Though LULU had to be wriggled and squished into her sliver of a boat slip like a too-tight corset, the LULU crew slid easily into the old, familiar life, reveling in a warm, fuzzy summer respite with kids, grandchildren and friends.
Aware of the pitfuls of even a single boat project involving other contractors, we braced ourselves, then sunk into the Boat Refit, a glacially slow process. With the sails out for replacement, the winches removed for rebuilding and replating, the ropes for washing, sailing became a mere chimera. In fact, LULU left the marina only twice—for the new generator installation and for a last-minute bottom scrub.
Eventually the boom came down for repainting. New canvas was put in work; the dining table and wood floors went out for refinishing; every piece of cabinet hardware was removed for polishing. Not long after, the sofa cushions and mattresses disappeared—to be recovered in exactly the same fabrics. Ditto the carpeting. (We’re nothing if not loyal—unless it’s merely uncreative.)
In September the entire interior was revarnished. While all these projects were rife with minor aggravations and setbacks, nothing compared with the ordeal of jousting with Errant Al, The Gelcoat Creep.
We contracted with Al—who had a finereputation for doing quality paint and gelcoat (fiberglass) work—during our first week back in New Rochelle. This was long before we knew just how big a fuckwit he’d turn out to be.
After the easy handshakes and gummy grins, we spent considerable time trying to get him to show up—at all. Al’s work ethic turned all previous Caribbean foot draggers into marathon winners. In the tall-tales department, he made Brer Rabbit look like a tongue-tied goof-off. Suffice it to say that, despite myriad sworn statements to the contrary, Al didn’t even order the fiberglass material until October 8. I know this because I checked with the manufacturer.
It was Al who was responsible for keeping us in New York to experience the first snowfall. The work he completed in merely mid-fall weather conditions was flawless. But the mast and cockpit—executed last-minute, amid blustery 20- and 30-knot winds and in wintry 50- then 40- and finally 30-degree temperatures—looked ravaged by an unfortunate combination of chronic acne and accident skid marks. Ignoring Al’s vociferous protests, we discounted his bill and planned a redo in sunny Florida, just before sailing off to the Bahamas.
Now, boats generally get to Florida either offshore—making a beeline straight through—or via the meandering Intracoastal Waterway The ICW snakes 1090 miles from Norfolk, Virginia in the Chesapeake Bay to Miami, flanked for the most part by protective land masses. The ICW route offers virtually no turbulence and optional layovers in myriad marinas, creeks, towns, cities and islands—places as well known as Annapolis and as obscure as Chickahominy.
Because the ICW is sprinkled with significant shallow spots and festooned with more than 60 bridges that need passing beneath, it is not navigable by boats with keels drawing more than seven feet or masts higher than 65 feet. Boats, for example, like LULU, with her 84-foot spar and keel displacement hovering somewhere around seven, depending on how much wine is loaded on board. Bummer.
So, given the chilly weather, our addiction to creature comforts and our preference for minimal overnights, at least as a twosome, we’d designed a hybrid voyage. We’d hop down to Florida in day trips, gulping up 50 to 60 miles of coastline each day, then tucking in someplace at night. I thought of it as the Portabello Passage because it pretty much guaranteed we’d never be more than 36 hours from a mushroom, an egg or a head of lettuce.
But first, we had to make Charleston, a three-day, 700-mile ocean trip. Fortunately, our good friends, Sandy and Larry, actually wanted the experience of sailing offshore—making for fewer watches, more sleep and putting the longest, coldest stretch behind us. Since we could only estimate a departure date, they opened a two-window week in their schedules.
Al’s chronic absenteeism easily gobbled up those last two weeks of October, fating us to make the entire trip alone.
In fact, it wasn’t until November 11 that we sailed—or rather motored—out of New Rochelle—me burrowed into layers of underwear, turtlenecks, vests, tights, jeans, fleeces, plus a headband, a ski hat, and boots lined in foot warmers. Gary, whose depths-of-winter outerwear is never more than chinos, a button-down shirt and—on particularly ferocious wind-chill days—a long-sleeve sweater, had added a zip-up jacket plus a wool hat and his 35-year-old leather ski mittens, which relics were threadbare 10 years ago. But he's a happy guy.
