A Sailing Story

Hi everyone,

Since the time I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed keeping a journal of my boating adventures. As I prepare to embark on what I think will the most memorable chapter yet (more on that to come) I need to officially turn the page on A Sailing Story before beginning A Boy and a Boat. The following column was published in the October 2020 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine. I hope you enjoy it and I hope you’ll stay tuned for the adventures ahead.

Thank you for following me on this journey,

Dan


It’s a common yarn that the two best days of a boater’s life are the day they buy a boat and the day they sell it. I can now say with certainty that that’s bullshit. Buying the boat was way more fun.

This is where I need to make a confession: My first boat was a 1961 Rhodes Chesapeake … sailboat. You need to understand, when I bought the boat with my then-girlfriend Karen, I was a newly minted associate editor in Rhode Island. My salary covered the bedroom I rented—one that, I kid you not, you had to walk through a bathroom to get to—and little else.

Stories of adventure came across my desk daily, and being new to the sailing capital of America, I became transfixed with the foreign beasts that silently glided through the water. After months of scouring Craigslist and climbing through one abandoned boat after another, I came across the Rhodes. She needed some serious TLC but like me was powered by a young heart, a 30-hp Yanmar diesel. Survey be damned, I bought the boat then and there.

My first day as a sailor was fortuitous. With the previous owner aboard, we sailed the boat to Jamestown. It was a day that remains etched in my memory. Grabbing her wooden ship wheel, we sailed for what felt like hours. Karen and I were so enamored with our new boat that we had the previous owner take our picture. That snapshot hangs above my computer as I write this.

It was all perfect. Until it wasn’t. We doused the sails as we approached our marina when I felt something land beside my foot. I reached down and picked up a spongy piece of wood. I looked aft and saw the previous owner looking up at the masthead. I followed his eyes skyward and saw that the mast was starting to split like a banana peel—which turned out to be the result of water damage.

sailboat-Karen-Marie

Let’s not dwell on what happened next, except to say that it was a quiet and tense drive back to the seller’s car. I didn’t know much about sailing, but even I knew: The mast is an important piece.

When I looked to my new boatyard for help, they put a call in to a wooden boat and mast builder in town named Jim Titus. I drove my old Honda into the boatyard to meet Jim and look at my mast. As I came walking up to him, he had his back to me. I saw him make the sign of the cross as if reading my mast its last rites. My heart sank.

I asked Jim point blank, “What should I do?” He looked at the mast, then at me, then at my car and said, “I don’t see a New York Yacht Club sticker on your car. Meet me at my shop tomorrow.”

After work the next day, I met him at his place just off the highway. Old masts and older wooden boats filled two enormous sheds. Broken dreams were everywhere. Saw dust covered the floor, tools were scattered about, colorful characters and pets alike wandered around. To make a long story a little shorter, Jim took pity on me. He said that if I rolled up my sleeves and did a lot of the work, he would charge me for the materials—and little else—to build a new wooden mast.

That fall, winter and spring I spent my nights and weekends in those sheds, just another lost kid working on a project and getting an education that no school can offer.

By the time summer rolled around I had a new spruce mast that was the envy of the harbor. Building that mast with the help of a master carpenter who had no business taking me under his wing is one of my proudest accomplishments.

For the next seven years, my now-wife and I cruised and restored that boat—with a huge amount of help from my parents, who -enabled this undertaking. It’s common at the end of a chapter to look back on the previous pages with rose-colored glasses. I’ve been doing a bit of that, remembering our first trip to Block Island, long leisurely sails on Narragansett Bay, the day I asked Karen to marry me while on an overnight at the cove. But I also like to reflect on the unvarnished parts of owning the boat. The fights, the storms, the breakdowns (mental and literal), tired hands and sore backs. Sunburns and hangovers. It was the work and the challenges that made the good times that much sweeter.

In those first days of owning the boat I cursed my decision and my frugality in not getting a survey done. If I could go back in time and give that reckless kid some advice, I’d tell him not to change a thing.

Cruising the Connecticut Coast

The week after Labor Day has become my favorite time to go cruising. School is back in session, crowds of tourists have all but returned home, but the weather-if you’re lucky-retains most of its summer warmth.

With a storm brewing to our west, blocking popular destinations like Block Island and Newport, Karen and I cruised east burning up some vacation time while discovering what else our new home state had to offer. From Clinton and Branford, to New Haven and Westbrook, we learned that Connecticut (a drive through or past state for many people) is filled with charming anchorages and cities on the rise.

I hope you enjoy some of the photos from our adventure, but more than that, I hope they inspire you find that new destination near you that might be hiding in plain sight.

 

Quality Time

Richard at Bimini_2012-from-Aimee.jpgTime. There never seems to be enough of it. Despite enjoying one of the most memorable summers of my adult life, what with my girlfriend Karen agreeing to marry me, the seesaw that is the work-life balance was tilting heavily in the hectic direction. An escape on the boat to unplug and recharge was calling my name. With the remnants of Hurricane Hermine kicking up seas to the east, we decided to spend the week after Labor Day cruising west and exploring the Connecticut coast.

