(Continuing the sailing book that I started on March 30 2005. this is Chapter 0ne)
Hampton Bays, Long Island
Sailing came into my life relatively late, in my 20's. Coming literally from the wrong side of the tracks, a post-war, working-class development north of the L.I.R.R. tracks in West Babylon, the feeling growing up was that sailing was reserved for the privileged kids from towns like Babylon on the Island's South Shore. Like the tastes of champagne and caviar, I wondered what sailing would be like, envious of the dashing preppies with sun-tanned grace, blonde sisters and waterfront homes.
Looking back, the boys were poseurs, clerks from Abercrombie and Fitch. The surfer/sailor style ideal lost its appeal for me when I bought my first motorcycle and leather jacket. But the ocean's attraction never waned.
The First Boat
My ticket out of blue-collar, suburban Long Island was the same one that introduced me to the sea. With the loving assistance of my high school principal, a Daddy Warbucks look alike named Russell Van Brunt, I was accepted into the Maritime College of the State University of New York. Mr. Van Brunt had been a U.S. Navy captain during WW II, and stationed in San Juan held the island people in special regard. As the only family of Puerto Rican descent in the school district at the time, we attracted a disproportionate amount of his caring attention. He counseled and convinced me that a life at sea was preferable to the track I was on toward the end of high school, essentially non-violent juvenile delinquency and petty crime.
After a summer spent taking remedial English and math courses at community college in Brooklyn, I started at Maritime in fall 1961. John F. Kennedy was president, the Cuban missile crisis would soon become the closest we came to conflagration, and I learned about the sea as a cadet and midshipman in the Navy ROTC.
Upon completion of the four-year program, cadets receive both a bachelor's degree and a reserve officer's commission. And while I never finished, the two years spent there were crucial to my evolution as a man and as a sailor. Called Fort Schuyler, after the revolutionary war-era fortification that housed most of the campus classrooms, the then all-male college lies at the intersection of the East River and the Long Island Sound, on the Bronx side, just under the Throgs Neck Bridge. There were no dormitories then. We lived on board a 500 ton converted troop transport docked in the literal shadow of then big new bridge.
As a member of Schuyler's rowing team, every morning in the pre-dawn hours I was on the water. We didn't use the racing shells popular in civilian colleges. Our eight-oared craft with coxswain were the heavy monomoys, double-ended lifeboats found on most ocean-faring vessels. We rowed in competition with the crews from visiting ocean liners, against the other state academies, Maine, Massachusetts and California, and against our most bitter rivals, the United States Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, located just a mile across the Sound from Schuyler on Long Island's upscale North Shore.
The main event of the season was the annual International Seamen's Race.
Featuring the five crews from the state and national academies, the race was run over a one-mile measured course in the Narrows in New York harbor off Brooklyn Heights in front of a large crowd lining the waterfront park that parallels the Belt Parkway.
While the drama of those races run has stayed with me over the years, the sensory memories overwhelm even the joy of victory or agony of defeat. Rowing through the river mist after first light but before sunrise, there is a salt tang as potent as a sizzling steak or a lover's perfume. Spending countless hours sitting on my bench as starboard stroke oar, inches from the choppy waters of the Sound, I can still conjure that scent. To this day, carried on an ocean breeze it fills my head with remembrance of Schuyler and the promise of the sea.
The 'Francina' was my first sailboat, a vintage, gaff-rigged wooden sloop that came into my life shortly after prosperity. It was the summer of 1976, and I was the roving reporter on the original cast of ABC's 'Good Morning America'. Already twice divorced, I was engaged at the time to a lovely heiress with whom I rented a summer home in the Hamptons on Peconic Bay. Francine gave me half the sailboat for my birthday. I paid half the $3,000 purchase price, named the boat after her, and we were underway.
While the boat outlasted the relationship that ended soon after the season, we had a good run exploring the surprisingly untarnished region of bays, insets and islands found between the north and south forks of Eastern Long Island.
With 'Francina', I learned the basic physics of sailing, understanding how wind is converted into momentum. Indeed, my advice to all novice sailors is to start small. Once you learn how to use wind to make your boat go forward, you can theoretically skipper any other boat, however large.
The outer limit of cruising life for 'Francina' was Block Island, Rhode Island's outpost of New England-style life located 20 miles off Montauk, Long Island's easternmost point. In that taste of real ocean between the island and the point, a sailor can experience every condition likely to be encountered on the vast expanse of open ocean, only smaller and closer to safe harbor and refuge from a storm.
In those soon familiar waters, I became proficient in skippering my boat through relative thick and thin. But I am still learning, narrowing the gap between a master sailor and me to the difference between someone fluent in a language and another who just makes himself understood. Both can experience plenty, but only one can weather any storm.
At twenty-feet, not much longer than an automobile, 'Francina' had the classic lines of the craft piloted by the watermen who for centuries harvested the fish and shellfish of the Sound and Great South Bay. I still have a photo of a boat that could be her sister-ship dated 1910 with three grave and formally dressed bearded guys standing on board, all looking like the pre-civil war abolitionist John Brown.
A gaff rig describes a boat with one big main sail thats' high point is held aloft by a boom that spreads the sail upward at an angle from the mast. In front of the mast is a smaller triangular sail called a jib. The beauty of a boat this small and rigged this way is that one person can handle her. Solo sailing is not only one of life's most liberating pastimes, it is also a practical necessity.
Remember that spouses, significant others, even best friends and children usually fail to maintain a skipper's enthusiasm over time.
(to be continued)