As I look out my back window watching the snow gradually cover the backyard, the radiator emits a reassuring hiss of heat that warms me to the bone. Although it’s only mid-afternoon, the distant sun, a white-gold disc, shines dimly through the low clouds. The silvery light outside seems to come from everywhere at once, filtered through the clouds and reflecting off the thick blanket of wet snow. With snow covering every twig with white frosting, the world looks like it’s made of spun sugar.
As I start to daydream, everything seems translucent and surreal. The radiator’s warmth takes me right back to the long hot days of last summer’s sailing season—a beautiful time spent mostly on OPBs (other people’s boats). I recall the passage Troy Sill and I made to Block Island, Rhode Island, on his Columbia sloop Willful.
Smooth sailing to Block Island
In 2016, we spent a week or so touring a few of the small towns along western Long Island Sound. We were happy to hang out on the boat awhile but not very ambitious about traveling far and wide. In 2018, though still severely limited in terms of time, we wanted to push our horizons farther east and planned to head for Block Island in one shot, knowing it would take us at least 24 hours to get there. Planning to sail right through the night and arrive sometime after daybreak the next day, we left early in the morning on the last day of July.
It was almost dead calm when we dropped the mooring in New Rochelle. We motor-sailed for a while across glassy smooth water in the early morning haze. Then, the wind picked up and blew a sweet, steady 10- to 12-knot southwesterly all day long. The sun was warm and bright but not blistering. Steering was a pleasure, leaning back into a cushion propped against the cockpit coaming and taffrail. The captain kept busy in the galley, feeding me breakfast and then sandwiches and drinks all day. He did his share of the steering as well, while all I had to do was soak it all in and go below for a nap when I was tired. The sun rose before us, marched to the meridian high up in the south and slowly set behind us. The day was gone before we knew it, but half a year later, the pleasant memory seems as if it all happened just a few minutes ago.
If anything, the night was even sweeter. It was still warm and clear, and the wind kept up as steady as an old friend, making steering a pure, easy joy. Troy had cooked up some stew before sundown and kept food and drink coming into the cockpit all night long. The moon shined its bright light down on the sound from sunset until it sank below the western horizon, a few hours before dawn. I remember feeling like this was all going to be over too soon, that I was going to be sad when we arrived. The only thing steadier than the wind was the captain, relieving me before I got tired, so I alternated between steering through that beautiful starry night and napping below—sleeping the sleep only sailors on a passage know. Sleeping underway in those conditions is magical—with no worries and no noise except the gurgle of water passing the hull. The boat’s motion is as gentle as a baby’s cradle. I woke up in a different state of consciousness, with a quiet sense of purpose and no hurry. It was like waking up in a different age, centuries ago, when people had time to just live.
The eastern end of Long Island Sound is a special place with wide vistas. From the middle of Block Island Sound, we could see Plum Island and Orient Point behind us to the west in the last moonlight well before dawn. Fishers Island and the Connecticut and Rhode Island shore were visible to the north, and Gardiner’s Island and Montauk Point could be seen far away to the south. For a long time, Block Island appeared as a faint glow on the eastern horizon. Beyond “Block,” as we started calling it, was the limitless Atlantic Ocean.
Of course, we were lucky to have such easy, favorable conditions for the whole 120-mile passage with only two crew aboard a 27-foot sailboat. The calm and quiet conspired to put us in the perfect state of mind to be utterly transported by the long-awaited dawn.
We caught sight of the Block Island shore before sunup. At first an indistinct mass on the fuzzy horizon, it became unmistakable in the glow of the coming sun. When the sun rose above the horizon, the island emerged into the pristine light of a brand new day. By this time, the Block Island North Lighthouse stood out clearly at the north end of the island, and it wasn’t long before we heard and saw the red number 2 bell buoy at the entrance to Great Salt Pond, the island’s main yacht harbor. We cranked up the engine and motored in.
It’s a small harbor—barely a mile from end to end. The place seemed totally deserted and eerily quiet at such an early hour, although hundreds of pleasure craft of all sizes and descriptions slept on anchors and moorings. We had arrived.
Anticlimactic arrival begets pleasant adventures
Block Island has a certain cachet to those from Long Island, lower Westchester or City Island.
If you can get there in your sailboat, you can claim all Long Island Sound as your personal cruising ground. Or so it seemed to us. After dreaming of making this passage for years, we reveled in the accomplishment and bought a pennant showing the island’s outline (no need for any writing) to prove our membership in the exclusive Block-and-back club. For the moment, we furled the sails and motored up to the deserted fuel dock where we strolled up and down, savoring our victory.
Everybody on Block Island seemed to be asleep. We tried to raise the port captain and two or three marinas by VHF and cellphone but got no answer. Every single one of the several hundred moorings in the protected harbor was occupied, and there was no sign of life anywhere. The wind was calm and the sky clear. We had traveled all night from New Rochelle Municipal Marina in about 22 hours. Although we had just completed an epic voyage of historic significance, it was a bit anticlimactic.
Finally, a teenager showed up to open the marina office and fuel dock. He told us to motor around the mooring field and wait for somebody to leave. That was the system.
We got back on the boat and started motoring slowly back and forth through the fleet. We noticed two or three other bigger, more expensive boats also idling back and forth. Although a brass band would have been a more appropriate welcome, we bore it all like the intrepid salty dogs we’d proved ourselves to be.
Then, the engine died. Why are so many of my salty dog stories punctuated by this fateful phrase? I would have left it out of this story altogether, except that it led to further, mostly pleasant, adventures.
When attempts to restart the engine failed, we whipped out the sails and focused on maintaining steerageway in the cramped, crowded mooring field. A glance in the bilge revealed a ghastly quantity of engine oil, which led us to fear catastrophic engine trouble. Poor Troy wondered if he would lose his beloved Willful, as the cost of replacing an engine could be more than the lovely modest craft was worth.
With no moorings available and anchoring proving impossible, we finally reached the port captain, who put us on a private mooring while we waited for help. We got towed about 10 miles to Point Judith, where we spent the night and came across the most honest, decent, competent and unassuming pair of diesel mechanics it has ever been our pleasure to meet. They replaced the minor leaky gasket, refilled the engine oil, cleaned out the bilge, gave us free dockage for the night and sent us on our way, all for a couple hundred bucks.
After a lovely dinner and a big breakfast the next morning in Point Judith, we set sail right back to Block Island so we could conquer the place properly.
We docked alongside the pier. Although a bit touristy, Block Island has great restaurants and beautiful saltwater vistas. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, and so were we. We went to some of the tourist trinket boutiques and bought souvenirs—a thing I would never do normally—but on this occasion, we felt a special need for anything that said “Block Island” on it. Although we landed intent on conquest and booty, I fear the onshore pirates made out better than we did. We stayed a couple of days and loved every minute.
The remainder of our week aboard left us ample time to make our way home in leisurely fashion, with a stop or two along the way for showers, restaurant dinners and a good night’s sleep. I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer vacation, and the memories will keep us warm for many a cold winter’s day. Let it snow.