|Off to Gotham
Monday, October 29, 2007
A week in Utah and a week in New Haven have put me back in the cruising mind set, so on this crisp, chilly morning Carl bundled up Rosie and Rowan and we all motored over to Guilford where Kobuk lies waiting for the next leg of the voyage. Only yesterday, Dick Fucci drove me to Kobuk and I had a chance then to re-erect the canvas Bimini, to re-connect the batteries, and to generally prepare for a resumption of the cruising life. Thus it is that this morning when we arrive little is left to do but enter waypoints on the GPS for navigating the few miles along the coast to New Haven. When I consult with John Febbraio, the Manager of Guilford Yacht Club, he advises me to carry on to Milford, a few miles farther than New Haven, because of its superior facilities for someone like me. I like his suggestion but my plan is to spend this last night with Michelle and Carl in New Haven before setting off to Gotham. I hesitantly decide to find whatever arrangement I can for Kobuk in New Haven so that cycling to Carl and Michelle's in the evening will not be a burden.
Shortly after noon, I wave goodbye to Carl and the grandchildren. Kobuk motors out of the yacht club and down the channel towards the open reach of Long Island Sound. There is a bite to the air, as befits an autumn day, but with all canvas curtains zipped on the breeze through the opened clamshell top is mild enough. I feel cool enough to think straight but not so cool as to seek warmth. On the water once again! There is a sparkle on the blue sea and a purity in the blue sky. I am alone and other boats are few, fleeting and distant. The vastness of America lies hidden behind the verdant Connecticut coast, and a steady string of cottage homes are painted white long the shoreline.
Not far from Guilford we pass by a dent in the coast that is occupied by a litter of little puppy islets. They are the Thimble Isles, all of them small and wooded--none so large as to overshadow the others and few so small as to keep the trees away. Each looks to be more or less round in shape and each is small enough that the height of its trees makes it look like a tuft that has sprouted from the sea. If ever a name has captured the essential character of a place, this is it.
The days are short now. Even though the distance from Guilford to New Haven is only about twenty miles, four hours is required to cover it and Kobuk does not enter the channel leading to the Oyster Point Marina until almost five. The sun is low in the sky and the daytime spectrum of colors is becoming glazed with a thin verneer of bronze. I tie Kobuk to a floating dock next to a restaurant within the confines of the marina and look for someone who can help me arrange an overnight stay. Most slips are full still, but there are no personnel around and the harbormaster's office is locked. As I am wandering around the perimeter of the building that contains the harbormaster's office wondering what to do, a man and woman park their car streetside and head for the stairway leading to the second story of the building. I intercept them and ask if they know where the harbormaster might be. The man, a moderately tall, middle-aged fellow with a fleshy physique immediately takes an interest in my problems. He identifies himself as Jim, lets me know that he and his wife live upstairs above the harbormaster's office, happens to mention that he recently had a heart attack, and asks me in his stuttering, breathless way whether I don't agree that his wife is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She is tall and slender and quiet, undeniably pretty and apparently somewhat modest as well since she absorbs his compliment with a sort of glowing stoicism.
Jim takes my phone number and tells me to leave Kobuk right where she is. If there is any problem, he will call me, he says, but there shouldn't be since more and more slip space is opening up now as boats get hauled from the water for the season. With this as reassurance, I take my leave and bike into New Haven to see how Rowan and Rosie are treating their parents.
Oyster Point Marina, New Haven: 41* 16.838' N / 72* 55.752' W
Distance: 20 miles
Total Distance: 6,498 miles
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
This is true departure day. The weather is willing and the skies are clear, so I cycle down to Kobuk in the early morning to prepare for the day trip. I hope to get to Norwalk, about 35 miles southwest along the Connecticut coast, but the day will start with Karl and Rowan aboard as we make a short leg to Silver Beach near Milford. There we will push ashore on the beach and I will say final goodbyes to the four of them. The family arrives at Oyster Point Marina and Rowan and Karl clamber aboard. On the way out of harbor, Rowan is steering Kobuk as she proceeds under Mazda power. The steering is so inherently difficult that it is a great leveler: in spite of his tender age (five), Rowan does no worse than most adults who make their first try at it. We make way at a slow speed in conformity with channel regulations, but Rowan learns about the silver handle with the big red knob on it. When he discovers that it controls the speed he swiftly grabs it and shoves it full forward. This is one of the few times I am actually pleased that Kobuk is so slow out of the hole. We get her back under control, but Rowan is not contented with the slow pace and slams the throttle forward two more times before finally succumbing to parental and grandparental supervision.
Most of the way to Silver Beach is made slowly under Yamaha power and when we approach the sands we can see Michelle and little Rosie waiting there for us. To push up on the sand, I shut down the Yamaha and lift its prop out of the water so that the jet drive can take us in with nothing protruding below the keel. But the main engine won't run. Over and over it starts, only to die from lack of fuel. Eventually, I have to give it up and go overboard in shallow water to haul the hull to shore. In the process of jumping from the bow, I am a little too tentative and end up banging the bottom of my ribcage on the rub rail--an impact in the vicinity of the kidney that hurts like the dickens. I put as good a face on it as possible; who, afterall, wants to depart from relatives looking incompetent? We spend a little time together on the beach and I then push off with a pain in my back and a main engine that won't run. The prudent thing to do would be to head up into Milford to find a mechanic, but I am keen to make Norwalk in order to finally get this leg of the voyage well and truly under way. I decide to carry on with just the little Yamaha to do the work.
