Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blogging from Patmos

So here I am, in the historical present, on my island, like St John, shown above. Substitute a laptop for the tablet and you have me, to the life.

St John, however, used his island time to better effect than I did. I didn't see the new heaven and the new earth, much as I would like to.

On the other hand, the old heaven and the old earth have much to recommend them, and of those, as well as the old sea, I saw plenty.

Ate well, mostly from the old sea's abundance, and saw more of my kids than I usually see during the busy weeks of what we call, with bitter humor, "normal life." Played some music on the island's old piano and even older reed organ. Took the Scapegrace out for a few day-sails -- once with my brother and sister-in-law, once with Mrs Odysseus, once by myself.

Happy pleasant tranquil times are hard to write about, and hard to make interesting. The outboard-motor subplot advanced a bit during these Arcadian days, but perhaps I'll leave that for another post.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day 16, and the following night: Odysseus reaches Ithaca

Day 16 dawned bright and clear. Wind very light but steady and the Scapegrace would steer herself again.

About noon a tiny colorful bird came unexpectedly fluttering out of nowhere and landed, obviously dead-tired and miles from anywhere, on the Scapegrace's foredeck. I tried to take pictures of him, or her, not very successfully:

(More at flickr.)

Friends of mine who are strong in birdlore tried to identify this bold sojourner, but the sages were somewhat divided:

"A Blackburnian Warbler in fall plumage? Note the streaking and the wingbars."

"G. thinks it is a Magnolia but I think she's wrong (fall plumage is duller)."

"Or perhaps a Blackpoll?"

Since I can't tell one bird from another, it was nice to see the sages puzzled too.

Whatever his race and nation, birdie stayed on my deck for an hour and a half or so, then took wing and fluttered stoutly off southward. I wished him -- or her -- the very best of luck.

The pleasant sunny day passed without incident, apart from a gruesome Gothic floating snag that I nearly hit. A whole tree trunk, twenty feet long or so, with a limb stretching up into the air and a congeries of gnarly knotted branches that looked like a grasping ghoulish hand. Kinda reminded me of my first landlord in New York -- a chap who was actually, I kid you not, struck down by a cerebral haemorrhage at sunset on Yom Kippur.

Oh and I ran over a seal -- at least, I think I did. There was a thump on the hull and I looked around and saw, ten feet astern, the seal's sleek little round head pop up, and I swear to you he glared at me, then indulged himself in the kind of rueful "what are they thinking of" headshake that I reserve for drivers who try to bully me out of a crosswalk in New York.

As dusk fell, I entered the Anonymascott River, the last leg of my journey. (I was bound for a secret island whose name I cannot utter. It's a Masonic thing.)

Now this is Maine. So the wind died and the fog descended with an almost audible thump, so thick you could hardly see past your extended arm, and so damp that the sail and the rigging and my nose dripped, and my glasses fogged up.

It was more or less slack water, so there was no current to fight, and I was very keen to get into a real warm bed, on dry land, next to a wife whom I had begun to consider semi-legendary. I fired up the old engine and went roaring, heedless of rocks and ledges and shelves and reefs, up the black-as-your-hat foggy Anonymascott at six knots or so.

I sorta know these waters -- not like a lobsterman, of course, but I've sailed 'em before. Even so: this was an insane move. It's a miracle I didn't bring the Scapegrace and myself to grief, and sink us both without a trace, a mile or two from Ithaca and Penelope.

For one thing, I nearly ran us smack into a buoy. It's a buoy with a bell, and of course I heard the bell, but directionality at night, in the fog, is uncertain -- and then, oh shit, the damn thing materialized out of the fog, dead ahead, rearing up like a monster in a low-budget horror movie. I flung myself on the tiller and scraped past with maybe a foot to spare, and I swear I could hear the Scapegrace muttering, "Idiot!"

Then of course I mistook the island next to my destination island for the island I wanted, and nearly tore the Scapegrace's keel off on a ledge of adamantine Maine granite -- a very different affair from the soft sand of Billingsgate Island -- before I realized my mistake, twenty feet from disaster.

Finally I found the right channel. It's a narrow twisty one, say thirty feet wide. I groped my way through it and became aware of a soft light ahead -- what could that be? Moonrise? Another boat?

The weather gods must be opera fans. They chose this moment to lift the fog -- whoosh! -- like a scrim, and reveal, through the suddenly crystalline air, the old familiar boathouse, with its homey porch lamp, on the island I sailed all this way to find.


Got the Scapegrace on her mooring at the first try. Closed the hatch any old how. Piled into the dinghy, whose motor miraculously started. Staggered up the boardwalk from the boathouse.

Amazing how hard it is to walk fast on land after two weeks and some on a boat -- I reeled crazily from side to side, like an old gent much the worse for country-club gin. Once actually put a leg over the boardwalk's edge, knee-deep into the mosquitoey muck.

But I knew the way, and though no dogs bothered to turn out, and no swineherds embraced my mucky knees, I soon found myself at the door of the cottage where wife and children slept quietly.

Actually, that's a lie; they were all snoring like sawmills. Not that I minded. A nice noise. Sounded like a Tibetan monastery. I catfooted up the stairs, did off my rank nautical clothing, and snuggled into bed next to Penelope.

She stirred drowsily, murmured complacently, "Oh, there you are!" and went back to sleep.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Day 15, concluded

After my visit from Leviathan, the Scapegrace continued to sail herself while the sun sank and set, and a bright clear moonless night -- did what?

"Ensued"? That's terrible. You can't say "night dawned." Why not? Why isn't there some equivalent? "Night sunsetted". Nope. No good.

You can say "night fell." But that doesn't feel right. I want to say something like "night rose".

Anyway, whatever it did, there it was, after a bit, bright clear and moonless, as I may have mentioned. You could see the Milky Way plain as anything -- an increasingly rare experience. But depressingly, the lights of Portland and its environs washed out almost the entire northwestern quadrant of the sky -- even miles out at sea, as the Scapegrace and I were, too far to see any land at all.

About 9 PM the wind fell and a following sea came up, so the boat would no longer steer herself. I steered by hand for a while, but by 1 AM I was tired, so I hove-to and went into the cabin and slept.

I woke up every hour or so and popped by head abovedecks just to be sure there was no shipping about. But I might as well not have bothered. I had the Gulf of Maine to myself -- me, and the streetlights of Portland.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Day 15: A distinguished visitor

After dropping Ishmael off, and stowing my newly-filled gas can, I took off about 10 am to cross the Gulf of Maine:

This sounds awfully bold; but it wasn't really. The day was warm, the sun was bright, the wind was encouraging but not too exciting, and the weather radio bore nothing but good auguries.

The weather radio proved to be right. About noon I was able to peg the tiller and adjust the sheets -- half an inch makes a difference -- and once I got it right, the Scapegrace sailed herself, on a course ever so slightly east of the ideal but certainly close enough. I took a long-overdue shower on the foredeck with lukewarm water from my solar shower, a funky little plastic bag that heats up a gallon or so of water when the sun is shining, and then I went below to potter and, well, to be honest, I took a nap.

Sailboats, in their own quiet way, are rather noisy, and you don't always know where the noise is coming from. Pocketaqueek -- pocketaqueek -- the 'pocket' you know is the rigging, and the 'a' is the rudder post thumping in its poorly-bushed tube; but what the hell is queek?

You never find out, but even queek you get used to. What you are not expecting is an immense unprecedented noise like God clearing his throat: a-HEMMMM!

Just such a noise jarred me like an electric shock out of my nap and sent me scrambling, faster than I would have thought I could move, up into the cockpit. What in the name of all that's holy...?!

Nothing. Nothing unusual on the boat, nothing on the horizon, nothing nearby -- no boats, no change in the weather. Nothing. Sun still shining, wind where it was, Scapegrace sailing herself as sweet as you could wish.

I was starting to think I had dreamed it. But then, just off the starboard rail, the water surged and boiled, like I remember water doing below hydroelectric dams in Kentucky, where I grew up, and a vast dark something broke the surface.

"Vast dark something" is a little melodramatic. Oh, it's accurate enough. But the odd fact is, I never had a microsecond's doubt what it was. I didn't think it was an uncharted sandbar or a log or a submarine. I knew instantly, the way I would have known my best friend's face, that it was a whale -- five, six feet away; I could have touched him with the boat pole, if I had had the boat pole, and if I were ill-bred enough to do such a thing.

Funny how an animal knows an animal instantly. We must be wired for it, on some subcortical level. Not only did I know immediately that this was another animal -- somehow I also knew he meant me no harm.

I suppose, in retrospect, that he must have been surprised to see a sailboat scudding along with nobody on deck, and he came over to check it out.

