Not So Green(port) Anymore

Enjoying my 100th time at the helm

I’m unlike many of the boaters I’ve met on the water. I was not born or bred into the boating lifestyle. Instead, I spent my childhood surrounded by concrete, taxis, and graffiti-festooned subway cars, which rumbled below our apartment building and lulled me to sleep as a child (the city girl’s version of crickets). In New York City, nature is carefully contained within discrete, well-manicured spaces: the public parks and few scraggly trees that occupy tiny patches of soil dotting the sidewalks. An iconic river ran less than a mile from my home, but it was more concept than reality. I usually saw it from afar, my vantage point being a crowded highway or bridge. 

Don’t get me wrong— there was plenty to love about growing up in NYC— but my exposure to nature was limited, to put it mildly (at age six, I visited a relative in the suburbs, saw her backyard vegetable garden, and promptly concluded she lived on a farm).

One of my first times at the helm

After discovering hiking in high school and camping in college, ventured out on the water much later in life, but it was love at first sight— a nearly instant addiction to all things boat. 

The skills required to be a good boater? Those did not come so easily. During my first season at the helm, let’s be honest, I was not a natural. Things that I take for granted now stymied me: keeping the boat on a straight path down the channel, handling rough waters, accounting for the effect of the wind and currents, and let’s not even talk about my docking skills (or lack thereof) . . . Some days, I wondered if it would ever click.

But I had patient and supportive teachers – the folks at Carefree Boat Club and Captain Rich Hannon, in particular, and I’m not one to give up on a challenge. So I just kept practicing, despite some rattling near misses at the dock, and feeling at times like an outlier in a guys’ world (although now I see more and more ladies at the helm).

Plum Gut on Labor Day

Fast forward to 2021, and during a busy holiday weekend, I navigated crowded waters, kept us from getting swamped by an obnoxious 50 foot yacht that cut right in front of our bow at full speed, and delivered us safely across the Long Island Sound from Greenport to the Connecticut River in choppy waters with 2 foot waves at times. Now I can dock without someone to catch me from shore and have even docked solo a couple of times- all things I could not have imagined during my first season. I still have many things to learn, but I’m well underway. 

So thank you to all the experienced boaters who have given me helpful advice and guidance. To those of you who are new to boating (especially the recent wave of newly minted female captains), just keep practicing, take lessons, ignore the snide “COVID Captain” digs, and don’t give up if you really want it. I’m certainly glad to have stayed the course.

The (Lightly) Seasoned Boater

Just about three years ago, I got behind the helm of a sleek Chaparral Suncoast for the first time.  I zig-zagged down the channel at Black Rock Harbor out onto the Long Island Sound, oversteering whenever I started to drift off course.  And my early days of docking?  Let’s not even talk about them.  Let’s just say I (barely) managed not to damage anything (or anyone).  

Today, docking no longer sends my pulse (or the dock staff’s pulse) skyrocketing.  I can steer straight down a channel, even on a windy day. And I’ve learned a few lessons, some only after trials by fire, some by anecdote- see if you can guess which is which:

Do buy plenty of floats, take the kids tubing, and entertain them onboard with playdough or similarly solid and fungible toys.

Don’t give the kids crayons and coloring pages, unless you enjoy fishing soggy images of Elsa and Anna out of the water with a docking pole while scrambling over tiny rolling, half-melted cylinders.  If that’s your thing, then go for it. 

Do serve your guests dinner in a quiet cove as the sun paints the sky orange and purple.

Don’t serve your guests a cheese board and sushi while anchored in 2 foot waves, unless they are unwanted guests whom you never want to take boating again. (Don’t worry, friends, you were very much wanted guests.)

Do crank the volume and rock out to your favorite tunes when you pass the no wake marker and gun it.

Don’t don your favorite hat or leave your favorite magazine (book / chart / winning lottery ticket) loose on deck when you pass the no wake marker and gun it.

