On the origin of the boat’s name

July 29th

I occasionally get asked how I chose the name Grey Fox.   It’s the fifth small boat (if you include kayaks) that I’ve built,  but the first one I have bothered to give a name to.   So the first question might be why name a 16-foot boat at all?

My wife and I did the Small Reach Regatta in Maine a couple of summers ago, and we found that seeing our boat called “Jim’s dory” in the fleet guide wasn’t very satisfying.  Plus if we had to hail any other boat on the VHF, they all had cool names to use as simple radio callsigns, and all we had was… Jim’s dory.  The new boat would definitely need a name.  Furthermore, the CIY has a beautiful huge transom, so I had a place to plaster a name.

Since I spent months building the boat, I had months to come up with a name.   I came up with a few not-so-good names, although none were as bad as some of the cutesy names you see on boats out there:  “Just for the Halibut”… “Campbell’s Sloop” …”Knot 2 Bad”… “Mom’s Mink”… the list goes on.  Just google “really bad boat names” if you want a laugh.

I was leaning towards “Firefly” which was the name of the first keelboat my father’s family owned.  It was a Crowninshield-designed Manchester 27.  I never saw it, just the half-model of it that my grandfather had on the wall in his house,  but it was a very pretty boat.  My son objected, reasoning that he had heard me talk about how I expected my CIY to be a fast boat, and fireflies are slow.  They just hover.  Plus they glow yellow, and my boat was grey.   My wife stepped in and said “if you’re going to name it after an animal, why not name it Grey Fox after your beloved Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?  Foxes are fast, and your boat is grey, so it works!

The name stuck and Grey Fox it became.  I know, it’s not very nautical.  If you’re going to name a boat after an animal, it should probably be a seabird, or a fish, or a whale.   Shearwater, or Dorado, or Narwhal.  (Not a mermaid — that would put you quite firmly in the tacky column above).  But there is no Striped Bass Bluegrass Festival.  Although bass fishermen and bluegrass fans may share some common genes…

I bring this up because I just got back from a long weekend spent at the utterly awesome Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York. It’s just a fantastic festival, with a gorgeous outdoor setting at the foot of the Catskill mountains, a wonderfully friendly vibe, and great musicians (and not just the performers —  many of the attendees bring their instruments and jam in the campground day and night). This annual event is one of the highlights of my summer — maybe the only highlight that occurs on land.

While I was there I procured this high-end custom yacht crew-wear:

IMG_1344Since the entire crew of Grey Fox is often just me, I think it is appropriate, and well within my budget, that the whole crew be outfitted in this uniform.  Take that, Larchmont Yacht Club Race Week crews with your spiffy matching outfits embroidered with your boat names!




In the Long Island Sound doldrums

A belt of low pressure at the Earth’s surface near the equator known as the doldrums… With minimal pressure gradient, wind speeds are light and directions are variable. Hot, sultry days are common.  — from The American Practical Navigator

July 22nd

New rudder in hand, I headed down to the dock to fit it to the boat.   Since the lower pintle is now in the right place, I had to move the lower gudgeon to a spot correspondingly lower on the transom.  With another day above 90 degrees under blazing sun, it’s hot work.  By early afternoon the boat is back in commission.

However, the wind is not, and after optimistically rigging up and heading out, and catching a few zephyrs, I find myself completely becalmed.  I try rowing out a little farther to find some wind, but I just find more nothing.

The healing is purely due to my weight, there’s no wind!

The humidity is ferocious and the sun is equatorial.  The doldrums have moved to Manhattan.  A cold beer keeps me occupied for a few minutes but then I’m back to bored and becalmed.  Eventually I just give up, take in sails and row home.

Grey Fox rows pretty well, but it’s no crew shell and the heat and humidity make the rowing not much fun.  Actually not fun at all, and I like rowing.  Today I’m just melting.  Shoulda gone to the (air conditioned) movies.

When all else fails, try what the Captain suggested

My father was a career US Navy officer, and in the 1970s he was the captain of a nuclear submarine.   In his study at home he has a bronze plaque that was given to him when he turned over command of the sub to the next skipper.   It says “When all else fails, try what the captain suggested”.  Half in jest I am sure, as I think the crew of a US Navy ship kind of HAS TO do what the captain says.  But you get the idea.

I took a few photos of the offending rudder head and sent them off to Clint with a query as to whether he’s seen this before, and whether maybe the thickness he has spec’d or the strength of the wood it’s made with is sufficient.  The part is made of 3 layers of 6mm plywood that came pre-cut in the kit and I had to laminate as part of the building process.

Clint was prompt in his e-mail reply, saying he was up teaching at the WoodenBoat School in Maine and didn’t have access to the plans, but would talk to some folks there and see what they thought.   He also said that it looked like I had installed the pintles in the wrong location, which could be the cause of the break.

