July 15, 2004
Gulf of Maine, under way
B-Line To P-Town
By Douglas Bernon
the greatest relief that, on the morning of July 5, after a night sky of
fireworks the evening before, we finally saddled up and rode
out of Dodge. It’s not that I don’t love Newport in any number
of ways. But our refit is pretty much as done as it’s ever going to be,
a bunch of kinks have been worked out (though some remain and new ones emerge
daily), and the town is filling up with thousands of ice-cream-licking day-trippers
shopping for T-shirts – a perfect time for us to be moving along.
At home, while tending
to the necessary platforms that make cruising possible, such as preparing
the boat, earning money, organizing our lives -- inevitably
centrifugal force propels us toward increasingly routinized, scheduled, in-elasticity — the
opposite of what one hopes for in getting away in the first place. Without
what my mother reminds me is “a real job,” and not living in our
own house on land, the clock’s ticking became cacophonous. But getting
away is always one of the hardest parts of cruising. There’s a gravitational
pull so powerful that breaking free of one’s orbit demands considerable
energy and also some pain. I’m reminded of a surgeon friend — also
a sailor — who, in a conversation about cruising’s emotional comings
and goings, commented that “the reason we use the sharpest scalpel we
can is because it’s a cleaner cut, there’s less bleeding and faster
The Fourth Of July fireworks over Ithaka in Newport Harbor.
Re-cutting one’s tethers is always hard. More so for Bernadette than
for me. She grew up in Newport since she was five, and her family, whom she
adores, lives there. Though we passed the last two evenings in their company
aboard Ithaka, no time is a good time to say “so long” and return
to the unknown. Plus, no matter the weather in fact and in prediction, no matter
the distance to the first landfall, no matter how fit you feel your boat is,
and how itchy you are to move on, there’s always the fear factor. Tania
Abei, the youngest woman ever to sail around the world alone, told me that
all during her circumnavigation, even toward the end, she never got over being
frightened each time she left a port. Sounds right to me.
Every day in Newport, we squeezed our inflatable into one of the public dinghy docks, and headed out to do our countdown-to-leaving errands.
Our attitude in leaving
Newport was different this time than when we left four years ago. We’re more realistic about what cruising offers and demands,
slightly more prepared, and we know our boat better. We, and our friends and
family, are more accustomed to Ithaka weighing anchor now, so our departure
was unceremonious and quick. We’d been borrowing a mooring from friends,
and at 8:30 a.m. on the designated day, Bernadette and I jammed into corners
what wasn’t totally stowed below, un-cleated the mooring lines and set
out, the first time we’d been sailing since Ithaka was hauled last winter.
NOAA had predicted a chance of showers and wind from the southwest at between
10 and 15 knots. We had fewer than 50 miles to travel from Newport to Onset,
Massachusetts, a calm harbor just at the start of the Cape Cod Canal. Although
the sky was layered with purple and gray gristle, we had good winds from the
right direction. We’d said our goodbyes already, and figured what the
By noon, hell declared
itself. Winds were 20 to 25, gusting into the 30s, the rains began pelting
as soon as we’d passed that magical line where
turning back no longer felt like such a hot option, and the fog rolled in and
surrounded us. By then, we’d also discovered several leaks that were
direct results of winter repairs I’d made, and we’re still chasing
two others whose origins remain a mystery. By mid-afternoon, we were both queasy,
bone-chilled, and soaked by the front that was hovering over us. We asked aloud
what it was about cruising we thought we liked. Neither of us could gin up
an answer. But the good news was we’d hanked the sails on right side
up, and still remembered how to use them. There was some relief in that after
six months of being land locked. We dropped our anchor in Onset at 4 p.m.,
had steamy hot showers and a good meal to warm up, and were sound asleep by
In no time after leaving Newport, the rain began, the wind knocked
plenty of seas over our side decks, and we discovered a few new self-imposed
leaks such as our new genoa track, which needed more caulking in two screw holes.
