By John Dyson
The morning had started out well as we began our return trip from Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey to Brooklyn, New York. We were moving well in our small 24-foot sailboat. We had both sails up; clear skies and a southwest wind.
The first part of the trip took us north out of Sandy Hook Bay, past the Naval Installation and the Sandy Hook Lighthouse and then we had a choice of either heading directly towards Brooklyn or heading up into New York Harbor and crossing to Brooklyn near the Verrazano Bridge. I chose the latter route because I could follow the shore and there were landmarks on the way, and I did not need to worry about going aground on Roamer Shoal.
We had slept on the boat that night, moored inside the breakwater at Atlantic Highlands Marina and eaten breakfast on Bill’s large ketch Kalamazoo that had sailed with us on the overnight trip. It was a good breakfast with eggs, sausage, pastries and coffee. I ate on deck as I enjoyed watching the harbor but mostly the others had eaten in the boat’s salon. After breakfast I went inside where Bill was showing off a newly purchased chart plotter which with the aid of a satellite hookup showed weather. The squiggly lines on the screen showed pressure and I believed Bill when he told us that the wind would follow the pressure gradients. There was high pressure across the area and Bill told everyone that that the weather was good for the trip back.
Five or six sailboats made the trip back and we all left Atlantic Highlands at about the same time but we on Hogwash, a 24-foot Quickstep were falling behind. We were moving well, with both sails up, but we were the smallest boat and the slowest. By the time we got to the Sandy Hook Lighthouse we could see the two masts on Kalamazoo start to disappear over the horizon. Everything else being equal, small sailboats go slower than big sailboats. They also had other advantages; they had crew and electronic navigation equipment.
My crew was my seven-year-old son, Josh who liked sailing but preferred his Game Boy. We hadn’t talked much during the trip but as we turned towards Staten Island, he did take a break from his Game Boy, and he got me a Sprite from the icebox in the cabin. I appreciated this as I was steering by hand and I could not go inside to get it myself.
On the trip up the coast of Staten Island, I steered a compass course of fifty degrees and sailed a mile offshore in sixteen feet of water. I saw the beach in the distance and the line of trees behind it, but I could not make out any details of the people on the beach. As we got closer to New York Harbor, the landscape was dominated by the Verrazano Bridge.
We were about a mile offshore and close to Staten Island when the sky to the east started to darken and Bill’s boat was gone. The sky was grey with a definite line of black clouds heading our way. Thunder and lightning followed. At one point I saw three or four flashes of lightning follow each other. The squall was about a mile away and heading our way. I sent Josh below into the cabin, mostly to get him out of the way, but also because I felt he would be safer.
I expected strong winds and having the sails up when the wind hit would push the boat way over. I had to turn the boat into the wind and drop the sails before the wind hit. But after the turn into the wind I was heading towards the beach. If I didn’t drop the sails quickly, I would run aground. There was no option except to work fast. I furled the jib, then tied the tiller to maintain my course, and went forward to the mast to release the mainsail. I then tied the mainsail to the boom with sail ties that I held in my teeth.
Returning to the helm I felt a stillness before the squall hit, and before the boat leaned over at a crazy angle, and I felt fear. A fear that lasted until the boat sprung back into an upright position. It was then that the hail fell. Inch-and-a-half balls of ice bounced on the deck and then rolled across the cockpit. They stung my face and my bare legs. Josh, probably alerted by the hammering noise of the hail, appeared at the cabin door and started to laugh. It was fun to watch dad getting pelted by hail.
With the sails down, I turned the boat away from the beach. The boat’s motion slowed but I still had little control, and the boat, which was not staying still, was moving downwind. Using more force than necessary, I started the outboard engine by pulling hard on the starter chord and since I could not see as the hail blinded me, I steered in small circles, making violent turns each time that I passed through the wind. Luckily, we were not in a shipping channel. We had crossed the Sandy Hook Channel and were well inland of the Ambrose Channel. If we could stay where we were and stay onboard the bouncing boat, we would be alright.
Slowly, the wind died down and the hail stopped and I saw another small boat close by and I realized that we were not entirely alone. Josh again appeared in the cabin door and again started to laugh. The other guy’s boat was much smaller than ours, a small skiff named Pretzel and had a single seat which the skipper was struggling to remain on while his boat bounced on the waves.
The guy on the other boat shouted, “Hello!” And then he waved. I waved back. I didn’t start to laugh straight away, but the guy waved again and I looked at Josh who was waving at the guy on the small boat while still laughing and it got to me. Both me and my son were laughing and soaked when the sun came out.
Although the weather was now fine, I did not put up the sails back up for the rest of the trip home. That day I was not looking for another sailing adventure. I slowly motored over the long waves; the ocean’s swell. I remember that at one point the water did look like it was not level. It looked like we were going up a curve to the top of a hill. There was Coney Island and Brooklyn in the distance on top of the hill. ■
John Dyson was born in a mining village called Lepton in Yorkshire, England and grew up in England before moving to New York. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his two kids, boy girl twins, who are in college. He has sailed out of Brooklyn for the past twenty years, mostly on his 1986 Quickstep 24 Hogwash. There is more information about John at johndyson.com.