Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Night on the Hudson

As promised, a wind came up from a little east of north at around 11 PM, just when the current turned to the ebb. Convenient. The moon was nearly full, the sky clear; a beautiful, beautiful night. I ran down the Hudson at five knots or so, never touching a sheet. It took five hours and change to get back to 79th Street.

I didn't turn on the radio, which is unusual, for me, when I sail at night. I couldn't tell you what I thought about all that time, with nothing to do but just lightly steer the boat. You can get into a strange trancelike contemplative state, sailing.

The current was running pretty strong at 79th Street when I got there. Managed to pick up the mooring without disaster, though. It was four or five AM and I didn't feel industrious enough to button up the boat and take the dinghy back to the marina, so I just bundled up the mainsail untidily around the boom and went to sleep in the vee-berth.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ultima Thule (this time)

Speaking of odd sights on the upper Hudson: this rather eccentric sculpture adorns the entrance to the Haverstraw Marina, where Lindsay and I were to meet for brunch.

In spite of the sculpture, I recommend the marina. It's very well-run and extensive, and the water is reasonably deep inside -- ten feet or more in most places. It's also very luxe and I suspect fairly pricey, though I don't actually know that for a fact, because when I hailed 'em on Channel 9 and explained that I wanted to tie up for a couple of hours and have brunch at their restaurant, they gave me a slip gratis. I can't be sure this would have happened before Labor Day, but anyway, that's what they did, in the friendliest way imaginable, and it deserves recording.

A helpful chap on the fuel pier directed me into the right finger of the dock, and an amiable open-faced gap-toothed carrot-topped young fella took a stern line as I came scooting into the slip. I was rather priding myself on my boat-handling -- made the turn crisply from the very narrow fairway into the slip, and then shifted the little outboard into reverse at just the right moment to take the way off the boat.

Unfortunately, as soon as I had completed this rather elegant maneuver, I somehow managed to shift the motor into 'forward' rather than 'neutral'. The motor was only just idling, so no serious damage was done, but I found myself very confused, when I hopped off the bow to secure a bow line, to find the boat insistently nuzzling up into the slip like a horny young dog trying to hump your leg.

Turned out the restaurant wasn't going to open for another hour or so. Lindsay and I sat on the riverbank to wait, and had the great pleasure of watching eagles fishing -- I thought they were ospreys at first, but they were just too big and the wrong color. And a kindly birdwatching gent, who was a dead ringer for Vladimir Nabokov, finally set us straight.

It was almost as much of a pleasure to watch him, sitting on his log and staring through his very high-end binoculars, as it was to watch the birds themselves. The look on his face -- sheer bliss.

The eagles were quite something. Made me realize that Tennyson must have actually seen them -- this wasn't just Lit'rachoor:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The 'thunderbolt' part is just right. Though "falls" is an understement. They bide their time, soaring lazily fifty or sixty feet up, and then suddenly drive themselves downwards, and fold their wings, and plummet like a cinderblock into the water, with a spectacular splash.

About half the time they emerge with a struggling silvery fish in their talons, thrashing this way and that. As with most raptors, it seems to be hard work for them to regain altitude, particularly since they have the writhing fish to deal with at the same time. But they manage. They manage admirably.

Lindsay and I finally had our brunch, and gossiped like grigs about all our old schoolfellows. Then it was time to go.

The current had just turned to the ebb, but the wind was from the south. I could tack, though, and as I may have mentioned, the Scapegrace points very well into the wind. So that's what I did for a couple of hours, until I was back in Croton Bay...

And the wind died. A painted ship, upon a painted sea, as the man said.

So I listened to the weather radio. Wind shifting to the north at 11 PM. And by chance, the current would be turning to the ebb again, just about then.


I anchored in Croton Bay again, maybe fifty feet from where I had anchored the night before, and took a nice long nap.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Up the river, a little farther

A trip up the Hudson offers many wonderful sights. Above, a sewage treatment plant, somewhere in Westchester, designed in what, the 1950s? by somebody who clearly admired Palladio but perhaps didn't admire him quite enough. I especially like the ductwork on the roof. A closeup (click on the image) will reveal a wealth of graffiti, tastefully restricted to the virtual voids of the facade, which enliven the building considerably. In fact it's hard to resist the conclusion that the graffitists had a better eye than the architect.

After my morning coffee in Croton Bay, we took stock of our situation. A mile or so of open water in every direction. It's shallow, ten feet or so, but not alarmingly shallow (the Scapegrace draws four feet) and there are no nasty rocks or bars to worry about anywhere nearby. There was a mild breeze from the southeast, just begging me to ride it the five miles upriver to my rendezvous with my old school friend Lindsay.

Usually I am very paranoid about anchoring and the reverse -- up-anchoring? De-anchoring? Is there a word for it? But I suddenly felt strangely bold and determined to sail the Scapegrace off her anchor. So I raised the mainsail and let the sheet run free, and sauntered like a gentleman of leisure up to the bow and hauled the anchor rode in till it was vertical. I let the boat's motion bounce the anchor out of the muck, and once we started to drift slowly downwind, I hauled the anchor up, bouncing it a few times just under water until most of the bottom silt had washed off, and took my time fastening it to its improvised fixture on the pulpit rail -- I owe you a picture of this very ghetto arrangement.

I hadn't even put the motor down into the water, much less started it and left it idling, which is what I usually do, in my paranoid way, when it comes time to up-anchor. So I didn't have the motor running, and then I took my time securing the anchor, rather than scrambling to get it aboard any old how and then scampering frantically back to the cockpit. (Which is what I usually do.) This all felt like a strange heedless God-tempting way to act. But the big tranquil bay and the sweet small steady breeze and the tiny lapping waves encouraged a certain uncharacteristic confidence.

It worked out. Once the anchor was aboard and secured, we were fifty yards closer to our destination, and in deeper water. The jib's roller-furler did its job without a squeak or a moan or a jam, and we bowled along up the river toward Haverstraw at four knots or so.