He -- or she; who knows? -- was a beautiful animal, the deep deep brown that might as well be black, smooth, glossy in the bright sun, with an absurdly tiny sickle-shaped dorsal fin.

I could only see his or her back; his head and tail were submerged -- but what I could see, above water, was quite a bit longer than my little boat.

He or she swam idly along next to me for a few seconds, then exhaled again -- whoosh!

That was the sound I had heard, the sound that bounced me out of my bunk and sent me on deck with pulses pounding.

This second exhalation seemed to have a slightly humorous character -- a hint of a Leviathan laugh. Not an unkind laugh, but a laugh expressing the unfathomable mirth of a mighty creature at a joke you and I could never share.

And then he dove -- or I guess "sounded" is the right word -- and I saw him no more. But I will see him in my dreams until the day I die.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Day 15, continued: The sacredness of the stranger

Ishmael and I raised the Rockport harbormaster on VHF -- he answered promptly and crisply, and gave us nice clear directions to the town float.

Once we were there, it turned out that the train station -- where Ishamel needed to go -- was miles away from the harbor. But the harbormaster, Scott Story, piled us into his truck and dropped Ishmael at the train station and then took a detour to let me fill up a jerrican of gas.

Perhaps I am becoming tedious on the topic of how kind and helpful to each other boating folks are. I wonder whether it's not a survival, in the suspicious self-interested bourgeois modern world, of something quite ancient: the sacredness of the suppliant stranger, a matter in which the father of the gods himself is said to take a keen interest, as in the case of Baucis and Philemon, shown below:

As Ovid sets it up --

Iuppiter huc specie mortali cumque parente
venit Atlantiades positis caducifer alis.
Mille domos adiere locum requiemque petentes,
mille domos clausere serae. Tamen una recepit,
parva quidem, stipulis et canna tecta palustri;
sed pia Baucis anus parilique aetate Philemon
illa sunt annis iuncti iuvenalibus, illa
consenuere casa paupertatemque fatendo
effecere levem nec iniqua mente ferendo.
Nec refert, dominos illic famulosne requiras:
tota domus duo sunt, idem parentque iubentque.
Ergo ubi caelicolae parvos tetigere penates
submissoque humiles intrarunt vertice postes,
membra senex posito iussit relevare sedili,
quo superiniecit textum rude sedula Baucis.
Inque foco tepidum cinerem dimovit et ignes
suscitat hesternos foliisque et cortice sicco
nutrit et ad flammas anima producit anili.

Golding's Elizabethan version:

The mightie Jove and Mercurie his sonne in shape of men
Resorted thither on a tyme. A thousand houses when
For roome to lodge in they had sought, a thousand houses bard
Theyr doores against them. Nerethelesse one Cotage afterward
Receyved them, and that was but a pelting one in deede.
The roofe thereof was thatched all with straw and fennish reede.
Howbee't two honest auncient folke, (of whom she Baucis hight
And he Philemon) in that Cote theyr fayth in youth had plight:
And in that Cote had spent theyr age. And for they paciently
Did beare theyr simple povertie, they made it light thereby,
And shewed it no thing to bee repyned at at all.
It skilles not whether there for Hyndes or Maister you doo call,
For all the household were but two: and both of them obeyde,
And both commaunded. When the Gods at this same Cotage staid,
And ducking downe their heads, within the low made Wicket came,
Philemon bringing ech a stoole, bade rest upon the same
Their limmes: and busie Baucis brought them cuishons homely geere.
Which done, the embers on the harth she gan abrode to steere,
And laid the coales togither that were raakt up over night,
And with the brands and dried leaves did make them gather might,
And with the blowing of hir mouth did make them kindle bright.
Baucis and Philemon's hospitality was recognized and rewarded by the gods, and so I hope will Scott Story's be. He wasn't the first and wasn't to be the last who received this suppliant stranger hospitably -- in fact the most remarkable story in this line is yet to come -- but if my invocations can catch any divine ear, may all of them be at least as kindly treated by the gods as they treated me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Day 15: Solus rex, again

Ishmael and I both awoke early on Day 15, drank our coffee, and took counsel. Ishmael had concluded, during the wise hours of unconsciousness, that he ought to go do his cousinly duty, and though I was sorry to lose his company so soon, it seemed like the right choice to me too.

Day 15 had dawned beautiful and clear and crisp -- a little bracing, with what felt like an anticipatory touch of fall in the air, though it was only mid-August. We got the anchors up and then motored, with a bit of help from the jib(*), through Milk Island Channel and into Rockport Harbor.

(Does anybody know, by the way, why there are two practically identical Cape Ann lighthouses?)

One regrettable thing about the Cape Ann lights is that they are said to have preserved the life of that bloodthirsty monster, President Woodrow Wilson, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, along with Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, and the current Bombdropper-In-Chief:

Among the many lives potentially saved by the Cape Ann Light Station on Thacher Island is that of President Woodrow Wilson. After the Versailles Peace Conference that officially ended WWI, President Wilson was cruising home aboard the passenger liner America, when it was caught in blinding fog. Had its crew not heard the blast of Cape Ann’s foghorn and made an emergency course correction, the America would have smashed onto the island’s rocky shore.
Usually I'm quite grateful for navaids but this story kinda makes me wonder.

I will leave the much pleasanter topic of Rockport for another post.


(*) The roller furler was mysteriously working again. I hadn't done anything do it, other than dousing the sail and hoisting it again. Sometimes, of course, that's all it takes -- the jib gods just want a little respect. In this case the story proved to be a little more interesting, but we will get to that in its proper place.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Day 14: Farewell to Cape Cod

Normally I love to sleep late. But I had a looming deadline. My family were going to show up in Maine in just a few days, and I had already spent two weeks creeping along the coast. I was eager to get under way, and so I woke -- uncharacteristically -- at dawn on Day 14.

Ishamel and I had discussed my battery problem the previous evening. I haven't mentioned it before. The problem was that the navigation lights wouldn't burn all night on battery power. Was the battery bad? Was the motor not charging it up properly when it ran?

Ishmael and I were both inclined to blame the battery, and we had mooted the idea of going back into Provincetown in the morning -- there is a great and well-stocked chandlery there -- and buying a new battery. (Hey, it's only money).

I was tempted, but I also wanted to get going. So while Ishmael slept -- and he snores like a buzz-saw, let me tell you -- I quietly made my coffee, and recovered the anchors, and made our escape from Provincetown.

The Pilgrim Monument was just a nick on the horizon when Ishmael awoke. He took the helm while I made some more coffee, and then like a stalwart fellow he kept the helm through a very lively day, crossing Massachusetts Bay from Provincetown to Cape Ann:

The wind was brisk, from the north-northeast, and we were quite close-hauled to weather Cape Ann. A stiff sharp swell had built up, sending spray over our bow with each sea. But Ishmael has a light steady hand on the helm, and kept us going where we were supposed to go, and seemed to be enjoying himself, so I very gratefully left him to it. I updated the log and pottered away in the cabin -- there is always something to do, on a boat. This observation may already have been made.

About midday we sighted some whales, maybe a half-mile or so away, leaping out of the water and blowing spectacular brilliant white plumes of vapor. Ishmael knows one whale from another, but we were too far away for him to discern what class of whales these were -- but he sus[ected humpbacks. I had never seen whales before, on the water, so this was a red-letter day for me.

As afternoon drew into evening, the wind diminished and the sea became more calm. We soon realized that we weren't going to weather Cape Ann on the starboard tack we'd been on all day, so we decided to anchor somewhere on the south side of the cape.

The place we finally found was a little shallow cove off Emerson Point:

It wasn't a great anchorage -- looked better on the chart than it proved to be in fact. Sheltered only from due north, rocky, narrow. We came in a little close to some nasty-looking rocks just barely submerged, then dropped one anchor and spent the usual fretful ten minutes backing down that anchor line, into deeper water a bit farther from the rocks, before dropping the other.

We drank some of my crummy boat wine and, though I didn't make a note of it at the time, I believe we cooked something to eat. We must have had some fresh food -- I remember that we got a new supply of ice for the cooler in Wellfleet.

Being an old Southern boy, I never feel quite at home unless there's an old grungy blackened cast-iron frying pan somewhere close at hand, and so I have one aboard the Scapegrace:

I think we deployed this household god for dinner, though what we cooked in it is anybody's guess. I'll ask Ishmael next time I see him. Perhaps he will remember. It vexes me when something like this gets lost: the details are everything.

