“Plenty in ’20” and Plan D

By Pam Humbert
For Points East

The stern of the author’s boat is seen reflected in the waters of a quiet port during their COVID cruise. Photo by Pam Humbert

The new year was still young and unsullied back in mid-January when our club met to unveil their summer cruising plans. The room was abuzz with dreams and the anticipation of a fresh new year and a season yet to unfold. Wearing a genuine smile, a friend approached and greeted me warmly. While raising his glass in a toast, he declared confidently that there’d be “Plenty in ’20!” The expression had a terrific ring to it, after which I exclaimed, “Oh, I love that! Can I use it?” He answered, “Oh, of course!” We stood there for a few moments, savoring its promise. Each of us was seeing the scenes of an idyllic summer flash before our eyes. His face lit up with his imaginings, and I know mine did, too, as I envisioned our planned two-week trip. It was a trip that had already been postponed “until next year” three times for want of dog sitters, a clear calendar, good health and vacation time. I’m sure our planned itinerary of Montauk, Block Island, and, with some good fortune, Martha’s Vineyard, made my eyes sparkle.

The trip was on until 2020’s true colors came to light. When international borders closed one by one, I shuddered in disbelief. By April we’d made a number of grocery drops for friends fallen ill. Meanwhile newscasts grew bleaker by the day, ambulance sirens sounded and church bells rang throughout the day and night. Furloughs, shutdowns and symptom scares spread like the waters of a raging flood. Everyone’s nerves were frayed to the very core, and mine were, too.

Our cruise lost some of its appeal when worry, social distancing, masks, and dots spaced six feet apart became part of everyday life. Eventually, quarantine rules and the complications of crossing state lines were the trip’s death knell. We postponed it for the fourth time.

But then, a curious thing: From the ashes of our dream trip arose “Plan D.” We took stock of what means we had at our disposal, and what each of us hoped for during the summer months. We both needed a string of days to rest and unwind. Jim after too many 80-hour weeks, and me after too much time spent in my home office. We also, despite more or less being stuck locally, wanted to see new places and share new experiences.

And then, it came to us: Inasmuch as our home waters are too familiar to be stirring, their shallow back waters are not. We realized that, after 15 years of messing around in boats, we’d never ventured into the shallows. Our expedition vessel would be our Pearson 30’s tender T/T Morgana, an 11’ Zodiak. “Plan Dingy” was born!

Our Pearson 30 Morgana would tow T/T Morgana everywhere we went throughout the summer. We’d visit the shallow backwaters in Northport, Lloyd Harbor, Huntington Harbor, Setauket, Conscience Bay and Bayville. Our time on the boats would be COVID-19 free. There would be no dots, no masks and no restrictions. There would be no news, no sirens and no church bells. There would be no computer, no alerts and no beeps from the dryer. In their place would be exciting new sights, brilliant sunsets, and full moons . . . all accompanied by various bars of water music playing in the background. Travelling shorter legs also favored the odds of us sailing more, another big plus.

And so it was. We’d select a destination that took the best advantage of the day’s wind and currents, and sail there. After dropping anchor or picking up a reserved mooring we’d relax and enjoy our surroundings and each other’s company. Meals were effortless: Mostly comprising pre-made salads and dishes made from fresh produce and grilled meats. We watched the sunset each night, and even caught a few full moons under clear skies. Some nights, cocktails and our favorite play lists accompanied amusingly competitive games of cards, checkers and Shut the Box (a favored English pub game we keep aboard Morgana). We always slept well and awoke refreshed the next day, ready to venture out into the quiet backwaters.

On our excursions, the Zodiac’s engine would hum as we puttered along, above which was a barely audible burbling wake. Deep into Lloyd Harbor there’s a point where engines are not allowed so Jim rowed. In Huntington Harbor, northwest of Oheka Castle, there’s a lovely stone wall and a stream at the bitter end. Tremendous numbers of small shore birds took flight and fanned out as we passed, and ghostly egrets stood watch from their perches in the trees. In Bayville, the mansions of Mill Neck are so spread out that the shoreline appears mostly wild and uninhabited. In Port Jefferson we set out from a mooring near the ferry terminal and followed the western shoreline that’s dotted with modest little beach houses of various styles, colors, materials and states-of-repair. In the yards of some were as many as a dozen small boats, each patiently waiting its turn to be taken out.

Once around the bend the channel narrows and then splits in two. The first one leads to Setauket Harbor to port, the other ahead and slightly to starboard to Conscience Bay. (If you’re a history buff, both played important roles in the Revolutionary War efforts of Washington’s Culper Spy Ring on Long Island). Setauket Harbor wiggles and winds as one goes further, the boats moored there getting noticeably smaller and smaller. Nearing the end we passed a large blackened tree with roosting egrets set beside an old wall. We went around and beyond the wall where a small circular shoreline of eelgrass and towering hardwoods surrounded us.

Our favorite spot of all, though, was Conscience Bay. From Setauket Harbor we headed back to the fork to pick up the spur leading to Conscience Bay. A tremendous rock marks the end of the spur’s channel and the waterway narrows significantly with a hard turn to port. Islands of grass-covered mudflats dot the passage and eclectic homes line its banks. Once through the passage, the waterway opens up into a sizeable bay. Milling about on its banks were deer, egrets, herons and other birds. The water was crystal clear and so shallow I could have reached in and scooped up shells and crabs. We were feeling mesmerized by the sights when, simultaneously, we realized anything sharp below would puncture our Zodiac. That excursion ended abruptly. But returning at high tide someday on another trip is something we’re definitely planning on.

Plan Dingy was providing us with the rest, bonding, and excitement we craved, and the stunning scenery and peaceful auras we saw were unforgettable. But something was still missing.

It was our friends. Our friends were missing, and we longed for their company. Since our social circle was fairly small, we hadn’t seen any of our friends in months. We pressed the Zodiac into yet another role, this time as a taxi, and quickly discovered the magic of making social calls from the dinghy. While tethered to the transom of a friend’s boat, congenial conversations and laughter flowed easily.

The boats are up on the hard now, and the temperatures are falling. Looking back on a summer determined to disappoint, I’m grateful we were able to adjust our course to suit. Plan Dingy was the ultimate COVID-19 escape. It was mask, six-foot dot and restriction-free. It was fun, fascinating, rejuvenating and social. It made good on summer’s promise and gave us “Plenty in ’20.”

Pam Humbert, a Northport/East Northport, N.Y., native who’s been boating since she was 7 years old, is a devoted wife and mother of three grown children. She is also founder of P.K. Services, providing start-ups with the skills and services they need to help keep their sails trimmed. Pam, her husband Jim, and their family cherish their days aboard their Pearson 30 Morgana, a Celtic name meaning “dweller of the sea.”