Homeward Bound- Jones Inlet Danger and Death

It’s been months since my last post.  Why?  Because that Jeanneau Merry Fisher I had found on Boat Trader checked out on the survey, and (after a large draw on our home equity line) became mine.  Since then, I’ve been busy learning about my new baby’s inner workings (at times wondering if I had a serious lapse in judgment last July) and making upgrades and improvements.  There’s a happy ending to this story – lots of awesome adventures this summer and a weeklong vacation on board – but it took sweat (sprinkled with blood and tears) to get there.

I found Bay Ray 3 (soon to be christened PanaSea) in Freeport, Long Island.  That’s not far from home as the crow flies, but there’s a vast suburbia (Long Island) to traverse between Freeport on Long Island’s south shore and Branford, on the Connecticut side of the Long Island Sound.  While I could have paid to have PanaSea shipped over land to the north shore, that takes all the fun out of it.  Luckily, Captain Rich Hannon, who originally trained me at Carefree, graciously agreed to guide me out of Freeport, through New York harbor, and into the Sound.

 On a beautiful early morning in July, my dad and I drove to Bridgeport, Connecticut, hopped the cross sound ferry to Port Jefferson, and took an Uber, train, and another Uber, eventually arriving at Al Grover’s Marina, where PanaSea was ready to go.  (Interesting side note: In 1985, before EPIRBs and other modern safety equipment, Al Grover crossed the Atlantic in a 26 foot outboard, setting a world record.  His story is here:  The Legend of Al Grover).  

We crossed a Sound that was calm as glass. Conditions were perfect. While I was glad to have Captain Rich, whom I consider a friend, along on my momentous inaugural voyage, did I really need a captain?

Captain Rich met us at Al Grover’s promptly at noon and explained that he had done his research.  We’d see if conditions at Jones Inlet were favorable.  If not, we’d cross into the Atlantic elsewhere.  When I asked why he had done “research,” he referred me to “Jones Inlet DANGER and DEATH,” a Facebook group with over 2,000 members dedicated to keeping boaters apprised of this treacherous inlet’s shifting conditions.  I realized then how spoiled I was to boat on the Long Island Sound with its usually mucky, muddy (but relatively constant) bottom. And any thoughts that I didn’t need a captain evaporated.  While Long Island’s south shore has white sandy beaches and crashing surf, that same surf shifts that powdery white sand regularly and can render channel markers incorrect, especially after a big storm.  Boaters have gotten stuck on shoals and even died when pounding waves overturn stranded vessels.  As we approached the inlet, Captain Rich showed me how to watch for waves breaking offshore, which indicates shoals, and pointed out an area of flat regular waves, which indicated deeper, navigable water.  As we crossed, I nervously watched my depth gauge decreasing from 15 to 10 to 8 feet . . . and breathed a sigh of relief as those numbers reversed. We had left the inlet and entered safe open waters.  

Out of the inlet and into open waters- my first trip outside the protected Long Island Sound

We’d made it out of Jones Inlet and headed offshore where deep draft cargo ships were waiting to be piloted into New York harbor- the first leg of PanaSea’s journey home was complete.           

To Buy or Not to Buy . . .

That was the question. I’d been happily boating for several years with Carefree Boat Club. The club gave me the luxury of fixed costs, late model boats, and no worries about repairs, maintenance, or all those chores that come with boat ownership. But as my life got busier post-COVID and my kids’ schedules reverted to being packed with activities, it became more and more difficult to get everyone to the dock for a set block of time. I was also itching for experiences like a summer vacation on the water and weekends away on my boat. And, yes, I desperately wanted a vessel to buff to a shine and proudly call my own. I spent evenings scrolling through listings on Boat Trader. I’d bought nautical themed fabric to make custom pillows at a shop in Martha’s Vineyard. I’d already picked out a name.

In early July, I saw him: a 2016 Jeanneau with only 200 hours on the twin Yamaha outboards. He (and, yes, I call my boat he) slept four in two separate cabins and got 2 mpg in good conditions (which is very fuel efficient for a boat). Despite some staining on the upholstery, he looked to be in good condition, and with my skill set (sewing), upholstery is easy to replace. He was not far away, at Strong’s Marine in Freeport, Long Island. So I swiped right. Then I approached my husband.

The second cabin as a storage room with stained cushions

We were visiting my in-laws that weekend and Freeport was only a 15 minute detour.  

“Let’s just take a look … as research,” I suggested. 

My husband rolled his eyes and concluded that there was now a 97% chance we’d soon be B.O.A.T. (as in Break Out Another Thousand) owners. Miraculously, he humored me and agreed to take a look.

What the second cabin could eventually be

The broker was kind enough to meet us over the holiday weekend. The boat wasn’t perfect. It needed a serious cleaning and smelled funny (more on that in another post). But the price was the lowest I’d seen since I started skulking around on Boat Trader, and the engines were practically new. I could see the potential- this could be our family’s oasis on the water. So I silenced all the contrary voices in my head, told my husband the boat would be my problem, not his, and we made an offer. Let the boat buying process begin . . .

Carefree in DC

In April, we took the iconic family road trip to Washington DC, retracing a route that my husband and I both travelled as kids. Back then, we rode in our respective Chevy station wagons. My family’s was gray. It had 110,000 miles on the odometer, as well as a rusted out patch of metal under the backseat footwell that I unadvisedly poked with my foot from time to time (I also enjoyed standing behind the bench seat so I could see out the front windshield). His family’s wagon was maroon and packed with five kids, so he sat in the death-trap seat– remember the one that faced to the rear so you could make funny faces at the drivers behind you? Thankfully, we both lived to tell the tale.

When I visited DC as a kid, there were no metal detectors or mandatory bag checks. The Capitol had not been the scene of anarchic violence, and government buildings were not protected by massive concrete barriers and tall fences. Perhaps automotive safety has advanced, but the world as a whole feels a lot less safe now, and I know that my eldest daughter worries about political unrest, plastic contaminating the ocean, and our deteriorating environment. Back then, the world just felt less insane (but maybe it was just as insane, and I was a sheltered kid).

In the end, we decided to skip the crowds and barricades, choosing to view DC’s iconic monuments from the solitude of the Potomac. We boated out of Carefree Boat Club’s Washington DC dock, viewing the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and other iconic buildings from a distance, in a place of peace and solitude. We even caught a glimpse of what I believe to be Marine One flying low over the Potomac.

As we meandered by the monuments snapping pictures, two orange and black ribs sped toward us, lights flashing. It was the Coast Guard. As we prepared to be boarded for a safety check, the officer said something I’d bet very few boaters have ever heard: “Good morning, Ma’am. You know this isn’t a no wake zone? You can open up the throttle.”

Yes, the Coast Guard actually asked me to speed up, not slow down. They were doing “training exercises” and we were in the way. Did this encounter have something to do with that helicopter? Who knows. I didn’t ask and gladly accepted the authorities’ invitation to gun it.

I’m sure that very few people who visit, live, and work in DC are carefree these days, but we were for at least a few hours on a glorious spring day.

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.     


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 . . .”