Sunday, 21 November 2010

An Atlantic Odyssey

This weekend, I sailed almost 100 miles from Atlantic City, NJ to New York Harbor in a 30-36ft sailboat.

Mark Giff0rd, who teaches Science at a school in East Harlem (where I work!) is from Kansas City, MO. He moved here to take the job at Inn0vation. Weary of his New York apartment search, he decided to step way out of the box and live on a boat. He found a marina from which he could commute to Manhattan, bought a boat that was located in Trenton, and then attempted to sail it up the coast. However, a full day of getting bashed by 8ft waves prevented him from taking it any further than Atlantic City, specifically the Trump Casino Marina.

I was always fascinated by Mark's boat idea, so when he came to me seeking a crew for the remainder of his journey, I immediately thought of my experienced sailor-friend, T3d. Before we knew it, a crew consisting of myself, T3d & Linds3ytr0n were in a car driving to Atlantic City with supplies, sleeping bags, & goodies (home-made Mead, Monnkey Bread, etc.)

I drove the majority of the way (in a Honda 5-speed... GOD I miss driving a stick-shift!) & was completely exhausted when we finally arrived. We had only about 3 -4 hours to sleep until our early departure, so we settled into our bunks in the cozy cabin and hit the sack.

I awoke to the sound of the motor starting right next to my feet. Mark was ready to go, so we climbed above deck and acclimated ourselves to various ends of the craft as we idled out to sea. While I helped shove us off from the dock with a pole, the tip slipped and I fell on one of the rail supports at the edge of the boat, right on my heart. I must have bruised a rib, cause as I write this my left ribcage is sore upon full inhalation. Ouch!!! I do some stupid acrobatic stuff, but all of my major injuries result from mundane tasks. What happened NEXT was really sobering:

Just out of the Marina is the Absecon Inlet, which connects Absecon Bay to the Atlantic. Common sense tells you that any inlet on the Atlantic has more tidal force than the surrounding waters. An enormous volume of water is concentrated through a relatively small bottleneck as tides flush in and out, so even if your forecast calls for 4 ft seas, you can expect to see larger waves in these areas.

We headed east out of the inlet, and we were immediately struck with a series of 8 - 10 ft waves that really got our attention! Everyone held on tight and a wave of panic & fear silently swept us... Ted, Lindsey and I were all thinking "is this how it's gonna be?" My heart kinda sank into my stomach, and I thought Mark was a crazy man. Of course, I wasn't really thinking much since I was hanging on to the boat for dear life. The violent waves caused a hook connecting the boom to the mast to break, and the boom fell about a foot over our heads and broke the canvas canopy. Things looked pretty effed straight outta the gates!!!

However, we turned north once we reached a cruising distance from shore, and everything calmed down a bit. Unfortunately, it was enough to render Ted seriously nauseated, and despite Dramamine being passed between Mark Lindsey & Ted, he gave a generous gift of vomit to the gods of the Atlantic, many times over. Ted & Lindsey took a nap to recover from the nausea & lack of sleep, and Mark and I debated the broken Boom/Mast connection. We couldn't figure out how the cable from Boom to Mast originally connected, it was broken in such a strange (and hard to explain in words) way that it was quite a puzzle and had us stumped. And since Mark had no tools aboard the boat (?) I felt like it was one of those engineering competition challenges where you get a fixed set of strange pieces and a big problem to solve in a short amount of time. Game on!

Then it struck me! I am a little obsessed with taking pictures, anyone who knows me can tell you I always have a camera with me and am not above setting up a timer and running into a crowd to get a shot of me & what's going on. Well, this time it paid off in a big way. I remembered that when we left in the morning, I had taken a photo of Mark, and right behind his head was the Boom connected to the Mast precisely where the cable and hardware was broken! I could review the picture I took to see how it originally connected!!!