As the afternoon wears on, the southwest wind builds, and builds the waves with it. The motion becomes uncomfortable with no reasonable option for any course but straight into it all. Also the tide shifts to flow against us. Our speed slows to under five miles per hour and it becomes clear that we will only make Norwalk shortly before sunset--assuming no new untoward developments. The little Yamaha purrs nicely, but I keep hearing some sort of clattering noise as well--as if there is something a little loose in its lower unit. I keep going back to check but cannot find anything out of place and cannot more precisely define the source area of the noise. With time, it becomes intermittent and then disappears altogether. Is this a real event or simply a manifestation of the anxiety associated with knowing there is no backup engine? I constantly watch the depth gauge on the GPS to see whether we are in shallow enough water to anchor and the news is usually a little unsettling--depth readings in the 40-60 foot range. Well, in spite of the worry, we make it to Norwalk as the sun is setting and find a marina near the channel entrance. I give the main engine a try in the hopes that time has cured its ills and, sure enough, it fires up unhesitatingly and continues to run without faltering. We motor into the marina with the sun dropping behind the trees of the western shore beyond the channel, and I look around for someone who might give us a slip for the night. There is nobody about in this busy marina, but on the other side of this little subsidiary channel there is a network of sorely underused floating docks so I decide to put in over there. It turns out to be the Shore & Country Club, and its facilities appear to be as unstaffed at this hour as the marina. I presume, however, that with so many empty slips it will be possible in the morning to make a suitable arrangement with somebody for what will by then be a fait de complit.
Sunset occurs early now--only shortly after six--so I cycle the couple miles into the town of East Norwalk under the cover of darkness. It is not a particularly attractive downtown, not considering the obviously prosperous suburban neighborhoods that surround it, but I find a place called the East Avenue Cafe and take a meal there. After that, as I am making my way back to Kobuk, I spy the public library up along a side street and people appear to be going in. I detour to check it out and discover that although the library is closed there is a public meeting going on in the basement. First the mayor gives a casual talk and responds to questions from people whom he obviously knows by name. His answers to questions are pretty much content free, but convey a powerful sense of empathy and commiseration. Afterward, other political candidates arise to give more polemical presentations that smack of the theoretical. I cannot figure out exactly what is going on, but if these other men are running against the incumbent, I'm not sanguine about their prospects. In fact, they seem so tedious that I discretely depart the basement and set up my laptop outside, within range of the wifi signal, and do a little work.
By the time I get back to Kobuk, a solid silence has fallen on the waters and all the lonely boats lie at peace at their moorings. Kobuk lies in wait, and the forward bunk cocoon quickly enfolds me.
Shore & Country Club, East Norwalk: 41* 05.215' N / 73* 23.920' W
Distance: 35 miles
Total Distance: 6,533 miles
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Mr. Fucci will pick me up this morning. He is going to stop by on his way to Pennsylvania to do a little gliding. From his home to Van Sant Field in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, is almost a three hour drive each way, but this does not dissuade him from doing the day trip on a regular basis. There are gliding facilities much nearer his home, of course, but he is connected with a club known as Freedom's Wings and the people who are part of it are good, good friends. Each of these outings is, I gather, as much a social as a sporting event. We drive through truly lovely hill country on the way there. The crossing of the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson affords spectacular views that run from West Point upstream to Manhattan down, and both banks of this massive river are giant swales of land that come up out of the water with the incongruous abrupness of breaching whales. As we pass through the northern parts of New Jersey, I am surprised and delighted by the lovely swarm of steeply sloped hills, all richly forested and showing the russets, reds, and yellows of a technicolor autumn. On we go, south and west across the state, until finally reaching the Delaware at the historic little village named Frenchtown. Across the bridge in Pennsylvania, we find the grassy Van Sant Field located on the top of a small ridge. The "runway" is a galloping meadow that rolls up and down with such vigor that certain parts on it cannot be seen from the central facilities. Level ground here is nearly as scarce as flat water on a windswept sea. Stands of autumn forest surround the ridgetop site and either tied down in the open field or tucked away in small hangars is a marvellous assortment of biplanes, sailplanes, and small aircraft of an earlier vintage. It is a step back in time--and I can see why Dick drives all the way here.
Freedom's Wings has two gliders, one of which is ready and waiting for use, but the other of which must be extracted from its trailer and assembled. Steve and Bruce and Heinz and Little Joe set about this task and I help out as best I can. When the Grob Sailplane is finally a single unit, Dick uses his vehicle to tow it down to the hidden end of the landing field and we pivot it around to point up the gentle meadow and skyward. Dick and I put ourselves aboard and a small, single-engine aircraft with an oversized and WWII-looking cockpit comes over the brow of the hill to give us a tow. We get hooked together and at the proper signal the launch begins. We bump across the meadow until the sailplane wheels lift free, something that seems to happen before the tow plane has managed to get airborne. Dick has arranged for us to be towed up to 5,000 feet before release, and the landscape shrinks below us during the climb. Eventually, we release from the tow and glide free with a sharp downward veer to starboard--standard operating procedure as the tow plane breaks to port.
The sun smiles down through the plexiglass cockpit and we sit in the greenhouse warmth looking out at a green, green landscape of forest and meadow, all arranged like a severely deformed checkerboard. In the quiet of motorless flight we glide from to place to place with Dick trying to teach me the basics of handling a joystick and rudder pedals. It is a rather pitiful performance on my part, but I suppose that is to be expected on a first try. I am dazzled by the variety of things that have to be monitored in this supposedly simple form of flight: point the nose down a little below the horizon but not too much, monitor the airspeed indicator to insure an optimum speed of 57 miles per hour, keep track of where the landing field is located, use the rudder pedals to turn left or right, make sure no other aircraft are anywhere nearby, watch the variometer to see if we might have entered a thermal that will lift us higher, use the compass to keep track of direction of travel. All this in a silent world.
