Gulliver’s travails

A view of the Elizabeth Islands near Cuttyhunk, over the cabin of Gulliver. Photo by Peter Bullock

September 2021

By Peter Bullock

I have worked in Boston for many years, and, to avoid commuting every day to my home in Providence, R.I., I have kept Gulliver, a 1967 Bristol 27, in a Boston Harbor marina. Staying on Gulliver throughout the year has been a fun and interesting experience, but I seldom sailed her. And, for a number of reasons, including addressing years of her neglect, it was time to move her closer to home in Narragansett Bay.

Preparations: I purchased two new 12-volt batteries, repaired a broken chartplotter, made sure that my Air Head Composting Toilet was in tip-top shape, brought on plenty of water, and waxed the hull. Appearances matter, even on old sailboats. I also inflated my vintage Achilles inflatable and was delighted that it held most of the air I pumped into it.

Gulliver had not been out of the water for two years, and I was concerned about marine growth, so, I paid for a diver to scrape the bottom. Most importantly, I picked up my 9.9-horse Yamaha from a distributor in Warren, R.I., who assured me it was in great shape. With the help of my nephew, I installed the engine and made the necessary electrical connections. I purchased 10 gallons of gas and confirmed that the outboard was running smoothly. Sails? They were old and had not been used for over a year.

While preparing to inspect the aging Dacron, I heard that Tropical Storm Isaias was approaching, so I delayed this scrutiny. The storm passed on Aug. 4, and I put them up a few days later. However, since the plan was to leave on Aug. 8, I had no time to adjust the sails and the running rigging. The condition of the old sails was going to be a source of anxiety for the entire trip. They were not our only challenge.

The Crew: My friend Capt. Vic (aka “Old Blue Eyes”) lived in Huntington, Long Island, where he taught sailing in Oyster Bay. He is easy to get along with, and, from previous experiences, I knew he was calm under pressure. His only conditions for joining the cruise included a bottle of Campari (and crushed ice) and a box of white wine.

Capt. Vic also refused to rely solely on electronics, insisted upon a current copy of “Eldridge’s Tide and Pilot Book” and paper charts. We would cruise in company as far as Scituate, Mass., with friends Vinny and Celia Bohm, on their boat Cafe Mildew (long story: channel Berkeley, Calif., in the ’80s).

The weather forecast was not the best: winds out of the south or southwest for the next several days with seas in the three–to five-foot range. While concerned, Vic said he was ready to get on the water, where he could finally take a break from social distancing in Huntington.

Departure: Early on Aug. 8, my wife Ellen drove us to the marina. I asked her one last time if she wanted to join us, and she said, definitively, “No way!” A kiss goodbye, and she headed back to Providence. After stowing our food, we went in search of ice. The forecast for the next several days included temperatures in the low 90s, so we purchased two blocks of ice and one bag of cubes.

As we left the marina, it was striking to see how far the removal of the old North Washington Street Bridge had progressed. This bridge had connected Charlestown to Boston for over a century, and now all that remained of the iconic structure were piles of rusted steel piled on barges.

Passing downtown Boston, I looked for one particular building near the Aquarium. In 2010, I had briefly owned a condo on its 12th floor; Capt. Vic had helped me move in before sailing to Bermuda. Looking out my window, I would see individuals, docked at nearby slips, leaving their boats in the morning to go to work. Soon, I embraced the idea of selling my piece of the Boston waterfront and moving my Gulliver up from Mattapoisett. I sold the Condominium for a 40K loss, and moved Gulliver to Charles-town. I had so many great years living aboard that I knew I made the right move.

Approaching Logan Airport, a plane landed, and I muttered the common cliché that flying was 99 percent boredom and one percent sheer terror. Capt. Vic replied that, given what we were about to attempt, he thought those were very favorable odds.

Nearing Spectacle Island, there was a light but steady breeze, so we decided to pull out the genoa. I had washed and greased the roller-furler, and, therefore, was annoyed when the sail came out only partway.

We continued on a beam reach for a few miles, under partial sail, until we had to head south for Georges Island. Attempting to haul in the sail, I discovered that I did not have enough line on the furler to bring in the entire sail, so several feet of the genoa remained unfurled. Clearly, I would have to work on that headsail when we reached Scituate Harbor.

As we passed to starboard of Boston Light, the seas were minimal, so we set the sails out again and headed for Harding Ledge, off Nantasket Beach. Off Hull, we saw the Bohm’s gaining on us on Cafe Mildew. Using our cell phones, we confirmed that we would meet in Scituate. They soon disappeared into the distance; the first of many boats that would leave Gulliver in their wake.

I had passed Minots Ledge several times while crewing for an old friend, who now lives in Burlington, Vt. So, when we passed this 160-year-old granite structure, I took a photo of it and sent it to him. I knew this image would pique an interest in my latest nautical adventure.

After a few more miles of motor-sailing, we spotted a small Coast Guard vessel, which stopped and watched us go by. “I think we should be prepared to be boarded,” Vic commented wryly. They observed us for a few minutes, then zoomed away. Vic was hot, and rather than arrive early in Scituate, he suggested that we stay out on the water with just our partially unfurled headsail. “I am from northern people and I cannot stand the heat,” he stated, a refrain that I’d hear more times during our trip.

First destination: Around 6 p.m., we were outside the entrance to Scituate Harbor, and I saw a totally unexpected sight: a man standing on a surfboard that was several feet above the water and traveling about 25 mph. I later learned that he was riding on what is termed an “efoil” or “hydrofoil.”

Passing the breakwater into the harbor, a bit of tension developed between Gulliver and Cafe Mildew, now immediately behind us. One problem was that the Scituate Harbor Marina launch driver told me that he was busy, and instructed me to go very slowly, and, that if I did, he would eventually have time for Gulliver. However, Celia, the skipper of Cafe Mildew, started yelling that I was going too slow.

