The Log of the Grey Fox

A blog wherein your middle-aged and desk-bound correspondent muses on the fun part of his existence, inside and outside the gunwales of a very small “yacht”

“It’s a semi-true story, believe it or not.   I made up a few things, and there’s some I forgot” 

Jimmy Buffett

Grey Fox is a 16-foot long cruising dinghy, and this is a chronicle of my experiences sailing and, at least occasionally, cruising in this small open boat.  The boat is a “Calendar Islands Yawl” designed by Maine-based designer and build-it-yourself kit producer Clint Chase. I built in my garage and first started sailing it in June 2018.

Day 2 of the Small Reach Regatta

July 26th

Ok, so it’s really August 20th, and I am just getting around to posting something that happened a month ago. I have no future as a live blogger. But since I have no mass of followers eagerly awaiting my next pronouncement, I guess it’s ok. Most of my posts are composed from airline seats, when I have captive time on my hands to write. Today’s trip is from Mexico City back to New York, plenty of time for another post.

After two glorious days of warm, sunny and dry weather, it would not be surprising that Maine’s reputation for fog, cold and rain might catch up with us, but today is yet another perfect day to get out on the water.  There’s not a cloud in the sky, and the forecast is for light winds in the morning but maybe a bit more breeze in the afternoon. 

Today’s plan is for the fleet to set out from Herrick Bay and rather than do an out-and-back sail to some lunch spot, to make a one-way trip up the Eggemoggin Reach and anchor for the night just off the shore where the group is camping for the four days at Oceanfront Camping at Reach Knolls. For that to work, the fleet needs the tides and currents to work with us rather than flushing us down the reach just as we’re trying to make our way up it (up here being to the Northwest, or from Jericho Bay towards Penobscot Bay).  We also need a docile forecast for overnight, as the proposed anchorage is totally open to the Reach and would get dicey in any serious wind.   Fortunately the SRR Race Committee has that all figured out and the weather and tides are all lined up in our favor. 

I use the term “Race Committee” in jest; the organizers of SRR are as salty as can be, know these waters like the back of their hand and are very focused on the safety of the fleet.   But there’s no real racing at SRR, and not one of the organizers is sporting the traditional race committee garb of tomato-soup pants and blue blazers that you might see on the committee boat of, say, a New York Yacht Club regatta.  Of course, you don’t see any megabucks racing machines, kevlar/carbon sails or trophy 2nd wives at SRR either.  (Tom Wolfe called the latter “x-rays” in The Bonfire of the Vanities” because they were so thin that you could see their bones). 

And the competitiveness of the sailing is good-natured and not so serious:  on a downwind leg in super-light wind on a previous SRR, I saw the crew of one of the Caledonia yawls get out a couple of big beach umbrellas they carried and use them as spinnakers… this caused a nearby boat to cry foul for the unauthorized additional sail area, but I don’t recall a review of the purported foul by a Race Committee jury, no 720’s were performed, and the offending parasolers were not ejected from the day’s sail. 

I’m on Elyssa again today, and so is my erstwhile Grey Fox crewman John, so the longest boat in the SRR fleet might have the biggest crew today as well with six people.  Rather than make the one-way trip and anchor overnight off Reach Knolls, Susan plans to return to Atlantic Boat this afternoon.  That’s fine with me and will actually have us doing more sailing as the one-wayers.  The plan is to sail to  Campbell island on the south side of the Reach and just off of Deer Isle and anchor for lunch, then most of the fleet will make the short leg from there across the Reach to Reach Knolls, while a few boats will return to Atlantic Boat. 

Nobody’s moving very quickly, but nobody’s racing so who cares?

The wind is once again ultra-light in the morning, and we’re on the late side of the fleet in getting underway, so we lag most of the other boats.   It’s a patience contest all the way out of Herrick Bay and past Naskeag Point and Smuttynose Island into the eastern mouth of the reach.  Then we find some wind and make good time in the smooth waters in between the islands lining the south side of the Reach.

As we are a little late to the lunch spot, and have longer to go to get back to Atlantic Boat than the boats going to Reach Knolls, rather than anchoring or rafting up with some of the boats already on their lunch hooks, we just sail through the fleet a few times while Dave experiments with a 360-degree video camera that he has just bought for the SRR.   We get some funny looks, as Dave’s camera is at the end of a 3-foot pole and he looks like he is chasing an invisible butterfly with a net, so we yell at the other boats to smile and look nautical for the camera.