Since thermals are rare and weak today, Dick takes control to search for some form of meager lift. We drift from here to there looking for an upward blip in the variometer. Whenever Dick finds a weak thermal he drops one wing and puts us into a tight circle, hoping to stay within the narrow column of rising air. He finds many small thermals and attempts to capitalize on them, but they are so weak that their upward motion is often pretty much offset by the diminished glide efficiency associated with dropping a wing. "On a good day," says Dick, "a thermal can take you up at a fast rate--sometimes even pegging out at a thousand feet per minute." But today there is nothing around much more powerful that a few hundred feet per minute and we inexorably drop to lower and lower elevations, only occasionally catching something that causes a brief ascent--like an upward tic in a declining stock market.
Finally, when we have dropped to 1,400 feet--a thousand feet above the level of the landing field--Dick enters the approach pattern for a landing. It is a counter-clockwise circling of the field followed by a spoiler-assisted descent to the proper elevation for the final straight run back onto the grass. When it is all over, I am supercharged by the freedom of it all, but of course Dick has found it to be lacking in that essential ingredient--enough thermal lift to keep us airborne indefinitely. Still, it has been a memorable day for me and Dick philosophically notes that conditions have been perfect for first timers and for pilot training.
Before heading back, we stop in Frenchtown to have dinner at a Thai Chili restaurant. In addition to Dick and me, Bruce and Steve are there, as well as KathyAnn. Bruce is a commercial pilot who provides glider instruction for Freedom's Wings and KathyAnn is a glider pilot in training under Bruce's guidance. Steve is a volunteer who helps Freedom's Wings with all sorts of unheralded tasks such as assembling the gliders and organizing equipment. He is also an accomplished glider pilot who gets up whenever he can. This is a group of people who fit together well enough that their interchanges are more often than not merciless critiques of each other's foibles. They are easy to like, and it is only too bad that sharp-tongued Murph could not show up as well.
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Even as I awake this morning it is obvious that Kobuk will stay in the barn today. A hardy wind is coming in off the Sound, rattling the sailboat halyards and inciting a rabble of wavelets in this protected harbor. With conditions like this, we shall leave the open waters to the big boys--and the fools. The remnants of Hurricane Noel are making their way up the eastern seaboard and although the organizational center is a great distance away, the butterfly appears to have flapped its wings.
When I move to get up, the injury from two days ago shrieks out in protest and I have to spend a little time figuring out how to worm my way out of the bunk area. Why the soreness should behave this way when there was relatively little distress yesterday is one of those mysteries that the young never get to contemplate. But anyway, the sensitivity of it all is making me pay attention and I think I have discovered good news. Neither the kidney nor the muscles in that vicinity are sensitive to pressure--only the lower rib where it branches away from the spine. I must have bruised the rib, and this is good news (1) because I have heard that nothing can be done for a banged rib but give it time to heal, and that means I don't have to do anything, and (2) because a traumatized rib is more like a young man's ailment (never mind the fact that youth probably would have protected me this nonsense).
The good people of the Shore & Country Club have permitted me to moor Kobuk in their exclusive facility for two nights now, and I am beginning to worry that we may overstay our welcome. Of course, nobody in a position of authority knows of our presence. I've looked around and asked around, but all I can ever find is workers--hired workers doing maintenance and repairs on the many hauled boats in the country club yard or the occasional club member working on his own boat (you do occasionally see a true yachtswoman out on the water but rare indeed is the yachtswoman who takes a hands-on approach to dry dock work). What it all amounts to is that if I finally do find the right person to talk to, I don't really want to have to admit that "Well, yes, I've already been here for two nights." This motivates me to go on a search for an alternative arrangement.
I pedal up to the nondescript commercial district of East Norwalk and get directions for crossing over to South Norwalk on the other side of the estuary. There is a bridge over the narrow estuary and as soon as I crest it I can see that this district, known as SoNo is where all the action is. Here is where the stores and museums and restaurants congregate, and immediately to the south of the bridge on the East Norwalk side is a very large public dock, unstaffed and little used. A handsome ketch is tied off there, a fibreglass hull with enough hardwood trim to consume a few gallons of varnish, and its comparably maintained owner is fiddling with the tie downs for the mainsail. I ask him about the facility and he reassures me that it probably would be alright to overnight here. Nobody is around and he has already spent one night here undisturbed. This will work: I go fetch Kobuk to bring her to her new parking place. But before making the short run up the estuary, I stop in at the gas dock associated with the marina sitting across from the Shore & Country Club. Ordinarily, I would do most anything to avoid paying waterside prices for gas (which in this instance is about 40 cents per gallon higher than cars are paying) but the rib doesn't like cycling and I'm not sure there wouldn't be a mutiny if I tried to carry jerry cans on the handlebars.
Now that the mind is at rest, I can spend the day in town. I have good intentions--the aquarium, the museum, and things like that--but duty calls and I find myself catching up on all the Internet work that needs to be done. I am not behind, exactly, but often the only thing on my mind is to take care of the urgent affairs and then get back on the water. Whenever there is a weather-related layover like this, it is an opportunity for me to tackle some of the things that ought to be done but that do not require immediate attention. As you can see, my capactiy to be competent in my work is heavily dependent on liberal doses of contrary weather. Without it, I might do no more than just scrape by. I wonder what will happen when Kobuk and I get to the Bahamas.
