26 July 2017

"Never Say Never Again"

22 July 2017

Last year, our 'Polar Oartex' whaleboat team participated in the annual Blackburn Challenge.  This twenty-plus mile row around Cape Ann, Massachusetts, is one of the premier competitive rowing events in the Northeast, regularly drawing hundreds of entrants from as far away as Canada or Virginia.  In 2016 we placed third in the 'Open Division,' with a time of 4:38:29.  That was thirty to forty minutes behind the first and second place finishers in our class, and a mere 87-seconds ahead of the fourth place boat.  It was a challenge, but it was fun, and we all felt very accomplished.  A few of us said, "Okay.  Been There.  Done That.  Once is Enough.  Never Again."

So last Saturday we were back in Gloucester, because you should never say 'never again.'  We came for different reasons.  Some on our team wanted to complete the row in four hours or less; some wanted to do it without stopping; some just wanted to do it again; a couple of new recruits wanted to give it a try.  The Blackburn Challenge is a symbol, and like all symbols it means different things to different people, yet it fosters community and builds friendships by uniting people around a common focus, a mutual obligation: row in open water, regardless of the conditions, and finish the course.  For Howard Blackburn, in 1883, it was row or die.

Howard Blackburn
(Peter Vincent, undated, egg tempera on board; Photo Credit: Cape Ann Museum)

This time around we had a few changes on our crew roster.  Last year we went with an extra person, a  supernumerary "bow-rider."  Our whaleboats carry a crew of six: five rowers and a boat-steerer.  But last year, as a precaution against a last-minute drop-out (because merda acontece), we went with seven people.  When no one dropped out at the last minute, this meant we had a freshly-rested rower to rotate in every thirty minutes or so.  This year, we had no extra rower.  In fact, we can very close to withdrawing our entry because we could not find enough people willing or able to join us, and consequently had not been training as hard as we usually do.

"Don't row with Greg."
The 'Polar Oartex' training row claims another victim

Two regular teammates were on the Disabled List, while the "extra" rower from last year had other commitments.  It took longer than expected to find substitutes.  Not everyone is interested in rowing twenty miles.  In a race.  In open water.  Around Cape Ann.  Then, a mere two weeks before the event, one substitute fell ill with a bronchial infection.  Again we scrambled to find a replacement.  Melissa, a member of another team, the 'Dirty Oars,' came to our rescue.  She frequently joins our team's practice rows as a sub, so she was comfortable with us and we with her.  It helped that she and her husband had lived on Cape Ann for seventeen years, giving this event a nostalgic allure.  It also helped that she had joined our club's 14-mile row between Cuttyhunk and New Bedford a few weeks ago: she felt confident enough to attempt the Blackburn without much condition training.

View from our fire pit: The Eighteen Hole at Turner Hill

On race day, the boat needs to be ready in the water by 6:00am, so participants really need to overnight Friday in the Gloucester area.  We rented the same AirBnB as last year, the old Butler's House at the Turner Hill Golf Club in Ipswich.  They had almost doubled the price, but the Admiral drives a hard bargain, and negotiated us a great deal.  This time, we booked two nights.  Last year, hauling out the boat and driving back to New Bedford immediately after the race was no fun at all.  In fact, that was the opposite of fun.  Consensus this year was to rent the house for two nights, and enjoy a relaxing evening of dinner, drinks, and camaraderie after the race.  After all, you really can't indulge in adult beverages and go body-rolling down the hill behind a putting green the night BEFORE a twenty-mile race....

View towards our house (in the trees) and firepit
(Photo Credit: Unknown)

This year, 205 entrants (more than 300 individuals) began the race, while 188 finished it.  The first team (a two-man crew) to cross under Greasy Pole did it in 2:18:09.  We finished deep in the pack, 150th overall, with a time of 4:44:49.  But we were FIRST PLACE in the 'Open Division' -- fifteen minutes ahead of the runner-up, and almost an hour before the third place finisher in our class.  That was only a six minutes slower than last year, when we had that extra rower.  Moreover, our official time includes an incident in which we temporarily abandoned the race to assist another competitor who had capsized in rough water.

We followed a row plan I developed based on a little homework on weather, tides, currents, speeds, and personnel.  I projected elapsed time estimates for different waypoints (based on three different boat speeds), and decided where it would be most appropriate to switch seats (port and starboard) and change up boat-steerers.  The short-range forecast for Race Day was favorable: partly cloudy, upper 70s/lower 80s, light winds 4-6 knots, NW backing S, seas one-foot.

The Row Plan

After "carbing up" on our traditional lasagna dinner on the eve of the race, alarms were set for 4:30am.  You have to be careful about what you put in your stomach before a big row: some foods don't digest well during a heavy workout.  For most of us, it was a light breakfast of a hard boiled egg, a little bit of oatmeal, and some fruit.  Coffee was kept to a minimum -- for the next five or six hours, the only place to pee is in a boat bucket.  Then we were "wheels up" on-time for a 5:15am departure.