Sure enough, I pull out the plans that I theoretically had followed to build the boat, and they quite clearly show that I should have mounted the pintles near the bottom of the rudderhead, so that water pressure on the rudder blade would not lever the part and break it just below the pintle.  In short, I didn’t follow the captain’s suggestion.  It was one of the last steps in the building process, and I guess I got kind of complacent.  After all, having nearly finished my DIY garage boat I was clearly a master builder.

I have a really big oak board lying around from which I can fabricate a replica rudderhead.  It should be even stronger than the plywood original, and with the hardware mounted in accordance with the plans, I shouldn’t have to worry about any further casualties.  But I don’t want to lose a weekend of sailing, so I had better get cracking in the garage woodshop.

THAT wasn’t supposed to happen…

July 15

Today was a beautiful Saturday, and I was able to get my friend, HHYC club member and J-22 sailor Josh to come out with me.  Expecting our typical western LI Sound afternoon southwesterly breeze, which doesn’t usually really get going until 4 or 5 pm, we launched off the dock at around 3:30.  I’m still fine-tuning my rigging routine for Grey Fox.  I don’t hoist sail at the dock but rather row out of the cove and then hoist while drifting through the mooring field.  If the wind is lively this puts a premium on rigging and hoisting quickly, as the boat can drift pretty fast and there are plenty of boats on moorings to drift into.

The tasks are, more or less in order:

–          Ship the oars in their sailing position, which is cradled in oarlocks up near the bow and with the handle-ends sticking out over the stem, looking a bit like a bowsprit (this gets those big 9’9” oars out of the way)

–          Drop in the daggerboard

–          Push the kick-up rudder blade down

–          Unfurl the mizzen.  You don’t hoist it, as it’s permanently laced to the mizzenmast.  You just unroll it and loop the “snotter” through the sprit boom.  Then sheet it tight, and it will then keep the boat lying bow-to-wind

–          Hoist the mainsail

–          Ease off the mizzen, sheet in the main, and you’re sailing

Not particularly complicated, but you still need to do it quickly if you’re drifting towards another boat or the rocks!  Well-choreographed, I can do it by myself in maybe 3 minutes.

Today’s choreography was not Broadway quality.  The wind was already blowing ~8 knots, and somewhere in there one of the oars went swimming.   No big deal, except by the time we got sailing, we had lost sight of the oar in the sun glare and the chop.  Josh and I spent the next 5 or 10 minutes sailing around the mooring field looking for the oar.  We finally found it – it had drifted way faster than we thought it would, and was well into Larchmont Harbor.  It was also amazing how close we had to get to a floating 10-foot long bright red-painted oar before we could see it.

Note to self:  when anything falls overboard, and especially when that anything is a person, it should be priority #1 (out of a list of only 1) of the person not steering the boat to keep their eyes pinned to the object overboard.  Which neither one of us did.   Of course, if, as is quite common on Grey Fox, there is only one person on board, then this rule doesn’t apply to the man-overboard situation.  And if it’s just a ball cap overboard, Mr. solo helmsman should be careful not to focus his gaze so intently  on the errant ball cap that he doesn’t notice that mega-power-yacht bearing down.

Oar recovery complete, we head across the Sound.  A close reach in the Southwesterly will get us over to the North Shore in a little over an hour.   I pick out the Webb Institute on the Glen Cove shore as a landmark to steer for.   The Webb Institute is a small private college of naval architecture and marine engineering.  The school was endowed (presumably by one Mr. Webb) so if you get accepted, it’s tuition free.  Its main building is a huge former Gold Coast mansion that is so big you can pick it out from Larchmont, almost 5 miles away.  Fun fact: the site was used as a setting for the Wayne Manor in two of the Batman movies and the TV series “Gotham”.  But we didn’t spot Robin from the water.

As we approach the Long Island shore the wind kicks up to 12-15 knots and even with both of us on the windward rail, it’s still hard to hold the boat flat.  When we get to about 300 yards from the beach, we come about to head back to Larchmont.  It’s a broad reach on the way home.  On the reach, and with lots of wind, boat has a whole lot of weather helm and I have to keep a really strong pull on the tiller to stay on course. Then — CRACK!   “What was that?” And the next thing I know the weather helm is gone and the boat rounds up into the wind.   The tiller isn’t doing anything.  I climb up on the stern sheets and look over the transom to see the rudder dangling by the uphaul line that cleats off to the tiller.  The rudder head broke right in half! “Shit!  THAT wasn’t supposed to happen!”.  I retrieve the rudder blade and the bottom half of the rudder head and stow it on the floorboards.

“What do we do now?” asks Josh.  It’s 5 miles back to Larchmont and we have no rudder.  “Reach into that bucket under the thwart and grab me a short piece of line.”  I tie a loop around the cleat on the inwale on the port quarter.  I had installed a cleat there to have something to tie a dock line to.  I hadn’t really thought of it as a jury-rugged rudder pivot, but it’s time to be creative.   “Now grab me one of those oars.  We’re going to use it as a steering oar, Viking ship style.”  With the oar stuck through the loop on the cleat, I can lever it against the gunwale to steer.

