The Big Apple! Ep. 18

In our last installment, we were just getting underway from Pt. Judith, RI. Oh, how good it felt to leave that place! With a broken engine and having to anchor for three days in their ‘harbor of refuge’, we were all anxious to put some miles under the hull. We chose a nice short hop to nearby Stonington, CT. This would require us to transit through the Watch Hill Passage and into Long Island Sound. We passed Watch Hill, RI just at sunset and, sorry, I apologize about this ahead of time, but you’ll have to put up with another sunset shot! This one shows the Watch Hill lighthouse on the right.

The cruising guide assured us that we could get most anything a boater needed in Stonington and plus it had what they simply called ‘atmosphere’ … sounded like the ticket for us! Stonington had a small town charm to it and we greatly enjoyed a stroll through their main street. But, in addition to atmosphere, we needed a grocery store pretty badly and a laundromat and apparently since the guide was written, all those places changed over to quaint little boutiques and cafes, very appropriate for the land-based visitor arriving by car, but not for us. We did have a very informative visit to the Stonington Historical Society, housed in an old stone lighthouse with panoramic views of Fisher’s Island Sound. We also took a long walk to see the Captain Palmer House. Captain Nathaniel Palmer was the discoverer of the Antarctic continent and they had an excellent exhibit and guided tour. I want you to know that I took another superb sunset picture from Stonington harbor, but I’ll hold back from including it! I do want to share with you this next picture, though. To some of you with a sinister mind, you might think we are serving some form of a homemade black and tan beer to Zack! Fear not, we wanted our boys to get a well rounded education on this trip, but serving beer to minors would be taking it too far! We had been having periodic trouble with our not-so-old Nissan outboard engine. During the hour and a half that it served as a tug pushing us into Pt. Judith, it periodically would die and take many, many hard pulls to restart. This happened each time I refilled the tank. It also stranded us for awhile while running up the river to Wakefield, RI to pick up the new engine pump. I had previously tried replacing the spark plug, but that didn’t help. So, in the calmness of the Stonington harbor, Zack and I started investigating further. We removed the fuel tank and poured its contents into a glass jar. To our amazement, it was a nasty looking gray concoction. How the outboard ran at all on this stuff was anyone’s guess. After letting the liquid settle for a few minutes, it neatly separated into water on the bottom and fuel on the top. Ah ha! Now we had found our problem, and learned some science about relative density of liquids, coincidentally a subject we had just covered in a science lab exercise! After more investigation, we found a large quantity of water in the gas jug as well. After separating the gas off, and refilling the tank, the outboard started smoothly and ran like a champ! We were back in business!

Continuing our hunt for a town that might help us with our grocery/laundry conundrum, we pushed on to Mystic, CT, nearly around the corner from Stonington. Some of you may have heard of the Mystic Seaport Museum. After feeling our way through a heavy early morning fog, we wound our way up the Mystic River, passing through one railroad swing bridge. Amtrak runs right along the coast through much of Connecticut and so dealing with railroad bridges becomes pretty common place.

The Mystic River, as you might suspect, is quite narrow. The banks are lined, though, with a shocking number of marinas with power and sailboats bursting out of their copious numbers of slips. We had never before seen so many boats packed into such a tight area! Anchoring was definitely out of the question. Instead, we tied up to a wharf at the Steamboat Inn, just before the second Mystic bridge, and in the heart of the town. What a treat it was to simply walk off the boat and be able to stroll through the town! For the past several days, I had been telling Karen and the boys about the benefit of seeing Mystic Seaport. I explained to them that the last time I was there was 20 years ago with my Dad. We had sailed “Two if by Sea” into this area in 1986, docking at the Seaport courtesy of my old college and rowing mate Sean Bercaw who worked at the Seaport. It had been a long time since I had been in touch with Sean and he had been living in California, so you can imagine my surprise when we ran into him again at the Seaport giving a demonstration on one of the whaling ships! Sean and I rowed in the same 4 man shell at Northwestern and we shared a strong common interest in boats and the sea. He was in between jobs and had decided to return to Mystic, house sit, and work at his old job again for a few months. We had a great visit with him, and he was also kind enough to let us borrow his car for a grocery run and also his laundry machine. I never heard from Karen what the grocery bill was, but I’m sure it was bigger then we ever had on a single grocery run in Bedford!Here’s a picture of us with Sean……

and Caleb carrying a harpoon at the Seaport… mind that tip would ya!

With the refrigerator completely filled to the lid with food, clean clothes, a working main engine and working outboard, we were now quite a force to contend with! What would be our next move? Someplace to slow down! We had been pushing ourselves very hard the last several weeks, and what we really needed was a quite place to anchor and recharge ourselves. We moved just west along the CT shore to Niantic Bay and settled in there for 3 nights. You won’t see any pictures because we didn’t do much! It was quite peaceful, though, with a small beach nearby that gave the boys reason to run off some of their energy.

