Dawn came, bringing brilliant reflections of light that sparkled off the water. Sunrise was soon to follow and, with it, the beginning of our “newly divorced family summer vacation” for my two young children, Dan, 5, Ally, 6, and me.
At 5 a.m. or so I awoke with both kids sleeping soundly. It’s amazing how angelic kids can look when they’re sleeping.
I gloated over my idea to have the mainsail cover off and everything pretty much ready to go before I turned in the night before. I made my coffee, dressed and began preparing the boat for the clandestine sail off the mooring. I did not want to wake the kids by starting the engine.
I figured I might be able to make the3 to 3-1/2-hour sail to Block Island before they even woke. I lowered the volume to a whisper and turned on the handheld. NOAA weather’s automated voice, which I imagine as a drunk in the windowless, concrete bunker, came on. In his usual monotone voice, he predicted a fair morning, gentle breeze and calm seas, and then added a small front might come in late that night, with increasing winds and possible small-craft warnings.
As I tiptoed over the topsides, careful not to make any noise, I hoisted and back-winded the main in order to get under way. As I returned to the cockpit, there they were: the two little gremlins, already awake and on deck. Ally was clutching her teddy bear; Dan his Game Boy.
“Why are you up so early?” I asked. “I dunno,” Ally replied. “Are we there yet?”
“No. It’s too early. Go back to sleep,” I suggested.
“Nope, I’m not tired any more.”
With those words went my thoughts of a quiet, peaceful sail.
Best laid plans
After breakfast we would depart from our mooring off Mason’s
Island in Mystic, Conn., bound for Block Island, R.I., where I also had a mooring. I was looking forward to having a whole week of fun in the sun with my two wonderful little kids. I had been through a lot and was looking forward to spending time with them and doing the things that I love so much. The kids love Molly, our Catalina 30. She is impeccably equipped and lovingly maintained.
As I began to make headway, the inevitable began.
“Daaad, Ally hit me!”
“Daaad, Dan took my bear!”
“Daaad, Ally’s blocking the TV.”
I did my best to begin our journey with little fanfare and without hollering — or threatening to feed anyone to the sharks. Vacation was now officially under way.
Looking at a beautiful sunrise, calm seas and a gentle breeze, I figured it would be a fine run to the entrance to the Great Salt Pond. I make this run, day or night, almost every week so this was a piece of cake.
As a divorced father, I figured any child or boating accident would quickly land me in court for child abuse or reckless endangerment; I would do my best to not having them trailing off the transom during the voyage.
A minor glitch
As I cleared St. Edmund’s Retreat off Enders Island, I bent over to turn on my autopilot, which I named “Linda.” I began to leave the wheel when I realized I did not hear the normal beep signifying her attendance to the task. Immediately the boat began to make a slow gradual turn into the wind.
I stepped back to the wheel. “Great,” I thought to myself. “Two little kids, by myself, and no autopilot.” Whatever the problem, I couldn’t fix it then. With the kids already engaged in mortal combat, I locked the wheel, rushed down the companionway stairs, and quickly turned on the TV and stuffed in a mutually agreeable DVD — or the closest I could get to agreeable between brother and sister 13 months apart.
I made it back to the wheel prior to being back-winded or hung up on a lobster pot.
As we made Latimer’s Reef, I was impressed with how the wind filled in so nicely and now off my beam. Maybe it would turn out to be a nice sail.
As I came through Watch Hill Passage the wind was continuing to fill in. I was glad to have had the foresight to reef ahead of time to minimize the heeling and make the trip easier on the kids. A smile came across my face at being so smart.
After an hour or so, the wind was coming around more to the east and more forward of the beam — not a good sign. When it blows out of the east it’s usually rainy and crummy for a few days. The front had moved in much earlier than expected.
The tide was roaring out and colliding with the now-heavy winds on the nose, causing a confused and increasing chop. Despite the spirited motion of the boat, the sounds of playful banter below could be heard in the cockpit — interspersed with an occasional scream, forcing me to shout, “Stop it or I’ll come down there and feed you to the sharks.” Then all would go quiet for at least three or four minutes.
