Surprise, surprise

The calm before the “storm” as the sun sets in Watch Hill Harbor. Photo by Jim McGuire

By Jim & Dede McGuire
For Points East

We’d always considered Long Island Sound to be a body of water we needed to get through whenever we were bound south – sort of a watery I-95 – so we never had enough time to stop and smell the roses. With a 12-day no-obligation stretch ahead, we decided to really visit this body of water, or at least the eastern end of it. Surprise, surprise, we were enchanted by and emotionally challenged by it.

We departed East Greenwich aboard out Grand Banks 42 Hope with a favorable current, plowing right out of Narragansett Bay and turning right at Point Judith. We motored west along the 15 miles of Rhode Island’s south-coast beaches, heading for Watch Hill Light in Westerly. We rounded the western end of Napatree Point, aware of the shoal spots marked by R “6” bell, then cruised north toward Stonington (Conn.) Harbor, avoiding the East Breakwater at Bartlett Reef. We then rounded the north tip of Sandy Point, honoring G “5”, and putted up into Little Narragansett Bay.

On the chart it looks scary, but like Cuttyhunk and many sand cuts, it has deep water even close to shore. The sandbar is a popular spot for runabouts to bow-and-stern anchor off the beach and let the kids play on the sand.

Having made our way around the point, we followed the clearly marked channel down to N “22”, off Pawcatuck Point, and slipped due west toward N “24” at Dennison Rock. Here, we found a sheltered anchorage behind Napatree that’s well protected from southerlies and close to Watch Hill Harbor.

We left Hope on her anchor and headed into Watch Hill at 1100, which was getting near lunchtime. The Watch Hill Yacht Club was kind enough to let us tie De-Spare to their dinghy dock. We headed down Bay Street and immediately found an ice-cream shop, St. Clair Annex. I never indulge before the sun is above the yardarm. So we passed it up and found a candy store right next door. The candy store was really jumping, with a huge crowd buying the delightful chocolate goodies and other yumminess. We couldn’t even get near the display counter, so we departed. But the “foodie quest” was on.

We tried to pass that ice-cream shop, but I couldn’t resist one more peek at the flavors. One I found quite interesting: Cannoli. “That’s an Italian pastry,” said I.

“Of course,” said the proprietor. “This is not ‘ice cream’ – it’s Italian gelato.”

“Well glory be,” I exalted, “the sun is over the yardarm in Italy: give me three scoops.” Lunch was taken care of, but now the Admiral wanted to peek at some cutie outfits!

Watch Hill has been a traditional playground for the wealthy from New York and Philadelphia since the late-19th century. The village’s Flying Horse Carousel, built in 1879, is deemed America’s oldest on which the horses are suspended from chains. Children are still enchanted by the sounds of the calliope and the chance to grab the brass ring, which earns the winner a free ride.

Fun factoids: According to Wikipedia, “The carousel was originally part of a traveling carnival until 1879, when the carnival was forced to abandon it in Watch Hill. It was powered by a horse at that time, with music provided by a hand-cranked organ. Power was provided by water in 1897, and the carousel was electrified about 1914. It was extensively damaged by the New England hurricane of 1938 that devastated Watch Hill.”

The prices in the numerous boutiques seem to still reflect that opulent era. Maybe Taylor Swift’s mansion on the top of the hill is a not-so-subtle hint of the make-up of today’s clientele.

On the way back to Hope, we stopped to chat with the Watch Hill launch operator, discussing the news of the day and the weather. The launch operator said, as a friendly word of caution, “The holding isn’t always good where you anchored your boat, and we’re going to get a blow tonight. We have a couple of empty moorings, so, if you feel you need one, just call on the radio.”

When I was young, I never thought too much about weather when boating. Oh, if a gale or hurricane was being discussed, you had to pay attention. Otherwise, you dealt with weather as it came: oilskins, reefs and drogues, or simply hove-to. But now, at an older and wiser age, on our Grand Banks 42, the talk of severe weather gets my immediate attention. Especially when we’re out cruising and sitting on an anchor.