South Norwalk, Visitors' Dock: 41* 05.870' N / 73* 24.819' W
Distance: 1 mile
Total Distance: 6,534 miles
Friday, November 2, 2007
With its crisp diction and uninflected delivery, the marine forecast pronounces small craft advisories starting this evening. There will be sustained high winds with gusts up to 60 knots throughout the night and following day. Like a well-trained fighter pilot announcing the presence of a bogie at two o'clock high, the mechanical voice drones on about the anticipated arrival of Noel offshore. There is some chance of reasonable conditions on Sunday, but tomorrow will be a shingle-shaking, branch busting kind of day. Long Island Sound is not the open ocean, but it is open enough and under such an onslaught nothing short of a worse alternative will force me out onto it. In advance of the tempest, however, we have blue skies and an airflow that is out of the northeast. Since a crossing over to Glen Cove on Long Island would put the wind at our back, it is an opportunity to close in on New York City. The Sound will have some good sized waves on it, but given the strength of the wind they should not exceed those we dealt with back on Lake Michigan and off the coast of the Gaspe. Nevertheless, venturing out with Noel on its way is a little unsettling--like walking across a runway a few minutes before the scheduled landing of an Airbus.
Once out on the Sound, the 2-4 foot waves hurry us along toward the protection of Hempstead Bay on the far side. The curtains are all zipped on and the little Yamaha purrs like a kitten when the canvas is in place to act as a sound buffer. Not only that, the rear curtain obscures the view of the approaching waves. It is their look as they rise above the transom that makes these sorts of conditions seem so much more threatening than they really are, so I revel in the bliss of visual ignorance. One can get a sense of what is going on back there by looking carefully through the large plastic window and screen fitted into that rear curtain, but the distortion and partial enveilment render the stark reality in terms as understated as the marine forecaster's voice. I don't have to see so much back there; I will know if the waves begin to threaten because the Remote Troll will no longer be able to cope with the steering task.
Something about the view through the screened window aft precipitates a minor revelation that had not previously occurred to me: the roiled waters eddying back as a consequence of the little Yamaha's propeller are enough to take some of the sting out of approaching waves. Their crests become less sharply angular and less foam flecked. I find it amusing to think that this is the power boater's equivalent of the established sailing practice of dripping oil aft to calm the monstrous waves of a storm. It is the Walter Mitty syndrome, I suppose, a way of imagining three foot waves as giant rollers in the Great Southern Sea.
By early afternoon we have reached Glen Cove and Kobuk is tied off at a floating dock in front of a restaurant called Steamboat Landing. John Lauter is on his way down to the waterfront to meet me and it is he who suggested this mooring. The dock lies lonely this late in the season and it does indeed look to be a fine place to spend the night. I have talked with John on the phone many times but we have never before met. Two years ago, he talked me through a successful troubleshooting routine while a couple miles offshore on Lake Michigan, and then last season he did a similar sort of magic when Kobuk and I were stranded on Drummond Island in Lake Huron. His voice, therefore, is not just an identifiable presence; it is the soothing sound of salvation. I have unreasonably high confidence in his ability to solve any Mazda related mechanical problem. When he arrives, he has with him a young man named Kevin who also works at Rotary Power Marine Corporation. After making a thorough inspection of the boat and the engine, they take me off to their place of business and John talks me through the workings of the rotary engine.
It is a masterful presentation. In a mere ninety minutes, he takes me from being one of those people who view an internal combustion engine as a big blob surrounded by a random collection of curiously shaped appendages to an enlightened state in which the engine is really nothing more than a few separate systems, each of which functions independently from the others and accounts for the presence of a certain subset of those curious appendages. There is, of course, an electrical system--complicated to be sure, but conceptually little more than the managerial head office typically overseeing all activity in a given enterprise. There is no hope of ever understanding what exactly goes on inside the cpu, but at least now I know how and to whom it issues commands.
Then there is the airflow system, in this case a supercharger pushing air into the engine where it gets mixed with the fuel molecules. Only at the last instant, when air and gas mix (to be ignited and vaporized) does the fuel system have any connection with the air system. Thereafter, these two separate systems become one as the gasses are propelled out through the exhaust.
There is also a cooling system, designed to remove heat from both the engine oil and the antifreeze coolant. The oil and antifreeze are two separate functional entities, of course, so in reality we have here three independent systems. But that is it, really, and John is able to familiarize me with every single item attached to the engine block, teaching me what it does for its respective system.
John also describes for me the mechanics of rotary power and gives me a very reassuring assessment of its strengths and weakness--reassuring because he is a truly awful salesman who could no more dissemble about things mechanical than a good priest could try to mislead God. I come away with increased confidence in the simple durability of rotary power and a greatly improved sense of what kinds of mechanical problems are likely to be big and what ones little--something that is always a bugbear for the unenlightened.
In the evening, with the wind beginning to rise, I go to the movies and watch Denzel Washington redefine himself as the ultimate American gangster. More surprising, though, is Russell Crowe's marvellous capacity to be simultaneously unimpressive and incorruptible--an improbable combination that must have been worked at. In spite of what sophisticates say about Hollywood, I think there is much less bad acting nowadays.
When the movie is over I go to a Salvadorean restaurant for dinner. I had seen it on the main drag earlier in the day and thought it would be a nice change of menu. As I walk in the entrance door of the small establishment, I am surprised to find nearly every table full. Everybody knows everybody else, the adults are mostly speaking Spanish and some of the many children too, gaily colored balloons float high above the chairs to which they are tied, and the music is all of the Latin rhythm variety. I take my dinner at the one free table near the entrance and as I finish the main course an impressively pregnant woman detaches herself from the larger crowd and silently brings me a piece of their birthday cake. Happy birthday, whoever you are.
