Stupid Sailor Tricks!
I gave you a story last week but here''s another. If you sail long enough and are lucky enough to survive, it''s easy to build up a lot of these boneheaded stories. When I was growing up, we kept our boats at the eastern end of Long Island Sound. Our sailing season typically began in May or so and typically the last sail of the season was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. There was a reason for this particular day. Most insurance policies of the era called for boats to de-commissioned on Long Island Sound by November 1. For a small fee, a rider could be purchased that allowed you to sail until the last day in November so Saturday would be our last day because Sunday we would load up the car with sails and cushions and officially decommission for the year.
Most years that last sail of the year was a blustery, hair raising, shiver-me-timbers kind of event that made good telling when we got back in but was really pretty harsh when we were out there. I have always thought it was a bit like the guys that cut holes in the ice and go in swimming or the guys who lie on burning coals, it was not so great when you are doing it but it builds character and feels so good when you stop.
That was most years, but the last Saturday in November 1964 was unseasonably warm on Long Island Sound. Mom and my brother had decided that they had built enough character the year before. It was just Dad and I this year. When we left the slip it was one of those cool crisp days that one associates with early fall in New England more than November in New York. Over head the sky was a clear and bright blue as it ever gets within the reaches of the New York City Port Authority. It was one of those days where the visibility was so great that you could see things that you were sure must be over the horizon.
In moderate breezes, we set our course broad- reaching, more or less northeast out Long Island Sound. As the day wore on it became increasingly warm and slowly the pile of discarded jackets, then sweaters, and then flannel shirts piled up on the cockpit sole. We lie roasting in our cotton ''thermals'', and flannel lined jeans, basking in a sunlight too warm and too bright for any New Yorker to ever expect, especially at that time of year. Slowly we became lazed and dazed by the sheer comfort of it all.
And we seemed to have Long Island Sound to ourselves. The horizon seemed miraculously empty of moving boats. And there we silently sat, leaning back against cushions placed against the aft cockpit coaming, stretched out along the cockpit seats, legs hanging limply over the jib winch, Dad to port, Me to starboard, steering by the shadow of the shrouds falling on the aft end of the cabin. Not really awake, but certainly not asleep.
After a while we both sat up with a start, as one of the giant nuns that mark the shipping lanes of Long Island Sound drifted by almost unnoticed perhaps a boat length or so abeam. We both mumbled something about that being a close one and we need to keep a better watch, craning our necks to scan the horizon before lying back and declaring everything ''all clear''.
A few minutes later we heard some kind of voices, like a radio in the distance saying something garbled that we later decided was something like, "look out rocks". But it was garbled and sounded very distant. Off to port there were a couple powerboats anchored fishing and we figured they were shouting to each other.
That is until a moment later the boat leaped upward with a giant gnashing, grinding sound. Suddenly very awake, we sat up and realized that we''d hit Execution Rocks. Despite the name it takes a lot of sheer boneheadedness to actually hit Execution Rocks. The Rocks had a rather large and visible lighthouse. It had channel markers front back and on all sides. In fact the mark that we had passed marked the western end of Execution Rocks. And the whip cream on the cherry was the fact that the voice we had heard was the lighthouse tender hailing us with a megaphone. Nice move.
To make matters worse it was an exceptionally high tide and we were moving fast enough that we had actually jumped over a large stone ridge and were floating polite as could be in a little basin with stone walls seemingly on all sides. We dropped sails and began to probe the bottom for a way out. Using the whisker pole and a ridiculously long paddle that we carried solely because somewhere we had decided that we should, we found a narrow gap in the rocks. Slowly we poled and paddled the boat in a half circle until the bow pointed outward. Then we slowly poled and paddled our way through the labyrinth of stone until we were back in deep water and Dad decided it was safe to put the engine in gear. Checking the bilge we raised sail and headed back toward home.
When ''Windrift'' was hauled out the following week, Dad and I drove down to the yard to check out the damage. There on the leading edge of the fin keel was a dimple no bigger than a quarter. And with few mutual sighs of relief, and congratulations on our luck in not doing more damage, we walked for the warmth of the car and headed back to our home in Jersey.