the south enough to go wing and wing. I reached down into the cabin for one of my chair cushions. Positioning it against the main sheet at the end of the boom I laid back and watched my wind vane carefully to avoid unintended gibes.
The first four-and-half-hours of my sailing day I covered two nautical miles. The remaining eight nine or ten nautical miles were sailed in just over two hours; comfortably, dignified, hand trailing in the languid water passing under Brisa’s hull. The way sailing is meant to be. By two in the afternoon I sailed onto the docks at Bristol Yacht Club where Ron, a tall lanky Seasprite owner, immediately met me.
“Heard there was a fellow Seasprite owner arriving, I’m Ron; I own a local bagel shop. Would you like one,” he asked, placing a bag on the dock? I have a nice Asiago cheese….”
Realizing I was ravenous I didn’t wait for him to finish.
“Yeah, that sounds good.” Putting the bagel to my mouth I took a bite. It was warm. Chewing rapidly I shoved another bite in. Mumbling through the breadcrumbs falling from my lips, I said “thish ish delischoush.” Taking a step back, Ron said warily. “You can have another you know.” My initial appetite quelled by the Asiago I took a Sesame seed bageland placed it on the cabin roof grateful for Ron’ generosity. Talking a few minutes more Ron shoved off to secure his boat; rain was coming. I headed straight for the showers, followed immediately by a trip to the bar where Natalie poured me a delicious scotch and soda. My only troubling thought, “four hard days of sailing to get here, what in God’s name would the return trip be like. Oh well, that journey didn’t start for another thirty-six hours, time to relax and enjoy.
DAY FIVE – Race around Hog Island
Like the boats themselves the Seasprite Association is not that big but the following is loyal. Here in Bristol, for whatever reasons, there are seven or eight Seasprite 23’s like Brisa and their owners form the core of our little band. My two sailing buddies, Steve, Brisa’s former owner, and Lenny his close friend had agreed to drive over for the day and join me for the race. Arriving around ten, Saturday morning, we went for coffee and a breakfast treat before returning to Brisa and setting sail. We used the extra time to practice our tacks until we had them pretty sharp. The race didn’t start until one in the afternoon.
As the other Seasprites started to arrive I could see Brisa looked a little dingy by comparison. I had purchased her for the express purpose of learning to sail while keeping my investment small. Brisa has been everything I’ve wanted in my first boat and I’ve already used her to record some extensive trips. Having a boat I can someday go blue water cruising in is my goal and owning Brisa is my first step in that goal. These guys have a different approach, an approach not unattractive. Bristol is a reasonably posh area and most of these guys live on or near the water. They’ve put twice if not three times the money into their Seasprites than I have into Brisa and it shows; Beautiful paint jobs, new rigging and sails, new tillers with extensions. They do not cruise these boats as I do, they race them and they are set up to go as fast as a Seasprite can go. And, these guys are good racers.
During the summer they come down on Wednesday’s and participate in the Bristol Yacht Club races. It must be fun and after racing only once I can see how your sailing skills could really sharpen from the experience. Although a poor start left us last Brisa held her own on the opening down wind run along Hog Island’s eastern side. Once we turned the corner at the southern tip and started sailing across wind and then upwind the distances between the front-runners and us, opened up dramatically. Our number one drawback, other than our lack of tactical skills, was Brisa’s tired, older sails. In a race no more than five miles long we were a mile behind the leader when they crossed the finish line. For myself it was of no consequence but I felt bad for Brisa, she’s taken such good care of me and I felt like I had let her down.
The day ended nicely with a cookout at one of the racers homes. The man had smoked slow roasted pork and jerked it –it was fabulous. Steve and Lenny dropped me off back at the Yacht club. Tomorrow, it was back to solo sailing.
Solo sailing is a form of sailing with its own unique blend of challenges. There is solitude to contend with, fear, since all duties fall to you and sometimes they come in bunches, and maintaining a strong attitude. Mind you I don’t say positive attitude though that’s part of it but you have to keep your mind strong. It is perilous to allow yourself to get down. Sailing requires that all tasks be performed at the time of their need. There are no putting things off and exhaustion is not an excuse. Many things can weigh heavily on your attitude and since I was sailing without a motor windless days were proving to be the hardest for me to contend with mentally. I’d rather be heeled over wondering if I’ve too much sail up for the conditions versus spending hours sniffing out every little puff only to go a couple of nautical miles in a couple of hours or more, yikes!
