Sailing to Byzantium/NYC.
I'm not usually caught with my pants down, not intentionally anyway, but there I was with them around my ankles in the middle of the night on a deserted island when I heard it. Imagine an infuriated bull gnu snorting into a megaphone. I wheeled around incredulous, but then I heard it again. It was so loud I just had to laugh. Gored to death on a desolate beach without any pants on – the comic possibilities were endless!
Let's backtrack a bit and tell you how harmless the initial idea seemed that got me into this mess: sail to NYC with my son Neuman. We live only about 50 miles from Ground Zero on the coast of Connecticut – it was summer vacation and I had already bought the boat. There was sunshine in the forecast. And, most importantly, the boss didn't actually hate the idea. Slam dunk.
Facetiousness aside, you don't need much more than a little imagination and I won't even say courage but some get-up-and-go to mine the gold that's right there in front of you, within reach. Pack some lunch, launch a boat, and freedom's yours.
So I called my brother and best friend Joseph and told him fly up with his son Dante and we'd all go together. He did. Neuman and I picked them up on a glorious day at La Guardia Airport in the convertible and we all immediately felt the gods smiling down on us. Driving over the Whitestone Bridge on the way, I point out to everyone that we're going to be sailing right under this bridge and tell them to remember looking down on the water because in a few days they'll be on the water looking up at the bridge.
We stopped at Los Portales in Norwalk, a raw, real and cheap ("the dirt is where the flavor is" we used to say when we lived in Egypt) Mexican restaurant to have burritos and plan our trip. I'm not kidding, there are posters of cockfighting champions on the wall. We decide to leave Sunday evening on the low tide out of Compo Beach in Westport, and sail to a small island offshore called Cockenoe (KAHK-ee-nee). We'd sleep there the first night, and then get an early start the next morning. We'd sail as far as we can the first day, find a marina to spend the night, and then get to the city sometime on Tuesday. We'd see the sights in the city on Wednesday, and then trailer the boat home on Thursday.
A few years ago I bought a used 1981, 17’ O'Day Daysailer from a guy up in Ossining (he wasn't going to be using it for 3-5 years), a small town on the Hudson River which used to be called Sing Sing. It's just your basic Joe Sailboat (with a trailer) and has served my nautical needs perfectly. I christened her "Oneupmanship". I don't even need a slip – I just keep it in the basement of the"Monster Cottage" we have on our property, and it's only 23 minutes to the boat ramp. I can launch and rig it easily by myself – she sails great, and is a terrific fishing and clamming boat. I don't futz over her at all; just a quick rinse down when we get home to get the salt off and Bob's your uncle. Seriously, I'm already married, so I want something easy, low maintenance, cheap and fun for a change if you know what I mean.
I was reading a book recently about Norwalk being the clamming capitol of the world at one time, and realized the Daysailer is just a modern version of the Sharpies that used to ply the waters up and down the Connecticut coast during the 1800s and early 1900s. It's still in the original condition, except for a mooring cover that was custom-made by the previous owner – which has turned out to be an almost-perfect boom tent.
The only thing I changed really was to cut four plywood "bed boards" that fit athwart the seats in the cockpit from the cuddy bulkhead sternwards and make a great sleeping platform. With the mooring cover in place, the cockpit is transformed into a pretty spacious cabin that sleeps two adults comfortably. There is about 2’ of space between the sleeping platform and the stern, and that's where we put the port-a-potty at night, since we can't really relieve ourselves overboard while docked next to the quality.
One more modification I made to the boat was to add two fishing rod holders to the cuddy bulkhead, angled outboard, and I also threw an ancient 6 hp Evinrude on the back. I know, I know, I used to be a sailing puritan too – but with three youngish kids who aren't crazy about heeling over and a wife who gets seasick just looking at the dock, the outboard has made the boat pleasant and sometimes even enjoyable for all of us.
I have all the required safety equipment and requisite boat paraphernalia, so I won't go into details about that. For this trip we were going to be Zimmermen (German slang for skateboarders who wear only shorts and skippies) and bring only one small backpack and one sleeping bag (with pad). We'd also have one soft-side cooler between us which we would fill with snacks, sandwiches, and drinks. No electronics would be allowed for the entire trip, except for the marine radio.
