Expanded History – Chapter Three
|Chapter Three – We buy an ocean-going boat.Our cruise to England in 1964 marked the first time I had returned since I emigrated seven years earlier. There had been a remarkable transformation. The Clean Air Act had eliminated much of the smog, buildings I had always thought of as uniformly black were revealed in the natural color of their stone. It seemed like a frenzy of construction had replaced the paralysis that followed the end of World War II. In particular new houses and the start of the Motorway system were transforming the country. New cars, a novelty when I lived there, had appeared in great numbers. Everyone seemed much more affluent. We stayed a little over a week and then flew to Switzerland. We spent a few days at a laboratory near Geneva engaged in work very similar to my own at Brookhaven and then rented a Volkswagen Bug and drove via Austria to visit friends in Yugoslavia. On the way back we stopped at Venice for three days before we flew back to New York, greatly changed and invigorated. Edith got a job with the state health department at what proved to be an exciting time. The legislation of President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ provided funds to create clinics for child and maternal care. Edith became furiously busy organizing the formation of medical centers in our home county of Suffolk. In 1965 I was given the position of Chief Electrical Engineer of the big particle accelerator I had worked at since joining Brookhaven. I was surprised, but later I was to discover that the more I went sailing the more frequently I was promoted on my return. But despite the apparent successes of our professional careers we were preparing to dump them. We had our own agenda; we were going to get an ocean-going boat and sail to the Caribbean. Searching for the ideal and affordable boat I read all the yachting magazines voraciously and we went to the annual Boat Show at the New York Coliseum. Boats constructed of fiberglass were just entering the market, they looked wonderful but they were depressingly expensive. The few years I had owned the True Rocket had taught me the high level of maintenance needed by a wooden boat. If glass was too expensive how about steel? As I chased after my dream Edith achieved one of hers; our son Colin was born in June, 1965.A month or so after Colin’s arrival I noticed a classified ad in the boating section of the Sunday New York Times, it was for an Amuthon. This was a boat I had read about, they were built in Holland of steel by a yard called Kok. The design was typical North Sea trawler fishing boat; a long keel with nicely rounded bilge, 35 feet overall length. I called the telephone number given in the ad. The owner was based in Wickford, Rhode Island, but he said he would sail the boat over to Greenport, at the east end of Long Island, if we were really interested. I told him we were very interested and we made a date. One Saturday afternoon we loaded our new baby into the car and made the one-hour drive to Greenport. The boat, called Prosit, was tied up at Preston’s dock. She was obviously brand new, the paint sparkled and the varnished mast gleamed in the sunlight. The interior was beautiful, mostly white painted bulkheads with dark varnished mahogany trim. She had a four-cylinder Mercedes Benz diesel for auxiliary power. She was a dream boat, but clearly way beyond anything we could afford. Our finances were not too healthy, Edith was still on unpaid maternity leave and we had a hefty mortgage to pay off on the house we had bought the year before. I asked the owner why he was selling the boat; he had already told me the boat had only been in the water for a few weeks. He explained that the yard made three models, the Amuthon being the smallest. He actually had on order the 70-ft model, but on a recent visit to the yard he discovered it would not be ready for this year’s sailing season. The 35-ft Amuthon was waiting to be sold, on an impulse he told them to ship it over to the U.S., but now it had arrived he decided to sell it himself. It was fully equipped with sails, anchor, fenders and even plates and cutlery in the galley. A radio transmitter was still in its box down below. I hesitantly asked the price. ‘$20,000,’ he replied, ‘As is, ready to go.’ It was a fair price and I told him so, but more than we could afford. He seemed surprised. ‘Don’t you have a job?’ he asked. ‘Sure I do.’ I replied. ‘Well then, you can borrow 75 % of the price.’ That was a novel idea, back in 1965 nobody borrowed money to buy a boat, at least not in the circles I moved in. ‘So can’t you find $4,000?’ he continued. ‘Not really,’ I said. ‘C’mon, don’t you own a boat now, how much is it worth?’ ‘We have a True Rocket’, I told him. ‘It’s worth about $2,000 if I find the right buyer.’ ‘Right then, I’ll wait until you sell it before you need to pay me that. Now, don’t you have $2,000 and it’s yours?’ This was turning into the most amazing conversation; the fellow could sell refrigerators to an Eskimo.We left him on the understanding I would talk to the local bank about a boat loan. When I did they were surprised but said they would send a surveyor to inspect the boat at Wickford, if I would pay his expenses. He recommended the loan be approved and within a couple of weeks I had a check for $16,000, repayable in five years, with the boat in forfeit if I defaulted. Edith, bless her, went along with all this and in view of the delicate financial situation went back to work. One day in early September, 1965, I crossed over to New London with two friends on the Orient Point ferry. We were met by the seller in a bright yellow Cadillac convertible and driven to Wickford. I had picked the date carefully- it was the start of the month and I had just been paid. Sitting at the counter of a diner in Wickford I wrote a check for $2,000 to add to the bank loan. I passed the checks over. ‘OK,’ he said, ‘she’s all yours.’ He gave me the key to the companionway door. ‘There’s about 35 gallons of diesel in the tank but I’ll throw that in for nothing.’ Good thing you will, I thought to myself, we were flat broke; when the checks cleared there would be a balance of about $9 in our account. I reversed out of the slip and sailed directly to Fire Island Inlet and the shallow waters of Great South Bay to the canal behind our house. It was a big step in our great adventure to break free.The boat looked gorgeous tied up to the new bulkhead behind the house. At the time 35 feet was a large boat, I thought people must think we are rich. In fact, we had plowed all our resources into our dream. I changed the name of the boat to Iona, I thought the name of an island was very suitable, and it was a weak pun, I didn’t ‘own her’; the bank did. I spent my spare time in the winter getting Iona ready for a shake-down cruise to Bermuda in the summer of 1966. The boat needed a dinghy and some way to stow it and an anchor windlass. Below deck I had to add lee-boards to the bunks so that the occupants did not roll out as the boat heeled. As usual with a boat the list of things to do seemed endless. In the late spring I recruited two colleagues from work as crew and then added Steve, with whom I crossed the Atlantic in 1964. I chose mid-June as the kick-off date. Winter storms were over by then and the hurricane season had barely started. A month seemed like a good time frame for the trip – a week to get there, two weeks to cruise the Bermuda reefs and a week to get back. Edith’s brother sent me an old-fashioned ‘Hezzanith’ sextant he found on the surplus market in England. Although it had a vernier scale instead of a micrometer drum it would be fine as our primary means of navigation. In view of the tight finances available for the trip it was a very welcome gift, a new sextant would have been terribly expensive.I cleared my desk at work so that I could leave on time. Edith arranged a month off work, she planned to fly to England to show her new son to our relatives. A week before our departure an unwelcome visitor appeared in the Caribbean – hurricane Alma, the earliest hurricane of the year for many seasons. A couple of days before we were due to start Alma hit the coast near Georgia and funneled inland. The forecast was for it to break up over land. I made the tactical error of leaving anyway. With so many interlocking arrangements – Edith’s trip, the work schedule of me and the crew – the pressure to stick to the timetable becomes almost overwhelming. But with a sailboat hurricanes should take priority. In the old days captains would think nothing of waiting weeks for favorable weather. I should have been warned by conditions at Fire Island Inlet. Immense waves generated by Alma in the south rolled onto the Long Island coast and broke on the bar at the inlet. I was too stupid and inexperienced not to turn back. The Mercedes Benz engine roared and Iona butted her way out into the Atlantic.
