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.

Grey Fox Emerges From Hibernation

(I have no idea if foxes hibernate.  Probably not.   I could just ask google, but then I might have to change the title of this post, so I won’t).

Winters in the Northeast are long.  While sitting on its trailer in the driveway in early November, Grey Fox got 5 inches of heavy wet snow on it.  This weekend, I retrieved the boat from its safekeeping spot in a borrowed garage, figuring it was safe from further snow events, and heard from my wife’s relatives in Syracuse that it was snowing there.  On April 27th  😦  Thankfully, while it was kind of cold here in the NYC area, it was warm enough that the stuff falling from the sky was wet, not white.

The November snow caused two of the battens holding up its cover to switch from being convex (from the perspective of a snowflake or raindrop) to concave.  Which in turn caused several of the wooden sockets that the battens seat into to split into pieces.  Not to mention tons of water and snow collecting in the oversized birdbath. So I added making new sockets to the winter fix-it list.  And I started thinking about looking for a place to store the boat indoors, as surely more snow would come. 

The storage solution soon presented itself, as the tenants in a house that we own and rent out announced their early departure midway through a 2-year lease.  We found ourselves in December with a large, vacant, cash-sucking property on our hands and poor prospects of getting it rented again before June.  At least I could use its empty 2-car garage for Grey Fox…  I “borrowed” it from myself.  I’m sure it was the most expensive boat storage I could have found.  Thankfully a new tenant appeared in March and plans to move in next week, so it was time to get Grey Fox back from its hibernation.

I spent almost this entire weekend getting ready for the sailing season, between cleanup day on Saturday at our little boat club – which opens next weekend – and installing a few little tweaks to Grey Fox to address minor issues that cropped up last season.  Warning:  If you’re not a boatbuilder geek, stop reading now. This is boring stuff.  But for true geeks, here goes:

Tweak #1:  New batten sockets.   I made the original ones out of philippine mahogany.  I’ve found that this wood splits easily.  The new ones are made out of true mahogany.  I think it’s tougher stuff.  We’ll see. 

Tweak #2: Putting more arc into the battens that hold up the boat cover –to make it more Conestoga wagon-like — should make it shed water better.  So I made a longer and stronger oak batten to replace the longest of the fiberglass battens, then turned each of those glass battens into a longer version of the next-shorter batten.

Tweak #3:  The lazarette hatch didn’t have a means of latching it down.  During last September’s capsize drill, stuff tried to float out of the lazarette.  Not any more.  A couple of brass pins that go through the bulkhead into some wood blocks glued to the underside of the hatch cover hold it tight, without adding any hardware to clutter up the top of the hatch.

Pin slots into this block attached to the hatch

Tweak #4: Also in the last capsize drill, the mizzen mast worked its way out of its step.  It was only held in by gravity.   Gravity works differently when “down” becomes “sideways”.   Now a bungee from the deck hooks onto the downhaul cleat and keeps its seated.

To prevent a case of jumping mast

Tweak #5:  As long as the mainsail is up, the downhaul holds the mainmast firmly in its step.  But it’s possible that in a capsize, I would need to lower the mainsail.   So I installed a little knob on the mast that will be flush up against the bottom of the mast gate.  It won’t be able to jump out of its socket in any future right-angle gravity deviation event. (A lot of capsize-proofing going on here…)

Tweak #6:  An improved rowing footrest, now held more-or-less immobile by 3-point anchoring with webbing straps with quick-release buckles.  When it’s not in use, I can just stow it out of the way.

The fun of building your own boat out of an easily workable material (wood) is that you can customize it as you figure things out.   I’m sure I’ll get some more tweak-ideas as the season progresses!

A burst of sedentary activity

January 16, 2019

Four posts in one day! And now I am caught up to the present, after every post in this blog to date was posted after the fact. To what do I owe such a burst of literary zeal? What caused the news muse to visit me? Uhh… 7 hours of daytime flying, on a business trip from Lima to Mexico City to Monterrey. I usually try to fly overnight but that wasn’t a good option for this route. I wasn’t tired and I can only read so much email before I start to burn out. So I got out the blog and started typing. In fact, most of my blog posts get written from airline seats.

It’s nice to be caught up, although I probably won’t have much to write about for the next few months…

Switching into winter mode


With the boat on the trailer in the driveway and with the mercury dropping, I have to switch to winter pursuits.  My sea kayak is my ticket to being on the water in the winter, and since I was focused on sailing Grey Fox this summer, the kayak didn’t get much attention. It’s begging for me to use it.  “Use me… abuse me…  paddle me… ride me hard and put me away wet…”  And with crappy weather I’ll have some time to actually work on my mandolin playing, since the mandolin stares at me from its stand. “Hold my [peg]head… caress my neck… make my strings quiver…”   

I also have a punch list of small repairs or improvements to do on Grey Fox, which will keep me in the shop for a few hours fabricating and installing things like new cover-batten sockets, shoulders on the mainmast so it can’t jump out of its step in a capsize, a new and improved footbrace for rowing, and an improved two-section rig for the mainsheet (I want to get a little mechanical advantage).  Plus a very small amount of paint and varnish touch-up, but happily the boat didn’t get too many dings or scratches over the season. 

