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.