Fishers Finally!

The author and his wife Marty aboard Rocinante, their Little Harbor 46. Photo courtesy Ron Weiss

By Ron Weiss
For Points East

My wife, Marty, and I were nearing the end of our three-week summer cruise aboard our Little Harbor 46 Rocinante. We were headed toward West Harbor at Fishers Island, N.Y., at the eastern edge of Long Island Sound. For all the sailing – both racing and cruising – I have done over 50 years or so, I’d never been there, and I’d always wanted to go. Would this be the year I’d actually reach the island?

Our first attempt, nearly 20 years ago, was thwarted by thick fog. A few years later, an engine-cooling issue stymied us. Last year, the night before we were planning to leave Clinton, Conn., to go to Fishers, the super yacht next to us was struck by lightning, and we suffered indirect effects, forcing us to be towed to Pilot’s Point for repairs. Once again, the curse of Fishers Island had struck.

In planning our trip this year, Marty and I vowed we’d take a day-by-day approach. With the pandemic as a backdrop, we knew marinas might be open or might be closed to transients, and that what was open last week might be closed this week. We might even find that an entire state was off-limits. Or that we were precluded from returning to Connecticut. Still, we wanted to go to places where we had not been before, with a particular focus on the Cuttyhunk, Woods Hole/ Hadley Harbor, Padanaram, and, of course, Fishers Island.

We’d set out in mid-July, and working our way up the north side of Long Island Sound, we stopped in Milford, Clinton (shout out to Cedar Island Marina, always a fave), Mystic, and Point Judith, R.I., to see my wife’s family, at six-foot intervals, who we hadn’t seen since December. From there, we visited Cuttyhunk for the first time.

Cuttyhunk was charming, rustic, and while there are not very many shops or restaurants, there were even fewer because of COVID-19. There was, however, a little lobster shack run by Capt. John Adams, who looked like an old lobsterman out of central casting. You order the lobsters in the morning, he catches them, then he bikes up the hill to his house to boil them for you, and returns in the evening with your dinner in hand. It’s like DoorDash or Grubhub, but without the app – just the captain.

I asked Capt. Adams where he caught the lobsters, and Marty admonished me that lobstermen never reveal their secrets. Capt. Adams laughed and proclaimed, “Ain’t no secret. They’re all over the gawd-damned place!” And, ain’t no secret, the lobsters were gawd-damned good, too.

Next stop was Hadley Harbor, another gem of a spot we’d never visited. We’d also never been through Woods Hole, which we crossed off our list, then motored up Vineyard Sound along the Elizabeth Islands. The water is fairly deep right up to the beach so we were admiring the landscape from a distance of only a couple of hundred yards and wondering what living on a private island must be like. After all, if you need a quart of milk it’s a multi-stage journey to get to a store. At least we needn’t have worried about residents’ ability to get cream for their coffee; we spied a couple of cows wandering along the beach.

Hadley Harbor is recognized as a hurricane hole: A collection of islands and peninsulas envelop the pretty little cove. Once you get through a narrow entrance to the cove, you’re in a little piece of heaven. As it was a hot and sunny weekend, numerous boats were in the anchorage, but many of them were center-consoles or other boats not likely to stay overnight. We picked an anchoring spot among a number of day-trippers, where swing room was minimal. We didn’t pay out the full measure of desired scope, but, sure enough as evening approached, the boats around us all weighed anchor and returned from whence they came, leaving us all alone with half the harbor to ourselves.

We paid out a luxurious amount of rode and swung to our hearts content. It was so perfect that we stayed an extra night and dinked over to nearby Bull Island for a hike. This is a pretty island, but it’s covered with poison ivy, so stay on trails, be wary, and you’ll be fine.

This cruise was shaping up to be a collection of firsts. Maybe, just maybe, Fishers Island would finally happen. But maybe not: Tropical Storm Isiasas was beginning its march up the Eastern Seaboard, so we made a reservation at Pope’s Island Marina in New Bedford. New Bedford has a hurricane barrier (much like the one at our home marina in Stamford, Conn.), so we felt we’d be well-protected. Fun Fact: The New Bedford barrier is the largest stone structure east of the Mississippi.

Arriving in New Bedford, we found most of the fishing fleet from the Carolinas to Massachusetts holed up there. More than 1,000 trawlers were crowded into every available space; their booms pointed to the sky, looking like giant steel sea urchins.

While it got choppy in the marina (we saw gusts to nearly 50 knots), we came through the storm with no damage or anxiety. Everyone at the marina – transients and locals – pitched in to secure boats, and adjust lines and fenders for unattended vessels. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of. Hundreds of years of seafaring tradition – of coming to the aid of others when weathering a storm – is still in evidence everywhere we sail. It’s a pity the maritime-community spirit is sometimes lacking on land. And it’s one of the reasons we enjoy being on a boat.