During our first days cruising to Clinton and then on to Branford, I frequently felt the urge to pick up my iPhone, swipe left and check my work emails. Advice from my colleagues—John Wooldridge told me to “take it slow and enjoy every second,” and Jason Wood said, “Take a real break, chuck your phone in the drink on Day One and share your new number with us when you get back”—reverberated in my mind and allowed me to put the phone away.

And our week away from the real world provided everything we could hope for in a boating adventure. We enjoyed smooth sailing and squalls alike. There were nights when we slept peacefully beneath the stars and others when we cursed the boat while simmering in puddles of our own sweat. There was also a sleepless night in New Haven, where 2- to 3-foot seas on our mooring made for a night we’ll never forget. The seconds felt like hours waiting for the sun to come up. We enjoyed some great meals and a couple of terrible ones. We discovered destinations we want to return to and others we don’t.

With the end of our trip nearing, we had really found a groove. We were working well together and just enjoyed hanging out and being on the water.IMG_5254.JPG

That’s when I got news: My colleague at Power & Motoryacht, Richard Thiel, had suffered a major stroke. He wasn’t going to recover.

He spent a couple days in hospice, and early this morning he passed away.

It was a punch to the stomach. Richard was as active as they come; a cyclist and serious boater. My colleagues and I shared our shock and sadness, and Jason again provided sage advice: “If anything, this should be a lesson on how important enjoying your life outside of work is. Enjoy your boat and fiancée.”

Cruising home toward Essex this morning, the sun glinting off the ocean, my thoughts drifted to Richard. He was a legend in the marine industry whose time testing boats left a permanent—visible to all those who test boats for a living—wake on the ocean. Richard, always gracious with his time, followed my blog; it pangs my heart knowing this post will land in his inbox, never to be read.

Richard and I spoke frequently of sharing a meal at the Blue Oar, just up the Connecticut River. Alas, busy schedules and lifestyles prevented such a meal. In my last email to Richard, I suggested we get together for that long-anticipated breaking of bread (and beers). It would go unanswered.

After what I’m sure will be a long winter, I plan on visiting the Blue Oar when it (and the boating season) reopens. I will pour a pint for Richard. Instead of hearing tales from the “glory days” of marine publishing or soaking up knowledge from the longest-serving Editor-in-Chief in Power & Motoryacht history, I’ll sip a cold beer and be thankful to be a member of the brotherhood that is Power & Motoryacht. I’ll be thankful that I’m able to run in Richard’s wake. I’ll forever be thankful that, on every boat test from now until I hang up my notepad and decibel reader, Capt. Thiel is watching over me.

I’ll forever be thankful that I’m running in the wake of a giant.

jpg_4.JPG

The Truth About Fishers Island

The local residents of Fishers Island, New York have an online reputation for keeping to themselves and treating tourists like flesh-eating vultures. So it came as a surprise when, just moments after tying our dinghy up to Pirates Cove Marina, a woman walking by turned to Karen and I and asked, “Do you two need a ride anywhere? I’m heading across town.” I guess, just maybe, not everything you read on the Internet is true [gasp!].

We declined the kind offer and set out to explore the island on foot. How’d she even know we were visitors? You have to let everyone know you’re a tourist, I told Karen as I adjusted my large Canon camera around my neck and the backpack on my back.

“Mhmm, yeah, I’m the tourist,” she replied. 

As we wandered the quiet, wooded streets we came across a number of locals who all greeted us not just with the obligatory mumble and head nod, but with actual smiles and articulate greetings.IMG_9360_1

Another misconception about Fishers Island is that the population is made up of blue-blazer and bow tie wearing seniors. And while that demographic is represented, the island offers much more diversity. We found this to be especially true when we stumbled onto a beach on the west side of the island where (at least) a hundred young people threw back red solo cups and tossed frisbees.

“Well, that’s different,” Karen suggested.

The rest of our day would be filled with requisite cocktails and an alfresco cookout. Afterwards we’d take the dinghy into the Fishers Island Yacht Club and set out in search of ice cream. One rule we’d made up that challenged this time-honored tradition was that we couldn’t use our phones to look at a map. We’d have to actually explore the town the old fashioned way.IMG_4599.JPG

The summer sun was setting, casting long shadows onto the quiet streets. The well-manicured landscapes and colorful homes with wrap-around porches gave you the feeling that you travelled back in time. Furthering that illusion was a gang of boys and girls tearing through town on their bikes. When was the last time you actually saw kids enjoying a bike ride with other kids? It was a welcome sight.

On a hunch, we followed their general direction until we were all reunited at Toppers ice cream shop, a pet-friendly hot spot in town where all the local kids hung out. If you were to take the phones from their hands, the scene would look like something from a 60’s movie.