That problem was soon eclipsed by a second one. When making the reservation from my car, on a Route I-95 off-ramp in Bridgeport, Conn., I had stated that Cafe Mildew was 34 feet LOA, when, in fact, she was 38 feet. Learning that Cafe Mildew was 38 feet long, the launch driver suggested that there might not be a mooring for her. Some drama ensued, but the launch driver finally found a spot for Cafe Mildew farther out in the mooring field. Eventually, he led Gulliver to a mooring closer to shore.

It was time to address the compromised furler. An acquaintance of the Bohms, Andrew – whose day job is solving the structures of proteins – is regarded as a wizard who can fix anything, and was coming in his dinghy to help us. Within this densely packed port, he did not know where we were located. I knew they were moored at the entrance to the harbor, so I suggested that he follow the sun. While my directions were a bit vague, I was pleased to see Andrew soon approaching Gulliver.

Andrew set to work on trying to repair the genoa furler. We were able to get the sail to come all the way out, but decided that getting the sail to completely furl would require taking it down, and no one wanted to do this in the strong breeze that had kicked up.

Wearing our COVID-19 masks, and taking several water bottles filled with cold wine, the three of us were soon on Andrew’s dinghy, heading for dinner on Cafe Mildew. While enjoying the first glass of cold wine, we watched a photo shoot of a couple on the bow of a boat, the bride in a wedding dress and the groom in a tuxedo. We had a great meal, but my sense of dread returned when Celia said the winds were going to increase the next day, and that we should get an early start.

She also advised us to pull into Onset, once we got through the canal, and not attempt to battle the standing waves that set up at the western end of the canal at the entrance to Buzzards Bay.

Andrew took us back to Gulliver, no easy task since it was dark and we had not left a light on. I had two sleeping bags on the boat. I gave Vic the summer bag and I took the winter bag. In hot and humid weather, covering my exhausted body with a sleeping bag rated to 10-below was fitting penance for someone whose plan for traveling down the coast of Massachusetts was “Let’s hope for the best.” Still, we had achieved our goal for the first day and there was still enough ice to keep the milk cold for the morning coffee. It had been a good day.

The second leg: The weather report called for a headwind and 20 to 25 mph later in the day. It was clear that we did, indeed, have to leave right away. The long passage down the coast past Plymouth was uneventful. At one point, the wind shifted to the southeast and this permitted us to get both sails up. We were both delighted that for one brief period of time the engine was off, and we were sailing at six knots.

However, the wind quickly shifted back to the south, and for most of the morning we relied entirely on the engine. One sobering note: I went below to change the AA batteries in the hand-held GPS and discovered that many were weak. They must have been sitting on the boat too long. To avoid spoiling the morning, I decided to keep this finding to myself.

Around noon we had passed Manomet Point and the recently decommissioned Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. From this location, we could just make out the stacks jutting out from the power station at the eastern entrance to the Cape Cod Canal, in Sandwich. It would take several hours to get to the entrance of the canal, but the adrenaline rush was on.

Transiting the canal is always an adventure, but doing it on a boat powered by a 9.9-horse engine is a form of insanity. As usual, we went from buoy to buoy, and, since “Old Blue Eyes” had better eyesight than I, he did the bulk of the piloting. The tide was going to shift west through the canal at 2 p.m., and, if we pushed the engine, we could be at the entrance a little before 3 o’clock.

As we approached Sandwich, we located the canal mouth by watching where other boats were heading, and soon the moment of truth was close at hand. Before entering the canal, I switched to the second gas tank; I did not want to run out of fuel in the canal. As we got closer to the cut, we pondered the fact that we had largely motored from Boston to the Cape Cod Canal, a distance of 50 miles, on a little over four gallons of gas. This four-stroke Yamaha 9.9-horse engine was amazing.

Armageddon: For mariners in small boats, a strong wind blowing against an opposing current is always a concern. But when that current is moving west at seven knots, and the opposing wind is 15 to 20 mph out of the southwest, there is likely to be a horror show. Aware of my concern, Vic suggest that I call the Marine Traffic Controller (VHF channels 13, 14 or 16, or by telephone at 978-318-8500). The controller said that while there were white caps in the canal, it was currently “not bad.”

We pressed on through the canal, deciding not to pull into Sandwich Marina in the East Boat Basin. A little farther on, a fisherman dropped his lure about two feet behind the venerable and vulnerable Achilles dinghy. We gave the near miss little thought because Vic, surveying the water in front of us, declared, “This is starting to look like the Snake River.”

Under the Sagamore Bridge, it was more like the inside of a washing machine. I wanted this over with, so my thoughts shifted to the end of the ordeal and finding a mooring for the night. I flipped the chartbook over and noticed an ad for nearby Kingman Yacht Center. I called and made a reservation; another hasty decision.

By the time we passed the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, it was still rough, but I thought the worst had to be over. Wrong! As soon as we were clear of the actual canal, a number of large vessels following us no longer were obliged to follow the No-Wake rules, and flew by us, throwing huge stern waves. A little farther on and we passed an equal number of boats heading into the canal at full speed. Add to the mix the wind, which had picked up to 20 to 25 mph. The result was endless waves, and waves within waves, moving in every direction.

No doubt about it, we were in a boater’s nightmare. Thoroughly battered, we passed the entrance to Onset and Vinny reminded me that Celia had suggested we spend the night there. Since I had made the reservation at Kingman’s – and I kept thinking that the worst had to be over – we continued on.

Part 2 of “Gulliver’s Travails” will appear in the October/November issue.

When not watching videos of people sailing in the South Pacific, the author conducts biomedical research and teaches biochemistry at Tufts Medical School.