15 Oct - the Connecticut shoreline
10 October saw us crossing Long Island Sound and heading for Stonington in Connecticut. You have to get the tides right at the eastern end of the Sound where the sea rushes through The Race at quite a pace (Ed: a poet, but did he know it?). It’s more interesting than that, because if you get the timing right, you can carry the ebb in one direction, arrive at The Race at slack water and then carry on in the same direction with the flood tide under you – thereby travelling along Long Island and Block Island Sound all the way from Newport to Port Jefferson in one hop. We needed to slide around the north of Fisher’s Island, past New London (where they build submarines) and Mystic and into Stonington. It was a glorious, hot sunny day with the wind behind us; the boat flew and we wore swimsuits – it could have been 1000 miles further south!
A map. The eastern end of Long Island is on the bottom left, with Shelter island just left of centre and Orient just above. Stonington is north east of Fisher’s Island on the north shore. Mystic is not marked, but is just west of Stonington. Essex is six miles up the river top left.
A couple of friends had strongly recommended Stonington as one of the nicest port calls on the Connecticut shore and we were not disappointed. It’s quite shallow and there wasn’t room to anchor so we took a mooring at Dobson’s Boatyard where we enjoyed a beer or two at their waterfront bar before venturing ashore for a wander. More New England perfection, but with great views over the harbour to the west and Little Narragansett Bay to the east, bustling with some smart restaurants and shops.
Part of the waterfront at Stonington, Connecticut
The next day we caught a bus to Mystic. It was chilly and poured with rain for much of the day, but we enjoyed walking around the upper harbour looking at the fine houses built by 19th century sea captains. It was high tide and the sea was right across the road in several places: there were a few locals who seemed genuinely surprised by this unwelcome intrusion into their otherwise perfect lives. We reflected on the likely impact of global warming along the entire eastern seaboard of the US and wondered when and how the current administration in Washington might be persuaded to take some appropriate action.
The sea invades America (but nobody in authority believes it) at Mystic
We cheered ourselves up by visiting the Seaport Museum, probably the best maritime museum in North America. They have an astonishing collection of working boats of all shapes and sizes, mainly dating from the age of sail. The highlight for us was the whaling ship the Charles W Morgan. She’s the last surviving sailing ship that hunted whales in the Atlantic and the Pacific in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She has been painstakingly restored and was last at sea in 2014 when they took her out to the Stellwagen Banks to study whales, just as we had done a couple of weeks earlier!
The whaler Charles W Morgan, ready for sea at Mystic Seaport Museum
They don’t try to apologise for whaling here, but they do explain it well; New England is the home of the ‘Moby Dick’ legend and for a century or so the world depended on the array of products that were extracted from these remarkable animals, often at great human cost. Of course, the rise of hydrocarbons and the oil industry killed off the whaling industry, didn’t it? Certainly it did in North America, where the investors didn’t try to prolong the profitability of whaling with new technologies, but simply switched to drilling for oil. Not so in other countries though, where they embraced new tools such as rocket-propelled harpoons with such success that the whale population declined massively in the 20th century – even as the whaling fleets shrank away, even as petrochemicals completely replaced the need for this industry. I can see no reason whatsoever for any whaling to take place today, except possibly to support the odd, isolated indigenous tribe living in a remote part of the globe. I think that rules out the Japanese, then? Their ‘science’ argument is utterly fallacious in my opinion and they should be opposed, vigorously.
The museum site includes an array of specialist buildings including a functioning ropewalk and foundry where the blacksmith made an ornate iron coathook for Julie as we watched. They have the Mayflower replica there for a refit, so it was interesting to see her after our recent visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts. Combine that with the whaling exhibitions and our first-hand experiences and we both felt that we have been very lucky to dive deeper into the geography and history – maritime and social – of this coast and this nation over the last few months. I thoroughly recommend the Mystic Seaport Museum to anyone visiting this part of the USA.
Mayflower II in refit at the Mystic Seaport Museum
That evening, we caught up with our New York Yacht Club friend Rob Burt for dinner at his house in Stonington. It turned into a very British evening as his other guest was Murray Smith, a retired English advertising executive who had forged a successful career on Madison Avenue in the 60s and 70s. Both men are very competent motor racing drivers (Rob is a Lotus man – hurrah), so the conversation was wide ranging, Laphroaig-fuelled and suitably indiscreet!
On Friday we sailed at first light into a strong north westerly down Long Island Sound. A good test for the new North mainsail (with three reefs) which stood up really well to the conditions and powered us along very efficiently, but in blustery, cold weather we decided to cut short our push towards New York and turned up the Connecticut River instead.
