Return to the Sea (2021)

Aboard at last

For the first time in fifteen months, I sat in the cockpit of a sailboat feeling a breeze tossing my hair and the sun reddening my face.

I did not truly realize how badly I needed to get out in the world again, not wearing a mask, on a boat, until that moment. 

Two of my crew from my last cruise, that week around St. Martin in February 2020, had invited me and another friend to sail from their home port in Buzzard’s Bay to Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard. For a moment I was alone on their boat while the others were off on pre-trip errands. 

Eventually I went below and organized the non-perishable provisions. My moment of peace had come after a frenzied stashing of ice and cold food in the ice box by boat owner Dave. By the time I’d created separate reusable shopping bags for snacks, breakfast, and miscellaneous, Lisa had returned. We ate the deli sandwiches we’d picked up on the way and wound down from the previous day or so of preparation. 

It had come down to the wire. Earlier in the day while I was working from Lisa’s basement, she was packing up the provisions, which she’d purchased, prepared, and frozen or refrigerated over the last week. When I emerged around 3:30 she was sprawled in the living room, phone in hand. 

“Do you want the good news, or the good news?”

I could tell she only had bad news and was trying to make light of it.

“What’s up?”

“The boat’s alternator is shot and they aren’t sure if it can be fixed.”

We were to go aboard the boat tonight and set sail for Edgartown at 8:00 a.m., timing our passage for optimal current through Wood’s Hole. And by “optimal” I mean a time when it’s possible to motor a slow moving sailboat through a narrow, twisting channel that the sea surges through with every rise and fall of the tide.

Not knowing whether we would be able to set sail tomorrow or not, we carried on loading the car with our gear and the non-perishables. Hallie called several times with updates: the yard manager was on board, they might have a replacement alternator in stock, the mechanic was there, they did have an alternator…

With the cold food loaded, we headed for the marina. As I struggled with an overfull cart down the ramp to the dock, a work boat came in, driven by an obvious mechanic. Sure enough, he had just finished installing the new alternator. Fortunately, we had the launch to ourselves and all our gear and food. The launch driver, a young woman, asked, “How long are you going for?” We laughed and told her a week. Then she apparently realized how she’d sounded and backpedaled, saying, “I’d have way more than that…”

In the morning I assumed my usual role of coffee maker. I can’t stand weak coffee. The feint of heart can always add hot water, but there’s no fixing a watery brew. Together is equipped with a kettle, a small French press, and a single-cup drip coffee maker. Fortunately, I’d brought my new compact Aeropress, so we could make three cups at once, and Lisa only drinks tea.

After yogurts and granola we stowed everything below and Hallie got out the ship’s log to review the pre-trip checklist. Batteries good? Check. Hatches dogged? Check. Lifejackets on all crew? Check. And so on, until we were sure we were ready.

Lisa and Hallie dropped the mooring line and we were away.

After a twenty-minute motor from out of Red Brook Harbor we were on Buzzard’s Bay heading south toward Wood’s Hole. We rolled out just the jib, and it pulled us steadily along at five to six knots. We reached the entrance to the hole right on schedule with Lisa on the helm. The tide had just turned, so the current was with us, but it had not yet built up to its full velocity. We slipped between green and red buoys already leaning away from rushing water. Miraculously, we did not have to share the channel with any of the ferries that carry visitors to and from the islands. 

We sailed onward across Vineyard sound, the jib still sufficient to maintain a comfortable speed. We chatted about the state of Covid control in Edgartown: Hallie had heard that it was a hot spot, but a friend living on the island had told her that just meant someone had a large party. All the restaurants I’d researched said masks were required. but I’d been unable to make a reservation anywhere—every place was either fully booked, or not taking reservations. We might be relying on take-out for the meals Lisa hadn’t provisioned.

Early in the afternoon Hallie steered us into the channel leading to Edgartown. We sailed a long way in, taking a couple tacks to stay off the shoals before finally firing up the engine and rolling up the jib. It had been a glorious passage.

Hallie called the harbor master and received our mooring assignment: yellow number four. Once past the route of the Chappaquiddick ferry, the narrow stretch where every few minutes the two ferries crossed mid-channel, we searched in earnest for yellow moorings. 

Edgartown has more than 500 moorings in its protected harbor, and a vast majority were already occupied by all manner of boats. But soon we spotted yellow ones and drew close enough to read their numbers. Number four turned out to be right on the edge of the channel, on the corner really, where the channel turns south toward Katama Bay. Lisa and Hallie picked up the mooring line and secured it in one try. We had arrived.