Except for the (almost) 40-degree temperature and the shoreline of leafless trees, we were convinced we were cruising again.
Four hours later we anchored in Sandy Hook, barely 30 miles from home. Within 45 minutes I found Gary in his favorite position—prone on the couch. After dinner he settled in for a 12-hour snooze. Even I slept a full eight hours.
LULU barely budged for three days; nor did we. While the weather turned seasonably ugly, rains lashed and winter winds shrieked, we ratcheted up the heat—another of LULU’s blessed, working accoutrements. We read, slept, watched movies and dug into our provisions.
The meteorological racket soon infected me with a case of the sailing heebie-jeebies. Five years’ experience vanished and the prospect of a month along the Atlantic coast was suddenly daunting.
I began phoning captains, meanwhile hatching diabolic tortures for Al. Gary was characteristically unruffled, though I caught a glimmer of an incipient case of the stay-put hives.
No captain materialized, the demonic weather exhausted itself and it was time to get on with it. Hauling anchor at 5:30 AM was exactly like bitter, highest-chairlift Vermont skiing. But five hours later, the bright sun streaming through the cockpit made it feel more like Aspen in April—not bad at all. We sprung only one interior deck leak. Since leaks are virtually impossible to trace, we were fortunate to pinpoint the source quickly: seems Errant Al—promptly rechristened Error Al—had loosened some screws on deck and failed to re-tighten them.
Though bound only as far as Atlantic City—about 80 miles—the trip took 10 hours.
Our consolation was a dinner at the Rao’s of Atlantic City—Chef Vola’s. This tiny, third-generation, cash-only restaurant in the basement of the Vola family home sits on a typical Atlantic City back street that hasn't—except for the ugly casino frontage—changed in 75 years. It’s BYO only because there’s not an unused inch for storing wines. Aside from the winning Keno numbers, Chef Vola’s appears to be Atlantic City's best-kept secret. You don’t get in at all unless the family knows you or a regular vouches for you. I like to think the reason we got a table was my oddball phone call from the high seas
Next day we were able to mostly sail the 50 miles to Henlopen, a secluded cape specifically delineated on navigation charts a "Harbor of Refuge” for its encircling man-made sea walls. We had bright sunshine, gentle waves, 12-knot winds and the radio said 49 degrees, though we were not sure in which state of the union. We pretended to be warm and when that seemed to work I stepped out of the cockpit and sunbathed in my skiwear.
Near the end of the run, passing the 10-mile-wide entrance to Delaware Bay, the winds broke free of all land barriers and, unfettered, came at us mostly abeam, hitting 25. We had a superb sail, frequently breaking nine knots.
Benign Hatteras, Adorable Beaufort
Ready or not, it was time for the 300-mile, 38ish-hour overnight passage around potentially tumultuous Cape Hatteras, which offers no navigable harbors for the likes of seven-foot us. Fortune graced us with calm seas and 50-, even 60-degree, temps.I shed one jacket but stuck with my toe warmers. Gary began hunting for his bathing suit.
A slender crescent of orange moon glimmered most of the night. The seas were glassine, the winds mere puffs of three to eight knots. It was a serene, seemingly endless and uneventful passage—unless you count the ship I almost smacked us into around 3AM.
The thing was large, pointy and completely outlined in bright lights. None of this helped me determine what direction it was moving in. An invisible captain and I parried like fencers trying to keep out of each other’s way. I thought could handle this situation, rusty as my sailing skills were, and forgetting that sailboats respond more like mud wrestlers than duelists. Repeatedly, I miscalculated his adjustments to my bantam presence, veering off in exactly the same direction he did. Somewhat late in this contest—just before the ship turned an enormous, blindingly bright searchlight on us—I woke Gary to extricate us. Which he did brilliantly, leaping to the wheel and swerving off 90 degrees.
I knew I’d scared us both pretty good when neither of us saw fit to remark, “Sure looked like a fun party to crash.”
The groggy wind, which slept far more than we did, sprang to a perky 16 knots by morning. Nonetheless we motorsailed into an almost tranquil sea to make our anchorage, Point Lookout, North Carolina, before the winter darkness closed in. We hit the tricky entrance just after sunset, managing to bump the bottom—fortunately sand—only once.