Hauling along back roads between Ipswich and Gloucester, early Saturday morning

Check-in for the Blackburn is behind Gloucester High School, between 6:15-7:00.  Those who arrive before 6:00am beat the crowd: you can go straight to the boat ramp, launch the boat, and tie up on the dock.  But arrive a mere fifteen minutes later and you are sure to be stuck in the cluster**ck of cars and trailers and boats and people all queue up to access the ramp.  Each craft must be inspected for safety equipment, and all entrants must sign a waiver, prior to the general pre-race meeting at 7:00.  Then participants board their boats and head up the Annisquam River to the starting line, just north of the railway bridge.

Polar Oartex walking to the boat ramp, behind a single-entry skiff
(Photo Credit: Marty Luster)

North of the railway bridge is a small boat basin where participants cluster together waiting for their division to be started.  It gets crowded, and people tend to forget (or not realize) that the oars on a whaleboat extend about ten feet over the gunwales and project twelve feet or so behind the stern.

Chilling out near the start line, before the race
(Photo Credit: "Seawolf")

All sorts of muscle-powered watercraft participate in the Blackburn Challenge, including traditional Banks dories, workboats and skiffs, pilot gigs and whaleboats, racing shells and outriggers, canoes and kayaks.  Different classes or divisions start the race in 'waves,' beginning with the paddle boarders.

Kayaks at the Starting Line, the railway bridge in the right background
(Photo Credit: Iforgot)

This year, the traditional 8:00am start came a few hours after low tide.  Consequently, the first leg to the river mouth at Annisquam Light was a little tough, as we rowed against the peak of the incoming current.  The fun part about rowing the river is the cheering of spectators; the not-so-fun parts are the ubiquitous green-head horseflies.  Combined with the absence of any breeze, this was all the motivation we needed to row harder.

Rowing the Annisquam River, passing spectators on a houseboat
(Photo Credit: Donna Lind)

All the same, by the time we reached the sea at 9:03am, we were already behind schedule.  Our initial boat-steerer, Mark, began to call more urgently for us to "power up" -- to pull with full strength for ten, twenty, or even thirty strokes and generate multiple spurts of speed.

Passing Davis Point, the crew reaching far during a power up
(Photo Credit: Jim O'Dowd)

Mark had been anxious for months that we were insufficiently-trained this year and would not finish within the six-hour time limit.  Adding to our vexations, it is around this point that the fastest boats -- six-men ocean-going outrigger canoes -- come flying by you.  They are in a separate class, and start later, but catch up to you around here.

Here comes Hawaii 5-0....
Just look at the wake they are generating, compared to our whaleboat
(Photo Credit: Leslie Berchtold Chappell)

Our row plan called for the first seat change to come at Four Nautical Miles, around Lanes Cove, but Mark held on to the steering oar until Folly Cove.  Then he made his way to the front of the boat and took up the #1 Oar, while the rest of us shifted one seat aft, effectively changing from a port oar to a starboard oar (and vice versa).  Meanwhile, Beth, who started the race at the #5 'Stroke Oar,' now stepped to the sternsheets to take a turn at the steering oar.

Rounding Halibut Point
(Photo Credit: Leslie Berchtold Chappell)

The Stroke Oar sets the rhythm, pace, and (supposedly) the length of the oar-pull that powers the boat through the water.  Not everyone enjoys rowing Stroke, and not everyone enjoys when certain people row Stroke.  It can be very frustrating when the Stroke Oar has an irregular rhythm, a short reach, or a pulls at too quick a pace.  In a whaleboat, a choppy stoke is likely to rock the boat, create drag, and slow your speed; if you row at too fast a pace, you will tire quickly.  These are thousand-pound boats.  Beth is the regular 'Stroke Oar' for the Polar Oartex.  She has excellent form; her technique is among the best in the club.  Leaning well forward with a big reach at her "catch" point, she generates a long and powerful pull, usually at the rate of 24-26 strokes per minute.  She is really good at it.

Straitsmouth Island: the Half-Way Point
(Photo Credit: RedFin Realty)

We maintained this configuration around Halibut Point and across Sandy Bay, passing Rockport, until we cleared Straitsmouth.  Now riding light winds from the northwest, we gained some time and made the halfway mark at 2hr 24min.  Once again we were back on-track for a 4.5 hour row.  After Straitsmouth, at the 8nm mark, we changed seats again and it was my turn at the Stroke Oar.  My form is not as good as that of Beth, but its not bad.  I try to reach that oar blade as far forward as possible at the "catch," lean back deeply during the "pull," and then keep the blade as low and tight to the water as possible on the "return."

Thacher Island, with Straitsmouth in the distance
(Photo Credit: Maine Imagining)

The leg between Straitsmouth and Thatcher Island is picturesque.  You are close to shore and the distance seems to go by quickly.  But then begins that dreaded long southwesterly slog down the east coast of Cape Ann, passing Long Beach.  For the next hour or more, you are exposed to rolling waves on the beam that come across the wide open fetch of Massachusetts Bay.  The wind had shifted now, coming out of the south, on our bow, and we were pulling against some current for three or four miles.  But we were saved by the arrival of Super Action Hero Stand-Up Paddleboard Dude.  This bare-chested, 20-something, chiseled-figure of muscle, who seemed to come straight out of some magazine, pulled in behind our stern to "draft" in our wake, which meant smoother seas for him on his paddle board.  He was listening to country music and smiling ear-to-ear.  Half of our crew found new inspiration and a welcome distraction.  "Oh look," Mark said.  "He is stopping to do push ups."

