Saturday, November 24, 2012


Lynx Fires A Salute At New London's City Pier

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Building Valhalla

     I rather enjoy the notion of building Valhalla, that realm of Nordic gods engaged in epic battle across saga's savage seas. But such is not today's tale, for this is one of Viking sons and daughters in a land and time of leisure, the bloodlust tempered by civil pursuits and the callings of a young family. Valhalla was the little yawl my grandfather Frans designed and built to cruise the waters of Long Island.

     Seth picked the name by lot, from a hat filled with many names on little slips of paper; he the youngest at nine and the only boy besides.Who among them wrote the name Valhalla  on that particular slip of paper is long forgotten, for in truth it could have been any of them; Frans, the sailor from Sweden  more bonded with Norseman's ways than the church; Augusta, wife and mother, a more agrarian Swede but the Vikings were of that soil also; Agnes, the oldest child, strong of heart and will, or Emily, the fair artistic one. And Seth, a young boy fired with tales of seafarers and warriors sweeping across the wild oceans to their next conquering raid.In truth it could have been any of them, and Valhalla became the vessel and vassal of the family's storied summers under sail. 

     Valhalla was designed for the waters of Sheepshead and Great South Bay and the surrounding region, thin waters requiring shoal draft boats. Catboats have been common to these waters, finer perhaps than the Cape Cod catboats, the New York fishing fleet adapted for pleasure. Then these pleasure boats took on some of the appearances of the racing sloops of the day, with overhanging spoon bows that were bluff and rounded. Valhalla was similar to the latter, full and powerful, shoal draft with a large centerboard, with a cabin large enough to accommodate  five and more adults and children on the weekend and weeklong voyages across summer's saga seas.

     Frans built Valhalla on the beach next to Felix the French bayman's little shack on Sheepshead Bay; Felix, who as a boy of eight was caught smoking his father's pipe, and for punishment was ordered to finish the pipe, refill it, smoke that down, refill the pipe; and so Felix was never seen without his pipe again. Felix fished for a living on Sheepshead Bay, working under sail, riding the morning offshore breeze out onto the bay, catching the onshore breeze back in the afternoon. His was an idyllic, if solitary life,  doubtless lonesome and austere at times, and so the presence of an affable Viking busily building something as interesting as a boat must have been a welcome diversion for the personable Frenchman.

     Boats were always built on the beach in the days of old, before boatshops gave bare shelter from the raw winds of winter or the blazing summer sun. Boats, and, ships, those longships destined for raids of legend and daring voyages to unknown lands, their timbers hewn with broadaxe and adze, planking fit to frames and spars carved from solid trees. Frans worked on his family yacht during his leisure hours, the summer evenings and American weekends, while making the small parts in the basement of his Brooklyn rowhouse. Valhalla would be 28'6" in length, about 8'9" in beam, 2'6" deep with the board up. She would be rigged as a yawl, with gaff-headed sails, the standing and running rigging spliced by Frans, the Cape Horn sailor.

     Meanwhile, in the world beyond Brooklyn, war raged, in trenches that stretched across Europe and across the seas that cover the very Earth. Many of the materials used to build boats are also used for fighting wars, and Frans had to search out sources for the metal pieces he needed. By late 1918, he had his little ship framed up and ready for planking, which required an order of about 1000 board feet of white cedar planking stock. However, white cedar was one of the materials needed for the war effort (the naval war effort, one hopes). The war seemed to be winding down, though, and the cedar Frans needed would most likely be available fairly soon. But Frans was impatient to get started, and did not want to wait for the supply of white cedar to open back up.

     There was, on the other hand, plenty of white oak available.

     Oak is the wood that is the heart of boatbuilding, the timber of keel timbers and timber frames.  Green oak, fresh cut, may be steamed and bent, while seasoned oak is sinewy strong. America is fortunate to be populated with many varieties of oak, the black, yellow, red; but white oak is best for boatbuilding.