The O'Day has a fairly large cuddy, which is one of the reasons I bought it, but it is not a full-size berth by any stretch of the imagination. So the game plan was to store all of the equipment in there while we were underway – I like the cockpit clutter-free while sailing – and then to put the equipment from the cuddy under the bed boards at night so the boys could actually sleep in there while my brother and I slept in the "cabin" under the boom tent. It proved to be a workable solution, even though the Daysailer was never meant to sleep 4, and was a great lesson for all of us in make-do minimalism, while not actually having to suffer. If I learned one thing in the army it was: you can't get used to misery. Luckily, we all looked on it as a fun adventure and fun it was.
As we discussed in the gameplan, we decided to leave on Sunday evening and sail to Cockenoe, about a mile offshore of Compo Beach. It's close, the clamming is excellent there, and we'd be able to get an early start in the morning. So we drove to the boat ramp, got underway about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and the boss dropped us off and took the Land Cruiser and trailer back home. We had a 5-10 knot breeze out of the SW, and got out to the reef in about thirty minutes. We beached the boat and proceeded to dig for clams. We got a bucketful in about a half hour, and then got back into the boat and sailed the 100 yards or so to the island itself.
Cockenoe is shaped like the letter "C", with a large protected inner harbor if you will, and we always go to Campground #1 when we sleep there. The island is owned by the city of Westport, and is uninhabited, except by a boatload of birds. Everytime we go there it's like our own little private resort vacation sanctuary.
We collected driftwood, made a fire and put the clams into a rusty paint bucket we found on the beach and steamed them right there, caveman-like. I noticed that we had forgotten to bring the food cooler – yikes! I must have left it in the back of the Land Cruiser. Luckily we had packed dinner and had remembered to put that into the boat. So we ate everything, including the fresh clams, and got ready for the night. Since we didn't have a tent, we all slept in the boat. It took a while for everyone to get settled, but we finally fell asleep.
It was a clear, bright, windless night. The big dipper was surreally picture-book perfect and bright in the sky right above us. The sky itself was so huge and alive it felt as if it were a beast breathing down on us. Little did I know at the time that there was a beast breathing down on us, but it wasn't metaphorical.
Which brings us back to the beginning of our story: me standing on the beach half naked and scared out of my wits. Even now I can't think of anything arch or clever to say about it.
There's an explanation for everything, and one that is usually mundane but makes sense. I had gotten off the boat to go to the bathroom, hence the pants situation. I looked up on a nearby sand dune, and there, silhoutted perfectly against the midnight blue backdrop, was a 10-point buck in rut. Which I would have said made a fabulous movie scene, except for the fact that I was in the picture. I'm not exactly what you'd call doe-eyed, but I don't think that lonely hart would have been too picky at that point. I won't go into too much detail about my comical scramble back to the boat except to say that I feel bad for the innocent bird-watcher/beach comber stumbling upon my soiled pants in the sand and wondering "WTF?"
The following conversation took place on the boat upon my arrival:
Joseph (startled): "What happened to you?"
Me (standing there out of breath, naked from the waist down, soaking wet, and with a horrified look in my eyes): "Nothing. Luckily!"
We got up the next morning early, and got the boom tent down and the boat repacked. We took stock of our food: only two packages of graham crackers, four apples and a huge bag of sunflower seeds. But we had plenty of water. We thought about waiting two hours for the tide to go out so we could clam again, but we figured it'd be better to get on our way. The wind was very, very light so we motored all the way to Green's Ledge Lighthouse and then decided to throw up the mainsail and the jib.
The wind on Long Island Sound blows for the most part from the SW, which means we would have had to beat all the way to New York. But today was one of the rare days it blew from the NE, so we ran wing and wing all the way. There was a whisker pole that came with the boat and I dug it out of the cuddy and actually rigged it up for the first time. The wind stayed light, maybe 5-10 knots, and the sun was hot, so we had a very leisurely ride the whole day. We didn't have to touch the sails, so we threw out a couple of trolling lures overboard, kicked back after slathering on some sunscreen, and had a Huck Finn-ish ride down the Sound.
