Taking the Tiller: Crawling Up the Coast

Light airs slow the delivery of the author's newly purchased Tartan

Charlie and I left Branford July 3rd with the optimistic idea of putting some serious sea miles behind us that day. I pulled up the anchor (another first), which I found less stress-inducing than dropping it, and we were off at 5:30 a.m.

Except for the occasional fishing boat, we had little company. We motored until about 11:00 a.m. That's not when the wind came up, by the way, it's just when we couldn't take the sound of the Atomic 4 anymore. Again, Charlie was within minutes of his estimations of when we'd pass each bell, but I think it's much more fun and sportsmanlike to make those estimations under sail. It was warm, and sunny, and the water was flat and calm, and there was nary a hint of wind. And it stayed that way almost all day.
So much for those sea miles.

One of our pre-trip purchases at West Marine was the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book-another must-have for your boat's library/nav station. I never knew what The Race was before, or that it ebbed and flooded, but I know now because the state of The Race was the deciding factor in choosing where we'd stop for the night.

The Race is a four-mile wide stretch of water that starts where the outflows from the Thames and Connecticut rivers meet the current from Long Island Sound. This channel connects Long Island Sound to Block Island Sound and the Atlantic. Even on the calmest of days, such as this one, the racing current creates waves and whirlpools, which may be great for fishing but are potentially hazardous for boats. In fact, even though Charlie was on the lookout for The Race, it still caught us off guard when all of a sudden the water looked as if we might hit a sandbar-or worse-any moment.

At about 11:15 a.m., we estimated that we'd hit The Race about 1:20 p.m., which we did, but the tide was against us. At this point, we had 21 miles to go to Great Salt Pond on Block Island, which, with the lack of wind and the tide against us would take more than the optimistic five hours Charlie had estimated.

So at around 3:00 p.m., we decided to play it safe and pointed the bow toward West Harbor on Fishers Island, just a couple of miles ahead near the Connecticut shore. West Harbor was the only harbor on Fishers recommended by A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast, a book I'd gotten to know quite well by this point since there had been no need for any fancy maneuvering in the no-wind conditions.

Well, wouldn't you know it, about a half hour after committing to Fishers, the breeze picked up-considerably. Pulling into an unfamiliar, crowded harbor in windy conditions isn't exactly fun, and at this point, Charlie didn't like the way the engine sounded, either. Once in, we headed straight to the fuel dock because we figured we must be low on fuel, though Charlie had checked the tank several times throughout the day and happily declared the economical engine "a sipper."

We walked over to the yacht club office and inquired about getting a mechanic from nearby Pirate's Cove Marine to take a look at the engine. The woman at the desk made the call for us, but by now it was 4:30 on the eve before the Fourth of July, and we were politely but firmly told that they were closing up shop and wouldn't be able to help us until the 5th.

Once again we chose not to pay for a slip, so we left the fuel dock and headed for the anchorage. Oddly enough, the engine sounded all right again. Charlie surmised that because our fuel had been low, maybe the remaining amount had mixed with a little water. I dropped the hook, a little easier the second time, but I'm still not completely confident. I can't tell yet (or is it feel?) when the anchor hits the bottom and digs in. A loud buzzer going off or a flashing red light would be helpful, but since our anchor didn't come with those features, I'm going have to figure it out myself.

Since neither of us had ever been to Fishers Island, we dinghied in for a little walk and some dinner. Choosing a place to eat was easy because, as the guidebook indicates, there's only one restaurant on the island-The Pequot Inn-and not exactly a five-star establishment, at that. But then we walked over to Toppers Ice Cream for dessert and had a much more satisfying culinary experience. Despite the hordes of people in line, the cheery staff of three behind the counter kept the smiles on their faces and the line moving.

We went back to the boat, intending to get another early start. With the ebb current helping us out of Fishers Island Sound and past Point Judith, plus a good breeze forecast, we were fairly confident we'd make it all the way to Padanaram- about 60 miles farther to the east.

At least, that's what we thought.