Don’t dawdle in front of the Bridgeport-Port Jefferson ferry when it’s trying to leave the dock.  The captain will honk at you . . . multiple times . . . even if you smile and shrug your shoulders innocently as if to say “Sorry, new boater.”  

Do zip through the ferry’s wake if it’s a calm day and there are no other waves to play in.

And steer clear of the rocky bottoms, unless you’re in a kayak.  Anchoring in them is an exercise in futility, and you definitely don’t want to hit them.  As Lady Gaga might sing, “I’m in the deep end, watch as I drive in, I’ll never touch the ground . . . Splash ‘cross the surface, where rocks can’t hurt us, stay far from the shallows now . . .”  

Kayak, don’t powerboat, near these

Although, in nearly every other facet of life, 2020 can’t draw to a close soon enough, I will miss this season on the water as I prepare to kiss my boats goodbye and hunker down for the long, dreary winter ahead.

Spooky Sea Stories

Penfield Reef Light

It’s October.  New England’s hillsides have transformed from green to palettes of orange, red, and gold.  The morning air is crisp and cool (though there’s no frost to scrape from my windshield yet, thank God).  Our menu has shifted from lighter fare to stews and soups.  And, yes, I’m still boating, trying to eke out every last second on the water before I must kiss my boats goodbye for a dreary, cold, dark five-month hiatus.  

Fall on the Connecticut River near Gillette Castle

October also ushers in Halloween- the costumes, candy, and, of course, the spooky stories.  It just so happens that my favorite lighthouse is the subject of one.  During my first ride out of Black Rock Harbor in Bridgeport, we headed east on a cool, crisp day, just like today.  Heading back, I could just make out a ghostly shape in the distance but couldn’t quite see what it was. Shrouded in haze, it looked like a massive ship—a ghost ship, perhaps.

The Ghost Ship

The following spring, I set my course for the mysterious mirage-like shape and found a stately old stone lighthouse, built far from shore with no connection at all to land.  The building looked old—from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, and it had a red roof and white tower, which housed the signal light.

Did a lighthouse-keeper once live there, surrounded by water on all sides.  Did his family live with him?  But then, how did his kids get to school?  I concluded that the keeper must have toughed it out alone.  

A Google search confirmed my suspicions.  Penfield Reef Light was built in 1874, and the light-keeper did, in fact, live there with an assistant, while his family resided onshore.  In December 1916, lighthouse-keeper, Frederick Jordan, drowned during a rowboat trip to the mainland to visit his family for Christmas.  Poor Fredrick’s ghost was rumored to haunt the structure and its environs, and to appear to successor keepers on cold, lonely nights. And, per local legend, his ghost rescued two boys whose boat capsized near Penfield Light in 1942.  At least Penfield Light houses a friendly ghost, not a wrathful, angry ghost, should I ever encounter him.  

Perhaps now that haunting season is upon us, there’ll be more than fishermen frequenting Penfield Reef Light.     

Sound Waves

Jamming on the Lucky Shucker with John Thomas and his 1943 Gibson guitar

Music and motion go together. You might still recall that first time your dad (or mom) handed over the car keys.  Perhaps it was a sultry summer evening.  You rolled down the windows, cranked the stereo, and simply drove, headed nowhere, just to feel the elation of being truly free for the first time ever. 

Speeding along at the wheel of a fast boat with good tunes and good company evokes that same sense of freedom.  And I cannot believe that I’m alone. So many songs evoke the ocean, from the obvious candidates, like Billy Joel’s Downeaster Alexa, to the more subtle— Be Still, by The Killers, for example.

Live music on the water is a rare but special treat. Last summer, Sarah Wise entertained us with her original single, Hang Tight, which we filmed for my Facebook page. This summer, author / musician / lawyer John Thomas treated us to a jam session on his 1943 Gibson Southern Jumbo guitar.  The guitar has a long, long history. The venerable old instrument made it back from the trenches in Europe after World War II.  More recently, it has traveled across the globe to Greece and Mexico.  David Crosby has strummed it.  

