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., 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.

A surfeit of crew members

June 3

Son Jeffrey is home for the weekend from college in Boston.   He’s spending all summer in school.  He had a tough sophomore year but seems to be getting back on track, and summer semester will help him get caught up. 

I would be flattered to think that he came home just to see dear old mom and dad, but the primary reasons for the visit are made clear when he texts me mid-week and asks “how many people can you fit in the boat?  Because I’ll have my new girlfriend Adri with me as well as my high school friends Eli and Emily, and we all want to go sailing.”    “Four really” is my reply.  “I don’t know where a fifth would even sit”.  Maybe I can take them out in shifts.  Jeffrey has done some sailing in his high school days, and even got to where I would let him take the dory out by himself if the weather was good, but he’s only been out in Grey Fox once and doesn’t really know how to rig it or sail it.   So like it or not, they need the old guy to take them out. And I’m thrilled that Jeffrey wants he and his friends to come out with me in the first place.

The kids go down to the club with their lunch, and I get there around 3pm.  It’s warm and sunny with maybe 8 knots of wind, again out of the north, and forecast to hold through the afternoon.    Mild enough conditions that I think we can handle five people in the boat (none is over 150 pounds).  It  will be more fun for Jeffrey with his whole crew.  We head out and the conditions seem perfect for a trip across the sound to the beach at Sands Point.  With 4 neophytes on board, I wouldn’t think of going that far from shore and home base if the weather weren’t pretty sure to stay tame.

Heading out…
I don’t have any pictures of the boat sailing, since I’m always on it. Pat got this cellphone snap from shore as we headed out.

The sail over is delightful, with enough wind to move the boat but not enough to create any excitement.   Even with 5 people on board we have plenty of freeboard and the boat handles the boat wakes we encounter with aplomb. The time it takes get to Long Island is certainly more time than I’ve spent with Jeffrey and his friends in a long time, and even though I’ve welcomed them onto my boat it also feels a little like they’ve welcomed me into their circle.   

Jeffrey & Adri
Emily has found the best seat on the ship

As we approach the beach at Sands Point I hand the tiller to Jeffrey and get the anchor ready.  The wind has dwindled so it’s a slow motion approach to the beach, which makes it easy to drop the hook only 75 feet from shore.  The wind blows us stern towards shore and I cleat the bow anchor line with the transom in about a foot of water. I let down the mainsail carefully, without bashing anybody in the head. I order seaman recruit Eli to be the van of the landing party, and he jumps off the stern into the knee-deep water.  I hand him the stern anchor and he takes it ashore and digs it into the beach.  Moored!  The boat will stay afloat in the rising tide, no beaching required. 


While we’re poking around the beach, the wind completes its fizzle and pretty soon it’s mirror calm.  I was hoping a southwester would fill in and help us home, but hope isn’t a strategy.  We’ll need to use the inboard motor – a.k.a. Dad with a pair of nine-and-a-half foot oars.  Looking at my watch I can see that if we’re going to be rowing the three and half nautical miles home, we should get going to be home before sunset.  So I round up the crew and off we go. 

Eli mans the oars so I can deal with taking in the anchor.  It takes him a while to get the hang of it – those ARE some big-ass oars – and we never get much above 2 knots.   After 15 minutes of effort and maybe a quarter mile gained, I relieve him.   Thank you for your service, but sunset is arriving on time tonight, and I didn’t bring the running lights.

There’s still a long way to go, but I like rowing.   It’s not as easy with 750 pounds of crew in the boat though!  The Mk 2 rowing footrest works well in its first real test.  With just me in the boat I can average about 3.3 knots but with this configuration I’m lucky to average 2.75, so it’s going to be an hour and half of steady exercise. It’s good for the old man.

About a mile from Larchmont, one of the larger sailboats that has been trying to sail gives up and motors towards us.   Passing us close aboard they ask if we want a tow, but I don’t trust big boats to tow little guys like us – especially heavily laden – safely. “No thanks, we’re getting along fine.”  Maybe the guy on the sailboat’s only experience rowing is with an Avon inflatable or a Dyer Dhow, in which case he would think that we are desperate and stranded.  But Grey Fox was designed to row. Miles. 