SRR boats rafted up for lunch at Campbell Island

After buzzing the fleet we head into the Reach and then eastward towards Jericho Bay and Herrick Bay.  The wind has kicked up to around 10-12 knots, which is when I would be tying in a reef if I were sailing solo on Grey Fox, but Elyssa is a much heavier boat and handles this kind of wind perfectly.   I have the privilege of steering for almost the entire trip back, which is just great. The sailing is such fun that we’re tempted to just keep on sailing all the way over to Pond Island before turning around to head back to Atlantic Boat, but we don’t want to hold up the chase boat crew that will be acting as yacht club launch ferrying crews from their moored boats to the dock, so we take a more direct route back.  

Another perfect day of sailing. 

The Small Boat Designer Hit Parade

The stroll down the beachfront small craft museum that is lunchtime at SRR, combined with a careful perusal of the SRR fleet guide, reveal some of the leaders in this arcane corner of boat design. I counted the following number of boats in this year’s SRR by designer. Here’s the hit parade:

#1 Iain Oughtred: 13 boats. The Australian/Scottish old man of the sea is the clear granddaddy of glued-lapstrake traditional small boats. He was a pioneer in glued-lapstrake construction, and a prolific interpreter of classic boat styles into glued-lapstrake plans and kits. In this year’s SRR fleet there are 8 Caledonia Yawls, an Arctic Tern, a Ness Yawl, a Penny Fee, a Fulmar, and a John Dory. Wow!

Geoff Kerr in his Oughtred Caledonia

#2 John C. Harris of Chesapeake Light Craft: 7 boats, including 3 Northeaster Dories and 2 Skerries. CLC is the volume leader in this little niche, and is probably responsible for turning more complete tool-newbies into boatbuilders than anyone else. My first sailboat build was a Northeaster dory, and the first rate kit parts (including all the solid timber pieces, pre-cut, milled and planed) and super-detailed instruction book made it easy to turn out a beautiful, high-quality boat. John has excelled in rendering classic boat types such as the Swampscott dory and the Whitehall into damn-close replicas with much-simplified “LapStitch” construction.

Two CLC Northeaster dories. Full disclosure: this photo is actually from SRR 2017

#3 John Gardner & Howard I. Chappelle: 5 boats (not counting the many other designs they inspired). I’ll group these two names because they were the guys who recorded the lines of all of these old small traditional craft so that we could re-create them after all of the old ones rotted away. They weren’t designers, they were preservationists. I think it’s safe to say that the Traditional Small Craft Association, and all of us traditional small craft nuts, wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Gardner’s and Chappelle’s work.

John Gardner literally “wrote the book” on dories, and this is one of them

#4 Michael Storer: 5 boats, all Goat Island Skiffs. The Aussie designer was onto something when he designed this poor-man’s racing & daysailing dinghy. He kept the design simple, inexpensive and super easy to build (all flat plywood panels). With its light weight, hard chines, nearly flat bottom and prodigious sail area, it’s fast as can be until big chop makes the flat bottom suboptimal. It probably doesn’t row as well as some of the more round-bottomed boats, but life is a series of trade-offs.

#5 John Welsford: 3 boats — a Navigator, a Pathfinder, and a Scamp. Welsford’s designs are built for cruising, and have more features incorporated for cruising than a lot of the other totally-open boats. At 12 feet in length, but with a cuddy cabin and ample freeboard, the Scamp must be the smallest pocket cruiser in existence that really deserves the name.

Lagniappe, a Welsford Pathfinder

I’ll stop counting at #5 but mention just a few other names. I was surprised not to see more Francois Vivier designs. They are beautiful and highly traditional in inspiration, but innovative in their construction design. The usual 2 or 3 Ilurs that have graced prior SRRs weren’t present this year…

I was disappointed not to see more Clint Chase designs, but that was partly my fault because one of them is Grey Fox and we didn’t manage to get the boat to Maine. Clint was represented by one of his Deblois Street Dories, and as kit-provider by some of the Goat Island Skiffs, for which he is the kit-cutting agent in the USA.

What Grey Fox would have looked like had it been in Maine for SRR…

And the Chuck Paine-designed Norseboats were the most prevalent factory-built boats in the SRR fleet. They seem to combine a traditional-inspired hull design with some decidedly modern features including a high aspect full-battened mainsail and a cockpit dodger. One even had a bimini top.