Steamboat Landing, Glen Cove, NY: 40* 51.522' N / 73* 38.499' W
Distance: 25 miles
Total Distance: 6,559 miles
Saturday, November 3, 2007
In the wee hours, not long before sunrise, Kobuk begins to lurch and bump more than I would have thought possible given the tight leash I had put her on. There are three fenders out along her starboard side and the mooring lines are taut. I knew the wind was going to rise and tried to make sure we would not be whipped and snapped around much. In spite of my efforts, though, the wind has found a way to work things loose a little. I contemplate getting up to rectify the situation, but the amount of motion is not great and the bumps, although irritating, are insufficient to damage the hull. The proper thing to do would be to venture out and set things right, but I really don't want to abandon the warmth of the sleeping bag so I turn over and go back to sleep. An hour or two later when I get up I discover that two of the fenders were somehow blown up onto the topsides, leaving the mooring lines with a little slack in them. That accounts for both the motion and the bumps. No damage was done, however, as the edge of the floating dock has a hard rubber strip along its edge.
What with a wildly unpredictable wind under a concrete sky, this day is not a good one for getting to know the town of Glen Cove. The surly weather disposes me negatively to the town, but even yesterday's afternoon sunlight did little to give the place appeal. The creekside waterfront is an incongruous admixture of garish overdevelopment (mostly marinas) and neglected or abandoned industrial facilities. The town itself has a disorganized downtown that looks as if the city fathers yearned for Orange County newness on Monday but then had second thoughts and half-heartedly pushed for preservation and restoration on Thursday. The result is another incongruous admixture. In a way, though, the infrastructural contrasts do justice to the curious nature of the town. It is remarkably diverse for such a small place: working class ethnics walk the streets, but rare is it for one of them to walk through the glass doors of the Ferrari/Maserati Dealership located in the heart of the old downtown. That such a small city can sustain a Salvadorean restaurant says one thing; that it can support a Ferrari dealership says another.
Given the paradoxical nature of the town, a little time cycling around in the residential neighborhoods might give a better sense of how the town can call itself a community. The wind and the cold and the threat of rain, however, discourage such an enterprise and I spend the day doing the more prosaic tasks associated with day to day life on Kobuk. By the time the sun has set, I am well prepared for a morning departure--a final leg into New York City. It is only a couple dozen miles away.
New York is, for no good reason, a site that I have set in my mind as a landmark for the voyage. I am anxious about it a little, worried about the price of things there and the pace of action--both of which might be beyond my means. On the other hand, it is the approximate end of the open ocean voyaging we have had to do since leaving Quebec City last summer. Only a few tens of miles south of New York, Kobuk will enter the Intracoastal Waterway and journey all the way to Florida without having to venture out onto blue water. We will be able to go outside if we I want to, but we won't have to--and that means the weather will exercise a less dictatorial power over whether or not we proceed on any given day. Now that November is here, this question of weather has become a more absorbing concern. Sooner or later, the weather is going to get nasty. It would be good for this to happen when running the ICW and not when crossing blue water.
Kobuk is beginning to show her age. When we ran into Guilford Harbor back in early October I discovered that one of her stringers had broken. It could have happened that preceding day when ugly waves drove us into Niantic, but to be honest the break looked as if it had been there for a while. I wondered whether it would be possible to continue without repairing it; I really didn't want to take her out of the water to do the work. Still, a stringer, is an important structural element in a boat; hard hammering in heading seas could do us in. Eventually, I decided to nurse Kobuk along until reaching the Intracoastal Waterway where we might reasonably expect to find flatwater conditions that would coddle the hull until we are done for the season. Repairs could wait until spring. Getting to New York will put us within spitting distance of protected waters, and this alone is enough to relieve whatever anxiety I have been feeling about arriving in the big city.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Back in New Haven, the breadth of the Sound was so great that Long Island was more or less an invisible presence lurking just beyond the horizon, but now in here in Glen Cove the mainland shore is so easy to see across the water that one can almost make out its details--its trees and buildings, at least, if not its people. Westward from Glen Cove the open waters of Long Island Sound taper down even more until eventually the distance between the mainland and the island becomes the sort of thing that clever engineers can put a suspension bridge over. In this area, both the island and the mainland have irregular coastlines that are deeply indented by long, narrow bays, but headlands from both sides protrude into the Sound and leave only a handful of miles of open water between. In this more confined space, furthermore, rocky outcroppings occasionally surface in the middle of the Sound--hazards to navigation that have been clearly marked by light, beacon, or buoy. Once you head westward from Glen Cove, as we are now doing, the Long Island Sound is no longer a broad stretch of open water; it is a ragged strait, an obstacle strewn boulevard of water in which ships and boats move about unpredictably. The closer one gets to New York the more true this becomes, until eventually, after crossing under the Throgs Neck Bridge the waterway becomes more like a true river with crudely parallel banks that have water flowing past them.
Perhaps this is the mysterious point at which Long Island Sound becomes the East River. Notwithstanding its name, the East River is really nothing more than a narrow strait separating Long Island from the mainland (or from Manhattan which by a quirk of geography also is an island). The East River, therefore, does not "flow" in the traditional riverine sense of the word. It does, however, have a powerful and pulsating current that runs back and forth with the tides. Any respectable river would be a DC system, but the East River is AC. When the tide is coming up into New York harbor, the East River current runs up from lower Manhattan towards Long Island Sound. When that tide goes out, the current runs the other way. It is all quite confusing, actually, since when the tide is coming into New York Harbor it is at roughly the same time flowing up into Long Island Sound. You might expect these two incoming streams to meet somewhere in the middle of the East River, but in fact the whole of the East River lies within the New York Harbor "sphere of influence." If all this strikes you as a pointless discussion it is because you have not yet had an opportunity to take a small boat through the East River. The East River current is strong, and estimates of time and distance will have a much better chance of being accurate if you know the current's direction of flow. In fact, if--unlike Kobuk--your vessel is incapable of high speeds you probably will not have much success trying to make headway against a 3-4 mile per hour current. Better to wait until you can work with the tide. This is free advice from someone who gives it but does not take it: I press on with Kobuk regardless of the flow of the current because I want to get to New York as soon as possible. If the current is cooperative then so much the better; it it is contrary then we will overcome it with brute force.
