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Old 04-13-2000
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Bruce Caldwell is on a distinguished road
Dream Sailing

Late at night, when my wife is falling asleep in the crook of my arm, I begin sailing.

Leaving the shelter of the small peninsula guarding Flanders Bay from the west wind, I let the sheet run through my hands as the west wind reaches across the salt marsh and fills the sail heeling me over. I snug the sheet fast and bear off across the wider Reeves Bay on a beam reach. I soak in the sun, listening to the whisper of the boat through the water, sensing the dry, salty feel of the sheet in one hand and the smooth varnished tiller in the other.

Coming up to the imaginary line stretching from the red buoys that mark the course east into Peconic Bay, I fall off onto a run, letting the line out and pulling the tiller toward me, centering it again as we come onto the new heading. Past Simmons Point, then Red Cedar Point, I am now charging out into the expanse of Peconic Bay, with the sandy cliffs of Robbins Island ahead in the haze.

Here, in the long jog across the Peconic Bay, I begin thinking out my next course changes: gybing onto a southeast course to pass through the tide rip at the south end of Robbins Island, then bearing up to the northeast to make my way between Jessup Neck to the south and Cedar Beach Point to the north, then due east into the fast tidal current running through Shelter Island Sound, nipping between the ferries crossing the narrow band of swift water, and keeping a close watch for the buoys marking the sharp bend around Mashomack Point.

Rounding the southern point of Robbins Island, the long strand of Jessup Neck seems to float in the distance, with dead trees along the shore mimicking masts of sailboats, as if there were a large anchorage on the other side of the strand. I remember driving out there during the winter, trudging along the trails of the nature preserve until the woodland path opened up onto the beach. Just over the sand dunes, there was a perfect little anchorage in a small inlet with a narrow, winding entrance, a place for my wife and I to explore one day, an anchorage that would be perfect for a leisurely lunch before heading home with the afternoon sea breeze.

Now, however, dreaming of my sail, I continue along the shore of Jessup Neck until I reach its end. Seen dead-on, Jessup Neck is a rounded hillock topped with trees, resembling, in my wife's eyes, a meatloaf. Putting dinner considerations aside, I prepare for the surf over the shoal extending north from Jessup Neck, search for the buoy marking its end, and cut inside, with the surf pushing me along into Noyac Bay.

Instead of sailing into the bay, however, I push along into the sound, the tide adding knots to my speed as the land pinches the water ever narrower. I squirt past the ferry landings and begin picking out the buoys that will see me safely past rocks and sand spits until I've come around Mashomack Point, with all of Gardiners Bay ahead.

Now I should choose—put into Sag Harbor for a rest, or head on out into Gardiners Bay, a vast sailing treasure ground where the Atlantic swells roll in. I choose to keep sailing, making for Montauk at the farthest end of Long Island, scampering through the string of small islands dotting the shoal that trails off the southern tip of Gardiners Island, and finally out into the ocean itself. I take my bearing on the lighthouse on the point of land well beyond the entrance to Lake Montauk, the last place on Long Island where I can put in before crossing the ocean to Block Island, 17 nautical miles away, a trip best left until the next morning.

"What's wrong?" my wife asks. Startled, I say "Nothing, nothing at all." "Ummm, OK—I'm turning over now." "Good night,"I answer. Feeling a little guilty for my solo cruising, I cuddle closer to my wife while her breathing becomes slower and more regular.

The tricky part is coming into a harbor for the first time. Of course, I have to sail in—and the wind is holding well for it. Even though the narrow entrance is partly blocked by a dredger, I can come onto a beam reach and barrel right through the west channel alongside Star Island and out into the protected waters of Lake Montauk, where I let the sheet and tiller go and just drift awhile, gaining my bearings, looking at the shore, and checking my guidebook for a marina with transient slips. I grab a sandwich and a water bottle from the cooler, and idle awhile before lowering sail and motoring to the marina.

The next morning begins with heavy fog, but with the promise that it will soon burn away, I set off to take advantage of the outgoing tide, motoring along and ringing the ship's bell every minute, listening for the bell marking the end of Shagwong Reef. Even though the fog is still thick, the western land breeze is beginning to tease the water's surface, and I raise the sail and ghost along, motorsailing east by northeast, heading for Block Island across oily, lazy swells with the tide boosting me along. The sun begins to penetrate the fog, and the wind is shredding the fog now and then, giving me glimpses of the lumps of land far ahead—an island that so far I have only seen at a distance from the New London ferry and by the island's Web-cam looking out over New Harbor, and which always seems to have a heavy fog or haze lying across its horizon.

The images and sensations of fog turn my mind from its inner voyage to the question of tomorrow's temperature and humidity and whether it will be a good day for varnishing, as I have been counting down the days until I can launch the boat and step the mast. Kirsten's wooden spars have sustained their share of dings and scrapes over her two decades of life, and while most of the varnish is still good, there is a considerable amount of work needed to scrape and sand down some places to the bare wood. I begin a mental inventory of the grades of sandpaper, the brushes and the tack cloth that I had left after finishing the first two coats, and review the problem of how to varnish the wooden mast hoops, which can't be removed from the mast, and wonder again whether I should undertake the complex task of changing the lazyjack rigging and installing topping lifts. I return again to the dream of sailing beyond Montauk Point into the ocean. I worry about Kirsten's ability to handle the ocean swells and storms, the problems of rigging a quick reefing system that could be handled from the cockpit, and wondering whether the weather will be clear enough to have either Montauk Point or Block Island in sight throughout the crossing. Another concern is whether we will be truly at sea, with haze or fog hiding the reassuring images of sand hills and trees and lighthouses floating just above the horizon, like mirages.

With a silent apology to my wife, I finally begin to fall asleep.

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