Haverstraw itself may have to wait for another diary entry.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Up the river

That's Sing Sing prison, in Ossining, New York, which was not my destination on this trip, and I hope never will be.

I haven't done enough sailing this year. In particular, I didn't get my sail up to Maine and back. I was looking for a job, you see. In the event I got neither the job nor the sail. Perhaps there's a lesson in that.

So last weekend I decided to take the Scapegrace up the Hudson. The pretext was visiting an old college pal of mine -- call her Lindsay -- who lives in Rockland County, near Nyack. (I seem to need to have a destination -- can't just take the boat out and potter around.) The plan was to meet Lindsay at the Haverstraw Marina, in, where else, Haverstraw, about 25 miles upstream.

Got a late start on Saturday, and the wind was very light and variable. Took a couple of hours to get to the Cloisters, shown below --

-- which was looking very pretty in New York's surprisingly Mediterranean low, level evening light. I was starting to think I wasn't going to make it to Haverstraw in any reasonable amount of time; that I'd have to turn tail ignominiously and head home. But I decided to keep going until the current turned to the ebb, later that evening, and see how far I got.

As it happened, the wind freshened and scooted me rather nicely right up the river to Croton Bay, five miles from my destination and a mile or so from the aforementioned prison:

Croton Bay, as you can see, is a big piece of water, but it's quite shallow -- about ten feet on the outer margins, shoaling up, as you approach the shore, in a forgivingly gradual way. And it has a nice clean even sandy-clay bottom that doesn't stink when your anchor brings it up. It was about 11 PM when I got there, and the current had turned against me, and the wind had died, so I took advantage of the nice clean bottom, as everyone should do when they have the chance, and dropped the hook.

On one side I had the depressing prison, sprawled hugely like a lounging Behemoth escaped out of Paradise Lost, glaring over the water with an infernal brimstony light from its thousands of sodium lamps. (What must their electricity bill be, even now that the Rosenbergs' old chair has been deactivated?) On the other side was Croton Point, which has a park, nestled in the shadow of a semi-disguised landfill.

Now I have never been an inmate of Sing Sing. But I do have a connection with Croton Point Park. Both my kids went to a nice high-minded private school in New York -- let's call it St Cosmas and St Dismas. SS C&D used to have their annual Family Field Day at Croton Point Park, a tiring and tedious bus ride from New York. Neither of my kids was all that into field sports, and neither their mom or I was very good at talking to other parents about investments that we didn't have. So these outings had a curious emotional quality. We always embarked on them with some kind of strangely unfounded high hopes, and always returned in a deep state of gloom and irritable misanthropy.

SS C&D, in spite of its sanctoral patronage, turned out in the end to be just another evil careerist meat-packing plant disguised as a school. So my memories of Croton Point Park and its associations are not, generally speaking, happy memories, though there are of course happy moments among them -- gleams amid the gloom.

On the one hand, recollections of the credentialling sector. On the other, the relentless searching glare of the incarceration sector. Not for the first time, I found myself pondering the affinities and symbioses of the two.

* * * * *

But enough of that. I curled up in the vee-berth and awoke with the bright clean dawn next day, made my coffee, and took off for Haverstraw.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Freeze, motherfucker. It's Independence Day!

Sorry, I sorta dropped the story a couple months back.

Penelope and I arrived off Coney Island as dusk was falling, to encounter four interrelated problems:

1) The wind had died down to a very mild and unhelpful westerly zephyr;

2) The current was strongly on the ebb through the Narrows;

3) I didn't think we had enough gas to motor, against the current, all the way up through the Narrows and into the Hudson;

4) It was the Fourth of July, and because of the Macy's fireworks, Homeland Security and other elements of the Enforcement Sector had taken the opportunity to declare a celebratory lockdown of the Hudson River. Why? Because they can.

So I disappointed poor Penelope yet again, and dropped the hook out in the middle of the outer harbor on this quickly darkening eve of Year CCXXXIV of American Liberty:

It's not quite as bad as it looks. The shipping channel is about a half-mile to the west, and that's seventy feet of water or so. But here on the East Bank flats, there was maybe twelve feet under our keel, and no weather expected. Good holding ground, though the sludge is incredibly stinky and foul when the anchor comes home. I paid out a hundred feet of rode and figured we were probably safe from anything except a blind-drunk patriot doing twenty knots in a planing hull. But it's a big body of water and the odds were on our side.

I hung a flashlight from the signal halliard on the starboard spreader, by way of improvised anchor light, in case the blind-drunk patriot wasn't entirely blind. I loathe fireworks, and I don't have much use for patriotism either, so I crawled up in the vee-berth and went to sleep. Penelope took care of our patriotic duty and watched the fireworks.

I was awakened by a change of timbre in the sound of the current under the hull, and the wind in the rigging -- about eleven PM, I think. Crawled groggily out of the berth to find my two girls, Penelope and the Scapegrace, both looking bouncy and energetic. I was looking, and feeling, anything but.

Still. The current was with us now, and the wind, still westerly, had freshened again. So we raised the main and sailed the anchor out of the East Bank muck -- first time the Scapegrace and I have done that. Set the jib and went bowling at four knots or so up toward Giovanni's bridge.

About a quarter-mile south of the bridge, the cool fresh sea breeze gave way to a hot sulfurous simoom off Staten Island. It was still wind, of course, and a sailor is always grateful for wind, but this was a very downscale wind -- a wind full of monoxide and motor oil and Axe armpit deodorant. Not to mention, fifteen degrees warmer than what we'd been used to for the last few days. Oh. July. In New York. Right.

You get used to the smell, if you live here. The mephitic wind took us up under Giovanni's bridge and almost to the Battery and then died. But we were near home now, and we had the current with us, and enough gas for the home stretch. So we doused the main and kept the jib up, for what little help it might provide, and dropped the little old outboard and fired her up and started chug-chugging up the river.