A new development
“Daaad. There’s water down here! The floor is all wet!”
I locked the wheel again, flew down the companionway and felt the water over the carpet covering the cabin sole.
Having had an exhaust pipe break on another boat and begin taking on water, I realized I had seconds to find the source before it was too late. I grabbed the bed blankets and flung them off the floor, in so doing soaking all the expensive electronic toys.
I ripped open the floorboards, the engine compartment and anything else that would warrant an intrusion of water into the boat and could not determine why everything was wet. Then I noticed it wasn’t getting any worse. Then I realized that the starboard water tank was the source. I had simply overfilled it, and with the heeling it was flowing out under the rug and into the bilge.
No big deal, but everything was wet, the kids were a little scared and Dan’s Game Boy was soaked. Our trip continued taking on the feel of one of those Chevy Chase “Vacation” movies.
Soon after getting back to the wheel and back on course, my little princess came up looking a tad green. Before getting any words out, she returned all that we’d had for dinner the evening before and this morning’s breakfast — all over the cockpit and the both of us. Naturally, Dan came up to see what was going on, and slipped in it.
I again locked the wheel and quickly positioned them facing me in the cockpit with blankets on, wiped her face and aimed her overboard. Then I returned to wrestle Molly back on its course, a task becoming more difficult as each minute passed. I had made this trip a hundred times and never seen the wind and seas pick up so quickly. I estimated the head seas at 6 to 7 feet and building with two-second intervals, and the wind gusting around 20 to 30 knots right on the nose. Molly was getting beaten up badly. She normally handles the seas well.
I attempted to take the heel off by dropping the traveler all the way down, which helped. I shortened sail and started the engine to help make way. I wanted to get this trip over as fast as I could.
After some five minutes, I glanced at the instruments and noticed the temperature gauge showed the engine was running hot. I shut her down, figuring I was either losing the ability to raw- water cool as the stern kept getting lifted out of the water, or I’d picked up an obstruction in the intake.
No autopilot, no engine, no help and two sick kids staring at me. This was the worse trip I’d ever had either going to or coming from Block Island.
Triple-reefed still, I was getting set very badly and realized that, due to the heavy east wind and head seas, I was getting swept off course and would miss the southern end of the island.
I felt so bad for my kids that I wished for a helicopter to lift them off the boat. Then — considering I’d just been through a long, bitter divorce — I would simply jump off the stern and end it.
I began to wonder what the heck I was doing subjecting them to this ride. We weren’t in danger, but seeing those two little faces so miserable was killing me.
The lost watch
As I approached the entrance to New Harbor I decided that, with no motor, I would drop the main on the outside and come in under genoa. This would make for a more controlled approach onto the mooring under sail. I tried to get the boat to point into the wind enough to drop the main, but the driving wind wouldn’t allow it.
The kids had regained some of their former luster and I carefully chose my accomplice. “OK Ally, you come here and play captain,” I say, figuring she might be able to fight off the wind for the few moments I needed to secure the main.
“Okay Dad,” she replies and I explain to her that in order for me to drop the main and secure it she needed to point the boat perfectly into the wind. She had a great time turning left and turning right just at the moments I almost had the main lashed to the boom.
“Ally, turn the wheel to the left. Ally, no, your other left!”
It was great fun, or at least the kids thought so, entertained to no end as I wrestled with the bucking boom and flogging sail.
Racing back to the cockpit, I glanced at my left wrist and saw that my new Casio Sea Pathfinder — with barometer, compass, and moon and tide features — chose this moment to fall off. I deftly caught it in midair. While still bouncing like a yo-yo on deck, I gave it a quick flick under the dodger figuring it would safely land in the cockpit on the new, slightly food-stained cushions.
I realized I was wrong when I heard Ally say, “Look. Dad threw his watch in the water,” and they both burst into laughter.
Find the mooring
As I made my final approach into the narrow channel of the Salt Pond, the outgoing high-speed catamaran greeted me. Timing is key to everything and this was no exception. We met at the narrowest part of the channel.