We were 360 miles (as the crow flies) from New Rochelle; it was sunny and 60 degrees. Jackets and hats were off and the hard part was over. We’d been out a week.
Next day, we chugged over to nearby Beaufort. Beaufort is a precious small town, its two-block downtown lined with small, self-explanatory stores like The Bag Lady, The Soda Fountain, Beaufort Baby ("We major in minors"), even, I suppose, No-Name Pizza.
Beaufortians are super-friendly. There's good food to be had at mostly reasonable prices, wireless internet connection and the marina even offers loaner cars from its fleet of four 1970s vinyl-sided, ersatz-wood station wagons. As if these cars were not sufficiently distinctive and recognizable, someone saw fit to top them with pink dayglo plastic lobsters.
We stayed an extra day so as not to miss the annual Beaufort Jumble Sale, a noteworthy source for collectors of toaster cozies, lace antimacassars and chintz supermarket-bag holders.
From the concurrently running Beaufort Library's Used Book Sale, I came away with an outsized picture book of Chinese recipes—for all of 50 cents. Fermented salted black beans and preserved red bean curd being largely unavailable at the Beaufort Grocery, it was clearly time to press on, with, finally, a new mission: finding Chinatown, Deep South, USA.
Gary neatly got us out of our tight slip, a job made much more difficult by a swift-running current. With virtually no wind, flat seas, not much sunshine, rarely passing another boat and accompanied by the constant drone of motor noise, the next few days were long and monotonous. Each ended in an unremarkable overnight anchorage. On the cheerier side of this bleak ledger, the weather remained a jacketless mid-60s to mid-70s. On November 23 we entered welcoming Charleston, which we loved last spring, and thought as good a place as any to spend our first Thanksgiving without friends or family.
The very prospect of such a Thanksgiving made us suddenly, miserably, lonely. Which sent us racing to the Internet, where we bought last-minute cheapie airline tickets. We told no one except Hertz.
At 3:30 AM Thanksgiving morning we routed ourselves from bed and flew to New York, giggling like grade-schoolers over the hoax we were about to perpetrate.
At around 9AM, zipping along the Van Wyck Expressway in our rental car, I called our daughter, Susan, AKA Suey, to whine about how bereft we felt alone in Charleston.
"I really wish you could celebrate with us today," she commiserated, adding, "I just put the turkey in the oven." (Thereby proving she can, in fact, make it without me in the holiday dinner department.)
"Ryan does too. Here, he'll tell you."
"Grandma Lulu, I wish you could be with us today for Thanksgiving," said our 4 ½-year-old grandson, taking the phone. (Thereby insuring himself a boyhood of extravagant toys, from bicycles to beemers.)
Half an hour later, we rang their front door bell, huddling behind each other, pretending to be invisible.
Now no one, except the UPS man, ever rings the front doorbell. Suey, muttering her mystification, opened it. She was the embodiment of surprise in mismatched pajamas.
"No way!" she exclaimed. "Ryan, come here and look who's here. I can't believe you two did this! Tony, come here, you won't believe this!"
"I told you to get a bigger turkey! " I yelled.
"Be careful what you wish for." Gary advised.
We couldn't have been more thrilled.
In the spirit of the day—truly giving thanks—we shared a slew of appetizers and a scrumptious dinner with Tony's immediate family. We were universally accoladed for our unforeseen, outlandish behavior.
Astounding to the likes of me, a scrawny 14-pound turkey expanded itself, Macabee-like—to accommodate a party of ten adults and four toddlers. And Suey made the most glorious stuffing I've ever tasted. (Thereby proving I can't make it without her in the holiday dinner department.)
We flew back to Charleston the next day, thoroughly content, with even—should we choose—enough time to join the herds of Day-After-Thanksgiving bargain-hunters the trumpeting media seemed hell-bent on propagating, all by itself.
We spent a week sampling from Charleston's wonderful array of Southern-inspired, NY-priced, NY-quality restaurants and I'd eaten myself literally sick. LULU, on the other hand, was in splendid form. Several light bulbs needed replacement, the new generator purred contentedly and all else worked properly, despite the intensive usage.