Motoring is not my favorite thing, but this was kinda nice. All the fireworks fans were gone. The river was empty. No commercial traffic, and the tall buildings on either shore half-lit -- in each of them there were probably a few driven cubicle rats still slaving away in chase of an ever-more-remote career prize, but surely, surely not many?

The water was calm and oily. One felt like a burglar, or a ghost, creeping along through the night while all the good citizens were asleep. It reminded me of a little book I used to read my kids, when they were small, a sweetly illustrated version of Robert Louis Stevenson's nice tiny poem "The Moon:"

The moon has a face like the clock in the hall;
She shines on thieves on the garden wall,
On streets and fields and harbour quays,
And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.

The squalling cat and the squeaking mouse,
The howling dog by the door of the house,
The bat that lies in bed at noon,
All love to be out by the light of the moon.

But all of the things that belong to the day
Cuddle to sleep to be out of her way;
And flowers and children close their eyes
Till up in the morning the sun shall arise.

The book I used to read to the kids must be long out of print. I can't find an image of it online, and the vicissitudes of modern domestic life have shuffled the actual physical volume off into some parallel universe where parents don't fuck up. But I remember the pictures: the darkness, the few dim warm lights from the houses, the dad and the little child going fishing, and the harmless comic-opera burglars climbing over the garden wall in the background.

On this tranquil and sentimental note I lay down on the starboard cockpit cushion, my head awkwardly propped against an empty gasoline jerrican, and fell into a deep deep primordial reptilian sleep, while Penelope steered the Scapegrace up the river.

She didn't even have to wake me when we drew abreast of 79th Street. Amazing how one knows where one is, and what time it is, no matter how shut-down one's brain seems to be. Or perhaps these profound slumbers are not so shut-down as we think, and our waking life is just a series of footnotes on what happens when we're asleep.

Whether or no: I popped awake, much refreshed, promptly forgot my travels in the land of the Mothers, and whatever I might have learned there. Saw vigilant Penelope at the helm, wide awake, looking as capable as stout Cortez and a lot more fetching. Our mooring was a quarter-mile away. The dinghy was still there -- not a thing to be taken for granted. I rummaged down in the cabin and found the clever quick-release hook and we crept up to the mooring and grabbed it on the first try, then closed up the poor boat any old how and dinghied back to the Boat Basin and slogged up the hill toward pavement and taxis.

We lucked out: the moment we emerged from Robert Moses' dank perverse subterranean Boat Basin, there was a cab, idling right in front of us, with a cheerful carefree young Chinese guy behind the wheel. Not a good place to look for fares, statistically speaking. One had the sense that this was maybe his first night on the job, and he was loving it: You mean... they pay me... to DRIVE? What a country!

We had to direct the happy young explorer turn-by-turn to our door, and you could just see him filing it all away for the benefit of the second fare of his career -- which may not happen for a while, unless he finds a better place to look for fares than the Boat Basin at two AM on a holiday weekend.

And so home, and so to bed, on a deck that doesn't move. What a concept.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Yo, Giovanni

Above, Giovanni, a famous Boat Dude, wearing the sort of expression a Cap'n gets when some hapless other Cap'n ignores the Starboard Tack rule.

I got up at an uncharacteristically early hour, for me, in order to catch the beginning of the ebb and have the whole day to tack up toward Giovanni's bridge -- or no, that's ambiguous, the bridge indirectly named after Giovanni. The weather radio was still predicting wind from the west.

Made my coffee, took the picture on the previous post as soon as it was light enough, recovered the hook and groped out through the sandbars of our little cove (locally known as "Sore Thumb", a helpful commenter informs me). Penelope awoke in time to help me with the buoys -- I'm color-blind, or partly so, and it's hard for me to tell a green buoy from a red one at any distance, which is a serious problem amid the kinks and curlicues of Fire Island Inlet. Fortunately, Penelope's color vision is flawless.

She is not, however, so fond of heeling (though she enjoys high-heeling, and looks wonderful doing it). Once we cleared the inlet, the wind was blowing a nice fifteen knots or so, and we were pointing as high as the Scapegrace would go -- which is pretty high, bless her. So there was a bit more heel, of the undesirable variety, than Penelope could quite like. Seas were three feet or so, and choppy, which made for a bumpy ride, too. So Penelope wisely got herself wedged back into the vee-berth and went to sleep.

Now I normally don't love tacking the Scapegrace by myself. The winches aren't self-tailing, and there aren't even any of those nice cam cleats -- the jib sheets go around a plain old cleat, and securing them is a fussy process when you're trying to do ten other things. Moreover, cleating down the sheet removes your concentration, for a few seconds, from your steering, during which interval the S. comes smartly up into the wind, backwinds her jib, and laughs a killing little flirty laugh at you as you go back onto the former tack and try again. This leads to much swearing on the skipper's part, which in my case makes up in volume and copiousness for what it lacks in originality. (Fuck ... fuck ... FUCK! Double fuck! -- That sort of thing.)

There is still another wrinkle. The Scapegrace has a very useful traveller, stretching all the way across the cockpit, for the main sheet -- sorry, I don't have a picture -- which is a boon when you're sailing close-hauled. I find that if you haul the traveller all the way up to the windward side and then ease the sheet a little, the mainsail takes on a better shape, and the slot between tightly-boused jib and easier main is still wide enough to let lots of air through, and move us all along at a nice brisk pace.

You see where this is going, right? When you tack, not only do you have all the usual pain-in-the-ass multitasking that tacking always requires, but you also have to move the traveller from the former to the current windward side. Impossible. You'd have to be an octopus with opposable thumbs.

On this trip, I made a discovery: This is not a yacht race. Elegance is inconsequential -- though nobody, of course, ever wants to look foolish, even if there are no human spectators around to laugh. There are always the Naiads, and no guy wants a Naiad laughing at him.

Still. I think I have found a way to keep the Naiads' laughter down to a small not-unkindly smile, even though William F Buckley -- dead, and not a minute too soon -- might have sneered, curling his reptilian upper lip back from those horrible rabbit-like incisors he had. But the hell with the Buckleys, and all these over-funded Connecticut "yachtsmen". Give me the Naiads any day.

