Stepping foot off the Mystic Whaler for the last time was as uneventful an adventure as the trip from Baltimore to Philadelphia aboard that same schooner. Our friends and ship mates Marie and Dan handed us our measly belongings, walked us to our rented car, hugged us, shook us, and away we went… The End.
(I should note that the captain and cook were so moved by our departure that they couldn’t bring themselves to say goodbye. I should also note that the previous note was facetious.)
The drive to New London from Philly actually took longer than the preparation to get our boat underway. Within 45 minutes of being aboard the S/V Itinerant/Nomad, the boat was completely ready to go mechanically with the only thing left to do being provisioning and washing the Whaler off our bodies. Groceries, propane, water boarded and several excellent showers enjoyed, we slipped the mooring pennants off the bow bollard and sailed off our mooring.
A gentle wind wafted us, aided by the more powerful ebb current, down the Thames River. It was our first downriver sail aboard our own boat in quite some time, though we’d done it so frequently as crew. The ebb turned against us when we tried to head west, up-Sound, and the wind’s light caress revealed its insufficiency. We motor-sailed past Bartlett’s Reef, past Niantic Bay, and entered the Connecticut River.
A few miles in, a bascule bridge allows, by turns, trains and boats to utilize the same scrap of planet. It is ordinarily open, closing only for approaching trains, with a digital board counting down the minutes until the next opening. Something has gone awry with this elegant system, however, and it is, as usual, the human element at fault.
We approached the open area downriver of the bridge, curiously watching two sailboats tack back and forth across the length of the bridge and several other boats, sail and power, turn lazy circles or motor dead slow toward the draw.
When a boat just ahead of us called the bridge tender, as convention and prominent signage suggest they should, they politely requested a bridge opening when convenient. The response: that’s what all these other people want too.
Hmm. Brows raised, we exchanged wry glances and throttled down.
The next word from the bridge tender was this: I can’t open for long, so make a run for it.
We throttled up a little, but the bridge was not moving. After quite some time, with the boats all gathering before the drawbridge as though approaching a race start, the bridge began to rise. We throttled up to our operating speed – 2500 rpm is where we run the engine when we really want to get somewhere – and headed for the opening. The other boats slipped under the canted stretch of train track one after another and we brought up the end of the parade.
Without a murmur of warning from the radio, the bridge started down as the boat in front of us passed. Having no desire to play chicken with a drawbridge, we turned away and throttled down to idle.
I (Dena) glowered at the little house in which the bridge tender sat. “He could have waited another couple of minutes. Or at least given us some warning!”
“No shit! What a dick!”
Silence. After several minutes, it became clear that the countdown clock wasn’t counting. “Do you think I should call to ask about the next opening?”
James was at the helm, which put me in the odd, uncomfortable, slightly exciting position of being the one to make radio calls. I’ve taken the helm, more than once, in order to give James the opportunity to use his excellent radio skills and save myself from air-wave stagefright.
This time, I made the call. “Old Lyme Drawbridge, Old Lyme Drawbridge, Old Lyme Drawbridge, this is the S/V Nomad. Come in, over.” Whew. Got that part right.
I wish I could quote the harangue that flowed from my VHF speaker in reply. There were references to it not being the “old days, when bridges could open anytime”. Angry insistence on the “50 trains scheduled today” blended with threats that he couldn’t be responsible for sailboats that wouldn’t drop their sails and motor through.
I was affronted by his tone, then angered by the suggestion that we were lollygagging because we kept our main up while motoring.
What I didn’t know, and James did, is that this misnamed tender had released the very same flow of bile on a daily basis to thousands of hapless boaters throughout the summer. He was on the quarterdeck and at the helm of the Whaler far, far more often than I.
While James scoffed at this guy and talked about the likelihood that his bosses were inured to complaints after the long summer of abuse, I steamed. His soliloquy lasted a couple long minutes – an extraordinary misuse of a working channel and pathetically limited power. At the end, I wasn’t too enraged to realize that he had failed to give me the one piece of information I was after. This gave me the ability to craft a controlled response.
“Actually. I was just calling to ask for an estimated time of the next opening.”
My ultra-patient tone had the same effect on him that it does on patients in mental wards. I got nothing but nonsense.
After a good fifteen minutes, a train rumbled by and the bridge slowly, reluctantly, even menacingly trundled open. This time, we had loitered closer and passed through immediately. A fierce defiance led us to keep our main up all the way through the miniscule channel leading to Hamburg Cove, necessitating multiple tacks and gybes. But guess what – we’re sailors. We know how to do such things.