'Action Hero' Brian Macchi.  Our company for much of the course....
(Photo Credit: Donna Lind)

We did our final seating change off Good Harbor Beach, and I took up the steering oar for the final leg.  This is the toughest part of the course for both rowers and steerer.  You are about 18-miles along, and everyone is getting tired and cranky.  You just want it to be over.  Moreover, the waves and chop are worse here than anywhere on the course.  People start looking over their shoulder: how much farther?  This is where faces get set with looks of grim determination.

Are we there yet?

Approaching Gloucester Harbor, you pass Eastern Point Light.  This is cruel, like a false summit on a mountain: you think you are done, but you are not.  In fact, you still have two more miles to go before the finish line at the 'Greasy Pole.'  Beyond Eastern Point, you row down a long rocky breakwater to Dog Bar, where you turn into the harbor.

Eastern Point Light.  More about that kayaker in a moment....

Dog Bar is a bit tricky.  There are waves, and currents, and eddies.  As a boat-steerer, you feel them in ways your teammates pulling at the oars do not.  There is also a lot of boat traffic in a very small space.  The harbor entrance, 'Dog Bar Channel,' is a narrow gap between the end of the breakwater and Round Rock Shoal.  Commercial and recreational craft are supposed to keep inside the channel, clearly marked by navigational aids Green 1DB and Red 2DB.  Race participants in their small, shallow draft boat and kayaks typically cut inside the closer red buoy, keeping out of the navigation channel while edging closer to the rocks.

Dog Bar, at the mouth of Gloucester Harbor

But as we reached the end of the breakwater, a lobster boat appeared at the harbor mouth.  We had seen this vessel, the Jean Elizabeth, on the Annisquam River during the first leg of the race.  One of our teammates works in maritime insurance, and laughed when he saw that boat.  "That guy still owes me money!" he told us.  Now, just as I was beginning the turn around Dog Bar, I watched in consternation as the Jean Elizabeth, after a brief hesitation, gunned its engine stormed out of the harbor by cutting inside the red buoy: running outside the navigation channel and close-in to the breakwater, coming across our intended path at full throttle.  Then it drove on through the midst of the race participants behind us.  Her captain clearly possessed a Class A Masshole license.

F/V Jean Elizabeth in the dangerous shortcut at Dog Bar

As the lobster boat plowed along, its big wake -- made more erratic by bouncing off the nearby breakwater -- rolled broadside into a kayak and spilled its occupant into the chilly waters.  Here is a short video excerpt of the incident taken from a camera mounted on our bow.  The capsize occurs at 0:21, visible in the upper left of the frame.

The lobster boat drove on without a pause, two crew watching astern, having a good laugh.  We were aghast.  Spectators on the breakwater were shouting.  The kayaker tried repeatedly to climb back aboard, but now four hours into the race, at the Mile 19 mark, his arms lacked the strength to pull himself out of the water.  Seeing him struggle, and watching the waves push him ever closer to the rocky breakwater, we decided to turn around and go back to assist him.

A man struggles to regain his kayak after being capsized by a lobster boat

We were not in an optimal position to do this, given our location at that moment: quite literally between a rock and a hard place.  I chose to swing the whaleboat to port, toward the busy navigation channel, because I wanted to keep "eyes on" the kayaker.  I was concerned that if I turned around to starboard, away from the channel and into the lee of the breakwater, I would loose sight of him -- and with the waves driving us into the harbor, the crew would then have to redouble their efforts to regain the harbor entrance.  As we approached the kayaker, another rower in a banks dory arrived first to assist him.  He pulled himself back in his kayak, and gave us a wave and a thumbs-up.  I turned us around again, this time a port turn, away from the nearby breakwater, and rejoined the race.

Course Alterations at Dog Bar

This detour added a few minutes to our time, but assisting a boater in distress is a sacred trust among open water rowers.  As we headed back into the harbor, we could hear the man in the banks dory reporting the incident to the race committee over VHF radio.  Then the Gloucester Harbormaster hailed the lobster boat and had a strong NSFW exchange over the airwaves.  It was a real WTF incident.

The Final Mile....

Back inside the breakwater, we were now on the true home stretch: that grueling final mile through Gloucester Outer Harbor to the beach at Greasy Pole.  About halfway across, the crew started to ask how much further we had to go.  "Five hundred yards!" I would call out.  "You always say that," they retorted.  Then they started to reference familiar distances at home in New Bedford:  "Is it as far as Butler Flats Light?"  "Is it as far as the Hurricane Barrier?"  "It is as far as the edge of the mooring field to the dock?"  "Yes! Yes!" I would lie.  "Pull with everything you got!"  Finally, I could honestly tell them, "I see the tent!"  Then soon thereafter, "I can see people!"  At last, they started smiling again -- something they hadn't done since Straitsmouth.

Approaching the Finish!

