Like an apparition enshrouded by a strangely bright white fog bank that hung above the suddenly still ocean, Block Island began to appear as a low featureless grey line on the horizon. At half a mile from our bow, the island was still a mystery. Invisible, the cliffs, hillsides, stately homes and entrance channel should have stood as monuments confirming our course. Instead, we only had a red line and a red blob on the radar identifying the first channel buoy at a quarter of a mile.
It was early, and after a 40-hour passage with little sleep, I still had enough judgment to know heading for the channel would put us in a predicament. Caprica was on the mainland side of Block Island with the rising sun that stood over a fog bank which created a blinding incapacitating glare. Thanks to our gadgets, we theoretically knew where the narrow channel entrance to the Great Salt Pond was but sailing into a fog that radiates an intense shimmer was against my better judgment.
I’ve seen Independence Day.
We held off at half of a mile and waited for a vessel to emerge from the channel, which confirmed our bearing. Slowly, the first channel marker revealed itself, flirting at us through the luminescent sea smoke until it and a fleet of small fishing vessels magically appeared with Block Island standing proud in the background. Falling into a progression of sail and powerboats, we entered the channel, rounding the first marker and lined up on the next. Caprica was pulled sideways against the current and towards the center of the contracted channel where the Sunday morning boat parade was exiting. We crab-walked past a gaggle of beachgoers enjoying the sunrise boating circus and were disgorged at last into the Great Salt Pond.
To our starboard, a cluster of yachts gently tugged at their mooring lines. Proud bows adorned with stainless steel anchors silently shamed an assemblage of smaller ragtag sailboats that were deposited there by the harbormaster. The crowded mooring fields stretched from the west to the south and arced to the east, dividing the anchorage in half; an anchorage already restricted by a large exclusion zone that extends to the north and east. Packed marinas with big money powerboats, the occasional mega yacht and tiny cutty cabin day boats Tetrised together like a bad science experiment extended beyond the mooring fields. To my port, the anchorage was crammed like Styrofoam packing peanuts floating in a bathtub. Boats of every size, make, color condition, and description occupied the harbor.
“Where are we going to go?” Alison asked scanning the harbor, knowing that in a few minutes she would be at the helm maneuvering our 20,000 pounds as I worked with the anchor.
“There’s plenty of spots,” I said as we began passing boats. “We’ve done this before. It’ll be fine.”
Screaming, yelling, wild hand gestures, and somebody forcibly taking control of the helm dissolve lifelong relationships when docking or anchoring in an anchorage. Even under the best conditions, bringing a 20,000-pound boat to rest can be stressful if communication breaks down and emotions ignite. In the S/V Doggie Paddle Days, “Docking Happens” became our unofficial motto. “Just be cool, and everything will be okay,” was our mantra. Afterwards, we debriefed and discussed the good, bad, and ugly – what we did well and what we needed to do better next time. As we entered the Block Island anchorage this time, watchful captains emerged from their cabins and crew members suddenly occupied the decks of vessels we passed. Even with so many eyes on us, I knew we would be just fine.
Slowly we entered the mayhem, making great sweeping circles and examining potential spots. Distances, hull configuration, chain, snubbers, depth, current and wind direction were all considered. We ignored off the glare of gawking crews and scowling captains as we motored in circles looking for our place.
Alison took the helm as I moved forward and she edged us between three forty-plus-foot light cruising sailboats and one deep draft back yard built black-hulled steel monster. It was deep but manageable, and I unloaded the anchor and 160 feet of chain. Caprica drifted back and nosed towards the wind as the anchor caught. After taking a look around us, I tied on a snubber and Alison backed the anchor in.
We were set, okay and safe, but the more I stood on the bow and looked around, the less I liked our situation. We were in deep water with enough chain out for a good day, but the weather models showed thunderstorms on their way. Staying put here would put Caprica at risk. With all eyes still watching, I signaled back to Alison with an upward corkscrew gesture. She gave a short thumbs up, and we began the anchor retrieval process.
“Slow forward,” I called back to Alison and listened to the windlass’ high pitch electric whine as it completed the back-breaking job of lifting my chain from the dark depths nearly 30 feet under my bow.
“Neutral,” I called and signaled with a flat hand wave from my hip. Not wanting Caprica to drive over the chain, I needed to give the inertia of the boat time to expend itself. All the while, the windlass was burning through amps and whining away.
“Slow forward to port!” The process repeated itself until the chain on the gypsy began to skip. The anchor was firmly implanted, and the windlass – the poor tired windlass – was done pulling for the moment.