We barely had time to pour ourselves medicinal shots of scotch before an inflatable dinghy bearing two people motored up next to us. “Just want to say what a pleasure it was to hear your response to that awful bridge tender. You struck the perfect tone.” Then, the guy quoted me, injured patience and all.
And we all busted up laughing.
Next thing you know, they invited us aboard their center cockpit Cape Dory for drinks and snacks. Several hours of pleasurable story-trading ensued and we rowed back to our boat even more tipsy than we’d left it.
After an entire summer of laying on a mooring in the far-from-pristine waters of the Thames (rhymes with James), the many crustaceans and weedy denizens had found and cuddled up to our hull. Though we had the bottom cleaned once, we knew the best method of large scale defoulization. Fresh water on creatures that live in salt.
We left New London quite precipitously in part because we knew we’d have the leisure time in Hamburg Cove. This leisure included luxuries such as painting all the exterior green (cockpit coaming tops, handrails, and the cabintop rubstrake). We worked a little, played a little, drank a little. And read a lot.
A real, lovely vacation.
Downriver and on to Duck Island Roads. Another place we’ve already been, but the easiest place to meet a couple of new friends.
The very last Full Moon Cruise the Whaler did from New London had only six passengers. Most of the passengers were in less-than-prime physical condition, so Fred and Sue were crucial to the actual operation of the vessel. In classic Whaler fashion, we were shorthanded as a crew, so their might was desperately needed in order to muscle the 800 pound boom, the 300 pound mainsail, and the 500 pound gaff into position to sail. Then we turned around and did it again with the foresail.
Not only did Sue pitch in on the labor, she started and maintained most of the best conversations of the trip. When there are so few people, even a 110′ schooner starts to feel like a very small village. The passengers got along and enjoyed themselves, partly because Fred and Sue are so damn cool.
By the end of that adventure, Fred and I (James) really had become wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of friends. We get it. The happenstances of our lives were so much alike on two different sides of the country – his being NYC, mine Seattle and the West Coast – but parallel in so many ways. We developed a very exclusive mutual respect society.
By the end of the trip, we’d all promised to reconnect with each other. So we rowed ashore in Duck Island Roads (in the town of Westbrook), only 10 minutes from their house in Clinton, with our foul weather boots on in order to beach the boat without getting our feet wet.
It’s not that often that we meet people we have much in common with. We’re a bit of a specialty flavor, you know? And it’s even more rare to have a real connection, a sure, strong, lasting connection. We’re there, with them. Without delving into stories that aren’t ours to tell, we’ll just leave it at that and say we’ll be seeing more of them. Good people, good friends.
When we arrived back at the beach, we discovered that the dinghy had broached in the surf and was full of sand and saltwater to the gunwales. Fred and Sue took the painter in hand and helped us pull the dinghy higher on the beach. We tipped out some water, tugged it higher, tipped more water out, tugged it higher. Wrestled up and emptied out, the dinghy floated but our feet were far from dry. As a matter of fact, we were both drenched to the thighs.
We waved gaily, laughing all the while, reminding them that we would have to move quick and would have no time for goodbyes once launched. Getting underway was a matter of rowing a little boat off a big-surf beach. No easy task.
Like everything we’ve tackled, this was doable. No snooze in the park, and we were a little tipsy…ahem…but we got’er done.
Once aboard, we discovered that the western wind had kicked up big seas that rolled right through Duck Island Roads, treating the three breakwaters as so many sleeping policemen in the path of a Hawaiian 4×4 with a lift kit. The wind and tide conflicted, so we wallowed. The mast swung through a 20 degree arc and we rolled from side to side at the bottom. Everything knocked, click, clacked. Slid free and fell over.
After a short, dreary night’s sleep, we woke to the 5am alarm in order to catch the tide. And it was off to New Haven, to meet my mother.
These three stories represent a very strange change for us. Last summer, we covered far more territory – from Baltimore to Maine – without having any more social contact. This time, a couple strangers, a couple new friends, and a parental unit crowded into one week! Meeting my mom in New Haven was a result of a certification exam for her husband, Harold/Gary, in New Jersey. We originally planned to host them aboard the Whaler, but that option dissipated with our desire to be on that boat.
The favorable current and a light but useful wind got us into and up the river in shockingly good time. We dropped sail and motored up to the Long Wharf Pier, where docking is expensive but no one collects. We decided to pull up just aft of the 91′ Quinnipiac, the prior berth of our Whaler ship mate, Dan.