And now . . . drumroll . . . the guitar has been on a sunset cruise up the Housatonic River in Connecticut.  Perhaps an evening outing on The Lucky Shucker was not the guitar’s wildest adventure–it survived a world war, after all– but it was a new experience, all the same.  I’m just grateful that I managed to keep our valuable cargo from jumping overboard as we tackled some decent-sized waves enroute to the mouth of the river. 

Once we hit calmer waters, John regaled us with tales of meeting the women who built the WWII-era guitar.  When the men went off to war, women took over at Gibson’s factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  The women, whom he interviewed, described working on the factory floor, as well as their lives during a time of shared sacrifice and common purpose to defeat evil- a mindset that seems to have vanished entirely from our fractured society today.  

John preserved the women’s stories by turning their interviews into Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s ‘Banner’ Guitars of WWII.  The female-built guitars are known for having superior sound and quality.  The craftswomen had no formal training in woodworking or guitar-building, but their years of experience with needlepoint, sewing, and other traditionally female handicrafts made them exceptionally skilled at the delicate finishing work that makes the guitars special.  As a former seamstress, their tale certainly resonates with me.

As the sun dipped low over the shoreline, we headed home, accompanied by a different kind of music: the song of the wind and the waves with the hum of the engine keeping time in the background.  As folk singer Dar Williams puts it: “there will always be the light and the sea . . .” 

Angel Island

Transversing San Francisco Bay to Angel Island in 2019

I am many things.  I have a fun-loving side, and I find myself drawn to the peace, beauty and thrill of the ocean—particularly when there’s a fast boat involved and I get to drive it.  I’m an attorney, who swore to uphold the rule of law when I was admitted to the bar years ago.  I’m a taxpayer.  I’m a consumer of U.S. goods and services.  I’m a mother.  And I’m a daughter.  

My father’s family has lived in the United States for generations, having immigrated here from Western Europe hundreds of years ago.  My father’s mother—my “Grandma”—was a Midwestern Christian girl.  She grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri.  Her father died when she was young.  She and her mother struggled through the Great Depression and, fortunately, landed on their feet in New York City when an affluent uncle took them in.  Her story mirrors Annie’s—complete with the fiery red hair.  

My mother’s mother—my “Ni-ni”—was an immigrant.  In fact, she was a refugee.  She traveled here from Beijing with my mother and two uncles on a U.S. military ship.  World War II was drawing to a close, but Mao Zedong’s anti-intellectual communist creed was taking hold in China.  Eventually, their family home was confiscated by the government, and an uncle, who had decided to stay behind, was branded an outspoken “intellectual.”  He was shipped off to a “labor camp” for speaking out against the government.   No trial.  No due process.  And it wasn’t a camp.  My uncle was forced to perform hard labor in the remote countryside and to kneel on broken glass. Fortunately, the rest of my family had seen the writing on the wall.  They fled in the nick of time. 

The passage to America was difficult.  My grandmother did not have my sea legs, and her seasickness was, no doubt, compounded by the stress of having to abandon everything familiar to live on the other side of the world, where she didn’t speak the language or know anyone.  She couldn’t hold down food or water during the entire two-week journey, and the ship’s doctor cautioned my nine-year-old mother that her own mother might die at sea.  Fortunately, my Ni-ni survived the journey.  As the ship entered calmer waters, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, relief washed over the family.

Recently, I found myself in San Francisco, where I visited Angel Island, the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island in New York.  After the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in 1882, Angel Island became a detention center, where Chinese immigrants spent weeks to years waiting while U.S. officials interrogated them and determined their fates.