“Slow forward,” I said again needing the boat’s horsepower to pull the anchor free. Giving the signal for more power, the diesel engine hummed and Caprica began to vibrate. Slowly we moved forward.
“Neutral,” I yelled back with a quick signal and thumbed the windlass control. The chain gypsy began to buzz, and it skipped and let chain fall as I coaxed a few inches in at a time. “Oh this thing is getting so tired,” I thought and took a quick look at the boats around us and the sleek million-dollar sailing machine that was half a boat length from our bow courtesy of a wind shift. I realized that if the windlass died now, I’d need to rig a block and tackle to get the anchor up. I began to wonder if I should rebuild the thing again or install a new one. The factory-installed Simpson Lawrence Horizons windlass was supplied with plastic parts and doesn’t have the ump for our type of application or use. As I stood on the bow watching the chain slide through the gypsy, I considered starting an e-sponsor account through Patreon.com where the blogger has subscribers that support their adventures. A new windlass weighs in at 2,500 dollars; not to mention we are anticipating the cost of a new diesel heater and all that will be included in next year’s maintenance cycle.
Yellow chain began to appear – the color I chose to paint a 4-foot section 20 feet from the anchor. The windlass continued to skip, loudly chattering through the gypsy as the electric motor struggled under the burden of an anchor and chain hanging 20 feet below the bow. Alison worked the throttle back and forth, making slight wheel adjustments to keep us stationary between anchored boats and away from a bump with the sleek sailing machine.
“She’s up!” I yelled back to the cockpit. Again, Alison gave a short nod and vectored us through the gauntlet of boats swinging at anchor. Dozens of cockpits around us were quickly occupied, all wanting to see who Caprica would park next to. I came back to the helm, and we took our time, doing laps and circles until I finally decided on a spot close to the traditional lee shore of the anchorage. We moved between a series of boats and onlookers until I hooked a tight U-turn.
In a better spot, I headed back to the bow and Alison resumed post at the helm. “20 feet!” She called the depth forward, and I began to let out the formula of the chain – enough to keep us away from the stone beach but enough to keep us off the beach if a severe thunderstorm rolled through. Snubbers on, Alison backed the boat to 50% of our max power rating and I felt the anchor dig in. Matching up three reference points on land, I stood on deck watching the swirling eddies appear from the stern and churn forward as Caprica squatted into the water. My three reference points were stationary, and I signaled back to Alison for neutral.
We were anchored in the Great Salt Pond, and I was tired. Dog tired.
The day passed into night, and the stars overhead merged into surrounding anchor lights. As a family, we sat on the deck in the damp salt air and braced against the pervasive shiver that came with the cool nighttime temperatures. Checking the weather models, we saw that our home port was under a heat advisory. With stagnant air and high humidity, the “how it feels” temperature soared to 115.
And we were shivering.
The following morning, we unloaded the dingy, added the fuel tank, oars, life jackets and bilge pump then putted off through the anchorage towards the dinghy collection point at the far end of the pond. It was time to take Eleanor to the beach. Gliding through the pond, we passed a few Maryland boats then pointed our inflatable towards the shallow end where the powerboats congregate. Rafting in heaps, they span out sometimes 6 abreast each with a Honda generator or two on the deck. Passing through the party side of the anchorage where massive inflatable pool toys proliferate and red solo cups are a standard cockpit décor, the bottom suddenly appears deceptively littered with rocks but they’re actually buried under ten feet of water.
Slowly, we vectored towards the southeastern corner of the pond until it was time to lift the anchor and cast it out into the water. Taking time and care to set the dingy away from shore with the anchor pays dividends, especially when the beachgoer returns to their tender to find its heft above the high tide line ready to be manhandled, dragged, pulled and lifted to the water’s edge.
Eleanor and I traversed a marsh via boardwalk, passed by a classic food truck, crossed a busy road then hiked through the windswept grass-covered dunes to the beach. Extensive and beautiful, the beach forms a long crescent from the Old Harbor with its restaurants, shops and classic tourist haunts to the towering cliffs of Balls Point hanging in the distance. Few sections of the beach are crowded with vast expanses that you can have to yourself. I walked towards the cliffs, and Eleanor followed running in and out of the surf. She was blue and shivering before she finally gave in, conceding that it was time to leave the beach and head home.
Back on Caprica, we formulated our stay plan, wanting a day in the Old Port then time at the local animal menagerie with a final day at the beach. The idea meshed well with the weather window, seeing that we’d have a day of excellent southerly wind to take us towards Cuttyhunk or up Buzzards Bay before a low-pressure system moved through the region bringing wind, storms, and rain.