We departed Charleston, bound for Savannah, with finally enough wind to sail. Except it came smack at our back. Without a spinnaker, a sailing accoutrement far too big for the two of us to handle, LULU was unable to sail. No matter, really, since by now we’d discovered that sailing primarily takes place far offshore, where the winds are but where the Portobello Passage is not.
And sailing close to shore is too slow, since the feeble, early-setting fall sun gives us all too few daylight hours to accomplish seven- to eight-hour runs. Longer days wouldn't be much fun anyway in low temperatures.
Continuing cold fronts dogging the Carolina and Georgia coasts brought 50s and 60s weather, keeping us hunkered under the cockpit canopies, still wearing our woolies. We seized on any 70s moment to throw off our winter wear.
Still, desolate Southern anchorages began evoking Caribbean sunsets and the prospect of warmer weather beckoned us onward. Thus we spent only two days and three nights snooping and souping behind Savannah's elegant, now Christmas-festooned, squares. We lunched a few old favorite restaurants and tried several new ones that we pronounced excellent. This is, apparently, the main reason we travel.
While between big cities, anchored in coastal inlets and altogether unmoored from all restaurants, I began cooking up a veritable typhoon of Oriental recipes—this despite the fact that the assault of sizzling peanut oil made LULU—only recently redolent of new varnish—smell like a cheap Chinese takeout.
Pork, beef, spareribs and bamboo shoots all fell into julienne under my cleaver. Substituting Splenda for sugar enabled me to keep faith with my low-carb diet. It took just the tiniest leap into wholesale denial to categorize all the other sugar-fraught Asian sauces as FOA--Friends of Atkins.
Suddenly I was lusting after a wok. I searched, but did not find, room onboard, even going so far as to suggest Gary consider what a comfy cradle a wok could make under his pillow. No wuck.
Said he, in lieu of an answer, "If you keep cooking all this Chinese stuff, we're going to have to change LULU's name to WUWU."
We quit Savannah just three weeks after leaving New Rochelle, planning to anchor two nights before chugging into St Augustine, Florida. We fondly remembered the distinctive Moorish architecture—and a charming French bistro.
En route Gary glimpsed what looked like a small white whirlwind spinning over the waves; I glanced up and saw instead a black rock breaking the water’s surface. Simultaneously we realized it was an actual whale. We watched the “rock” disappear under the surface and waited, searching the horizon, for another plume of aerated water to spout from its blowhole. Despite seeing so little of so much, it was thrilling. Out there alone, just us and the whale. No whale watch boat swarming with jostling tourists snapping pictures. Worth every penny of the million or so it cost to insure such solitude.
Later we spotted two more plumes and black bodies. I couldn’t decide whether to hope they’d come over for a play date, though I suspected “not” would be better. This area is, our guidebook later told us, “right” whale territory, so named by 19th century whalers as the “right” whales to catch: easily approachable, living close to shore, having the courtesy to float rather than sink once dead and yielding large quantities of valuable oil, meat and whalebone.
Following St Augustine, we breezed through Cape Canaveral and on to Ft Pierce. Big, blowy south winds smacked our nose and high seas crashed over the bow, inundating the decks. We got to find out what was (still) leaking. Lots of water in places we thought stanched by caulking. With winds consistently up to 25 and 30 knots we were able to motorsail all day, increasing our hull speed considerably. Though accompanied by engine noise, having the new sails filled with air was unique and refreshing.
How to tell you’re cruisin’ again
December 11 was the finest day yet, the perfect day to celebrate our one-month anniversary living back aboard LULU, of being cruisers again. We were making the short—40-mile-—passage from Ft Pierce to West Palm Beach. Just one day shy of our interim destination—Ft Lauderdale—where we’d spend Christmas—but hopefully not New Year’s.
A first: we were 100 percent under sail. Going fast, too, pushed by a peppy beam wind. We were making eight knots and sometimes more. Under sunny skies, over flattish —and finally—aqua seas, we luxuriated in the 80-degree weather, high-fiving each other at every opportunity.
Further buoying these jaunty spirits, the autopilot announced we’d arrive in broad daylight, rather than mere seconds before sunset.