Norseboat with a decidedly not-too-Norse (more tropical really) bimini top

One of the coolest things about the SRR fleet is the incredible variety of boats. You could (and I did) learn a lot by scrutinizing the details of design and construction of all of these boats. And one of the most impressive things about the fleet is the quality of workmanship in the boats. Many of the owner-built boats are just gorgeous, and benefit from a level of detail in the finishing of the boats that would be beyond what is economical for a production boatbuilder to do– certainly for a small boat that wouldn’t have a market if the price were too high.

Let’s get small… Day One at the Small Reach Regatta

July 25th

John and I are in Maine and managed to get in a great day of kayaking in Merchants Row, and now the Small Reach Regatta is about to begin. 65 or so small, mostly wooden, mostly owner-built sail-and-oar boats getting together for a rendezvous and to share their quirky love of old-fashioned small, slow, motorless boats. On Wednesday night we joined the opening dinner under the big tent at Oceanfront Camping at Reach Knolls in Brooklin, hard on the shores of Eggemoggin Reach.

After dinner the organizers gave a briefing of the next day’s events, where the fleet was going to sail, who’s in charge, safety procedures, etc. When it came time for questions and announcements, I raised my hand and announced that we were two hardy sailors with good intentions but were boat-less, as my boat is hard aground back in New York on the broken trailer. We had come anyway, sans boat, and were “looking for a ship”. Would anyone take a couple of lost sailor souls on board?

Thankfully, Tom Jackson, who is the head honcho of the event, introduced us to a couple of folks who expressed their openness to taking on crew, or ballast, and we confessed our willingness to be either as long as it got us out on the water.

John lined up a ride with Gardner Pickering on his Caledonia Yawl. At 19’6″ and with a wide beam and lifeboat-like volume, the Caledonia has room for lots of people. Even better, the Iain Oughtred-designed Caledonias are beautiful, notoriously fast in almost all conditions but especially in the light air we’re likely to see today, and probably the most numerous model of craft at the SRR. I think there are seven of them in this year’s fleet. Gardner and his Hewes & Co. millwork and cabinetry shop in Blue Hill, Maine is the exclusive agent for cutting Oughtred’s CNC kits in the USA, so John will surely learn a lot about the design and maybe the building process from Gardner.

Gardner’s Caledonia Yawl “Vivian Robinson” (dark blue) and another Caledonia (right)

I got a berth on a unique boat in the fleet, Susan from Massachusetts’ 22′ “Elyssa”, designed by Roger Long and built by Paul Rollins in 2011. Susan refers to it as a yawl dory, but I don’t think it is either of those; the large size and fairly far-forward placement of the mizzen makes it a ketch rig, and it does not have the flat bottom, wide planks and tombstone stern I associate with a dory design. It’s more like an stretched salmon wherry, with a strip-planked hull below the waterline and traditional lapstrake above, and a wherry-shaped wineglass transom stern. I’m guessing the beam is about 5 feet, so it’s truly stretched, almost like one of those limousines. That’s great for me though, as with my addition we’re five souls on board, but not at all crowded into this big and beautiful boat.

Susan and Dave’s “Elyssa”, the longest boat in the SRR fleet. Grey Fox’s boatless skipper is at the helm

The wind is all but nonexistent as the fleet weighs anchor from Atlantic Boat in Herrick Bay, Brooklin (on the Blue Hill Bay side) and heads out towards today’s lunch destination: Sellers Island, a 1-acre Island at the eastern entrance to the Eggemoggin Reach. Sellers is one of the many islands in the region that have Maine Island Trail (MITA) campsites on them, and last time I was there we camped overnight and had it all to ourselves. Today, 65 SRR boats will descend on it for lunch! It’s a good thing that it will be just about low tide when we arrive, as otherwise there would not be enough exposed beach to handle all those boats.

The fleet getting underway with nary a zephyr

With little wind, our trusty crewmate Christophe moves the boat along under the “ash breeze” (oars).

Christophe, another boatless sailor, came all the way from France to experience the SRR

After an hour of rowing and drifting, a slight breeze comes up and gets us – slowly – to Sellers Island. The beach there is already crowded and at about 2,000 pounds, Elyssa is not a boat you want to be hauling up and down the beach with the tide, so we anchor and wade ashore. The sight of the whole fleet from the water with the island as backdrop is truly impressive:

Sellers Island – with visitors

In addition to snarfing down our picnic lunch and a beer, we spend a good part of our lunch break walking up and down the beach inspecting all the other boats. It’s a veritable museum of small craft, most of pretty traditional styles including Banks dories, Swampscott dories, double-enders inspired by Shetland Islands yole boat designs, Penobscot Bay salmon wherries, Maine Peapods, and Whitehall rowing boats. There are also a few more modern designs, the most popular of which seems to be the Goat Island Skiff (five of them). While a number are built in the traditional lapstrake manner, with cedar frames riveted or screwed to oak frames (including Elyssa), the large majority are traditional shapes rendered in modern epoxy-plywood construction.