The current is contrary. Mazda carries through. We power down the long straight stretch of the East River with Governor's Island off to the left and the strobe effect of skyscrapers and street canyons passing on the right. Cruising guides all suggest that this is a high traffic area in which every yachtsman must remain alert and keep a careful lookout. In preparation, before entering the East River I took Kobuk up into a small, protected bay and stripped off all the curtains. I replenished the fuel in the jerry can for operating the Yamaha and trial started the main engine. I washed down the windows and opened the clamshell top to its widest extent. All this was to be prepared for the anticipated chaos of boating around New York. Now it turns out that the traffic is actually quite light. It was, ironically, far, far worse over two years ago when passing by Sioux City, Iowa, on the Missouri River. There, the boaters were buzzing around like flies in a dirty kitchen and avoiding collision with one was two parts attentiveness and one part luck. Here, on the other hand, the boats are fewer, they travel on average slower, and their routes are more or less predictable. I suppose that in some queer way this is a sign that New York is a more civilized place than Sioux City.
I have been told that the South Street Seaport may have dock space for transient boaters, but as I pass under the Brooklyn Bridge and can see the Lady of Liberty in profile off the southern tip of Manhattan, the giant piers of South Street Seaport show no signs of being equipped with such facilities. I leave astern this center of maritime restoration, pass around the Battery, and head on across the Hudson towards the old Colgate clock on the Jersey side. Jersey City has redeveloped a great tract of land into Liberty Park and slotted in to its northern flank is a mile long inlet of deep water. There, at a place called Liberty Landing, I find a marina that will rent me a slip for $50 per night. That is a lot of money for Kobuk--but not for New York. The marina is in the park, actually, and from it one can look directly across the Hudson at the jaw dropping New York skyline.
Liberty Landing Marina, NJ: 40*42.621 N / 74* 02.509 W
Distance: 30 miles
Total Distance: 6,589 miles
Monday, November 5, 2007
In the morning I catch the water taxi that runs over to lower Manhattan and start to walk the streets. With no map and no guide book, I am really wandering aimlessly in the hope that something magnificent or something recognizable will hove into view. Something does. As I walk along Vesey Street, a giant overpass imposes itself on all pedestrians. All those on foot are obliged to go over it and when I do so I am overwhelmed by a flood of people sluicing past. It is 8:45 AM: the workday is about to begin and the city is filling up. Hardly anybody is going my way. Trying to make progress against the current gives me a sense of what it is like to be a salmon heading upstream. Along the top of the overpass I am struggling forward immersed in my own thoughts when a glance off to the right through the heavy screens and louvers reveals a massive excavation in which countless forms of construction activity are occurring far below, well below ground level. This is 9/11 ground zero and the city is at work to redevelop the site.
After descending the overpass and carrying on straight ahead a few more blocks I come to something else that most anybody would recognize: Broadway. Not only that, a large map of lower Manhattan is posted near the Broadway and Vesey intersection, and so after ten minutes of study I am in business. I have located a number of things to do in this part of town and I have gotten a rough sense of the street layout of lower Manhattan.
When ten o'clock rolls around, I am first in line for the opening of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. The museum is located in the old customs house, an architectural gem that has extraordinary murals of early twentieth century port activity all around the perimeter of a massive oval dome at the center of the building. This in itself is worth the walk, so the stunning collection of Indian artifacts in the museum is nothing but pure profit. Although I have always been attracted by the values and the life ways of Native Americans, I have never before seen artifacts from their daily life that left me with a sense of astonishment or awe. The tools and implements, the dress, the ceremonial artifacts--all these sorts of things have always struck me as being, well . . . primitive. They never seemed particularly refined and their aesthetic always seemed somehow unsophisticated. In under an hour, this prejudice is completely turned on its head. The museum has a most extraordinary collection of well preserved and beautifully restored artifacts. All I had ever seen before was faded or neglected items bereft of context and my imagination was too feeble to bring them to life. Smithsonian does it. The ceremonial dress displayed in the museum is hypnotic, as are the ceremonial masks. The degree to which functional items are cast as works of art surpasses virtually everything to be found in modern American culture, and the blending of the two is a philosophical statement that rarely gets made in the twenty-first century. Last century, Robert Frost made the statement in the face of all capitalist forces to the contrary--"Only where love and need are one / And work is play for mortal stakes / Is the deed ever really done / for heaven and the future's sake."--but modern man seems only to have slipped deeper into the abyssal darkness of work and play divorced, love and need divorced, art and craft divorced. Here the Museum of the American Indian resuscitates the notion by putting on display the most beautifully preserved examples of how Native peoples integrated their lives. I have heard this line before, but this is the first time I haven't ended up dismissing it as a bunch of hot air.