We divvied up our graham crackers – we each got eight, and decided to save them for later and have our apples for lunch. As I was savoring mine I was thinking about Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean and how interesting it is not only seeing so many familiar sites from this angle, but also at this pace. The Great Captain Island Light, for example, is an architechtural gem that I've seen many times, but never really noticed. We all took turns taking naps, while we followed the red can bouys (red, right, returning) into New York starting with #24 right off of Cockenoe and counting up. We ate our crackers slowly, like we were on some kind of survival trial, and I think Dante was the last one to finish his off, to the envy of us all.
I was dozing off at the helm, half-dreaming of Emerson and his essay that begins "The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end..." Which got me to thinking about how Einsteinian time can kind of annul space; the faster and faster and faster one goes in this world between Point A and Point B, the smaller and more meaningless the space in between seems, and actually is, mathematically. As time hurries up and becomes a mere inconvenience, so does space, and what about all those gorgeous languid, rich, delightful details that you miss along the way?
“Do not hurry your journey in the least,” the Greek poet Cavafy warns: “Pray... that there may be many summer mornings when with what joy, with what delight you will enter harbours you have not seen before.”
Which reminded me of Yeats and his masterly Sailing to Byzan
BAM! Neuman was out cold on the bow when he got a huge hit from a striper no doubt that almost yanked him overboard. We all woke up in a hurry to the sound of the line whirring out, the fish running like a scalded dog. Neuman started frantically reeling dinner in, as we licked our chops in anticipation when just like that the fish was gone. Quiet. And then Joseph almost at the same time got another hit, but that one got away too. He brought in his lure and there was a big bite taken out of it that was so perfectly art-directed we couldn't believe it was real.
We continued on our lazy way – I think we might have jibed once but I can't be sure. We passed the “Hen and Chickens” and then shortly after came up to “Execution Rocks.” I remember my Uncle Joe telling me about them when I was a kid – he used to drive by them full throttle when he was bringing up new boats from the Luhrs factory in New Jersey to our family boat yard in Fall River. Hello, Uncle Joe!
It was about 4 o'clock by then and we had said we would sail until 5, since we didn't want to arrive at our destination, whatever it may be, in the dark. We figured City Island was as good a place as any to stop for the night, so we headed around Hart Island (I wonder if there are any wild-eyed bucks in heat there too?) and docked at the South Minneford Yacht Club and Marina.
When we all went in to sign up for a slip and the dockmaster asked where we had come from. We said we had just sailed in from Connecticut and he asked how big our boat was. I said, under my breath, “sixteen feet.” He asked “sixty feet?” I said, no, real low, “sixteen” and coughed. He eyed me sideways and chuckled. He looked like an old-school goombah so I told him about my in-laws being Wops from the Bronx and we had a lot of people and places in common. He gave us the best slip in the place. We were going to take showers and go to dinner, but we were all so hungry we went right off to eat at the Lobster Box.
As I said, this is kind of my turf – 15 years ago I used to take the boss and her grandmother to the Lobster Box for dinner every so often. I haven't been since, and it goes without saying that things have changed. A lot. We decided to try Johnny's Reef across the street instead. Same, same. So we ended up at Sammy's Fishbox. I won't say it was the worst meal/experience of my dining life, but it was close. We went back to the marina, took showers, which were hot and long and lovely, and then went to sleep. It was a cool night and we were tired.
We got up early to almost no wind, and no wind forecast, so Joseph went to the gas station down the street and filled the gas can, and bought another 2 gallon can, just in case. We didn't want to run out of gas in the middle of Hell Gate, and the marinas in NYC aren't allowed to sell fuel. Note to New York politicians across the spectrum and wide-eyed idealists of every description: socialism doesn't work.
We motored down to the Throg's Neck Bridge, and then put up the sails. The slight breeze was out of the SW, so we were going to have to beat all the way into the city. But we sailed for maybe 1/2 hour and got nowhere, so we started the engine and started motoring again. It's tough to be a romantic when the wind and tide are against you.