Here's my trick: You heave-to.

That is, you come up onto the new tack. But you don't bring the jib around; you backwind it, and bring the tiller smartly up so the jib stays backwinded, and there you are, hove-to and riding incredibly quietly, a downright halcyon upon the waves, going very slowly at more-or-less a right angle to the wind. I love heaving-to. It's fucking magic.

Now you have some options. You can relieve yourself over the side if you need to, or go down into the cabin and make some more coffee so you will need to relieve yourself in an hour, about when the next tack comes due. You can creep forward and untangle the anchor line, which you just scattered any old how all over the foredeck when you weighed.

Or you can catch your breath for thirty seconds, while William F Buckley and his ilk wonder what the hell you're up to; then move the traveller to the new windward side, at your leisure, and uncleat the jib and let it pop over to the new leeward side, and take off on the new tack like a bat out of hell, without ever having broken a sweat or said "fuck!" even once.

You learn something every day -- if you're lucky.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Home again, home again -- sorta

Penelope and I timed our departure from Bellport to catch the ebb current at Fire Island Inlet (or in this case, of course, Outlet) -- left at noon, expected to get there sixish in the evening, and then the plan was to sail through the night again. The wind was from the south when we left, but by the time we got to the inlet, the weather radio was glumly predicting a shift into the west -- dead foul for us, of course.

Now the Scapegrace points very nicely and sails very sturdily close-hauled, but somehow I had no appetite for beating up, board upon board, through the night, after having spent six hours already groping through the labyrinthine shallows of Great South Bay. I should have just said so and determinedly dropped the hook in the pleasant little cove mapped above. But I knew Penelope wanted to get home, and I felt a bit wuss-like hanging it up after a half-day, so I dithered. Not something you want to see your Cap'n doing.

Penelope could tell what I really wanted, which was to anchor and go to sleep, so that's what she advised -- against her own inclinations; and I fear she was disappointed when I allowed myself to be persuaded (twist my rubber arm). This is an old domestic-comedy motif, isn't it?

We had some not-too-bad food to eat and some wine to drink and so we got back on good terms pretty soon. The anchorage was crowded and a bit noisy, but sometime during the night all the day-trippers had vanished, and this was the scene from our cockpit at dawn:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Another note on Bellport

This image is very unfair to Bellport, where the lots are bigger, the houses are nicer, and the street grid is sanely rectilinear -- none of these stupid Levittown swoops and curves, designed to entertain people in cars, people half-catatonic with boredom after their two-hour commute back from the Office.

Ludwig, mine host, mentioned to me that he had an old car -- a nice old car; a Jag? An Aston-Martin? Can't quite recall -- hidden in his garage. He had to hide it because the Bellport civic authorities have outlawed the possession of unregistered, un-tagged cars. It's thought to be a very white-trash thing, in Bellport, to keep an old car around for parts.

The stated reason for encoding this prejudice into law, however, is that old cars kept around for parts "lower property values". An argument which, apparently, everybody accepts.

This is not, after all, my political blog. So I will just ask two questions here:

(1) Why are low property values a bad thing? If food and medicine gets less expensive, that's a good thing, right? Why are there different rules for houses and house lots?

(2) We Amurricans like to believe that we are sturdy rugged individualists, resentful of nannyism and intrusive gummint. So how does it come about that so many of us live in places where the Authorities can -- and do -- tell us what color to paint our houses, and what we can keep on the lawn?

Tomorrow Penelope and I are back on the water, where property is -- forgive the pun -- a more fluid thing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


We didn't take any pictures in Bellport. A Google image search for "Bellport, NY" will turn this up, around page three or or four:

... the work of some deservedly little-known American abstract-impressionist named Pinajian, or so he claims. This was in fact the most interesting image of Bellport I could find.

It really looks more like this:

... which is, of course, from a real-estate shark's site, where it is accompanied with this breathless prose:

OLD SCRATCH PROPERTIES is the leader in seasonal rentals in the Bellport area. Nothing compares to experiencing quiet time by the shore in this beautiful community. Be sure to contact us soon because there are so few rentals available.
("Old Scratch Properties" is my inspiration, naturally.)

Our friends' house looks a little like this, actually, except the house is nicer and the pool smaller. Let's call the friends Ludwig and Maria Theresa von Hapsburg.

Bellport is really a pretty town. I don't want to be unkind here. The marina is efficiently run and has a sturdy wave-wall sheltering three well-built docks, with a few transient slips available. Maria Theresa met us on the middle dock and waved us toward one of these transient slips, which I miraculously got us into without dinging the hull or even swearing. Not even once. Honest.

Still. It's not just Long Island -- it's the South Shore of Long Island, and not a million miles from the dire Hamptons. As we strolled up the street from the marina to Schloss Hapsburg, we passed a pleasant grassy field where a bevy of nice-looking young people, with even tans and perfect teeth, were de-rigging and stowing their bran-new shiny-bright Laser fleet, after a day of schooling on the water. Jeunes filles en fleur, and garcons too, for those whose taste runs that way. A delightful sight -- if it weren't for the voices.

Is there anything more grating than a Long Guyland accent? A South Shore accent, at that? I despair of rendering it. Dickens and Trollope and Thackeray tried to do dialects, and failed dismally. Where they failed I am unlikely to succeed. Let me just observe that there are no simple vowels on Long Island -- no eh's and ah's and oh's. There are only diphthongs, and triphthongs, and tetraphthongs: Eeeuuoowww!

The Hapsburgs don't talk that way, thank God, being transplants from elsewhere, and people with an ear as well. They're a charming couple, with a very likable teenage son, and they had, on this occasion, some amiable and clubbable houseguests. Penelope and I spent a very pleasant evening chez Hapsburg, grilling chicken and talking about everything under the sun, and then we strolled back to the boat, in its quiet slip, and turned in.