Bermuda lies about 650 nautical miles southeast of Long Island. It usually takes about five days to sail there. In between lies the Gulf Stream, a swift moving, turbulent current of warm water that swirls and eddies about 150 miles south of Long Island. The region is notorious for rough seas and sudden, vicious squalls. During the night the weather got worse and worse, we had to reef for the first time in the dark as the boat pitched and rolled terribly. It must have taken us well over an hour, the motion made us all sea-sick. The best sources of weather information available at that time were the commercial radio stations. I was finally able to receive the weather forecast from the powerful CBS station broadcasting from New York City. To my horror I learned that Alma had done a one-eighty degree turn, it had moved back over the sea and was gaining in strength. We were sailing directly towards Alma and the Gulf Stream; a potentially fatal combination. To make matters worse, we were lying in the so-called ‘dangerous quadrant’, where the northeast winds were strongest. Tremendous seas were running, drawing on the experience of the first storm when I was aboard Arvin Court II I decided to lay a-hull. As before, the boat rolled horribly. We discovered the table in the cabin had not been bolted down securely, at the height of the storm it became detached and crashed down on the unlucky occupant of the bunk next to it, fortunately without serious injury. I was not making a success of my first ocean-going voyage as captain. But Iona was a very sea-worthy boat and she looked after her demoralized and sea-sick crew. Three days after leaving the inlet the storm had blown itself out. Where the hell were we? In the late afternoon a watery sun appeared and I managed to get a sight. Combined with a bearing on a coastal radio station I found we had been blown far to the west; we were only 50 miles off the Delaware coast. How lucky we were that the storm had ended when it did.
The crew had no stomach for a continuation of the trip to Bermuda and we slowly made our way back home. A week after leaving we again tied up the boat in the canal at the back of the house. I was very disappointed and even embarrassed by my failure to pull off the cruise as planned. We used the rest of the vacation to sail to Nantucket; nice, safe coastal cruising. I grew a beard, at least I looked nautical. When I picked up Edith at the airport on her return from England I gave her a kiss and Colin burst into tears. ‘What’s the matter with him?’ I asked. ‘He’s probably worried I’m being kissed by a strange man!’ she said, laughing.
Later that summer, after Labor Day, Edith, Colin and a young man as crew sailed with me to Cuttyhunk and the beautiful Elizabeth islands lying in Buzzards Bay. We enjoyed it so much that a fall cruise became a fixture while we owned Iona. The crowds were gone and the weather was usually pleasantly warm without being too hot. I can recall spending a couple of nights on a fall cruise tied up at Great Salt Pond, Block Island. We were the only sailboat there, something that would seem amazing today in view of the tremendous popularity of boating.
For the summer cruise of 1967 we decided on Nova Scotia, some friends we had made when we lived in Toronto now lived in Lunenburg, that seemed a good enough reason to go there. I sailed with two friends as crew, Edith planned to fly with Colin and meet us in Canada. I made my first transit of the Cape Cod Canal. The tidal current runs so strongly in the canal that it is impossible to stem it with the modest power available in a sailboat. To get through the eight-mile passage you must arrive at the entrance with the right tide. The Victorian engineers that built the canal thoughtfully provided anchorages at either end so you can wait for the opportune moment. From the Canal we sailed to Provincetown, which in those days prior to the sexual revolution was a complete surprise. The three of us survived the culture shock of an openly gay town and left for the two-day passage across the Gulf of Maine to Canada. On the second night we spotted hundreds of lights ahead. It looked like a town but a hurried check of my navigation confirmed we were still fifty miles from Cape Sable, the southern tip of Nova Scotia. As we got closer we found ourselves in a vast fleet of fishing boats, no wonder the region is now fished out. As we sailed down the coast we had strong winds behind us but, curiously, we were enveloped in a clammy fog. We rigged a whisker pole for the jib and ran down the coast, making such good time we arrived abeam of Lunenburg Bay before sunrise. I had no wish to make a landfall in the fog and darkness, here was a chance to practice the maneuver of heaving-to. To do this we set the jib to weather, that is, on the windy side, so the driving force counteracts that of the mainsail and the boat remains almost stationary. I remember as I stood watch suddenly smelling the resin of pine trees that thickly covered the shore, five miles to windward. I have found that after a few days at sea my sense of smell becomes very acute. In fact this is a problem when there are smokers on board. Although they always light up on deck I can smell the cigarette immediately, even when I am in the cabin.