     Not so much for planking, though. Not, at least, for a boat as relatively small as Valhalla, though the sheerstrake could be oak, and some builders would use oak for the garboard strake as well. Ships, too, may be planked with oak, though yellow pine is much the better. But for a little, although proud, and able, ship such as Valhalla, oak is simply too heavy, to hard to cut and carve, too difficult to bend. Green oak is easier to work with, of course, it in fact carves and bends rather well, but it is green, and will shrink, dramatically. Looking back, one can easily see the wisdom behind finding the patience to wait for the right materials, using the time to make more of the small pieces, mindful that this boat would last and be used for many years in any event. 

     Valhalla was always a bit on the slow side, weighed down as she was with her oak planking. She was durable, one must admit,strong as iron; though on her second seasons' launching, from a marine railway at the small boatyard where she spent the winter, she simply filled with water and did not budge, her planking having dried and shrunk so her seams were wide open to the incoming water. The boatyard owner was naturally quite irate, but oak swells quickly enough and Valhalla was floating on the next tide. Her original launching from Felix's beach had been a straightforward slide down the beach under a Champagne shower and a Christian christening, Sweden being more Lutheran than Norse by then.

     Frans did carve a dragons figurehead on the tiller, in tribute to the dragon figureheads that adorned the bows of Viking ships, there to guide and protect the ship and crew. A dragonheaded tiller advances the tradition, allowing the figurehead to follow compass and chart and so keep the crew safe in darkness and in storms. At this tiller young Seth learned to steer, to sail by the wind and follow the compass, to coax the last fraction of speed from the spirit breeze and goddess waves.

     Valhalla was a working man's boat of the days before production plants and fiberglass, bank credit and marinas changed the very nature of boating for pleasure. Valhalla herself was only possible because of the changing economic realities of America at that time; a middle class income and enough leisure time to build a complete and able boat. In those days, boats were custom built and hand crafted, and were too expensive for working people. There were no boat loans available. Either used boats, or self-built boats, were the only options generally available for most people. There is I believe a transcendent value to this, on a sliding scale that begins with the self-built, moves on to the truly and uniquely personal custom boat, and ends finally with the used and neglected boat of no name or distinction. Unloved boats are utilitarian only, and any boat will serve a purpose. But stories that play on like sagas, repeated now into third and fourth generations, only rise from  vessels distinct and epic enough to be more a member of a family than a mere object owned and used by a family. Valhalla lives on in the traditions of boatbuilding and seamanship that have carried through to this, and perhaps in time to another, generation.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Summer Row, Remembered