Penelope on board, Day 2

Above, a butterfly who butterflew our way and rested chez nous as we motored our cautious way up Great South Bay toward Bellport (previous posts have the back-story and the map). We saw a good many of his ilk -- who can identify him? -- but this particular individual stayed with us for a good long while. Perhaps he had made quite a night of it. Yesterday, he was in Charleston, maybe.

Great South Bay is a scary place for a sailor. The average depth is what, two feet? The Scapegrace draws four. There is a channel -- a nightmarishly shallow channel, by my standards, with the depth gauge reading nine feet -- seven feet -- seven and half. Five!

And it twists and turns fiendishly, and it's really narrow. If you lose your focus on the next buoy for ten seconds, and go fifteen feet off your course, the depth gauge starts doing that terrible thing where the water is too shallow to compute, and the display just goes blank. Aiieee!

White-knuckle stuff for me, as sailing in the dark was for Penelope. Funny how this stuff works. A beautiful bright sunny calm blue day, with the motor put-putting along; no heeling, no bouncing around. Penelope was happy as a cat with a bowlful of cream, and ten times as attractive. And I was a nervous wreck. What goes around comes around, as they say.

We managed to grope our way up the channel to a spot not too far from Bellport, and then realized that we were in danger of arriving early, an unforgivable social sin. So we dropped the anchor in eight feet -- which was already starting to sound like deep water -- and took a nap.

What a day!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Penelope on board, continued.

Would that one had so much crew.

The story so far: Penelope and and have sailed out of New York harbor, en route to Fire Island, and night has fallen. Penelope is scared, and of course so am I, though I would never admit it to her.

The wind was brisk, from the southwest, which from a sailing point of view was great, but didn't enhance Penelope's peace of mind. The Scapegrace steers a little skittish in a quartering sea, and being a small boat, after all, bounces around extravagantly at the slightest opportunity. Poor Penelope -- who is, at the end of the day, a highly intelligent girl -- decided that if she had to die, she'd rather die in her sleep, so she went and curled herself up in the vee-berth and dove into unconsciousness.

This left me in a position both familiar and unfamiliar. I'm used to sailing through the night -- used to all the surprising reveries that come to mind, used to the deceptiveness of distances, used to the boredom that imperceptibly transforms itself into a kind of contemplative trance. Used to the strange lifting happiness that comes with the first faint hint of a lightening sky in the east -- just that tiny finger-sized corner of the firmament a shade less black, and hosanna, it's officially a new day. Above all, used to being grateful for the moon, which on this night shambled reluctantly up, gibbous, misshapen, unshaven, unwashed and surly, a little after twelve.

What I wasn't used to was worrying about Penelope. Should I heave-to and go below and try to comfort her? Console her? Reassure her?

You can forget the reassurance, actually. She wouldn't believe a word I said, and quite right, too.

While all these thoughts were chasing each others' tails in my head I became aware of a strange rhythmic sound, not one I'm used to on the boat: a gentle woodwind burr, like an oboe d'amore heard through a velvet curtain, on and off, a few seconds in each phase. What on earth is that?

It took a few minutes and then the penny dropped: it was Penelope snoring. Gently, peaceably snoring, a lovely familiar domestic music, though never heard before on the high seas, and surprising in this new context.

The rest of the night was very happy: a good steady breeze moving us along at five or six knots; moonlight on the water -- splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus -- and my dear girl down in the cabin, making a noise like a small contented sawmill, no doubt dreaming of posh hotels and nice restaurants.

We got to Fire Island inlet about four AM, just when the blush began in the east. The current was still on the ebb through the inlet and I didn't want to fight it -- and I wanted daylight to find the channel, too. So I crept cautiously up into about twenty feet of water off Democrat Point (why is it called that, I wonder?) and dropped the hook. Bundled the sail up any old how on the boom and gratefully dove below to curl up next to my favorite sawmill for a few hours' rest.

Penelope joins Odysseus on the boat, part 1

That apparently leaning lighthouse above is the Fire Island light. Penelope and I set sail from our Hudson River mooring last Thursday -- July 1, I guess -- to catch the evening tide and ease down the river and through the Narrows and out into the trackless Atlantic, for a trip to Fire Island inlet and through that into Great South Bay and up to Bellport, where we have friends. Map:

We had a nice west wind and bowled down the river like kiss-my-hand, narrowly avoiding the Staten Island Ferry as usual, and were past the Narrows and well on our way East when it started to get dark.

One was, in a sense, prepared for this contingency. It happens every day, more or less, and the plan had been to sail through the night -- nothing too hard about it, three or four miles offshore, with no rocks to avoid and plenty of room to see any shipping there might be. Just run down the latitude and you're at Fire Island before you can say "fabulous"!

And yet and yet -- there's a certain sinking feeling when the sun goes down. Ogg the cave man and Oggette his better half must have felt it long ago; it's encoded, no doubt, in our primate brains. Night coming! Get into cave, or climb tree, or something!

I always feel it, every time, though I'm sorta used to it. Penelope wasn't used to it, and she was scared to death.

To be continued...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tour de Bronx

I mentioned Charlie's boatyard a while back. Above is the nearby Pelham Bay landfill (this is the Bronx, after all). Below is the tricky narrow egress, difficult for a duffer like me to manage in a crosswind, as I may have mentioned before:

Charlie is at least the second generation of his family to run this boatyard, or so I hear. I wouldn't dare ask Charlie himself any questions about his family history, or indeed any questions at all not absolutely necessary, because I am rather in awe of Charlie.

Not that Charlie is a hard case, or an unfriendly guy. On the contrary: like most Boat Dudes, he's hospitable, kindly, sociable, and generous, which you don't realize at first because like most Boat Dudes, he has a somewhat laconic just-the-facts-Ma'am manner. Here is an exterior shot of part of Charlie's house, in the yard -- sorry about the Dumpster; I couldn't find an angle that didn't include it:

Charlie noticed me taking pictures, which piqued his curiosity since he wasn't expecting to see me again until October. He promptly invited me to take a picture from inside his house:

Nice, huh?

