As the new owner of a catboat, I had a long list of questions about rigging, maintenance, sail handling, and other aspects of boat management. A rendezvous of local Catboat Association members looked like a great place for me to get answers to many of those questions.
The rendezvous, set in the West Neck Harbor of Shelter Island, also looked like a great opportunity for my wife Julie and me to extend our sailing experience and expand our knowledge of the local waters. As it turned out, we got all that we expected and much more.
The trip out to Shelter Island was over 17 nautical miles. An early start would be necessary if we were to meet with everyone at the appointed time of 1:00. Naturally, we were running late and didn't leave the dock until 8:00a.m., after the tide turned and was running against us. But a steady wind from the north helped us make good time on a beam reach nearly the entire distance. By 1:30 p.m. we had spotted the distinctive catboat mastheads poking above the sandy neck of land that encloses West Neck Harbor. After creeping through the narrow channel into the harbor, we saw the boats rafted together and found plenty of helping hands to ease us alongside to tie up.
The next few hours flew by as everyone clambered from one boat to the next, examining and discussing brightwork, rigging, self-steering, and engines, oohing and aahing over cabin layouts and cockpit arrangements, and getting to know each other. Then it was time for a sail, and the raft of catboats quickly dispersed, raised sail, and swarmed out into the Shelter Island Sound, where the tides are pinched between Shelter Island and North Haven Peninsula and the currents flow fast. As we shot out into Smith Cove, some of the rendezvous participants continued on, heading to their home ports to the east with a farewell wave.
The remaining boats luffed up inside Smith Cove for some shouted directions for the next course, and then headed back into the sound, this time beating against the tidal current.
The current must have been close to five knots, because we quickly found ourselves at a standstill—directly in the path of the ferries that run between North Haven and Shelter Island. We were able to make enough headway to get out of the ferries' path by tacking from shore to shore, but even with the engine, the going was infernally slow. By the time we'd clawed up to the entrance to West Neck Harbor, most of the others had dipped down into Noyack Bay and back.
Once inside the harbor again, we lowered sail and followed one of the catboats up the channel to West Neck Bay, a tiny jewel of a place where we were able to tie up to a dock for the night. Our hosts extended their gracious hospitality into their home, and even provided car service to the north ferry so we could cross to Greenport where we had left our car. After dinner, Julie drove home and I returned to the boat to spend the night on board, planning to sail home the next day.
I had never spent the night on the boat alone before, and was unprepared for what I found when I was back on the dock in the small bay. The Milky Way sprawled across the sky amid more stars than I had seen since a long-ago vacation in Maine. The quiet and darkness of the bay were nearly total, and were made even more complete by the slight splashing of a family of swans gliding by, dipping now and then beneath the surface for some morsel of food.
At dawn, with a mist blanketing the water, I broke the stillness by turning on the engine to motor out and catch the tide, which helped cut an hour off the return trip. The solo sail back was full of challenges and delights, including a boisterous romp across a white-capped Great Peconic Bay and the startling sight of a junk-rigged boat with three masts flying red sails.
All this—and more than there is room to share here—in less than two days and 35 nautical miles of travel. It may have started as a rendezvous with fellow catboaters, but it ended with the memories of a multitude of chance encounters, arranged by the forces of the tides and winds.