First to Block (Island, that is)

The view of an empty Payne’s Dock from the top of Vixen’s mast, where I was adjusting a cockeyed Windex.

Story and photos by Bob Muggleston
For Points East

The ski season hadn’t even ended when a buddy of mine, Jonathan, over dinner, mentioned the idea of heading to Block Island the second week of April. “We should go,” he said. “Kick off the season. Just think of it – nobody will be there.”

Well, of course nobody would be there. His sailboat was in the water because he lived on it, but hardly anyone else’s was. And even if someone’s boat was in, why would he or she go cruising? Water temps had yet to climb out of the mid-40s, and that was Bering Sea territory, I reminded him. We all know what happens on the Bering Sea: You go into the water and you don’t come out.

Still, I was intrigued. Block Island. No one there. Minus the 1,000 boats that inhabit the place on a weekend, or 2,000 during a race week, what would it be like?

Anyone who’s been to Block Island’s Great Salt Pond (New Harbor), the preferred anchorage for cruisers, on a warm night, knows how magic the place is. Especially if there’s a silky breeze, and you’re sitting topside with a favorite beverage. An impossible number of anchor lights wink at you in the twilight, each individual boat its own small world. Without anyone there, would the magic still exist?

When the conversation shifted to a small wooden barrel of Guyanese rum Jonathan wanted for the trip (a bad idea), I tuned out, and instead thought about the water temperature. Yes, it was cold. But didn’t commercial fishermen work even colder New England waters all winter? And how much warmer were the waters in summertime Maine?

I recalled a short trip with my son on the Maine Island Trail several years ago on an old Blue Jay; how numb my feet got after being submerged for five minutes. And, I reminded myself, nearly 30 years ago I’d worked aboard the Golden Chalice, a 58-foot Bering Sea longliner, day and night, sometimes in terrible sea states, for 20 hours at a stretch. By comparison, what was a 40-mile sail to Block, on a quite-capable, Danish-built X-442?

The result of my self-interested rationalizing was that I signed aboard Vixen; proof positive that you can justify anything if you want it badly enough. Two other souls – my brother-in-law, Art, and our good friend, Tom – did so, as well.

I picked them up on the morning of April 13, a Saturday, which dawned foggy and quite wet, though fairly warm. There was no barrel of Guyanese rum aboard Vixen, thank God. That had been just a rumor, likely floated as a recruitment tool to entice crew.

We cast the lines and motored out of Essex Harbor at 6:30 a.m. on an ebb tide, with nary a soul to bear witness. Probably for the best, I told myself. No witnesses.

Jonathan went below, and a short time later emerged with breakfast. Have I mentioned that he’s a professional chef? It’s one of the many perks of crewing on Vixen. Jonathan’s one of those rare people who enjoys doing in his spare time what he does professionally, which means something’s always cooking on Vixen. The only instant oatmeal that’s ever been aboard was brought there by me, and the box was never opened. Instead, each crewmember was presented with a steaming bowl of ground beef and pork belly in a delicate cream sauce with chili oil. On top were two perfectly poached eggs – quite possibly the most satisfying breakfast I’ve ever eaten. Art inhaled his portion standing on the bow in the rain as he scouted for submerged trees in the river, the result of spring runoff in Connecticut and melting snow up north. Breakfast was followed by strong coffee made in a French press. Could life get any better?

“This will all burn off in an hour or two.” Each one of us said this at least once on the way over, and every forecast said as much. In fact, on land it was supposed to hit 70. Aboard Vixen, it never stopped raining until we got to Block, and we had great fun with Art’s choice of foul-weather gear, which was essentially a tan suit made of Tyvek, the material you wrap houses with. He’d bought it years ago, in a pinch, at Walmart. Remarkably, it kept the rain out nearly as well as the high-end stuff the rest of us wore. Home Depot, are you listening? You’re missing an unexplored revenue stream.

After we honored “Bell 8” at the mouth of the Connecticut River, which warned of two sandy shoals, we alternately motored or sailed to a waypoint off Fishers Island. Fog, which Long Island Sound is not generally known for, dogged us all the way. A man on the bow alternately sounded a horn, which eventually was answered by some sort of double-masted sailing vessel that briefly emerged from the gloom. This, as it turned out, would be the only vessel we’d see all weekend.

Greeting us in The Race, the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound, which is famous for its currents and often-nasty sea state, was a standing two-foot wave, marking the line where Block Island Sound and Long Island Sound meet.

The effect was bizarre. The face of the wave was completely vertical, as though held there by an invisible wall. It was significant, however, in that it marked the beginning of Block Island Sound, which always seems a bit windier than its neighbor to the west. Soon the asym was released from its sock, and I whooped as a barely visible breeze line to starboard turned into a steady 15 knots. The rig groaned, and Vixen lowered her shoulder and dug in. We were flying now, especially over the ground, and the large swell on our starboard quarter was no longer uncomfortable. David Bowie’s ‎“Live, Santa Monica ’72” went on the sound system, and everything was right with the world – the small world aboard Vixen, that is. Which, I think, is a large part of the attraction of cruising. Where else do you get to create such a detailed world that’s both part of – and satisfyingly away from – reality? Everyone it seems, especially lately, needs the occasional break from reality.

Vixen charged down the track, “bruising water” as Henry Plummer of “The Boy, Me, and the Cat” was fond of saying, and soon a strange noise drifted through the fog. We decided it was either the wash of a large fishing vessel, or waves breaking on a beach. Fog plays with sound in weird ways. We eventually surmised the latter, and the entrance markers to Great Salt Pond suddenly appeared directly before us. We’d made it!