The next morning was sunny
and crisp, and we set out – rested and dry
--toward the opening of the Cape Code Canal, the very same canal we’d
transited four years ago in total fog, and the very same canal where we’d
nearly driven Ithaka into a parked tanker (an incident that hastened our learning
how to use radar). The day was glorious, winds were a steady 10 knots, seas
were flat, and we sped under main, genny, and staysail the 23 miles to Provincetown,
a curly cue sand spit from heaven, just inside the northernmost end of Cape
Sailing in tandem with
us was the 50-foot steel sailboat Baerne, with our Dutch friends Inge and
Pieter aboard. We’d first “met” them
four years ago, during a blizzard, as they motored past us on the ICW in Virginia,
snug in their cozy pilothouse while we froze in Ithaka’s cockpit. Since
then, our paths have crossed several times – during hurricane season
up the Rio Dulce River of Guatemala, diving the reefs and spending the holidays
together in Honduras, and here again in the States -- and we’ve become
dear friends. Now, they’d sailed up the coast to spend a couple of weeks
with us in Newport, see the place we call home, and then travel together with
us to Maine. It’s been a sweet reunion.
Once we first set eyes on Baerne four years ago (shown here in the Cape Cod Canal), we never forgot the dramatic black boat. Yet Pieter didnt have the same recollection of Ithaka. After all, as Pieter said in his droll Dutch style, leetle vite Toopervare boats are harder to remember.
Cruising is at its richest
in re-connecting with people whose paths unexpectedly intertwine with ours.
In the anchorage in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at dusk
on our first night there, anchored with Baerne nearby, Bernadette and I had
another surprise re-connection. We heard the whine of an approaching dinghy.
Thinking it was Pieter, I went topsides and saw, heading toward us, a dinghy
driven by Joe from Grab A Chance, a 45-foot Prout catamaran we’d last
seen some 18 months before at Glover’s Atoll off Belize. Joe and Karen
were headed for Nova Scotia. We all got together that night, shared a pot luck
supper on Grab A Chance, talked about our plans for the season ahead, and reminisced
about where life had taken us since we’d all been together in the Western
Caribbean. For Pieter and Inge, the past year had taken them to Virginia, where
they’d hauled Barne for a mini-refit and complete paint job. Joe and
Karen had sailed back up to their home in Florida, and welcomed their first
We anchored Ithaka behind the huge sand spit that curls around the tip of Provincetown.
Bernadette and I told about
living in Newport, and what the past month or so had been like aboard Ithaka,
as we were moored in the southeast corner of
Brenton Cove there. We told about scurrying back and forth every day to hardware
stores and West Marine. We told them about our major decision to purchase a
car. During the course of the winter—living on land and doing a serious
refit—we desperately needed a transport vehicle. So I’d gone to
Neal Coffey, a man we’ve always trusted completely, the owner of Coffey’s
Garage, and told him that when he found the right car for us, he should buy
it and let me know. Here were my requirements: It should have been cared for
by Neal all its life. It should have good rubber, good brakes, and not burn
oil. It could be any color, any make, any size, and have any number of miles.
However, it had to cost no more than $1,000.
Dinner aboard Grab A Chance. From left to right are Joe, Inge, Bernadette, Pieter, and Karen.
“No Problem,” he told me. “When it drives in, I’ll
The Gray Whale
A month passed before Neal
phoned. “Come in and take a look at your
For me, it was love at first sight: a 1990 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with merely
186,000 miles. My grandfather used to drive Oldsmobiles. I felt a cosmic connection.
“Deal,” I said,
and phoned Bernadette.
“Hi honey, I bought
us a car!”
“It’s not that bad,” I said. “Think
Gray. Think Whale.”
Bernadette hated the car.
For several weeks after I bought it I overheard her describing it to her
friends as “Douglas’s Car,” as opposed
to Ithaka, which she calls “Our Boat,” the psychological distinction
being obvious and brutal.
