By Paul Gray
In early fall, my friend Al Bezanson used to sail Green Dragon, a small wooden schooner he’s had since 1963, down south to the Chesapeake for the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. After spending the winter in Norfolk, Virginia, Green Dragon would head north to cruise the Massachusetts and Maine coasts all summer long.
One year I joined Al and Jay Irwin for the return trip north. We planned to leave Norfolk early on a Friday, round Cape Charles, sail directly to Montauk and head into Mystic, Connecticut, sometime on Sunday, sailing nonstop for about 60 hours.
After taking an early train out of Trenton, New Jersey, I rolled into Newport News, Virginia, at 1300. Al picked me up from the station, and we spent the afternoon preparing the boat.
He’d decided not to go directly to Montauk because he didn’t want to take Green Dragon that far offshore. Instead, we would run up along the coast and head into City Island, New York. From there, we’d head along Long Island Sound to Mystic, which would add two days to the trip. I told him I’d probably have to hop off in City Island, depending on timing.
The forecast called for 5- to 10-knot winds starting from the northeast and veering around to the southwest. We shoved off at 0800, motor sailed across the Chesapeake Bay and around Cape Charles, and headed up the coast. By early afternoon, the sea breezes allowed us to cut the engine and sail at around 6 knots.
The winds got lighter by evening, and we fired up the engine. We settled into our night watch-keeping routine with each person standing a solo three-hour watch while the other two slept. My first watch was between 0300 and 0600, so I headed below to get some sleep.
I had been woken by deteriorating weather several times before but never by the complete lack of weather!
I came on watch in the middle of a clear night. Far away from shore lights, every square inch of sky sparkled with stars, making the breathtaking view alone worth the trip.
Al headed below, and I stood watch with calm seas, a clear sky and not another boat in sight. After observing a glorious sunrise at sea, I woke Jay, turned over the watch and headed below for some sleep.
When I woke around noon, we were off the Delaware Bay with a freshening wind out of the southeast. We shut down the engine and continued north. If a wind could have been designed for our trip, this was it: enough to move us as fast as we could sail but not enough to make us worry about reducing sail. We rolled along at 6 to 7 knots past Cape May and Atlantic City.
By sunset, we found ourselves rolling through steepening seas. Just before dark, we reduced sail and fired up the engine as thunderstorms had been forecast overnight, and besides, our batteries needed charging.
When I came on deck for the midnight–0300 watch, the winds had diminished significantly. Our course had been converging with the coast, and we’d be off Barnegat Light at 0300. From there we’d sail parallel to the coast two to three miles offshore.
During the night, I’d had to alter course slightly to stay clear of tugs and fishing boats. After getting settled in on our new course, I woke Jay and went below to sleep.
I woke up an hour later and could sense no pitching, no rolling, no movement at all. We had to be moving, but I couldn’t feel anything. After a few minutes, I walked aft to satisfy my curiosity. A quick glance at the GPS showed us cruising along at 5½ knots.
The wind had died, and the sea had gone flat. Not a ripple in sight. I had been woken by deteriorating weather several times before but never by the complete lack of weather! I headed below for more sleep.
When I woke at 0630, we were at the southern end of Sandy Hook. An hour and a half ahead of schedule, we were fighting the last of the ebb tide current. We slowly worked our way under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and into the New York outer harbor. We continued north toward the East River, rendezvousing with a friend of Al’s off Governor’s Island. We crossed over to the Manhattan side of the East River so Al could say hello to some friends who worked at South Street Seaport.
By now the tide had turned in our favor, and we shot along the river, passing Roosevelt Island and moving into Hell Gate. This sharp elbow in the East River has a terrible reputation. A friend of mine had been told our boat would be spun around in circles if we tried to go through. Having been through Hell Gate many times, I knew differently. The big concern with Hell Gate and the whole East River is the tidal current. On a sailboat going 6 knots, a 4-knot adverse current makes for a long day. Time it right, and you can ride the current like a freight train to Long Island Sound.
By 1430, we moored at Stuyvesant Yacht Club on City Island’s west side. After pickup by the club launch, we grabbed showers and headed off to tour Al’s favorite City Island haunts. Then we had a great dinner at the club and headed back to the boat for a good night’s sleep.
Having decided to head home from City Island, I said my farewells and caught a launch at 0630. I made it home by 1100.
Al and Jay continued on and finally dropped anchor on the Mystic River north of Mystic Seaport Tuesday afternoon. We all agreed
A lifelong sailor, P/Lt/C Paul Gray, JN, of Delaware River Sail & Power Squadron/5 sails his 31-foot schooner Quintessence between Block Island, Rhode Island, and Cape Charles, Virginia. Active in the schooner community, he has participated in the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race for the past decade. Paul occasionally serves as watch captain aboard the 110-foot charter schooner Mystic Whaler out of New London, Connecticut.