The end of the season

October 6th

Alas, the sailing season has come to an end.  The floating dock which serves as Grey Fox’s den during the summer gets pulled in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to wait until the very last moment to sail the boat away from the club and over to one of the nearest boat ramps where I can recover it onto the trailer.  Today presents nice weather, with air in the 60s and 10-12 knots of breeze predicted.   The wind is from the Northwest, so I’ll take out at Harbor Island Park in Mamaroneck, which is closer to downwind than heading the other direction for Glen Island Park in New Rochelle. 

I’m solo today so the recovery routine is:  put a bicycle into the back of the RAV4, hitch the trailer onto the car, and drive to the ramp in Mamaroneck.  Park the car and trailer, and use the bicycle to ride the three miles to Grey Fox over at HHYC.  Sail to Mamaroneck.  Recover the boat.

Then lament that there will be no more sailing until April or May.  😦

I’ve learned over the course of my first season in Grey Fox that when sailing alone in more than around 8 knots of wind, it’s best to put one reef in the main.  So I reef before putting the boat in the water.  Once out into the harbor, I hoist and enjoy the last sail of the year.  With the offshore breeze the water is smooth and the wind is gusty, but not too strong, so it’s great sailing.  Rather than heading straight for the harbor entrance in Mamaroneck, I sail past it and on to Milton Harbor in Rye (scene of the crime in the “Some Lessons You Have to Learn Twice” entry below).  

I indulge in a lengthy tour of the Hen Islands and Milton Harbor, dodging in and about all of the moored boats and up into the shallower reaches of the harbor.  Anything to prolong the last outing until Spring.  Careful not to cleat the mainsheet and also to not spill my beer (which is a challenge of sorts, as tiller + mainsheet + beer = 3 objects to hold onto but I only have the standard human complement of hands), I finish the tour and start to work my way to windward towards the Mamaroneck inner harbor entrance. 

The wind has now veered closer to due North so it’s pretty much dead upwind through the narrow channel into the inner harbor.   Thankfully, there’s not a lot of boat traffic late in the day this late in the boating season, and the few small powerboats coming in and out are ok to dodge me as I tack back and forth up the channel.  I am pleased at how close-winded this jib-less boat is, at least in smooth water and moderate winds. 

Conveniently the wind dies just about when I get near the dock and ramp. I have to row the last 200 yards.  This ramp, which can be as busy as Grand Central on summer weekends, is deserted so I can take all the time I need to get the boat onto the trailer.  By the time I’m done buttoning everything down and driving away, it’s starting to get dark.  

Here’s to Spring and a new season!!!

The benefits of a pretty big small boat

September 21st

Hmm…  that sounds kind of oxymoronic, or maybe just moronic – a big small boat?  Get your story straight, Mr. Blogger, it’s one or the other!

The Calendar Islands Yawl is, at just under 16 feet overall hull length,  a very large dinghy.  The beam is 5’2” at the fore-and-after center of the boat, and carries its beam aft to a 3’8” wide transom.   Dragging such a wide transom through the water would make for a slow sailer and a piggish rower, but Clint designed a lot of turn-up to the bilge aft, so that as long as the boat isn’t overloaded, the transom stays mostly above the water and the water can flow cleanly under it.

The beauty of all that beam, combined with no centerboard trunk (as the daggerboard trunk takes up not much space and it’s forward of the midships rowing thwart) is a great big cockpit with wraparound seating. Room for four people to sit, stretch their legs and be quite comfortable.

This weekend we had visitors, and Grey Fox had the pleasure of a crew of four for a leisurely harbor tour.  My old college friend Jeff, with whom I have done a particularly poor job of staying in touch, and his wife Louise joined me and my co-captain (in life, not in the boat, where I retain sole command…) for a wonderful Indian Summer weekend in New York.   The genesis for their visit was a text Jeff sent me on our wedding anniversary in July, which just happens to be the same day as Jeff & Lou’s anniversary.  Easy to remember! I texted back that it was great to hear from him and that we really should get together one of these days.  Or years. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure I have said that many times and never followed through, but this time we actually did, and I invited them to come visit after each of us had gotten our respective sons packed up and delivered back to college. Our guests escaped the lingering heat of Atlanta for some of the best weather of the year here in New York, which is what we hoped for in late September. 

We turned the event into a mini-college reunion my other college buddy Chris (he of the “A six hour vacation” August entry in this blog) and his wife Colette also joined us for Saturday brunch on the deck of our boat club, followed by a spin in the Fox.  Winds were light but sufficient to move the boat along, so we took a ~45-minute tour of Larchmont Harbor and nearby waters, which seemed delightful to my landlocked Georgian friends. 

Jeff, Colette, Louise

It was a great way to spend an afternoon near and on the water.   We capped off the day with a trip into Manhattan for dinner and a Broadway show.  We saw Come From Away, an incredibly inspiring true story of the goodness of human beings at the worst of times, the time in question being 9/11/2001 and the circumstance being the unplanned landing of more than 7,000 strangers from all over the world in a little town of only 9,000 residents in Newfoundland when 37 airliners crossing the Atlantic were diverted due to the closure of US airspace.  The Newfoundlanders took in the strangers with an incredibly selfless embrace for nearly a full week, stretching the available resources but not the locals’ hospitality.  Having witnessed the fall of the World Trade Towers from my office in midtown, and still harboring awful memories of what I saw, I was tremendously moved by this musical.  To call it a “feel-good” experience would sound like a tacky movie critic blurb and not come close to doing it justice.