As night fell, we were graced with a line of boats coming and going – a perpetual boat show with a magnificent sunset heralded by horns and the occasional shotgun blast. It became my nightly ritual to sit on the deck and watch the stars and anchor lights merge together then wearily watch my surroundings as the evening zephyrs grew into 20 knots. Always worried about the leeward beach, I found myself checking our position often.
Before we marched to the Old Harbor the next day, we discovered the Block Island Marine Institute complete with critter tanks and instructors. With programs specifically designed to educate and engage kids, this became one of our favorite destinations on our daily hunting/ gathering trips for water. Our long march to the Old Harbor was successful with Eleanor riding in my hiking backpack, as we found a way to make some distance without having to hire a cab. At the zoo, we marveled at how much our little Eleanor had grown since the last time we visited the place. After our hike back towards the pond, we treated ourselves to lobster rolls and planned out the next day’s activities around the impending closure of our weather window.
After another day at the beach, Eleanor was genuinely aquatic swimming and running through the smaller breaking waves. Her bright smile and contagious laughter coaxed other children to join her escapades, and for a time, a line of parents stood on the beach conversing but watching our kids just be kids. Finally, after the blue lips and chattering teeth, Eleanor agreed to go home. As the sunset and the stars merged with the anchor lights, the beauty of the place became overwhelming, and I felt the irresistible urge to blow the weather window, endure the storms and stay. The weather models showed that the heatwave that was inflicting itself on our home had crept up the coast and settled to the west of Buzzards Bay and our potential destination of Onset.
A calm anchorage, great beaches, places for trash and easy access to water was a no brainer. Although we felt a pressure to move on, to see other sites and develop an itinerary, we also realized that we didn’t have to do any of that. We found a place that we liked, and it was okay to stay a little longer.
As night fell across the anchorage, the sea of stars that hung about Caprica was slowly enveloped by thick cloud cover dotting our hatches with speckles of rain. By midnight, our weather window north blew the window in with thunderstorms, wind and torrential rain. Caprica tugged at her snubber and anchor chain, and I felt the stress of the lee shore just a few hundred feet from our stern. Using our high definition radar, I dialed in the surroundings locating the rocky beach and our neighbors as pulsing red blobs. Tuning the gain, I filtered out the thousands of green and blue dots that filled the radar screen with interference until we had a perfect picture of our surroundings. From the warmth of my dry cabin, I was able to stand anchor watch through the night watching the radar and making sure that other boats weren’t dragging down on us.
By morning, the deck was clean and the grey day occasionally threw torrents of frothing, foaming cold rain at us. The situation offshore was ugly with giant breaking waves and heavy sea conditions bordering on storm force winds. From the Delaware to New England, watch boxes lit up the NOAA weather radar alert systems and a social media Be On The Lookout (BOLO) was posted for a 46 foot Beneteau. The boat was not overdue but scared family members watching an afternoon weatherman grew worried. Traveling from the Delaware Bay to Rhode Island, sailing vessel Sherlock was ensnarled by the heavy weather. On behalf of the family, the USCG tried to make contact with S/V Sherlock through VHF. After determining that communication was not possible, the USCG used the cell phones aboard Sherlock to locate the vessel, but at the height of the storm, the phones went silent.
A day passed and the weather cleared.
We were loading the dinghy for an excursion to the beach when the sound of a diesel engine’s exhaust spitting water pulled me away from a tedious task just in time to see S/V Sherlock pass close amidships.
“Hey!” I yelled. “We’ve been looking for you!”
A dark-haired woman stood on the foredeck hidden under a floppy hat and round sunglasses. “I know! We told them it’d be two nights and a storm!” she yelled back, incredulously, “We were only delayed a day!”
“Do we get a reward?” I called out.
“Only if you split it with us!” She smiled, waved and S/V Sherlock turned, fading into the anchorage.
“How about that,” I said out loud.
The beach, baking, the maritime institute, watching the never-ending boat parade, meeting new people and magnificent sunsets became our daily routine on Block Island. Occasionally some pond drama grabbed our attention, replaying our hard lessons learned. I was in the dink chatting with a fellow Marylander anchored ahead of us when the unmistakable sound of a chain in freefall fast froze all conversations, swimming, cooking and lounging activities in our vicinity of the anchorage. A medium-sized Taiwanese built cruiser near us attempted to lift anchor to head out of the Great Salt Pond. This boat had left previously but was forced to return after engine troubles stopped him dead causing him to drift through the crowded anchorage. After a quick fuel filter change, the Taiwanese boat came back to his original spot and dropped anchor.