Crossing the Finish Line at Greasy Pole.  'Action Hero' close behind....
(Photo Credit: Donna Lind)

On the beach, free food and drink awaited.  Cape Ann Rowing, which organizes the Blackburn Challenge, goes all out for participants at the finish line.  In addition to the chili, baked beans, pulled pork, mac and cheese, and other restorative foods, there is free beer from Ipswich Ale Brewery, a live band, and massage tables.  Some of the crew headed off for the port-a-potty, but I made a beeline for the beer truck.  We were tired but satisfied.  The true heroes today were Lee-Ann and Melissa, both of whom rowed the entire twenty-plus miles without a break, since neither is certified to steer the whaleboat.

'Polar Oartex' Crew for the 2017 Blackburn Challenge:
Beth, Melissa, Mark (in kilt), Greg, Lee-Ann, Kevin

While we drank beer, 'Action Hero' Dude did 100 push-ups after the race....
(photo credit: Donna Lind)

Unfortunately for us, the greatest challenge of the day still lay ahead.  While light-weight craft are carried off the beach at the finish, our whaleboat has to be hauled out at the ramp behind the high school, where we launched.  It is just a short row up the Blynman Canal.  But it is the Blynman Canal, a narrow gap originally cut in 1643 that now passes under a small draw bridge on Western Ave, not far from the Gloucester Mariner Monument.  It is less than six feet deep, and when the current runs fast through here it can be tricky and dangerous.  Marinas.com offers the following advice:

"Transiting the canal can be tricky for the uninitiated. Strong currents of up to four knots in speed can sweep through the canal, and there are two opening bridges to negotiate. Before you transit the canal, be sure that you have enough horsepower to overrun the current, and also make sure you have plenty of fuel and the engine is in tip-top shape. This is no place for the engine to give out; the results can be disastrous."

Capsizings are not unknown at the Blynman Canal.  In fact, some people go to 'Cut Bridge' just to watch for mishaps and to satisfy their schadenfreude.

Small Powerboat Capsized after "pitch-poling" in the Blynman Canal
(Photo Credit: "Another Dave")

That afternoon we faced a choice: wait around on the beach for a couple of hours until the current eased or slackened, or suck it up and power through an ebb current that was just then peaking at around 3.5 knots.  To put things in perspective: that was our average boat speed for much of the race that day.  The consensus of the crew was, "F**k it.  Let's get back to the house."  Since I was rested after steering the final leg of the race (and was already four beers in to my post-race revelry), I asked Mark to steer the boat up the narrow cut.  Our oars extended nearly the width of the small canal, leaving no room for error.  Mark had to keep the bow pointed directly into the on-rushing water, or it would have quickly sent us crashing into the canal sides.  Spectators watched from above, cheering us on.  Here is a link to a video of two guys in a dory rowing through the 'Cut Bridge' against the outgoing ebb tide that afternoon.  It is not us, but you get the idea.  When the draw bridge is raised, the waiting powerboats typically go through first.  But, as the Boston Sailing Center Cruising Guide warns, the prop wash they generate as they "gun their engines successively harder accelerat[es] the current under the bridge into a seething wash that can spin a boat sideways."  It ain't over until that's over.

Start to Finish: 17.7 Nautical Miles (20.4 Statue Miles)

We have rowed the Blackburn Challenge twice now, both times in good conditions.  It is an endurance row, to be sure.  But is not as hard, nor as exhausting, as a race like the Minot Light Roundabout off the coast of Cohasset -- where you pull in an all-out sprint for over four miles through some sizable waves and rough seas.  After that race, you simply cannot raise your arms.

Will we be back again?  Who knows.  Mark still wants to do the Blackburn in under four hours one day, while I would like to do it in a traditional banks dory.  We will see.  One thing I have learned: Never Say Never Again.....

Oartex Strong!

If you would like to see the various craft that participate in the Blackburn Challenge, here is a link to a video montage of this year's event, produced by Marty Luster.

18 July 2017

Bassetts Island

16 July 2017

Today, we took the kids on the boat for their biggest outing to-date: a day trip across Buzzards Bay to Bassetts Island, a sheltered anchorage on Cape Cod.  It was a good day.  The weather brought all the glory that forecasters had promised: sunny, in the low 80s.  There was ice cream.  There were laughs.  Everyone had a great time...for the most part.

Fog hangs over the cranberry bogs in the predawn twilight, as we go off to row....

The Admiral and I began our day at 0430, to make ready for a 0515 departure, in order to row at 0600 in New Bedford.  It was our final training row before next Saturday's Blackburn Challenge.  Rowing short-handed (one absent), we covered three nautical miles in fifty minutes.  With placid conditions next week, that would make for a five-hour Blackburn.  We will see.  Returning home, I picked up Lauryn and took her with me to collect and process water samples.  She wants to be a scientist (but a geologist, not a marine biologist).  Then, our duties fulfilled, we began prepping for the trip.

Since high tide that day was around 2:30pm, the kids' favorite spot, Long Beach, would be underwater.  We could have just gone there and anchored, beach or no beach.  But I thought, in light of the calm conditions, we might take them to a new spot.  Her kids are kind of conservative: they can be a bit stubborn, and don't always readily embrace new things.  So there was some initial resistance to overcome.  I proposed a day trip over to Bassetts Island, on the other side of Buzzards Bay.  "How long will that take?"  Well, its about seven nautical miles, so at an average speed of five-knots it should take us about an hour and a half.  OMG.  How they moaned and howled!  You would think we were asking them to round the Horn....

