After two days of sailing on the Phoenix, I had had enough.
The first day wasn’t bad. We sailed south through the protected waters of Narragansett Sound, rounded the corner, and found ourself in Point Judith Harbor of Refuge. It was easy to see how this place had got its name. In the early 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers built nearly three miles of breakwaters in the open ocean to create a safe haven for ships going between Boston and New York.
All night long I could hear the wind whistling across the ship and the whirr of the wind generator, but inside the break water, the ship rocked gently at anchor.
That evening was Captain Bob’s 64th birthday. To celebrate we made a nice salad, as well as some jambalaya. We opened a nice bottle of old-vine Australian wine. Then we watched two hours of “24″ on my laptop. The captain loves this show, and two episodes in one night was a treat for him. It wasn’t so much of a treat for me, and I got queasier as we watched. The ship wasn’t moving much, but it was moving.
The next morning, the wind was still up, and we raised the anchor in preparation to sail. The windlass strained as the chain slowly came up. The anchor finally came into view, hooked around an inch-thick steel cable. Dan and Dad used the boat hook to hold the cable while unhooking the anchor. Unfortunately, the minute the cable was free, it dropped back to the bottom, taking the boat hook with it. (Dan was left holding the rubber handle.)
We set out towards Long Island Sound across the fairly exposed expanse of Block Island Sound. The winds were fierce, east by northeast, gusting between 30 and 35 knots, and cold. When we awoke, the air temperature was 35°F, and things didn’t rise above 40° all day. The waves were reasonable close to shore, before they had a chance to build up, but quickly rising to four and five feet as our course took us more offshore. We were beating into the wind, close hauled.
At first, we had too much sail out. We quickly reefed down to the second reef point, which made the Phoenix much more responsive and flattened her out a little. Later, the Captain pulled in the main entirely and sailed on the full jib, which seemed to work well in this wind.
The wind and the current were opposed, making for a choppy, confused sea. My queasiness of the night before had never really gone away, and soon blossomed into a full-blown seasickness. By late morning, I was heaving over the leeward rail. I felt horrible.
I thought that laying in my bunk might help, so I went below, took off my foulies, and lay face down trying to be comfortable. It didn’t work, and a half hour later, I decided to go up again. As I struggled into my foulies once more, I felt the nausea rising quickly. I rushed up the ship’s ladder, without shoes, pants unzipped, and hurled all over the cockpit cushions, before choking up more bile over the side for what seemed like hours. There went any remaining breakfast and seasickness medication. I was empty, but I continued to gag. My throat burned.
Pretty much useless, I huddled under the dodger for the next hour or two (though it seemed like forever.) Before long, I started to shiver. I was really, really annoyed with my body.
I went to the chart plotter and started looking for an escape. I found a narrow passage leading through the rocks on the eastern tip of Fisher’s Island. Just inside was the port of Stonington, protected by breakwaters. I suggested to the captain that we head in, and he agreed.
Just about then, one of the straps holding the rear of the dinghy in the air broke. Our 11-foot inflatable twisted and sagged, and the trailing pontoon started dipping into the water. I was worried that we would lose the engine, or worse. We dropped the sails and drifted while we lowered the dinghy into the water and let out a tow rope. Then, with the dinghy riding fifty feet behind us, we motored in.
The ride into Stonington still took two hours, but I felt like salvation was within reach. I could see the harbor coming closer, and that felt good.
That night, as we sat at anchor in Stonington Harbor, I told the captain that I wanted to go home. I couldn’t envision another day like the one I just had. My throat was raw and I felt weak. My brother Donald lived in Connecticut, and I thought he could pick me up the next day (Sunday) and house me until I got a flight home.
I spoke with Dan and the captain about it, and we agreed that it would be best if I left the ship for this portion of the trip. Dan would go with me, leaving the captain alone. I worried a little about this, but I also knew that my dad could handle most things. I made him promise to call for help for those things he couldn’t handle, and not to try anything (too) stupid.
The next morning, the winds still whistling through the rigging, we motored over to a restaurant dock in Stonington. The captain approached the dock from the downwind side. I stepped ashore and secured the bow of the boat to a piling. As the captain shifted into reverse, the engine started making a loud slapping noise. But the wind was fighting us, and we continued making the Phoenix fast to the dock. Even tied to the dock, the ship still leaned off to leeward from the force of the wind on her rigging and mast.
Ignoring the engine for the moment, we met Donald, who had arrived just as we were tying up. His wife Jessica and my new nephew Jacob were waiting in the warmth of the car. We all went to a restaurant in town, had some breakfast, and warmed up.
When we finally returned to the ship, we started trying to figure out the problem with the reverse gear. We checked the fluids on the engine, which all seemed fine. Then I ran the engine while the captain tried to isolate the noise. It didn’t take long. Three of the four bolts holding the drive-shaft to the engine had come off! It was amazing that we had successfully docked. If the last bolt had gone while we were docking, we would have quickly blown up onto the rocks of the breakwater. The bolts had not sheared off, either… they had simply come undone. They were clearly not tightened properly before the ship was sold.
After some consultation with the broker who had sold us the yacht, they agreed to come down the following day to fix the problem. The restaurant, Skipper’s Dock, agreed to allow the Phoenix to stay docked overnight. And then Dan and I returned with Donald and his family to their home in Hebron, where I raked leaves.
Now as I sit in my office in Sausalito, I have really mixed feelings. A large part of me wishes that I were still aboard the Phoenix, sharing these times with my father. Another part of me is very happy to be home in Sausalito, looking out over San Francisco Bay. The two sides seem equally-matched, and struggle for dominance.
p.s. The captain is writing his own journal entries. If you would like to receive them, drop me an email and I’ll add you to his mailing list.
- A canvas ‘windshield’ on the front of the cockpit, providing protection from spray and wind.
- Foul-weather gear, designed to keep you dry in rain or spray conditions.
- The downwind side of a sailing ship. The other side is the ‘windward’ side. Leeward is pronounced ‘loo-word’
- Defined as “a large ocean inlet or deep bay, or a channel joining two larger bodies of water”. Which doesn’t explain Block Island Sound, the area between Block Island and the mainland. But there you go.
- A motor designed to pull up the anchor, mounted at the front of the ship in the anchor well.