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Old 08-21-2000
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Bruce Caldwell is on a distinguished road
Navigating from Block Island

 
Enjoying the sunset in Block Island's New Harbor, it's easy to forget planning the trip home all the way through.
 
Completing my first offshore passage to reach Block Island had occupied my dreams and plans for months. Little attention, however, had been paid to what happened after I got to Block Island, and those planning gaps and other wrinkles began showing up almost immediately.

Payne’s Marina on Block Island had assured me that a reservation wouldn’t be necessary in mid-week for a mere 20-foot boat. But upon arrival on Wednesday there were no empty slips at any marina, and boats—including those with reservations—were being rafted four deep or fitted into spaces like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Hailing the harbormaster on channel nine, I learned all the public moorings were also taken. Although I had only anchored once before, with my wife helping at the helm, it now appeared to be the only option, unless I wanted to be part of a boat-sandwich in an overcrowded marina.

Because of my lack of experience, and because I was single-handed, anchoring had been one of the big question marks for me on the cruise. But it was easier than I had anticipated, and I enjoyed peace of mind while I was on shore exploring the island—although I still used the binoculars to check on Kirsten whenever I could.

Navigation on the return trip proved to be the most troublesome aspect of the entire cruise, and for unexpected reasons. Because of the area’s frequent fogs and the likelihood that I would be out of sight of land at some point, I’d prepared by buying a GPS and entering the waypoints. I had also made color photocopies of charts, traced the courses on them, made notes on three-by-five index cards for easy reference and placed them all inside clear plastic covers. But I failed to include a small-scale chart showing the entire region I would be sailing in. Combined with a late change in plans and a slackness in accounting for the tidal current, that oversight came very close to resulting in a very large detour.

Anchoring required a series of impromptu decisions that turned out fine in the end. First, after deciding to anchor, the question became where. The southwest side of the harbor, somewhat sheltered by hills from the predominant southwest winds, was filled with marinas and moorings, leaving the more exposed southeastern sections available for anchoring. The anchorage was crowded, but with Kirsten’s shallow draft of two feet, I was able to head in closer to shore than others, where I found a wide-open space with no boats nearby and a sandy shoreline to leeward.

 
Putting two anchors out helped Kirsten ride out a major wind switch.
 
Leaving the engine in neutral, I dropped the CQR anchor from its roller on the starboard side of the bowsprit, and drifted downwind for what I judged to be seven times the depth of the water plus three feet, since it was low tide. I tied the rode off on the cleat and tugged, pulling the boat forward, feeling the anchor set itself solidly. I looked around the shoreline for range markers, finding a flagpole and a telephone pole. The gap between them didn’t change, so I felt that the anchor was secure. Then I went below for the Danforth anchor.

This was the tricky part. The wind was currently from the southwest, but it could switch to the northeast. I wanted to limit my swinging scope in case more boats anchored nearby, but I also wanted the extra security of a second anchor in the sandy, shell-filled bottom. If the wind shifted to the north, the lee shore would be a rock retaining wall.

Carrying the Danforth and its rode to the port bow, I pulled in the starboard rode, which was stretching out at about a 45-degree angle from the bow, and then dropped the Danforth and let go of the starboard rode. I fed out the scope on the Danforth as we drifted back, then tied it off. Both rodes came taught in a V formation. I settled down in the cockpit to see what happened.

The boat held its position, and I was ready for shore leave. I hailed the Old Port launch on channel 68 for a ride.

At just $2 a trip, which often included stops at other boats throughout the harbor, the water taxi was a bargain because it was both transportation and sightseeing. And it was a negligible expense compared to the $40 a night I would have spent for dockage.

On land, the cabs charge $5 to take one or two people the one mile from the Block Island Boat Basin into town. Compared to the $20 per day for a bicycle, the steep hourly rates for mopeds, and the astronomical price for a rental car, the cabs also seemed like a bargain. When my wife arrived two days later by ferry from Montauk, we took a $30 tour of the island with Patrick, one of the cab drivers, and it was well worth it. We spent over an hour slowly driving along the paved and unpaved roads from one end of the island to the other, with frequent stops to take in the view and Patrick’s commentary.