'Rounding the Horn'
(Montague Dawson, 1895-1973)

Bassetts Island is a popular boating destination on Cape Cod.  It offers an excellent sheltered anchorage, and access to some really fine beaches.  I announced we would tow the new dinghy with us, in case anyone wanted to explore the island or lay on the beach.  But it was only when I told Dylan that the island was shaped like a "fidget spinner" that he got interested.  Nestled between Wings Neck and Scraggy Neck in NE Buzzards Bay, the three-armed spit of land  provides a protective barrier outside Red Brook Harbor, near the towns of Pocasset and Cataumet.

Upper Buzzards Bay

Mentioned in many guides, Red Brook Harbor is a choice stopover for many cruisers transiting the Cape Cod Canal, and some opt to spend a day or two at anchor here.  The largest full-service marina on Cape Cod, Kingman Yacht Center, is located there.  At the Chart Room, a hugely popular local watering hole, you might as well buy two or three drinks at once, since the line can be so lengthy.

I went down to the boat early and brought it to the dock when the Admiral arrived with the kids, having learned well my docking lessons of the other week.  "Well, that was better than last time," Dylan muttered under his breath, as he climbed aboard at shrouds.

The trip over was fun.  Dylan lay on the foredeck, and almost fell asleep to the rocking of the waves.  He had been up half the night playing Minecraft online, after we went to bed.  As a precaution, I had him come sit or lay in the cockpit.  Lauryn took the tiller and steered the boat.  She was very engaged and drove with confidence.

I tried to coach her, pointing out landmarks towards which to steer.  But she only said that she was steering for them already.  I tried to advise her to watch the water surface for lobster pots or even people's heads.  She scoffed at that.  "Why would there be people in the water out here?"  Well, sometimes a small boat or kayak capsizes, and the person becomes separated from the craft.  It happens not uncommonly -- you hear it with some regularity over the VHF or in the news.  I asked her if she knew any 'Rules of the Road' for boating.  Her approach was to keep going and see if the other person moves, and to turn at the last minute if he didn't.  Hmmmm; she starts driving soon.  I suggested it was important to keep her head on a swivel, looking forward, to both sides, as well as astern.  "Why?" she said.  "I can see just fine."

No sooner had I spoken than I looked astern (out of habit), and what I saw confused me.  Trailing behind the boat was the dingy painter.  That's odd, I thought.  A moment later I realized why it was so odd.  Looking astern, I spied a familiar object floating on the waves about a hundred feet behind the boat.  "We lost the dinghy!" I cried, and jumped to relieve Lt. Stepdaughter at the helm.  Lauryn hauled in the line, which I assumed had failed under the strain.  Much to my chagrin, I discovered the line was intact -- it was my knot that had failed!  Well, that pleased the Admiral immensely.  "How ironic!" she hooted gleefully.  "The Knot-Nazi's knot came undone.  THIS has got to go in that stupid blog!"

What followed next was a deeply gratifying pseudo-MOB recovery drill.  I turned the boat around and returned to the drifting dinghy.  Dylan went and got the boat-hook, and the Admiral leaned on the coaming and caught the dinghy with the hook.  Then I gave the helm to Lauryn, and moved over to retie the painter to the bow of the dinghy as it bobbed up and down in the waves against the side of the boat.  "What kind of knot did he use, Dylan?" quizzed the Admiral.  "Bowline!" Dylan said after a quick look.  "He tied a bowline."  "What knot did you use before?" she then asked me.  "I thought I tied an anchor hitch," I replied.  "I guess not," she smiled with satisfied smugness.

The kids were visibly excited when we crossed the shipping channel leading to the western canal approach.  The waves were still very moderate, though a bit bigger, and the kids were keeping sharp watch for boat traffic.  While there were sailboats and powerboats, of all sizes, with which to contend,  fortunately there was no large commercial traffic.  As we approached the shores of the Cape, they began to check out various million-dollar waterfront houses.  The southern half of Bassetts Island is owned by the town, and publicly accessible.  The northern end is private property; a few years ago, five of the eight homes there were up for sale -- an interested party could have bought up most of the island for about $5 million.

I don't know much about the history of Bassetts Island.  In the mid-ninetieth century, grain mills dotted the banks of Red Brook, on the Cape, where "the flour is celebrated, and commands an extra price" (Frederick Freeman, 1869, The History of Cape Cod: The Annals of the Thirteen Towns of Barnstable County, Vol II, Boston: W.H. Piper).  The island may have been named after the Bassetts, an old family that settled in the region in the 1600.  Barachiah Bassett (1732-1813) moved to nearby Falmouth in the mid-1700s.  An officer in the Continental Army, he served in the Fort Ticonderoga campaign (1758), and in Nova Scotia (1760), and was with Washington at Valley Forge (1777-78), before taking command of the brig, 'Falmouth' (3 guns, 30 men), in 1782.  I'd like to think the island has something to do with him, if only because it makes for a more interesting story.  According to the Bullshitters Bible, you simply need to say something with confidence for people to believe you -- Trump does it all the time.

