“So throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain
Sailboats moaned against dock lines, water lapped against hulls, and halyards pinged against masts in the dark.
I’ve just returned home from a memorable evening with friends at the Upper Deck restaurant at the Willsboro Bay Marina. After dinner we walked out to the western end of dock number two (the dock where Errant spent her first evening this summer.) Miriam wanted us to see the view looking north — past this silhouetted spit of land — toward the mouth of Willsboro Bay.
“It feels, to me,” she said, “like the heart of the Adirondacks.”
And it did. It does.
We stood a while and enjoyed the falling evening. Sailboats moaned against dock lines, water lapped against hulls, and halyards pinged against masts in the dark.
Today was the picture-perfect start to the sailing season. The sunshine and warmth and wind delivered an auspicious rebuttal to yesterday’s chilly, drizzly launch. And even more fortunate, I was joined by my father and sister for the sail south from Willsboro Bay Marina to the Essex Marina.
Lazy Day Log
The mostly north-northwest wind varied 6 to 12 knots with very minimal wave action. We motored north out of Willsboro Bay and raised our sales as we rounded the tip of Willsboro Point. Smooth sailing all the way, and approximately four hours of catch-up time. My father sailed most of the way, and my sister helped with the charts/navigation and even spent some time at the helm.
Docking still revs up my anxiety meter, and while I know this will change as my skills/confidence improve, I arrived at the Essex Marina with a twinge of dread. But light winds, forethought, and ample good fortune served me well. The boat responded perfectly, and my crew stacked the odds in my favor. A huge relief!
Projects on the Horizon
Errant feels ready for a summer of sailing. I’m excited as I look forward.
I still need to rig one or two reefing points. I’ll try to take care of that over the course of the week plus a handful of other projects that I still need to tackle including ordering and installing new halyards, ordering and installing new name, sealing a couple of slow topside leaks. But all in all, Errant feels ready for a summer of sailing. I’m excited as I look forward.
Water Level Worries
Unfortunately recent rains have elevated the Lake Champlain water level by 2+ feet, and the waves are now breaking over the marina’s docks and fingers. I had to set up a temporary spring stretched across the channel just to keep Errant off the dock. Fingers crossed that the rains will diminish in the lake level will begin to fall.
Thursday’s sail north from Essex Marina to Willsboro Bay Marina with Jim and Mark was a great way to wrap up my first (extremely abbreviated) season sailing Da Capo/Errant. Smooth sailing with moderate to light winds and calm seas; bluebird skies and cool-to-warm temperatures; and the companionship of two close friends who are both intricately woven into my boating/sailing narrative.
Sail to Power to Sail
As I’ve mentioned previously, I grew up sailing. My father taught my brother, sister, and me to sail — first a Paceship 17 (P17), then an Alcort Sailfish, and later a Tiga sailboard — when I was a youngster. Probably between 8 and 14 years old I was strictly a sailor.
I envied neighbors who had powerboats, mostly because it opened the possibility of waterskiing which I had learned to do. But my parents were keen on the environment, not motorboats. So when I got my first job as a dock boy at the Westport Marina (owned and operated by Jim and his family), I took advantage of every opportunity that I could to operate powerboats. Jim was my boss, but he was a benevolent boss and soon a friend. He opened up the wide world of powerboat opportunities, allowing me to take out the staff at the end of the work day for an end-of-shift ski. I jumped at every opportunity to join him (or his brother Larry) on rescues, zooming through often messy conditions in a Shamrock workboat that looked like a miniature tugboat. I shuttled boaters out to moorings, moved boats between slips, delivered boats to clients with waterfront docks elsewhere on Lake Champlain, and weaseled my way into just about any boating experience I could finagle.
In short, during my teens and early twenties I barely sailed at all!
But I found my way back to sailing in my mid twenties. I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico (check out our current adobe oasis!) and windsurfing on the desert southwest’s tiny manmade lakes offered the perfect antidote to lake-longing. My girlfriend and I acquired a hodgepodge of secondhand gear and taught ourselves to chase high dessert storms.
In my early thirties my brother and I balanced summer ski boats with Hobie Cat 16 sailing. To this day I consider sailboarding and small, fast catamaran sailing to be just about the most exhilarating watersport out there!
But I’m missing a chapter in my boating narrative. In my twenties and thirties I began to dream of sailing and cruising in larger monohulls. Mostly it was daydreaming. Reading and rereading worn Nautical Quarterly volumes, flipping through sailing magazines, and wandering marinas. Some day…
As in my early power boating days I pursued any and every opportunity to get aboard a sailboat. Shortly after moving back to the United States after living in France for almost four years I began collaborating with Jim and Mark on an e-commerce project called ShipStore.com. Mark was living on a sailboat in Benecia, California and racing an asymmetrical dinghy on weekends. Cool!
I remember like it was yesterday the sun soaked day that Mark and I spent with our brides sailing, eating, brainstorming, daydreaming on his sailboat Wandering Rose. Ever since he’s encouraged my desire to sail and cruise (and possibly some day, even live aboard). And Mark was instrumental in helping me evaluate Da Capo/Errant.