The first night at anchorage passed calmly enough, with a spectacular sunset, a full view of the Milky Way with reflections of stars floating in the water, and discomfiting sounds from the tiller. I stopped its loud groans with a strap to hold it in place, but I didn’t realize until later that it was also responsible for the noise which sounded remarkably like a woodpecker having its way with Kirsten’s wooden mast.

I awoke to the sounds of a heavy surf. The wind had shifted to the north, raising large waves on Crescent Beach just a few hundred yards away on the other side of an isthmus. Popping up through the open cabin hatch to see if I was nearing the rock wall, I saw that the gap between the flagstaff and telephone pole had nearly vanished. I was closer to the wall, but after a time of observation I realized it was only because the boat had swung around—the anchors were holding.

"Andiamo-amoooo!" Time for breakfast. The repeated bellow of "Andiamo!" ("Let’s go!") could be heard across the harbor at 7 a.m. as the Aldo’s Bakery boat wound its way among the moorings and anchorage to deliver coffee and fresh pastries. The crusty cinnamon twists seem to keep their crispness in the salt air better than the Danish or croissants.

After breakfast I worked on a chafing guard for the anchor rodes, which had crossed over each other in the windshift and were now rubbing against the wire bobstay. I slit a piece of garden hose lengthwise and snapped it around the bobstay—that seemed to resolve the chafing emergency.

The north wind was not just a morning wind. It blew hard from the north for two days and nights, and by the time the winds had shifted back to the southwest, the rodes were twisted around each other and had worked the hose off the bobstay. The rodes were once again rubbing against the bobstay.

The boat, however, was now in its original position when first anchored. It was a simple matter to uncleat the port rode, pass it over the starboard rode, drop it, and retrieve it with the boat hook. Both rodes were now well clear of the bobstay.

After my wife and I had spent Friday together and she had taken the ferry back to Montauk, I began monitoring the weather for the best day to return. The southwest winds were running above 15 knots, sometimes up to 20, and after two days of continuous blowing, the seas would be large. A high- pressure system moving into the area on Sunday raised the hope of a calming influence, although it would also bring a west wind.

During my planning for the cruise, I had considered the return leg as just the reverse of the outbound trip: Montauk, then Shelter Island, then home. But then I learned that most cruisers consider the 33 nautical miles from Shelter Island to Block Island an easy daytrip. This is true if a maximum speed of five knots is maintained. However, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could motorsail to maintain a steady five knots, and I was expecting to average three knots under sail, making a single leg from Shelter Island to Block Island, or vice versa, a longer day at the tiller than I cared for. Nevertheless, while sticking with the plan for three legs out, the idea of making the return trip in just two legs somehow became a settled question in my mind.

Partly, this decision was based on the probability that the return trip would face headwinds, and I would want to motor most of the distance anyway, making it more likely that I could average five knots. The decision was also based on the desire to do as more experienced cruisers do, and to see a different area than I had on the outward-bound leg. Instead of stopping again in Montauk and then Shelter Island’s Coecles Harbor, I would make for Greenport, just north of Shelter Island.


Getting the anchors up and threading through the other boats was easier than anticipated.

At dawn on Sunday, the wind was blowing from the west, as forecast. It would be a long day of motoring. Pulling up the anchors single-handed went much more smoothly than I had expected. My concern was that, with the breeze or current, Kirsten could drift into another boat or onto shore during the time it took to get the anchors up and stowed. Fortunately, she drifted very little, and I was soon motoring through the anchorage toward the channel.

I had waited a short while after low tide before upping anchors, since the outgoing tide in the channel would be against the wind while the incoming tide would be with the wind and, presumably, less rough. This was true for the channel, but not for Block Island Sound.