As you approach Bassetts Island, a long stretch of beautiful beach beckons.  But the water there, on the western side, is shoal and just a few feet deep at low tide.  Only powerboats anchor there, and not too many of them.  The preferred anchorage is on the eastern side of the island.

The problem is that one must take a circuitous route to the anchorage, supposedly at "No Wake" speed, which could mean a trip of about 25 minutes just from the edge of Buzzards Bay in to Red Brook Harbor.  To get there, one takes either the (busier) southern channel that skirts a shallow sandbar, or the (less traveled) zig-zagging northern channel.  Regardless of your choice, everyone is warned to remain extra vigilant, as many submerged rocks and sandy shoals lay just outside the channel boundaries.

We took the northern channel in and picked our way forward into an anchorage already crowded with boats of all sizes.  A couple of other vessels (including one group of five powerboats rafted together) prevented us from getting closer to the beach, and we eventually dropped the hook in thirteen-feet of water just after 12:00 noon.  Knowing the bottom was sandy with some eelgrass -- not ideally suited for the Danforth-style anchor we had deployed -- I instructed the crew on how to take bearings for an anchor watch, and how to know if we started to drag anchor.  That turned out to be rather prescient.

Anchored off the eastern side of Bassetts Island

The water here is nice -- clear and relatively clean.  Outer Red Brook Harbor scores 63 (out of 100) in the Bay Health index maintained by the Buzzards Bay Coalition.  By contrast, Long Beach on the Wareham River scores 59, while our mooring area on the Weweantic River scores only a 47.  Visibility was nearly two meters, whereas at the mooring I am lucky when it is two feet.

Looking east, toward Pocasset

I put up the awning to shield us a bit from the sun, and the musty smell seemed to have been a game-changer for Lauryn, who became more quiet and moody as the afternoon progressed.  We jumped off the boat to enjoy a swim in the cool refreshing waters.  Dylan demonstrated his ability to climb into the dinghy from the water, a feat the Admiral and I both fear is beyond our reach.  He also tried his hand at rowing for a bit, until the winds picked up and he returned to the mothership.  We snacked on cherries and grapes and apples, and a lunch of BLTs (at least for some of us).  Then the Ice Cream Boat came by, I flagged them over, and Dylan and I both enjoyed some ice cream.

Red Brook Harbor Ice Cream Boat at Bassetts Island

At some point in the afternoon, the Admiral, Dylan, and I all noticed that we seemed to have drifted a bit, our position shifting to leeward of where we originally anchored.  Then the beeping of the anchor alarm (set to 50 feet) confirmed our fears that the anchor had started to drag.  The Admiral fired up the motor, we nosed ahead a little bit and re-set the anchor.  I carry a spare anchor, a plow-design more suitable for this type of bottom, in the V-berth, and decided I would deploy it if the fluke-design failed again to hold.  We were anchored amidst some pretty large neighbors, and I really couldn't afford to meet them under cheerless circumstances.

S/V Aura, a 50-foot blue-water cruiser from Australia, anchored on our starboard beam

Around 3:00, we decided to get underway for the 90-minute journey home.  The Admiral had to go off to work the next morning, and wanted to have dinner before 6:00; before we departed the house, I had promised to have her back to the mooring by 5pm.  By this time, Lauryn had disappeared into the cabin with her phone.  I consulted Dylan about our return track -- back out the northern channel or take the southern channel and circumnavigate the island?  He opted for the more direct northern route.  "We'll do the other one another time," he said.  Ah, I thought.  He wants to come back....

Rafting Up: a group of powerboats tied up alongside each other while at anchor.
These covfefes can get pretty loud and raucous

As we made our way southwest to the mouth of the northern channel, where it meets Buzzards Bay, we were greeted in the face by the southwesterly wind and waves so characteristic of afternoon conditions on the Bay.  Even before we rounded Wings Neck, the boat was crashing head-on through some three or four foot waves, throwing spray in our faces.  Meanwhile, we had to keep an eye on -- and steer clear of -- other traffic.  Boats of all sizes, much larger than us and even some much smaller than us, were criss-crossing the waters between Wings Neck and Scraggy Neck.  The Admiral was surprised by the number of small boats we saw, many of them filled with people who wore no life jackets.  Quite a few of them had deep open cockpits and low gunwales.  "I would never be out here in these conditions in a boat like that," she said with some concern.

The "Buzzards Bay Boy's Boat," a Herreshoff 12

What we were looking at were Herreshoff 12.5 sailboats, or replicas thereof, a rather ubiquitous sight throughout the harbors and mooring fields of Buzzards Bay and New England in general.  They were designed in 1914 by the famous naval architect, Captain Nathanael "Ned" Herreshoff (1848-1938), who produced an unprecedented six consecutive winning boats for the America's Cup races, as well as some of the world's finest yachts.  The twelve-footer, despite its small size (only half as big as Piao), is an exceptionally seaworthy boat: buoyant and stable (with a 700-lb lead keel), it features a deep cockpit that comfortably fits a crew of four, yet is easy to single-hand.  Conceived specifically as a sail training vessel for youngsters, it is safe and forgiving -- especially for the inexperienced -- and handles well in the strong winds and steep chop of Buzzards Bay.  The H12 is widely regarded as one of the finest small boat designs, a "perfect boat," and its enduring popularity is unparalleled.  For about $20,000-$30,000, you can have one custom-built for you by Artisan Boatworks in Maine, or get a fiberglass replica 'Doughdish' ("dodici," or 'twelve') made by Ballentine's Boat Shop in Cataumet.  The Buzzards Yacht Club in Pocasset has a fleet of H12s, which race regularly off Wings Neck.  They are surprisingly fast.  We had a hard time getting ahead of one of them: he was sailing on a beam reach through the waves while we were motoring at full throttle into head seas.