Trailer sailors aren’t stupid, and they recognize the advantages of this method of building, which produces a 100% watertight boat that doesn’t need to “swell up” in the water, doesn’t suffer from going from in the water to onto a trailer, is probably 50% lighter than a similar sized traditionally built boat, and — perhaps most important, or at least most causal of the preponderance of these boats at SRR — is much more easily built by an amateur knucklehead with no real boatbuilding skills, no access to good boatbuilding timber, and limited time available to spend building a boat. You know, a knucklehead like me.

After lunch, the fleet shoves off / weighs anchor for the sail back to Herrick Bay. With a bit more wind, we’re able to move along better and the sailing is delightful. Surely sailing in Jericho Bay on a crystal clear day, with the big hills of Mount Desert Island looking in the distance, is about as good as small boat sailing gets…

Back to Herrick Bay with Mt. Desert in the distance

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Some Really Good Lemonade

Or a Lemon Margarita.

July 24th. Brooklin, Maine

Having pitched our tent and set up our palatial screened-in sunshade/gazebo in the dark, we awake to an absolutely gorgeous day in Maine and nothing that we have to do.  No boat to get into the water, and – unfortunately – no sailing to do.   As I lie awake in my sleeping bag contemplating whether to get up, I overhear the campers in the next site talking about kayaking.  That’s the idea!  I hadn’t thought of that but here we are near some of the best sea kayaking territory on the East Coast, and I know exactly where we can rent some kayaks to get out on the water before the rest of the Small Reach Regatta arrives.

Motivated by that idea, I jump out of the sack and get a start on the day.  I associate civilized camping with good food – no freeze-dried eggs or canned stew for me – and that means I’m cooking up fresh coffee, eggs and bacon on our little butane stove. 

After a leisurely breakfast we head off to the Old Quarry Campground in Stonington on Deer Isle.   I had used Old Quarry as a launch base for a cruise in my dory several years ago, and it’s ideally located right next to the myriad Islands of Merchant Row south of Stonington. I also knew that they rented pretty good kayaks.  By a little after noon, our butts are in kayaks and we are headed south across the Deer Island Thorofare towards Merchant Row.  The day is spectacularly perfect for paddling, with very little wind and a cloudless blue sky.  

Merchant Row encompasses at least 30 small Islands flung out on the water like a giant’s marbles all the way between Deer Isle to the north and Isle Au Haut to the south.  A well-known paddler’s paradise, the Row has the highest concentration of Maine Island Trail campsites anywhere along the coast:  something like 8 sites within a 3 mile radius.  We’re not camping on this day trip, but we can see why this is the place to go kayak camping in Maine. 

After passing several Islands we land at our chosen lunch spot, the gorgeous sand spit between Devil’s Island and Shivers Island.   (You really can’t beat the names of these Maine Islands… in addition to these two, later in the day we would pass Hells’ Half Acre, Wreck, Bold, Bare, St. Helena and Crotch Islands, among others.  I wonder if the ghost of Napoleon lurks on St. Helena. And on the chart, Crotch Island is shaped like a – well, use your imagination.

The sand at our lunch spot is made entirely of broken bits of seashells, the water is Caribbean clear, and we have a captive view of what little boat traffic goes by on Jericho Bay, making for a most inviting scene for lunch and a snooze.

After lunch we skirt Devils Island and then Spruce Island, where John is intrigued by the huge monolithic granite shoreline and the enormous glacial erratic boulders sitting there like dice left behind by some geological giant.  We pull up right on the sloping granite shore – no beach here – a maneuver made possible the incredibly smooth water, and get out of the boats to poke around.   John even finds a lawn chair sitting on the granite.

Isle Au Haut on the horizon

Back on the water, we head south to McGlathery Island where a couple of sailing yachts are anchored. Then I spot a large vessel anchored to the west and we decide to go investigate.  As we draw nearer we see that it’s a REALLY big yacht, with a sleek and classic design that is either quite old or a new boat designed to look right out of the 1930s.   As we get up close I am dazzled by the mirror-smooth and gleaming Navy-blue hull and the brilliant varnished brightwork.  It’s the motor yacht “Marie”, which according to her transom hails from Newport Rhode Island, and she is flying a New York Yacht Club burgee.  I comment to John that “that’s a big chunk of change floating there” and he replies “$20 million, you think?”  Probably not too far off, judging by the size (I guess 120 feet) and the quality of the workmanship (immaculate).   The photo of John in his 16-foot kayak next to Marie gives a sense of scale.

