Friday, July 18, 2014

Soup du Jour

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood

Deb and I had been enjoying some face time with relatives on terra firma while our Laura Lynn sat comfortably affixed to the anchorage at Three Mile Harbor on the north side of the south fork of the island called Long Island for good reason, in the state of New York. I believe only women are capable of following that description through to the end, but check the map and it’ll all make sense.

For me there’s always something about travel taken on a sailboat that makes me wish I’d taken up flying planes as a hobby. For several days we’d been tracing a meandering path around peninsulas and islands, getting further diverted by shoals, weather systems and equipment malfunctions. But that’s the charm of sailing, isn’t it? I recently heard from my pal Ron about a trip he and his daughter had taken aboard their Alberg 35. They’d cut their planned adventure short to circumvent approaching weather. Upon returning home after two days out, they’d hopped in a car and visited the harbor they’d just returned from, just to have dinner. Northport really is a cute town. You should visit it somehow.

During our planned return to Block Island, we visited Deb’s prized cousins Todd and Kat, and their two precocious sons. These are authentic water people, Todd having proposed to Kat as they waited for a nice wave set while perched on their respective surfboards. He did so wordlessly, letting the banner towed by one of the pilots working the beach banner ad trade (I’m telling you, a plane will get the job done) speak for him. If that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.

Todd had recently acquired a bigger boat, naturally, one with a pair of Chevy engines, so you know we could’ve gotten somewhere on it right away, but when we considered an evening of frivolity and the many stages it would take to actually get a crew out onto the water and to a destination where barbecue was in the offing, we opted instead to all hop in the family SUV and hightail it to Montauk. Boats are definitely fun, but an essential nautical skill is the ability to rationally assess and manage time. 

While enjoying shore life, we were made aware of the impending visit of the first named tropical storm of the season. Had Deb and I driven out to see our relatives, I would’ve gone, “Well now, that’s interesting. Pretty early start to the season.” Instead, with our boat anchored three days from her home port, I went something like, “Son of a freaking bitch! You have got to be kidding me!”

You really have to admire the degree to which meteorologists can predict the timing, path and severity of large-scale weather systems these days. That admiration, however, is dampened by prognostications that target your present location. Deb and I had to decide whether to hunker down or skedaddle.

I tend to be a hunker-downer type. Deb is a skeedaddler. She won the battle of strategies, aided and abetted by swarms of no-see-ums that hounded us as we bid adieu to land and hopped into the smallest tender ever to have been built by a West Marine vender. I considered what it would be like to sit for two days on a boat with nothing much to do except swat insects while waiting for a hurricane to plough through.

We were up at the crack of dawn, or thereabouts, having worked out the math on how to hit Plum Gut at slack tide. I was all over that task for the second time, having come through the infamous slot and into the protective cradle of Long Island’s East End several days earlier. Once again I was priding myself at my finely honed seamanship, feeling very much like a sailor who’d done his homework, when the teacher that is Mother Nature threw in an opportunity for extra credit.

Fog started to roll in just as we approached that swirling confluence of water and boats that is Plum Gut. As the veil was drawn about us, we began to hear foghorns distressingly close to our position. I had a déjà vu moment from a trip many years earlier, when the same sort of thing happened as we approached the boulder-lined breakwater at Cape May.

Let me know if we're going to die now

Back then I followed the lead of another vessel that had issued a security call, indicating it’s position, direction and intent. I did the same again this day, and was greeted by the voice of a ferry captain, who requested I switch to channel 13, which I did. If he’d asked me to turn around and go back to where I came from, I would’ve done that too. As an aside, the term “ferry captain” just doesn’t pack the kind of manly punch it ought to. This guy was commandeering a vessel that could destroy us in a New York instant. It is big, has limited ability to maneuver, and carries a payload of humans with time-sensitive agendas. They might have felt it if their chauffeur had sliced a small boat in half on the way to Connecticut, but they might not if they’d been snoozing in their cars.

Channel 13 is the recognized frequency used by commercial traffic. I had my conversation with the ferry captain, who said he had me on his radar, which was soothing. But there were a lot of other vessels out there, which was not. We had no radar. What we had was a whistle. I commenced blowing into it, and its shrill pitch made my ears ache. Coast Guard protocol requires a vessel to issue a warning blast at least once every two minutes in limited visibility, and the conditions called for more frequent toots. Jesus, there were horns all around us. I was hyperventilating as this little whistle vacuumed the air from my lungs after a two-second report.

It then dawned on me that I had an option onboard, a conch horn born from our trip to the Bahamas those many years ago. It had a note much like that which I was hearing from the invisible fleet around us, and a restricted air passage that let me extend the length of my warning without passing out.

I made a radio announcement to anyone listening that I’d shifted from whistle to conch horn, figuring this might help anyone tracking our progress. I was met with radio silence. In retrospect I suspect the listeners out there were laughing off-mic over my needless details (I tend toward more explanation for my behavior than less), and I bet that if one had opted to respond, he might’ve said, “Captain, if you want to eat a can of baked beans and can fart loud enough, that’ll work too.”

What they look like when you can see them

We never spotted a ferry, but we did watch as the occasional sport fisherman ghosted by. Once we saw several in a small parade, which I imagine is an effective schooling strategy. Deb followed our GPS course (you just have to love GPS) through the Gut, and shortly thereafter the veil began to lift, too late for her satisfaction. She told me afterward that that had she known what we were in for that morning, she would’ve voted with me to sit another couple days at anchor to let Arthur pass us by.  I have no idea what voter turnout will be like on future trips.