A new season begins

May 11th

May is upon us and – oh happy day – that means sailing season is about to start! Last Saturday our club officially opened for the season. It was a cool, windless and cloudy day. Frantically putting the last tweaks into the boat, I got Grey Fox off the trailer and floating by around 5:30pm. With sunset at 7:50 or so, I would just barely have enough time to launch at Harbor Island in Mamaroneck and row the 2.5 miles over to Larchmont. Fortunately, the wind came up late in the day and after rowing out of Mamaroneck’s inner harbor, I had a nice downwind slide to Larchmont. I remembered how to make the boat sail, and Grey Fox made it onto its summer perch on the floating dock at HHYC with no trouble.

The following Saturday (today) was the first real sail of the season. The forecast was for clouds and no wind. But as is not uncommon, the forecasting wizards got it wrong and by noon as we were prepared to set off, the clouds cleared and we had 8-12 knots out of the northwest to keep the boat moving. A beautiful offshore breeze that would make for smooth water and relaxed (and safe) sailing in some pleasant 70 degree air cooled by the breeze off the 50-degree water. A good day NOT to make contact with the water!

I was joined by my new friend Bill, whom I had met recently at Mandolin Camp North. He is afflicted with multiple hobby-passions like me and some of them are in common, including woodworking and acoustic string band music. He also likes to sail and occasionally crews on a Herreshoff S-boat at HHYC, so it thought he might like taking a spin in Grey Fox.

After a quick row out of the cove we hoist sails. No reefs tied in as the wind was lightening already. The wind is expected to peter out during the course of the afternoon, so I feel safe heading downwind first towards City Island in the Bronx. That way the upwind return will be nice and calm, and if the wind dies, we can just row. With the offshore breeze the water is nice and smooth, and this early in the season, we won’t hit the constant wakes and jumbled water that make rowing so hard on a typical July or August weekend day. Today, we practically have the Sound to ourselves.

After we get a little out of the lee of the land, the wind kicks up a bit and for a while the handheld GPS says we’re averaging 6.5 knots on our broad reach. Not bad for a non-planing boat with a 14-foot waterline!

Bill getting the feel of the tiller
Headed South towards Hart Island (dead ahead) with NYC skyline in the distance
The big lug mainsail really shines going downwind

The wind quickly starts to weaken and our speed-run towards City Island turns leisurely. We scoot down the shore of Hart Island, an island that belongs to the City of New York and has had many incarnations in its history, including a factory site and a prison. Since the late 1800s it’s been the site of New York’s “Potters’ Field”, which means it’s where the City buries its indigent and unidentified residents when they die with no one to claim their bodies. Sometimes from the water you can hear the backup beep signals of backhoes working on the island, which is kind of creepy if you know what they’re doing. Well, today is Saturday and they’re not working so we observe no activity involving the living or the dead on the island.

Rounding the southern tip of Hart Island, we get a nice view of the Manhattan skyline,

Whitestone Bridge and lower Manhattan in the distance

and then head upwind into City Island Harbor. By now the wind is really light and it’s more like wind-hunting than beating to windward. We’re also bucking a knot of so of current from the incoming tide. But patience is by necessity a virtue of sailors whose boats have no engines, even if in any other setting patience pretty much eludes me. We slowly make our way up to Rat Island, which isn’t much more than a rock ledge in the middle of City Island Harbor, but has the distinction of being the only privately-owned island in New York City. A few years ago a Swiss gentleman named Alex, who lives in City Island, had the opportunity to buy the rock, and thought it would be cool to own his own island. Given that it’s barely big enough to plop a picnic table on, and probably gets washed over in every big storm, I’m sure it didn’t cost much.

Since then, it has always had two flagpoles, flying the Swiss and the US flags. Two or three years ago the guy decided he wanted to take the Swiss thing a little further. What better than to instal a statue of William Tell, the legendary Swiss hero, on the rocks. You know, he of the apple on the girl’s head and the arrow fame. The story is probably apocryphal and the legend may be larger than life, but the dude looms large in Switzerland. So Mr. Rat Island had a statue commissioned and placed on the island. It’s a replica of the ‘Tell Monument’ in the market place of Altdorf, Switzerland. (No, I didn’t know that, but I’m good at googling). And it’s truly larger than life; I would guess that Herr Tell himself is at least 10 feet tall, never mind the pedestal he stands on.

We sail right up close to the rocks to get a good view of the statue and the street sign posted on the island that says you’re officially at Wilhem Tell Platz, Bronx, NY. It seems that to put up a statue in New York City, you have to put a street address on the application for the permit. “Rat Island” isn’t a street, so they had to create one.

William Tell keeps a vigilant watch over the Bronx

We continue past the valiant Swiss warrior and north through City Island Harbor to Orchard Beach. Part of Pelham Bay Park, the largest park in the city (bigger than Central Park), Orchard Beach is a 1-mile long man-made sandy beach that was built in the 1930s starting with a small natural beach on Rodman’s Neck near the bridge to City Island. Robert Moses oversaw the project, which was dubbed “the riviera of the Bronx” when it opened. In true Robert Moses style it was a project that used a lot of brute force engineering and liberal use of eminent domain but created a wonderful park. A zillion tons of beach sand was barged in from the south shore of Long Island. They connected 3 or 4 islands with landfill to make a flat area – mostly parking lot – behind the expanded beach, so now Hunter Island and Twin Island aren’t islands anymore but part of the park mainland.

Maybe to keep the few intrepid early-season beachgoers from freezing their butts off, the wind dies out completely about as we get even with the beach. After 15 minutes of drifting, we realize we won’t get home before sundown at this pace. Down come the sails and out come the oars. Bill’s job is to check my pace as I pull the boat through the water and to keep us from hitting things. In Bill’s hands the GPS says I average about 3.2 knots. At that pace, we’ll be back to HHYC in an hour and a quarter.

Of course the best way to make sure it doesn’t rain is to carry an umbrella, and the best way to make the wind come back is to stow the sails. After 20 minutes of rowing, we see some ripples, and I feel some blisters coming, so it’s time to hoist again. With a nice little breeze we are moving once again, almost effortlessly, all the way back to home port for an absolutely delightful finish to our outing. If the rest of the summer is anything like this, I am going to be one happy old sailor.

Author: Larchmont Jim

A 50-something investment banker from Larchmont, New York (about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan). Amateur small boat sailer, boatbuilder, kayaker, musician. I grew up spending summers sailing the New England coast on my grandfather’s beautiful 47’ 1952 Sparkman & Stevens wooden yawl. I’ve lived in Larchmont, a major and historic sailing center on Long Island Sound, for 25 years, but career and family obligations kept me off the water for all of my 30s and 40s, and only about 7 years ago did I get back on the water, first in sea kayaks, and then in small boats.

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