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March 23, 2020     Post 113
More Boating Memories

For those of you stuck inside on a raw late March day too cold for the boatyard or a beach walk the Lake Ontario Log is putting up some not too serious material from my sailing memoir about my years with Sara B the little schooner. (The book is listed for sail on my Etsy shop Lake Ontario items and there are additional stories about Sara B posted on her website sarab.brownroad.com)

This passage details Sara B's maiden voyage with us as we attempt to extract her from Gotham's grip in mid November of 2004 by way of Rockaway Inlet and transport her to her new home.

Once clear of the marshes and in open water the urge to get sail on the old boat was irresistible. The brisk wind was offshore so the water was flat except for a slight swell-perfect conditions for three lubbers to try schooner sailing. It was about noon and our destination was only about ten miles away, so we figured we had plenty of time to sail. And it would be wonderful not to listen to the noise of the motor while breathing fumes from the very leaky exhaust manifold which had filled the cabin below with a thick blue haze. Long after the cruise, the clothes I had taken aboard retained the distinctive fragrance of diesel exhaust and fuel.

We hoisted sail working from back to front, though we decided in view of the fresh breeze that sang in our rigging, that the outer jib wasn't needed. No one wanted to climb out on the jib boom to take the sail cover off anyway. Sara B leaned to the wind and went to work with a will marching along over the easy swell. We monitored the bilge pumps anxiously and stayed within a mile or so of shore and were reassured to see no dramatic increase in The Leak. It's only twenty feet deep here, we told ourselves. If she goes down on an even keel, the top of the mainmast will still be above water. We can hang on to that until someone rescues us.

The sea foamed and hissed away from her bows, and we listened to the mournful sigh of the wind through her rig. It was a deeper more somber sound than that heard aboard our fiberglass sloop.

With no jib up forward Sara B had a bit of a weather helm, but otherwise her behavior was exemplary. We were thrilled with our little ship and our joy of sailing her for the first time on a wintery afternoon chased away the chill. We took turns steering, and Toby and I each made a trip forward to stand braced against the foremast with an arm around it, where we could listen to the surge and rumble of her bow wave and feel her lift to the swell. What a grand little ship we cried in delight. Look at her go! We hugged the mast tightly as we stood on the slanted deck and gazed aloft at her twin mastheads and at Old Glory streaming against the cold cloudless sky, and before we knew it, her effortless glide had carried us to the entrance of Sheepshead Bay.

We would have kept sailing gladly, but already at 3:30 the sun was growing low, and the cold was getting sharper. Days are short in mid November. So we furled her white wings, fired up the engine, and thumped up the channel to the calm anchorage behind Coney Island where a surprising number of boats were still afloat. We picked up an empty mooring and settled in for the night.

Surrounded by apartments, sirens, traffic, and all the intensely urban activity of Brooklyn, Sara B spent her first night on the road to a new life. She had left her quiet little hole with its electric outlet behind Gene's house forever, and I couldn't help but wonder how the move to fresh water would work out for the old girl. She seemed willing enough to give it a try. So far.

We set out before sunrise to catch the tide for a long day of diesel powered travel. Two planets gleamed against the clear dawn sky in the east while above them Orion, the winter hunter, faded. As the sun peeped over the horizon astern we passed Coney Island, its roller coaster, the Wonder Wheel, and the parachute tower (the Eiffel tower of Brooklyn) all painted a rosy pink by the dawn light, and made the corner at the Narrows. Now, we had the tide with us, pushing us along, and as the old engine thumped a steady beat, our speed rose from 4.5 to 5 and then to 5.5.

We passed a ship anchorage where a bright orange tanker of Chinese registry was getting underway. The strong smell of some sort of volatile chemical vapors reached us as we passed her a respectful distance to leeward. We thought perhaps her English name Optimistic Sunshine may have lost something in translation, but we took it as a good sign. By the time we passed Lady Liberty on her island, we were doing six knots and were feeling downright hopeful. Soon, we would again be within a half mile of shore.

By 10 am we were passing lower Manhattan, location of the South Street Seaport, one time home to Sara B. Gene had told us a previous owner had lived aboard her year-around there at his place of employment where he worked as a museum shipkeeper. We wondered if Sara B would miss the bustle and traffic of her old home's tidal waters by the big city. Thinking of the cracked lodging knee I'd noticed back aft along with several large putty filled areas on her well worn topsides and of the almost constant three foot ferry wakes slamming ashore against the steel bulkheads here, I thought perhaps she won't miss it too much. She certainly was chugging along with a will heading on up the river. But how quiet and dull the waters of tide-less Lake Ontario might seem to her.