Ishmael's plan was to accompany me all the way to Maine. But after dinner, he got a cell phone call. Family crisis. Cousin in a jam down South. Ishmael wondered whether he needed to cut his sail short and go help out. We kicked the question around inconclusively for half an hour or so, then agreed that we were both dead tired and should defer the matter till tomorrow morning -- there was nothing to be done tonight in any case.

I raised my improvised little anchor light and we turned in.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Day 13: from frustration to fabulosity

Day 13 dawned clear off Barnstable, but there wasn't much wind, and what there was came from the north-northwest. I was pessimistic about getting anywhere, and resigned to spending the day exploring yet another unplanned-for harbor, namely Barnstable. But Ishmael was keen to forge ahead, even if it meant beating tack upon tack up Cape Cod Bay. After all, with two of us, it wouldn't be so difficult. His enthusiasm proved contagious and so we weighed anchor and set off.

Our faith -- well, Ishmael's faith -- was quickly rewarded by a strengthening breeze that also conveniently backed into the west, so we scooted up Cape Cod Bay uneventfully at four knots or so and came coasting into Provincetown harbor and anchored just after dark.

Provincetown is an interesting place. The structure shown above is the Pilgrim Memorial, and if it reminds you a bit of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence, it should -- the latter is below:

Who, I wonder, thought that a knockoff of a mediaeval Italian building, from a time and place steeped in Popery, would be a suitable memorial to the Pilgrims? If any Pilgrim shades should revisit the town, just to check up -- what would they think of this oddball tribute?

They might not be too concerned. They would have other things to scratch their ectoplasmic round heads over. Shopfronts in Provincetown frequently display merchandise like this:

... and there was a very buff chap in the street, wearing a maillot bathing suit and promoting a show by a group called "The Nellies". "You'll eat it right down to the stick!" he promised.

It was kinda nice -- like being back in New York, though not on the upper West Side.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Day 12-13: Pea soup

Ishmael called me around 10 PM. The fog had gathered, wooly and thick, and the air was so wet you couldn't tell whether it was raining or not. There was a barely-perceptible wind, but it was next to impossible to steer -- no reference point except the compass, and in light air the boat takes five minutes to respond to the helm. I relieved Ishmael and he went into the cabin and collapsed in his turn.

I fiddled with the radio and found a religious station, with a preacher engaged in earnest exegesis of the Epistle to the Romans. He had actually read the book and done some hard serious thinking about a hard dense obscure contradictory text. This is a undertaking I admire deeply, and have done a bit of, in my day.

My man knew his Greek, too, and though preachers usually make me groan when they start talking about the "original Greek" or the "original Hebrew", this chap got it right. So I followed his reasoning with pleasure and respect until the aether stopped cooperating and I lost his signal. I don't know quite where he would have ended up, but I was right there with him for a rather intensely focused half hour, which is longer than I can usually stay with NPR before I snort or chortle or say, right out loud, "Thou fool!"

By the time the radio preacher went away, the wind had gone away too. The Scapegrace was, for all practical purposes, adrift -- and so, of course, was I, without my radio preacher to guide me; but I'm used to that. I take my guidance where, and when, I find it.

The wind was more often out of the west than anywhere else, but you couldn't do a damn thing with it. So around midnight I hove-to against what wind there was and went and took a nap.

By 2 AM or so we had drifted almost back to Sesuit, but the wind had come up a bit, and the air was a little less thick, so I popped my bleary head abovedecks and set sail. By 4 AM we had won our way back out of the corner-pocket of Cape Cod Bay to the vicinity of Barnstable, where the wind failed us again. In the faint chalky pre-dawn light I dropped the hook, in twenty feet of water, and went to sleep.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Day Twelve: tedium and terror

There's an old military aphorism to the effect that war is long intervals of tedium interspersed with moments of pure terror. Sailing is a bit like that too. Ishmael and I had our terror early on, as we were leaving Wellfleet harbor.

Wellfleet has a narrow, twisty, but well-buoyed channel, which leads you on a nice conservative course around various obstacles. The trouble is that the buoyed channel leads you the long way around, to the south, and Ishmael and I were quite keen to head north. So we decided to take a shortcut, over what used to be Billingsgate Island and is now a sandbar, exposed only at dead low tide. The Scapegrace only draws four feet of water, and though we hadn't really consulted the tide table -- well, to be honest, we hadn't consulted it at all -- we figured Billingsgate was well submerged. You can see it on the map below, a sinister blur of grey, like a tumor on an MRI:

You can probably see where this is going. It's late afternoon, the sky is overcast, the light has that peculiar coppery color. But then the light gets more and more yellow, the little wavelets just that bit more steep, and Ishamel and I simultaneously decide to check the depth gauge:

6.5 ... 6... 5... 4.5... 4...

... and then there's a gruesome grinding sound, like that noise when they're cleaning your teeth, except four octaves lower, coming right up through hull and deck and shinbones into your very bowels. I look over the side and there's the sand, clearly visible through barely four feet of water, racing along under our keel and grating against it with every little hummock or hillock.

Reader, I hate to boast, but I must say, to my own credit, that I kept my composure. Normally the idea of going aground absolutely unhinges me. But Ishmael is an experienced sailor, so I wasn't on my own. The ground was soft sand, not rock. The nice deep channel that we should have stayed in was maybe a hundred yards away, so if we had to kedge off(*), we could.

As it turned out, after a few more of those horrific gratings and grindings, the depth gauge started to tell a more cheerful story:

5... 5.5... 7... 9... 10.... 17... 25!

We were back in the channel, and from thenceforth followed the buoys with Pharisaic zeal, until we were well out in the bay and even your anxious old Granny would have turned off the depth gauge.

Night fell -- as it is wont to do, every twenty-four hours or so -- and we set a course for Provincetown. Ishamel took the watch and I went down into the vee-berth and collapsed.


(*) Kedge off. You take the anchor in the dinghy and drop it in deeper water at the very end of the anchor line. Then you pull pull pull on the anchor line and with luck, you drag yourself and the boat out into the deeper water. The one time I have had to do this, it actually worked.

Day 12: Into the fog

Ishmael and I spent the first part of Day Twelve running errands: seeking butane tanks for my little gas stove -- they're not as easily found as you might think -- and trying to find a hand drill. I have a battery-operated drill but of course I left the battery on the charger at home when I set sail and anyway, who wants to depend on a battery?

I remember old hand drills from back in the day. I don't mean a downright mediaeval brace-and-bit, like this --

This sort of thing is for people doing high-end cabinetry, or building harpsichords. No, I had in mind a sturdy old pre-electric eggbeater drill, like every home handyman used to have in his garage:

Ishamel and I must have gone to six or seven hardware stores and drew a blank on every one. Finally, at the Tru-Valu in Orleans, Massachusetts -- a store I recommend without reservation to one and all -- we hit the jackpot: more butane cylinders than I could burn in a lifetime of cruising, and a wonderfully earnest clunky heavy Chinese knockoff of the old eggbeater drill.

Some years ago I went looking for a hand plane -- you know what I mean:

... and the best I could do in my local upper west side hardware store was the same kind of slightly approximate imitation of a generations-old First World product. The plane came from India.

I plan to keep the Chinese drill on the boat and the Indian plane at home, lest they fall to quarreling over Tibet.

Ishmael took his van into the garage in Wellfleet, where it lives during the winter, and I sailed the Scapegrace from Sesuit into Wellfeleet harbor, and we set off for Down East in the afternoon.

Day Twelve is not quite over, but I'll leave the rest of it for another entry.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day Eleven: Jack ashore

After my morning coffee in my tranquil slip in Sesuit Harbor, I was able to raise Ishmael on my increasingly squirrelly cell phone. We arranged for him to come from Wellfleet and pick me up.

I was a wee bit worried about this. I know Ishmael from a rather egalitarian setting in New York, and I didn't know what his place in Wellfleet would be like, or how he would feel about putting my smelly greasy gas tanks in his trunk to go fill them up. Will it be a gleaming Lexus, I wondered?

He turned up in an ancient rattletrap van full of unidentifiable junk even greasier than my gas tanks, with holes in the floor and doors held on with string -- well, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. But let's just say my fears regarding the immaculate Lexus were laid to rest.

I had never before set foot on Cape Cod, and I took in the landscape with great interest as we drove back to Wellfleet from Sesuit -- a longer drive than I had expected. I had my nose out the window like some goofy Irish setter, sniffing the air and eyeing the older buildings for subtle differences from the New England vernacular architecture I'm used to.

The landscape is not unlike what the north shore of Long Island must have been before it got so crapped-up, but it's just that little bit farther north, so the trees are slightly gnarlier and the air slightly brisker and there's more of a piney-woods scent in it.