At one in the afternoon I am back on Broadway for an hour of entertainment. I don't really expect to be entertained since the venue is St. Paul's Chapel where George Washington went to church on his inauguration day, since the entertainers are a group of four musicians who play chamber music, and since the whole deal is free of charge. Nearly a half century ago I can remember as a young teenager at an all-boys private school being taken into town to hear chamber music that was to be played in a large auditorium. I knew that four guys with stringed instruments were going to honor a bunch of dead composers and I knew that whatever they did was definitely going to fall in the category of high culture--especially by the standards of Plymouth, New Hampshire. I went to the event determined to like what I heard and I left the event determined to forever delude myself into believing I had. Deep down, though, I knew I was bored. My tastes did change as I got older, and some twenty years ago I sat in on a second chamber music performance in the grand old castle of Salzburg, Austria. That time I was not bored--but it would be stretching things to claim that the event was energizing. Now is going to be my third experience with this arcane form of classical music. The group consists of three young men and a young woman, and they call themselves Invert. This name was chosen because the group defies tradition by having two cellos instead of two violins. But the real tradition-defying aspect of their presentation is that they play their own compositions. These are--to my ear--highly unusual collections of sounds that are blended and beaten into music of a sort that one would be happy to listen to by free choice. I am not what one would call experimental when it comes to taste in the arts, but this group does it for me and whenever you get a chance to visit Kobuk I may very well oblige you to listen to their CD ( purchased as soon as the performance is over). I buy the CD because I like the music-- and not just because the violin soloist is a Chinese woman named Helen Yee who has full lips, a Mona Lisa smile, and a hand on the bow that draws tonal tenderness from the diminutive violin. There is something erotic about a woman so completely in command as she plays her instrument.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Up near the edge of Liberty Park there is a science museum. It is a great, towering, futuristic affair with a high efficiency windmill out back and a puzzling collection of wings and domes appended to it. I stopped by there shortly after I got to town, but it was about to close for the day. It looked intriguing so I decided that if the weather ever turned bad I might return and take a look. The weather has turned bad--rain all night and a cold north wind--so this morning I don the rain jacket and pedal over there just before opening time. As I am locking the bicycle to a sign in the parking lot, a woman drives into the next space over and gets out. She is Latino, I think, and she is very, very short. She is also very round. Plumpness in a small package looks like a ripe olive, but her face is wreathed in smiles and her eyes glisten with good cheer. She strikes up a conversation by lavishing compliments about how environmentally responsible it is for me to be getting around on a bicycle. I ask her if she ever bicycles and she says, "No. I have never ridden a bicycle, but I like to motorcycle." We walk into the museum together with me contemplating the improbability of this revelation.
After paying for my ticket and getting oriented, I decide to start off by taking a look at the "skyscraper" exhibit--an exploration of how they are built and what sort of effect they have on people. There are cutout, posterized images of individual skyscrapers from around the world, each one a free standing replica in three dimension. Many famous ones are represented, of course, but the exhibit director has found a way to include the new Goldman-Sachs Building located less than a mile away. This is what might be called a B-grade skyscraper, but it is respectably tall and it is the best that New Jersey has to offer. As I look at the replica, I can see that the building's angularity has been reduced by giving its four sides a slightly convex shape and by tapering its upper floors inward a little to make the building's "headprint" slightly smaller than its "footprint." I am about to move on to other things when the woman who I talked with outside appears and begins to expound on the nature of skyscrapers. It seems she is an employee here, which is a good thing since it means her innately good humor gets spread around a bit. She comments on the Goldman-Sachs Building, noting that it is really quite tall (one of the top fifty in the country), but then pauses for an instant before going on to observe in bemused state that when you actually look at it it doesn't look so tall. I suggest to her that perhaps the slightly rounded shape masks its height. She lights up at this, and says, "Oh yes--that's like me; I'm pretty tall but everybody always thinks I'm short." I would estimate that she stands about 4'11".
Two years ago, when Katrina struck New Orleans, I was on Kobuk, closing in on St. Louis. This was far enough away that we never experienced anything but a little dirty weather, but whenever I went ashore and entered an establishment that had a television, it would be on and its screen would be panning the wholesale devastation that was under way downstream.. Now I am in the IMAX movie theatre of a science museum where images of Katrina are surrounding me. The movie is about hurricanes, of course, and the visual stimulation is about to overload all my circuits. It is intensified by sound effects that assault from all sides. How odd that my memories of this great calamity are more likely to be shaped by something far removed from it in time and space than by the much less dramatic fragments of information that reached me when I was relatively close to the real thing.
By the time I exit the museum, the sky has cleared and the cold blue sky is etching Manhattan in crisp detail. I stow the bike and take the ferry over to the city where I plan to run uptown and stop in at MoMA, the highly touted Museum of Modern Art at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street. The museum turned out to be closed, but I did not mind because (1) I have never been particularly enchanted by modern art anyway, and (2) on the way there I had to seek out directions from a passing pedestrian. The person I chose to query was a tall, dark haired young woman, model thin and dressed all in black. She was walking alone and her loping stride accentuated her long, slim legs. She was about my height but her legs were so long they seemed to come up to my neck, and they were wrapped in black leather boots, form-fitted and spike-heeled . When she spoke to me she was helpful. Her soft, deep voice carried an Eastern European accent and for two blocks we walked and talked together until finally she turned off and I continued on to where she had directed me. I followed her directions slavishly, and arrived at MoMA in precisely the manner she had described.
Since MoMA was closed, I crossed the street and spent a couple hours in the public library--not the one with the lions out front but a busy branch that seemed to have collected an impossibly diverse gathering of humanity. It is evening now and I am on the water taxi headed back to Kobuk, but the return trip from MoMA to lower Manhattan was made more exciting when I took the wrong subway and ended up having to walk a few miles to get back to the vicinity of the World Trade Center site. I walked through Chinatown and across a street called Bowery. I found Broadway and West Broadway and used my uncertain sense of direction to aim more or less where I thought I ought to be heading. I stopped a number of times to ask for directions and when I did I learned something about New York: it is too big for its own good. When I would stop people on the street or ask an attendant in a store, they would generally turn out to be recent immigrants who either could not clearly understand what I was asking or who did not yet have a mental map of the city extending beyond the immediate neighborhood.