The sheer vitality of New York's waterfront intrigued us. New York's harbor, a world port since the 1600s still is a place of ships, tugs, barges, fishing boats, workboats, tour boats, and ferries all constantly on the go, to and fro. We had visited the Seaport Museum three years before while cruising with Titania. We had walked the decks of the great steel Cape Horner, the German built Peking. She had been one of the very last commercial sailing ships launched, and had sailed in the South American nitrate trade up until about 1932.

Hers had been a grueling unforgiving task, and we had gazed up at the old veteran's lofty rig here in safe harbor and tried to imagine men working up there in the freezing air of sixty mile an hour Cape Horn gales. The old ship's spars and rigging seen against the contrasting backdrop of Wall Street's gleaming sky scrapers had haunted me that day as we rode the ferry back to Sandy Hook. This veteran of many a voyage, presently so stationary and still as a mere 'artifact', and her many contemporaries, had helped lay the foundations for much of the unimaginable wealth of Manhattan's financial district by carrying cargoes through calm and storm around the globe.

Now, she and her sisters for all their wealth building, were largely forgotten by the busy big city. Only Peking and her companion barque the Wavertree remained afloat on the waterfront, silent specters from the past, survivors of the very last days of the age of sail.

The sun rose higher and took the edge off the chill as Sara B plugged along past the ferry terminals, the rotting and broken piers where once the grandest ocean liners in the world had docked, and continued on her way to Yonkers and the Pallisades. The 79th Street Boat Basin where we had spent a night with Titania passed astern, and I snapped a shot of the Empire State building in the distance. We passed a ferry unloading.

A stream of office workers like a line of black ants marched ashore in single file each with a briefcase, each busy with thoughts of the day's deals to be made. Two hundred yards away in another reality, three anxious travelers upon a wide and empty river were trying their best to get a slowly sinking schooner delivered to her new home. A million people lived and worked within a half mile of us and none of them cared. The city and the vast indifference of its sea of humanity to us felt a bit like the open ocean's neutrality toward human struggle.

The day warmed up and grew soft and sweet as only those rare last few Indian summer days of late fall can be. The engine kept chugging and Sara B kept floating, and above Haverstraw Bay the Hudson became increasingly scenic. We began to think she might make it.

It had been 400 years since Henry Hudson in his search for that short cut to China ascended the waterway we now followed . The Hudson has been called America's first river, (Verrazano briefly poked his prow into it way back in 1524) and there are old Dutch founded settlements here dating back into the early 1600s and much military and early U.S. History here. Carl Carmer in the American River's series wrote of its one time unspoiled beauty as seen from the deck of a Hudson River sloop that rode the tides and wind up fiord like reaches as we now did.

He wrote of a quieter time when a sloop captain could call out and hear “seventeen wood nymphs” answer his shout within the highlands corridor near West Point. Today, the echoes would be overcome by the roar of the commuter and freight trains that run down both sides of the river. He also wrote of still June nights when the splashes of mighty sturgeon jumping from the river and then falling back carried across the water, while hundreds of fireflies settled on the travelers' rigging to produce shimmering chains of light. On this serene mild November afternoon as we neared Storm King Mountain, Anthony's Nose, and West Point, we traveled alone. One tug bustled by, and on shore a couple of hikers waved to us as our solitary schooner swam slowly upriver still boosted along by the flood tide.

We carried our tide for nearly the whole day to just below West Point, where we anchored near shore near slack water under a tiny hook of land that would shelter us from the turning tidal current. It was very still as we lowered our anchor into the mud. Only the quiet hum of a nearby sewage plant disturbed the fast cooling twilight.

We toasted the old diesel, took a short row with the dinghy to admire our little ship, and ate dinner from a can in the cabin where warmth from the engine lingered. We then went to bed at 7 pm. We arose early the next day to catch the flood and were passing West Point by breakfast time. As I viewed the massive fortress- like academy carved out of rock under the looming heights by the water, I thought of that tradition of honor and service to country that it had so long fostered. I looked up at the flag overhead flying off the main mast truck, and felt humbled and grateful to the graduates of West Point who had fought for the land and freedoms I now enjoyed.

Just above West Point we passed a small green hulled wooden Hudson River sloop, the Woodie Guthrie, an associate of folk singer- activist Pete Seegar's better known sloop Clearwater. The Clearwater was launched in 1969 and has since taken tens of thousands of people out on the water for a closer look at a beautiful but sorely besieged waterway.

The modern day working sloop Clearwater's cargo is people. Her work is making them care. She has done well, for her efforts have inspired a veritable fleet of other ships and boats that seek to promote environmental awareness for our waterways.

Sara B's journey ended at Jeff's Yacht Haven on Roundout Creek by the old city of Kingston. We tied up, and the brothers went off in Toby's truck to retrieve the vehicle left in Freeport. As commanded the day before, I phoned Gene to report our safe arrival. There was a touch of emotion in the crusty old salt's voice as he said, “I'm so glad you called.” And when I told him the old boat had made it with no problems, he said, “Of course she did! She's a good boat.”

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