My AcuRite weather forecaster had been left out in the sun on the flybridge dashboard, and its temperatures were in the triple digits. When I brought it inside, and it cooled down, it told me a storm was coming. I knew it was probably exaggerating, but this data, combined with the launch operator’s advice, caused paranoia to set in, and I was suddenly in storm-prep mode.

On board, the wind was blowing 10, gusting to 12. I decided to rig a second hook for the night’s blow. The Admiral asked one of her pointed questions, like, “How windy is it going to get?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied, “but they’re predicting a blow tonight. I’ll check NOAA to see what’s in store for us.” Well, to paraphrase four different NOAA sources: “Winds will be building this afternoon and evening over the waters . . . blah blah . . . from the calm five-10 breezes we’ve had for the past several days to 15-20 with a possible occasional gust of 25-30!”

As per the Admiral’s advice, I put out a bit more chain – 150 feet in seven feet of water – to help hold that 45-pound Delta in the sand.

Strange how one can overreact to the AcuRite weather machine and the launch operator’s forecast! I guess the saying “sail your own boat” also applies to “listen to your own weather,” as well. On Hope, with all secure, I took a nap, and my dream began with, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the winds were forecast to reach epic proportions, maybe as high as 30-knot gusts.

OK, OK. It was not so dark, and not really stormy, but the wind was supposed to gust up to maybe 30 knots. Well, that’s enough to make you think about your anchor and rode if not worry about it. Superstition and paranoia being unpredictable haunts for mariners, I recalled a little issue with my anchor rode – a weak link – and I had to act.

I had 150 feet of good 3/8” BB chain out. Well, I actually only had 70 feet of good chain: The link at 70 feet was rusted and looked weak. So, either way, 70 feet of chain scope was all that I could try to sleep soundly with. When the forecast is for 25 gusting to 30, I like as much chain out as I can allow. “Chapman” says all-chain 5:1 is good; 10:1 is better. And if you have enough swing room, keep going up from there.

I could use my chain hook and a long snubber (50 to 75 feet of 5/8” nylon rode), so I could increase the scope but then it wouldn’t really be all-chain and the scope numbers would change. I’d read that the new synthetic ropes are as strong as wire and are used by world-class offshore racing boats for lifelines and running and standing rigging. This gave me a bit of faith that it’s strong stuff. Maybe not as strong as chain, but darned strong – and most likely as strong as my weak link.

You guessed it: I spliced in a link of 1/4” Dyneema to straddle the weak link. Heck, it might still break, but with the 7,700-lb. breaking strength Dyneema holding the load, I would at least feel a bit more secure.

I know it’s not very “yachtie,” but it worked, and it actually would run over the gypsy/wildcat without jamming. You can’t do that with a shackle in the middle of your chain rode. So I hauled the chain in and put two warps across three links, tied it with a square knot, and wire-tied the ends. I put out the 150 feet again, with only a 15-foot snubber, and, after a gorgeous blood-red sunset, I slept like a baby.

Would I have done this in a real storm? I hope to have new chain by that time, but I’m quite sure the two Dyneema wraps are more secure than the weakest link in there now.

During the night, the wind did pick up, and – are you sitting down? – my anemometer recorded a high of 23 knots. I guess it’s a good thing I was prepared for the “dirty weather.” The “red sky at night, sailors’ delight” ditty was a better forecast than all the other advice we received.

On a lovely southern New England morning, we dinghied to the beach on Napatree and walked on the Long Island side of the sound, and played like children in the mild surf. On the calm Little Narragansett Bay side, we dingied west down to a pile of rocks, and, at mid-tide, plucked mussels for a lunch aboard. Freshly picked mussels steamed in garlic and white wine was a real treat.

I’m not a big shellfish lover. I hate oysters, am not fond of littlenecks, and quahogs are, well, out of the question. But those mussels will remain on my taste-bud memory forever – along with the “storm prep” the night before, which the Admiral reminds me of now and again.

Jim is a retired college professor and a retired USCG-R chief petty officer.

Dede is a retired hospital administrator who now plays grandmother to two grandchildren. Lifelong cruisers under both sail and power, they plan their adventures out of their homeport of East Greenwich, R.I. Part 2 of the McGuire’s Long Island cruise will appear in the September issue.