“Sometimes it’s just time to go!” Said Rob Lewis at the boatyard, after watching Dad run for months between the truck and the dock, the dock and the barge, the barge and the boat. Between an unexpected deck replacement two months before the departure date, the mast out, a haul out, and various other hours of glueing, planing, and chasing leaks, at some point it was just time to pack all the tools on the boat, and set off, leaving some projects to be done at sea.
So that’s what we did. Midday July 9, we loaded last minute supplies, collected our fourth crew member, and cranked the motor to plow through the mud out of our shallow dock slip and into the great Hudson River, heading south.
The New York skyline is especially majestic from the water, skyscrapers and ferry terminals, new and old butting butts on the crowded streets. We motor sailed the whole way down, riding tides and currents that pulse in and out from the ocean, boosting or stealing your speed. Our mainsail raised helped stabalize the boat and catch any wind that might cross at the right angle.
We fueled across the river from Manhattan in New Jersey, at a busy fuel dock surrounded by a jet ski gang. Women clung to their mens’ backs, and several blared hip hop, as they circled around in the water, revving their engines and squirting water on each other. Somehow didn’t look so tough bobbing around slightly out of control, and the life jackets equally detracted from the steeze.
Then we were moving again, around the bend into the East River, which would spit us into the Long Island sound. Three born and raised New Yorkers on the crew sparked memories and stories of sailing this river, and all the shenanigans that came with it. One thing I can say about these New Yorkers is they sure have some eccentric stories.
Our mast appeared to tickle the underbellies of gigantic bridges connecting the islands of the great wet city to each other and the mainland. The Tappen Zee Bridge, the George Washington, Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queesnborough. As we passed far below the thundering traffic, I asked which was which of my native New Yorkers, receiving in return some history, some toll information, and opinions on the most recent rebuild or renovation. The sun set behind the skyline as we left the city behind.
We passed Long Island for much of the night. It definitely is long…a barrier island much like my familiar Outer banks of North Carolina. In fact, my father said that most of the sand of the OBX came from Long Island, a huge pile pushed and forgotten in New York by glaciers of the last ice age.
I took watch from 8-11pm. There was a sense of calm settling in for the moment. Still some projects to do as we went, but finally all the tools contained within our 37′ world, and finally that world was doing what it was meant to be doing and moving. As I settled into steering, looking ahead for the flashing buoys marking land points and rocks, a full, fat, orange moon lumbered up over the island. A breeze settled in, and I slowly lowered the engine throttle, to see how much we were moving, and finally turned it off. Silence descended over the boat for the first time. We were sailing. The solid boat responding to the pull of wind, the sway of water, and me responding accordingly with the wooden wheel. The moon shone off the mainsail and I felt happy.
I awoke to the engine rumbling. At some point in the night the wind died again. I looked out, expecting my father at the helm, but I saw Peter instead, and was confused. So much happens while you sleep, three whole cycles of people waking and trading watch. I always feel like I want to piece the night back together.
We motored the morning, still passing the end of Long Island, Montauk. Finally out into the Great South Bay, Connecticut and Massachusetts to the North, the Atlantic Ocean to the South, and we set sail. The boat’s motions became more erratic, and my unaccustomed body became a little uneasy, a little sick. Laying down seemed to help. So I rested and half slept until my watch, 11-2am this time, as I asked to switch with Dana. Night is hard for her and I prefer the solitude, a good trade.
There is a little canal that cuts through from the end of Buzzard’s Bay to Cape Cod Bay, the Cape Cod Canal. The only problem, is that if we get there as the tide is rushing out, even our engine will barely be able to push us through. We would have to moor just outside and wait until 6am to catch the rushing current our way.
My watch was the passage up Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts. Keeping red flashing bouys on the right and green ones on the left to stay in the deep channel, I steered nervously clear of big, lit tug boats sharing the road. Dad stayed awake with me to help point out beacons and shallow spots on the chart. As we approached the canal, the lights all seemed to pile on top of each other for my tired eyes, and the current flowing out met the wind waves coming in, stirring up a chop which I curved and surfed as best I could to keep the boat from rolling uncomfortably. But then, as instantly as a passing wave, we tucked in close to land and all was still. The water glassed and slept, the wind held her breathe, and the warmth from the land hit us humid and comforting.
Earlier in the day, I was chatting with Peter, (in preliminary acquaintance before the true test of spending a month together in 400 square feet), and he told me of his daughter who is studying chemistry and olfaction, the sense of smell and its effects on mind and memory. After a day at sea, the smell of land was surprising and intoxicating. And not just that, but I immediately recognized the marshy musk of maritime forest. I flashed a memory of kayaking along coastlines of Live Oaks and Wax Myrtles in the Outer Banks. And even older memories from the two years we lived inland North Carolina in elementary school. I remembered returning to NC as an adult, and feeling at home with the smells, just as I did now.
Lightening flashed inland and a rush of rich, humid air hit us. Is it true that soil bacteria put off an odor right before the rain? Anybody? I remember that smell from thunderstorms in the tropics. A place will stay with you, in hidden corners of the mind (probably that corner right next to your olfactory nerve.)
We motored into the peaceful anchorage and picked up a mooring ball, disturbing a squatting cormorant, who waited until the last minute to pump is way across the water away from us. Mooring balls are one of the simple pleasures I remember from childhood, which meant avoiding the stress of setting an anchor. Just catch the line, tie it to the cleat, and trust that your boat will stay. I wrote as everyone slept and the engine cooled off, and some bird screeched on the small island nearby. I was excited to see the land in the day.
But I slept right through the morning, as we motored through the canal, and well out into the Bay, crossing to Provincetown, the very tip of Cape Cod. Another mooring ball, this one a little more stressful as we approached under sail, and I observed how and when to release the sails with enough speed to come up into the wind and grab the line. Except we missed it and had to use the engine. No big deal but a moment of crankiness.
I had forgotten that it was the middle of summer, and what these East coast beach destinations are like in July. An old town, with a rich maritime history, classic houses, small sailboats in the bay, and streets packed with shirtless, hairy men.
That is, Provincetown is a vacation destination for gay couples, and everything from T-shirts to night clubs, to costumes themed accordingly paraded down Main Street. The effect was overwhelming. Intriguing for a couple days, but I was definitely ready to head out again.
We did some last minute food shopping at the Stop & Shop up the road. One problem was that none of the advertised cab companies would answer to take us back to the boat. So Peter decided to just start pushing the cart. “We’ll bring it back!” He lawyered, and we walked through town to the docks.And then just a fuel and water fill, if we could find the fuel dock just across the harbor through the classic New England fog. The floating dock sat 20 feet below the pier above in the classic New England low tide. Water spigot but no hoses, so we filled jugs and carried them to the tanks. Then turned the prow and sputtered out around the point of Cape Cod and east into the Atlantic, headed for Ireland…we thought.