Cruising in Buckman’s Wake

Story and photos by Bob Muggleston
For Points East

The summer of 2015 in New England was a beautiful thing, day after day of clear skies, moderate temperatures and relative low humidity while the rest of the country sizzled. And thoughts of a boating adventure – a very specific kind of boating adventure – crowded my head.

By mid-July the urge to do something had reached critical mass. It was now or never, I thought, and I’d even coined a term for the undertaking: An Epic Voyage Writ Small. What this involved, since the boats I owned were, at the time, dinghies or trailerable behind a midsized car, was a trip with heroic undertones, rather than straightforward heroism.

In other words, a trip across open water in a small vessel. It was my belief then, as it still is now, that anyone near a sizable body of water, even if it’s a relatively tame one, has access to untold adventure. And who doesn’t crave a little adventure now and then?

The push to finally act came from an unexpected source. “Bucking the Tide,” by Maine author David Buckman, is a book of gorgeous and often funny prose about exploring the coasts of Rhode Island, Maine and Nova Scotia aboard an 18-foot wooden Lightning. Eighteen feet instead of the original 19 because the stern was rotted enough that a foot of it had to be surgically removed. Buckman cruised for six years aboard the Leight, which “leaked like a White House aide,” and he happily lived aboard her for weeks at a time, cooking over Sterno cans and pulling beers out of the bilge.

I’ve always been a minimalist, happy to make due with other people’s discards, and happy to prove that something can be done when the consensus says otherwise. Then why not sail Tinkerbelle, my 20-foot daysailer, I thought, across Long Island Sound to Coecles Harbor on Shelter Island?  Coecles was a perfect jumping off point to explore the inside bays of Long Island – Shelter Sound, Little Peconic Bay and Great Peconic Bay.

Getting there would require an “open-ocean” crossing, and it would involve timing our passage through the notorious Plum Gut, the western entrance to Gardiner’s Bay, where adverse tide and standing waves have for centuries bedeviled mariners.

After reading Buckman’s book, which includes a pre-GPS Bay of Fundy crossing, my idea seemed tame by comparison. There was nothing for it but to do it. And beyond the adventure itself, the three or four days spent aboard Tinkerbelle would be a shakedown of sorts – confirmation that cruising aboard a small boat was as wonderful as I imagined it to be, and proof that Tinkerbelle, a 1979 Newport Holiday, was up to the task.

The next step was to choose a crew. My 10-year-old son, Noah, is an able partner who’s spent countless hours with me on the Connecticut River, but for this voyage, on which I knew I’d often have my hands full, I wanted a distraction for Noah, and his buddy, Sheldon, fit the bill. At age 10, Sheldon is a calm reasoner and scientifically curious, someone who barely qualifies as a kid, and I knew I’d need an ally. “Shen” signed on with encouragement from his parents, who mistakenly assumed that because I work for a boating magazine, I was a professional whose judgment could be trusted.

The advantage of a young crew – and remember, in the old days 10-year-olds were officers-in-training! – was that they didn’t care where they slept, and, in fact, didn’t care if they slept, and wouldn’t complain about the bathroom facilities. It was kind of a no-brainer.

The weather window I chose for this Heroic Adventure – dear reader, I’m afraid it will disappoint you. I chose a midweek stretch of weather that promised even more of the already gorgeous weather we’d been experiencing, with 10 knots or less from the southwest. In short, they were not conditions that made for great seagoing yarns. It was weather that would safely allow me to cross the sound under power, and thereby time the Gut properly.

But first, a side story, from the state boat launch under the Baldwin Bridge in Old Saybrook, where I put in. I am rigging Tinkerbelle, when a man towing a 30-foot Donzi, a “go-fast boat,” pulls up next to me. He is a robust man in his 50s, and he doesn’t look at my ridiculous craft and me derisively; in fact, he seems genuinely excited that I’m headed for Coecles. “I’m a sailor myself,” he proclaims. “In fact, I’m dropping this one in for my wife and kid, and then I’m getting the Beneteau. We’re doing a week in Block.”