With our break complete, we started looking at the chart and our timeline to get to New York City and down to the Chesapeake. We realized we needed to start making some decent progress west through Long Island Sound. Any hope of this being a relaxing trip were being dashed! We needed to get moving! Unfortunately, the weather forecast was not helpful. It was supposed to be a day of SW winds at 15-20 knots with gusts to 30. A high off of Bermuda and a low off of Quebec was causing a large rush of wind between the two. Our goal was Port Jefferson, about halfway along the Long Island shore, but it wasn’t to be. We got slammed! With the wind direction, we were ‘hard on the wind’, or ‘close-hauled’ as some called it. For the rest of you, just understand that the boat was heeled way over! The first problem arose when we realized that the seacocks (valves) had not been closed in the galley and berth sinks. With our large heel angle, they were below the waterline, allowing seawater to slowly come in. Yikes, what a mess that was cleaning up the water, one cup full at a time! The next problem was the heavy seas. Since we were inside Long Island Sound, we didn’t have to contend with large ocean swells generated by the winds, but we did have the characteristic short period waves found on large bays and lakes. These are waves that are very close together and they kill your boat speed. Before the boat has time to gain speed from the previous wave impact, it hits another and slows again. With a reduced boat speed through the water, you are even more at the mercy of the wind and waves. In addition, we were taking breaking waves over the bow and huge volumes of water were running down the deck back to the cockpit. It then started raining hard. I sure wish we had not left port! In the middle of these confusing conditions, our boat speed suddenly dropped from 6 knots to 3-4. Zack quickly noticed that the dinghy, despite being on a short towline, had flipped up in the wind and inverted. Thankfully it didn’t have the outboard on it, like in Castine, but due to the shape of its bow, it was submarining below the surface rapidly, pulling with shocking force on the tow lines and acting like a gigantic sea anchor. We hove-to, but this still left us with 3 knots of boatspeed. We couldn’t figure out how to get the dinghy close enough and at the right angle to reach it and flip it back over. We tried using the boathook and extra lines, but that proved too risking for either losing gear or someone overboard. Karen came up with a great idea of using a halyard. After much struggling to attach it to the side of the dinghy, and after overcoming the suction force of the air trapped under the dinghy, it raised up and with a push with the boathook, it was back upright again. At this point, we had had enough. The winds were peaking at 30 knots, we weren’t making our course to Port Jefferson, the boat was wet below from taking water through the dorade vents and the sinks. We needed to find a port quickly. We headed on a beam reach to New Haven, CT. This was a much more comfortable angle to sail and we accelerated to 8 knots under reefed jib and main. New Haven is a large commercial harbor and had a few options for anchoring. After navigating pass the breakwaters at the entrance, the harbor was like another world completely. The water was relatively calm, the wind had dropped to an amiable 10-15 knots and a local charter schooner was taking people on a seemingly pleasant, leisurely afternoon sail! If you hadn’t been outside of the harbor confines, you would have had no idea the maelstrom we had been through! What a relief it was to anchor and start drying out the boat. The sun even broke through later in the afternoon. The boys and I went exploring ashore, but this was a big city, nothing like the charming New England coastal towns we had become accustomed to. On the next day, the weather forecast was still SW winds gusty to 30 knots and a small craft advisory was still in effect. This time we were staying put, even though the harbor was a tranquil pond with just a breath of air across the water. How deceptive it can be to sit in a harbor! We explored further ashore this time, taking a taxi into downtown New Haven. This would prove to be a good indoctrination for New York City as there were cars and people everywhere. I-95 runs right through the city and we heard the rush of cars throughout the day and night. While in the city, we took a walking tour of Yale University. It is never too early to get your kids motivated about college! As you can see from their expressions, they were a little exhausted from the day of exploring. They’ll have to get a little more excitement in them if they ever want to befriend the coeds, like the pair seen walking by!

The next day was forecasted to be moderate westerly winds and no small craft advisory, and the favorable westerly currents started at 5:30am, so it was at that time that we weighed anchor and motored out of the New Haven harbor. We aimed to get as close to New York City as we could, weather and boat speed permitting. And did we ever make progress! It looked like we would get to Little Neck Bay, right where the Long Island Sound ends and the East River through the city begins, but we were getting help from a 1/2 to 1 knot current all morning and a fresh NW wind that created one of the most splendid sailing days we’ve had on the trip so far. We had learned from our previous mistakes. We didn’t head out when high winds and seas were forecasted, we made sure all seacocks were closed before heeling over, we came up with a plan to seal the dorade vents tighter, and we secured the dinghy tow lines closer. We weren’t going to make the same mistake twice! This all resulted in a very pleasant morning sail and by noon we were at the eastern entrance to the East River. This river is notorious among boaters for severe conditions. At the middle of its course, the waters divide between the East River and the Harlem River at a place called Hell Gate. Check out the posted chart for details. Here the current can run 7-8 knots and swirl you in directions you don’t want to go, like into a large powerboat blasting its way through, or into the adjacent seawall. The best time to transit the river is during a slight counter current initially so that when you arrive at Hell Gate, the current is slack and then gradually helping you down the river to NY harbor. We were about 2 hours after this preferred time. We would get current helping us through the entire course, including Hell Gate, but if we ran into trouble or needed to stop our progress, our engine would likely be unable to perform the task. But we were so close to getting to the city that we decided to roll the dice. What the heck! Wow, what a sleigh ride it was! In the middle of Hell Gate, we were making 11.3 knots over the ground. Take a look at our GPS!

Our risk taking proved worthwhile as we made it to Battery Point faster then we could have imagined and the anxiety began to diminish. We were in New York City!! The captain was happy!

We had thought life would be easy after the East River, but if you have ever been on a boat in NY harbor, you’ll understand when I say that the main harbor is blizzard of activity — on water, on the waterfront and in the air. There was stuff happening everywhere and it was hard to stay focussed. At Battery Point, the Staten Island ferries run in and out with great speed. There are helicopters landing and taking off all around you, and a host of large powerboats and tugs, as well as USCG armed security boats waiting for you to slip up and come too close to their security zones. We successfully made it past all of this and turned up the Hudson River for a gradually quieter 6 mile run to the city operated 79th St Marina. Here we found a mooring and a relatively secure dinghy dock — all that we needed for a jumping off point to see the Big Apple. We had made it to one of our key milestones on the trip. We’ll fill you on how it all turned out in our next installment!

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