Her disdain, however, did not prevent her from driving it when she wanted to
get somewhere. Now that we’ve escaped Newport, my Gray Whale is parked
at a friend’s house with the request that it be taken out for a regular
romp and battery charge every month. For now, the Gray Whale is a consciousness
of yesterday – a nod to our shore-based needs -- and it’s real
whales that we’ll be looking for in the Northern Right Whale Critical
Habitat that’s set in Cape Cod Bay, a stone’s throw from quirky
Over the next two days,
while Ithaka bobbed on her anchor chain, and a front passed by, Bernadette
and I and our friends discovered immediately that Provincetown
is not provincial. It’s a whole community whose pulse has been jacked
up by politics, tourism, wealth, exhibitionism, and a gathering of the homosexual
clans. This is a Major Mecca. The little city, once home to the pilgrims, is
where Miles Standish, John Alden and their buddies signed their first covenant
in the New World they called Virginia. Today, Provincetown has relinquished
any vestiges of its puritanical heritage. There’s an in-your-face disposition
that often makes you smile, sometimes leaves you edgy, and once in awhile grabs
you by the lapels, picks you up a foot or two off the pavement and shakes your
thinking. Chock-a-block with expensive art galleries, restored colonial architecture,
chi-chi clothing stores, pottery shops, ice cream kiosks, cafes, restaurants,
and stores in which you can find every sexual fetish you’ve ever fantasized
and dozens you didn’t know existed, this little burg has devised all
manner of ways to grab your eye and empty your wallet. Moorings are exorbitant
($40 a night), but we found plenty of room to anchor free behind the mooring
field, and we lay there for two nights waiting for weather before heading up
to Maine. We had to remind ourselves again about tides. The range in Provincetown
Harbor is 10 feet, so putting out scope demands you use the high-tide depth
for figuring how much chain to lay down.
One of the waterfront buildings in Provincetown, as you approach
the dinghy dock, is plastered with a giant black-and-white photo, and
the entreaty to make no wakes.
While Inge and Bernadette went window shopping, in an effort to protect and preserve
our marriages, Pieter and I peeled off on our own, strolled the main shopping
street, found a good Portuguese bakery, strong coffee and then a perch from which
we could watch the outrageousness that pumps through this place even on a Wednesday
afternoon. Six men came by in purple and green wigs, stopping traffic, posing
for photos and wiggling their toned bodies at passersby. Another man sashayed
down main street in pumps, festooned in a child’s wading pool that made
a charming frock. Another walked his pugs, wearing a mini-kilt and halter top.
It was as if the Chamber of Commerce had telegrammed Central Casting and implored
them: “Send us your over-the top stereotypes, now!”
P-town street attire
A store sign on the main drag holds the promise of new experiences.
On the gentler
side, on a square of crushed clam shells in a median strip between buses
circled by pizza parlors and sweatshirt shops, Karen
Grenier held court under the trees with her electric guitar. Her voice was
strong and full and sweet. She sang favorite ballads, folk songs and her
own works. She created an oasis of calm in the eye of Provincetown’s tornado
of feather boas. She’d placed a green plastic bucket about 10 feet
in front of her, and from time to time her appreciative audience dropped
One father and his boy
were sitting down the bench from Pieter and me, and that afternoon Dad taught
Son a righteous lesson. The boy — no more than
five years old — had been clapping in time with Karen’s songs.
Dad took two $1 bills out of his wallet, and the two generations marched hand
in hand up to the bucket, each making his offering. The little guy smiled happily.
He was learning something important, that in addition to the raucous fun of
audacious street entertainment, it’s crucial to stop awhile and listen
for the gentler rhythms. He and his dad were savoring this gentle moment, not
rushing by it. And he learned, too, the importance of supporting the people
who give us these moments. As I listened to Karen Grenier, and watched father
and son amble off, I realized that for me, too, time was regaining its suppleness,
that after a winter of laser-beam focus on the boat and work, I was beginning
to open myself up again for pleasure of just being there.