“Your wife’s comfortable with the Donzi, then?” I ask, tentatively.

“Well, yeah, but she’s not driving – my kid is. He’s 10, but he drives the boat all the time. Ha! They’ll be there in an hour! It’ll take me most of a day on the Beneteau.”

So there it was: confirmation that my choice in crew wasn’t foolish at all. Why, one of their classmates was driving a high-powered speedboat to Block! In the following days, I checked my phone for news of what I thought was an imminent tragedy, but thankfully never saw anything.

Is there anything better than the first few hours of a waterborne voyage? In the beginning you don’t know what the trip is – what events will dictate the shape and tone of the adventure. The bow is pointed more or less at your destination, the wind ruffles your hair, and the sun kisses your face. There hasn’t been sufficient time to curse the relentless or lackluster wind, or to condemn the merciless sun and its scorching rays.

Aboard Tinkerbelle, refreshments were broken out, which meant sodas for the two boys who are not used to such extravagances, and, in fact, they proclaimed the sound of a pop tab being activated “the greatest sound in the world.” (One of those rare sentiments that I suspect won’t change as they age).
Noah trolled for blues while Shen manned the helm, and I tried to pick out, with the naked eye, the location of Plum Gut. It felt so good to be out there, actually doing what I’d dreamed of for so long, the sound was calm, and hardly anyone was out. We had the place to ourselves. Though I’d been aboard Tinkerbelle countless times on the Connecticut River, the briny tang in the air made the experience of being aboard her feel so different. Certainly, looking at the gear crammed in Tinkerbelle’s cuddy cabin and stacked everywhere topsides, and noticing her lower-than-usual freeboard, things seemed different.

Okay, this was something I was beginning to worry about, actually. Nowhere in “Bucking the Tide” does its author grouse about the lack of storage space. Aboard the Leight there is a place for everything, and everything in its place.

The first clue that something was amiss aboard Tinkerbelle was retrieving those aforementioned refreshments. I had to retrieve the full-sized cooler I’d brought from the cuddy cabin, which meant pulling a bunch of stuff out first, and then reorganizing after the fact, and, well, you get the drift. This was a theme over the next few days, an onerous chore that helped define what the Heroic Adventure might be, but that I tried to ignore.

Suffice to say, we crossed the sound under power, skipped through the swirling eddies and strange chop of The Gut, avoided the fast-moving ferries that frequent it, crossed Gardiner’s Bay and glided into Coecles Harbor, the beach to starboard only a few disconcerting yards from the channel. We’d made it. The first leg of Tinkerbelle’s saltwater shakedown was in the books.

Once there, I sized up the situation, and seeing that the beach was off the private mooring area to starboard, as opposed to the transient anchorage on the opposite side of the harbor, I picked up a private mooring that looked like it had wintered over. It was no longer white, but green, and tiny shrimp writhed by the hundreds on Tinkerbelle’s deck after I brought it aboard. We swam to the beach with a Frisbee and looked for treasure. The scene was idyllic, and Tinkerbelle’s crew could barely contain their excitement.

I’ll fast-forward past the quintessential afternoon spent in a lovely harbor aboard a boat, when the day is warm and the water refreshing. The brother-in-law who’d first found Tinkerbelle in someone’s front yard, and who is a canvas maker, had cleverly designed and built a canvas cockpit enclosure that was basically a squared-off five-man tent that draped over the boom, and snapped to the sides. Before dinner, I dug the tent out from the depths of the cuddy, and erected it. I’d already decided to just stay on the mooring, since no one had hassled us and we’d been there all day.

The first thing I noticed was how cut-off from the rest of the boat I felt once inside the tent. God forbid something should happen that required action. The only way out was by jumping out the door flaps at the stern and into the water, or unsnapping the tent on top of the cuddy and crawling forward onto the foredeck. It was a bit unsettling.

