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.

Eat Local, Shop Local, and – New for 2020 – Vacation Local

Beaches and boats- that’s what we’d planned for this summer.  Granted the beach was Martha’s Vineyard and the boat was a cruise to the Greek Islands.  As COVID-19 ravaged the world, summer arrived, and then case rates skyrocketed in much of the U.S. (but, thankfully, not in our sensible, science-guided, home state of Connecticut). All our carefully made plans went back to the drawing board.

            Many people scrapped their summer vacations altogether.  Doing that would make me (and most others) cranky and bitter—and there is more than our fair share of crankiness out there this year.  Undeterred, I set out to plan a COVID-safe, family getaway with no quarantine restrictions at either end of the trip.  

Sunset from the private beach at the Madison Beach Hotel

The result?  A beach and boating vacation within a 25-mile radius of our house. We saved big on travel expenses—they were the cost of a daily commute to the office, back when people did that sort of thing.  We used those savings to splurge on a luxurious ocean-front room with a balcony at the Madison Beach Hotel.  With its private beach (no crowds getting in your face), and Connecticut’s quarantine restrictions for travelers from hot-spot states, we felt safe there, and indulged freely in some much-needed pampering.  

Beachside lunches delivered to our loungers, cocktails and dinner overlooking the water at The Wharf, and jaw-dropping sunsets bathed in an oceanfront breeze. Just what I needed . . .

Another bonus? Torturing the kids with stupid parent jokes the whole ride there:

 “Madison- such a quaint little seaside town- I wonder who lives here?” (A decent number of friends and work colleagues)  

“The Connecticut shoreline’s so pretty- enjoy it, girls, we may not come back here again.” (for two to three days)

Lucky for the kids, the car ride was short. Lucky for mom, replacing the boating was easy.

We bookended the trip with two boat rides—the first out of Carefree Boat Club’s Steelepointe Harbor dock to our new favorite, socially-distanced swim area at Pirate’s Cove in Port Jefferson.  On the last morning of our trip, we headed out of the Clinton location for the first time, checking out new waters and anchoring off Duck Island for a swim. 

It wasn’t crystal clear, turquoise waters off the coast of Greece (downside), but I got to steer the boat (definite upside).  I don’t think the captain of our cruise ship would have allowed me to take the wheel, no matter how much cajoling I tried (… and I would have tried, for sure).

Exploring Duck Island off the coast of Westbrook

Our summer plans—like most things—were radically altered this year, but we returned refreshed and relaxed, nonetheless.  Vacationing within 30 miles from home may sound silly, but I think that everyone should to do what they can to safely seize moments of joy during the cluster f–k 2020 has become.  We all can get through this, but only if we are kind enough to ourselves to allow us to be kind to others, and to halt the ongoing descent into bitterness, division, and rage.         

Boating Away Those Business Travel Blues

Photo courtesy of Todd Yocher

Know what floats my boat? . . .

Hurtling across the country at 500 miles per hour in a seat barely wider than my hips.

Sitting on the tarmac only to learn that we need to change planes because the windshield wiper is broken (a word to the wise, it’s never the “windshield wiper,” it’s probably the engine . . . which might fall off midair if we don’t change planes).

Oh, and my favorite! Trying (unsuccessfully) to curl myself into a sensory depravation cocoon in that very same seat on the redeye home while the teenagers behind me go “blah, blah, blah” into the wee hours.  Maybe it’s a sleepover party for you, but some folks gotta work tomorrow.  

… said no-one. 

Know what does float my boat?

Photo courtesy of Todd Yocher

Boating, of course.

So, when the stars align and I find myself on a business trip somewhere warm, by the water, with a Carefree Boat Club location nearby, I make the most of it.  As soon as my flight is booked, I reserve my little bit o’ fun in the sun.

Recently, I had the good fortune of traveling to San Diego, which checked all the boxes—plenty of sun and water, a Carefree location, an afternoon free of work, and an old friend from the theatre days– Todd Yocher, photographer extraordinaire.

By early afternoon, we were aboard The Ray, a sprightly little Sea Ray SPX 21 with plenty of horsepower.  We headed out of Point Loma marina with tunes blasting, surrounded by plentiful sun and salt air. 

San Diego is surrounded by military bases.  As we cruised along below, fighter jets and helicopters flew overhead, tracking a path down the channel; our own personal airshow.  On the ocean side, we spotted the iconic red roofs of the Hotel del Coronado, a Victorian-era wooden beach resort, which is the second largest wooden structure in the United States and a national historic landmark.  Heading back into the bay, we picked up the pace, speeding past San Diego’s glistening skyline and under the Coronado Bridge, dodging navy vessels along the way– thankfully I remembered my training, stayed well clear of them, and brought myself, my passenger, and the boat back in one piece.

Clockwise, The Ray at Point Loma Marina, the San Diego skyline, Seals (the Navy-type), and a pelican swooping in for a meal (photos by Todd Yocher)

 I am solar powered.  Nothing recharges my batteries like the intoxicating combination of sun, speed, and fresh salty air.  Despite the redeye flight home and all the headaches of modern air travel, I returned to the cold Northeast refreshed and revived, ready to endure the two months or so before Connecticut’s boating season begins.     

Many thanks to Carefree Boat Club San Diego and dockmaster Vincent for the hospitality and the great float plan!   

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.     