So when I woke Sunday morning to a cloudless, windless sky I steeled my mind for the day to come. To my way of thinking windless days are more exhausting to sail in. You are constantly tinkering with the sails to get the set right. You tack endlessly seeking every little ripple in the water. You worry the tide will take you somewhere you don’t want to go and you constantly search out hazards and other boats knowing if there is anything to be done it must be done early to have any hope of achieving it. Most of the morning passed and I could still see my mooring so little distance had I sailed. I fashioned a paddle out of my boat hook and one of my fenders. Hey, it was something to do.
The tide had been carrying me south out of the bay but by two in the afternoon it turned and started coming in. Concerned I would lose my last five hours of work I was heartened by the freshening breeze. My goal had been to reach Hull Cove on the southern end of Narragansett Island giving me a proper shot of getting out of Narragansett Bay the next day. As it turned out it’s probably best I didn’t make it.
As I passed under Narragansett Bridge I felt fatigue setting in. The harbor was full of hundreds of boats enjoying the wind and the day but my direction north against the southerly breeze and rising tide was making it hard for me to make headway. I had to tack twice to clear the bridge. I called Conanicut Marina in Jamestown requesting a mooring. They kept attempting to direct me but I was fighting to many elements not least of them being boats that came out of nowhere with people yelling at me. I was getting confused and losing control of my boat. I called for the launch to come out and take me in tow. After mooring Brisa, the launch operator asked if I’d like to come in. I told him to come back in an hour and I sacked out.
After a restorative nap I went over, paid for my mooring and walked up the little street full of shops and restaurants for a bite to eat. I even had a snack made for my sail tomorrow. As I lay in my bunk that night my thoughts turned dark. The loss of the motor and several days of no wind had eroded my will. Early in the day a boat was being lifted from the water for winter storage. What if I had Brisa lifted here at Jamestown and trucked home?
I rose with every intention of continuing my journey but by eight o’clock I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I was mentally fatigued and as soon as I gave myself permission to lay over in Jamestown another day I felt much better. With that in mind I got out the motor manual and started troubleshooting the problem. After all, it would start and run but then poop out. Concerned water had gotten into the gas tank I replaced the gas, fuel filter and sparkplug. It seemed to run better but still stopped after only a few minutes. Removing the fuel line and pumping the gas tank line bulb revealed gas free flowed to the carburetor. Finally, and I don’t know why it took this long, I checked the oil –bingo. Dry as a bone.
I bought oil at the Ship’s store up the street. Filling the reservoir I gave the starter rope a pull. The motor turned but only with great difficulty –had it frozen? I removed the starter rope assembly and verified it pulled easily. The motor was seizing up! I removed the spark plug to ease compression and using a wrench on the top nut rotated the motor several times –nope, the motor was restrictive but not frozen. I replaced the starter rope assembly and gave the motor a few more pulls; it was turning easier. Replacing the spark plug I started the motor and it ran great, no stopping. Spirits lifted and will restored I knew tomorrow I would start home.
Walking jauntily to the nearest grocery to re-provision I basked in my accomplishments. Stopping for garlic wings at the Narragansett Café on my return I mused on the advantages of solo sailing. From there it was one more shower at the marina and the launch out to Brisa.
That night the wind blew in from the North and violently rocked Brisa making for a fitful sleep. Determined to escape Narragansett Bay I was up at six-thirty and under way by seven-thirty. Using my newly running motor I followed the marina channel past the rising and falling boats pulling at their moorings. A strong current awept Brisa south as I aimed her east for the middle of the channel. The dumplings, a series of rock outcroppings jutting into the main channel required a long reach eastward before turning south. With Brisa on autopilot I went forward to raise the jib. The high winds and vicious chop made for a dangerous platform topside. As I hauled down on the jib halyard a wave struck Brisa hard on the port side bow tossing me into the air and overboard.
I threw out my hands as I came down and with my left caught the bow pulpit railing, with my right the lifeline, ankles and feet still on deck. A wave pounded me on the back lifting me so I could get my calves aboard. I knew from a prior rafting experience that the first pull up is the most important. You have all your strength and adrenaline working for you after that you just get weaker. I waited for the next wave to pound me in the back and it did, submerging my whole upper body and head below water but also lifting me and as it did I heaved with all my might latching my left hip up and over the side where I was able to worm myself back aboard. It was still early in the day and I had neither my life jacket nor my VHF radio on me. Again I had ignored vital safety standards in my rush to get going.