The second thing I noticed? It was really hot in there. Air movement was zilch, and it quickly felt claustrophobic. Plus, with the boys now trapped in the cockpit with me, the logistics of moving stuff around now included also moving a 10-year-old boy. Dinner was not the roasted sweet potatoes and brats affair I had envisioned, but Top Ramen and Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies. My crew wasn’t disappointed, but I was.

Some more complaining, as long as we’re visiting the Complaint Department: That night, after dark, a 20- to 25-knot breeze sprang up out of nowhere, buffeting poor Tinkerbelle, who thanks to my shrewd cunning was on the wrong side of the harbor, the side open to the southwest. This made for some interesting internal dynamics aboard the boat. Inside the cuddy cabin, where the boys “slept” (there was none of that going on, thanks to restlessness on Shen’s part and water in Noah’s ear), it was easily 90 degrees.

The boys languished in bathing suits, uncovered, complaining about the heat, while in the cockpit, with the forward flaps of the tent open to catch the night air, a howling wind made it feel like it was 40 degrees. I actually worried that my winter bag would not be warm enough. The difference in temperature gradient was a matter of feet, or even inches – in fact, my feet in the bag were chilled while my son’s face, which sometimes touched the bottom of the bag, glowed red. It was bizarre. For a pillow that night, I romantically chose a sail bag, only to discover that I could never completely escape the shackle on the sail inside. Enough said.

The next morning, exhausted, we fired off the Honda and sprinted back across Gardiner’s Bay to The Gut, and then back across the sound to the river mouth, which never seemed as welcoming as it did that late morning, whispering promises of better times, with fresh air to breath and solid ground beneath our feet. A phone call to my wife informed her that we’d survived our first night on the other side of the sound, but would it be possible to meet us at the Essex Town Dock with a tent in several hours’ time?

“At the Essex Town Dock?” she replied, unsure she’d heard correctly.

“Yes, at the Essex Town Dock,” I said. “We’re back.”

You see, right across from the Essex Town Dock is Nott Island (everyone calls it Nott’s), and midweek in the summer you usually have your pick of several beachside campsites, gratis. These are high fun-quotient-wise for 10-year-olds and the 10-year-old at heart, especially at low tide when, at the northern end of the island, huge sandy tidal flats open up for Frisbee and general exploration. You never know where or when a live blue crab, or dead carp, might turn up.

And Essex Harbor? Why, it’s the best sailing on all of the Connecticut River as far I’m concerned. Plenty of deep water, and a reliable breeze that fills in each day around 4:30. So we sailed, ate bratwurst, and poked our nightly fires, content with the same-old, same-old adventure, that in no way outwardly resembled a Heroic Adventure, but somehow still felt like An Epic Voyage Writ Small. We just had to adjust our parameters.

I have since contacted David Buckman, who, as you probably already know, has a column in Points East. He said he didn’t remember space being an issue aboard the Leight, but conceded that he never travelled with more than one crewmember. He seemed genuinely surprised that things hadn’t worked out. In his book, he wrote that he frequently woke up during the night to pump his leaky boat, to make sure the ingress didn’t overtake his sleeping bag. I don’t know – maybe we’re just cut from a different cloth these days? That still troubles me.

In the meantime, I’m looking for a different boat. I’m thinking she has to be at least 24 feet, with sleeping quarters for four, and a proper head, but she still needs to be humble enough to qualify for Heroic Adventure status. Oh, and she has to be cheap.

Anyone got any ideas?

This winter Points East associate editor Bob Muggleston, who generally applies a “buy high, sell low” strategy to houses, cars and boats, thinks he finally found a real winner on Craig’s List: a 1966, 26-foot Pearson Commander in great shape and cheap enough to buy using his PayPal account. Look for stories regarding this acquisition in upcoming issues of Points East.