Voyage Of The Colby

I had slept the night before, on and off, in the quarter berth, listening to the bilge pump go on every five to six minutes. At 2 a.m., I got up, opened the hatch and emerged in the summer night air of Warwick Cove. It only took about 26 pumps of the manual bilge’s handle to empty the sailboat. But it was coming in much too fast.

Twenty years earlier, I had purchased a 27-foot Catalina 27 at the Savin Hill Yacht Club and brought her down during three windless days in early August. Now I was at the new Fairwinds Marina in Rhode Island, about to do a journey of similar length from a different direction in the same model vessel.

Two decades ago, we had an exhaust problem in the cabin and an overheating gasoline engine. This time, it was a diesel engine that wouldn’t exhaust at all and the propeller shaft so poorly packed that you could hear the rapid trickle. That is, until the pump came on. This is what kept me from a sound sleep. The sound of sinking and my impending death from drowning at a dock, 70 feet from shore, surrounded by scores of other boats.

It was a Tuesday by now, and James the mechanic, who had responded to my email the same day I sent it, had fixed the exhaust problem the day before. He showed up this morning with his young son to fix the leak. Within half an hour, he declared her good to go. By then, my nephew Noah – fresh from graduating George Mason University – had been dropped off by my sister Meg and his brother, Jonah.

We’d meant to leave by 7 a.m. but 8:30 was good enough. There was a north wind and the tide was running out of Narragansett Bay, and we needed to be on that before both turned against us by noon.

The engine started. Noah cast off. We drifted in our narrow slip, with barely a boat’s length between us and the vessels on the next dock. And I hadn’t piloted anything this big in 20 years. It was then it hit me, yet again as it had after I purchased her two weeks before, that I hadn’t owned anything this big for 20 years.

There were times when our Mako, Tilikum, had started to swamp and I’d run down the shore and lifted up the stern with one hand and fished around in the bilge to fix the pump with the other. That wouldn’t be happening here. I can’t pick up a sailboat as long as my house.

Now I needed to steer. Out between the docks and over to the fuel pumps at the next marina. Forward, reverse, throttle – all familiar. But much slower and sluggish to maneuver than a 17-foot speedboat. We didn’t crash into the fuel pumps but it wasn’t graceful.

The name of this sailboat had been a closely-held secret. I wasn’t about to name it before it was repaired and on its way home. Naming it after my daughter Sofie would have been confusing. “Where’s Sofie? Out on Sofie?” No. Rather, we honored our dear and devoted Corgi, Sofie’s dog brother who passed away last summer after a long bout with cancer. Colby always loved the water, was a good swimmer, and was a staunch protector of Sofie, and so would live on in this new vessel of ours.

Off the fuel dock and out of the cove, we passed a stone jetty after almost running aground because the navigation app on my phone froze for a moment. It began to dawn on me what had changed in the past two decades, as we made our way from buoy to buoy, the wind at our backs on a brilliant sunny day, towards the Newport Bridge.

With 4G service all along, I could not just find my way out of the Ocean State, but stay in touch with all manner of friends and family, video call, livestream passing under the bridge to people all over the world, track vessel movement, find the price of diesel at the next possible ports, overnight docking fees and recharge my phone all along the way.

Finally passing Castle Hill, we started making the turn east toward Buzzards Bay, the Vineyard. The ocean swells coming up from Block Island Sound began to toss us a little, and it was about the time I saw a seal snatch a sea robin 10 yards off our stern I began to get texts from friends to check on our status and offer advice. It was lunch time after all.

We made way for Cuttyhunk, motorsailing with a 12-knot wind behind us. Off in the distance we saw a large yacht coming up from the direction of Long Island, towing a center console power boat about the same size as Tilikum. We were in the shipping lanes. The open ocean. It was wonderful, and I was delighted. Never truly out of sight of land, yet with an unparalleled sense of freedom.

Unlike the passage from Boston, the one from Rhode Island is often less protected and fraught with chokepoints. When we lost our data signal at last, I pulled out the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book and showed Noah how to read it to determine when we had to catch the current through Vineyard Sound.

Since my last Catalina voyage, I had taken classes to get my master mariner’s license, along with some other safety and survival training. Much to my surprise, I’d aced the plotting section of that final test, one of which involved this very body of water. Heading, bearing, drift. These came back to me, despite the presence of the navigation app. The question was where, of all possible places along the way, should we stop for the night?

Despite the strengthening 15-knot wind coming up the Sound and a favorable current, it was getting late. So after turning hard back into the wind we furled our genoa sail, and in the process learning how the roller furling drum didn’t quite work without help.

Standing on the bow to help furl the sail while bobbing up and down in four-foot seas as the sun dipped low was a clear revisiting of a memory from the Boston trip. “I thought you were going to go over the side,” Noah told me after. At the wheel, he wondered what he’d do if I had.

With that, we bore off for the narrow entrance to Menemsha Creek. It was time to do what I’d always intended on this craft: explore.

Part II of Voyage of the Colby next month.