Back in the 1980s there appeared a few articles in Yacht Racing & Cruising (and later Sailing World) under the name Ebon Bilgewater, a determined and sometimes hapless young sailorman. This is a lightly revised version of the original from Sailing World, September 1986. Reprinted by permission.
The engine was flat busted. I’d had 15-round bouts with its injectors, water pump, transmission, fuel lines, alternator, and virtually all of its gaskets. When its puny mounts gave way during a slight altercation with a cutlass bearing early one spring, I decided to take it out and leave it out. Sailors, I reasoned, had managed pretty damn well without engines for a long time. Would clogged injectors have left the Santa Maria wallowing helplessly? Would Drake or Nelson have turned tail because of a leaky transmission? Would the Vikings have whined that they couldn't go sacking and pillaging because they weren't getting a charge on their batteries?
With my old friend Abednego Hawser at the tiller of Drazel, I slid into the inflatable, mounted the oars, and towed the yawl out of her slip and down the west side of City Island. It was a gray April morning, not cold, but silent and placid and just a bit smoky on the surface. The mist, I decided, was a good sign. It portended a sou'wester, and a sou'wester meant a broad reach, due east down the Sound, 62 miles to a new home and a new mooring with swinging room. I kept the little plastic blades singing, and pretty soon I had Drazel rippling along. We cleared Old Tom in a half hour, and no sooner had we turned east than the fresh sou'wester, good as gold, came darkening the water up from the Throg's Neck. I thought it was a bit early for it to be showing up, but I wasn't complaining. NOAA, coming from the handheld VHF, was predicting the arrival of a high-pressure system with brisk northerly winds. Perfect.
I climbed aboard Drazel, hoisted up the dink, pulled the plug, and pretty soon had it stuffed down the lazarette. Meawhile, A.H. had set the big jenny and eased the sheets, cinched down the vang, hoisted the board a foot or two, and had Drazel humming along like a snipe at five or six knots. This was going to be a fine old sail, straight down the rhumbline. My record for the passage, which I'd set alone two years before on a cold, blustery day, was 10 hours. And that was with a hulking, sulking engine stinking up the bilge to the tune of 500 pounds and more.
Sat. 0600. Wind S.W. 12-14 kts. Booming past Hart Island under 150%, main, and mizzen. Leaving Executioner's to port. Speed approx. 6 kts. Current just turning fair. Tickety Boo.
0700 Wind S. 0-3 kts. Drifting in fair current off Hempstead Hbr.
0800 Wind -0-. Still drifting. Turned slow circle in eddy w. no steerageway.
0900 Wind W. 5-8 kts. Rain, fog. Put up light-air jib and reaching at approx. 3 kts. to N.E. Figure we'll get over to the Connecticut shore, pick up the northerly early when it comes in.
1030 Wind S.W. 5-8 kts. Rain stopped. Pretty thick fog. Passed some racing boats powering for the starting line of American YC Series off Rye. Friend on As Larks Harmoniously gives a shout and a wave. Asks if we can spare any diesel. He's spitting over the side. Been sucking up the dregs from the fuel tank to feed the starving injectors. I laugh derisively. Would Isaac Hull have been spitting diesel all over Constitution's topsides?
1230 Wind -0-. Drifting off Stamford. Turned another circle or two. Fog is scaling up a bit. Tide turning foul. No records today. NOAA still calling for northerly. Wish it would show up.
1300. Wind W. 4-6 kts. Fog lowered and raining again, but nice to be moving.
1330. Wind crapped out again. This is getting silly. Where's that northerly? Rain stopped. Visibility lousy.
1400. Wind N. 10-12 kts. Here we go. Reaching along shore at approx. 4.5 kts. Making maybe 3 over bottom. Good enough for now. It's all downhill from here.
1430. Wind lay down and died again. We're ghosting along, just bucking the current. NOAA says the northerly's blowing now. Where do those guys work, Phoenix?
1500. Wind E.(!) 8-10 kts. Weird, but we'll take what we can get. Short-tacking along the shore off the Norwalk Islands to stay out of the worst current, making maybe 2 kts. over the bottom.
1700 Wind dead as a smelt again. Drifting off Fairfield under hazy sky. Current turns fair soon. NOAA still reporting a stiff northerly. I mean, come on.
2000 In 3 hours have drifted to about middle of Bridgeport Harbor. Clouded up and got dark about an hour ago. Two tankers moored here offshore with lights ablaze. Put on battery-powered running lights, set up 1-hour watches with A.H. Getting a bit nippy out.
