My son is back from a summer half semester of study in Vancouver, and with only three weeks before it’s time for him to report back to Boston for fall semester, we fit in plans for a 5-day sailing cruise in Rhode Island. This won’t be on Grey Fox, but on my Dad’s 28-foot sloop “Allegro”. It’s an “Alerion Express 28”, a really awesome traditional-looking but modern design that I have heard friends in sailing circles refer to as “that $150,000 day sailer”. Which is a more or less accurate description. And I can attest that for that kind of price tag, and with over 450 of this model now on the water so that the makers have had time to tweak the design, you get a heck of a nice boat that really is optimized for day sailing with a crew of up to 6 people.
My father is a lifelong sailor, although for most of 30 years all he got to sail in was Navy ships and submarines. In fact he was the commanding officer of a nuclear sub in the 1970s. For many of his retired years he owned an Olin Stephens-designed, vintage early 1970s Tartan 34, in which he sailed Narragansett Bay and cruised the New England coast. But age catches up with us all, and four years ago he concluded that he and his equal-aged co-owner were no longer up to the physical demands of sailing a rather old-fashioned 34 foot boat. So he down-sized and up-budgeted to the Alerion.
The Alerion is not really designed for cruising, and when he got it my dad thought he was done with cruising for good. But having done a couple of 5-day beach cruises in my dory, I assured him that this boat, with a hardtop over your head at night and with a pot to piss in that isn’t literally a pot that you empty over the side, would make cruising downright cushy. If only Dad would invest in some monogrammed towels, we’d have a regular Four Seasons experience.
Day 1 – Newport to Kickamuit River at the northern end of Narragansett Bay. A hot sunny day with only a slight southerly breeze. We ghost up the bay before the predicted major weather change. About 5 pm the thunderstorms come through to break the heat and humidity, and the wind comes up. The forecast calls for a strong blow out of the Northeast that will last three days. Kickamuit River — really a salt pond with a river at one end and a narrow mouth at the other — is a nice cozy harbor for the windy night.
Day 2 – Back to Newport. Our original plan was to head to Point Judith or even Block Island with the wind behind us, but as we head south on the bay the strength of the wind convinces us otherwise. Even in the protected waters of Narragansett Bay and on a broad reach, we are burying the rail and at 7+ knots, it’s — let’s say — exciting. For sure Dad has never had Allegro out in anything this wild before, so for him I’m guessing it is — concerning. Foolhardy youngster (I) and wisened old man of the sea (Dad) debate the idea of pressing on to Point Judith, but the Captain gets more votes and makes the wise call to pull into Newport and call it a day. We get there before noon.
Day 3 – Newport to Block Island. The wind whistled and screeched through a veritable forest of rigging at the marina all night. That’s why Dad never stays at a marina when cruising. But this is his home port and it was actually reassuring to be snug in the slip. noise can be tuned out, but concern for the ship would keep him awake all night. By morning the 30+ knot winds of yesterday had moderated to a steady 20 with occasional gusts to 25. Block Island is about 25 miles from Newport, and involves crossing at least 10 miles of open water which, even though it is called “Rhode Island Sound”, is about as open as being in the middle of the Atlantic. Next stop, Portugal. Still a little hesitant, the 83-year old captain allows me to convince him that with a fulsome 3-man crew with a youngish average age of 51 (but with wide dispersion, at least I think that’s the statistical term), we can handle the run at least as far as Point Judith. If it’s too wild, we’ll duck into Point Judith’s aptly named “Harbor of Refuge”. If it’s manageable, we’ll continue on to the Block. The wind is still strong but less gusty than yesterday, and predicted to moderate a bit during the day.