Round about 7:30pm we make landfall in Horseshoe Harbor.  The kids scramble off to their next event, and I put away the boat.  I think I’ve earned my beer for the evening!

On the water in a bigger small(ish) boat

May 26th

Memorial Day weekend.  I had promised my father I would come up to Rhode Island where my parents live and help him with the last jobs needed to get his boat in full sailing condition.  So we head up there Saturday and spend the early afternoon getting the sails bent on, the decks and cockpit cleaned, and everything ready to go on his Alerion 28.  That doesn’t take long, and the wind is a perfect 15 knots out of the South, so we take the boat out for a spin.  

Dad is 84 now, and I was kind of wondering whether he was still going to be up to managing the boat by himself or even with one other crew member.   What I had forgotten was how easy the Alerion is to manage.  With a working job with a single sheet led through a deck traveler, and a big powerful mainsail, the boat is perfectly balanced.  Steering with the tiller rarely requires any muscle.  And to tack it all you have to do is put the tiller over.  It’s a keelboat and very stable, so you don’t need to worry about moving your weight around to balance the boat.  It’s easier and considerably less physical to sail than Grey Fox. 

Even though the wind builds up above 20 knots, we feel comfortable sailing out past Newport Harbor and into the fairly open waters of the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, all the way out to Brenton Point, with no trouble whatsoever.  By then the waves are getting big enough to bring some splash aboard, so we turn downwind and head back to the marina just north of the Newport Bridge.  The ride home is fast and exhilarating.  A great boat, a great Dad, and a great day on the water!

It’s not a racing boat, but we still like passing other sailboats

May 18th

In Grey Fox’s first season, I did a lot of solo sailing.  There were kinks to work out in the new boat that I was happy to do on my own, and I did a really poor job of planning ahead, which is necessary if you want other people to plan ahead and join you for a sail.   So this year I hope to do much less solo sailing and get more friends or accomplices out with me.  Before I had a boat of my own I always considered it a treat to be invited to go out on someone else’s  boat, yet was surprised how rarely an invitation actually materialized, even with lots of boat-owner friends, including friends who would often say when we saw them somewhere “you ought to come out with us” but never actually extended an invitation. I hope not to be that type of boat owner this summer!

So for my second weekend outing this season I talked my kayaking buddy Rick into coming sailing with me.  Rick is a barrel-chested bear of a man whose average paddling speed keeps me gasping for air to keep up.  He used to have a sailboat before wife and kids and responsibilities came along.  He’s free this Saturday so we make plans to get underway at noon.

The wind is out of the north, light and variable, but as long as it’s not nil those are conditions that Grey Fox likes. We start out heading south for Execution Rocks, ghosting along in the whispers of wind.  It gives Rick, who hasn’t held a tiller in years, an easy period to get the feel of things.  As expected, the northerly dwindles as the day proceeds, and pretty soon we’re just about becalmed.  With no hands needed to sail the boat, it’s time for the sandwiches and beers we brought along. 

Lunch finished, the first signs of a afternoon southwester arrive, first with a few ripples that tease more than they fill the sails.  Once they get a little more steady, we abandon the idea of continuing to Execution Rocks (it’s dead upwind and too much trouble) and head north towards Milton Harbor in Rye.  As the wind fills in to 4 or 5 knots we have the boat moving along pleasantly at 3 knots or more.  Tons of sail area and a very light weight boat are the magic formula.   With the wind pretty consistent now but still very light, I can tie down the tiller and cleat the mainsheet, and for a while we’re on autopilot.

After a tour through the Milton Harbor mooring field we jibe around and head back towards Larchmont.  By now a number of 30- and 35-foot sailboats are out, including some pretty sleek and fast-looking racing designs, trying to move in the whispering winds.  We take great pleasure passing several of them in the light air and smooth water.  With any bigger waves or more wind they would exert their hull-speed dominance, but for now we’re the fastest sailing craft in the area.  Foxes are supposed to be fast!