The one moment of excitement during the storm came when a 35’ sailboat broke loose from its mooring. It was driven downwind toward a nearby marina, where it ended up, bow in, in the sole empty slip, appearing to have suffered only cosmetic damage. TowBoatUS was quickly on the scene and towed it to safety. The storm was over in a couple of hours, and the scudding clouds in the clearing sky made for a spectacular sunset. It was the calm after the storm.

When we made the reservations at Pope’s Island, the models of the track and speed of the storm were all over the place, so we reserved an extra night before and after its expected arrival. This gave us plenty of time to explore the town. While the harbor itself was packed, the town was nearly deserted. Normally a booming summer tourist town, between the pandemic and the storm we were practically alone on the streets.

As we walked the waterfront, a curious sight greeted us. In and among the thousands of trawler booms, peeking up from behind warehouses, were the anachronistic spars of a square-rigger. Of course, we had to take a look, and we found the newly refurbished Mayflower II. She had been bound for her homeport of Plymouth, Mass., after a multi-year refit at Mystic, when she had to divert to New Bedford because of the storm.

While she was not open to visitors, we were able to get up close. She’s amazingly small, with very high sides. Having just been through a storm, it was hard to believe that this ungainly vessel could cross an ocean. What’s more, besides passengers, she had been filled with livestock. Imagine the conditions and the stench, and that very few of the passengers had ever been to sea before. It was awe-inspiring to consider how determined those early settlers were. Seeing the Mayflower II up close made us more appreciative of the comforts of our own vessel.

The following day we motored “next door” to the New Bedford Yacht Club, in Padanaram, another lovely destination that exudes charm and has that certain “seaside town” air. Our next stop was Newport, R.I., where we spent two days at the New York Yacht Club catching up with a few friends, with the appropriate virus precautions.

Finally (fingers crossed!) it was time to head for Fishers Island. Most of the trip had, until this point, entailed motoring or motorsailing. The forecast this day was a fine southerly, with a fair tide ebbing from Buzzards Bay and flooding into The Race. Despite the perfect conditions, I had some trepidation due to my personal Curse of Fishers Island.

Would we be set-upon by The Kraken? Would a maelstrom open up in The Race and leave us circling just short of our intended destination? I checked our batteries, fuel, oil level, and carefully reviewed our charts to prevent any unfortunate lessons about geological formations, yet a sense of “expect the unexpected” prevailed.

We set off, motoring out of Narragansett Bay in the building southerly before turning the corner at Point Judith and close-reaching west. It was a glorious sail, eight-plus knots over the bottom, just the right temperature and humidity – absolutely perfect. It was so nice, we elected to go the “long way,” reaching along the southern shore of Fishers, passing Race Rock at the west end, and then doubling back toward the north side and West Harbor.

We arrived at cocktail hour (admittedly, the longer the cruise went on, the earlier cocktail hour seemed to arrive), and picked up a mooring. Finally, we were there. We had made it. I felt a sense of accomplishment that was out of proportion to the difficulties (or lack thereof) we had “endured” to get there.

That evening, after a weak cold front had passed, the sky was clear for the first time in over two weeks. Just before berth-time, I went out on deck with a nightcap and surveyed the heavens. There, in all its glory, was the Milky Way. I had not seen the Milky Way in quite a while. In Stamford, Conn., our homeport, there is too much ambient light, and as the racing season had been all but eliminated, I had not been able to do any night/distance races like the Storm Trysail Club’s Block Island Race or the Newport-Bermuda Race.

As I stared at the array of galaxies above me, I felt a surprising wave of emotion. I teared up as I suddenly remembered the night – almost exactly 50 years ago to the day – that my little sister and I (age 8) were on a Grampian 26 that my parents had chartered. Lying on our backs in the forepeak, looking up through the forward hatch, my sister Adrienne and I saw the Milky Way for the first time in our young lives. It was magical. Here was, literally, an entire universe we had never seen before.

Now, exactly five decades later, I was in precisely the same spot, West Harbor, where my parents had taken us on our first family cruise. I realized, at that moment, that seeing the Milky Way for the first time was the very experience that caused me to fall in love with sailing. Perhaps – even though I’d forgotten I’d ever been to Fishers before – this was the reason I’d been yearning to come back to the place where my passion for sailing had begun a half-century before.

So many emotions were welling up: all the memories of all those miles, the experiences, the friendships, the hardships, the victories over competitors, and the victories over circumstances and tribulations. All these came to a head as the ribbon of twinkling silver flowed overhead. The heavenly light reflected on the water as I reflected on my life. And it was good.

Ron Weiss is a marketing consultant, author, copywriter and avid ocean racer and coastal cruiser. He and his wife Marty live in Stamford, Conn. He is also the sponsorship and communications committee chair of the Storm Trysail Club.