As I regained my position on deck the motor stopped. Not having made way enough eastward I drifted rapicdly toward the Dumplings. I needed to get a sail up quick. With the jib raised and strong winds from the north I navigated safely out of danger and into the channel. I’ve never really had time to process my feelings and believe I am more upset and terrified by the moment as I sit here writing about it than anytime since.
I had a twelve-mile journey to clear Pt Judith and four to five hours to complete it but with the outgoing tide, wind and seas at my back it was never an issue. With the steady winds from the north I rounded the point by 10am and took a westerly heading along the coast. By 2pm, following a textbook journey across the open waters of the Atlantic I entered Watch Hill passage. Wind in Fisher Island Sound was lighter but by 4pm I sailed into Mason Pt cove once and onto a mooring.
Securing Brisa, I went below to get tomorrows weather report. My luck had run out. A high, expected to last for several days, was setting in with light winds expected out of the southwest at three to five knots. It appeared I would be sailing upwind in a light breeze or worse no breeze at all, a nightmare scenario since Brisa she doesn’t sail to windward that well. My thoughts again turned black as I contemplated potentially several days of making slow headway home or worse drifting backwards on an outgoing tide. I formulated a backup plan for sailing into Mystic in the morning then prayed to the good Lord to bless this old sinner with a good wind.
I woke to a twelve-mile an hour breeze from the North. God does love a sinner. Packing my gear quickly I geared up. No longer would I appear on deck partially prepared for a day of sailing. I donned leggings to protect against the cool morning air and later the midday sun and pulled my cargo shorts over the top, a long sleeve tee followed by a light rain jacket, rigging knife and VHF radio in pocket. I hung my handheld compass around my neck, placed my food and water bag on the cockpit floor, closed up Brisa’s cabin before ever touching a single line.
Gearing up improves attitude, confidence and helps you gain your sailing mind –all things learned on this trip. I raised both the jib and the main and as Brisa came round on the mooring I waited for the right angle to windward and tossed over the mooring line. Time underway, 7:30am.
I made good time out of Fisher Island Sound and cleared Seaflower reef off New London by ten and Bartlett reef outside Niantic by eleven. My goal was to raise the “L” shaped breakwaters of Duck Island outside of Westbrook CT., a peaceful anchorage and a mere twelve miles from Branford harbor and home. By 11:30 the wind had shifted to out of the west. My rhumb line was nose on to the wind. Now I began to sail furiously North and south but making very little progress westward against the now oncoming tide. After four hours I made no more than one nautical mile westward. What I had done is to prevent my position from moving east while waiting for another shift in wind which arrived around 4pm. Finally Brisa started pulling tacks that let me beat westward.
I was getting tired but with each new tack to port I was getting a better and better heading west. Hauling in Old Saybrook channel to starboard and a possible anchorage but one that left me too far from home, I continued on. I wanted my last day to be an easy one. It was 5pm before Brisa and I put the Old Saybrook lighthouse astern but with it knew we could make Duck Island before sundown. With light faltering on the horizon I rounded Duck Island’s western seawall and dropped anchor.
As I looked out my cabin the reds, yellows and greens of a setting sun painted the western sky while to the east a bright, silver full moon rose over the sound. It was a beautiful and peaceful setting altogether appropriate for my last night aboard. Knowing how much Sharon would appreciate the sight I took pictures and sent them to her before plugging my phone in for a nights charge.
During the night Brisa lay abeam of the seas producing an uncomfortable motion as oncoming waves slapped at her sides. I did not cherish the idea of another sleepless night. I needed a sail aft to hold her steady in the winds. Since I did not have one I improvised. Loosening the mainsail ties I raised the main three feet, enough for the wind to catch and force the bow around to windward. Beat, I crawled back into bed. Lying there I tried to ignore the jangle of the loose glides chattering in the mast channel. It was no good. Pondering a solution until I had it worked out in my mind I crawled out of the sack again and braving the chill wind passed a line over the lowest glide and cinched it down giving the short main a tight luff. This seemed to do the trick and as I crawled back into bed I smiled peacefully anticipating the good nights sleep that lay before me. It was then I noticed the rhythmic knocking.
The top drop board in the companionway fit loosely in its channel and the rocking seas set it to tapping relentlessly. In the mish mash of the other noises it seemed inconsequential but once isolated it approached the beating of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous Tell Tale heart in intensity. A wry smile on my face I dragged myself from my warm bed and taking the wire from a USB charger I jammed it in the channel. Voila, noise gone. Climbing back into bed I congratulated myself on the small victory; Brisa, nose to the wind, rocked peacefully and quietly. I quickly fell asleep.
