Hot Times, Summer In The City

By Bernadette Bernon
July 17, 2000
Newport, RI

Photo of July 4th decoration in Newport Harbor Fourth Of July decorations in Newport Harbor.

Harbors just don't get much more interesting than this. Douglas and I arrived back to Newport a few days ago from our cruise to the Elizabeth Islands, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket to find every dock buzzing. The international fleet of space-age sailboats was just finishing the single-handed race from Plymouth, England, to Newport, and the diminutive British sailor, Ellen MacArthur, only 23 years old, had just won the event by 12 hours on her 60-foot, Kingfisher. Right behind her were an array of fantastically designed mono-hulls and multi-hulls, painted with the wild logos of their sponsors, that arrived at a different downtown dock every few hours, their euphoric skippers wide-eyed and looking for cigarettes.

On every dock in downtown Newport, we heard different languages spoken, as the exhausted racers told their fans, entourages, TV cameras, and loved ones all about the grueling conditions they endured in this year's event — uncharacteristically heavy wind on the nose the whole time, boats pounding along at 30-degree angles for 21 days, sails ripping, engines coming lose from their mounts. Suddenly, the junior-varsity list of problems Douglas and I had found on Ithaka during our shakedown cruise seemed pretty inconsequential.

Photo of Kelli rowing an inflatable boat My little sister Kelli rows the inflatable around Ithaka and checks out our floating neighborhood.

The first thing I did when we settled down on our mooring , was to pick up the cell phone, call my little sister Kelli, and tell her the big news about Ellen McAurthur winning the race in record time. Kelli's 13, going into eighth grade, and she's been my "little" in the Big Sisters Little Sisters program for four years now. We've had a lot of fun times together, doing everything from making Christmas presents, to going to the theater, to just hanging out and taking walks. Kelli's taught me a lot about a lot of things — without her I would remain tediously clueless — as well as developing with me a killer recipe for "Kelli's Superior Fig and Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies." Mostly, she's just been my little sister, and we've always been there when we needed each other. Douglas and I may be going cruising for awhile, but Kelli and I are sisters and we'll always stay in touch.

I'd taught Kelli how to sail three years ago aboard our last boat, Ruby, a 24-foot Quickstep, and she'd taken to it. However, in my experience anyway, outside of N'Sync — they're a teen band, people (Jeez, where have you been?) — hair concerns, boys, and The Gap, not too much seems to make an impression on 13-year-old girls these days, particularly as it regards sailboats. I was counting on this Ellen news to penetrate Kelli's recent veneer of indifference to things nautical.

I picked up Kelli. She deigned to oblige me by changing her platform shoes and micro-miniskirt for sneakers and shorts for the boat, and we headed downtown to the docks to do some Ithaka errands together and check out the action. I was totally bummed to find that Ellen and Kingfisher were nowhere to be found — the boat and she had been spirited off to an undisclosed location, we were told, to get the shy Ellen out of the media glare — but in her place there were plenty of handsome suntanned French racers with no shirts, climbing all over the other racing boats that were tied along the dock at Newport Yacht Club. This display of brawn and French magnetism succeeded in riveting Kelli's full attention in a way the boats themselves could never do.

"Wow, Kell," I whispered, as one of them smiled and said hello to us. "Those are some pretty cute guys."

"They're not speaking English," she whispered back, uncharacteristically demure.

"They sure aren't," I said. "They're speaking the language that miraculously transforms an otherwise unexceptional man into a sex symbol."

"Eeeyoooo ..." she said, looking at me like I had two heads. One minute she was a young woman, the next she's back to being a child. Thirteen is that kind of age.

Photo of Tall Ships near Newport Harbor The Tall Ships spent a few days in Newport, then left the harbor in a spectacular parade of sail. Their next destination was New York City.

Next we hit the road and headed out to Portsmouth, a couple of towns over from Newport, to find the company that was re-commissioning Ithaka's life-raft. I wanted to give them a canister of medications and other essentials to put in the raft before they sealed it for us. Chatting away about Ellen and how she'd averaged only 3.5 hours of sleep a day during her passage, and her meteoric rise from unknown teenager in the English countryside to determined sailboat racing star with a mega-sponsorship deal from the Kingfisher real estate company, we took a wrong turn and ended up by mistake at Little Harbor Yachts. As I turned the car around, out of the corner of my rear-view mirror, I thought I caught sight of the unmistakable fluorescent yellow of Kingfisher. We backed up for a closer look, and sure enough, there was the boat, out of the water and hidden behind Little Harbor's big shed, it's enormous and spindly fin keel the height of a small house.

"There she is!" screamed Kelli. "It's Ellen! Under the boat!"

It was Ellen, all by herself, working on the keel. We drove by slowly, beeped the horn, and called out the window of the car, "Ellen, congratulations! You did it! You're the best! Now you'll win the Vendee Globe!" She smiled and waved happily. "Thank you! Thank you so much!" she called back. "I'll do my best!" Kelli and I whooped and waved and drove off, both as thrilled as if we'd just met a major movie star.

"That was The Bomb," said my normally nonchalant little sister. (English translation: "That was great.")

Photo of my dad and stepmother Suzanne We watched the Tall Ships parade from Passage Rocks, the cliffside house of Constance and Murray Davis. Lots of old friends were there for the party, including my dad and my stepmother Suzanne.

Newport had even more excitement to offer in the days that followed. Massive old Tall Ships from around the world began to arrive, and take their places on the docks alongside the space ships from the single-handed race — an awesome juxtaposition of time traveling under sail. With the Tall Ships came hundreds of cruising boats, many flying flags from around the world. They'd come to anchor for the show, the fireworks, and the festivities. Around Ithaka, every other mooring had a raft-up of boats and merrymakers — normally a situation we’d abhor if we were out cruising for just a weekend, but this year, now that we're full-time liveaboards, this actually turned out to be fun.

Yesterday, we jumped in our dinghy as the Tall Ships and their regiments of uniformed cadets slowly, carefully began to push off the docks around us, make their way out of the harbor, and into the East Passage that would lead them to Narragansett Bay and the open ocean. We were just another mosquito in the swarm of boats, gawking at the spectacle, as we aimed the dink for the cliff-side house of Constance and Murray Davis, where we planned to enjoy the afternoon and the parade of sail. Murray was the founder of Cruising World, where I'd worked, and lots of our old friends were there.

Watching these magnificent ships under full sail before us, like cathedrals on the sea, pressing out into Narragansett Bay, I thought back over such an extraordinary week of boats and sailors and history. I realized that the highlight for me was still the look on a little girl's face as she encountered a young hero in a boatyard in Portsmouth. That was The Bomb.