The sublime and the humble: M.V. Marie and John in his plastic kayak

A little post-paddle internet research reveals the identity and history of the vessel: Known until recently as Acania, Marie was built in New York in 1930 by Consolidated Shipbuilding for the silent film actress Constance Bennett. Over the years she has had several owners and served duty as a submarine echo finder during WWII. In 1995 a new owner rescued her from a scrap yard and did a complete overhaul while keeping as much of her history and original features intact. I will say that the restoration was wonderfully done.

Spruce Island, with Mount Desert in the distance

From there we thread our way through more of the many gorgeous Islands in Merchant Row, heading north until we get into the Deer Island Thorofare just in front of the town of Stonington.  Then an easy paddle down the Thorofare brings us back to Old Quarry.  A wonderful day in a truly fabulous and beautiful marine playground!

Zen and the Art of Trailer Maintenance

I overheard the engineer
Say something ‘bout the landing gear
And there’s no way that bird’s going to fly…
So there’s no plane on Sunday
Maybe the one come Monday
Make the best of a bad situation
Is all you can do…”

Jimmy Buffett

July 23rd

The day I have been waiting for since I started building Grey Fox in 2017 has finally come… I’ve loaded up the boat on the trailer and am heading up to Brooklin, Maine for 4 days of sailing in one of the greatest places on earth to sail a small boat! The Calendar Islands Yawl was designed for coastal cruising in Maine, and that’s what I have been dying to do with it. 

I’ve recruited my old college roommate John to join me as crew.  He’s flying up from Washington DC and I will pick him up at the Portland airport on our way Down East. We’ll be sailing in the “Small Reach Regatta”, a rendezvous and not really a regatta, where over 65 small sail-and-oar boats get together and sail for three days in a friendly, non-competitive and truly photo-worthy fleet.  No engines allowed.

Yesterday I sailed the boat around from its home base at HHYC to the nearest boat ramp and put it on the trailer, and spent most of the evening getting it ready for the 450-mile drive to Maine and packing all the camping equipment into the car.  So this morning, I’m ready to roll.   EXCEPT…

As I make one last check of the trailer and the boat before I roll out the driveway, I am confronted with a very flat tire on the trailer.   No big deal, I have a spare, so I get out the jack and wrench and proceed to remove the offending not-so-round wheel. But the nuts are rusted on tight and despite huge efforts, the application of an inordinate amount of foot-pounds of torque, and a whole lot of swearing, I can only get two of them to even turn. But they just turn and turn and don’t come off.   Rust-welded together and now with the threads stripped.  JUST GREAT… I have a flat and I can’t change it.  

Since I can’t get the tire and wheel off, I try inflating it to see if I can find the leak.  It seems like the tire is not seated on the rim and is leaking at the bead.  I try reseating it by hand and pump it up with my trusty bike pump.   Listening closely, I don’t hear any leaking air.   Just about then I get a text message from John that he’s about to take off and will be in Portland in a couple of hours.  I text back that I had a flat but it seems like a slow leak so I’ll hit the road, bring the pump with me and hope for the best.

About 3 miles from home and before getting on I-95, I stop and check the tire.  It seems fine; maybe this will work.   I get on the freeway and head off.  At the first rest stop in Connecticut, about 20 miles from home, I stop to get gasoline and check the tire.   Before I even get to the side of the trailer with the previously flat tire, I see mud all over the OTHER wheel.   Looking closely, i see that the mud is really grease, and the bearing is coming apart.   SONOFABITCH! I can’t bike-pump my way to Maine with a bad bearing. 

With visions of the wheel coming off at 65 miles an hour and my boat getting wrecked, I quickly abandon any hope of getting Grey Fox to Maine today.   I decide to try to make it the 20 miles back home and figure out a plan from there.  I make it back home without calamity, but Grey Fox is stranded there. This trailer is just betraying me.

OR… have I been betraying it?  I’ve had it for 5 years and have never done a lick of maintenance on it.  Those wheels have been dunked in salt water at least 30 times.  Every time they are submerged they go through a hot-cold shock that causes the grease to shrink a little and allows seawater to get in.  I guess you’re supposed to grease those bearings at least once a year.