This piece was written for a middle school group in Fayetteville, New York, for a project on maritime observations and activities...   --jps, February 2003
       A Summer Row, Remembered, up to Essex from Old Lyme
                                                                                by John Stratton
Here at the mouth of the Connecticut River there are hundreds of acres of salt marshes and twisting estuaries — shallow creeks and small rivers through which the tidewaters run rich in fish and crabs. The broad, low  marshes have many birds...big ospreys, egrets, herons, cormorants, swans, geese, ducks and clouds of gulls and other shore birds. The tides of the river extend about fifty miles up to Hartford, and the whole river, of course, goes all the way up to Canada, about four hundred miles.
Because the river is wide in  the five miles or so near the mouth where its meets Long Island Sound, and it is fairly shallow, it's very good for small boats.  
And so I explore, starting on the Old Lyme side of the river where I live, often putting in at the landing where the Roger Tory Peterson nature preserve at Great Island is located.  The big island is low,  mostly marsh grass with a few clumps of trees on rocks.  Some rocks have initials carved in them more than a hundred years ago, when fishermen were waiting for the tide to turn...or for fish to be caught in their nets.  Shad-fishing is still important to people, and there are lots of shad-festivals when it's the right season. Shad tastes good if you watch out for the bones.
So my small rowboat — usually my 16-foot, double-ended Appledore Pod — can poke around the estuaries, and zip out into the rougher water of the Sound. I often bring a camera along, and often stop and get my feet muddy as I rescue someone-unknown's life preserver, boat fender, or even canoe paddle from the tangled riverbanks.  These come home with me to fill up my garage.
Once you get started by taking your boat out of the yard or garage (if there is room) or wherever you keep it, and put it on the car — it's nice to have help — you drive down to the landing, take it off and place it at the water's edge.  Then you put in the oars, the life jacket (called a PFD, or "Personal Flotation Device" in Coast Guard-talk) and park the car and walk back. 
Then you check to see that you have included a water bottle or two, a bailer (a plastic soap or bleach or milk bottle with its bottom cut out does fine), and then slide the boat in the water trying not to scrape it too badly, and at last, finally, get in carefully (this can be the most tippy part of your day!), put the oars in, and pull off shore with a couple of short strokes. Then look around.  
Look again to see that you have not forgotten anything (insect repellent? sandals?), and then pull off in earnest, going wherever you want to go. Rowing is nice because you do not need much water depth —  in boat talk, you do not "draw much water." And if you do run aground, you are going slowly. And if you do get stuck, well, you can just push yourself off with an oar...or even just get out (hoping it's not too muddy!) and shove off again.  Anyway, off you go up the estuaries, twisting and turning and steering carefully as you look over your shoulder every few strokes to not end up stuck in the grass or reeds or mud. 
When you row, you are looking "backward," where the boat has been:  backwards at your life, in fact, so there seems to be time to think a lot of thoughts -- usually good ones. There is time to remember things, memorize things, or make up new things.* Because you are so quiet, you can sneak up on various little creatures and look at their little lives as they eat or avoid (usually) being eaten. This is nature, not TV.
It is surprising how fast, though, a good boat and a good pair of oars can go. The oars are important: the longer and lighter the better — that's about nine feet, nine inches for my Appledore with its special rowing setup, and about eight feet for many other good boats whose oars rest in oarlocks on the gunwales (the pieces of wood that run along the top edges of the hull). Good oars, with practice, can make you a very good rower who can travel many miles in a day without getting too tired out.  It's something like having good jogging or running or basketball shoes; you can go further, in more comfort, with less effort.
Well, let's back to the water, and where we are on it. I first like to go southward out the estuary, inside a long strip of beach called Griswold Point (which was given to the Griswold family by the King of England in the early-1600's) and then out into the Sound.  If it's a little rough it can be fun. If it's too rough (and my precious camera, and unprecious clothes, might get wet), I will turn back to the north and head upstream, way upstream, in the calm water, toward the town of Essex. 
Once in a while I will pass someone who is in another boat who has stopped to fish or go crabbing. Once in a while I will see a train, silvery, crossing the railroad bridge; always I can see the big Route 95 bridge in the distance with its tiny cars and trucks going over it, up one side and down the other. 
To get under the railroad and car bridges I have to leave the calm estuary and poke out into the main river, where it's narrow for a half-mile or so. It's fairly calm there most of the time because it's about three miles from the river mouth. And if I stay on the shallow Old Lyme side of the river there are not too many boats going to and fro making big waves (called wakes), which can slop aboard my little boat, and not tip me over (I hope).
But between and under the bridges the current is strong, especially when the tide is going out and it merges with the normal river current.  I have to pay attention to rowing with a strong and steady pace — you can't stop to rest, or the current will pull you right back to where you've been.  The river is telling you that you can sightsee later; just keep rowing. 
At last, just north of the bridges the river widens again and there are more estuaries and places to see. One of these is the small town of Essex, about four more miles, so you just point that way and maybe go around in back of a few islands, or stay off to one side of the river's  deep channel and look around at boats and birds and waves and houses as you go.
Back in 1814, on a cold night in early April, the British took this trip in several big rowing boats, in order to surprise the people at Essex and burn their ships.  It was the War of 1812.. They burned 27 ships, and mostly got away without injury to themselves — one of the biggest raids in the war (the raid on Washington, D.C., is another story!).
So here we are following the British course, but in daylight and warmth.  It's just something to think about: What if the Americans had been warned, and they had set up cannons where the bridges are now?  Bad news for the King.
But now it is peaceful here. In fact, the river is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places you can find, with its water coming all the way from Canada, and passing all those cities and towns in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and upstate Connecticut.  Once the river was used like a highway, with steamboats and barges loaded with tobacco and lumber and Colts and onions, and sandstone and granite that built cities.  
You think about that too.  
And soon you are at Essex, a bit hot and sweaty, and take another nice long drink of water, and deserve a little stretch on the Town Dock. While you are there, before letting the current and your oars zoom you back down to Old Lyme,  you take a look into the Connecticut  River Museum, and say hi to a few people looking at the river, and maybe look through their binoculars at birds...or whatever there is to see that day.  
Maybe they are looking at the nice sandy beach on Notts Island across the river, where it's fun to swim in the summer, which I for one am thinking about on this cold January day.
--j.p.s., January 2003

