Among my most memorable sailing experiences was thetime a friend and I were asked to help an acquaintance move his sailboat from Long Island Sound south to Florida. We were both in our 60s and our Captain was even older. But not to worry. Francis Chichester was 65 when he sailed alone, non-stop, around the world. Jeanne Socrates was 77-years-old when she did the same. Surely, we were mere whippersnappers in comparison. Although two of us were relatively inexperienced sailing in the Intra-coastal, we had a capable and experienced Captain, a sound vessel, and good NOAA charts of the East River and the way south.
Everything went well until we approached the dreaded Hell’s Gate on the East River. I had heard all the horror stories; fierce currents of 5 knots or more, whirlpools, heavy commercial traffic including barges, high-speed ferries and deepdraft ships. But I was fairly sure, as in most things nautical, the description of a passage through Hell’s Gate was more folklore than fact. Still it seemed no place for three old men in a little sailboat that even under power could achieve a speed only a knot or two faster than the current. Yet, the Captain had assured us that he had timed our passage carefully so that we would never have the current on our nose. What we had not taken into account was the storm.
Looking back, it seemed to come from nowhere. We just had time to pull down the sails before it hit. First, a dark wall of cloud, the day growing dark, thenthe rain and wind and spears of lightning cutting jagged wounds down through the gloom. Thunder and the sound of wind-blown spray and rain swept away the Captain’s words as he issued orders from the helm. The outline of the shore was indistinct and even the channel markers were hidden from view. And I knew somewhere in the gloom were other vessels, large tugs and ships, made invisible by the storm, passing both ways in the narrow channel. The Captain asked me to take the helm while he went below to get the chart. I had no way to know which way to steer or what the faint lights meant that sometimes appeared then faded from view. Suddenly a lighted channel buoy appeared just off our bow. Since no ship or tug would hit a buoy, I thought if we circled it closely we would be safe from collision. It would be a good place to ride out the storm. When the Captain returned with the chart, he agreed with my strategy. So, as we held position by the buoy, we opened the chart and tried to figure out where we were. In order to read the chart, we had to put on our reading glasses. But soon the lenses were made opaque by smears of salt spray. And so there we were, three old men, blind as bats, sailing in circles in the storm, with a NOAA chart disintegrating in our laps.
In spite of the Hell’s Gate storm, I believe even more memorable was what we experienced that same afternoon. Toward the south, as the East River cut through New York city, I became aware of a strange juxtaposition of city sounds andthe sounds of the sea, a peculiar duet only experienced where the river passes the urban canyons of Manhattan. There was the romantic creaking of the rigging and the blatant blaring of taxi horns, the treble sound of the bow wave and the farting of motor scooters, the soft sighs of the wind aloft and the earthbound discordant drumming of the nation’s largest city.
Under full sail, in a light southerly wind, we passed through the Narrows and into the waters of Grave’s End and on toward Coney Island and then on to the Atlantic. Billows of cloud, white as drifts of new snow, rose from the eastern horizon. As we began to feel the lift of the open sea, it was if neither the storm nor the city had been there at all. We sailed on.
Marshall Riggan has been writing stories for more than half a century, many of which have been turned into movies and television productions