Charlie has a colleague named Emil, or maybe Emile. I would no more dare take a picture of Emil than I would twist a lion's tail, though Emil is also a wonderful guy and took suitable measures during a winter gale when a tarp I had secured badly over the Scapegrace blew loose. (He cut it away and let it fly off in a 40-knot breeze into Eastchester Bay, before it could pull the boat right off her poppets.)

Here's where Emil lives, or so I'm told:

I imagine Emil is very aware of the weather.

Eastchester Bay is very urban. Just on the other side is the New York police shooting range, where they also take bombs, or possible bombs, and the occasional bag lady's bag, to dispose of them "safely". It was probably illegal to take this picture, but I took it anyway:

Most afternoons at Charlie's yard one hears the ominous mechanical bang-bang of automatic weapon fire sounding flatly across the water from this dismal fortress. I didn't know what it was, at first -- thought it was fireworks, then realized there just aren't that many holidays. Unless you're a cop, and then every day is about gunpowder.

Whom, exactly, are they practicing to shoot? Not me -- not in their minds, anyway -- but having had some of those guns pointed at me, in my day, it's an unpleasant thing to hear. Whomever it is they're practicing to shoot, they won't shoot in the service of my interests.

I don't know how many of my fellow Boat Dudes at Charlie's yard would agree with my suspicion and dislike of the police. Some of them are retired cops, others retired firemen (who would possibly be more sympathetic; there's no love lost between the cops and the firemen).

The Boat Dudes don't love authority, but they don't love the underclasses either. So -- much as I love the Boat Dudes, I stay away from this topic.

On my way back from Charlie's, I took a detour to pick up an outboard motor part at Sheila's outboard motor place on City Island. I parked illegally and wandered for a few minutes through Pelham Cemetery, a very nice spot to be buried, if buried one must be:

Off across the water there is Hart Island, with its melancholy abandoned smokestack. Hart Island is New York's potter's field, where we bury our dead on the stingy taxpayers' tab when nobody else can be found to pay for the Dead Dude's last piece of private property.

Not too many people know about Hart Island, but it has a certain morbid fascination for me. I have sailed around it. There are signs warning you to keep away -- the burials are handled by prisoners from another island in the New York archipelago, Rikers Island, and so Hart's itself, and its humble dead, are now a fief of the Incarceration Sector.

Sheila's outboard motor place is right next to the dock from which Charon's ferry takes the unwanted and uncherished -- or at least, unpaid-for -- dead over to Hart's. The dock is plastered with dire minatory warnings from the wonderfully-named "Department of Corrections", but maybe one of these days I'll feel bold enough to take a picture.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ah, technology (Part Deux)

While I was out on the boat yesterday, I was looking reproachfully at the nifty little hook which failed me so disastrously as I was trying to get on the mooring the other day.

I couldn't for the life of me figure out why it had failed to close properly around the whatchacallit, shackle? on the mooring buoy. The opening of the hook was clearly large enough to accommodate the shackle; you could see that by eyeballing it.

So I put it back on the pole and walked up to the bow and darted it at the mooring buoy -- while still safely attached, this time -- and eccolo:

(As usual, click to enlarge.)

Doin' what it oughter, right? So why didn't it do that when I needed it?!

With the profound superstition of sailors, I can only think it was a message from the gods: Take nothing for granted -- especially technology.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Belt and suspenders

It may have been mentioned that I once lost an outboard motor overboard -- a brand-new one, I might add -- thanks to the New York city police. (No, I haven't ever actually told the story. What am I waiting for? A book contract, maybe?)

Anyway, I don't want to lose another. Motor, I mean, not book contract. So when the Scapegrace is moored on the choppy turbulent roller-coaster waters of the Hudson River, I wrap a dock line around the motor and secure it on either side, in case the motor mount itself -- which frankly isn't that sturdy -- should work loose.

Now this is ugly as sin, as you can see from the photo above. (Click to see more detail). But it does help me sleep better at night, which at my age is a great thing.

(You may be thinking, as you look at this picture, that all the motor has to do is work loose and twist once arsy-versy and it's gone. What you can't see is that the deck line also goes through a handle on the front of the motor. So there, Mr Subtle Topologist!)

I have a number of these repulsive, un-yachty, Appalachian po'-white-trash improvisations set up on the poor boat -- which certainly deserves better, but when the Cap'n is basically a pauper, this is what you get. Here's another such desperate improvisation:

It may not be very easy for non-sailors to see, but sailors will notice right away that the boom is held down, not just by the taut main sheet in the center of the picture, but also by an ungainly and inelegant dock line -- yet another repurposed dock line -- stretching up from the starboard quarter cleat to the boom, around the boom in a clove hitch, and then down to the port-side rail.

Hey, as long as I was doing something ugly, I thought I'd make it really ugly.

Now the reason for doing this is that the boat rocks a good deal, and every so often gale-force winds come roaring down the Hudson and pry loose anything that can be pried loose. Last year -- before I started lashing these brutal unlovely corsets on the poor Scapegrace -- I had a very nasty experience: The boom whipped around so much in one of these winds that a pin broke, the main sheet collapsed in a heap on the cockpit sole, and the boom was unsecured by anything except the very permissive topping lift -- the little cable that keeps it up above head height when you're not actually sailing, and creates that insouciant jaunty cocked-up boom angle that you can see in other pictures of the dear boat here on the blog.

Now we must make an entry in the Kindness Of Strangers file, a very well-filled jacket in any boater's life. The day that I came out to the boat and discovered that this mishap had occurred, probably a day or two before, I also found that somebody -- presumably another boater on a nearby mooring, perhaps even the guy who has the other Pearson 26 -- had quietly boarded the Scapegrace and improvised a lash-down for the boom, so it didn't bang around any more and damage itself, or the mast, or the standing rigging.

