Taking the Tiller: <i>The Atomic 4</i> Fizzles on the Fourth

In her latest blog, associate editor Kitty Martin describes a rainy Independence Day transport

We awoke on the Fourth of July to a less than optimal weather forecast: increasing clouds, rain, possible thunderstorms, and a small-craft advisory in effect after 2:00 p.m. But with the early start we'd planned, we still had hopes of making it all the way to Padanaram before nightfall.

At 6:00 a.m., just as I awaited my signal to start raising the anchor, the engine wouldn't start. If no mechanic on Fishers Island would help us at 4:30 the previous afternoon, there was absolutely no hope of anyone lending a hand this early in the morning on a major holiday.

Charlie and I both shuddered at the thought of having to eat at the Pequot Inn again. Now we were really wishing that we'd made it all the way to Block Island.

We forgot about food and set our minds on getting the Atomic 4 started. Besides the impending weather, we were also trying to make the tide out of Fishers Island Sound, which has a fairly strong current to negotiate.

Charlie had the bright idea to call our friend Gerry Audette-aka Mr. Wizard. He's used to working on Mercedes and Rolls-Royces, but there's not an engine he can't fix, even over the phone. Gerry talked Charlie through the diagnostic process, which was time-consuming but necessary. Was there fuel? Yes. Did the engine have spark?

No. Was it the plugs? No. The coil? No.

It ended up being the points. They were stuck together and needed to be re-gapped. First, Charlie had to sand the points to re-face them, clean them, then, in true MacGyver-style, he re-gapped them with a matchbook.
We were ready to roll. But by now it was 10:00 a.m., we'd missed the tide, and we were that much closer to hitting the bad weather.

Fighting the current coming out of Fishers was no fun. Charlie was quiet and focused, and I did my helpful best by spotting the numbers on all the cans. We didn't take the Watch Hill Passage because Charlie didn't want to be set against the shore if the engine cut out again. Instead, we headed out into Block Island Sound, which according to the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, had less current and appeared the most direct route to open water.

Unfortunately, the forecast was accurate and the weather really started to deteriorate after 2:00 p.m. We were just off Point Judith, Rhode Island, as the wind started to gust from the southwest and the seas grew rolly. Then it started to rain.

Around 3:00, we abandoned the idea of Padanaram and settled on Newport. We were losing sight of Block Island, and we could see the Newport Bridge, which turned out to be incredibly deceptive distance-wise. I thought with a landmark like that in sight, we'd be in Newport in no time, but that wasn't case. (Turns out its towers are 400 feet tall.)

Shortly after this, Charlie decided to drop the main and just use the genoa. We were running before the wind at about four to five knots, so it was going to be a few hours to make it to Newport. We just didn't want to work too hard this late in the day, and the idea of an accidental jibe had no appeal on our untested rig.

Charlie handed me the tiller and told me to head into the wind so that he could drop the main, reminding me-firmly-to take caution against jibing. I've done this maneuver more than once, but this time was different. It was one of the few times on any boat that I moved past nervous and discovered fear. And I don't mean just intellectual fear. The fear was physical: My breathing quickened, I was shaking, and my stomach felt like it had suddenly leapt into my throat. It was gusty, the waves were breaking against the side of the boat, and I had to fight the tiller to keep the bow pointed in to the wind.

I had a vision of a sudden jibe and Charlie toppling overboard. As he struggled to get the main down quickly, I even shouted forward, "I'm nervous!" I didn't want to admit to actual fear.

Charlie simply shouted back, "Don't be. Just keep the bow in the wind."

His confidence in the boat, in his own abilities, and who knows, maybe even some growing confidence in my skills, was enough to reassure me. As with all things, it pays to stay calm. We pulled it off and continued on, and that momentary fear subsided almost as quickly as it had risen.

Around 4:30 p.m., the rain really began to come down and Charlie suggested I go below. No sense in both of us getting soaked. I'll sheepishly admit that we forgot to pack any foul-weather gear. But we did remember cellphones, so I made some calls to secure a place for the night.

Our friend Sean has a mooring in Brenton Cove, and though he'd already loaned it to a powerboat, he said the owners weren't around, so we were free to raft up alongside. Rafting up was another new skill I had to learn in a hurry. The concept is simple; we were mostly concerned about not damaging the other boat.

One essential item I did remember was my new Sperry boat shoes, which were great because the bow of this powerboat was high, steep, and slick with rain. I found rafting up much like jumping off the bow while docking, which I've done plenty of times, so it really wasn't all that hard. Charlie even complimented my dexterity, but I left the tying of the lines up to him. Though I have a few basic knots down-my specialty is basic cleating of a line-Charlie was hooking up some intricate designs to keep those two boats together.

We changed into dry clothes and called the launch for a ride in to town. We met Charlie's daughter, Julia, and her boyfriend, Edward, at Zelda's, which has always been one of my favorite Newport haunts. If I were rating our dinner in a cruising guide, I'd definitely give it two enthusiastic thumbs up.

It was raining hard again when we left Zelda's, so Julia and Edward gave us a ride to the dock to pick up the launch. We were asleep before long, but I was awakened in the night by buckets of rain accompanied by thunder and lightning. I also woke up a few times convinced someone was walking around on deck. Even Charlie agreed it sounded as if we had company. No one was there, but I've since heard that sound in other anchorages. Can you buy a haunted boat?

We awoke the next morning to gray skies, and the weather forecast was even worse than the day before, with heavy rain, extremely high winds, chance of thunder and lightning, and another small-craft advisory. With that mess in mind, our drive to get to Padanaram was diminished. It was Thursday now, and we wanted to wait until Saturday to resume the trip. But we couldn't stay rafted to this boat.

I called my brother-in-law, Dan, and he was able to secure us a nearby mooring that we could keep the boat on until Monday. As we motored over, we noticed a bunch of kids in small sailboats having a lesson, despite the weather. We watched a few capsize in that wind and both agreed we were happy to let them do the sailing that day.