We finally went under the Throg's Neck Bridge and I was reminded of the time I was in college (six years of my life down the drain!) and racing against SUNY in these very waters. There was a tanker coming down the Sound right in front of the windward mark (Law of Gross Tonnage) and the crazy SUNY sailer in the lead decided to go for it. He slipped in front of the tanker by the skin of his teeth. All the rest of us chickened out and had to wait for the tanker to pass, which took forever. Mr. Ballsy was showered, shaved and having a cocktail on the south wing veranda by the time we even got to the finish line. Thirty. Years. Ago. Ouch!
We motored under the Whitestone Bridge and I told everyone to look up. Same bridge, parallax view. We chugged along under the planes landing at La Guardia. Deafening, but close enough to reach up and touch, which put me in mind of the opening scene of Easy Rider. Coming up on our right was a huge floating building that I initially thought was some kind of manufacturing facility, but it turned out to be a prison of all things – The Hunt's Point Jail I think it's called – barbed wire and everything.
Strange to see it right there, not a hundred feet from us. Lot of pain in there, and here we are free – don't ever take anything for granted, man. Riker's Island is across the street so-to-speak, and there's a lot of misery and wasted unhappy humanity over there too. I told Dante he was seeing a New York that most New Yorkers don't even know about, never mind see and he'll be telling his grandchildren about this trip one day.
We got to Hell Gate around 11 and the current was running against us at about 5 knots. Let me rephrase that – all the stories you read about Hell Gate are understatements! Insane current. Insane! We beached Oneupmanship in a small cove on the southwest side of North Brother Island to literally wait for the tide to turn.
I'd just read an article about this island coincidentally – a photographer had gone and taken a bunch of important historical photographs of the delapidated Riverside Hospital, a once-thriving facility that at one point in time housed Typhoid Mary. It's an interesting case study on the effects of Mother Nature on architecture, since there are no vandals or scroungers or periodic demolition to wreck the place piecemeal. It will just continue to decay undisturbed for years and years to come, a perfect laboratory for the Man vs. Nature folks. The island is off-limits to the public, so we were technically breaking the law, but what else is new? Legal niceties aside, we were happy to have a port in the storm.
Slack tide was at 4 o'clock, so at about 3:20 we got back into Oneupmanship and motored through Hell Gate. Piece of cake when the current's with you. We decided to go up and around Manhattan via the Harlem River, and then sail down the Hudson to the 79th Street Boat Basin, instead of down the East River and then up. The Harlem River is really too narrow to sail, so we had to motor the whole way. We did make a quick stop at the Maritime Police Dock right under the Triboro Bridge, and they were nice enough to fill our gas tanks up since the next closest place was Avalon in New Jersey. We owe you a solid, NYPD.
It was dead high tide by the time we rounded Randall's Island, and most of the bridges across the Harlem River (there are about twenty believe it or not) have a MHW clearance of 25'. Since our mast is only 24' we thought we'd be able to make it no problem. After the second bridge we'd run out of fingernails to bite, so we just lowered the mast and put it in the crutch. The Harlem River by boat is a unique perspective of New York. For example, did you know that Yankee Stadium has a dock on the river – you can see the Bronx Bombers by boat! The Macombs Dam Bridge is a swing bridge that’s still used today that at the time of its construction was the largest moveable man-made object in the world.
It was strange traveling faster than the rush-hour traffic on Roosevelt Drive too. Side by side, different universes – it reminded me of the carriage wheels that spinning at a certain speed look like they're going backwards. It was equally bizarre seeing a couple of Columbian 8-man shells coming at us, the Doppler Effect of the coxwain's "Stroke, stroke, stroke" (with a New York accent!) and the not-quite parallelism of the oars and the water moire-ing in my mind.
We turned the corner at the northern-most point and went through what used to be the Harlem River Canal, past Marble Hill (the only part of Manhattan on the mainland) and right up to Spuyten Duyvil. We were able to slip under the bridge without having to "request an opening" and the Hudson was glorious: windy and sunny, awesome/beautiful. We re-stepped the mast and put up the sails and beat all the way down to 79th Street – the kind of afternoon sailing that makes dying happy possible.