I squeaked by its port side as it took up nearly the entire channel. It was amazing that I was still flying into the harbor with a mere handkerchief of a sail rolled out. It was blowing even harder in the harbor.
As usual, the harbor was full and I could not immediately see my mooring. It was hidden from view by the 50-foot yacht that had a mooring nearby. With the wind howling out of the east, all normal references to my mooring were askew. As I came in, I realized I was coming in much hotter than normal.
Molly came around the bow of the yacht quite close. I regularly drive and crew aboard racing sailboats (and was even once offered a second mate job aboard Bill Gates’ 130-foot yacht), so I am comfortable with close proximity to other vessels. Nevertheless, I was happy the owner did not panic over just how close I was.
Suddenly my mooring appeared, but what the heck was it doing over there? Normally, a nice slow upwind approach would occur, I would stall the boat, and calmly walk up and grab the pendent and slowly walk back to the cockpit. I single-hand all the time and consider myself pretty good at it.
However, here I was under sail and going too fast. I grabbed the telescopic boat hook, ran forward along the port side while extending the hook. Nailing the mooring wand and switching hands midstride, I fastened the line to the bow cleat with the speed of a cheetah and strength of an elephant. The line immediately tightened and spun us like a cowboy roping a steer.
“Yippee! We made it!” I heard them yell from the cockpit.
Sweating, exhausted and relieved, I went back and looked over my kids and the mess below.
I started to organize the boat and hang up all the wet items. It felt good to have the warm sun restoring the feeling of peace on board. The kids were now playing quietly below and the boat was beginning to return to normal. Then came, “Daaad … I’m, hungry.”
I got out the marinated chicken and lit the grill to make lunch. With the grill heating up nicely I stepped barefoot up onto the aft locker to put on the chicken … and screamed, having just sliced my foot open on the sharp edge of a metal latch that, for some reason, defied gravity and was sticking straight up.
As I dripped blood all over the new white custom cockpit cushions, I began to lose my balance and reached out for something to break my fall. Unfortunately I grabbed the hot grill. I did, however, successfully hold onto the chicken and grill utensils, to the chagrin of the overhead seagulls.
As I reeled back with my burned hand, I fell in the cockpit, screaming obscenities under my breath, and spreading my trail of blood.
A few minutes later, while bandaging my foot in the head, I heard Ally yell, followed by a resounding crash. I bolted out of the head and saw that she had fallen out of the cockpit and landed on her noggin at the foot of the companionway stairs. No blood, though, and she looked normal — a small and much-appreciated miracle.
After setting the table, explaining once again to the kids why they could not have soda, we were finally sitting down to enjoy our lunch. That’s when Dan decided he wouldn’t eat the chicken with grill marks. No matter how much I urged him, he refused, crossed his arms and sat there.
Finally, at the end of my rope, I emptied his plate over the side, this time delighting the waiting seagulls.
I called the marina launch and then, once ashore, a cab. We ended up waiting 20 minutes for a table at a restaurant in Old Harbor. Lunch at last; it was there that Dan ordered … chicken!
I almost lost it, but Ally immediately saw the humor in it and we all burst into laughter. To this day we still laugh at that incident.
As time passes my kids, now 9 and 10 years old, still ask me to tell people “The Vacation Story.”
In the end it was a great vacation. We sailed, went to the beach, swam in the surf and the swimming pool at Champlin’s Marina, went to the movies, ate ice cream and walked the docks at night. We fished and netted crabs, and rented those stupid motorized tubes you sit in and spin around until you’re dizzy. It was a great time.
I hope they never forget how much I love them, how much I love the sea, and what a good dad I tried to be. n
Gary D’Amico is an insurance consultant, avid racing and cruising sailor, former professional ski racer and certified professional ski instructor. A resident of Haddam, Conn., he is involved in state politics and many civic organizations. Molly can be found in Block
Island, Martha’s Vineyard and throughout Long Island Sound during the summer. He is happy to report that Dan now eats chicken off the grill.