It did not take us long to recognize our luck. We were at the crossroads of Edgartown. While we enjoyed tomato, basil, mozzarella sandwiches and beer in the cockpit, we watched the nautical world go by. After lunch Hallie and I both enjoyed a dip off of Together’s stern. 

Inspired by Tigress, a cat boat providing harbor tours to visitors that sports an American flag sail, Hallie and Dave dug out Together’s collection of signal flags. We dressed ship, raising a string of them with the spinnaker halyard, ends secured bow and stern. Then we strung more around the railing and raised cocktail burgees on the ship’s flag halyard. Now we provided a sight for the tourists on Tigress, Mad Max, the launch, other tour boats, and private boats passing by.

Together dressed for the holiday.

Worn out by the stress of the uncertain departure and the long passage, we all retired early with our books.

Thursday dawned hot and sunny and we were enthusiastic about going ashore to explore Edgartown. We secured the boat and summoned the launch, which arrived along side in a couple minutes. It dropped us next to the Edgartown Yacht Club and we walked along Water Street to Memorial Wharf where the harbor master facility provides toilets and showers. We used the former. Then we set out up a street to see about some lunch and shopping.

The streets were crowded, very few people were wearing masks. The place had the atmosphere of a Disney theme park. It was, quite honestly, a bit startling. All these people! And the heat! Within a few blocks we started searching in earnest for someplace to sit and have a drink—beer, water, anything!

Reaching Main Street, we found restaurants—all closed until dinner time. In looking for the Cafe Behind the Bookstore, we spotted instead Rosewater Market. There was an empty picnic table out front, so we planted ourselves and then took turns going inside to order lunch. Dave was disappointed that they didn’t sell beer, but it was probably just as well given the heat. After excellent sandwiches and cold drinks we agreed to go our separate ways to indulge various shopping interests. We would meet up a little before 5:00 back at the yacht club where our host for dinner would meet us.

Dave’s college classmate Jay Lagermann is an artist living on Matha’s Vineyard, and he’d invited us all for a “simple barbecue” at his home and sculpture garden in Chilmark. Somehow that had morphed into lobsters in the last couple days, and he had offered to come get us. Looking at the map, we’d agreed that his generosity in picking us up should be countered by us arranging a taxi to get back to Edgartown. Seeing only a couple Uber and Lyft cars on the island, I’d instead called one of the local taxi companies and made a reservation. 

It was an afternoon of walking a little, sitting a little, sipping some water, walking to another shop. But most of the shops were quite pricey—even the corner market selling necessities, ice, and candy. The crowded bars were not very appealing, either. I wandered back to our meeting place more than an hour early, thinking of finding a bench with a view of the harbor. Instead I found Atlantic, a lovely restaurant serving drinks at sidewalk tables. I took one, ordered an IPA, and texted the others. The response: “On our way” was almost immediate. I wasn’t the only one discourage by the prices and the heat.

We weren’t the most profitable table: we ordered a couple beers and many glasses of cold water. But our waiter was gracious. Dave asked the hostess inside about reservations for tomorrow and received an explanation of why my research had said everything was booked solid: they were not taking reservations. Come early and get on the list to get a table. Our waiter confirmed this the next time he came by to fill up our water glasses. We asked him to define “early.” He said six. We all thought, hummm. Maybe four-thirty.

Jay turned up in his purple minivan right on schedule and we piled in. Fifteen minutes down the road in West Tisbury, he pulled over in front of a church and gestured across the road.

“I wanted to stop first at the Field Gallery.” We looked across at an open field dotted with sculptures. 

Dave and Jay surrounded by one of Jay’s sculptures at the Field Gallery.

As we strolled in the field Jay pointed out his pieces and told us about some of the other artists represented. Unfortunately, the small indoor gallery was closed. But then, we were getting hungry. 

I think we were all a little surprised at just how long the trip was—it took nearly an hour, including the brief stop. At last Jay turned onto an unpaved road marked by a sculpture and wound through a wild landscape to a group of buildings. Lisa leaned to me and muttered, “The taxi is never going to find us!”

Jay introduced us to his wife Marianne and we sat on a patio drinking beers and looking out at sculptures dotted across the land. Then Jay put a half dozen stuffed lobsters on the grill. A simple barbecue. We enjoyed lively conversation as we ate, and were about to have ice cream when my phone rang. Yep, the taxi driver couldn’t find us. I handed the phone to Jay, who talked him through it. We were just finishing the ice cream and berries when the driver called again to say he was there.

Rain had moved in while we ate, and it continued, off and on, through the next three days. It was, in fact, a full blown nor’easter. The wind picked up and our madly flapping flags made it sound much worse inside the boat. Friday morning we all lazed around reading and ate one of Lisa’s lunches before gathering our gear and calling the launch. At least it was no longer ninety-plus degrees.

