Making our continental U.S. landfall in Newport after sailing 16 months and 25,000 nautical miles was most fitting, considering my introduction to yachting occurred 50 years earlier in nearby Branford, Connecticut. During fall break of my freshman year at Hobart College, one of the guys in my dorm, Jay Buza, invited me to his Connecticut home for the weekend, where his dad took us sailing on their 40′ Dutch-built yawl, “Latona.” They kept this gorgeous craft at Pine Orchard Yacht Club on Long Island Sound, where we spent an afternoon plying the calm waters around the Thimble Islands. I will never forget that crisp, cool Indian Summer day, when we raised the sails in almost no breeze and flat seas, but the boat glided silently through the water at a leisurely 5 knots as I stood on the bow, absolutely amazed at the sensation. At precisely that moment, I knew I wanted to be a sailor.
Back home in Sandusky the following summer, I got a call from Jay offering me a job as mate aboard a 60′ motor sailor on which he had crewed for several years but had just been made captain, also berthed at Pine Orchard Yacht Club. Although I was already gainfully employed running a jack-hammer for the City Water Department, I didn’t have to deliberate long before accepting his offer, and caught a flight the next day to Connecticut. My new job and home was aboard “Nor’easter,” which, while built in 1927, is still owned by the same family for which I worked, and continues to cruise the waters of Long Island Sound.
For that and the following summer, Jay and I crewed as “Nor’easter” visited Nantucket, Martha’s Vinyard, Fisher’s Island, Cuttyhunk, various ports in Connecticut, and Newport. Back then, 1972, Newport was not the chic tourist destination it is today, as it was home port to over 25,000 Navy enlisted men. The waterfront along Thames Street, now an upscale entertainment district, was called “Blood Alley” before the Navy relocated its ships in 1973. Jay and I, a couple of naive college kids on our first shore call there, wandered into one waterfront dive, and immediately ran afoul of some “regulars.” We quickly left without finishing our beers, making discretion the better part of valor, and returned to the safety of “Nor’easter.”
Fifty years after our ignominious retreat from that Thames Street dive bar, Newport is a kinder, gentler town. Upon arrival from Bermuda, Jamie and I took a slip at Goat Island Marina, where we could plug into shore power, hire experts to make our repairs, take indoor showers, and finally wash 1500 nautical miles of salt accumulation from the boat. We also rented a car, which was a great convenience. After 5 days (and over $1,000 slip rent) we headed back out into Long Island Sound, destination Cuttyhunk Island.
I was last on Cuttyhunk over 50 years ago, while crewing on the “old” “Nor’easter.” It was a memorable visit, as our boss, whose family had frequented the island for generations, had made a deal with a local lobsterman to swap a case of shotgun shells for “all the lobster we could eat.” The only caveat was that Jay and I had to pull, by hand, a dozen or so pots from 15 fathoms to collect our “bugs.” The pots were heavy, the polypropylene lines slimy and covered with various abrasive species of sea life, but after an hour of back-breaking labor, we had 75 unhappy arthropods to cook, clean, and serve to the owners and their guests over the next several days. I got so sick of lobster, it was decades before I found them appetizing again.
Our present-day visit was much more enjoyable, and being so early in the season, we were one of just a handful of yachts in the mooring field. We dinghied to shore, took a nice walk over the windswept hills, visited the raw bar on the pier and had a “stuffie,” which is quahog clam meat diced and mixed in corn meal, then baked in the clam shell. We also picked up two dozen oysters, which we shucked and ate on board that night. My oyster-shucking technique has improved to where I can usually pry the shell open in under a minute, but occasionally I get a stubborn victim that requires much longer. The key is to avoid stabbing one’s hand with the oyster tool.
As the weather was so favorable, we headed out the next day for Martha’s Vineyard, 25 NM distant, which required us to pass through the Elizabeth Island chain. It was a scenic trip with 15 knots breeze, but we hit some adverse currents that took our boat speed down to 2.5 knots at times. Having enjoyed nearly constant favorable currents on our east-to-west circumnavigation, I was remiss in not checking the tide tables before heading out into Long Island Sound, where one must always plan to sail on a favorable tide.
Martha’s Vineyard was one of my favorite stops back in my deckhand days, and remains an idyllic spot, but like Newport, has been considerably gentrified in the past five decades. When I last visited, we anchored in Katama Bay, the harbor that serves Edgartown. The year was 1974, and “Jaws” was being filmed, with much of the cast domiciled on the island. While we didn’t get to hang out with Steven Spielberg or Roy Scheider, on several mornings we saw “Bruce,” the mechanical shark that was so terrifying on screen, being ingloriously towed from the harbor on a barge to begin his daily feeding frenzy.
Due to COVID, much of the town was shut down during our current visit, but we did enjoy some fine outdoor dining, rented a car for a day, and took a lot of bike rides to various beaches. The area around Gay Head Light has been made into a national park, but the cliffs over the beach are no longer accessible to tourists. Back in the day, Jay and I actually camped out on top of the cliffs.
After two days in Edgartown, we cruised to Nantucket, where Jamie and I were fortunate enough to secure a slip at the downtown marina, which was still affordable the weekend before July 4. Again, many of the local attractions were closed or limited due to the pandemic, but we took a lot of long bike rides and walked some gorgeous beaches.
Having been freed from boat maintenance projects for almost two weeks, I was not surprised when our bilge pump began cycling while I was running the water maker in Nantucket, and discovered the culprit was a defective pressure switch spewing water from a new booster pump I had just installed in St. Thomas. We had planned on heading back to Newport and driving home to Ohio before July 4, so with a stop in Cuttyhunk en route, we arrived Newport July 1, spent a day getting “Nor’easter” stripped of sails and excess gear for her refit at Jamestown Boat Yard (JBY), bought a car (I sold mine before starting our circumnavigation), and drove home. “Nor’easter” basically had a “Spa Month” at JBY, with the interior teak and floorboards almost completely stripped and revarnished by Bolie and his crew of Antiguan craftsmen, who put 240 hours into making the boat look like new.
While the pandemic has thrown more than a few obstacles into the last few months of our world cruising plans, there have been some unexpected benefits. Sailing in New England has been wonderful throughout June, with crowds almost nonexistent at all the normally popular destinations. We had no problem getting slips, moorings, or anchorages wherever we went, and the crowds were nonexistent at Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and even Newport. While I miss, more than anything else, seeing the smiles on masked strangers’ faces as we pass on the street, I see in their eyes that they want to connect with me as much as I would like to connect with them, but now it not the time. This too shall pass…