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...