In the morning we groped our way inshore under power, as we got near land the fog thinned and suddenly we could see green hills and the colorful houses of Lunenburg. In 1967 it was a fishing town. Large, rusty trawlers lay at the piers; the only space that we could find to tie up was next to the fish works, which smelt to high heaven. Our friends drove to Halifax to collect Edith and baby Colin and gave them a room in their house during our stay. We had a lobster bake-out in the back garden. Our host had a friend who worked at the Ruland and Smith ship-yard, which built many Grand Banks schooners, including the famous Blue Nose. He arranged a tour for us. We stayed for nearly a week before Edith flew home and we made our way down the coast. As we cleared Cape Sable, bound for Maine, a vicious northeast gale blew up. It was bitterly cold on the boat, we lit the oven in the galley and kept its door open for some heat. I later discovered that there is an upwelling of the Labrador Current at Cape Sable. The water is actually much colder than at Halifax further to the north. This is probably why we saw all the fishing boats near there earlier. We again lay a-hull for the night, which we survived without damage, in the morning we set sail for Rockland on Penobscot Bay. Here we found the storm had been one the worst in many years. The shore was littered with wrecked boats and wooden debris from jetties and piers. We were wet and cold, but we found a small, friendly hotel that let us have a hot bath for a dollar or two.
When we had dried out we sailed to Butter Island for lunch. We anchored in the lee and took the dinghy ashore. A walk through the pine trees brought us to the crest of a hill that gave us a magnificent view of the bay in all directions. What a beautiful region to cruise. I fell in love and I have been back to Maine many times, in summer, I might add. We decided to go to Stonington for the night. Sailing down the bay to a southwest wind I noticed a white wall ahead, within minutes we were enveloped in a clammy fog, the bane of summer cruising in Maine. After about an hour a red buoy emerged out of the gloom with a number ‘2’ painted on it. Although we did not have a firm idea of where we were I figured I just had to find that buoy on the chart and there we were. Unfortunately I found that the Coast Guard loved number ‘2’ for its buoys, there were a least three within a few miles of each other that that we could have sailed to during our time in the fog. Check the depth, I thought, the buoys were not all in the same depth of water. Slowly we navigated past the small islands that encumbered the approach to Stonington. We silently slipped past other buoys and when we came across an anchored fishing boat I said, ‘this is it,’ with a confident voice I did not wholly feel. Through the fog I could hear the sounds of civilization; a muffled shout, a car engine starting. We dropped the anchor, climbed in the dinghy and rowed towards the invisible shore. Peering ahead we finally discerned the dim outlines of piers and a dock. Captain Cook could not have been prouder of his navigation when he discovered Australia. From Stonington we cruised west to a small yacht club near Portland, from there we sailed back to the Cape Cod Canal and home.
In mid-September, 1967, I sailed with some friends together with Edith and Colin to watch the Americas Cup Race between Intrepid and Dame Patty. We anchored first in Great Salt Pond at Block Island and then picked up a mooring in Newport. It was great fun to experience the excitement of the race on the waterfront in Newport. In these days there were no security concerns and you could walk right up to the boats. As for the race itself we could only see two white triangles on the horizon and we had to listen to the radio to find out what was happening.
I felt the 1967 sailing season had been a great success. I had made an open sea passage as skipper, navigated in fog and dealt with some heavy weather. I had the confidence to sail to the Caribbean; we put the house on the market.
Iona tied up at the dock behind the house in Brookhaven Hamlet in 1965. The True Rocket can be seen on the right.