For one week in July, I lived on board my 20-foot catboat Kirsten during a cruise of over 130 miles to Block Island and back. It was my first extended cruise and first offshore passage, and I reaped a wealth of unexpected lessons, experiences, and encounters.
During the trip I became accustomed to a five-knot pace, damp air and clothes, the rocking and gully-whomping of a small boat at sea or in a narrow channel with large powerboats, awkward positions for relieving personal needs, and a self-contained world that shifted perspectives with every change of the wind and current.
Returning to shore was a culture shock. The incredible speed of cars, the overwhelming green of trees and lawns, the unchanging orientation of a house, the humble comfort of a flush toiletall things familiar had become alien during a week of water-borne experiences.
At first, Kirstens slow pace and cramped quarters actually had me envying some of the large powerboaters, and wondering why anyone would choose a sailboat to go any great distance. The envy and self-doubt faded away, however, when the sail was drawing steadily.
Would a powerboater have even seen the Wilsons storm petrels dancing on the waves, or know anything close to the pride and delight of sailing into a harbor? Or the ***** of excitement when a fluttering flag on a buoy or myriad dimples on the face of the water indicate the wind is returning?
Planning and preparations for the trip began in the dead of winter over charts and guidebooks. As I fell asleep at night, I traced the course in my mind, ticking off the points of land rounded, the buoys reached. I studied and practiced reefing and navigation, skills which were rarely needed during daysails.
For experienced cruisers, this short sail across Block Island Sound was just one leg of their annual cruise from Long Island up to Marthas Vineyard and beyond. In Block Islands New Harbor, or Great Salt Pond, hundreds of such cruisers could be found any day of the week at a dock, anchorage, or mooring. Unlike myself, however, most of them had large boats and a crew.
At the start, things did not shape up as Id planned or hoped they would. Id arranged to head out at the same time as a more experienced cruiser, so we could stay close during the passage. But a storm system and land-bound concerns postponed our departures, and we left on different days.
Dark, heavy clouds dominated the sky on the morning of my departure. An even more troubling omen was the discovery of a broken cotter pin on deck. After searching all the gear within reach and determining that no cotter pins were missing, I used binoculars to check the blocks at the top of the mast. It was unclear if a cotter pin was missing from the block supporting the gaff halyard.
Deciding to take a chance that the cotter pin didnt represent a gear failure waiting to happen, I freed the lines and shoved off. The sail was raised, and everything held. But as I sailed around the first point of land into the bays, rain appeared to be pouring down on Robins Island, eight miles away. The weather broadcast spoke of a storm passing through the area, and I put back to dock to wait it out. Later, underway again, I tacked to the east against a headwind until the wind died, and then motored across Great Peconic Bay. As I neared the southern end of Robins Island, the clouds vanished, the sky turned a clear blue, and the wind began blowing from the south.
On a northeastern course, Kirsten made good time toward Jessups Neck. Tightening in the mainsheet to sail close-hauled into Shelter Island Sound, we crossed the mouth of Noyack Bay to the south and then dithered a bit as the wind faltered coming over the hills of North Haven Peninsula. The tidal current carried us into the narrow channel between the peninsula and Shelter Island, and we found a steadier wind to help us through.
Meanwhile, Id been eyeing what looked like another catboat following me into the channel. After crossing the path of the ferries and entering Smith Cove, I let the mainsheet go and waited for the other catboat to catch up, thinking it might be someone I had met last summer at a catboat rendezvous on Shelter Island.
The catboat came alongside, and it was someone new, on a Marshall 22 that had been sailing all the way from Massachusetts. I was heartened by the sight of this venturesome catboat, and we companionably tacked back and forth to go south between Shelter Island and North Haven Peninsula. When we reached the southernmost tip of Shelter Island, Mashomack Point, we waved farewell as he headed for Sag Harbor and I rounded the point and turned north for a downwind sail to Coecles Harbor.
The fellowship among catboaters continued after entering Coecles Harbor. An inflatable buzzed up to follow me and the skipper shouted: "Is that Peter Georgs old boat?" It was indeed, I informed him, although Georg had sold Kirsten over six years ago to the man from whom I had bought her last year. Satisfied, the questioner introduced himself as David MacIntyre, author of a booklet cataloguing the owners and whereabouts of every Mystic 20 catboat ever built, before he buzzed back to a cluster of boats in the anchorage.
The bad omens of the morning were forgotten, canceled by the pleasurable sailing and the good harbingers of the other catboaters. And Coecles Harbor was a peaceful, beautiful body of water.
After a night at a marina slip, I headed out for Montauk Point, about 17 nautical miles away. A cold front coming in, with forecast for gusty offshore winds up to 25 knots, plus a possible thunderstorm, made me forget about the possibility of making straight for Block Island. I decided to keep to my original plan of three legs in the cruise, with Montauk as the point of departure for the final leg to Block Island. I also tucked in a reef before leaving the dock.
