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October 20, 2015, 2:44 PM

Navigating Winds and Tides of Long Island Sound


The final experience of my three-month sabbatical this past summer was a weekend sailing trip aboard the 61-foot schooner, “Brilliant.”  Brilliant was built in 1932 for Walter Barnum (brother of P.T.) as a cruising yacht.  Donated to Mystic Seaport in 1950; it is now an educational vessel that takes small groups of young people on week-long sailing adventures, and smaller groups of adults on weekend trips.  There were four of us guest crew members that weekend: a High School English teacher from Brooklyn, a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Yale, an engineer from Pratt and Whitney, and a Congregational Church Pastor (yours truly).  In the photo at right, I am at the helm on Sunday morning on a beam reach.

We gathered in the cockpit at 9:00am on Saturday for introductions and a brief orientation to the boat by our Captain ­­­Nicholas Alley, and first mate, Chris.  We were underway in time to pass through the open Mystic drawbridge and remove the sail covers as we threaded our way down the Mystic river under power.

Our destination was determined largely by the tidal currents in Long Island Sound.  The tide flows into the sound from East to West and ebbs out of the sound from West to East.  We made good head way down the Sound on a port tack on the incoming tide.  We ate lunch in the teak-paneled “salon” below before tacking over toward the end of Long Island to slip through Plum Gut on the outgoing tide.

There are three relatively narrow openings where the tides rush into and out of the sound.  When the tide is running at maximum flood or ebb, the currents in those places can run faster than four knots (similar to mph).  Even in a 61’ schooner, sailing against the tide wastes time and makes navigation more difficult, so we timed our passage for later in the day when the tide was ebbing.

My dad’s sloop, “Windbourne,” had a maximum hull speed between four and five knots, so any sail through the Watch Hill Passage, the Race, or Plum Gut absolutely had to be timed so that the tide was in our favor.  A good lesson for life: don’t push ahead when the tide is against you.  If you wait for a while, the tide will change and carry you where you want to go.

There were a number of life lessons I learned sailing with my dad.  We always paid attention to the direction of the wind in planning our course for a day of sailing.  If we could; we would begin our journey by sailing into the wind, so that we could let the wind blow us home at the end of the day.  My husband Scott does what he calls “eating a toad” every morning.  He tackles the most dreaded or difficult task on his to-do list first thing in the morning - to get it off his mind and out of the way.  After that, the rest of the day is “clear sailing.”

One of the first things I learned about sailing was that, if a strong gust of wind overpowers your boat and you are worried about capsizing, you can stop trying to control it and just let go of the tiller.  The boat will head into the wind and right itself; so you can gather your wits and set your sail again.  “Let go and let God” is good advice for times when the winds of life overpower your ability to control your “boat.”

For the same reason, I learned not to put up more sail than I needed for the amount of wind.  Dad had several different jibs for his boat.  If the breeze was very light, we put up the big “drifter” jib that caught every breath of breeze and kept us moving.  Slightly more wind would warrant the “Genoa” jib that was of heavier cloth with a little less sail area.  For a good wind, we used the 100% jib and for storm winds, we had a little, heavy, storm jib.  Even the main sail could be made smaller in a heavy wind by lowering it some and tying one or both of the “reef points” down around the boom.  I learned that if you put up too much sail, you won’t go any faster than hull speed anyway; and it will be more difficult to handle the boat.  Captain Nicholas told us that even the schooner “Brilliant” had been knocked down by heavy winds a couple of times in its 83 years.  Maybe “too much sail” is like saying yes to too many things.  Life gets difficult to handle and we are likely to get knocked down emotionally or physically or both.

Dad also taught me never to complain about the wind.  The wind might be too heavy or too light, or coming from an inconvenient direction, but it is what it is.  Just set your sails and your course to make maximum use of the wind you have.  That reminds me of the “Complaint Free World” challenge to give up complaining, criticizing, and gossiping in general.  If it is something you can’t do anything about; complaining, criticizing, or gossiping wastes time and makes you and people around you feel worse.  And complaining, criticizing or gossiping keeps you focused on what you don’t want and slows down your progress toward what you do want.

Is there something that you love to do that has taught you life lessons?  Respond to this post and share some here.

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