I maintain my boat to a tee. I fix every scratch on the boat and inspect it closely almost every time I use it.  Folks at our club give me a hard time for being such a stickler, and think I treat the boat better than I treat my wife.  (I don’t think that’s true, they both get pretty good attention).  But I completely neglected the trailer.  What a … dumbass.

Just about the time I pull back into my driveway, another text from John informs me that he has just landed in Portland.  I call him to speak live.  “Sorry pal, but we have a major problem.  The wheel bearing is shot and it will take at least a couple of days to get it fixed.  As my son’s favorite song from his favorite off-Broadway show ‘Spring Awakening’ goes, ‘here’s the moment you know you’re totally f**cked.’”

“Didn’t you say there are going to be 65 boats at this event we’re going to?  Don’t you think we can bum space on some of those boats?” offers John.

“You’re right – I’m sure we can find boats to crew on. That’s the solution.  Sometimes you’re pretty smart. I guess we’ll go boat-less and hope for sympathy from the other boat skippers.”

I proceed to park the boat and trailer in the driveway.   All the camping gear is in the car, so all I need to do is remove some boat stuff that I don’t need from the car and I’ll be off.  Hmm… don’t need that big anchor.  30 minutes later I text John and tell him I’ll see him in Portland at around 4pm. He’ll have to find something to keep him occupied for the next six hours. 

Freed of the trailer and the mental burden of stressing about how to get it repaired, I’m off and making about 55 knots Speed Over Ground in the Toyota land yacht.  I roll into Portland at 4:30 and pick up John, and before 8:00 we’re in Brooklin.  We check in at the campground and then head to the Brooklin Inn, the only food establishment in town that’s open on a Tuesday, for some dinner.  We made it!  Just without the boat that was kind of the whole point of the trip.   But we’ll find other boats to ride.  We’re making the best of a bad situation.

Of Gatsby and Obi-Wan Kenobi

“I will take the boy, and watch over him.”

Obi-Wan Kenobi in one of the Star Wars movies

June 23rd

Yesterday’s northwester is blowing itself out, and this afternoon the forecast is for 8-10 knots of it, an amount that is perfect for Grey Fox and manageable enough for the skipper to take out his nephew for a Sunday afternoon sail. Nephew Greg (16) has done some sailing at summer camp and most recently with the sailing club at high school.  Since his family doesn’t have a boat or any access to the water, I suppose he is lucky to live in a town with lots of sailing (hence the high school club can find boats – nice ones, 420s no less – to sail at that bigger fancier yacht club in Larchmont) and a salty (or is it eccentric?) old uncle with a saltier and more eccentric boat.  His mother, who doubles as my sister, is pleased to have me offer to take him out, and only asks that I refrain from capsizing the boat and him.  I guess she has heard that that is a possibility with a small keel-less boat.

We get underway mid-afternoon to a delightful offshore breeze and take the route of least resistance, heading south on a reach in the direction of the city.  Playing sailing instructor to Greg’s apprentice, I let him do the steering and sail trimming. 

Not long into our sojourn I point out to him that he needs to pay constant attention to sail trim, as the sails are sheeted in way to tight.  “If you want to win those sailing club races you’ll need to pay more attention to your sails.  In a shifty breeze like this, it’s a constant process.  Just because you were trimmed right a minute ago doesn’t mean you will be now” says sage Obi-wan Kenobi.  

Young Luke responds “How do you tell they’re trimmed too tight?” 

“Look at your flag” replies the Sage One.  Greg looks over his shoulder at the flagpole on shore.   “Not that one, young Jedi. The flags at the top of your masts. That’s why they’re there – so you can see the wind direction.  Also look at the streamer trailing off the end of the yard.  It gives you an idea of the direction the wind is leaving off the leech of the sail.”

Flags and streamers

“Oh, so that’s what that streamer thing is for” acknowledges the apprentice. 

“Well, yes, plus it looks cool – how many other boats have one of those?” I reply.  Following this remonstration, young Greg tightens his concentration on getting the most out of the boat.   See the steely-eyed determination in his eyes:

I guess I better pay attention…

Even though the wind is lightening up pretty rapidly, our reach has us off of Hart Island, Bronx in no time.