As the chain clanged across the deck and over the bow, the owner’s college-aged son stood wild-eyed. We all painfully watched the last few feet of the ground tackle break the water’s surface and then sink as the son stood looking at his audience wholly bewildered. He dropped to the deck, opened a hatch then a forward compartment where he hesitated – coming to the realization that the ground tackle was truly gone.
The father came forward and quickly assembled the emergency anchor, but it was the type of anchor that was more of an afterthought, and their boat began to drag against the wind. With all eyes watching, they hauled up the small Fortress anchor and started to motor in circles as they formulated a new plan.
Moments later, the harbor master’s heavy-duty patrol style boat was taking their Taiwanese boat under tow and to a mooring. Their motor hesitated, sputtered and shut down with a final death rattle leaving the captain and his son without power or ground tackle.
We watched the entire saga unfold and stood in silence, thinking about how we could help.
A dingy arrived from a nearby powerboat and circled where the anchor and chain disappeared into the depths. Two men wearing dive masks and fins rolled overboard and began to dive the 20 feet, combing the bottom in the murky green twilight. At last, a float appeared – tethered to the sunken ground tackle.
I putted the dinghy across the anchorage to the mooring field where the Taiwanese boat was tied among the luxurious gleaming yachts. Her faded hull and peeling bright work stood in stark contrast to the old money Oysters and dark hulled Hinckley yachts that filled the background. The owner and son were red-faced, exhausted – physically and emotionally spent from their ordeal. Ecstatic that the anchor was found, they weren’t able to do much of anything but rest in the shade.
Block Island is a crowded anchorage on a week day but the weekends make the Great Salt Pond a bit of a circus with boats of all makes, categories, and sizes trying to drop their hooks in deep water with poor holding. It would only be a matter of time before the float marking the anchor would be lost to a propeller.
I weaved back through the afternoon boat parade entering the channel, between massive powerboats, ocean-going cruising sailboats, and boat show specials until I sat at the stern of a power catamaran that served as the mothership to several rafted boats. The divers stood on the back deck, smiling as I approached.
“About two hundred feet of chain and a big plow type anchor,” one diver said when I asked what was lost overboard.
“The chain is 3/8,” the other diver said as he adjusted his designer sunglasses. “And it’s down about 20 feet,” he added.
“I can lift that,” I thought.
20 minutes later, I approached the Taiwanese boat while the son was on deck, working at unstrapping the dinghy. The “what do you want?” look was painted across his red and exhausted face. I smiled back at him, knowing the feeling. As my little dinghy made contact with his hull and I tied off, the son stared down at the treasure.
“Dad! Come up here. The anchor!” His face was filled with pure relief knowing that his mistake had been corrected.
A broad shirtless man smeared with engine oil and soot climbed on deck. He looked at me, then the anchor and smiled. “You guys are incredible,” he said.
I then returned to Caprica, exhausted and physically spent from hauling up the anchor, to my daughter dancing on deck. As days followed, our time shifted from cruiser mode to living aboard at anchor complete with needing to do laundry. Our power demands were met by our solar panels and we had complete access to water ashore. Life was somewhat normal … for us.
Again, a weather window opened, and we could have been easily carried to points north by a perfect southerly on the heels of a deep low-pressure system. Yet the models showed severe thunderstorms, gale-force winds, and torrential rains. “We’d stop at Cuttyhunk for the night then push up Buzzards Bay to Onset,” I said to Alison as we scrutinized the weather models. Cuttyhunk is an idyllic island with a small community perched atop two hills overlooking a protected harbor at the tip of the Elizabethan Islands, but it’s not the place you want to be when the wind shifts to a northerly or there is the potential for a gale. The Village of Onset rests at the edge of the Cape Cod Canal; after a harrowed turn where the current wants to drag your boat across the rocks, the anchorage is large, protected with excellent holding and a proven hideout for us. Onset has a beautiful beach, great lobster rolls and a barber (which I desperately needed) and a friend at the laundry who we look forward to seeing. We could ride out the storm in Onset, visit Woods Hole, possibly the Vineyard, then head back south to the forever majestic Cuttyhunk before looking for a weather window home.
“We’d have two more days here, then two travel days before the weather set in,” Alison said as she thumbed through the weather programs.
I nodded, already going through my departure checklist.
Two beautiful days passed filled with beach time, reading, minor boat work, more critter time at the Block Island Maritime Institute and general thankfulness that we had left the summer swelter of the Chesapeake for our temperate, bugless anchorage. But, as our departure morning loomed the logistics of our crowded corner of the Salt Pond were suddenly insurmountable with a small boat floating above our anchor.