Ishmael's place is the canonical beach house, though it's not actually on the beach. It even has that wonderful thing, an outdoor shower.

Ishmael had some work to do closing up the house, so I tried to lend a hand. I even spent an amazingly sweaty hour or so digging potatoes and onions out of the garden, which reminded me what backbreaking work agriculture is and has always been. Once the potatoes were dug I was very glad to have the outdoor shower.

We ate raw clams freshly-dug somewhere nearby.

Now being an old Southern boy, and only an adopted denizen of the Northeast, I am usually a bit squeamish about uncooked molluscs. But these were utterly delicious, and after bravely slugging down my first one, just to be polite, I had another and another and another... I probably put on more hot sauce than a Real Man would have done, but still: now I know what the fuss is about.

Slept that night at Ishmael's place, first night I've spent ashore since I set off.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Day 11: Ashore on Cape Cod

The monument above -- made of first-class, small-grained dark granite -- commemorates a visitor to Sesuit even more exotic than I was: a manatee, who apparently blundered somehow into the chilly waters of Cape Cod bay last year, causing a local sensation.

Dennis -- as the poor lost critter came to be called, after the town Sesuit is part of -- was duly rescued by a consortium of animal lovers, bundled onto a truck, and driven back to Florida. Alas, he died as soon as he got there.

Not surprising, really -- Florida is where lots of folks go to die.

One wonders whether Dennis would have preferred to die in the water, and not on a truck. I personally would not like to die on a truck, though it seems like tempting fate to say that I would rather die on the water.

I would rather not die at all, actually, thank you very much. Sea gods please take note.

One also wonders whether Dennis really blundered. Was he in fact the Columbus, the Captain Cook, the Henry Hudson of manatees? Do the manatees tell tales, around the ruined kelp beds of Florida, of a great warm sunny bay, with abundant algae and no motorboats, that lies just beyond the chilly ordeal of the northern waters? Were one but bold enough, one might find it. Did Dennis go to seek it? Did three little manatees cheer him on, like a manatee Tamino, with music by some manatee Mozart?

Zum Ziele führt dich diese Bahn,
Doch mußt du, Jüngling, männlich siegen.
Drum höre unsre Lehre an:
Sey standhaft, duldsam, und verschwiegen!

Dies kund zu thun, steht uns nicht an --
Sey standhaft, duldsam, und verschwiegen.
Bedenke dies; sei Manatee -- 
Dann Jüngling wirst du männlich siegen.    
Sorry, but I can't bring myself to print any of the translations I can find of this shivers-down-your-spine bit of Die Zauberflote. The metrical translations are incredibly dismal, and the prose translations lose all connection with the music. I bet Auden's was nice, but I haven't been able to turn it up on the web. Help me out here, somebody.

Here's to Dennis the Manatee, a fellow-mammal, and another crazy venturer into waters where he didn't belong. Sit levis tibi abyssus.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Day 10: Through the armpit of Cape Cod

Having set my sails -- at leisure! -- I made about four knots, with wind and current behind me, up Buzzards Bay to the western end of the Cape Cod Canal:

Since Day Ten happened to be a warm sunny Sunday in August, I was greatly harassed by motorboats, both approaching the canal and especially in it.

I'm sorry to sound like a New Yorker, or something, but... Massachusetts drivers don't seem to improve when they get out of their cars and into a boat. Even when they've got lots of searoom, they come roaring past you at full throttle, ten feet away if that, and knock you around like a bowling pin with their wake. And when they don't have lots of searoom -- as in the narrow confines of the canal -- they never throttle down, in spite of the apparently unenforced signs setting a speed limit.

The wakes of course are much worse in the canal, since they bounce off the sides and revisit you four or five times before the next bathtub-like displacement hull comes shoving its way through the water at fifteen knots and adds its own reverberating wake to the pandemonium of apparently immortal wakes you're already trying to negotiate.

I had hoped to make it through the canal on the last of the flood tide, which sends a robust current roaring from west to east through the canal. I made it, but just barely -- the current had just begun to change and was swirling in sinister eddies and growling on the rocks that line the canal as I squeaked out the east end and into Cape Cod Bay.

I mentioned some days ago that I was planning to pick up a crewman, Ishmael, in Wellfleet, out on the sinewy forearm of Cape Cod. I hadn't really expected to make much more progress today in that direction than Sandwich, at the east end of the canal, but when I emerged into Cape Cod Bay I found a spanking south-southeast breeze and went bowling along on a beam reach, very exhilarating, hitting eight knots occasionally. (The wind was brisk but because I wasn't very far offshore, the water was comparatively flat, a combination the little Scapegrace and I both like very much. Oh and the sun was still shining and the air was warm; even a person who doesn't much like sailing would have liked this.)

For a couple of hours I made great progress and felt very much a peace with the world. But of course it was too good to last.

The wind backed into the east, then the northeast, and got a lot stronger, and the seas came up choppy and harsh, and lead-gray clouds covered the sun, and the temperature dropped twenty degrees. It became clear that I was not going to make it into Wellfleet, which now lay almost dead to windward.

I wanted to furl the jib partway and reef the main, but the dear little roller furler chose this moment to jam, a thing it had never done before. I could furl it partway but then the fitting at the head of the jib wouldn't go any further, and the halyard wrapped around the forestay in a vile ugly corkscrew. I hove-to long enough to reef the main, which eased the boat's motion a bit. But where to go?

A mean drizzling rain had begun to fall, so wiping water off my glasses every minute or so, I squinted at the charts and finally found a tiny little harbor, Sesuit(*) --

... which seemed to have a crinkum-crankum narrow river twisting up a mile or so from the beach. I certainly didn't want to try making my way up this river, which appeared to be about as wide as a Greenwich Village sidewalk, with a sail I couldn't douse, in a lively wind -- and who knows whether there would be a place to moor or anchor anyway? But I figured I could anchor in the angle between the breakwater and the beach and at least ride out this little blow, and maybe figure out what was the matter with the furler.

So that's what I did. And just after I got the hook down, and lowered the jib to check out the furler, a little launch came roaring out of the mouth of the river, very official-looking, and my heart sank. Based on earlier experiences with the New York City police, I had some expectations in place.

Everybody has heard the salesman joke: traveling salesman has a flat tire way out in the country, discovers there's no jack in his trunk. Has to hike along the country road looking for a place to borrow a jack. It's a hot day. he takes off his jacket, then loosens his tie, then rolls up his sleeves, and he starts to think, How's this gonna go? I'm gonna find some hick and he'll want to jerk me around, or charge me some ridiculous amount, or he'll just be so goddam narrow-minded and suspicious he'll sic his dogs on me....

Finally our man arrives on the doorstep of a pretty little rose-covered cottage. He knocks on the door. A dear little rose-cheeked granny answers the door. Perhaps she even has a nice little apple pie, fresh from the oven, in her hand.

Our man stares at her for a long apoplectic moment and then screams, "You can take your fucking jack and shove it up your ass!"

That was more or less the mood I was in.

The little launch throttled back and eased up next to me. There was a chap about my age at the controls. "Do you need assistance?" he shouted.

I explained: trying to get to Wellfleet, couldn't make it, anchored here to sort things out.

"Follow me," he said, "I'll get you on a slip in the harbor."

Have I mentioned before how fond I am of Boat Dudes?

I got the anchor back easily, from the clean sandy bottom off Sesuit, with the jib still lying in a pathetic huddle of sodden laundry on the foredeck. The Sesuit harbormaster -- for it was he; let's call him Stubb -- patiently waited, idling fifty feet abeam.

I motored behind Stubb's launch up the little river I had seen on the chart, which proved to be every bit as narrow as I had feared but a lot prettier, past a waterfront restaurant and a rather imposing chandlery and boatyard, to the municipal marina, where he showed me to a slip. He intimated that the town would like to be paid for it -- $2 a foot, so for me, $52 a night -- but didn't seem very anxious on the subject.

He helped me maneuver the boat into the narrow slip -- always an ungainly process, with a sailboat. Then we chatted a bit.

Stubb is a retired schoolteacher from somewhere inland, whose post-retirement life at the shore now revolves around boats. Not a bad deal, and he's a very likable guy. He wants to do some cruising, but his wife so far is only ready for day-sailing, so we indulged in some comradely musing about how we might talk our respective girls around.

Stubb seemed to think that if Mrs Stubb saw how home-like I've made the Scapegrace, that might go some way to persuading her. I was very aware of the compliment, and pleased by it, but had some private reservations: her standard of homelikeness, I suspected, might be a bit more exigeant than his.