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Crossing The Sound

     It was always there: Long Island. On clear days the low profile of sand and trees could be seen like a mirage at the horizons' edge; the main island stretching until it disappeared from sight, punctuated at the east end by little Plum Island, with the Gut between, At night the lights would hint of life, of some race of sentient beings going about daily routines of work and play. Perhaps, from time to time, they would pause to gaze across the water, at us, and wonder whose lights, whose trees, whose hills those were, over there, in the place called: Connecticut. 

     Of course, we had sailed up close to the shores of Long Island, close as we dared, and too many times to be counted. There were beaches, we knew; and low bluffs, and houses, and people with their children splashing in the cold waters of the Sound. We knew this much. Some of us had motored over there in unremarkable motorboats on unremarkable passages. There is even a ferry service, large steel vessels engaged in the practical commerce of moving people and their cars from here to there, there to here, to the entry points of this place and that. Some of us, most of us, even, had crossed the Sound by ferry, a slightly extraordinary passage on a conveniently reliable schedule.  

     We had never rowed across the Sound. 

     This was a topic of frequent discussion, and for numerous years. It is, after all, right: there! ten, perhaps nine, miles away. Not a feat of Atlantic proportions, no epic test of strength and endurance. Just a pick-your-weather, keep a good lookout, bring water, don't be foolish, kind of feat. A fresh Sou'westerly would blow us back to somewhere along the Connecticut coast. A strong Nor'westerly  might push us on our way to Portugal (everyone always says Portugal; the Canary Islands are more likely). A compass was added to our club gig Current for the crossing.

     The Current is a warhorse of a boat. Launched in 1990, she was tried and tested on the Connecticut River, a not entirely protected stretch of water, and was familiar to us by the summer of '92,  when the plan at last took form. Current is a tack and tape plywood boat, 22'6" by 4', V-bottomed and rock stable. Set up to row with four plus cox'n, using rather simple 11' oars, Current will barrel and bull her way through surprisingly rough conditions with surprisingly little fuss. Wind is always the concern when rowing, though.

     There were but three of us signed on for the great crossing, meaning we would row as a cox'd double, which we had done many times before; Geoff, John, and myself would make the crossing by default, as no others stepped forward to join us. We decided a practice run was in order, a test more of ourselves than of the boat. This we did on a Saturday afternoon, starting in Essex on the Connecticut River, rowing down river and out to the Sound, rounding Bell 8 some two miles off shore before returning up river. It was a warm summer day, and the heat proved to be the biggest obstacle; and I, sufferer of heat exhaustion from early childhood, was compelled to bail out at Old Saybrook, some two miles short of our intended finish point. This gave pause at least to myself; heat sickness at mid-Sound would be a high obstacle to overcome.

     We nearly postponed the crossing when the scheduled day arrived. We actually decided against attempting it that day,  the weather-window being exactly wrong for our purpose. There was a strong breeze from the South East, which would fight us going over, and a strong Nor'wester forecast for the afternoon to fight us on the way back. Portugal seemed a likely possibility. We decided to just go for a row, to further test ourselves and the Current in real world, open water conditions.

     We launched from a beach club in Old Lyme where John is a member. The Current was trailered over from Old Saybrook, then down the long unpaved and private road to the club, and finally down the beach to a sandy, open launch site. Long Island Sound was shoal-water choppy, the wind demanded respect; with the waves breaking onto the beach, launching, boarding, getting oars out and rudder on was a scramble and a fight. Getting turned broadside to the waves would leave us swamped before we even got underway, but our departure was smooth enough to see us safely on our way. 

     Out on open water the waves were confused, steep, and frequent; and large, knocking us around, making it difficult to maintain a rowing rhythm. Current dropped behind the waves, then rose to their crests, boat and land alternately appearing and disappearing to each other. We pressed on, venturing a little further out on the open waters, testing, finding our stroke in the disparate seas; short strokes with the oars, timed at the wave tops, catching solid water with a quick motion before the solid water fell away to leave oars swinging aimlessly at the open air. We were making progress, further from one shore, closer to the other, though this was no longer our intent.