An H12 at the Herreshoff Marine Museum Sailing School

I had Dylan take the helm, and he drove the boat into the rough chop, crashing through waves that sent spray back to the cockpit.  He was grinning, face wet, eyes wide.  "I'm a little scared," he confided, but stayed at his post for the duration of the crossing.  This was his longest trip yet, and the roughest, but he performed admirably well and gained a great deal of confidence and experience.  About two-thirds of the way across, he observed how conditions had calmed considerably.  I pointed out how we had passed into the lee of Bird Island, and were now a bit sheltered from the wind and waves.  "Well, that's good to know," he concluded emphatically.

Meanwhile, Lauryn lay in the cabin, growing increasingly queasy, and refusing to wear her life jacket.  Both the Admiral and I pressed her to put on the inflatable PFD, to come up and sit in the cockpit, fix her eyes on the horizon, eat some crackers, and drink some water or carbonated soda.  But she steadfastly refused.  Even Dylan encouraged her.  "I made that mistake once.  You are gonna get sick."  But Lauryn was adamant that she would feel better down in the cabin, and insisted she didn't need anything to drink.  And that life jacket was just too "annoying" to wear.

When we got back to the dock (precisely at 5:00), Lauryn headed straight for the car and didn't look back.  While the Admiral and kids headed home to shower and change, I took the boat back to the mooring and buttoned her up.  Finally, back at the house, I fixed myself a double 'Dark and Stormy' and sat down to a bacon cheeseburger of my own making -- yet one more thing that Lauryn found annoying.

Oh well.  Must be the age....

11 July 2017

Lows to Highs

9 July 2017

The south coast of Massachusetts rode a sine curve of weather this last weekend.  A storm system moved through the region on Friday, bringing torrential rains that lasted most of the afternoon and flooded some streets on Cape Cod.  There were images on the evening news of motorists abandoning their vehicles amid rising waters in a few towns on the Cape.

Severe thunderstorms caused this flash flood in West Dennis, on Cape Cod

Saturday began overcast and gnarly.  At dawn, our whaleboat team endured a three-hour training row, battling 17-knot winds and 3-foot waves as we fought our way out beyond Clarks Point and back.  Seasickness claimed one teammate, who was unable to row effectively on the way out and incapacitated on the way back; a chronic respiratory problem made it painful and difficult for another teammate to pull with her usual strength.  We covered 7.7 nautical miles in two hours forty-eight minutes, averaging only 2.7 knots -- slower than the average boat speed of 3.0 knots that we must maintain if we want to complete the upcoming 20-mile Blackburn Challenge (now less than two weeks away) within the six-hour time limit (and much less than the 4.5 knots we must make to do it in under four hours).

Saturday Morning Slog: 0600-0900
Wind and Waves were out of the Southwest

That was discouraging.  But it was also a bit of a wakeup call: our team is down two regular members due to injuries and we have not trained as hard as last year ahead of the Blackburn.  Maybe we had some hubris.  I dunno.  The team prides itself on endurance rowing, and we have no choice but to finish: unlike a lot of the smaller dories that row the Blackburn, it is not possible for us to haul out our 1000-pound, 28-foot whaleboat anywhere along the coast of Cape Ann.  Once we start, we must complete the trip back to Gloucester, where our boat trailer will be parked.  Of course, if the situation becomes untenable, we can always call TowBoatUS for assistance.

The other week our whaleboat team found a disabled powerboat sitting for hours in the middle of the navigation channel outside the New Bedford Hurricane Barrier (they had no radio aboard to call for help).  We offered to help, and we so towed it back into the harbor.  We figured, if they used to tow dead whales in these boats, we can tow a powerboat.  The local TowBoatUS guy was not pleased when he saw us row by his dock....

By Sunday, a high pressure system had moved in and pushed the low out to sea, bringing a glorious day of sunshine: clear skies, air temp 80-degrees, water temp 75-degrees.  Our two-hour training row (0600-0800) was a very different event: even though short-handed, we rowed out and back to Butler Flats Light, covering 5.0nm in well under two hours, averaging 3.0 knots (even including several rest breaks for traffic or to rotate positions at the oars).

On a day like this, you can see a procession of vessels exiting New Bedford harbor around 7:00am.  Our club president, here taking a turn steering, likes to row in a kilt and beard.

That Sunday, the Admiral had to take her 15-year-old daughter had to go to work (at a local ice cream stand).  Like many Millennials, the latter is still of the opinion that when you have to go to work at 11:00, that means you leave the house at 11:00 to go to work.  When the Admiral returned, she ordered all remaining personnel to prepare to go to sea.  That brought howls of protest from my erstwhile 13-year-old First Mate, who was much looking forward to spending the entire summer day indoors on the computer playing Minecraft.