Fisherwomen

What comes first, the boating or the fishing? Is boating the gateway drug to fishing or vice versa? After hearing the guys wax poetic about fishing, I was more than a little curious. Plus, fishing might (a) cut down (slightly) on my boat gas consumption, and (b) compensate (slightly) for said consumption by putting dinner on the table— a win win!

By midsummer 2019, my curiosity was piqued to the point of action. Why knot? So, on the fishing-and-boating paradise of Martha’s Vineyard, my daughter and I embarked on the traditional father-son bonding activity, but as a momma-daughter duo. 

We chartered The Done Deal out of Vineyard Haven and conveyed our utter lack of fishing acumen to multi-generational Vineyard fishermen Captain Jeffrey Canha and his son, Tony. 

The “cat toy” (a.k.a. glow-in-the dark lure)

“What do I do with this spool of thread?” 

“Why is a cat toy hanging from the end of the line?”

Ok, maybe we weren’t that clueless, but we were close . . .

Our captains obligingly designed a fishing sampler sunset cruise for us. The evening included using weighted lines to catch bottom dwellers (we both caught several striped bass, but they were too small to keep). Then we trolled the Vineyard Sound using the “cat-toy” plastic squid as bait. The setting sun painted clouds over the Elizabeth Islands in gorgeous shades of orange, swiftly fading to a blue that matched the sea. I was losing hope of catching dinner, but glad to be in motion, breathing the salty air all the same. 

And then . . . my daughter reeled in a dinner-worthy bluefish all by herself

Reeling in the first meal-worthy catch

Ah, now I understand those goofy, proud pictures guys take with their catches.

My first catch wasn’t a keeper

Driving home, I asked her, “What would you prefer: A mother-daughter trip to the mall or going fishing again back home?”

“Definitely fishing,” she replied. During boating season, at least, I’d have to agree.  

Now, how to prepare our first-ever catch for dinner?

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 . . .” 

Putting the “Port” Back in Bridgeport

Osprey nesting on a marker in Bridgeport Harbor

In recent years, I’ve travelled to Bridgeport quite often for work and for play. The city has come a long way lately, primarily due to redevelopment on the shoreline, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found. 

A favorite spot in Black Rock is Captain’s Cove Seaport, which serves up fish and chips that are up to par with the famous London pub fare.  With a deck on the water overlooking the docks and affordable prices, it’s a great place to grab a cocktail and snacks with friends, and to catch a beautiful sunset, especially after an evening boat ride.  There’s also an ice cream shop and play area to keep the kids busy while the adults kick back and relax.  Of course, another fave at Captain’s Cove is Carefree Boat Club’s Black Rock dock, which has a boat for every mood and occasion—whether it’s a relaxed sunset cruise or my personal preference, an adrenaline-pumping thrill ride on something with lots of horsepower.    

At the mouth of Black Rock Harbor, one can see the newly renovated Fayerweather Island Lighthouse.   Farther out sits Penfield Reef Light, built in 1874. It’s been restored beautifully and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Penfield Reef Lighthouse

Recently, we cruised into neighboring Bridgeport Harbor to check out the brand-new docks at Steelpointe Harbor Marina, where we treated ourselves to brunch at Boca, a sleek, modern waterfront restaurant.  

Approaching the new Steelpointe Harbor development from the docks

Upscale dock-and-dines are hard to come by, at least in my rather limited experience, and Boca is promising.  The lobster eggs Benedict and avocado toast were delicious, although the chef could have gone easier on the salt in the hash browns.

All-in-all, Boca shows promise, and I look forward to trying it again when it’s in its groove.

Pana-Sea

On the water in San Francisco and on a Carefree boat in Long Island Sound

“[A]ll of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.” President John F. Kennedy (1962)

Last spring, I discovered boating.  Before long, the ocean became my favorite place, as well as my panacea.  Perhaps it’s in my DNA—apparently, my French-Canadian great-great grandfather captained a ferryboat between Weehawken and Manhattan.  Although genetics may play a role, I think that the explanation is simpler and more universal.  In a 21st Century data-driven world, it is easy to spend nearly all our waking hours indoors staring at screens.  Then our free time gets carved up shuttling the kids from place-to-place, managing the household, and that pesky phone is always dinging and buzzing, vying for our already-fractured attention.  

I didn’t even know it last spring, but I desperately craved nature, fresh air, and space—things that are probably hard-wired in us as fundamental human needs.   

As our society’s collective pace increases, those basic human needs are easily shoved to the wayside.  We drink more and more coffee, drive, talk, and eat faster, and get crankier and less patient with each other.  We’ve all seen the Starbucks patron yelling at the barista (“I ordered a SOY latte, not a SKIM latte!”), or the driver who swerves into traffic and flips the bird out the window when the person behind honks an angry response. 

On the water, my world is reduced to the simple elements of speed, sun, and fresh salty air—for a few hours, at least, I can go back to whence I came.  The ocean is peaceful, yet exhilarating.  You’re flying fast, yet the breakneck pace of 21st Century life slows down. You have time and space to think, to feel, to be alive.  That’s why I’m drawn to the sea.  

Work hard, but relax sometimes too . . . like this guy.

So work hard, but don’t burn yourself out. Find your passion.  Find your fresh air and your space.  Then make room for it by saying “no,” here and there, to the endless stream of chores and obligations, which will pile on relentlessly until you set limits.  

And be kind to the poor, hapless Starbucks barista—whatever is going on in your life, it’s not her fault.              

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.