I used to have a slip at this marina when we lived in the city, so it was a homecoming of sorts for me. My brother-in-law Andrew now has his boat in that slip, and we tied up nearby. Needless to say we got our fair share of curious glances and questions, most notably "Are you kidding me?" when a wise guy with gold chains smoking a cigar saw the four of us standing next to Oneupmanship with her Connecticut registration. I lived just up the street from here, so we went to dinner at one of my favorite haunts. It's fun to be a time traveler back to your own old world and self.
Exhausted, Neuman and I went right to bed. Joseph and Dante met up with Andrew and he offered his boat to them for the night, which they were really happy about. He has a beautiful Cobalt 24 with a cuddy cabin, and Joseph said it seemed like the Taj Mahal after two cramped nights on Oneupmanship.
I'm not going to recount our two days sightseeing in New York, which will be another story someday, but I'll fast forward to our not-quite-by-the-numbers return trip on the morning of Day 5.
The idea was for Neuman and I to hop on the train at Grand Central Station and go up to Stamford. We got up early and made the 9:03, and the boss met us at the train station there with the Land Cruiser and trailer. We dropped her off at work, and then drove back to New York, over the George Washington Bridge, and down to a little boat ramp in the Palisades Interstate Park in Edgewater, New Jersey. There are no boat ramps in New York City, not in Manhattan anyway, so this is where we have launched and hauled out in the past.
My brother, in the meantime, was going to sail (or motor) the boat up to the bridge where we'd haul it out, and then drop him and Dante off at the airport on our way home. Brilliant. Their flight was at 2 p.m., so we agreed to meet at the boat ramp at 11. Neuman and I got there just after 11, and, and... “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” as the saying goes.
The wind was howling about 20-25 knots from the north, and the tide was going out lickety-split. The 79th Street boat basin is about 3 miles south of the bridge, so everything was against our heroes. Did I say it was pouring rain? There was no sign of them. We waited in the Land Cruiser and kept looking for them, but nothing. About 11:30 I thought I saw a tiny speck, and I did. It was Oneupmanship, and they were motoring hard against, and slow. They finally came into full view.
And then, the next minute, they were gone. My cell phone rang and it was my brother saying they had run out of gas and were being carried by the current back down river. I told him to check out the Statue of Liberty on his way by. Very funny! I said I knew of a small boatyard in Edgewater and I would go there to see if I could scare up someone to give him a tow. As I'm driving up the steep, winding road from the launch site I suddenly realize that he probably doesn't know that there's still some gas left in the reserve tank in the cuddy. I call and tell him the good news.
We drive back down to the ramp and there they are again, coming back into view. They take an eternity to actually get to the ramp, since the wind has picked up, but we finally wrestle the boat onto the trailer and head to La Guardia. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "Weren't you in the Coast Guard, brother? Yes? Well, I'm going to make sure everybody I know wears life jackets from now on."
Joseph (shaking his head): “Now I know why you don't have any friends.”
Me: “It's called ‘The Common Touch.’”
Anybody out there who's ever driven through New York City and all the way out to Queens with a boat on a trailer in a howling gale can skip this paragraph. Seriously, all I could think of besides dying was the Quantum Paradox of time and space standing still when you approach the speed of light and wishing I could just go faster than the speed limit for crying out loud, the details of the landscape be damned. Ha.
But we didn't forget to smell the flowers, so-to-speak, when we crossed back over the Whitestone Bridge, different people once again – who said you can't jump into (or drive over) the same river twice? You can't even do it once. We made it to La Guardia with minutes to spare.
As we were saying our quick goodbyes curbside, this cop comes up to the Land Cruiser triple-parked right in front of the “Don't Even Think About Parking or Standing Here, Under Penalty of Death” sign with the boat on the trailer, and I see him just shake his head in bewilderment. He comes over looking world-weary and with very little love in his eyes. But before he can ask me if I'm the clown driving that rig I blurt out “Yes, sir!”
As Neuman and I hop back into the SUV and head back to home and hearth, I'm reminded again of (getting cut off when the fish hit and interrupted me) the ending of William Butler Yeats's magnificent Sailing to Byzantium:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
And... I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.