I tried to call Ishmael but my cell phone was then just beginning the last phase of its terminal illness. So I cooked up some of my dehydrated camp food, and showered in the marina's shower, and emptied the porta-potty again. Drank some of my El Cheapo boat wine and went to bed.

Sesuit is a nice quiet harbor and I slept like the proverbial log.


(*)Pronounced, as I later discovered, with the accent on the second syl-LA-ble: Seh-SOO-it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Day 10: A question of technique

Once the tide turned, I recovered my anchors from the vicinity of the hedge-fund Trimalchio's villa, the one with the eleven bathrooms, or whatever it was, on Mishaum Point, and headed up Buzzards Bay with the current and a following wind. Nice bright clear warm day, after the deathly bone-chilling moonlit haze of the previous night -- more Hecate's night than Selene's.

I have been pondering the physics of heaving-to. You can't -- well, I can't, or haven't yet been able to -- do it under jib alone. I seem to need some force from a source other than the jib to bring the bow through the wind and backwind the jib. Normally, of course, this is supplied by the mainsail. Here's how you end up, more or less:

You can see that the jib is trying to do one thing and the rudder is trying to do a different thing. The jib is trying to push the bow off the wind -- counterclockwise in this diagram, or to port. The rudder is trying to do the opposite -- push the bow up into the wind, or to starboard. The jib is stalled -- that is, the airflow over it is turbulent and isn't creating any lift -- and the mainsail isn't getting much wind at all, and what there is, is also turbulent. So the boat makes a very slight forward progress and also sags to leeward -- downwind -- so the net motion is more or less at right angles to the wind, and quite slow -- maybe a knot or so. The motion gets a lot calmer too, for reasons that I don't fully understand but the sages talk learnedly of.

This morning it occurred to me: How about using the motor instead of the mainsail to get the jib up into the wind and then through it? So I motored away from my anchorage, and once I was in reasonably deep water, and well clear of the clutter of islets and ledges and sandbars that litter Buzzards Bay like popcorn in a downscale movie theater, I unfurled the jib with the handy roller-furler and when it was drawing, put the helm down and came right through the eye of the wind and bang, I was hove-to.

I probably could have just shut the motor off at this point, just as I usually let the main luff once the tiller is lashed down, but being a cautious fellow, I just backed the throttle down to idle. The Scapegrace rode as demurely as a debutante -- a lot more demurely, actually, than any debutante I ever knew -- and edged slowly out into the channel, just where I wanted to be, without any help from me.

Now you may be wondering, what is the point of all this? Bear with me for a moment.

When you're sailing alone, the most tiresome, and tedious, and difficult part of the whole business is raising and dousing the mainsail. The jib is easy: there's a roller furler for that. You haul in the furler's halyard, and the jib wraps itself around the forestay and pretends it's not there -- quite effectively. To get it back, you uncleat the halyard and haul on the jib sheet, and hey presto, you have a jib again.

(This idyllic picture was to suffer some disruption later today. But I anticipate.)

So much for the jib. But the mainsail! On the Scapegrace, I have to hook up my harness and creep forward to the mast and heave on the halyard while trying to guide the worn old slugs on the luff of the sail into the little channel where they run on the mast.

(I know, a picture would make this clearer. Sorry.)

This process takes maybe ten minutes, and meanwhile, who's steering the boat, if you're motoring away from your mooring, or anchorage?

You could, of course, raise the main before you leave your mooring or anchorage. But then the wind catches it. It gets a lot more complicated to make to boat go where you want it to. You have the forward motion that you get from the motor, but then you also have leeway -- you're being pushed downwind as well as forward. Figuring out exactly where you're going to be in the next 30 seconds becomes difficult, and if you're in any kind of a tight spot -- with other boats nearby, or a narrow channel to squeak through, or a hull-devouring snaggletoothed rocky shore uncomfortably close under your lee -- why then, you may find yourself experiencing levels of anxiety which at my age I prefer to avoid.

So the discovery that I could heave-to with jib and motor solved a persistent pesky problem. I can motor away from anchor or mooring until I have a comfortable amount of searoom between me and anything I'd rather not hit, then unfurl the jib easily, heave-to, and raise the mainsail at my leisure.

And I really like my leisure.

To be continued.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Day 10: A digression before it starts

A short way up Buzzards Bay from my cold damp anchorage off Dumpling Rocks lies the town of Fairhaven, where back in 1894 or so, old Joshua Slocum, shown above, rebuilt the derelict Spray with his own hands from the keel up, and soon thereafter set out in her to circumnavigate the world, the first solo sailor, as far as we know, ever to do that -- without GPS, without radar, without a depth gauge, without even a chronometer.

But it wasn't enough for old Cap'n Slocum be first of humankind to sail alone around the world. Oh no. He also had to write about it, and he wrote one of the best, maybe the best, book about sailing, ever written -- titled, inevitably and perfectly, Sailing Alone Around The World.

It's never been out of print as far as I know from that day to this, and with good reason. If you haven't read it, stop reading this blog right now and go out and get it. The guy has a prose style to die for, and the way he constructs his narratorial persona would have Proust swooning with envy. And the story he has to tell is endlessly interesting, right down to his cuisine. Here's a sample:

I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895, was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail, and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter. The twelve-o'clock whistles were blowing just as the sloop shot ahead under full sail. A short board was made up the harbor on the port tack, then coming about she stood seaward, with her boom well off to port, and swung past the ferries with lively heels. A photographer on the outer pier at East Boston got a picture of her as she swept by, her flag at the peak throwing its folds clear.

A thrilling pulse beat high in me. My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt that there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood.

I had taken little advice from any one, for I had a right to my own opinions in matters pertaining to the sea. That the best of sailors might do worse than even I alone was borne in upon me not a league from Boston docks, where a great steamship, fully manned, officered, and piloted, lay stranded and broken.

This was the Venetian. She was broken completely in two over a ledge. So in the first hour of my lone voyage I had proof that the Spray could at least do better than this full-handed steamship, for I was already farther on my voyage than she. "Take warning, Spray, and have a care," I uttered aloud to my bark, passing fairylike silently down the bay.

Speaking as a human being, and as a sailor, and as a would-be writer...

I think I'll shut up for a while.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Day 9: Digression: The theory of waterfront property

I awoke early, in my chilly anchorage at the mouth of Buzzards Bay. Had some time to wait before the tide started flowing into the Bay, which I hoped would carry me all the way to the west end of the Cape Cod Canal and, with luck, right through it into Cape Cod Bay.

It had been a damp night as well as a cold one, and the decks and cushions were soaked -- as if someone had been playing a firehose on the boat all night.

After the obligatory caffeine, I got out the binoculars and scanned the shore. Obviously a posh part of the world, especially on Mishaum Point, in the town of Dartmouth, MA. At the very end of the point was a house I tried to take a picture of, but I didn't have a long enough lens and the images I got couldn't do justice to the Pharaonic scale of the thing. Here's the Google satellite image, which may give you some idea:

What the satellite photo doesn't show you is the arrogant bearing of this swaggering, obviously bran-new structure -- the spelling is a little hommage to the Veneering family, in Our Mutual Friend:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.
192 Mishaum Point Road -- for such is the address of this ziggurat, if the Dartmouth town records are to be believed -- dates from 2006. Here's just-the-facts-Maa'm, from the town:

Property Information for 192 Mishaum Point Rd
Property Features  
    * Single Family Residence
    * Year Built: 2006
    * 5 Bedrooms
    * 9 Bathrooms
    * Approximately 19,138 Sq Ft
    * Lot size: 283,576 Sq Ft
    * Stories: 2
    * Rooms: 11
Financial History:

Last sold on 6/25/1992
Last assessed at $18,778,700 on 2009

Previous assessments

    * $18,778,700 on 2009
    * $19,113,500 on 2008
    * $10,115,400 on 2007

Source: Public Records 
This vast overbearing structure apparently occupies part of the site of a former military installation, the Mishaum Point Fire Control Station. Here's what DoD has to say:
The United States acquired the site in 1943 and 1944.... The Army used the site, known as the Mishaum Point Fire Control Station, during World War II as part of the harbor defense of New Bedford. The Army built a battery for two 6-inch guns, barracks, an infirmary, a fire station, a radar operations building, a radar tower, two generator buildings, nine other temporary buildings, and a 40,000-gallon reservoir... In 1960 the 0.14 acre leasehold was terminated. In 1963 the 26.84 acres fee were reported excess to General Services Administration (GSA). GSA conveyed the 26.84 acres fee to Richard S. Perkins, et ux. in November 1964. The site is currently privately owned by several owners. The area is an exclusive beach front residential area.