Passing the gong buoy off Hart Island

From there we head almost dead downwind across the narrows to Great Neck on Long Island, which forms the western side of outer Manhasset Bay.   It’s also the “West Egg” in The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby and the other “new money” folks lived. From there we scoot across the bay towards Manhasset Neck or Sands Point, which would have been “East Egg” in the same book, and is where the old money lived and where Gatsby aspired to be.  I tried to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book once but found it so uninteresting that I never made it through the whole thing.  But I do remember that in the book, the folks in East Egg had a great view of the Manhattan Skyline.  Since we are now pretty much in front where Daisy’s house and dock would have been, I can confirm that the East Eggers had a great view:

Looking southwest from East Egg

The skyline today is certainly way more dramatic than in Gatsby’s/Fitzgerald’s Roaring 20’s.  Partly because today’s golden era is even more roaring than back then for the top 0.01%, and they are the market for the new ultra-high rise apartment buildings that are currently transforming the Midtown skyline.  Somehow I suspect that these sky-high multi-story “apartments” are in addition to, rather than in lieu of, Gold Coast mansions… If you have billions, why not have both?  A hundred-million $-plus pied a terre in the city and a weekend estate in the Hamptons.   Not to mention a yacht, a ski chalet in Aspen, a private island in the Caribbean and of course a jet to get you to and from all of them.   Well, I’ve got my yacht…

Back to the sailing… by the team we get near Daisy’s dock in East Egg, the wind dies completely.   Greg starts to get antsy.  “There’s no wind.  We’re stuck.   We’re going to have to row all the way back to Larchmont”.  Considering that the distance to Larchmont is at least 4 miles, and I just did that cross-sound row last week, I’m not in a hurry to take in sail and get out the spruce breeze.

“Patience, young Jedi. The wind will fill in.  In the meantime, we’re not drifting onto rocks, or running out of daylight, so let’s just sit back and relax,” offers Obi-wan. “Or, if you prefer, I can tie you to the mizzenmast and lash you with a cat-‘o-nine tails as an offering to the wind-god Aeolus, and see if that will rustle us up a breeze”.   Greg looks at me like I have three eyes, which is fair, because he clearly hasn’t read my prior post here, “Puffs and Gusts”.

Sure enough, before long the afternoon Sound southwesterly comes in and we are moving smartly northward towards Larchmont.  We pass by Execution Rocks and I spot a couple of kayaks a half mile off.   Thinking I recognize the color and shape of the boats, we alter course to intercept them.  It’s Jean and Bea, two of the hardest-core kayakers in western Long Island Sound and fellow kayak pals of mine from HHYC.   I take the helm from Greg and head over to rendezvous with them. 

When we get alongside I hand my waterproof camera to Bea and ask her to snap a few photos of us.  I don’t have any pictures of the boat taken from not on the boat.   A kayak isn’t the best platform to shoot photos from, but Bea gives it a try.  We make two or three loops around her in Grey Fox to give her a good angle, and she comes up with some pretty good shots.

Photo session complete, I re-raft with Bea to get the camera back and then offer to race them back to HHYC.  In light air or going upwind, they would fly right by Grey Fox, but by now the breeze is up to maybe 8 knots and on a reach we are doing almost 5 knots, leaving our 4+ knot kayakers slowly slipping away. 

Gusts and Puffs

June 24th

After two weekends away from the water, I’m back on Long Island Sound in Grey Fox.  I was in the Dominican Republic doing some volunteer work with #BridgestoCommunity, along with a small group of fellow travelers/volunteers from the Bank.  It’s Global Volunteer Month at the firm, during which all employees are “encouraged” to spend an afternoon volunteering with any of a wide range of charities and non-profits.  Our pick-up group of volunteers went the extra mile, each individual using a week of their precious vacation time and spending a substantial portion of their own money to make the week-long trip to the D.R., where we built housing in a remote (and fairly primitive) village in the central highlands.  Don’t tell Elizabeth Warren, it’s not consistent with her narrative that all Wall Street bankers are evil.

Back to the log of Grey Fox…

After two weeks of landlubbering, I was anxious to get back on the water.   Saturday’s forecast was for strong and gusty winds out of the Northwest.     Windfinder.com, the oracle of weather prediction for kitesurfers,  windsurfers and small boat sailors, predicted 12 knots with gusts to 22 throughout the day.  That’s on offshore breeze in my stomping ground, and the perfect direction for a reach up the coast to Great Captain Island in Greenwich, Connecticut and then a reach back home.  

I hit the water at about 7:30am with a plan to sail solo to Great Captain, 7 ½ miles away, drop the hook or beach the boat and take a breakfast break, and be home before noon.   From the cove, the wind looked modest.   Even though it would be stronger once I got a little further out of the lee, it felt pretty manageable.  So I tied in one reef and was on my way.   Crystal clear sky, bright sun but only 70 degrees, and smooth water made for great sailing.  I sailed about a mile with shifty and puffy winds, but even the puffs only got up to maybe 12 knots, so I hove-to and shook out the reef.