At 2:30 PM Gary nosed LULU into West Palm’s picturesque harbor, with its shoreline of well-kept private docks that snuggle up to copious lawns that lead to pristine waterfront mansions. There couldn’t have been a more fetching setting for the rude awakening that we’re really, really cruising again.
First we hit bottom. This just after passing a Tow-Boat USA rescue skiff. Dispensing further public humiliation, its too-young, too-blonde captain hailed us on the radio, chirruping into the stratosphere that this was too-shallow water for anchoring. Wasn’t this something he might have warned us about as we sailed blithely by him?
Yet so guileless, so without malice, so willing was he to lead us out of the morass I could do little more than decide his IQ must be lower than his bikini briefs and then take full advantage of his local knowledge. Once he’d pointed us in the right direction, toward a slightly deeper anchorage, we passed only one buoy on the wrong side, touching the sand bottom one more time.
Having ground our way out, we found a likely spot to perch ourselves, get LULU (and ourselves) hosed down, and be ready to share a congratulatory bottle of wine amid a semi-tropical sunset.
Nice plan—though not to be.
Unsuspecting, I walked forward to anchor, only to find the genoa furling mechanism gushing hydraulic oil, drenching the foredecks in slippery, oily gunk. Releasing the anchor made the hose spurt even more forthrightly—like the proud winner of a pissing contest.
Finally anchored, Gary stanched the oil flow and headed back to turn off the navigation devices. I wriggled into rubber boots, dragged the water hose to the bow, turned it on and heard several phlegmy coughs. One or two drops issued forth listlessly. It was dribbling like the septagenarian loser of a pissing contest.
”Gah, we’re out of water,” I yelled.
“No way,” he said. “The gauge reads full. You must not have the valve turned on.”
Now if there’s one thing I know after five years scrubbing the whorls off my fingerprints for this boat, it’s how to turn the hose valve on. In the interests of continued marital harmony, however, I checked.
“Gah, there is no water,” I repeated.
Down he went to check his valves and hoses. Sure, enough. Out of water. No one’s fault—merely the Curse of the Broken Gauge.
“Okay,” we’ll make water,” said my chief engineer and sole problem solver. He charged back below to awaken the watermaker from its six-month doze.
Since we make water at the rate of 25 gallons an hour, I sat astern and began thrumming my boots on the so-far unsoiled rear decks. Ten minutes later I figured it was time to start noodging.
“Gar, is there water yet?” I yelled.
No answer. Several times.
Wriggling off my rubber boots, I headed below to supervise. Something I do well. I found Gary in a familiar pose: ass ceilingward, head jammed into some boat recess.
“What’s the story?”
“The primer pump died,” he said, jabbing an arm back at a rusty, crud-encrusted old pump that had clearly drowned in its own salty juices. “I’m putting in a spare. You’ll have your water soon.”
Sexist though it sounds, recall that on a boat are there are Pink Jobs and Blue Jobs. He was patiently plodding through his masculine Blue, while I was intolerantly awaiting my feminine Pink.
Returning to the back deck, I began roundly criticizing the sun at every notch of its inexorable descent.
Yes, eventually we did open that bottle of wine, but the sun was long gone by the time I finished the soaping, scrubbing, hosing and Gary returned his deployed tools after reassembling the watermaker shambles.
Let’s see: glorious sail, then running aground, oil leak on deck, water gauge broken, water-maker pump dead…
Yup…we’re cruising again.
Next day LULU and crew put in at Derecktor’s Ft Lauderdale Shipyard to patch up Errant Al’s white paint pimples and yellowy gelcoat puddles. The dinghy, looking quite ancient after four years under Caribbean sun, needs a facelift or the nautical version of a Botox treatment. There were those window-, hatch and deck leaks that needed doctoring.
Just what we’re most familiar with—begging tradespeople to show up and then being disappointed when they do.
Though we willl not meet our pre-New Year’s fantasy departure date, we’re both stunned and pleased to report that Derecktor performed their tasks flawlessly, held up only by the continuing cold fronts passing through Ft Lauderdale. So, yes, we’re still in sweaters and sometimes shivering, but we’ve got wheels, meals and a party to go to on New Year’s.
Wishing you all a glorious, fruitful, thrilling 2005 with your every wish granted.
Lulu & Gary