     Off in the distance, west of our position, we spotted a small sail, on a course to overtake and intercept us. It was the Monomoy surfboat Burnt Island, sailing out of the mouth of the Connecticut River.

     There had been talk of our two boats joining up for this passage, including comments about our fragile craft being tossed and wrecked by the seas of Long Island Sound. The Burnt Island, Current. We steadily put water between us, until they tried a new tack towards more fruitful grounds.

    As we worked our way further from Connecticut's familiar shore, the wind began to ease, the waves became noticeably less formidable. There was no discussion, no decision, just a change in our focus of attention; a course, compensating for tide, a bit west of the Gut, someplace we might beach and go ashore. We were perhaps three of nine miles across, rowing with more clarity of purpose than before. The decision had been made.

     Geoff cox'd all the way across; the plan had been to switch off, but this seemed unwise once we were underway. I rowed at stroke, John had the forward position. Current was slightly out of trim, but not unmanageably so. We rowed with a steady rhythm, growing accustomed to the waves, keeping our pace while avoiding the caught oar ("catching a crab") that would be, not dangerous, but disruptive. Our efforts began to have their effect, in a way that only human-powered travelers can truly ever experience: muscle, strain, sweat, fatigue, but then; results. Miles peel away slowly under the oars, exasperation and satisfaction residing one by one on the stroke and catch of the venturous oarsman. Long Island began to loom closer, and we approached the mysterious coast with justified caution. Here the waves breaking on the beach called for a quick landing, leaping out (we are not of leaping stock, though), hauling up the boat, away from the swamping waves. There were rock outcroppings to avoid as well; we zeroed in on a reasonable stretch of beachfront.

     There is a moment when beaching in surf or breaking waves calls for an abandonment of caution and a decisiveness of action. We rowed in swiftly, shipped oars, stumbled out of the boat, only to discover that the beach was not the pristine sand of our imaginings but rather, well-polished stones, stones worn smooth and rounded by centuries of pounding surf, stones slightly bigger than walnuts, stones remarkably fluid in the crashing breakers. Our feet sank into these stones up to our ankles, and our shoes filled with the hard little stones, adding to the struggle of dragging the Current to safety beyond the waves. We sat to rest a spell, emptying our shoes of their unexpected cargo, and somewhere in the ensuing moments I claimed a polished white Long Island beach stone as a souvenir of the day.

     So now Connecticut was over there, at the edge of a new horizon. We scouted this new land, so different from our own (our beaches have sand! our rocks are much bigger, and covered in seaweed moss). Here the beach ended with an impassible row of scrub brush and trees. Some native beach peoples approached at one point, warily keeping their distance, their wariness masked by faux aloofness and the pointing out of beach features to their young children, who obligingly acted intrigued by what must have been the everyday sights of their everyday beach world. They seemed strangely disinterested in our boat, or in where we had come from. We attempted no contact, we were there just to observe. 

     When it was time to leave, we repeated the quick launch, board, and deploy routine, this time with reassuring ease, and pushed out onto the choppy waters of Long Island Sound for the long haul to home. Returning home always seems to take less time than venturing out, especially to unfamiliar places. With the incoming tide moving us westward, we compensated and crabbed our way hopefully towards Old Lyme. John cox'd for the first half of this crossing, and I for the final stretch. Along the way a large tug and barge with a massive backhoe-on-treads rig crossed our bow; when we finally crossed well astern of him we saw he had changed course to give us an extremely and unnecessarily wide berth (we were taking pains not to come anywhere near to him anyway). Later, a friend in a commercial towboat pulled alongside to inform us that the tugboat had radioed a warning about a rowboat on the Sound presenting "no electronic signature" (i.e., his radar did not see us). Paul, the towboat captain, subsequently presented us with three photographs of three tired looking rowers who, by their appearance, would certainly present no electronic signature.

     Our course needed correcting to the east, the landing was a bit rough but not disastrous. We hauled out, left the Current to rest a few days at the beach club, and departed with the knowledge that from this day forward all our talk of rowing across the Sound would center on the day we did just that.




Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Right Way

by John Stratton
     Well, the other day we took our boat up to the head of a Connecticut River estuary and beached it on a small, low, not-too-muddy island to stretch out. On the other end of the sandbar were a dad and his two kids, about seven or eight years old. The kids were playing in the water, exploring, finding treasures, being brave. Their canoe was around the bend a bit.

     It was a peaceful Saturday. In the distance, the overgrown pastures were green, the old farmhouses were tucked away in trees. It could have been 1890, 1920, 1940, 1950.

     But not 1999, when most kids would be stashed in the back of the minivan headed for soccer practice or T-ball practice or Little League or some other Constructive Thing, carefully scheduled to fit in to a busy weekend.

     Not that there is anything wrong with skill-building activities. Yes, it is good for you, better than the TV diet. But that dad had the right idea. He took his kids on an independent adventure, a place they'd never been, and let them explore it by themselves, and learn a little more about who they were becoming on their own, with the illusion of being unsupervised.

     I left the island about when they did. They were off in their canoe, Dad in the stern, both kids in the bow with their own paddles, pulling smoothly, heading for home. A nice Saturday afternoon.



Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Snowy Row On New Years

     Norm and Roger started the tradition; or, Norm did and Roger followed, Norm, the father of Rogers' bride. The premise was to start the new year with a short paddle at high noon in the matching Naugahyde-covered kayaks they had built together. The launch point was at the Foot of Main Street in Essex, Ct., onto the majestically barren Connecticut River. Starting sometime in the late 1960's, on every decent New Years Day (with necessary postponements, never cancellations,) the idea took root and became an annual imperative such as is, tradition.

     We joined in the tradition sometime in the 1980's, first my brother and I, then the members of our little Oar and Paddle Club, of which Norm and Roger were original members. This was never an official, sanctioned event, but rather a tradition for people to join or not as they chose; for there were years when the wind came howling, years when only the Club's erstwhile gig Current could be dragged across the ice for a dockside boarding; years when ice hovered on a slack tide, ready to close in and trap us like Arctic explorers, albeit a few dozen feet from shore.  Some years were so bitter cold that, with boots on, ones' feet could be warmed by standing in the icy waters. And some, perhaps most, of the years, it has been warm, pleasantly so, and sunny; positively, the first day unveiling..

     And then, there was the year it snowed on New Years Eve.

     We were launching from the State ramp in Old Saybrook by then, for strictly logistical reasons, the ramp that is a massive, five lane affair under the concrete Baldwin Bridge, that which carries I-95 across the wide Connecticut River. It is a starkly practical place, functional and well conceived, rather like the commissars would have built if pleasure boating had been permitted the proletariat. The day was warm and calm, the pavement mostly clear of the light snow from the previous eve. But the trees were white like Christmas cards, fluffed with snow that would have been perfectly framed by a window pane next to a fireplace over hot cocoa. As we launched our boats the white world felt more like winter than the air itself.

     From a pure boating perspective, it was a perfect day to go rowing in reasonable boats. The temperature hovered near forty degrees, the current moderate and favorable, the wind gentle if there was wind at all. Occasional sheets of ice, crystal clear invisible in the smooth waters, bumped along our hulls to no concern or consequence. And yet, more than any of these New Years' passages on the river, more than the bitter cold or wind or ice, this day had the unmistakable, unforgiving feel of winter; it was winter, the water cold, trees covered in white snow crowding the wide river with a palpable, pressing clarity. It is winter, this is a risky venture, this is real, this is the beauty of a life's moment on the slippery edge of endless oblivion. This was not the best of our New Years' rows, but it was the perfect one.

     Our course, our usual course for a casual afternoons' row, took us across the river, behind Calves Island (that precious, natural marsh made accessible with dredging spoils), then the long crossing between Ayers and Ferry Points. Here the scenery was more fiction-like than real, more the painted landscape of imagination, the white trees framing houses transformed into cartoon homes by rounded shoulders of wind driven snow. All the ground was covered too, the blacktop roads invisible from our low sitting boats. We were rowing into a new year, which could as well have been a new year of centuries ago. Across the marsh the snow-capped phragmites made a carpet of white, with little creeks opening up to the land beyond. We headed there next.