2200 Wind E.N.E. 12-15. Changed to 120% high-clew and beat offshore at approx. 6 kts. Got about an hour of fair current left. Good and cold now.
2230 Tacked and headed back for CT shore, figuring we could fetch Milford. About 5 mins. later the wind rolled up its eyes and expired. And the rain started again. And the current's gone slack.
2330 Wind W.S.W. 0-4. Making approx. half kt. to the north with light-air jib up.
Sun. 0100 Dead in water. Intermittent rain. Decent visibility to shore, but black on water to south. Seabirds toward Stratford Shoal setting up unholy racket. Then heard nasty thrumming to the east. Pretty soon could see two vertical whites with a red low to starboard., and another red and green combo to port. One green missing. Figured it was buried in the inside red. Went below to check light configuration. Went back on deck, watched bearing. Didn't change. Went below and woke up A.H. Got VHF, went back on deck, flashed a Delta at the tug's bridge, then shined a light at our mainsail. Called tug on 13. "This is Drazel, WRV 3622, calling the tug with barge alongside heading west a mile off Stratford Point...." "Drizzle thizis (indecipherable)" the excellent fellow answered. "Zat you lil thang jes off ma po ba wi tha lil dinky laht?" I confirmed that it was, since there were absolutely no other numbnuts out there for us to be confused with. "Moan come jesabit to ma stab." Thanked the man profusely, for monitoring 13, for keeping a good watch, for not plowing this poor old blowboat under.
0200 Wind totally slack. Have drifted with foul current back to Bridgeport. Getting set down on easternmost tanker. Let go anchor in 60 feet of water. Listened to NOAA to get the hourly amusement.
0230 Wind N.N.E. 7-10 kts. Hauled up anchor and got going again on a close reach. Making maybe 2.5 kts. over bottom. Raining again.
0430 Bloody frikkin cold now. Once in a while start shaking like dropped jello. But we've been moving forward for a while now, and the current's turning fair. A.H. heated up some coffee with the propane torch.
0530 Off New Haven breakwater. Sky has lightened a bit in east. Wind has spun around and bit the dust again. We're down to our last few Fig Newtons.
0630 Wind N.E. at 6-8 kts. Heading E. closehauled at 2-3 kts.
0730 Wind E.S.E. at 12-15 kts. Drazel booming along at 5-6 kts. in pea-soup fog. Course S.S.E. Wind has built and veered for an hour. Boatspeed variable, no lobster-pot floats to gauge current, D.R. plot a mess. Blowing one long, two short on the conch, waiting for another tug to issue the coup de grace. A.H. at the tiller with eyes that look as if they've been stuck on by a taxidermist, singing "farewell and ad-ieuuuu, my fine Spanish ladies, farewell and ad-ieuuuu..."
0815 Tacked N. No sooner trimmed in on starboard than the wind gasped its last. Adrift again. Finished the Fig Newtons, thought of Géricault's “The Raft of the Medusa.” Agreed with A.H. to continue due N. when possible, run boat up on nearest rock, swim ashore, move to Wyoming.
0930 Still drifting in the soup. NOAA says they're sorry, but the low-pressure system that was supposed to move offshore keeps circling around itself. Forecast now for light and variable northwest winds, locally on-shore, with mixed clouds, fog, and sun. Bet they got a good laugh out of that one. Got out the plastic oars, lashed them to a boathook and whisker pole and started paddling.
1030 Fog scaled up enough to see the East Haven shore. Anchored against foul tide in 40 feet of water. Lay on the deck and yelled obscenities.
1130 Wind N. 7-10. Sky turning blue. Making about 2 kts. eastward over the bottom.
1200 Wind N. 12-15 kts. Bright blue sky. Changed to 150% and making about 5.5 kts.
1230 Wind N. 15-20 kts. Drazel rail-down in flat water, beam reaching at over 7 kts. Branford Reef coming up to port.
1300 Short-tacking up to shore, taking turns with A.H. running the jib around the mast, sheeting home without winch handle, yelling and whooping and jumping up and down.
1330 Rounded up, dropped genoa, jibed around and coasted up to mooring, 32 hours out of City Island. Average rhumbline speed... just under 2 knots.
Once ashore, fed, washed and napped, Abednego and I decided not to move to Wyoming. We knew that Poseidon had wrung us out a little for good reason: Our senses had become honed to the slightest nuance of wind and current. Our eyes were keen and our hearing acute; our hands freeze-dried, thawed, pickled and hardened — and not a single speck of engine muck under our well-chewed fingernails.
Ebon Bilgewater is the brother of Ambrosia Bilgewater.