The photo was hazy at that level of detail, but we ruled out a number of hypotheses and were able to get an idea of how it worked before the waves broke it. With this information, we decided that the hook could simply be hammered to an angle that would grab & keep hold of the eyelet attached to the boom. Unfortunately there was only a box of random boat hardware on the boat, no tools. Mark suggested I use the sailcrank to slip over the hook, gain leverage and pry it into a sharper angle. I stood above him as he continued to steer, grabbed hold of one of the shroud cables, and bent the hook. At its new angle I was able to further bend it with my own bare hands, and finally I got it into a shape that would hold the boom's eyelet.
Mark briefly let go of the rudder and helped me lift the giant boom up enough to get the newly bent hook through the eye, and finally the boom was back at operating level!

I took the rudder, and Mark decided to hoist the Mainsail to finally get some wind power generated. Below deck, ted was getting some much needed sleep. I felt really lucky that I never get motion sickness or sea sickness.

Mark got the mainsail to about 80% up the mast when the steel cable disengaged from the pulley atop the mast and froze the sail in place. We still got a generous burst of wind power, but I could tell Mark was really upset at the malfunction. We tried fixing it a number of ways, but aside from climbing the mast itself (BELIEVE me, if I could have, I would have!!!) there was nothing we could do. But now we had the sail up, and were being propelled by the wind! At this point conditions at sea became much more like the forecast. In fact, the sun was bright in the cloudless sky, the waves were tiny, and the wind died down too... and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

We came across a few inlets after the Absecon, and were ready each time. With the mainsail hoisted, the boat was stabilized against side to side swaying, which is what really got Ted sick. I roused the sleepers and updated them on our boat repairs and current status. Spirits were raised, and Breakfast commenced!

Breakfast, in its many and continuous forms, consisted of cereal, oatmeal, animal crackers, chocolate, instant coffee, cheese & crackers, water, and vitamins.

Now that Ted was back in ship shape, he suggested we raise the Jib, which is the smaller sail up on the bow. Ted attached the jib to a crank on the mast and raised it while he instructed me on attaching the hypotenuse edge to the shroud that goes from top of mast to tip of bow with small hooks. Just before we hit another choppy inlet, we had the Jib raised!!! I gave Ted a high-five and experienced, for the first time, the exhilaration of manual-labor teamwork at sea. We were physically harnessing the free wind with beautiful cables and pulleys, canvass, wood & metal on water! What a cool feeling.

Mark was beat, so he took a nap. Ted and Lindsey followed suit, and I had a good hour or two piloting the boat on my own. I gazed at the sky, I steered the ship, I took photos, checked the GPS, watching sea birds dive into schools of baitfish, and just breathed in the sea air. From this point on it was truly smooth sailing. A critical point in the journey soon followed...

Our origianl plan was to sail all day to Point Pleasant, which is the last of a series of inlets where we could conceivably anchor and stay the night. We would sleep, wake up early and make the rest of the journey to NYC on Sunday. Making it to Point Pleasant meant that about 70% of the journey would be complete, making Sunday an easier day. Mark had planted the seed early on that if we felt like it, we could just sail on through the night.

My first opinion was that we should stop. I love camping, and more importantly, I really really value my sleep these days and especially in physically demanding situations like this. However, getting back to NYC and having a full day to recover before work sounded REALLY sweet, and Mark continued to bring it up as a desirable option, and affirmed that he could personally pilot the last midnight legs of the journey. Ted & Lindsey both liked the sound of it as well. So while I was alone on deck, I approached Point Pleasant, and negotiated the inlet. I decided I wouldn't even stop to ask, we would sail straight through.

The crew slowly roused as the sun began to set. The sky became violent red with fire-streaked clouds and soothing swaths of vesper. Everyone's a poet out here! I informed the group that our course was decided, and we prepared for the second leg.

The smooth sailing continued. We ate, crawled all over the boat, sat silent soaking in the beauty of the journey, always staying within eyesight of the beach, headed due north to a distant New York Harbor. Night fell, and with it a full plate of a moon, casting a brilliant reflection over the sea. How incredible, to be sailing by moonlight... it was another world, for sure.

Mark took out some soup cans, and Lindsey fired up a camping gas grill. We all ate soup, drank Crow's Nest mead & Irish whiskey & hot apple cider cocktails. After a coupole hours we rounded Sandy Hook, and one could make out the distant towering red lights of the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge, miles and miles away!!!