The Angel Island barracks, where U.S. immigration agents detained and interrogated Chinese immigrants

The barracks were crowded and filthy—a stark contrast to the gorgeous vistas of the bay, visible just beyond the barracks’ high fences.  Detainees etched poems of sorrow into the walls.  Outside, anti-Chinese sentiment raged.  The parallels to 2019 were obvious—to me at least—and chilling.  The targets have changed.  The message has not.      

An exclusion-act era anti-immigrant political cartoon

I can thank my Grandma for the red highlights that tint my hair every summer.  I can thank my Ni-ni for my round face and petite frame.  I thank both my grandmothers for my tenacity and resolve.   

It pains me to watch our country tearing itself apart.  I’m white.  I’m a person of color.  My family has been in the U.S. for generations.  My family has only just arrived.  I love both sides of my family, and they love me back.  All of us are in this mess together, and we all have worth.  If only we could lift each other up, instead of tearing each other down.       

Empowering Our Daughters

My eldest daughter is entering her teenage years.  She’s self-admittedly stubborn.  She marches to her own beat, and she doesn’t take crap from me or anyone else.  She has a biting, sardonic sense of humor.  She thinks Twilight is stupid.  I’m so proud of her.  

These days, I embarrass her.  I’m clueless about her tastes, what’s cool, what’s fashionable in her circles, and, pretty much, everything else.  I can’t force her to do anything. 

And I’m so proud of her. Even when I want to pull out my hair.

Because, one day, these qualities will help her grow into a strong, self-assured, independent young woman, who is confident in whatever path she chooses for herself.  And that’s exactly what I want for her.  

Recently, I asked if she wanted to get her boating license.  We’d had a blast on the water the prior summer, and the idea that, under Connecticut law, she’d be permitted to captain a 50’ yacht before she could drive a car appealed to her ironic sense of humor.  Or, maybe, just maybe, she loves the water, just like her mom.  

So she got up early on a Saturday morning to take the day-long class and exam, which she passed (phew!). Afterward, I asked how it went.

She smirked, “Now I know how to trailer a boat.  I can’t drive.  And we don’t own a trailer . . . or a boat.  But I can trailer one.”  

I laughed—that’s my girl—and explained how I’ve never used the “rule against perpetuities” as a lawyer, but had to learn it nevertheless for the bar exam.     

Boater’s Ed Before Driver’s Ed

Next, it was time for boater’s ed.  Captain Jeff, a grandfatherly, incredibly patient Coast Guard retiree, was tasked with teaching someone who had never even driven a car to drive and dock a boat. As he quizzed her, I was relieved to learn that she’d taken the class seriously and retained useful information from it.  

We practiced docking.  I did my best to keep my mouth shut and my face impassive, and she did great as her confidence grew.  Then, it was time to push the throttle forward for the first time.  

I watched the wake spread out behind us, and, as she felt the sheer power of the engine propel us forward, a huge grin spread across her face . . . just like her mom. 

Navigation 41° 10.1

Life on the water brings with it a whole new skill set, as well as an entirely different vocabulary, like port and starboard, instead of left and right.  It takes time to get it all straight.  

On one of our first outings last summer, we cruised into a foreign port and radioed the harbormaster to ask for a transient slip.  Then we told him that our boat had a 3’ beam.  

There was a pause.  Then the radio crackled. “Uh, we don’t have slips for boats that size.”  

The “beam” is the boat’s width. 

I can only imagine what he was thinking.  “Are these people in a kayak??  Are they on crack??  Are they utter morons??”

Utter morons- that would be accurate. Or let’s just say “newbies.”  3’ is the draft—how much of the boat is underwater.

To prepare for season two, I took Carefree Boat’s navigation class, essentially “Navigation 101” for new boaters.  Captain Rich taught us how to read a chart and plot a course.  Most importantly, I learned how to pinpoint my location if I’m lost and the GPS goes out. That would have been helpful during my wintertime girls (boat) trip in Florida (see my post under “Destinations”).  

It was an incredibly useful, practical, hands on course.  We got to use the tools and practice plotting on charts—sort of like science lab back in high school, but minus the teenage angst, acne, and worries about grades and SAT scores.  