The biggest surprise of all, though, was that the cops couldn't help me. The first two gave me vague directions, but their lack of clarity left me convinced that they really didn't know what lay beyond their beat. On the third occasion, I spied a police precinct building and pushed through its door to ask inside. A young man behind a desk in a stereotypically stark hall, listened to me as I asked the distance and direction to the water taxi terminal that runs over to the Jersey side. Without immediately responding, he went over to another policeman in the room and consulted before returning to me and providing street directions. When he suggested I take a certain street and then turn left about four blocks down, it violated my sense of where the water taxi terminal should be and so I asked him if I couldn't get there without turning left. He allowed as how it was possible. Not personally capable of understanding how both possibilities were in fact possible, I left the station somewhat skeptical about the directions I had been given. This young man had been very polite, as had the other two policemen who I queried, but none of them seemed to know their way around the city. It wasn't a matter of distance: when I left the precinct building I walked less than a mile before finding the terminal and walking aboard the taxi, which happened to be boarding passengers at just that time.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
When we say goodbye to New York City I think I will put Kobuk in at Ellis Island to check out the museum there and then run her past Lady Liberty on the way out of town. This has been the plan, but come to find out you cannot land at Ellis Island except by ferry. Since the ferry leaves from right next to the marina, I'll do it their way and then depart with Kobuk in early afternoon after returning from the ferry excursion.
There is a large complex of buildings on Ellis Island, but so far only the main receiving hall has been restored and opened to the public. This is quite enough, however, to leave you in a state of emotional turmoil. The story is told in images and words, enlarged photos from the time and comments made by the immigrants themselves. It is a documentary history, for the most part, and its unfiltered realism knocks you down. You come away dazed and numb--bludgeoned into realization that this once was a great country and that the people who sought it out were more consequential than their former circumstances had permitted. Consider, for example, this story, posted in one of the great hall's rooms used to screen out undesirable immigrants. As you read it keep in mind the power of the state and how much is at stake for the indigent immigrant girl whose grasp of English would have been less than perfect:
"They asked us questions. 'How much is two and one? How much is two and two?' But the next young girl also from our city, went and they asked her 'How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?' She says, 'I don't go to America to wash stairs." (Pauline Notkoff, a Polish Jewish immigrant in 1917, interviewed in 1985)
Only the afternoon remains for us to make southing out of New York City, and darkness falls by five o'clock these days. Before us lies the Inner Harbor of the City, a passage through the Narrows of the Verizano Bridge, a crossing of Raritan Bay, a bend around the outer end of Sandy Hook, and then a lengthy run down the Jersey shore before reaching the protection of Shark River. We would never make the destination before dark using just the Yamaha, so we take advantage of the gusty tailwind and hightail it southward using Mazda power. As the skyscrapers recede behind us, we dodge the heavy traffic of New York's harbor waters. Past the Narrows, the broad open stretch of Raritan Bay gives us galloping seas to chase down, but it is something that cannot be done with abandon for I am concerned about the broken stringer and do not want to push Kobuk too hard. Once past Sandy Hook, though, the northwest wind begins to come off shore, and that calms the waters enough to give relief.
But for the occasional inlet, the Jersey shore is one long beach. The first inlet heading south is Shark River and so the run to there is a more or less straight line adjusted marginally to keep ourselves in twenty five feet of water. In the vicinity of Sea Bright, not far from Sandy Hook and less than a marathon's distance from Manhattan, we see our first palm trees. Scrawney and bedraggled, they are loosely spaced behind the beach, part of some seaside resort development. Their fronds are few and frazzled, as if Noel worked them over when it passed by a few days ago. But actually, with days as cold as this it must be hard for palms to luxuriate. I cannot imagine what they look like in winter when it snows.
Once up inside the Shark River estuary, we seek out the marina at Belmar and a young man named George helps us settle in. George is one of those deceptive men who look soft and sedentary but whose quickness and hyperactivity tell a different story. In the process of familiarizing me with the marina facilities, he takes me past a very nautical double-ended sloop fitted out with everything necessary to do ocean crossings. It is one of those slow but nearly indestructible vessels that I believe were inspired by Norwegian designers. George tells me that it belongs to a man who took it around the world and that the man is looking for someone to go with him again. Perhaps I would be interested? Well, yes, I would be, but it is hard to adjust to the idea of sharing space with someone else.
Later, when I am walking alone along the same dock, I hail a young man who is doing work on a nearby boat and ask him if he knows anything about this double ended sloop named "Horizon" that is moored just a few slips away. The man stands up and says, "Yes, I'm her owner." He confirms that he and his dad sailed her around the world in a little under two years. I draw him into extended conversation, of course, and he tells me tales of the Indian Ocean--of electrical fires down below during a heavy storm off Madagascar. His name is Buck and he is a very young man. He has an unsuspicious countenance and a face that is completely lacking any wrinkles or creases. He looks like an Ivy Leaguer--trim and eager, but too young to have had any sort of "experience." So much for looks. When I ask him about his plans to go world cruising again, he tells me a sorry story of having spent a thousand hours completely refitting her. He had her ready for departure with his new wife aboard and they left one day for the Panama Canal. The first day out they got mixed up with some foul weather that made his wife seasick. They returned to port that same day and now he cannot get her even to come down to the yacht harbor, much less go out for a sail. He doesn't know what he is going to do, and I don't either. One thing I do know, though: his current occupation as a carpenter is not going to keep him out of trouble forever.
Shark River: 40* 10.850' N / 74* 01.814' W
Distance: 40 miles
Total distance: 6,629 miles