SITE VISIT: A site visit was conducted on 20 November 1992 by David Larsen and Robert Martin of CENED-PL. They were accompanied by John Barrows, President, Mishaum Point Association (508-994-1042).


a. CON/HTW. CENED suspects that there are two 5000 gallon underground storage tanks (USTs) located inside buried concrete vaults at Battery 210. A third 1000-gallon UST is located near the generator house foundation on the Parker property. The tanks are a potential source of environmental contaminants.

b. OEW. The site was used by DOD as a gun battery. Initially there were two 155mm GPF guns. Upon construction of Battery 210, these guns were removed. Battery 210 consisted of two 6-inch rifled guns mounted on concrete gun emplacements 200 feet apart. Between them, in a concrete structure covered with earth, were powder magazines, shell rooms, compressor rooms, storerooms, a plotting room, a latrine, a circulating water system room, a water cooler room, a power plant, and a muffler gallery. Today Battery 210 has a modern dwelling built on top.

One can only hope a large number of artillery shells were left behind, and that they will spontaneously detonate while I'm passing on my next trip -- at a safe distance offshore, of course. I don't think I'll anchor nearby again. But I will try to have the camera ready, for a change.

* * *

Few waterfront "residences" are quite so grandiose as this 192 Mishaum Point Road. But it's by way of a type specimen.

Sailing the last couple of years along the New England coast, I've come increasingly to feel that the signal I am getting from the houses along the shore is a bit thin. I seldom get any sense of social geography: no sense that various kinds of people are at the shore for various kinds of reasons, no sense that in a given huddle of houses there might be any kind of social complementarity -- the doctor's house, the fisherman's house, the crazy sea-captain's widow's house, the parsonage, the grocer's house, the house with a car up on cinder blocks, the untidy boatyard where some boats are cared for and some have been long abandoned to the elements.

Of course you can't know these things. But there are streetscapes, townscapes, shorescapes, that suggest such stories.

The posh prosperous Northeastern coast seldom does that, I'm sorry to say. The stories it suggests tend to be "hedge fund creep" -- "successful plastic surgeon" -- "partner in a Boston law firm" -- "real estate speculator."

Buildings in general send many messages -- in fact any given building may send many messages. Up The Guelphs. Vikings Go Home. Benedictine Hospitality Here. The Middle Ages Weren't So Bad. Barberini Rule. Delicious Lobster Roll!

But for mile after weary mile of the Northeastern coast, all the buildings send the same message, in more or less loud voices: Waterfront Property. I Cost A Lot Of Money. You Can't Afford Me.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Day Eight, concluding in Buzzards Bay

As I crossed Narragansett Bay, I found myself getting worried about two large container ships, at first barely visible, then plainer and plainer, and of course bigger and bigger.

They both appeared to be on a collision course with me, and I couldn't figure out what they were doing. It's suicide to insist on your theoretical sailboat's right-of-way with these leviathans, so I gybed to get out of their path -- and they promptly changed their own heading, so that I was no better off than before. Gybed back onto the original course, and they were still relentlessly bearing down on me. Were they going into the bay? Crossing it? Their behavior made no sense. Were they trying to run me down?

After a half-hour or so of anxiety, the riddle was solved: These ships were going nowhere. They were anchored, in eighty or ninety feet of water, well outside of Narragansett Bay, and the reason they had appeared to change course so perversely was that the wind and tide were swinging them around at their anchorages.

This was a striking phenomenon of this trip -- how little shipping I saw, compared to last year, and how much of what I did see was parked, awaiting further orders.

My local NPR station had a sort of promo going for a while, asking people to call in with their Uncommon Economic Indicators -- how easy it is to get a cab, how long you have to wait in line at Zabar's lox counter. I guess this was mine: the idle shipping littering the Eastern seaboard.

I glided past these pitiful helpless giants -- to borrow a phrase from the immortal Richard Nixon -- and poke, poke, poked along, past Sakonnet Point and on into the darkness, and finally, to a cold misty moonlit grope, around midnight, among the ledges and rocks of a little cove between Mishaum Point and Dumpling Rocks at the entrance to Buzzards Bay:

Buzzards Bay kept me windbound for about a week last year, on my trip home, so it is a name of fear to me, and its shoreline is rocky and treacherous. The anchorage wasn't all that sheltered, but the weather forecast was unthreatening. I put down my usual belt-and-suspenders two anchors, just in case, and turned in.

The night was uncomfortably cold and damp, so I put on the long johns and piled sleeping bag on sleeping bag and closed every door and hatch I could, and finally, after half an hour, my teeth stopped chattering and I drifted off to sleep.

Day 8: Into Buzzards Bay

Day 8 dawned bright and clear and warm, and I recovered my anchor from the malodorous muck of Point Judith and forged ahead.

Actually, "forged" is a more-than-slight exaggeration. I poked ahead. There was wind to be had, but not much of it. Still, it kept me moving and didn't frighten me, so on balance I was doing pretty well.

Except for the flies.

What's the story with those greenhead beach flies? Unless it's really cold, or blowing like crazy, you will find your boat practically covered with them by ten AM or so, even if you're two or three miles offshore. What's their evolutionary business model? They breed on land, surely -- so why do they fly miles out to sea, seeking their prey? And how does their energy budget support this? There's a lot of water out there and not much to eat -- or so you'd think. How do they make this strategy pay?

Are they looking for dead fish floating in the water, and settle upon my tender thin-skinned ankles as a meager second best? Do they bite whales when they come to surface and blow? Do they bite birds?

This much I can tell you: They bite me, con amore e con brio. And they're not like mosquitoes: they bite within a millisecond after lighting. And maybe I'm more susceptible or allergic or whatever, but after a bite from one of these infernal creatures, I find that the site itches for days. No joke: days.

So I hate them. On days like this, when they swarm thick and lively over my boat, I find myself playing an undignified game of 'gotcha' with 'em. And though they have small brains, and I have a large one -- though I have read Kant, or tried to, and they have not, as far as I know -- it's a depressingly even match.

They don't hold all the cards. They seem to need thin skin. If you wear socks, and slightly Audrey-Hepburn-like gloves that cover your wrists, and a cap to protect your pathetic pink bald spot, you've built the Maginot Line. The skin over your kneecaps is still vulnerable, unless you wear long pants -- and who wants to do that, on a boat, in August? -- but you can keep an eye on it. And the skin behind your knees is thin enough for them, but they can't get to that unless you're standing up.

Then there are chemicals. Bug repellent doesn't repel them -- they laugh at it, and in fact I think it attracts 'em -- but if I manage to spritz one with a direct blast of Deep Woods Off, a product with so much DEET that if Iran were making it, Mr Obama would send the Marines -- if I spritz 'em right on the shnoz with this deadly stuff, they fall stunned to the cockpit sole and thrash around spastically until, with a cruel petty sadistic laugh, I grind them under the sole of my grungy topsiders. Take that, I say, between clenched teeth, you fucking bug. You and your clever proboscis and your razor-like mandibles. Think you're the crown of creation? Think again.

They do have some advantages, though. They're amazingly quick. And they can read your mind. They know when you're getting ready to try something, and they take off at Mach Four a microsecond before you start to move. How do they do that? Credit where it's due.

Much of Day 8 was consumed in this immemorial war of vertebrate and in-. To be continued.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Day 7: Escape from Long Island Sound

Day 7 dawned beautiful and clear, with a nice steady northwesterly breeze. Once I got myself awake and caffeinated, I consulted Eldridge --

-- and found that I could get myself through The Race, the crazy tidal bottleneck at the mouth of Long Island Sound, on a vigorous ebbing current, if I got myself in gear quickly. Below, a diagram:

It's a little confusing -- east is up. The previous night's anchorage, Truman Beach, is labelled near the bottom. Click on the image to see more detail. All the water in the deep bits at the bottom of the image and beyond -- that is to say, to the west of the bottleneck, in the body of Long Island Sound -- has to empty out on the ebb through the small area shown with a line labelled "The Race". As you can see, it's narrow and relatively shallow, so the current gets quite strong.

I had had some trouble with The Race last year, coming home from Maine, and I didn't want any more. So I scrambled up on deck in my underwear and weighed anchor any old how and set out.

Eldridge was right, of course, as Eldridge always is. I went bounding through The Race like a bobsledder, wind on my port quarter, sun sparkling on the water, as sweet as you please, past Plum Island and Gull Island Light and Fisher's Island, and after a pleasant uneventful day I dropped anchor in a long slow purple twilight inside the Point Judith Harbor of Refuge.

Zoom out, as usual, to see the larger context.

How I love that phrase, Harbor of Refuge. Duncan, Duncan, Fenn and Fenn's famous Cruising Guide takes a dim view of this particular Harbor of Refuge -- a view which on the return trip I was to find justified -- but on this occasion it couldn't have been nicer.