My energy was fading, and I decided to take my nap! Earplugs in, snug in a sleeping bag like a caterpillar in a cocoon, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the gentle swell of waves below deck.... wake me as we make the final approach to the Verazzano-Narrows!

It wasn't more than an hour when I awoke to dramatic swells and things falling off the shelves. Was it Josh the Bitey Whale!!??? or was I dreaming? No, the trip's Karma was about to equalize, we fell into the hands of unexpected strong winds and rough seas. I quickly jumped out of bed and geared up to meet my shipmates and lend a hand.

I climbed up on deck and got a report. Past Sandy Hook, the waters lose the protection of the barrier islands, becoming subject to strong winds and waves. The wind had also shifted, and was hindering us with our sails up. Ted and I took down the Jib and stowed it down the Captain's hatch. It was much more difficult to keep balance in this condition than it was when we raised the jib. We constantly had to find cables and supports to hold onto lest we get tossed overboard.

The Verazzano-Narrows bridge was now fully visible, albeit a mile or two away. At our pace, that's a long time. We tackled the Mainsail next. Now remember, the Mainsail is stuck in it's 80% position on the mast. We can't pull it down with all our strength, so Mark suggested we detatch it from the Boom and bring it towards the mast, and then wrap it up there.

We untied the mainsail from the tip of the boom, just over the pilot's seat in the rear. Dear reader, the wind was intense. Once the mainsail was loose from its connection to the boom it became - and I want you to really meditate on this statement - possessed by a great violent demon from the sea. I can't put it any other way.

What happened next was remarkably ridiculous and dangerous. The mainsail, now a great ghost under a canvas sheet, began violently convulsing as Ted and I attempted to bring it to the mast. The wind was howling in the night, the seas tossed our silboat side to side, and the canvas flapped like a giant towel being snapped at our bodies. The end of the mainsail had a rigid flat rod sewn in that I took notice of in an instant. I yelled at Ted to warn him that our Ghost had a machete hidden in its robe and meant to do us in. I grabbed the rod with one arm, the other now wrapped desperately around the mast. Ted grabbed a coil of rope from the Starboard side for tying us up to a dock, and proceeded to wrap it around our attacker. Our aim was to tie this beast to the mast for the remainder of the journey and just motor in. But the beast would not relent.

The sail scontinued to beat us over and over, I began to laugh a little as Ted and I ducked and grabbed hold of the boat to take a rest. We were being bested by the wind in a robe, it's feet only tied to our mast, its angry body in desparate rhythmic spasms trying to get free. I joked to Ted "It's screaming 'Never, Never, Never, Never, Never!!!!!' " and I actually became a little horrified by my own characterization, that's how vivid and anthropomorphic the great ghost on the mast appeared.

Something had to be done, we had a huge pulsating snapping bubble on our mast! Ted and I revised our plans a bit and jumped back in to wrestle the beast. This time, more rope, tied higher up, to minimize the amount of wind-filled sail. We were rapidly approaching the Verazanno-Narrows, and it seemed the ghost did NOT want to accompany us past the bridge.

We wrestled and wrapped rope until we could go no further. At times, I was actually yelling "You SON of BITCH!" and just plain screaming war cries before making some crazy grab at the powerful creature, holding it to the mast, and passing rope around to Ted. You must understand, dear reader, that the wind was so strong, and the sail obviously so efficient by design at catching this wind and creating resistance, that two grown men could not successfully strong-arm the sail. Every time I grabbed a handful of sail, it took all my strength to pull it to the Mast, and a great deal of balance and care to use another hand to both grab rope and keep myself secured to the ship, which was swaying and bouncing on the waves. In this moment, I contemplated my friendship with Ted, our odd lives, how we got out here, what we were doing. I love you, Ted. Again, Ted and I dodged the swinging arms of fury and fell to the deck, grabbing hold of the railing, catching our breath.

We returned to the pilot's seat where Mark was watching us in awe & worrying that we did not have life jackets on. I asked Mark "How did that look from back here?" Absolutely Insane.
Then Ted and Mark had a plan. We would turn westward to see if meeting the wind at a different angle would kill the wind in the sail, allowing us to secure it further up the mast. It worked, so we tied the sail up to the dead ghost's chest. Now only its head would shake, and we could deal with that!

