Taking the Tiller: There's No Place Like Home

Dodging fish traps and whales, The Atomic 4 sails into Padanaram

July 7 rolled around and lucky for us, it was a beautiful day. Julie and Brian, co-owners of The Atomic 4, had other plans, but they gave us a ride to Newport in the morning and good-naturedly turned the car around once when we realized that we'd forgotten the chart I had borrowed from Cruising World.

We left Newport at 8:15 a.m. under sunny skies and very light airs. We passed Castle Hill and gave Brenton Point a wide berth because of the reef there. And though it was clearly marked on the chart, I'm grateful to have been warned by colleagues Andrew Burton and Tony Bessinger about the fish-trap area that begins off Easton's Beach and extends to just west of Sakonnet Point, where fishing nets stretch just beneath the surface of the water, marked by buoys at either end.

Shortly after we were clear of the hazard, I spotted something floating that I thought might be a large buoy. I grabbed the binoculars to get a closer look and discovered that it was a dead whale, about 12 to 14 feet long. It was floating upside down, but I didn't see any obvious signs of trauma so I couldn't tell if it was hit by a boat or died of disease. It might have been a minke whale because they're plentiful on the New England coast in the summer months and they're smaller than the other species that migrate through the area. I don't know what damage would've occurred if we'd hit the whale, but it was another lesson in always keeping a sharp lookout, even when you think you're in the open ocean.

We raised the sails and turned off the engine around 11:00, still in light airs but with enough of a breeze to move along at a leisurely pace. At about this time we saw a boat off our port side that we'd been anchored right next to at Fishers Island. I don't know whether they recognized us-it was a Beneteau named Scotch Mist-but I liked that cruising connection of seeing a familiar boat on a different leg of our journey.

I was pleased with myself to be the first to spot the Buzzard's Bay tower, which looks less like a tower and more like an oil rig. Charlie is usually the first to spot the marks, but my eyes are becoming accustomed to scanning the horizon and picking out small details and changes. Upon entering Buzzards Bay, the wind, which was southwest all day, picked up, gusting 15 to 20, and The Atomic 4 really started to fly.

"Tommy's happy to be in home waters," Charlie said.

Now here's where the matter of gender comes in for you patient and faithful readers of this blog. And perhaps this is where I disappoint you, because it turns out that Tommy's a girl, just like every other boat out there. I was hoping to start a new trend, but I haven't succeeded yet.

When I said to Charlie that Tommy was a boy's name, and therefore, she was a he, Charlie consented for a few days. But traditionalist that he is, Charlie eventually decided that Tommy was short for Thomasina, and that our new boat would remain a she.

We could've saved some time by going inside of Hen and Chickens off Gooseberry Neck in Westport, but the issue didn't even come up. We were making good time, and it was much easier to sail wide and stay offshore..
We sailed into Padanaram about 2:45 after covering nearly 30 nautical miles. Our mooring is on the north side of the Padanaram Bridge, which is scheduled to open at the top of every hour from 8:00 a.m to 9:00 p.m during the summer . Many locals find this a nuisance, but making the bridge is a minor inconvenience outweighed by the increased protection from nasty weather. The bridge tenders monitor Channel 13, and we've always found them to be friendly and helpful.

Charlie decided it was time to drop the sails and motor around until the bridge opened. It was gusty, but I was in a familiar harbor and I was getting comfortable with this maneuver. I chose a landmark on shore, upwind of us, to keep the bow pointed toward. When I took the tiller, I could tell immediately that something was wrong, but I didn't know what. All I knew is that I had no control over the boat. No matter what I did with the tiller, I couldn't keep the bow in to the wind.

"Charlie, something's wrong," I said, right away. "I can't keep the bow pointed toward shore." He came back to investigate, and it turns out that he didn't hand the helm to me with the engine in gear. Maybe I should've realized this-and next time I'll certainly check. When Charlie put it in gear and went back on deck to continue dropping and furling the main, I regained steerage. As Charlie pointed out afterward, the key thing I did was immediately sensing that something was wrong and telling him right away.

We went through the bridge and headed for our mooring. I missed the pick-up stick on the first attempt but got it securely on the second. We'd put in a call to our co-owners, Julie and Brian, who met us at the town dock to come out and celebrate the arrival of The Atomic 4. We dinghied over in Sparky, picked them up, zipped back to The Atomic 4 and opened a bottle of champagne.

We were home.