Once our windlass began to turn and whine under the strain of our ground tackle, all eyes in our quadrant of the anchorage were on us wondering how we would get out of this predicament. Usually, we would communicate with the boat owners, but they were absentee, and their light blue hull was dead ahead. With the wind piping up to just under 20, Alison masterfully executed a series of maneuvers in incredibly confined quarters that won over a few of the more skeptical onlookers gawking and considering their own situations. With the yellow paint suddenly visible marking the last 20 feet of the chain and the anchor firmly implanted below us, Alison would need to use the engine to break us free. Suddenly a wind gust grabbed the bow, and I felt us pushed towards the little blue pocket cruiser.
The day before, a dark hulled heavy cruiser motored through the anchorage in the mid-morning rush. “Hey!” somebody forcibly yelled and it grabbed our attention. Our heads spun to see a 35-foot racer-cruiser catapult forward and smoke the blue cruiser amidships. There was a thunderous cannon crack as the owner and single-hand sailor of the racer-cruiser braced for the imminent collision. The dark hulled boat snagged the anchor line of the racer-cruiser with its keel, and the inertia slung the boat forward. The two were tangled between a mass of cruisers and dangerously close to ensnarling other anchor lines. Dinghies appeared as sailors from nearby vessels rushed to assist the drifting boats. A line was tied off to a heavy cruiser as the anchor rode of the racer-cruiser was cut free, marked by a float and held by a dinghy. Suddenly, the racer-cruiser was sideways drifting fast towards other boats and a lee shore. The skipper scrambled to the cockpit, grabbed the wheel, and powered into the growing wind. Like a bowling ball weaving through bowling pins, the boat narrowly avoided several costly collisions. We watched in horror then felt relief as he recovered his anchor and the entire fiasco came to a conclusion.
I felt us moving towards the blue hull and considered the fiasco that we had witnessed. “Too close,” I thought and gave Alison the reverse signal knowing that the prop wash would pull us away from the blue hull. The windlass dumped out a load of the chain, and I picked my way back to the cockpit. We carry several large ball fenders that we find more effective when rafting or docking against a bulkhead than the standard boat fender. “Toss the fenders overboard,” Alison said, “I can put us alongside the boat and ease forward until the anchor’s up.”
It was a sound rational plan. “Honestly, I don’t really want to go. This makes it easy to stay for a couple more days.” I said, looking around.
Alison smiled and killed the engine. “Sounds good!” After a brief pause, she looked at the beach just off of our stern. “But we’re not staying here when that low-pressure system blows through.”
“No way,” I looked at the little blue boat ahead, “We’ll talk to them later and let them know what we want to do.”
After a short anchor watch, we jumped in the dinghy and went back to the beach. As evening descended and the anchor lights joined the stars, I finally met our neighbors climbing about their boat from the water taxi.
“Ahoy there, Feather!” I yelled across the boat length and into the face of the growing wind. Two faces were suddenly looking at me. “How long are you planning on staying?” I asked, wearing my best smile. They told me their timeline, and it coincided with the low-pressure system. “You know there’s weather coming, right?” The two looked at each other then back at me. “Severe thunderstorms, wind, rain, possibly water spouts. Are you guys prepped for that kind of weather?” Again they looked at each other.
Our days passed swimming off the back of Caprica and enjoying the beach, but the impending low-pressure system and the lee beach to our stern was omnipresent in my thoughts. We watched the anchorage empty as boats returned to their home ports and a beautiful spot to ride out the storm appeared. It was in deep water, but with underwater features that would stop a dragging anchor but more importantly, room to drag and room to swing. After morning breakfast on the forward deck, I announced our intentions to move to the blue boat.
“Okay. We’ll be in town for a few hours. Going for some doughnuts,” the husband said before disappearing below.
Boats were leaving, but a few entered the harbor – one making a glancing pass at my prospective spot. A few minutes later, the wife yelled below that they needed to turn on the engine and move their boat. Somehow we had convinced them to postpone their doughnut run.
By the time we dropped the anchor and laid out the bulk of our chain, the anchorage was relatively empty. Another Beneteau 423 was in our vicinity, sharing the space with a few small pocket cruisers and an assortment of boat show specials except for a small trawler that can only be categorized at cute.
In a few hours, the first tentacles of the storm would be over us. A storm that would be the talk of communities up the coast and storied amongst Islanders. A storm that would leave scars with winds reaching 110 miles per hour. We began to prepare for the rodeo.