Outside the channel, the seas were not calm at all. There were steep standing waves at the harbor entrance, and large cresting rollers for some way beyond the shore. Hoping that the seas would be calmer farther out, I put on my safety harness and felt an immediate increase in my comfort level as we plowed on through the waves. A few waves were breaking over the bowsprit—and sweeping through the forward porthole, which I’d neglected to close. Fixing the tiller in place with a strap and unclipping my harness, I dashed below to close the porthole and mop up the water.

Back at the tiller, I lounged against the coaming for the long trip. My arm felt something gritty and sticky, and I realized that the constant wash of waves was depositing a thick layer of salt over everything. It felt like I was inside the glass of a margarita that was being shaken, not stirred.

The roughness of the head seas, which cut Kirsten’s top speed under motor by one knot, made me consider the shorter course toward Montauk instead of Greenport, and, briefly, even heading back to New Harbor for a better day. Another sailboat motoring west did turn about, but then resumed its westward course, perhaps finding the following seas no better than the head seas. Several other sailboats that had also just left Block Island were under sail on a southerly course, which put them nearly parallel to the seas—probably resulting in a very uncomfortable corkscrewing motion. I could do the same to reach toward Montauk, but the tacking required would probably make the trip nearly as long as the one to Greenport.

Deciding to continue on to Greenport under power, I planned to steer slightly north of my first waypoint, which was Cerberus Shoal, some 17 nautical miles west of Block Island. I could have steered straight toward the shoal, however, and still missed it.

The tidal currents in Block Island Sound at high tide can reach 1.6 knots right around Ceberus Shoal, and increase to more than four knots in the Race, between Fishers Island and Little Gull Island, east of Plum Island. I’d looked up the tidal currents in the Eldridge Tide and Pilot beforehand. The currents had proved no problem on the leg from Montauk to Block Island. On the more northerly leg back, however, the currents were stronger, and pushed Kirsten several miles to the north. I didn’t recognize it until it was nearly too late.

As landforms began to appear on the western horizon, I aimed for what I believed to be the channel between the northern tip of Gardiners Island and the south side of Plum Island. This course seemed to disagree with the bearing the GPS was indicating I should take, and I wasn’t sure if the difference was because of an error in the boat’s compass or in the coordinates I had entered for the waypoint. I trusted my visual cues instead. As I neared what I thought was Plum Island, I became confused. It looked much bigger than I remembered, I couldn't find landmarks, and there seemed to be one too many islands.

It began dawning on me that I had mistaken Fishers Island for Plum Island. The large-scale chart I was using didn’t show Fishers Island. Instead of heading for the pass between Plum Island and Gardiners Island, I was heading for the race between Fishers and Plum, where the tidal current would easily sweep me into Long Island Sound.

 
Leaving the Ruins behind, Kirsten has an easy sail into Gardiners Bay at last.
 
Using the binoculars, I picked out Gardiners Island and, to the north of it, the Ruins (an old Army fort later used for bombing practice), and then the buoy, and changed my course. As I neared them, the numbers of large power cruisers crossing my path increased, aggravating the roughness of the water. Finally, after a white knuckle ride, I was past the Ruins and the buoy and into Gardiners Bay, where the water was much calmer.

Two hours later, Kirsten was docked at the Stirling Harbor Marina in Greenport, and my wife drove out to join me at the marina’s swimming pool before having dinner at the restaurant overlooking the harbor.

The next day brought some of the best sailing of the entire cruise. Overnight, the wind had shifted to the east, and the weather was cloudy and comfortably cool. It took two hours of tacking to get around Shelter Island, which had some dead spots and shifty conditions on its western side, but after that it was all fine downwind sailing that ate up the 22 miles to our homeport in Flanders in just five hours.

Along the way, Kirsten collected more than her usual share of compliments from passing boaters, and her skipper didn’t stint on the praise either. She’d managed the entire cruise without a single problem, despite a mysterious broken cotter pin, bad omens, and forbidding weather.

With the cruise completed, I began adjusting to life ashore, and soon found that the adjustment must include plans for getting away again. I could use the tidal currents to my advantage, squirt into Long Island Sound, and hop from port to port along the coast of Connecticut—and this time, plan the return leg as carefully as the outward bound leg.

 

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