I have my custom fit boat-to-shore attire, and now I have my heading.  It’s time to rock and roll out on the waves for 2019.  Bring it on!               

Boat-to-Shore Wear

Men have it easy- guys can throw a polo shirt over swim trunks and walk into a reasonably upscale waterfront restaurant.  Us girls deserve something just as easy and comfortable because changing clothes in the head just doesn’t cut it.  (For non-boaters, the head is a boat bathroom, and most of them are about half the size of a port-a-potty).  Throwing a dress over a damp swimsuit isn’t all that fun either, particularly if the restaurant is air-conditioned.

I set to work to solve this wardrobe inequity by combining something modern (nylon-blend swimwear fabric) with a classic 1940s-era look. Then I took out my needle and thread (or, really, my Serger and trusty old Bernina).  This swimsuit should transition seamlessly from a casual dip in the water, to boating across the waves, to trading your flip-flops for sandals and dinner in port.  Now, on to the boat-testing phase- if only it would get warm enough!      

Boat Fever

After a highly symptomatic summer, I recently received a diagnosis of boat fever. Apparently, it is incurable.  But don’t worry, it isn’t terminal, and the symptoms are bothersome only during the winter months.  I looked it up on WebMD and mayoclinic.org and came up empty, so I created my own entry.

Who’s at Risk?

 Anyone who loves beaches, the ocean, or is drawn to any other body of water.  Adventure-seekers, explorers, and thrill-seekers also are at risk. Individuals who enjoy having fun with friends and family are susceptible too.

What are the Symptoms?

  • Paying close attention to weather reports to identify good boating days
  • A willingness to drop nearly everything when the weather is perfect for boating
  • The inability to comprehend why other people might choose non-boating or indoors activities during boating season (“You want to see a movie when its 80 degrees and sunny . . . why?”)
  • Taking on the role of cruise director for your family and friends
  • A near-instantaneous feeling of relaxation, contentment, and exhilaration upon leaving the harbor

When to Contact Your Doctor

 It’s incurable, and there are no treatment programs or clinical trials, so don’t bother.  And, by the way, most people who are diagnosed with boat fever don’t want to find a cure (even in the most severe cases, like me).  The symptoms can be managed by spending as much time as possible on the water.

Disclaimer:  This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  If you think this is a real medical condition, you have no sense of humor.

Business Boatertainment

It all began when Kathleen Turner wanted to try my apple pie. When the star of Serial Mom asks for a slice of your pie, you oblige.  Ms. Turner was in New Haven for Long Wharf Theatre’s 2012 production of The Killing of Sister George, and my husband and I invited the entire cast, stage management team, and director over for a home-cooked meal.

Thus began a tradition of welcoming Long Wharf’s visiting artists to New Haven with meals in our home.  We also host the staff and board of directors for an annual season kickoff party, and we donate an invitation to one of the cast dinners to Long Wharf as a gala auction item. 

This year, we decided to mix it up and donated a boat ride. We served dinner on the water, and our guests sipped wine and enjoyed the views.  It was one of the most successful auction items at the gala (which was good for the theater), and we got to drive a boat (which was fun for us).

Of course, we always go the extra mile- nautical or otherwise-for Long Wharf.  My husband has devoted 11 years of his career to the theater and, when we first moved to Connecticut, I was a member of the production staff—those are the folks who work behind the scenes to make all the magic happen.  I left Long Wharf Theatre during the difficult, uncertain times following Doug Hughes’s sudden and unexpected departure.  I eventually went to law school, but our family still has a deep connection and devotion to Long Wharf and its mission.

Businesspeople entertain clients at country clubs, social clubs, and sporting events- why not use your boat club membership for business entertaining?  In my humble opinion, it’s much more fun.

Special thanks to Carefree Boat Club for helping us make this year’s Long Wharf Theatre auction item a success.