     Inside the creek all the world disappeared, hidden by the invasive reeds that have overrun our indigenous marshlands. This is always a quiet passage. this marsh-creek running, quiet but for small creature noises and distant motorboats, now silenced by the wintry wrap of snow. Someone suggested a visit to a friend who lives back from the creek, a shouting visit as it turned out, with a fellow rower surprised to see us rowing on a winters' day like this.

     No one ever really plans their most memorable days, they happen somewhere in the confluence of dates and destinations relevant and not. But one must always put the parts in motion to, from time to time, meet with the moments to be long held in memory's fond embrace. We returned to a toast of sparkling wine, and began the new year with many reports of good things yet to come.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Memorial Day Sail, 1980

     There was a high pressure system that lasted for days. The winds were steady, strong, out of the north-northwest. It was warmer now, but the wind made it sweater weather. We were going sailing on our 1937 vintage Yankee One Design, the ubiquitously named Broomstick.

     Standing on the dock, I suggested to my father that he should go. There was an awkwardness to the conversation, his health a recent question, his chances left to sail on a sailors' breeze in play. No, he as much gestured as spoke, you should go; I have to get over this thing first. He watched from the dock as we sailed away, the man we and his yard crew referred to as the Chief. He was 71, I was 21.

     On board besides myself were my brother Rick; our friend Rob, still recovering from an automobile accident; Nathan, an engineer in the merchant marines; and a friend of Nathans' who worked for the seaman's union. 

     The sail down river was swift and clean, a downwind drive before the fresh northerly winds. Three miles on we were sailing the waters of Long Island Sound, following our traditional course of no particular course, sailing just because Broomstick was meant for sailing. And, in the conditions we found that day, strong winds darkening the swells that ran six feet high or more, keeping us rail down and powering through the waves with thoroughbred form. We reached away to the east, tied in a reef and sailed with the small jib. Just for fun, Rob and I hiked off the running backstay, keeping the lee rail just clear of the water during one prolonged blast of pressing wind.

     Nathans' friend was turning green from the moment we reached the rougher waters of the Sound. He was a desk worker with the union, and this was his first time sailing for real. We suggested the old sailors' remedy of a few crackers to settle his stomach, which he declined, preferring to test his willpower against the seas while lying nauseously wherever he could be out of the way. We sympathized, but our sympathies were not deep enough to send us back to calmer waters, and to his credit willpower won out that day.

     We sailed on. We were young, our boat was strong and in her element, and the day was ours; a rare day for Long Island Sound, which so often waivers between slatting calms and smoky sou'westers. Northerly breezes typically fade as they reach the first mile of the Sound, but not today; this wind carried energy beyond local weather patterns, beyond the cooling and warming of  land between night and day, dark and sun. This was energy from the larger land, the larger sea, and we were driving the venerable Broomstick right to her intended limits that day.

     Broomstick was the name given to Yankee One Design # 15 by her previous owner, John McVitty; her original name had been Anita. Her lines were published in the Rudder magazine in 1936 or so, and my father often told the story of how, when he  opened the magazine to that page, the design just jumped off the page at him. She was to his eye close to the perfect model for a sailors' sailboat, narrow, deep, long waterline, hollow bow, a profile of elegant curves, a design of pure logic and beauty. Officially, the Yankee was the anonymous winner of a juried design contest to form a new one design class for Buzzards Bay and beyond; but it was commonly known, or perhaps simply impossible not to recognize, that this could only be the work of the genius Starling Burgess, unrestrained.

     When my father decided some twenty years or so  later that he would build a boat for the family, the Yankee One Design was near the top of his list of possible designs. Ultimately he decided on a boat with more accommodations for cruising, but when McVitty brought Broomstick to the boatyard for storage, her spot was always right alongside the boat the Chief was building for his family.

     Then the fire of 1964 took the boatyard and the boat under construction. Five years later Broomstick became part of our family; between summers of sailing she was re-constructed and upgraded until she was strong enough again for the kind of vigorous sailing she was intended for.

     One of the first improvements to Broomstick was a new tiller and hardware, to eliminate any of the helm-wobble that the Chief found so annoying. In the past he and his father had adorned tillers with dragon figureheads, but Broomstick was all about speed, and the Chief was a big fan of the Peanuts comic strip. And so, Broomstick's tiller featured a carved figurehead of Snoopy, going real fast.