We clear the East Passage and while the water gets larger as we lose our lee, the Alerion handles it with ease. I’m having a blast steering, which is a pretty physical activity in those conditions. We get comfortable with the boat’s seakeeping and decide to press on to Block Island. It’s almost dead downwind, so we alternate tacks to keep a comfortable angle to the wind and waves and to keep the mainsail off of the swept-aft shrouds. Out in the open, I estimate the wave heights at 6-8 feet. It feels like sailing a dinghy, and on occasional surges down the waves we hit over 9 knots — not bad (and not hull speed) for a boat with a 23-foot waterline! But the deep keel makes the boat really stiff, so it’s really not like a dinghy — you don’t have to worry about capsizing.
By 1pm we’re off the Block Island North Reef, and once we get in the lee of that the sailing is smooth and speedy right up to and through the cut into the Great Salt Pond (“New Harbor”). By 2pm we’re on the mooring and drying off in the sun. We fill our afternoon with some cleanup, lunch, a swim off the boat, and then a trip ashore for a walk to the Old Harbor. Our swordfish dinner at Deadeye Dick’s restaurant — a Block Island landmark I can remember eating at when I was a kid — can’t be beat.
Day 4 – Block Island to Wickford. The northeasterly continues strong through the night and is still blowing 15-20 knots when we awake. If that holds, it’s going to be a long, wet slog back to the mainland. Hoping for the wind to subside further, we take our time with a leisurely breakfast. By 10 am we head out. narragansett bay is almost dead to windward. Here’s where the Alerion’s design really shines: the boat is exceptionally close-winded, and with a big main and only a working jib on a traveler, there are no sheets to tend when you tack. Just put the tiller over and you’re done. We sail on port tack all the way to the Point Judith breakwater — 10 miles — and never have to adjust the sails. In fact I’m able to tie the tiller down with the boat perfectly balanced, and she practically sails herself most of that way. The wind steadily moderates and it becomes a delightful sail. Before we know it we’re abeam of Beavertail and into the sheltered waters of Narragansett Bay’s West Passage. Not long thereafter the wind peters out completely and we end up motoring the last few miles to Wickford.
Wickford is a delightful little harbor, with an antique New England town that seems almost as if time forgot it. The old-timey feel is accentuated by the several old wooden schooners and cutters that lie near our mooring, and the parade of ten or more catboats we watch proceeding out and later back into the harbor from their Tuesday night regatta. Just don’t look to the northeast, where the lost-in-time aura is broken by the huge industrial buildings and mercury vapor lights of Quonset Point, where Electric Boat builds sections of nuclear submarines.
Towards the end of the day the sun comes out, the heat returns and it feels like summer again. We spend a delightful summer evening dining al fresco in the cockpit on a pretty awesome one-burner meal cooked up by the exquisitely gourmet first mate (he’s modest too!), and then listening to the RedSox game (unbelievably, they lose — not their general tendency this season!)
Day 5 – Wickford to Newport. We wake to grey skies, rain and 12 knots of wind from the southeast. i.e. from exactly where we want to go today. Hardier sailors would suit up, hoist sails and get very wet on the beat to windward. With 4 days of lively sailing already under our hats, the captain decides to let the piston staysail do the work today. “Suck-squeeze-bang-blow, that’s what makes my diesel go!” … I learned that one back during my Navy days. Although I have to admit that Volvo’s little 2-cylinder 12HP diesel makes a fair bit less banging and blowing noise than the 16 cylinder Detroit Diesel beasts that I used to be responsible for in my younger Navy days.
Captain Smith: “Lieutenant Allen, I was just down in Aux Room #2 and saw a lot of diesel lube oil in the bilge!”
Lt. Allen: “I cannot tell a lie sir, I put that oil in the bilge.”
Captain Smith, knowing that I was not the kind of youngster to sabotage the ship, and that the Detroits were notorious for leaking oil, but nonetheless showing some redness of face: “Well, go down there and get it cleaned up!”
Thankfully the Volvo is tight as a drum and Allegro’s captain does not order me to do any bilge-diving. By late morning we’re back at Allegro’s home slip in Newport. Cruise completed, I’m sure we made the highlight of Dad’s summer. If it were a Visa ad, that would be … Priceless.