The breakwater, admittedly, was lined with huddled seabirds, black against the dimming sky, and they had a sinister look, like ill-disposed jurymen contemplating an obviously guilty defendant. But there were a dozen other sailboats already anchored inside, their cheery little anchor lights lit at masthead or spreader, and this always gives me a good feeling.

I boiled and ate the last of my fresh eggs, drank a glass or two or six of wine, and went to sleep. The Harbor of Refuge lived up to its name, and I slept like the proverbial baby -- though come to think of it, babies in my experience don't sleep all that well. Wonder who came up with that expression?

Day 6: From Jefferson to Truman

Sailed through the night of Day Five and into the morning of Day Six: calm and clear, moon a little past full. Light wind from the southwest. This seems to be the phase of the trip -- there always is one -- when bits of poems start running through my head. Aeneid vii:

... postquam alta quierunt
aequora, tendit iter velis portumque relinquit.
Adspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
Luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.
Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae,
dives inaccessos ubi Solis filia lucos
adsiduo resonat cantu tectisque superbis
urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum,
arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas.
Hinc exaudiri gemitus iraeque leonum
vincla recusantum et sera sub nocte rudentum,
saetigerique sues atque in praesaepibus ursi
saevire ac formae magnorum ululare luporum,
quos hominum ex facie dea saeva potentibus herbis
induerat Circe in voltus ac terga ferarum.
Quae ne monstra pii paterentur talia Troes
delati in portus neu litora dira subirent,
Neptunus ventis implevit vela secundis
atque fugam dedit et praeter vada fervida vexit.

* * *

Usually I like to translate stuff myself, but it's pretty hard to improve on Dryden:

He plow'd the Tyrrhene seas with sails display'd.
From land a gentle breeze arose by night,
Serenely shone the stars, the moon was bright,
And the sea trembled with her silver light.
Now near the shelves of Circe's shores they run,
(Circe the rich, the daughter of the Sun,)
A dang'rous coast: the goddess wastes her days
In joyous songs; the rocks resound her lays:
In spinning, or the loom, she spends the night,
And cedar brands supply her father's light.
From hence were heard, rebellowing to the main,
The roars of lions that refuse the chain,
The grunts of bristled boars, and groans of bears,
And herds of howling wolves that stun the sailors' ears.
These from their caverns, at the close of night,
Fill the sad isle with horror and affright.
Darkling they mourn their fate, whom Circe's pow'r,
(That watch'd the moon and planetary hour,)
With words and wicked herbs from humankind
Had alter'd, and in brutal shapes confin'd.
Which monsters lest the Trojans' pious host
Should bear, or touch upon th' inchanted coast,
Propitious Neptune steer'd their course by night
With rising gales that sped their happy flight.
Supplied with these, they skim the sounding shore,
And hear the swelling surges vainly roar.

* * *

Splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus

... may be my very favorite tag in all of Latin verse, but

And the sea trembled with her silver light

... hits the bulls-eye, doesn't it? It's partly the "her" that does it.

Oh and by the way, how great are those odd Alexandrines that old Johnny drops in --

And herds of howling wolves that stun the sailors' ears!

At any rate I kept well clear of Circe's enchanted shore and her herds(*) of wolfish beast-men on Long Island, until the late afternoon. The wind was diminishing and my eyelids sagging and finally, faute de mieux, I anchored in a shallow little bight off the ominously-named Truman Beach, near Orient Point, the jumping-off place of Long Island:

During the night the wind backed way into the north and then west, and Truman Beach, which started out rather quiet, became a roller-coaster. I woke up once or twice during the night and checked the GPS to make sure I wasn't dragging my anchors -- I had put both of 'em down, against just such a turn of events. I wasn't, and so I wedged myself into a corner of my little stuffy vee-berth so I wouldn't roll around too much, and went back to sleep. You can sleep very well when you're really tired.


(*) Do wolves form herds? Maybe under Circe's management they do.

Day Five: Escape from Port Jefferson

Rose early, made coffee, pottered -- waiting for a call from Port Inflatables. A pleasant warm sunny morning, with little wind yet evident.

My neighbor Will was preparing to weigh anchor: He used his ingenious crane to swing his dinghy motor up and onto its bracket, and then hiked the bow of the dinghy itself well up out of the water, so only the stern was trailing. Then he fired up his engine and recovered his anchor and put-putted away out of the harbor, passing alongside the Scapegrace about 20 feet away, with a cheerful wave. "Fair winds!" he called out. I couldn't quite think of the equivalent thing to say, but finally came up with "Calm seas!"

Port Inflatables called about 10 and said the motor was ready. So I pulled up the hook and motored in to the town dock, where you can tie up for $12 an hour, a bit more reasonable than Danford's $20.

The town dock is an actual dock, not a float, and the tide rises and falls a fair distance here -- six feet, maybe more. I thought the tide was pretty much dead low, since my head as I stood on the deck of the boat was well below the level of the dock. So I tied my springlines without a whole lot of slack.

Port Inflatables showed up in their truck with my motor, and the town dock had a cart I could use to wheel it back down to the boat. But how to get it on the dinghy? The dock was probably twelve feet above the level of the water, and the only way up and down was slippery weed-covered vertical ladders.

Fortunately, the nice chap who runs the town launch offered me a place to tie up the dinghy at his float, so I could just wheel the motor down a ramp and then sit at the edge of the float and rassle the motor into the dinghy. That done, the motor started on the first pull and ran as smooth and sweet as you please. (But for how long?)

I took the opportunity to empty the porta-potty into the town dock's toilet -- I always feel a little furtive doing this, though I suppose it's OK. And I topped up my water tank, and then found that there were showers and washing machines available for town dock users, and so I went and had a long-overdue shower and did my laundry.

When I got back, I was mortified to see that the Scapegrace's mast was cocked at about a fifteen-degree angle. The tide, it seems, had fallen a good deal further, the springlines were taut as fiddlestrings, and the boat was sagging drunkenly to port.

Fortunately, Pearson built these boats very strong, back in the day, and the cleats were still firm on the deck. (Although one of the cleats on the dock had pulled away from the wood a couple of inches.) I quickly slacked off on the springlines and the boat came back upright with an audible and slightly reproachful sigh. No harm done, except to my already-fragile sense of competence.

A poem written by an old friend of mine, Bill Hedrington, came suddenly to mind:

The Boats

The boats that bump so docile at the dock
Are moored there slackly; no rowboat captain
Even, but knows the moon-called sea takes line,
And will have it, or hang the boats to break.
I’m not a boat, my will is not a rope,
And you, for all your changes and your pull
Tiding my heart’s rerunning salty well,
Are not the pumicestone that queens the deep.
Yet, I might as well be boat, and you moon,
For though I fight, my blood bends with the sea,
My body aching at my twisted will.
How, unless a man tie back the ocean,
Can taut lines help but snap, and how, once free,
Can any man but be a tide-bound hull?

* * * * *

I paid the town for my time at the dock, and almost literally sailed into the sunset.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The endless Day Four, concluded at last

Shown above is the approximate site of my anchorage on Day Four. If you use the control and zoom in, you will see an immense mooring buoy nearby, trailing massive cables visible even from outer space in the shallow Port Jefferson water. (You can also zoom out, of course, and get a sense of the geography).

My anchorage was maybe 100 or 150 feet from this monster buoy, and I hoped devoutly that no barge would be brought in to moor at it during the night, a hope which was, fortunately, fulfilled.

One gets very superstitious on a boat, and thoroughly pagan and polytheist. I'm constantly saying little prayers to wind gods and sea gods, anchor gods and outboard gods, and I'm absolutely convinced that the Scapegrace herself is entirely sentient and taking close note of what I say and how I act -- more than that: I'm convinced she can read my mind. When I swear at something -- which is frequently -- I always add a mental footnote, which I'm sure Scapegrace can hear: "That wasn't aimed at you, darlin'."

Just to be sure, I often say it out loud, too.

Once the anchor was down, I lit my goofy third-world knockoff of an old-fashioned rural kerosene lantern. (I don't like to use the electric cabin lights, particularly since my battery seems to get drained very quickly.). Below, an image -- very blurry, alas, due to the long exposure -- of the Scapegrace's cabin by lantern light:

... and I started pottering, whipping the ends of lines and so on, when I hear a voice: "Cap'n! Cap'n!"

(I love the way everybody calls you Cap'n -- or sometimes just Cap -- on the water. Everybody, that is, except the oafish thugs of the New York City police department, who demand "ID" and then call you "Mike" if they call you anything at all. But that's another story.)