Rounding up behind the “Quinny”, we had just enough room between her and the local police boat to put our boat plus a few extra feet to spare, staring at the massive transom of that old wooden schooner. I (James) jumped off the starboard rail with stern line in hand while Dena, at the helm, maneuvered S/V Nomad into the tight quarters. When Dena kicked Nomad into reverse, the boat leapt forward as if she were at full throttle so I hanked down a figure eight on the dock cleat and the boat slammed into the dock just forward of the fenders. Dena, at that point, jumped off with bowline in hand and we both just kind of shrugged in each others direction.
We were shocked by the violence of the whole thing, being as though the wind and current were so calm at that point we couldn’t figure out why the boat wouldn’t slow down when we came around. Dena came back aboard after making fast on the bowline and checked the throttle position, sure enough, she was in neutral. Her mystification grew. I noticed after she checked all three positions on the throttle arm (forward, neutral, and reverse) that the flow of water aft of our boat hadn’t changed any, meaning that the boat was stuck in the forward position. Shit!
We shut her down and started thinking about our options. If the transmission had gone out while underway surely we would’ve heard something so we quickly put that idea aside and started from the top on trouble shooting. We first checked the linkage at the throttle handle and everything in the mechanism seemed fine so we then opened up the engine compartment and I buried my body with flashlight in hand in that black-hole-of-doom. There it was, the linkage to the transmission had come loose and the bolt holding the throttle cable to the transmission control-arm had shaken free and fallen in the bilge, gone forever!
Big sigh of relief for both of us! This is not only something that can be fixed, it can be fixed easily with the tools and parts that we have aboard. My only wish is that I had just sat back and enjoyed that aforementioned “quick-fix” for a few minutes before starting the process of quickly-fixing. It would’ve save me a few busted knuckles and a whole vocabulary of screaming obscenities.
…But I didn’t, I immediately went asshole-high back into the nether regions of our boat and proceeded to drop a few more nuts and bolts into the bilge before finally securing a fix that was not so quickly done right.
We met up with Marilyn and Harold soon thereafter and had a great time eating and visiting the Yale campus, including the Art Gallery. It was a great, if short, visit.
Then we left, early in the afternoon, for a short jaunt to the lee of Charles Island. The water is called The Gulf and the nearest port is Milford. We tucked in behind the sometimes-exposed, sometimes-covered spit that connects Charles Island to the mainland at low tide. Of course, we were in calm, protected waters…until the tide went down.
After another more-or-less-restless night due to wave action, we set out for Eaton’s Neck. We hoped to make as much west as we could while the wind was southwest and then turn south when the wind turned west. The plan was good – execution was unpleasant. The wind had kicked up serious chop and we plowed into it, beating, for hours. We quickly consigned Eaton’s Neck to the land of good intentions and resettled our sights on Southport.
Arriving after a rough ride, we wanted to like Southport. We’d read that there was a municipal dock, but everything looked too manicured and too small to house our boat. We snagged a mooring ball and had lunch while chewing over our options. In the small bit of time we were there, the yacht club’s launch made two trips, clarifying the unlikelihood that no one would notice that we were on their mooring.
So drop that pennant and move on. Norwalk, which you may remember from last year, has the dubious honor of being the place we hauled out after being hit by the boat in NJ. It’s an armpit of a town – useful in some ways but not really very pleasant. We rediscovered that fact this time by showing up at the “Norwalk Visitors (sic) Dock” and spending a quiet night before being accosted by the so-called Harbor Master the next morning. He asked us how long we’d been there. We lied. He asked us how long we planned on staying. We lied. He told us it would be a dollar per foot for four more hour and we left, even though a northern front was moving in and pulling the rug out from under the temperature.
When the local fire boat took off moments after we did, moments after testing their siren and lights, we realized that we would have an old Western escort, right out of town. And sure enough, they paced us until we got out of the harbor and removed the mainsail cover, at which point they turned around and headed back in. We didn’t.
Though it was cold, we were well dressed and the east-northeast wind made for perfect sailing. We set up for a broad reach, gybed, went to a dead run with the jib poled opposite the main, then back to a reach down Cold Springs Harbor, Long Island. Lon Guyland. Nu Yawk. A high hill against the small craft advisory and flat water for our ease.
Here we sit, in the multi-colored fall spectacular. Almost at the end of a wonderful summer adventure. Surrounded by wealth, taking part in none of it. Anchored here, we have more right than they. We’ll sleep at peace tonight with the knowledge that no matter where we go, as long as we’re together, we be here.