1996 Sail

It was all so intriguing that we didn't get under way again until late in
the afternoon--after, of course, the obligatory fill-up at the gas dock
(which was to be our last!). Once out of the hurricane gate we were able to raise sails and finally put the motor away. The wind, OF COURSE, was coming from our destination, Cuttyhunk, but it was only twelve miles away and we had plenty of time to tack across the bay to our hearts' content. It had been gloriously gorgeous all day long, but then, guess what, fog, and more fog, blinding fog. For years I had heard George say that he wouldn't want to try to go to Cuttyhunk in the fog; now we were, and we couldn't see shit. The good news was that out in Buzzards Bay we didn't have to worry much over obstructions, and, moreover, being under sail we could hear much
better. The bad news was that outside a harbor area there was no easy trail of buoys to follow, and we really had to depend on the loran, particularly as we neared Cuttyhunk and the treacherous, sudden shores of the Elizabeth Islands. Of course, the fog might burn off. But if it was going to, it would have already, and the closer we got to Cuttyhunk the thicker the fog became. The problem with loran navigation is that for years already we had noted significant anomalies in Buzzards Bay. At a fixed point still near New Bedford I was able to calculate the loran as being close to a mile off both in latitude and longitude. If we know it is off, and know precisely how much, and the amount of error remains consistent, we can use that knowledge to correct our readings and give us a precise position (we had done just that four years previous in finding Woods Hole in a midnight rainstorm). However, as the day wore on and we moved further into the bay, I observed, in careful monitoring of our depth against dead reckoning position on the charts, that the error seemed to be decreasing, particularly in longitude. Therefore it was essential for a safe approach to Cuttyhunk harbor that we first find the "CH" buoy off Nashawena Is land. Shortly after 7 pm, I calculated that we must be either nearing it, or it must be some further distance to the south. We didn't find it when I wanted to, so we continued sailing on a southerly tack, upon which I next hoped we'd find it, but which was also bringing us dangerously close to shore. Just when I was giving up hope and was about to recommend performing meticulous, north-south sweeps along incremental longitudes, George, bless his sensitive ears, picked up a gong off our starboard bow. We followed his ears and were most relieved to finally read the "CH" on the side of a sturdy green contraption sitting contentedly in the pea soup. We hugged it for a few minutes while we saved the damn waypoint, took down the sails, started the motor, and calculated by our known position that the loran was reading 0.07 minutes eastward in longitude and 0.35 minutes (a third of a mile) northward in latitude. We still weren't out of the woods, but at least now I was confident I could use the loran to pinpoint our subsequent
positions on the charts. We did not have a straight shot to the next buoy, so we had to time two different courses. On the way, we were come upon by a larger sailboat who wanted to follow us, then we both overtook another boat being led along by a launch, apparently from Cuttyhunk harbor itself. This flotilla arrived moments later at a mast, a bow, another mast, more bows, and big floating balls. We had come right into a mooring ground and didn't even know it until we were smack in the middle of it! I did not recall moorings outside of the harbor, yet my readings put us still a couple hundred yards east of the harbor entrance. So we motored ever so gingerly west along the barely discernible outline of a shore. And then there was a can, and across from it a red beacon perched on a jetty, and shortly along
some pilings, and other boats, and we were in a slip. I am not particularly fond of hearing the skipper yell, but as I jumped on the dock with a line, I felt more than a tinge of pride when George bellowed out, for all the crews of some two dozen other boats and all Cuttyhunk harbor to hear: "I have the best damn navigator in the world!" Thank you very much. Our good skipper had deceived me, however, for all along he had promised to buy me dinner at the Allen Hotel, the only hotel, only real restaurant, only source of creature comfort on the island of Cuttyhunk. But the hotel was no more (probably because it was attracting too much riff-raff like us). In fact, pretty much nothing was any more, just a spooky, eerily
beautiful thick fog suffusing the black night. And we felt great, like we accomplished something worthwhile just sitting in the cabin safe and alive, shredding your leftover prime rib for sandwiches and washing them down with delicious, in that context, cans of Busch beer. (Actually, George won't drink that crap, but we had Rolling Rocks too.) The next morning we each were able to have breakfast at the one establishment provided for that purpose a pleasant walk down the shore road, but we had to be content with just remembering how lovely and natural this small island is, because the fog seemed to like it more than anyone else. Having come in in the fog, we had no qualms about setting out in it. After all, it's much safer to head from the rocks to the open sea, rather than vice-versa. Our next destination was good old Oak Bluffs, and getting there would entail passage through Quicks Hole. Quicks Hole is another place we
would never have contemplated going in such conditions, but by now we were seasoned, veteran buoy-hunters, and we arrived in Vineyard Sound without a hitch and without a worry. The fog persisted, thick and heavy, with no end in sight--we were growing tired of it, but at the same time accustomed to it. The winds were behind us, but perhaps because I had been telling George the night before of our trip last year to Nantucket and back without using any gas, he allowed us to be satisfied with making less than four knots, particularly since the current was with us, and we floated comfortably up the sound under sail. At one point I was napping on the bow when we passed a gong. We knew where it was, we knew we were going to pass it, and didn't need to go up and identify it. Nevertheless, when I heard it I instinctively sat up and looked for it. Observing this trait, George waited for me to doze off again, then began blowing into his beer bottle to simulate the sound of a horn. But I was in tune, I was not fooled, so I sat up and called back, "I can hear the Latrobe Lighthouse!" That is a good indication of how at ease we both felt by then. Our only source of trepidation was when we were traveling across the chops. Many ferries and other large craft go down those chops into Vineyard Haven, and we could hear those monsters zipping by us, but could never see them. By the time we rounded East Chop, however, the fog finally began to lift somewhat, enough for us to steer visually into Oak Bluffs, into a fine slip by the Wesley Hotel, where the fog was no more, only bright warm sunshine shimmering off the bronze thighs of the younger daughters of Aphrodite who bejewel the esplanade that circles the harbor. It was so good to be there.. George leisurely cleaned the boat while I leisurely did the laundry, reveling in the scenery. After showers and early evening cocktails, we went into town to scare up some dinner. The only place that was not too crowded or not too chi-chi was the Burritoville--as its name indicates, a modest room that mainly purveys fake Mexican food to teenagers, but which also was