Well, it works, and pretty soon we’re sailing again.  But the strain on the oar required to counter the weather helm is so great that I’m worried it could break.   We heave to and tie a reef into the main, which relieves some of the helm.   Still, it’s seriously hard work using both arms to steer.  I am really glad to have Josh there to work the main sheet!  Excitement moderated, I get the hang of steering, and the strong but gradually moderating breeze gives us a quick push back to our home port without further drama.

After the wind calmed down a bit, I was able to steer-Viking style with only one hand… the regular tiller is tied down but it’s not connected to anything!

When we get back on the dock and get everything stowed away, I get a chance to take a close look at the damage.  It was a pretty catastrophic failure of the rudder head:
Broken rudder (2)

I’ll need to contact Clint and discuss with him whether the scantling for the rudder head is beefy enough – I can’t afford to have it do this again.  This time it only caused minor excitement but in tougher conditions such a failure could be a real problem.

A Party of Two

July 8th

After yesterday’s loss of ground tackle, I spent all morning shopping around for a replacement anchor and rode. Found a new 5-pound Danforth anchor and chain at Brewer’s but they were out of spliced rodes, so I had to journey to the big orange box, where I found what I needed. I had promised my sister I would take her out today to escape the heat and go swimming, but that meant I needed to have an anchor.  (Not a good idea to jump overboard while sailing).

We got underway at around 3pm just as the summer mid-day doldrums were giving way to a modest southwest breeze. The nearest boat-accessible beach is at a wildlife preserve at East Creek on Sands Point in Long Island. It’s a beautiful spot and while I’m not sure of its public/private status, I’ve been there many times in the kayak and the dory and nobody ever tried to chase me away. We headed there, about three and half nautical miles from Larchmont, under full sail. With the wind light and steady, I was able to get away with breaking that cardinal rule of dinghy sailing and tie down both the mainsheet and the tiller. Grey Fox practically sailed herself most of the way to Long Island, and I only took over to approach the beach.

Unlike “my” side of Long Island Sound, which is mostly rocky because it’s what’s left from when the last glaciers of the Ice Age scraped off everything not bolted down and carried it south to Long Island, the north shore of Long Island is a completely different picture. Here it’s all sandy or gravelly beaches, miles of them with only a few glacial erratics to provide the occasional hazard to navigation close to shore.

While there’s all that expanse of beach on the north shore, most of it is in front of zillion dollar waterfront houses. The preserve at East Creek is a sandy gem that’s almost within sight of the Manhattan skyline but could make you think you’re out in the Hamptons. A quarter mile of beach with no mansions, Mc or otherwise, to clutter the view and post “private beach –keep off” signs on the shoreline.

Grey Fox anchored off Sands Point

With the wind blowing gently offshore we dropped the hook in about 7 feet of water and swam the 75 yards ashore to walk the beach and stretch our legs. With the dory I would have just beached the boat, but Grey Fox is big and heavy enough that it’s easier to anchor and swim ashore than to have to wrestle the boat down to a water’s edge that will have moved with the falling tide while we are ashore.  That works well when it’s hot and the water is warm… in Maine I would be beaching the boat to get ashore with only frozen ankles.  But for today, in tropical New York, the whole point was to go for a swim and cool off… the beach is just a bonus.  Within two minutes of walking ashore, we’re already baking in the heat again.

Large banks of beach rose that line the extreme high tide line hum with the buzz of bumblebees and give off a beautiful fresh fragrance. I think of this plant as emblematic of the New England seashore, but it turns out that rosa rugosa is an invasive species… imported in the 1840s from Asia.  Well hey, Europeans are in invasive species in North America as well so I guess I’ll just enjoy the roses.

At the top and on the back side of the dune, scrub oaks prevail and the ground is covered in prickly pear cactus, replete with yellow blooms. Yes, cactus growing naturally on Long Island!  I guess the sandy environment drains all rainwater and resembles a desert.  Surely this is an alien invasion from Arizona or even Mexico.  Build the Wall!  Oops… turns out that this stuff (opuntia humifusa) is actually native to this region.  On the back side of the dune is a beautiful little salt marsh, and we take a quick walk in the heat to look for herons and cranes.

Unfortunately the beach suffers from its proximity to millions of people, with more than its fair share of flotsam and jetsam (which I believe are just two different flavors of waterborne trash).  In and among the seashells and driftwood are myriad soda bottles, potato chip wrappers, and all manner of plastic detritus.  It is amazing that we are so addicted to our plastic convenience even when we can see it choking every corner of our world.

Twenty minutes or so of walking around and we are ready to swim back to the boat (and cool off a bit in so doing).  We hoist the mainsail, pull up the anchor, and away we go. The wind has come up just a bit and the sail back to Larchmont is a delightful reach, with the late afternoon sun drying us off after our swim and putting a warm glow on the sails.

CIY sailing toward Sunset Aug2018
Heading home towards the sunset.  Oars stowed in the bow oarlocks for sailing

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.