Together and separate we visited shops again, discovering a few more interesting and slightly more reasonably priced. Eventually I decided to go back to Atlantic to try to reserve a table while the others made one more visit to a shop. 

Instead of drink service at the outside tables, the place was not open until 4:30 and there were a few people lined up outside. Given the showers, it made sense the outside tables weren’t open, but yesterday they had not mentioned being closed in the afternoon. So I waited with the rest. We eyed people who ignored our line and went in, and exchanged smug glances when they came back out. Finally the hostess welcomed the first of us up to the reception counter (literally up a short set of steps, as if we were paying court). The good news was each potential set of guests were welcomed and escorted to tables. I requested a table on the patio overlooking the harbor, not really thinking about the weather. I was guided to one sheltered by an umbrella. Before I could text the gang they were there, saying they’d seen me admitted from across the street.

Dinner was delicious and pricey, and we were only lightly sprinkled on. The umbrella was mostly effective. We were not the only guests who opted for an outdoor dining experience, either.

Saturday was much the same as Friday, with a damp morning of reading on board. Lisa and I took down the flags strung on the lifelines, but there was no way to lower the ones on the spinnaker halyard without getting something tangled. So we lived with the flapping another day. In fact, I’d resorted to my noise cancelling ear plugs, which turned out to work very well. I’d never do that at anchor, but we were on a substantial looking mooring.

Saturday afternoon there was to be a cocktail party at the Harbor View Hotel. It was a half mile out of town, which didn’t sound like a fun walk in the rain. First we decided to visit the Carnegie—the former town library converted into a Martha’s Vineyard museum. In today’s social climate, some of the narrative about the island’s history feels european-centric. Certainly the original native inhabitants are acknowledged, but the exhibits are more focused on life once settlers got there. Which is not to say the museum lacks vision and value, rather it raised my own awareness of the challenges faced by cultural institutions. 

The Carnegie is a welcoming place, with four comfy chairs in a front parlor. After viewing the exhibits  and the gift shop we settled in there and Hallie and I made purchases from the gift shop: by having the front desk attendant fetch them for us and take our credit cards to the register. The perfect blend of in person and on-line shopping!

I had just called the taxi company for a ride out to the hotel—and had to leave a message for a call back—when Hallie’s phone rang. It was Jerry, the organizer of the overall cruise, which included more than a dozen boats. The party at Harbor View was cancelled and we’d gather at one of the restaurants in town tomorrow. What a relief!

The rain was coming down hard just then, so we lingered in those club chairs right up until the museum was closing. Then we threw on our foul weather gear and trotted down to the waterfront and the Seafood Shanty. It was a short wait for a table, which was on a sheltered outside deck. What luck! The food was great and the beers were even better. 

July 4th the wind was still high, but the rain had backed off a bit. We’d called the town pump-out boat, and Mike, the operator, came by and offloaded our waste. We spent another restful morning, during which Hallie called the Edgartown Yacht Club to enquire whether they offered reciprocity with her home yacht club. Yes of course! We were welcome to come for dinner. We all looked across the water at the club dining room, which extended out over the water, grinning at our audacity. Hallie and Dave’s home yacht club is a tiny place with no facilities. That’s why they keep their boat at Kingman. But it has a good pedigree and a long history. 

Jerry had called back to tell us we were meeting at The Wharf  just up Main Street. It was fun to chat with the other crews from Kingman. Most were on power boats, but we managed to connect with the other sailors. After closing the open tab, we made another visit to our favorite shop, Portobello Road, which claims to be a book shop, but pretty well represents its namesake in London with lots of gifts and art on offer in addition to books. 

And then we ambled over to the yacht club.

Dave, Mia, Hallie, and Lisa documenting their EYC inasion.

We ladies had dressed casually, but presentably for both events. Dave had worn a polo shirt and brought the necktie Hallie bought him at the Carnegie. The club’s receptionist happily offered Dave the run of a coat closet full of jackets.

After fifteen months of eating at home, fine dining felt strange: the cautiously polite wait staff, the irritatingly loud guy at a nearby table, the amuse bouche… The food was on point, and the view of our boat with her flags out in the harbor was perfect. Late in the meal Dave realized that the loud guy was the same loud guy who’d been at Rosewater the other day. Small town.

Back aboard Together, we were happy to snuggle into our PJs and sit in in the cockpit as the sun set. Edgartown had cancelled its fireworks, so we were not certain whether we’d see any. But it’s a wealthy town, and the huge waterfront houses were all lit up with parties going on. 

