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To view original article in the NYT, please click here.

August 25, 2006

The Boating Life Begins With a Good Storm


RIGHT around the time we found ourselves motoring straight into a thunderstorm, I can admit to a moment of second-guessing about buying a boat.

The whole idea of taking a boat — our own boat — up the Hudson River was to explore a slice of the idyllic life, to indulge those nagging fantasies that I could live rich and carefree, consumed by wanderlust. Instead, here we were fighting whitecaps as sheets of cold rain poured through the cabin windows, which we had to keep open so we could see into the dense fog.

I’d like to say that buying a boat had been a lifelong dream, but truthfully I got the urge only last fall, after Alarik Skarstrom and Lory Frankel, friends in the Catskills, took me out on the Hudson in their low-slung, open wooden boat. Against the full autumn color palette, we saw eagles, cormorants and herons, cliffs and marshes, and I was hooked.

So when the suggestion arose to join some friends from Greene County in buying a boat, it felt right. As it happened, Alarik and Lory wanted to trade up to a larger craft that would support onboard sleeping and allow them to explore afar.

The rest of us, the other three-fourths of our collective and modest investment, foresaw floating cocktail therapy and languid lunch trips to nearby towns. And then, of course, there was the lure of peacefulness, natural beauty, escape and even adventure that floating down the river affords.

Alarik found just the right target: a 30-foot 1960 Chris-Craft cabin cruiser. It was old and a bit scruffy, which we all liked, and it had been lovingly maintained, which we liked more. Even nonboaters could recognize this as a craft of classic line and design, all wood, with two 46-year-old V-8 Corvette engines. And it had a name, the Hoot Mon Two, from the Scottish slang for “Hey, you!”

Finally the appointed day arrived. Four of us clambered aboard the Hoot at the 79th Street Marina on a hot, hazy morning in July and cast off. The first crisis was but moments away — getting out of the marina without hitting two neighboring boats — but after some frantic maneuvers we made it without mishap into open water. Our goal: a two-day, 100-mile trip up the river to Catskill, N.Y., and the boat’s new mooring.

Despite the heat and the haze, the morning was perfect, offering eyefuls of joy in every direction. We were off at the stately pace of 10 knots, a speed low enough to conserve fuel and to allow time for us novices at the helm to react to obstacles. I piloted us cleanly beneath the George Washington Bridge all the way up to the Tappan Zee, where we decided it would be prudent to practice backing up for when we’d stop for fuel at the Tarrytown marina. No need — the marina had a straightaway dock, and we slid in seamlessly. High-fives all around, though I will admit it was the first time I had seen a gas pump register three digits for a fill-up.

Back on the river, we found ourselves steering around an increasing amount of debris in the water — tree limbs and even tires, that had been swept into the Hudson by recent storms. The current was surprisingly insistent.

The river teemed with traffic. We quickly adjusted to dealing with the barges and tugs and other commercial boats. They were respectful, easy to see and easy to avoid. There was only an occasional honk from the tugs, timed to alert the small-boat owner ahead to expect a big barge in a passing lane. They created almost no wake when they passed. By comparison, many recreational boaters simply zoomed by, unaware or uncaring that they were rocking our boat and any passing sailboats with their turbulent wakes.

The views along the river changed frequently, sometimes abruptly. Just north of New York City, the raw, muscular beauty of the Palisades gave way to the visually uncharming industrial buildings of Yonkers, and again to the intriguing nooks and coves along the riverbanks in Westchester and around Nyack. All along the way, we saw all kinds of activity on the shore, something that makes river travel different from boating in bays or on the ocean.

Contrasts were sharp: cement plants practically abutted mansions; the masts of sailboats in tiny marinas stood in counterpoint to housing developments. The Indian Point nuclear plant was discomforting, huge and unforgiving in appearance.

Getting up toward West Point, the riverbanks became a stunningly attractive collage of limes, yellow-greens and deep forest greens. The mountainous hills seemed to lean down to touch the water, the Hudson curving back on itself a few times. Gulls dropped into the river for a bite. We saw or heard occasional splashes from fish. Except for the engines and our own sporadic conversation, there was agreeable silence.

Then the skies ahead darkened — not just a bit, but to near-purple.

We were caught head-on by two summer storms in rapid succession. The waters kicked up, and the temperature dropped sharply. For two and a half hours the rain drove down. Thunder and lightning crashed through the mountains. Visibility fell to 50 feet. This, I thought as we rode the waves, was not the reason we bought the boat.

STILL, we persevered, guided by the river’s excellent navigation buoys, shore landmarks and our familiarity with the area. Wet and tired, we reached Newburgh, more or less our halfway point, by evening, and called ahead to persuade the son of the marina owner to stay until he could guide us to an overnight slip. We backed the Hoot into the interior finger pier reserved for us — a bit hard, and though we had the excuse of the heavy winds, a stalled engine and our own inexperience, it would not be among the filmed highlights. But it was enough to get us back to land, a B & B and sleep.

It was raining and foggy when we set out the next morning, but both engines were working, and we resumed our slow, steady progress northward. The water now was perfectly still, and the weather all but guaranteed that we would have only the occasional barge or tug for company.

We passed the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, other fabulous old houses and gaudy new ones. The water changed from brown to jade to silver. We passed the lighthouse near Kingston, a big white stone house with a light tower attached. It sat isolated alongside a very wide expanse of river, warning boaters away from the stretches of water to its west, which are only a foot or two deep over sharp rocks. Near Saugerties we passed another lighthouse, now a bed-and-breakfast, yellowish tan and standing on the western shore.

Just south of Esopus Creek, the starboard engine failed. The Hoot’s portside engine alone would take us the final hour into Catskill Creek and our new home at the Hop-O-Nose Marina in Catskill, N.Y. It was not until the final turn that we realized our mooring space was between two other boats, in effect requiring us to parallel park. We came close, but we finally gave up and pulled ourselves in by throwing a line. Not a deft finish, but we felt like Lewis and Clark arriving at the West Coast.

After Champagne and some food, two of us boarded the train back to New York. Over the next two hours we looked out the window, watching as two days of memories passed before our eyes.

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