Sailors are a superstitious lot, and I’ve seen them go to elaborate lengths to try to rustle up wind.   When I was on the Esmeralda, the Chilean Navy’s 310-foot tall sailing ship, back in my younger Navy days (i.e. 1985), we became becalmed off of Tierra del Fuego while trying to round Cape Horn from Atlantic to Pacific.  Yes, BECALMED off of Cape Horn.   THAT never happens.   But it did.   After about 24 hours of flopping around, and in the middle of the night, the powers that be mustered the entire crew on the afterdeck (“la popa” in Spanish) and proceeded to make an offering to Aeolus, the god of wind.   Aeolus was played by one of the senior chief petty officers of the ship, who was dressed the part and from shouted through a bullhorn from atop the mizzen boom shouted that the required offering was that the youngest cadet onboard be tied to the mizzenmast and flogged with a cat ‘o nine tails.   Fortunately, it was all for fun, the cat o’nine tails was made of yarn, and the flogging was not real.  But Aeolus declared his satisfaction and promised wind before daylight.  

Lest the reader think that the complete digression in the prior paragraph is completely made up, or maybe a semi-true story as I am known to occasionally tell, (1) I have photos to prove that it’s true, and (2) it was a just a lead-in to the following:  If shaking out the reef is a strategy for getting more wind, it really worked for me today. 

Completing the digression, the cadet sacrifice worked, and by the morning we had 20 knots and growing.   Even better, the wind was from the east (not the prevailing wind) and pretty soon we were flying around the Horn with 40+ knots of wind.  In fact Aeolus overdid it, and we managed to bend a spar and blow out several heavy canvas sails during the next 24 hours. 

Grey Fox’s skipper (then a lowly midshipman) rounding Cape Horn aboard Esmeralda after Aeolus delivered mucho viento… June 1985

A little gratuitous flashback there. Besides, I needed an excuse to throw a photo into this post and I sure didn’t get any sailing today because my hands were kind of busy. Back to Long Island Sound…

Within ten minutes of shaking out my reef, the wind was up to 12 knots and the gusts were getting a lot stronger.  Ten more minutes of struggling to hold the boat level, and I hove-to again to tie that reef back in.   With pretty strong gusts as this point, tying in the reef was trickier than I remembered. My reefing rig requires me to put a reef hook on the forward end of the boom through an eye in the tack of the sail – pretty easy – but then to do the same thing with the clew of the sail to the hook on the after part of the boom.    You can only do that with the sail more or less amidships, and with the gusty wind, the boat didn’t stay bow-to-wind.  Even with the mizzen sheeted in tight, and with the drogue I keep in the bow thrown into the water, it wanted to tack back and forth.  As soon as the boat would veer off the wind, I would have to let go of the boom or otherwise I would serve as a human cleated-down-mainsheet.  And we know (see prior posts) what happens with a cleated-down mainsheet in gusty winds… a swimming party.   Having a strong interest in avoiding swim practice today, I had to let go of it several times before I finally got the reef hook seated in the clew.   

Another two or three miles of exciting and truly athletic sailing – hiked out over the windward rail and with both hands working the mainsheet and the tiller constantly – the gusts got to the point of being a little scary. Unable to hold the boat up with the sail full, I was forced to half-luff which knocked my speed down significantly.  I estimate that the gusts were getting up to 25 knots.  I decided that discretion is the better part of valor.  Off of Playland in Rye, about 2 ½ miles short of Great Captain but still almost five miles from home, I decided to head back. 

The ride home was a hoot as it was enough of a beam/broad reach that I could carry that amount of sail, even though I had to spill air frequently.   In the big gusts I would try to bear off enough to minimize the healing moment, and the boat actually got well above hull speed.  The GPS showed above 8 knots during those surges.

If I had had to make any headway on a close reach, I would have had to tie in a second reef and furl the mizzen.  I probably should have anyway, but I was managing the beam reach as is – barely – and didn’t want to stop to reef. With wind that strong I would have had to drop the main all the way to put in the next reef (I wasn’t going to risk trying to do it with the sail still up) and it felt like it would be more work than just manhandling the boat the last couple of miles.

In no time at all I was back to Larchmont. That was an exciting sail… But with never any hair-raising I-almost-capsized moments.