We’d spend the rest of the weekend kicking back on the beach, exploring the island’s other harbors and generally enjoying some R&R.

A swift, Sunday sail later and we were back in Essex and preparing for the week ahead back in the real world. It’s funny,  I’ve probably passed Fishers Island from the water dozens of times, and because it didn’t have one of those popular destination names like Cuttyhunk, Shelter Island, or Block Island, I—and I suspect many boaters—never paid it much attention. It really is a gem hiding in plain sight.

So, if you’re looking to escape the world for a little while and slow things down on an island with small town charm to spare, a weekend on Fisher’s Island can be as refreshing as a cone of mint chip ice cream on a hot summer evening.

Just don’t tell the Internet.

The Journey.

Boating is, in many ways, a suitable metaphor for life. In both, there are times when the sun’s shinning and you’re cruising in calm conditions that you think’ll never end. Then there are times when—out of nowhere—the wind picks up and you’re braced, white-knuckled at the helm, fighting mightily in vain to get your bearings. In the end you hope the good days out number the bad, or at least break even. And along the way you’ll come across characters of all types and sorts. If you’re blessed, like I’ve been, the people that mean the most, your family, will stay aboard with you for as long as they can. Friends and colleagues, well, they’ll come and go.

You’ll spend some time in stunning destinations, making connections that’ll shape you in ways you never expected, and you’ll also find yourself in spots so miserable you’ll find yourself praying for the tide to change so you can leave it in your wake.

There will be times where the boat purrs like a kitten and the brightwork glistens into the eye of all those who pass it. Beautiful! Some will proclaim at the sight of her. There is always a lot of praise when you’re up on top. Then there are times where things are breaking left and right; leaks spring up from everywhere, the floorboards get rotted. You pull up the carpet and put away the fluffy pillows. Tools and drops of sweat are scatted everywhere. Frustration is high, and there’s not a soul around to help.

But you stay focused, work hard, and with a little luck smooth sailing finds you once again.

In life, as in boating, it’s important to find a partner, a first-mate of sorts that will stand by you not just in the good times, but in the bad. After all, what’s the point of embarking on an epic adventure if you have no one there to share it with?

Over the last four years, Karen has proven to be such a partner. From convincing me to buy the boat, to spending hundreds of hours sanding, packing, painting, priming and pumping out endless moral support, without her, none of this sailing adventure would be possible. I’m excited to announce that last weekend, on a picturesque afternoon in Hamburg Cove, Karen agreed to marry me and stay on this adventure for the long haul.

I feel like the luckiest guy alive and I’m extremely grateful to be on this adventure with her.

Let There Be Light

I watched through envy-filled eyes as boaters who had done hardly an hour’s work were lowered from the travelift to the resting river below.

How!? I mean, gahhhh, another one,” I’d stammer, pointing wildly at the carefree looking family sailing off into summer.

Karen rolled her eyes and went back to varnishing. We had accomplished a fair amount in early spring; the brightwork had been tended to, the mast received six coats of varnish and was really starting to shine again. The hull was waxed and painted and still … there was much left to do. It was time to call in the troops; we asked my parents to come up for the weekend to help blitz through the remaining projects.

On our to-do list was two tasks that had eluded us since we bought the boat four seasons ago: Fixing the wiring and adding running water. Yes, water and electric, a reminder of how involved this restoration project has truly been.

IMG_91200700 on an unseasonably warm Saturday morning would come, they would arrive and it was game on. Now something of an annual tradition, we quickly settled into the tasks at hand. Karen and my mom fell into a rhythm of chatting and working, first painting the hull of the dinghy with an inflatable bottom paint before adding a layer of varnish to the toe rail.

My old man and I opened the slide-open draw that housed the boat’s electrical and exhaled deeply while taking in the sight. To explain the current electrical situation, well, let’s just say I’ve seen tumbleweeds with more order and organization. Thankfully, my dad has an above-average handle on marine electrical and we had a new DC panel in place within a couple hours. We’d go on to swap out some tarnished old cabin lights with some glistening new LED lamps.IMG_4242

With a couple flips of the breaker we had light. It was a little victory but certainly one worth celebrating.

Next up was the water tank. Because of a design flaw and many years of neglect, the water tank beneath the sole of the salon is susceptible to contamination from bilge water. After working through a half dozen possible options, I decided the best solution would be to place a 26-gallon Plastimo water tank under the forward V-berth. The most demanding aspect of this project was acquiring all the fittings, hoses and pumps we’d need; the actual installation was completed within an hour. Besides adding running water to the head and salon sinks, we also ran a hose to the stern of the cockpit where it will serve as an outdoor shower.IMG_9137

We worked hard that day and were proud of what we accomplished. We had a few laughs and spent time unplugged talking about our hopes for the coming summer. Looking back on that weekend, I realize you don’t really need to be on the water to enjoy the positive affects of boating. The season has begun.