It’s great when a plan comes together

Published on June 23rd, 2021

Avoiding collision requires visibility which is hard in the fog, and once was a whole lot harder before pinpoint navigation tools. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and provides good stories… here’s one of them:

From Benjamin V. Cesare:
I was racing with a mentor, we will call him John, at a Sonar regatta in the late eighties, hosted out of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a one-day event and Saturday had yielded fantastic summertime conditions on Vineyard Sound, with three or four races in 80 degrees and a nice gradient aided sea breeze of 15-20 knots.

After the awards and cookout, it was revealed that my mentor had not lined up a solid place for us to spend the night. Since the Sunday forecast called for a big cold front and accompanying northwester, it seemed like a good idea to beat the rush to the hoist and avoid what promised to be a cold, rough sail back to the Cape.

So we decided to go back that night to Falmouth Yacht Club where the visiting boats had all launched from.

A solid plan…we made our way out to the boat which was on a mooring, hoisted a jib and promptly ran aground. No matter, it was such a beautiful star-filled night, with the warm southwesterly still blowing a solid 15. We quickly ungrounded ourselves hoisted the main and stowed the jib as there was plenty of breeze and obviously, we were in a prudent mood. At approximately 10:00pm, we sailed out of Oak Bluffs Harbor and were Falmouth bound.

I was steering roughly NNE on a very broad reach as we cleared the headland, East Chop Light to port, bidding us farewell as we sped past. I asked John what course to steer. Typical of Vineyard Sound, the current was ripping about two knots right to left, towards Woods Hole. John had out the Eldridge, a flashlight in one hand and the other on the tiny compass rose in the book to try and determine a heading, factoring in the vigorous flood tide.

Being young and fresh, I was confident to say the least and I had always loved sailing at night. As the calculations were being done, I sensed we needed a bit more easterly course so I hardened up a touch and brought the lighthouse beam to our starboard quarter. The occasional flashlight on the compass showed I was generally within 5 degrees of a Northeasterly heading, the wind being extremely steady and holding at about 15 knots.

As we moved out into the Sound and cleared the lee of Martha’s Vineyard, the quartering seas started to make my course a bit less reliable so I had to use the flashlight on the compass a little more frequently. John was still pondering the Eldridge in the cutty cabin, to not ruin my night vision, while he tried to factor our speed vs the current.

Directly overhead was a magnificent sky full of stars, only interrupted by the beam of the rapidly receding East Chop Light. The warmth of the air in the southwester and the delightful sound we made charging along under main alone made it spectacular sailing.

After a short bit John asked, “How fast do you think we are going?” We could have asked Bruce Kirby how fast a Sonar goes under main alone, broad-reaching in 15 knots, but he was back at the party on the Vineyard.

“Let me see the flashlight.” I cast the light down over the gunnel at the water rushing by…”Hmmm, pretty quick”….then as I lifted the light to parallel with the water… “Oh crap.” An immediate swivel of my head revealed that the East Chop Light which had been following us on our starboard quarter was gone.

A 360° pass of the light showed that we were in a warm, cylinder of fog, about 30 feet in diameter, with sheer, straight walls that went up about 50 feet….ending just above the mast, leaving a hole where the stars continued to twinkle.

“No problem,” says John. “I’m guessing we are going about 5 knots and we will be in Falmouth in about 30 more minutes. Come up to 55 degrees.”

He handed me back the light and I trimmed the main a bit, and with a bit more frequency I looked at the compass and held a pretty solid course, considering the surfing we were doing every third wave or so. We were now fully out of the lee of the Vineyard and it was blowing a solid 18 warm, beautiful, summer knots.

A very short while afterward, a light appeared above the fog. We pondered it. “A ship or barge?” I asked knowing that there is often commercial traffic on Vineyard Sound at night. “No,” said John. “We would hear it.”

“But it’s moving towards us for sure,” I remarked, certain it was some kind of steaming light. However, John was defiant. “No, you kids don’t pay attention…a solid white light alone is not a steaming light….and it’s moving too fast to be an anchor or drift light.”

Just as he finished his sentence, a dog barked and we simultaneously yelled “STREET LIGHT!” I put the helm down hard… nothing spins like a Sonar in anger, and in a boat length we had tacked and were headed safely back west.

We sailed back into Vineyard Sound for a few minutes while we let our adrenaline levels stabilize. Then we tacked and headed back towards the Cape at half pace until we spotted a flashing green. “Oh! We’re good!” I said. “Just need to find the red and we shoot right in through the breakwater.”

John was not as chatty…peering forward through his fogged eyeglasses. “OK, steer for the green but be ready…” So I did and in a minute or less, with the crashing sound of waves hitting a breakwater, a piece of granite emerged from the water to leeward and I put the helm down again, sending the Sonar into another bat turn.

“Ok, let me steer and you look,” said John in need of a new plan. Made sense… younger eyes plus a steadier helm. John was also probably musing on what his insurance agent might say about a nipper steering his boat in the fog, on Vineyard Sound at 11:00pm on a Saturday night, dorking around off a lee shore trying to find a channel entrance.

On the third try, we managed to shoot into the channel in the middle, keeping the granite to either side, and poof… the fog lifted a bit to show an anchorage. “Yeah! We made it…we’re here!” I enthused.

“Yes, but where ever here is,” remarked John less enthusiastically. “This isn’t Falmouth?” Apparently, we were going faster than five knots.

We took a mooring and dropped the main, flaking it over the boom so each side had enough to use as a comforter/dew cloth, and went to sleep with life jackets as pillows…(being the 1980s, the life jackets had stayed nice and dry in the cabin during our crossing).

The next morning, our beat from Green Pond to Falmouth in the 55 degree, 20-25 knot northwester was a mere two miles. With the boat cleaned up and on the trailer, we were showered and eating egg, bacon, and cheese on real Portuguese rolls while we watched the rest of the fleet hammer their way across Vineyard Sound.

It’s great when a plan comes together.

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