Minecraft Battle....

I headed down early to prep the boat and ready lines and fenders to pick up the Admiral and Mate at Dexter's Dock.  It took me twenty minutes to bail out the dinghy, which was filled with rainwater from Friday's storm.  My crew arrived just before Noon, and I cast off to motor over to pick them up at the dock.  Then the fun began.

I had rigged dock lines on the bow, stern, and port quarter (spring line).  The wind was gusting out of the west, blowing the boat away from the dock, and I had to make a second approach before I could maneuver in successfully.  I tossed a long spring line to the Admiral, on the dock, and told her to run it forward to the cleat on the dock near the bow of the boat.  That was a mistake.  Before I could go forward and toss her the bow line (which is too short to run back to the cockpit), the wind started to blow the bow of the boat off the dock.  With the fulcrum so far aft, the pivot brought the stern inwards towards the dock.  I had no fender there, although fortunately the dock has an old fire hose as padding.

My Docking Covfefe....

Then the boat began to slide backwards a little bit along the dock, the stern working its way toward the corner of the dock, where a metal ladder is attached.  The outboard motor is mounted on the port side of the transom (unlike the center-mounted motor in the above illustration), and was getting precariously close to being crushed on the dock.  Suddenly, the outboard abruptly shut off.

"You must have hit the ladder!" the Admiral cried.  But I thought I would have heard and felt such a clash of metal.  Instead, I assumed a line fouled in the propeller.  Sure enough, unbeknownst to us, there was a white rope submerged in the water, tied to the bottom of the ladder.  I am not sure why the rope was there, only that it is there no longer.  As I raised the motor out of the water, the Admiral climbed down the ladder, rigging knife clenched in her teeth, and proceeded to free the line tangled tightly around the propeller.  Dylan and I were dutifully impressed.

Dylan thinks his Mom is a real "Badass."
He bought her this patch one year for Christmas....

After straightening the boat alongside the dock, I had the Admiral climb aboard at the shrouds.  Then I slipped the lines and we headed off.  But, wow, what an experience.  Imagine if the prop had fouled in a situation like that and I did not have any dock lines secured to the boat.  It could have been bad.  There didn't seem to be anyone around watching, but keep your eyes on YouTube -- maybe someone caught the entire fiasco on camera.

What I think I should have done: Rig a spring line at the bow, running it aft to the dock cleat near the stern.  This would have kept the bow snug against the dock.

Drama behind us, we drove the boat over to one of our favorite spots, Wareham's Long Beach: a sandy bar in the river that is submerged at high tide.  I know from my work with the Buzzards Bay Coalition that the water quality in the Outer Wareham River is much better than that of the Outer Weweantic, where we moor the boat.  The kids love to come here, as it is not accessible by car.  Its a short, 20-minute ride in the boat if motoring (at 5kts).  It is usually not a very crowded beach....

We pulled around to the sheltered cove on the northern side of the Long Beach Bar, and Dylan turned the boat into the wind to slow it to a stop as I went forward and dropped the anchor.  "Can't you go any closer?" the Admiral asked.  "Look at those other boats right in there by the beach."  We were still about a hundred yards offshore, but the depth finder was reading only five feet of water -- and there were still another 90-minutes until Low Tide.  The small powerboats right up by the beach draw only a few inches of water, whereas Piao draws 2'4" with the centerboard up.  I tossed the old fashioned lead line to double check the depth, and decide it best to stay where we were.  At the turn of the tide, we had only about a foot of water under the keel.

That was still cutting it close.  'Powerboats' + 'Wareham' really don't mix well -- its a volatile, even dangerous, combination.  The "Vikings" of Wareham are not particularly known for their courtesy and consideration.  A lot of powerboats, large and small, run full-throttle up and down the short stretch of river to the Narrows, often throwing up big wakes with utter disregard for (or maybe even overt aggression toward) small boaters, kayakers, and paddle-boarders.  Sometimes, the really big wakes can violently rock boats anchored just out of the channel at Long Beach.  We were fortunate to avoid a keel pounding that day.

Unfortunately, I inadvertently sat on my ham and cheese sandwich and squashed it....

One final note: the inflatable dinghy has a leak -- a puncture below the waterline likely made last year by the "Mysterious Vandal."  So I recently pulled it from the water and replaced it with my spare dinghy -- doesn't everyone have a spare?  When I bought the sailboat, the $1000 deal included a three-seat hard-shell plastic dory, equipped with some nice cloth padding all-around the gunwales.

The spare dinghy, "Bail Out," at Long Beach.
Dylan suggests we rename it, "Over Bored."  Fine First Mate, there....

Thus far I had been reluctant to use it.  When climbing in or our, it is not as stable as the inflatable.  It is, however, much easier to row: its pointed prow slices through the water much more efficiently than the square-bow inflatable.  This dinghy also tows perfectly well behind the sailboat.  Dylan and I have become pretty adept at climbing in and out of the new dinghy without making it too wobbly -- he can even climb in from the water.  But the Admiral is not.  I have been ordered to have the inflatable repaired, ASAP.