But what would be inside?

The answer: nothing. Not a single boat in harbor. Not even a commercial fisherman seeking refuge. None of the floating docks were installed. There was no activity ashore, either, which we could actually see thanks to better visibility on the island. It was the proverbial ghost town.

We motored to a pier off Payne’s, half expecting someone to emerge from a shack and wave us off, but no one did. It seemed as good a place as any to spend the night, and, lacking a dinghy, it sure would make trips ashore a lot easier. We’d arrived just before lunch.

The magic I talked about earlier: It wasn’t there, and wouldn’t be for the next 24 hours of our stay. Which didn’t surprise me, if I’m being honest. The thing I’ve come to realize in my advancing years is that often times people are what make a place special. How ironic, then, that the thing I eschew more than any other – crowds of people – would be the special ingredient in making a place, or an experience, special. It’s true. (That said, you’d be correct to cynically ask if my tune has changed after taking the kids to Disney World this summer. Apples and oranges, I’d say: It’s not a universal truth. People are often the intangible ingredient that makes someplace special even more so. And, of course, the designation “someplace special” is a relative term. This is a theoretical discussion best had in the cozy cabin of a cruising vessel, perhaps even accompanied by Guyanese rum.)

I won’t bore you with the details of our afternoon ashore, which included a fine lunch at a restaurant fronting Old Harbor, on the other side of the island, and a stop at the local supermarket, which was surprisingly well-stocked considering the time of year. At the supermarket Jonathan bought thick slices of pork shoulder and fresh dill, which he turned into a German-inspired ragout with potatoes and carrots. Tom, a wine salesman, provided the whites.

While Jonathan was making dinner, a gentleman appeared on the dock next to us. An authority sent to shoo us away? Hardly. He was a resident of the island who walked his dog there every day, and was merely checking out the boat. “You guys are the first sailboat I’ve seen this year,” he commented.

First to Block in 2019 – could it really be? Back in the cabin, the prospect of us being able to stay right where we were now more real than ever, Jonathan said, “We should do this every year.” Um, duh.

Sunday broke clear and sunny, a perfect morning for a head-clearing walk, and a chance to get back “a little of the yo-ho-ho,” as William F. Buckley Jr. might have said. Tom and I decided to check out an inflatable dinghy we’d seen on an adjacent beach, which looked as though it had been washed there in a storm. We untangled it from its ball of debris, and flipped it over. Meh. There was nothing discernably wrong with it, as its various air compartments seemed to hold air, but it was soft-bottomed without a solid transom for a motor. I resisted my boat-hoarding impulses and left it alone.

The breeze was set to change from a westerly to an easterly at around noon, so we killed time at an excellent bagel shop at the top of the hill, and then explored our surroundings on foot. At one point we ended up on Sunset Hill Road, which is on a ridge overlooking the iconic Atlantic Inn, and, beyond that, the body of water for which the inn was named. A man emerged from one of the houses there, and we ended up talking to him for about 15 minutes. It had long been a dream of his to live on Block, and he’d finally done so, and was now enjoying the “good life.” There were no caveats in his story – he truly loved being a permanent resident, and was trying to get his license to become a certified propane contractor. He told us that his first winter on Block he rented a beach cottage, and that in one storm the wind blew a sustained 100 mph for six hours. He called his girlfriend on the mainland as the cottage shuddered in the gusts, speculating aloud whether he might actually take flight, a la the Pixar movie “Up.” No wonder, then, that he now lived on a hill away from the beach.

Another stop at the supermarket; another gourmet meal before casting off. Every sailor should be so lucky. The stories of ships-of-old might have an entirely different hue.

Jonathan went for a swim, as is his tradition, regardless of the time of year. Yes, it was a quick swim, but a swim, nonetheless. I’ve got photographic proof.

The wind did eventually swing around to the east, and we rode it out of the harbor, the spinnaker up and drawing, into more fog in Block Island Sound. No matter: There was wind, and from the right direction. We’d seen this show the previous day, and were used to it.

One of the highlights of the sail back? A pilot whale surfaced 20 feet away from us, to port, looking very much like a huge orca that had lost half its coloring. It dove back under and re-surfaced aft of us before disappearing into the fog.

At the mouth of the Connecticut River a stiff breeze materialized, and we popped the chute that had been put away an hour earlier. This, to me, is the 15 minutes of the trip I’ll never forget. Flat water, 20 knots of breeze, and Vixen full and by, charging up the river into a dusky fog. Pushing it, perhaps? Maybe. But beyond the electronic navigation and radar, we had a man on the bow, eyes peeled. An ethereal blue light charged the scene with a surreal quality.

The sprint ended just off North Cove, in Old Saybrook, when the wind shut down. By now it was dark, and we altered course to avoid the lighted nets of shad fishermen. We jogged against the current at the Old Lyme draw, killing time while two passenger trains went by. Visible were the backlit faces of people in their seats. Our small world – their small world. Did anyone on the train see the dark-blue sailboat below as they hurtled by? I doubt it. And if they had, would they understand what the odds of seeing it were this time of year? Not as long as the odds of encountering a pilot whale in Long Island Sound, for sure, but probably close.

We felt our way up the Connecticut River in heavy fog, backed into Jonathan’s slip, and the trip was over. Finis. No one had fallen into the water, and we’d been, by at least one account, the first sailboat to Block in 2019. We’d had a truly remarkable romp at the mouth of the Connecticut River, and some great sailing, in general. It was time for us to go home now, back to our individual realities – whatever they might be – until the next adventure.

Bob Muggleston, who is raising a family in Deep River, Connecticut, is the editor of Points East.