This particular voice, it turned out, belonged to the skipper of a nice homey-looking modest-sized motor yacht anchored nearby. He had come round in his dinghy just to be sociable. Let's call him Will. Will invited me over to his boat for a drink, and I didn't need to be asked twice. I extinguished the lantern and piled into Will's little inflatable dinghy -- much like my own, except that the outboat was working.

We crossed the hundred feet or so of quiet water to Will's boat and spent a very pleasant hour or so exchanging observations about this harbor and that. Will was -- is? -- a librarian in a Connecticut town, and if I understood him correctly, he was making a circumnavigation of Long Island, and was going to pick up his wife in a day or two, somewhere in Connecticut, to make the next stage or two of the journey together. He used to have a sailboat, but now has the "trawler" -- as many motorboat guys seem to be calling their boats these days -- because, let's face it, it's just so much easier.

I could see his point. He had more space on his boat than I've had in some of the apartments where I've lived. He had an ingenious little crane which enabled him to pluck the outboat off his dinghy and clamp it to a wooden block on his stern rail, which of course makes the dinghy tow a lot more easily.

We sat on lawn chairs -- lawn chairs! -- on the afterdeck and sipped thoughtfully at complicated drinks Will had made. There was whisky in them, but I couldn't tell you what else, nor do I remember what they were called. Rusty Scuppers? Sacrificial Anodes? Something nautical-sounding, as I recall.

Finally we both started to yawn. Will gave me a lift back to the Scapegrace, where I soft-boiled a half-dozen eggs -- not having eaten anything all day -- and ate them ravenously with the last of a not-so-fresh baguette, and then tumbled into my sleeping bag and slept very very well indeed.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Day Four, continued: outboard adventures in Port Jefferson

Kinda left the narrative thread hanging there, didn't I?

When last heard from I was motoring to Danford's Marina in Port Jefferson, shown below:

The marina is in the center of the map; the ferry slip, for the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson car- and people-ferry, is a bit to the left. Unless Google have changed the satellite image by the time you read this, you can see a ferryboat actually approaching the slip. I may have a bit more to say about this ferry later.

This image must have been taken during the off-season; as I approached, there were a lot more boats around than you see here, and many of them were big intimidating boats, including the doltishly-named Prediction, mentioned in a previous post, a boat larger than many New York apartment buildings. If it had been there when this photo was taken, we might have had to back off on the zoom.

My goal was to get the outboard on the dinghy fixed -- for the third time this summer. Danford's is supposed to do repairs, and a breezy young lady had assured me on the cell phone that such was indeed the case.

Once I tied up at Danford's dock -- for which one is charged $20 an hour, a fee I shamelessly skipped out on later, and without permission, too -- the mechanic turned out to be a pleasant young man, let's call him Lycon, who enjoys tinkering with outboards. He and a couple of dockside sages confirmed what I already knew: the carburetor was gummed up and would have to be taken apart and cleaned.

Lycon wasn't quite ready to undertake this task, though I think he might have made a good job of it. But he knew just who to call: Port Inflatables, specializing in inflatable boats like my dinghy, and small outboards like the one that powers it.

Port Inflatables was willing to send a truck to pick up the outboard, though they wouldn't venture out onto Danford's dock. I got the impression that Danford's could be rather stroppy about other people trespassing onto their turf. So I had to rassle the outboard out of the dinghy -- a sweaty effortful business -- and then up Danford's dock and across Danford's parking lot and out to the sidewalk, which took a good deal more sweat and effort. Outboards, even Japanese outboards made of aluminum foil and sushi, are heavy, and awkwardly shaped to boot.

Port Inflatables showed up promptly, as promised, in their truck, and took the poor outboard into their care. They made a good efficient impression. "We'll call you tomorrow," Inflatables said.

I could hardly have expected better -- this was mid-afternoon, or perhaps a little later -- but even so, the line had an ominous ring: I'll see you when I see you. Don't call us, we'll call you.

But what can't be cured must be endured. So I resolved to use my time ashore well. I asked where I could find a grocery store. Blank stares all round, which became blanker still when I mentioned that I would be on foot.

The nice people who work at Danford's don't live anywhere nearby, it turns out. They live in Five Towns or Massapequa or Huntington Bay and drive fifty miles each way to their jobs, and they never, ever walk around on the streets of Port Jefferson.

Finally someone dredged up a memory of a convenience store, owned and staffed by hard-working entrepreneurs from the Indian subcontinent, a ways up Main Street, which runs away from the waterfront and climbs a rather steep slope to the bluffs behind the town. Thither I set off.

Now I haven't really set the scene very well here. It's a hot, sunny, still day. I've been tinkering with the motor, and then humping it off the dinghy and up the dock, and at this moment I'm trudging up furnace-like Main Street with Long Islanders' SUVs blasting past me and blowing exhaust in my face, and I'm starting to feel a little strung-out and a little parched.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but --

A cool, shady, caravanserai whose actual name I forget; but let's say it was something like Captain Jack's Bar and Grill.

Some bars appeal and some don't. This one appealed very strongly. Its entire front was open to the street, but set back from it, across a sort of terrace, and you could see the folks sitting at the bar, well inside and out of the sun, and other folks sitting at tables, and they all seemed to have tall frosty steins of beer in front of them, which my usually hazy old eyes registered with preternatural aquiline clarity.

This is the place for me, I thought.

By this time I'm scruffy, not having shaved or showered in four days, and sweaty, and thoroughly disreputable looking, and there can be no possible doubt that I smell like an old plough-horse. But I sat myself down at the bar and pulled a book out of my pocket -- I never go anywhere without a book, and reading a book makes you less alarming when your grooming is not what it should be. And the sweet young thing behind the bar came over and I ordered one of those frosty steins of beer I had seen from the street.

The sweet young thing -- let's call her Phyllis -- produced my frosty stein with admirable alacrity, and then to my utter amazement engaged me in conversation.

She's maybe twenty, and I'm sixty-plus and looking every minute of it. and surely as far as she is concerned I might as well be a dinosaur skeleton in the Museum of Natural History. But she took an interest in my journey, and plied me with questions, and even wanted to know what I did about sanitation on the boat, and wasn't grossed-out by the porta-potty.

Dear reader, perhaps you have a suspicious turn of mind. If so, let me reassure you: I do not flatter myself that Phyllis was coming on to me.

You're out on the water for a few days, and you start to have wild fantasies. In my slightly crazed Jack-ashore mood, I would have loved to think that Phyllis couldn't resist my threadbare charms, but it just obviously wasn't that kind of conversation. What was amazing me was her unusual curiosity and her openness.

Long Island is a very suburban place -- perhaps the most suburban place there is -- and suburban life is so impoverished, so limited, so narrow, so contrived and controlled, that its offspring usually end up somewhat atrophied. They don't understand any dimension of social or personal existence that they haven't already encountered in high school -- don't understand it, and don't want to hear about it. You mention anything they haven't seen on YouTube, or been told about by some slightly cooler coeval, and you get the Suburban Blank Stare.

But Phyllis wasn't like that. She didn't seem to be chafing at her circumstances, and longing to get over the wall. She was very much of her milieu as well as in it. But somehow she had escaped the lobotomy. She was quite keen to hear about the adventures of an eccentric, oddly-spoken and ill-groomed old man from New York, who blew into town on a far-from-fancy old boat and obviously doesn't have a pot to pee in, money-wise.

I can't tell you how much this cheered me up.

I had a second beer and then reluctantly left Phyllis to whatever life has in store for her -- and I hope it's something very nice indeed. I trudged up the hill, in the slightly cooler crepuscule, and found the Subcontinentals and bought a few necessities including some ice for the cooler, and trudged back to Danford's dock and, as already confessed, left without paying their robber-baron tariff and went to look for an anchorage out in the bay.

This entry is way too long already, and Day Four isn't even over.

That's because this was a turning point. I haven't really come clean about how I was feeling.

The dinghy motor failure -- third this summer! -- had convinced me I was cursed, numine laeso, hopeless. I was ready to take the boat back to New York and take the train to Maine.

Then I found Inflatables, or rather, Lycon found Inflatables for me. Inflatables gave me, on balance, a good feeling, and hey, it's only money. Then Phyllis made me start to think that what I had undertaken was worth doing and worth telling about, and most of all, a cell-phone conversation with my indescribably wonderful wife gave me a shot in the arm -- as she always does.

So I will suspend Day Four again as I putt-putt out onto the quiet shadowy waters, seeking a place to spend the night, a place that I don't have to pay for. The coming of the light today found me very dark, and now that it's dark, I'm feeling lighter again.