Of course I was pleased and grateful. Oddly enough, on my way back to the dinghy dock -- about a mile and a half of boisterous Hudson that year -- I passed another boat where the very same thing had happened -- one of the fittings on the main sheet broke, and the boom was whipping back and forth like a spoon in one of those in-sink garbage disposals, with an equally nasty and scary sound.

I had a moment's hesitation. It's a huge taboo to go on somebody else's boat uninvited. But somebody had gone on mine, and I was glad they had. It's the Band Of Brothers here at the Hudson River boat basin. So I tied up the dinghy on the other boat's cleat, and climbed aboard, and found a few random lengths of line here and there in the cockpit that I could fit together to jury-rig a lashing for the boom and keep it amidships.

What goes around comes around, they say. But it seldom comes around so quickly and neatly. A nice moment.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Still afloat

Still afloat

So there she is at her mooring, apparently unscathed by her captain's depraved negligence and folly in running her on the rocks, shown below:

The troll's jaw

She's floating as high as she ever did. A sturdy boat, bless her.

You can see the boil of the current around the mooring buoy -- it was running about three knots. And you can also see that there is apparently only one mooring line, not the two there are supposed to be. Hmmm.

A trip out to the boat and a closer look revealed this situation:

fiendish tangle I don't know how clear it is from the picture, but the two mooring lines are wrapped several dozen times around each other, and both are wrapped around the chain under the buoy. In fact investigation later revealed that one was wrapped more times around the chain than the other, and I honestly don't know how this is topologically possible on any plausible physical scenario. It's a tangle that the Prince of Darkness himself might be proud to have contrived. Or Bernini.

The current and the chop weren't horrible enough to prevent me from disentangling the pennant lines, which revealed that one of them was already chafed so badly by the chain that I had to go back to see Seth at the marina and get a replacement. This after what, three days on the mooring?

Seth is a very good guy and he gave me two lines -- "Replace 'em both," he said, "and leave one of the old ones on for an oh-shit line." Good advice, I think.

Here's a slightly more cheerful view of the shoreline -- the troll's smiling face, you might say:

The troll's smiling face

This shot quite unintentionally incorporates a building where I used to live -- just visible above the notch in the trees right in the center of the image.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ah, technology


That's the 79th Street boat basin, above. But the boats you see there inside the breakwater belong to the hereditary aristocracy. Apply for a slip today, and your great-grandchildren might possibly get it.

No, οἱ πολλοί, like me, get moorings, outside the cozy little enclosure you see, in a field extending uptown -- i.e. toward the bottom of the picture. You can see a few boats in part of the field.

It's a pretty convenient place to keep your boat if you live on the Upper West Side, but otherwise has little to recommend it. The current -- especially the ebb current -- is incredibly fierce, and it's completely unprotected from swell and chop and wakes from commercial shipping and big displacement-hull motor yachts, so your boat gets knocked around a lot. Your mooring lines chafe and sometimes part. Moorings have been known to drag. Stuff comes floating down the river at five or six knots -- logs, big pieces of timber, that sort of thing -- and bangs into your hull. A snug harbor it ain't.

Among other things, the wicked current makes it a tricky business to pick up your mooring. You have to creep up-current toward the mooring, as if you were stalking some skittish animal with a sensitive nose, grab the mooring lines -- which are probably tangled around the anchor chain under the buoy -- get them aboard and secured to a cleat, while simultaneously throttling down and shifting the motor into neutral. If you're single-handing this requires you to have three arms and be in two places at once -- the cockpit to deal with the motor and steer, and the bow to grab the mooring lines. Imaginative readers can probably visualize the scrambling, the swearing, the confusion, the Keystone Kops comedy of it all.

(Did I mention that it's a crowded mooring field, with other boats nearby to collide with if anything goes wrong; and that there's always a nasty crosswind?)

But help is at hand:

Ready to strike

Last year I happened to see the ingenious device shown above in the Bosun Supplies catalogue, a favorite compendium of boat-geek gadget-porn. (You can click on the image to see more detail.) It's a hook, with a spring-loaded shackle that closes it. The shackle is held open by a clip attached to your boat pole; that's the state shown above. You get the hook around something -- an eye, a line -- and give a tug. The hook is pulled out of the clip and the shackle closes, as shown below:


Aha, thinks I, I can run a line back from the bow to the cockpit, attach this clever little widget to the line, bring the boat up alongside the mooring buoy, get the hook around the ring on top of the buoy (the one the mooring lines are attached to), and be fast to the mooring in one quick dart of the boat pole. Now I can throttle down and shift into neutral and take more than a millisecond doing it, if necessary, knowing that I won't drift any farther back down-current than the length of the line attached to my clever self-closing hook, which is to say something less than the length of the hull. And in fact without too much scrambling I can get myself up to the bow and pull the boat along the line up to the buoy and get the real mooring lines aboard before I've even drifted that far.

That was the idea, anyway, and it worked fine -- up to a point.

My mooring this year is number NE-18, which is closer to the boat basin and the dinghy dock than last year's was -- it's at about the latitude of 90th Street, or thereabouts, a half-mile or so from the dinghy dock. And it's in the row of moorings closest to shore -- maybe fifty feet -- and in fairly shallow water (fifteen feet). I was kinda pleased by this, since I figured the current and the chop might not be so bad closer to shore.

But of course, on the other hand, you're closer to shore. And this is what the shore looks like:

Can you see that the shore is lined with big rugged boulders, laid down to keep the landfill in place back when Robert Moses extended Riverside Park, and built the west side highway?

Perhaps you can see where this is going. I'll spare you the blow-by-blow. I crept up to my mooring, darted my boat pole at the buoy, heard the satisfying click as the hook escaped from the clip and the shackle snapped shut. I calmly throttled down, shifted the motor into neutral, sauntered toward the bow -- and then heard the unspeakably horrible noise of my iron keel grating against one of those Robert Moses boulders. It's a noise I hope you never hear, and I'll awaken in a cold sweat for years to come, hearing it in my dreams.