July 4th sunset…
…reflecting on our neighbors.

Sure enough, around 9:00, someone started lighting Roman candles on a beach. Not really impressive, but we admired their spirit.

Then rockets started firing from in front of another house, one that was clearly having a big party. Far from kids on the beach playing with sparklers, these were serious fireworks, shooting high in the sky and exploding in bright colors. They seemed to be running down when the Boch house’s display started. Their show was close in duration and density to the ones staged by many small towns. And when it finished, the folks up the beach fired off a few more. Unable to contain himself, Dave joined in the audio praise coming from the moored boats by sounding Together’s air horn a few times. 

Monday morning dawned grey, but the wind had reduced to a gentle breeze. After breakfast we used the lull to take down our merry flags. After lunch we made a final visit to town, where a certain shoe store was calling to me. Dave and Hallie ended up walking to the lighthouse while Lisa and I shopped. With my new shoes in hand, and hat on my head, Lisa and I bought a bag of ice and returned to Together while Dave and Hallie went gallery hopping. We had time for a wonderful swim before the others got back. Dinner on board was a relief after all those pricey meals in town. We all settled in for a good rest before our return to Cape Cod on Tuesday.

Lisa and Mia sporting our pirate looks–seriously, it’s the only way to control the hair.

And we needed that rest. The wind was averaging twenty knots and gusting to thirty when we dropped the mooring and turned Together’s bow toward the channel. Once through the s-curve and into the outer harbor where the really big boats were, we discussed our sail plan. It was easy to agree on reefed main and jib. 

Lisa and I deployed the sails—Together has a roller main as well as jib, really handy in rough conditions because neither of us had to leave the cockpit. As Dave came about onto our down-wind course we trimmed the sails and the boat took off. It was great, with little fetch for waves to build in and a strong driving breeze from the starboard quarter, getting out of the long approach channel was quick. Then we had to turn north.

In lighter air, it would have been a fantastic reach. But even this close to the island, the swells were big and confused, and the gusts put Together over, or forced her to round up. I eased the jib until it was luffing more than drawing in the steady breeze, but at least let Dave hold a course through the gusts. We rode this for a while, and although my hands were itching for a chance to steer—I love rough weather steering—I made Dave keep at it for the practice. Eventually he needed a break and I took over somewhere east of Oak Bluffs. I’ve had funner rough sails, but enjoyed the challenge. It felt like my sailing instincts were reviving from a long stupor.

A rolling boat makes for funky panorama shots.

Somewhere off of Vineyard Haven I glanced over my shoulder and noticed that the zipper on the bimini canvas that had broken on the way over was about to part completely, despite the safety pins Lisa had put on it. Lisa stood up to hold it. If it started flapping, it was likely the whole bimini would start to tear—the wind was that strong.

While I fought the waves and wind, the rest of the crew unzipped the front of the bimini from the frame, which came crashing down (oops), then gathered all the fabric against the rear support and wrapped bungie cords around it. At one point Lisa was yelling “I’m losing my balance, I don’t have footing.” I couldn’t spare any attention to look. Somehow she got her balance and they finished the job. Then she turned around and asked, “Now where’s that red buoy we’re heading for?”

“We passed it ages ago.”

Indeed, we were now out into Vineyard Sound. To my surprise, the sea conditions got a little better. Lisa advocated for rolling up the jib, which definitely made it easier to steer. It also slowed us down a little, but that was all right because we did not want to be too early at Wood’s Hole. Dave got out his Eldridge and checked the currents once again, determining that being a half hour early was fine, more than that would be risky. So I didn’t push it, and we arrived at the entrance channel at 11:30. 

Hallie handles the big rollers with elan.

Unlike another approaching sailboat, we rolled up our sails and shot the channel under power. Naturally, an incoming ferry stormed past us just after we entered. The current carried us at up to nine knots over ground. I felt like I was riding a squeezed watermelon seed.

Once we got into Buzzard’s Bay I handed the helm over to Hallie, who also benefited from the practice. Here the swells ran from three to five feet rolling in from our starboard quarter. We deployed the jib again and she soon had the hang of it. 

Back at Kingman Yacht Center we went by the fuel and pomp-out dock, but decided to skip it given the heavy wind. Dave and Hallie can make that trip on a calmer day. Instead we picked up Together’s mooring and had celebratory beers with lunch. 

The return launch wasn’t quite as loaded as we’d been going out. 

Thanks again to Dave and Hallie for having Lisa and me. This little holiday vacation was both a much needed break from work for me, and an easy return to the sailing life.

Flags drying in the saloon.

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