March 1, 2004
Newport, Rhode Island
41° 29.325 North
071° 19.319 West

Homeward Bound

By Bernadette Bernon

The approaching tropical storm that had been propelling us away from the mid-Atlantic states, and sending us hightailing north to Rhode Island, was upgraded to hurricane status while we were still cooling our heels in the Chesapeake, and we’d been mighty worried ever since. Named Isabel, she was a beaut – big, strong, ugly, and according to the National Hurricane Prediction Center, packing an attitude that was worsening by the hour. We were concerned enough about the storm that even with a leaking packing gland, which by anybody’s standards would have been reason enough to rush to a marina with a Travel-lift and haul out, we opted to sail 220 miles further, to the comparative safety of New England.

We sail Ithaka as fast as we can away from the dangers of Hurricane Isabel.
Within two days of setting off, we ghosted in from the Atlantic Ocean, under sail, toward Newport, our home anchorage, in gusty winds and drizzling rain at the same hour Isabel began to hammer Maryland. Had we stayed there, and tried to fix the gland in a yard in Annapolis, there’s no telling how we would’ve made out. Much of the city of Annapolis and the surrounding region was being battered by brutal wind and about to be covered in tidal surge. Downtown Annapolis would end up several feet under water.

Our first sailing homecoming after three and a half years away was not without its dramatic elements. In addition to the storm on our tail, and the problem with our dripless packing gland (a more unappealing name for a piece of gear cannot be imagined), Ithaka was exhibiting other bothersome problems. During the passage, the speed-indicator stopped working due to a on-strike impeller sensor; the wind indicator lost an arm during a wind gust, and stopped sending data; the bimini began ripping along the seam where it attaches to the backstay; and our computer mysteriously stopped capturing the weather data upon which we’d come to rely. While our trusty vessel was fine, many of the little add-ons were dropping like flies. Ithaka needed some serious TLC. It was as though she, too, knew we were headed home for a refit, said “to hell with it” and was loosening her grip on some of the things that she’d been holding together for us. With the elements continuing to be relentless, we pushed onward over the watery pastures toward the barn.

Ithaka is hauled out of the water at Newport Shipyard.
For most cruisers, a homecoming—even a temporary one like this—is an occasion for celebration. For Douglas and me, it was also a quiet time filled with reveries over our sailing adventures, distant cultures, and the secluded anchorages we’d left in our wake. We were filled with joy to sail safely past the Castle Hill Light we knew so well. The light, standing sentinel at the foot of Narragansett Bay, leading into Newport, was shrouded in fog and washed with rain, as it was the day we left three years before. We were filled with nostalgia as the familiar landscape of our home waters and all our old haunts unfolded before us, and we remembered vividly the day Ithaka sailed out of this same harbor on our first outward voyage. Most of all, we were filled with profound relief to have made it safely home. Already, we had 25 knots of wind, and it was predicted to increase rapidly. Hurricane Isabel was upping her attack on Maryland.

As Ithaka sailed along the East Passage toward Newport’s inner harbor, we made three phone calls. One was to Douglas’s mother in Cleveland, Ohio, who cried tears of relief that we’d made it back in one piece. And we called my father, and my brother Mark, who both live in Newport. They said they’d jump into my dad’s truck, and head down to the dock as soon as we picked up a mooring. I longed to see them and give them the biggest hugs in the world. And then there was Hannah, Mark’s three-year-old daughter and our niece, who I couldn’t wait to see. I ached to be her auntie for real, rather than in long-distance, and to spend this winter becoming a real part of her life.

The Travel-lift drives Ithaka to her corner of the boatyard.
Just like we did a thousand times before, we rounded the jetty at Fort Adams, then zigzagged through the Newport harbor mooring field, tied Ithaka to a mooring ball, took down the sails, and looked around. We’d been gone for more than three years, and everything looked as beautiful as ever – the bustling waterfront, the mansions on the hills, the sparkling yachts moored all around us. Eerily, everything looked the same as it always did, as though we’d never left. When we came to think about it later, we’d see that it was Douglas and me, not Newport, who’d done all the changing.

Over the month that followed, we lived on Ithaka on the mooring while we nestled back into life amongst our family and friends, and looked for the right yard to haul the boat. Finally we decided on Newport Shipyard, where the price was fair and the manager, Mark Mutty, seemed like a reasonable and nice guy. Best of all, the yard was within walking distance of the house we rented for the frigid winter months.

The few months we spent in Cartagena, Colombia, during the past season did a number on Ithakas underbody. The harbor was biologically hot and heavily polluted, so the marine growth on our bottom was rampant. We scraped every other week, which shortened the life of our bottom paint, and allowed barnacles to grow more quickly.
When the temperature became too cold to dinghy in and out from the boat, we brought her into the Newport Shipyard dock, packed every single thing from every single locker into 46 cartons, unloaded the boxes one by one into my dad’s truck, along with sails, canvas, and all the gear from the lazarettes, and took them to the house for sorting, fixing, and re-organizing for our take off in the spring. Finally, one crisp bright day, with spectacular America’s Cup yachts and gleaming maxi-racers docked all around us, we strapped our little boat into the slings of the Travel-lift, and hauled her out. As her underbody came out of the water, with all its barnacles, green beard, and nicks, Douglas and I just stood in awe and watched. We had our work cut out for us, sure, but mostly we were just proud of our boat, and all she’d been through, and how she’d carried us safely away and back again.

We took everything off the boat for the winter every locker emptied, every sail, every piece of gear so that we could inspect it all, sort it out, and make repairs on things that were worn out.
So this is where we are now, wintering over in Newport, working every day on a long list of projects and upgrades on the boat, working on our writing for BoatUS and for Cruising World magazine, and enjoying sharing our story by doing several lectures and slide shows at boat shows and yacht clubs around the country. Now, in our next few logs for BoatUS, we’re going to change tacks a bit, and take you along for an intimate look at these projects and these lists, show you what we’re doing to the boat and why, and share with you our considerations as we decide where we’d like to go cruising next, in the spring, and how we’re planning for it.

One of the best reasons to come home for the winter to be with Hannah.
We’ll be moving back on Ithaka in May, but for right now we’ve temporarily become land people again – this transition is an adventure unto itself – and although we’re loving the reconnection on many levels, on other levels we’re already longing again for the open sea. On any big dreams in life, until you push to achieve them; until you miss the comforts that accompanied your old securities, and accept that you no longer need so many to be happy; until you fear what challenges will be foisted upon you, and realize that your survival may depend upon your resourcefulness, you just have no clue what you’re capable of. Now, having been cruising for more than three years, Douglas and I have a better idea of our own limitations, as well as our own potential to live a bit outside the box, and we crave the challenges and the rewards, the freedoms and the vistas, that the cruising life has opened up for us. Thanks for coming along with us on our voyage so far. We hope you’re enjoying the ride, and will stay aboard with us when as take off again the Spring.