The wind and the weather were fine just then, and even with the reef, Kirsten sailed strongly through the harbor. Ducking into the anchorage, I spotted a Mystic 30 sloop. My guess that it was MacIntyres boat was reinforced when an American flag was put out as a signal. Coming alongside, I gybed back and forth to chat a bit more with MacIntyre before heading out into Gardiners Bay.
Gybingwas never something I had felt at ease with, given the 20-foot boom, and MacIntyre noticed. "Sheet in the boom before gybing and it will go easier," he called out.
The wind faded outside the harbor, and after waiting to see if it would spring up from another
direction, I shook out the reef and ghosted along. Soon, however, the wind picked up, and a
gust heeled me over. I lowered sail and put the reef back in, but then the wind shifted to head me, and I lowered sail again to motor around the southern tip of Gardiners Island and its shoals and sand spits.
Once around this string of shoals, I would be facing the open ocean.
The wind continued to pick up, and the water became very rough. Reluctant to try coming about to raise the sail in these conditions, I motored on to Montauk Point, and after several hours, gratefully rounded the breakwater into the calm of Lake Montauk, heading for Snug Harbor Marina.
The southwest wind was still strong, and after banging into a piling, I tied a bow line to the floating dock and a stern line to the windward piling. John, from the Irish Mist, a large powerboat tied up nearby, helped me set out spring lineslines from the pilings to the boat and then to the dockwith enough slack to allow for the tide. In the process of tying up, the stern slammed into another piling. Despite all the wood chips littering the deck, Kirsten showed no damage at all.
Done for the day, I headed for a nearby open-air bar and restaurant. Montauk is a sport-fishing town and ocean-going powerboats are the rule, but one man remembered learning to sail as a teenager on a Beetle Cat in the Great South Bay. One day a strong following wind lifted the boom higher and higher, he recalled, until he felt so nervous he put into a marina and called his father, who berated him: "Havent I always told you to lower the gaff peak a bit when the boom is lifting too high?"
As obvious as that seems, it never would have occurred to me to do that, either; a tip worth storing away for a moment of need.
The next morning, the wind was still strong, but now it was from the north, forecast for 10 to 15 knots, turning easterly in the afternoon. It was already strong in the harbor and I left the reef from the previous day in place. John helped to push me safely away from the pilings so I could motor over to a fuel dock. After topping off the tank with $2.10 of diesel, I headed out of the harbor.
On the way, I noticed a sailboat sitting on the bottom, its deck awash, its mast the only part above the water. Determined not to think in terms of bad omens, I was nevertheless happy to see a Coast Guard cutter among the boats leaving the harbor. After clearing the turbulent waves at the entrance, I raised sail and headed northeast of the shoals toward which all the fishing boats were steaming, and then began making my easting toward Block Island.
The horizon was remarkably clear of haze, and I could see a smear of land in the distanceBlock Island. The sighting relieved me, because heavy fog is common in these waters.
Dark, bulging cloud formations haunted the eastern horizon, and did battle with the clear skies to the west. It must have been a trick of perspective, but Kirsten seemed to sit athwart a line dividing steely gray waters and sky blue waters for most of the passage.
The wind faded, then died, and I began motoring, pleased that the water was not rough at all. Then I realized that I was looking up to see the top of the swell that was rolling toward me.
That one must have been a freak swell, for the others seemed smaller, and Kirsten rode them easily. Not as easily, however, as some small black birds with a white patch at the base of their tail. These little birdsWilsons storm petrelswere fluttering inches above the water and dabbling their feet, then swooping off across the swell to dip their toes elsewhere. They seemed to be a welcoming committee, keeping me company as I neared Block Island.
Sailboats coming from Connecticut and Rhode Island were also converging around me as the Montauk lighthouse diminished in the distance and Block Island increased in size.
About four miles offshore, I noticed that flags attached to buoys were fluttering in a southwest breeze. I raised sail and turned off the engine. Within an hour, we made our grand entrance into New Harbor, entering under sail the way it should be done, and received a thumbs up from the skipper of an outward-bound schooner.
After hours of unlimited horizon, we were now in a narrow channel with fishermen lining a gravel shore just yards away, following a lane of buoys into a harbor crowded with ships.
All my attention until now had been focused on getting to Block Island. Now the immediate issues were whether to dock, moor, or anchor, and when and how to head back. The weather had been ominous on the way out, but except for the leg to Montauk, the sea had been kind. Forecasts for the next several days were not favorable. It would turn out that worse conditions would be unavoidable on the return trip, which nearly went far astray because of navigational oversights.