So it seemed apropos that I should conclude my skinny season number one with both Jim and Mark. One opened up the world of power boating (effectively wooing me away from sailboats) and the other guided me back to my sailing roots. Narrative perfection!
Following a charmed afternoon of sailing, we dropped the sails and headed into Willsboro Bay. The good folks at Willsboro Bay Marina invited me to spend the night in the slip of Da Capo/Errant’s previous owner, ensuring that I would be ready bright and early to bring the boat to the service dock / travel lift for hauling.
We cracked open the rum and grilled a tasty supper on the boat. Lots of laughter and libations later, Jim headed home and Mark and I turned in for my first night of sleep on the new boat and the last night of boating for the season.
Good Satellite Radio Karma
Sometimes life rhymes. Or so it seems. And when it does, it’s especially fine to accompany it with an appropriate soundtrack.
As I drove to the marina at the outset of this journey look what came up in the playlist…
Time to test-sail Da Capo, the Catalina 310 at the Willsboro Bay Marina that I’m considering purchasing. Fortunately my good friend Mark Engelhardt, a seasoned sailboat racer, cruiser, and liveaboard, joined me today for a trial run. Even more fortunate? He lives in Montpelier, Vermont and was willing to come north for an early morning ferry ride to Essex, a hardy Rosslyn breakfast (I tempted him with farm fresh scrambled eggs and bacon!) and a sail.
Conditions were perfect. Sunny. Cool. And a building breeze of about 12 knots greeted us when we arrived at the marina. The owner welcomed us warmly, and after brief introductions we throttled up and loosed the dock lines.
“Normally we have to motor out on the channel,” the owner said. “But today we can sail. Wind’s perfect.”
The owner was at the helm, and for the first time I began to feel a little jittery. Butterflies? Was I ready for this? He backed out of the slip and headed out onto Willsboro Bay.
We ran up the main, unfurled the 135% genoa, and cut the engine. As the diesel died and the luffing sails filled, I was struck by the quiet. The gentle vibration of the engine was replaced by the slosh of water and the subtle sense of straining as the wind leaned into the sails and rigging, and the hull sliced through the waves. The vessel felt solid as she healed subtly away from the wind.
Breezy with Butterflies
The owner remained at the helm, describing the the boat’s character, and gesticulating to illustrate his points. He was relaxed and content. Confident. Hands lightly on the wheel, smiling.
I was feeling excited and nervous all at once. Wind power exhilarates AND calms me. But that childlike enthusiasm was only one part of what I was feeling. I was also catapulting forward quickly toward boat ownership. I’ve dreamed of this for decades. But was I ready?
“Are you ready?” he asked me.
I was. And I wasn’t. Suddenly the enormity of this step, this responsibility, this learning curve washed over me. I was excited. And nervous.
“Sure,” I lied. “You bet!”
I replaced the owner behind the helm and stood, feet shoulder width apart, suddenly more conscious of the wind’s power and the texture of the water rushing beneath the hull, pulling gently at the rudder.
A gust loaded up the main and I overcorrected, rounding up and causing the boat to wallow. I colored, resolved to be less jumpy, to trust the boat.
And then the wind buffeted us again. And I rounded up again. Steady. Gust. Fall off. Wallow.
Mark asked the owner if the boat gets squirrelly in heavy wind. It’s not bad, the owner explained in a circuitous way, more comfortable in French than in English. He explained that Catalina recommends reefing the main above 17 or 18 knots. He usually waits until 20 knots or so, he said smiling. I glanced at the gauges and saw that we were pretty consistently in the high teens, and the gusts were pushing us above 20 knots.
Another gust and I overcorrected again. My palms were sweaty. I was clenching the wheel tightly. I loosened my grip, widened my stance, breathed in and out slowly. Mark and the owner encouraged me to trust the vessel, to let it push through the gusts without rounding up. And I began to. Slowly. And she held her course, plugged through the light chop, accelerated.
“Have you ever sailed before?” the owner asked.
I was taken aback, though I tried not to betray it. I explained that I’d grown up sailing. As a young boy I learned to sail my family’s daysailer with my father, a Paceship 17 (P17), and then sailed an Alcort Sailfish during my middle and high school years. I’ve owned a fleet of windsurfers and a pair of Hobie Cat 16s. And any time I’ve had the chance to try out other sailboats I’ve grabbed the rudder or wheel.
But the truth is that I’ve done very little keel boat sailing. I’ve daysailed on friends’s boats, and I’ve chartered captained sailboats in France and Turkey. But sailing and owning a keel boat was going to be a totally new adventure for me. And it was turning out that my instincts and my muscle memory would need some work!
I began to feel more comfortable. I was resisting the reflex to round up each time a gust knocked into us, and my confidence was growing. I felt more confident, and I began to relax. The boat is heavy and handles predictably. The wind and my own responses were unpredictable, but I was getting the hang of it.
Mark swapped out with me so that I could handle the lines and he could run the vessel through some tests. And before I knew it we’d been out on the water for over an hour and needed to wrap up. Mark was satisfied that the boat was sound and handled well. I was relieved to have achieved a modest degree of comfort and confidence at the helm. And Da Capo’s owner was pleased that we liked his boat. It was time to head back to the marina…