I woke to a phone nearly dead. My portable starter battery no longer held a charge strong enough to charge it. I had juice for one last phone call. Without a motor it was unlikely I could make the full one-mile journey up the Branford River to the Dutch Wharf Marina by sail alone. I would need the phone to call Sam the boat yard manager and request assistance for the last half-mile or so. My alternate plan was to sail as far up the Branford River as far as possible then switch to motor for the short leg of the journey where I knew there’d be no wind, then return to sail for the final approach.
Starting early I tacked around the Duck Island’s breakwater and headed southwest into steep four-foot rollers. My rhumb line was 2790 but on a starboard tack all I could pull was 2300. Still it brought Falkner Island ever closer. Brisa only had to close the six nautical miles to Falkner to put us in our own backyard so to speak. Falkner Island can be passed to either its north or south side but the more direct line is to the north hugging the Connecticut coastline. After nearly eight miles and with Falkner now less than three nautical miles to Brisa’s aft quarter I pulled a port tack back to a NNW bearing of 3300. Not quite due north but close. My next Starboard tack took me straight at Falkner Island’s northern tip but at a bearing of now only 2050, the wind was shifting south. Brisa and I were working in tandem and I realized for the first time I knew what I was doing. I was sailing and doing it well.
With each port tack Brisa headed more and more west. Passing the Thimble Islands on a bearing of 2850 I felt certain I was only one or two more tacks away from making Branford Cove’s entry. Funny thing was my backyard looked unfamiliar. Was the air too clear? Was I too fatigued? At one point I feared we had passed Branford Cove. I forced myself to read the buoys and work the chart. As it was, I over sailed my normal entrance and wound up entering Branford Cove west of Taunton rock.
Steering with my foot to keep Brisa from unintended gibes on her lazy wing and wing journey up the channel I worked furiously to pour the last of the oil into the motor. Calling Sam next I was dismayed to hear his cell ring and ring. Finally he picked up answering only, “Sam.” Explaining my situation I asked if he could send the launch to get me that last little bit home but the boatyard’s launch was out of the water. Sam scrambled to find another boat to use and I went back to sailing. Abandoning my downwind run I made the big turn westward heading into the sheltered leg and the windless waters of Branford River. Pulling the jib to starboard hoping to take advantage of any wind in the narrow channel I grab the motor’s starter rope. The motor jumped to life on the second pull and we began to move through the windless stretch. It was, “the moment,” either the motor would run long enough to see me through the bad stretch or I’d have to throw out the anchor and wait for a tow. Ahead, a small blue and white boat turned the corner towards me. As it approached I saw Dave, Dutch Wharf’s rigging specialist and Bob their electrician. I put the motor in neutral and accepted the tow home. Honestly though, I think I would have made it.
Dockside was reached at 2:30. Voyage over.
A few thoughts on the experience, clearly I could benefit from more formal training in sailing. I am sure there are many time-honored traditions designed to keep boat and crew safe. Learning as I do through these near death experiences is risky business. From now on it’s at least one sails up, always, and no sailing before gearing up. My original attire was t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops–not anymore.
I play golf to have fun. I sail to feel alive. One thing I noticed while making such a long trip is I felt better with each day that passed. There is a rhythm to sailing that fits my body’s rhythm but it takes a few days to reveal it. By journey’s end I felt better than I’ve felt in a long time, no aches, no pain and much stronger physically. Calluses lay across my palms and fingers. Note to self; buy sailing gloves.
I ate right because of the food I provisioned. I lost eight pounds on this trip. Also, most nights I was in bed by 8pm and sacked out by 8:30 and slept soundly until 6am or later –a full ten hours of sleep.
Solo sailing is work, especially in a small boat like Brisa. Each tack is a grunt as I climb from low side to high to haul in the jib sheet while maintaining steerage. I call sailing “boat yoga” because of all the unusual positions you find yourself in. Mostly though I think it’s the rhythm and routine of each day. I usually started sailing around 7 or 7:30 in the morning until around 4 four in the evening
when I anchored or moored. There’s a routine to securing the boat and getting the bed ready and it all reverse’s in the morning. It has a natural feel to it. There are few creature comforts aboard and I miss none of them. My ten days were an experience for several reasons but it will not be the close brushes with disaster I’ll remember. It’s how much in tune I felt.