Here's what had happened:

The galvanized iron eye on top of the buoy, which I had hooked onto, was so thick that the clever spring-loaded shackle couldn't close all the way over it and secure the hook. I really ought to have a picture of this situation, because it may be hard to visualize; but alas I don't. At any rate the hook dropped off the buoy and without knowing it I was adrift, unsecured to anything, in maybe three knots of downstream current and five knots of west wind, which pushed the poor ill-managed and incompetently-captained Scapegrace right onto the rocks, in less time than I would have believed possible.

The next thirty seconds or so are a terrible gray fog in my memory, lit by a few lurid flashes:

  • Me trying to fend several tons of wind-driven boat off a troll's jaw of snaggletoothed rocks with a flimsy aluminum boat pole. Dream on.
  • A cyclist, along the riverfront path, maybe four or five feet from my face with its pale rictus of fear and horror, looking down at me and saying "Oh whoa ho ho" or "Woo hoo hoo" or something similar. I'm glad to say he was a very dorky middle-aged West Side cyclist, wearing a helmet, and difficult as it may be to believe, I was reminded even in these extreme circumstances of Dr Johnson's famous letter to Lord Chesterfield(*).
  • Feeling the boat rock a little with the swell -- not hard aground, then! -- and scampering back to the cockpit and shifting the motor into forward and gunning the throttle and praying, no-shit praying that we could horse her back into deeper water.
The gods gave us a break. We got away from the hull-crunching shore without any more grinding and grating. We came back up to the mooring and captured it again. This time, even though the shackle still didn't close, the hook held on and I was able to fish out the mooring lines and cleat them down on my poor ill-used girl's foredeck.

I don't think the hull hit the rocks. I think it was just the iron keel. There was no water in the bilge, and the keel bolts still seemed as firmly seated and as well sealed as ever, when I took a look after my pulse rate came back to a standard deviation or two over normal. But the only way I'll really know what happened is to put on the mask and fins and plunge -- facilis descensus Averno -- into the toxic soup of the Hudson and take a look. Which I will do, as soon as I've had a tetanus shot.

Meanwhile I feel, dear reader -- and pardon my language -- like shit. I feel incompetent, and foolish, and culpable.

Back in the day the Royal Navy used to court-martial any captain whose ship was wrecked. I see the point. My ship wasn't wrecked but I still deserve a court martial, and if I had one, the way I feel right now, I would plead guilty and insist on the death penalty.


(*) "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?"

Monday, May 10, 2010

Back in the water

It's a new sailing season, and the dawn came up like thunder a couple of days ago over Eastchester Bay -- well, no, not at all like thunder; that line never made any sense to me, actually. But it came up, anyhow, like nothing but itself, and looked damn pretty doing it, with the somber leaden gleam of the water, and the Rococo pink and gold of the sky, as I took the Scapegrace out of Charlie's boatyard in the Bronx, where she spent the winter, to catch the ebb at Hell Gate and so down the East River to dodge the pouncing Staten Island Ferry at the Battery and thence up the Hudson to my mooring at 79th Street.

(I should really say, of course, that Scapegrace took me, not vice versa.)

A New York hipster like me never goes anywhere, even to sea, without his fixed-gear bike:

... shown above, somewhat indistinctly, riding in the battered but still afloat dinghy (note the missing D ring at the bow). The bike was along for the ride because I had come up to Charlie's the afternoon before, via subway and bike -- this is one of the many charms of Charlie's boatyard -- and spent the night on the boat, in preparation for a crack-o'-dawn departure.

It was very nice to be back on the boat, and very cozy, but what with the excitement and the myriad of noises in the yard and a somewhat apprehensive ear involuntarily turned to the wind -- a bit more brisk and gusty during the night than I really wished for -- it wasn't very restful.

But I awoke, or rather got up, betimes, and made some coffee. The wind had died, which was fine with me; it's a rather tight and twisty path you have to steer to get out of the yard, and hard to negotiate with any wind at all.

(An earlier attempt, two days before, with a nasty crosswind, had led to an undignified debacle, with the boat blown involuntarily back into a slip thirty feet away from the slip it left. No harm done, fortunately, except to my self-regard, and of course to the schedule. But schedules are flimsy things compared to wind and tide.)

Even without the wind, on my second and successful attempt yesterday, I was kept rather busy getting the boat out, and forgot to snap a picture of Charlie's yard until I was well away from it:

I'll have to tell you more about Charlie's boatyard one of these days; it's a wonderful place.

Very little traffic about, and very little wind, so I motored down under the Throgs Neck Bridge and the Whitestone, arriving at Hell Gate after about an hour and a half. There was a good five knots of current running, but fortunately those horrific eddies that suddenly send you shooting off at a right angle to your course were not in evidence, or at least I didn't encounter any -- this time.

The East River was full of whirlpools and upsurges, and for the first half-mile or so gave me a roller-coasterish ride. But then it simmered down and ran smooth, though strong, and I cruised at about seven knots made good -- maybe three through the water -- past the UN, where no stormtroopers descended this time, and got to the Battery in an hour.

Gave the Staten Island ferry terminal a wide berth, and kept an eagle eye on the wicked bloody-minded vessel itself, which usually leaps from its slip like a cheetah and surges straight down upon me at flank speed, blowing its horn like the trump of doom, at the worst possible moment, every time I venture near. This time I was lucky and had completed crossing its track toward the Dismal Borough before it came bounding from its lair, licking its chops and seeking whom it might devour. I'd swear it deviated a little from its usual course just to give me an uneasy moment, but then I've been paranoid about anything connected with Staten Island ever since it put Giuliani in Gracie Mansion.

On the way up the Hudson I passed some of my own trash headed downstream:

Hey! That was a perfectly good plastic bucket! Penelope must have thrown it out when I wasn't looking.

My arrival at the mooring was, as so often occurs, attended with some excitement, but I'll save that for another post.