The bascule bridge on the Connecticut River opens for us
This is another long, quite shallow, wide river with a decent amount of commercial traffic as well as a steady drumbeat of immaculate New England towns, boutique marinas and wonderful, empty reaches lined with reeds and sandbanks, the undisputed kingdom of a rich population of cormorants, egrets and herons. We had to negotiate one of those lifting bascule bridges which takes a busy railway track along the coast. As we approached it was shut and you could see the trains bustling along. The bridgekeeper was manning his radio though. ‘Call me when you are 100 yards short’ he said calmly as we raced towards him with a three knot tide under us. I remembered my last, unsuccessful bridge experience down in Virginia and put the engine astern as we slid towards him… but amid a chorus of bells, whistles and sirens the steel monolith rose into the sky and we ghosted through.
We motored up the river (with the tide but into a 25-knot headwind in a narrow channel) enjoying the view and after taking on fresh water at Essex marina, picked up one of their mooring buoys. The tidal streams run pretty fast here, so anchoring would entail remaining onboard certainly for the first few hours, to see how things settle. We wanted to get ashore to explore before dark and planned to escape at dawn the next day. The mooring was – for once – pretty cheap at $23 per night including showers. That compares very favourably with The Hamptons ($100 per night in Sag Harbor) or Martha’s Vineyard ($55) or Boston ($55).
Essex continues the chain of apparently endless New England perfectionist villages. This one scores over than Orient though, because it has a pub, the Griswold Inn. After a wander around the village we needed refreshment and were delighted to find the nearest thing we’ve seen to an old English pub in America. Clearly pretty old, there’s a fire, a vaulted roof, a huge collection of marine art, a pianist (apparently Billy Joel dropped in once and tinkled the ivories, although I think he prefers Madison Square Gardens these days) and a decent collection of warm ales. Oh – and free food during ‘happy hour’. There was a reasonable mix of locals and tourists. It claims to be the oldest continually operating pub in the USA and celebrates ‘Losers Day’ when a bunch of Royal Marines and Matelots came up the river in 1814 and burnt all the ships but spared everyone in the town and their homes on condition that the pub gave them breakfast. A sense of irony too!
Sunrise on the Connecticut River
We departed Essex as dawn broke – a cold, damp morning with no breeze, but by the time we cleared the Connecticut River an hour later we needed a reef in the main and genoa. We had expected the wind to back into the west, but it remained more northerly and allowed us to make reasonable progress with the tide up towards New York. As the day wore on, the weather improved but the wind did back eventually, so we decided to spend the night at Port Jefferson, about halfway along the north coast of Long Island. We had been there with Lizzie on our way eastwards back in July and we found a well sheltered anchorage for the night on the west side of the harbour. The following morning, with a light wind hard on the nose, we motored the last thirty miles to Port Washington. At least, Julie did.
I spent the day in the bilges trying to persuade the new fresh water pump to work. Things had started off so well back in Rockland when I first fitted it, but it has been increasingly temperamental since mid-September and I must have dismantled part or all of the system a dozen times since then. Today, though, was not my day. For whatever reason, the pressure switch had given up the ghost and we did not carry a spare. Fortunately we were able to coax enough water out of the tank to last the day, but on arrival in Port Washington we went alongside and refilled all our jerrycans, jugs and saucepans.
On Monday 15th, I went into Capri East Marina and spoke to the team there. Their alongside berths are tidally constrained, but so long as we were happy to sit in some very soft mud at low water, they could help us. We didn’t have much choice really: I needed some help in determining the cause of the problem as well as sourcing spares – and an alongside berth would make life slightly more civilised without running water onboard. At half tide we nosed our way in – there was never less than a metre under the keel and although we would be pinned onto the berth by the wind, we were happy otherwise. We went into New York on the train and caught up with our friends Carey and Ted Lowen for supper in Pete’s Tavern, another American pub with a long history. Our journey back to the boat in the middle of the night across the harbour was the wettest ever – strong, chilly northerly winds had whipped up quite a sea and morale was a bit fragile by the time we got back onboard to wash the salt water off using jerrycans… Laphroaig to the rescue!
Tim, the Service Manager turned up on Tuesday morning. We established that the pump itself was working, the accumulator was working, the pipework had no leaks, so in theory if we acquired a new pressure switch, life should be recoverable. I was in touch with the UK manufacturers (Jabsco) and they were arguing that we needed either a bigger accumulator tank or a smaller pump. Given that the specifications of the current pump match the previous arrangement (which worked fine for 20 years) I was not persuaded. We agreed to try to restore the system to something close to the original specification.