     Broomstick was going real fast as we headed back up the river on a close hauled port tack. She always had a slight weather helm when driving to windward, something common, it seems, to boats with a propensity for going to windward. My father said this was because a weather helm forces the helmsman to sail tight on the wind; others say the rudder creates a better foil of the keel when slightly trimmed to lee. What was clear was that the modern boats were never a match when sailing to windward, especially in a breeze like that day; even boats half again her length gave little contest, even the one who revved up his engine to hold us off. On the way we shook the reef out of the mainsail, unwilling to concede even the fraction of a knot.

     Our father came out to the dock to greet us as we returned. This had been one of the best sails we ever had on Broomstick, the kind of fresh breeze sailing for the pure joy of fresh breeze sailing that he enjoyed most. We furled the mainsail, stowed the jibs, coiled the halyards, backstays, and mainsheet, as the Chief, leaning on a weathered piling, watched. He was a man of few words for  the moment at hand, preferring to tell his stories of younger days, the satisfying hard work, the  good sails and old friends that had filled his life so well.  We had to reef; it was a good sail. Perhaps that much was said.

     Nathan took the photograph of the Chief leaning on his piling. The camera caught him in mid-cough, a remembrance of the cancer in his lung that would close out his life less than ten days later. He did not get out sailing again, and so that Memorial Day sail was in a way the handing off to a new generation, something that has been happening in more or less formal, more or less dramatic fashions, for thousands of years.




Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Full Moon Solstice

     The ancients measured time by the moon, but they built monuments to the solstice. In monolithic stone structures, sunrise on the winter and summer solstice shines through narrow openings to light up shrines to the returning sun. Seasons, the re-birth of life, were so marked and paid homage to, the progress of time and lifetimes measured by the mysterious, unfailing, yet hopeful long and shortest days.

     In 1985 the moon was full on the night of the summer solstice. We know now, in the strict principles of physics and the collected knowledge of astronomy, the how and why of lunar cycles and solstice days. The moon circles Earth and reflects sunlight in a repeating pattern of shadow and light; the Earth wobbles and days grow longer, then shorter, then longer again. Yet there is a mystic fascination with such phenomenon, within and beyond our naked senses' comprehension. This coinciding of ordinary events was, in fact, a rare occurrence, in human terms.

     I went for a paddle that evening, accompanied by three others. There were twenty or more who should have joined us, members of our little club of ancient water travelers. To me this evening was the perfect moment, our small muscle powered boats the ideal altar, and marsh-encircled Lord's Cove the proper setting, for our own humbly reverent observation of this monument in time and space.  But only two came to join me, plus an accidental straggler. Perhaps the others were too civilized, or constrained by civilized obliges, to partake in our paganist celebration. We set off into the warm, humid evening.

     On the longest day of the year one has time to contemplate the sunset. From the cockpit of a kayak, sitting at water level, the rivers' expanse gives a panoramic view of the western shore; marsh, rocky beach, trees, houses. On that night all were backlit by a hot, simmering sun, a ball of orange hanging, sinking, yet still in full view as we reached the cove. This solstice sun shone just north of west from where we pulled our boats through the timeless river waters.

     The moon rose early, just south of east, bright orange against the muggy sky. From behind the trees topping the riverbank and hills it rose, giving more light and length to this longest day. Perhaps the ancients, undistracted by artificial things, would have expected this; that solstice sun and full moon would occupy the same sky at the same time, two brilliant orange orbs marking the month and the start of another summer season.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

the Elegant Pastime

     The Elegant Pastime is a free flowing collection of prose on the simple pleasures born of sensible boats. This collection (which will grow over time, as is the promise of the digital age), will emphasize writing as art form, working on the canvas of water, wind, waves and sky; and, the boats and ships, voyages and knockabouts, men, women, and children who are the stories being logged and charted.

     Given this broad emporium, there is no need to exclude works of enlightened fiction aside the thoughtful, well phrased and true tales of life afloat. Perhaps the distinction shall best be noted only at the tale's conclusion.

     Content for the Elegant Pastime will come from within and without; from the past, present, and let us hope, the future. Submissions will be reviewed prior to posting; unused copy will be deleted upon the author's request, since digital copy cannot in fact be returned.