featuring a couple dinner specials, one of which was the perfect meal: fish, rice and (real) vegetable. The fish was bluefish with a tangy fruit
salsa, and the vegetable was not your typical two slices of zucchini or tablespoon of peas or cup of cole slaw, but an honest-to-God, generous collection of steamed broccoli. It was the best dinner I had since Cuttyhunk, and the best dinner I would have until the next evening. I got drunk that night, but the bar scene wasn't what it used to be. All those lovely young girls we saw in the day were indeed quite lovely, but apparently too young to drink. The next day we were joined by an old friend of George's (and of your brother's, though she says she never met you). Cheryl is a bubbly and buoyant personality, with an artistically weird but always cheerful sensibility, very outgoing and always having something oddball but friendly to say to everyone she passes by. I call her Trip-and-a-Half. We decided to stay another day because the tides favored an early morning departure and that was long ago, and because it was so damn nice to be there. George and Cheryl rented mopeds while I made an easy hike to Vineyard Haven and back. That evening Cheryl was so glad to be there and to be sailing back with us that she took us out to dinner, to one of the chi-chi places, where I had an arugula salad and a miraculous
striped bass filet (I didn't taste your brother's fish in Provincetown, but nothing could be more succulent than what was served at the Sweet Life Cafe), washed down with a noble Burgundy.
For personal and business reasons, wherever we found ourselves on Friday morning, thence I needed to betake myself by public transportation back to New York City. Had Cheryl not shown up, I'd have had a big dent in my plans, for although the skipper is perfectly capable of sailing around his backyard by his lonesome, to deprive him of the safety of an extra pair of eyes and moral support would have been spiritually reprehensible. But Cheryl was on hand, so I could go my own way. But that meant that our next
sail, to Newport, would be my last of this extraordinary journey, and we must therefore make it a good one. All the elements conspired to make it so. We set off from Oak Bluffs shortly after 9 am, putting us in perfect position to catch the maximum tidal flow down Vineyard Sound. The skies were magnificent. The winds were fresh out of the southwest, strong enough to sail with the mainsail and jib for maximum pointing, leaving us with two tacks, to the south southeast and west northwest. The SSE tack would take us away from our ultimate goal, and also away from the stronger currents on
the north side of the sound. The WNW take would tend to bring us too quickly to shore. But by employing short SSE tacks, then letting the strong current float us several miles at a stretch off of the Elizabeth Islands on the WNW tack, we were able to maintain a loran-indicated boat speed of over eight knots throughout the morning hours--which, as you might suppose, left our esteemed skipper feeling like a greased hog in wet shit. The only fog we saw that day was still hugging the island of Cuttyhunk but never venturing out into our sea lanes. The only hiccup was when George was attending to business in the cabin while I was in charge of Otto and the sheets. There is a submerged shoal extending off of the southwest end of Cuttyhunk called "Sows and Pigs," which the prudent seaman must avoid. I
thought we could cut inside the buoy and still make it safely through, but when the depth sounder fell to twenty I decided to be safe rather than sorry and tacked out. In the process of handling both sheets and ordering Otto around I stepped on Otto's umbilical cord, not enough to disconnect him but enough to lose his set position, and when I beeped him 10 degrees to port to catch more wind, he just kept on going. But I recovered quickly enough, and George was so intent on his bowl that I don't think he even noticed. Ten minutes later, with the "SP" buoy safely aft of the beam, I put us back on the WNW tack, which we maintained all the way, walking on sunshine, to Brenton Reef. It was the finest, smoothest sail ever to Newport. Turning around Newport Neck we found ourselves running for the final approach, so we changed to the genoa and the captain strove mightily to do a wing-and-wing, but it was difficult without a whisker
pole. So we jibed broad reaches around West Island, floating into the pre-sunset harbor past red-sailed and black-masted wooden classics, almost to the very dock, loath to relinquish our sails until the waiting marina owner began losing patience with our shenanigans. One of the things I love best about these extended journeys is how we become thoroughly a part of another world, a world that is circumscribed by the lifelines strung around the Defiant, a world whose experiences and discourse are often incomprehensible and ridiculous to those not immediately part of it. (Many people ask me if I'm ever afraid out on the water. Even though I'm not a swimmer, I never have been afraid, and I think it's because beyond the lifelines is someone else's world; I'm quite content in mine, and the other worlds are no longer entirely real to me--cellular phones notwithstanding.) Over dinner in Oak Bluffs, while contemplating the next day's sail to Newport, I casually mentioned to the skipper that we have a waypoint for Sows and Pigs. George merely nodded in silent approval. But Cheryl, not yet having sailed with us, almost freaked. "What did you just say? WAY - POINT - FOR - SOWS - AND - PIGS? What the
hell are you talking about?!!" You just have to be there. I hope these scrivenings are not too incomprehensible or ridiculous. In any case, please share them with Tom and Irene.
Hoping to see you on the Iron Man cruise, if not before, I remain,
The Navigator