Next we crossed under the Verazanno-Narrows bridge. It was the middle of the night, and everything had a ghostly, quiet film over it. Giant freighters and barges sat silently in the black waters of New York Harbor, their glowing eyes upon us, as if we were a little cat toy slowly being dragged past giant cats with stomachs already full of mice, subdued by catnip, curious none the less.

I remarked, "I feel like I have left my life, and am now sneaking back in through a secret door." - And that's the best way to describe what I felt. I recognized New York City, Brooklyn, the Statue of Liberty, but everything was closed down and quiet, eerie like a restaurant with its chairs up on the tables, lit only by the street outside. We slipped through the black butter of the harbor at midnight.

It was really tough to enjoy the beauty of this scene, though. I was beyond exhausted, by this time FREEZING cold, beaten down by the mast monster, and feeling sick. I lost my voice, too - it was gone when I first woke up from my nap. I was watching for buoys and boats for Mark as he steered us slowly through the Harbor.

The staten Island Ferry, as viewed from a little sailboat in the harbor at night, is more like a giant freight train that moves like it wouldn't think twice about ramming us full-on if we happened to be in its path. More anxiety as we try to negotiate its path and return... There must have been 20-30 large barges and ships in the harbor, some moving slowly with tugboats, others just waiting. We had to identify them in the dark, and quickly decide if they were moving and in what direction - not an easy task in our condition!

Finally Mark pointed out the distant Jersey City shore, and a giant building that marked our final destination - the Marina!!!!

Still, at our speed, it was probably almost an hour away. We crept past the Manhattan waterfront, carefully making our way across the Ferry's path. Ted and Lindsey had retired below deck. A cute little tug boat was running parallel to us about 300 yards off the Port, so Mark changed our path to let it pass quietly. All of a sudden and out of nowhere, a GIANT rouge wave from the wake of this unassuming little tugboat hit us from the port side, and we went tilting almost horizontal, first to the right, and then to the left!!! things came crashing off the shelves, I think ted fell out of bed, we all grabbed the deck and held on for dear life!!!!!! who could see it coming!?

After all the trials and tribulations of the journey, we were almost sunk by a toy boat. Those little tugs have so much power - pushing the barges in and out of the harbor every day - they're churning up so much water with a deceptively small wake... but the repercussions were epic, for us at least.

After the tugboat disappeared into the wall of lights that was the financial district waterfront, we had a clear path to the Marina.
Mark steered us in, as I sat watching for boats, continuously passing out were I sat. Mark kept making small talk, probably to keep me awake and alert, and I'd wake up and mutter something in my lost voice, a hoarse blah blah blah, to which he'd be like, "wha?" He wanted me to stay awake for our landing at the dock, too, so I could hop out and brace us against the wood.

Somehow, I managed to retain consciousness and jump out when Mark eased her into position and stop the boat with my arms and gently guide her in. I tied up the front and looking back saw Mark on his knees, kissing the dock. We high-fived and he said" Ok! I'm going to bed, goodnight"

I took two swigs of Nyquil, inserted ear pugs, laid on my back in my bunk, arms crossed like a corpse at a wake, and essentially died.

Ribcage sore, voice gone, frozen to the bone DESPITE::: my famous gortex ski pants, snow boots, my Dad's 1960's Coast Guard Issued P-Coat (from when he was in the service), and thick wool socks::: feeling a cold coming on and generally exhausted from a full day & night at sea with no sleep... I thawed out in my sleeping bag, happy to be dry and alive and safe.

Sailing through the night was tough, but today I am in sweats and a hoodie, drinking hot tea, napping, blogging, painting, and recovering. I'm happy to be back on land, though. I can't wait until spring & summer when sailing doesn't mean wearing all of your best winter gear! I wish Mark the best of luck in his new home at the Marina, and I'm super-stoked to know someone in the NYC area who owns a sailboat!!!!!!!!!

congratulations to Mark and our crew for the successful journey. Peace, Love, goodnight.

Matt Boyle
November 21st, 2010