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The Big American Flag

by Geraldo Rivera | Nov 13, 2009

The big American flag flying over the sprawling New York Presbyterian Hospital complex in Washington Heights opposite my Edgewater New Jersey home was straight as iron, pointing left to right. A Nor-Easter was stiffening the banner, rustling the trees of Jay Hood Wright’s picturesque little park around the base of the buildings, including the famous Little Red Lighthouse and riling the great river below.

Weather is more personal and dramatic when you live on a big river like the Hudson. It has heft, especially when the wind blows down from the north. Wind from that point of the compass is channeled by the Highlands near West Point, by Storm King Mountain and the Palisades, and by the time the breeze reaches the George Washington Bridge and enters New York Harbor it is sharp and wet. Pushed by tide and by that wind, waves, two, three footers run down to break on the shoals and docks on the Jersey side.

It was going to be a bumpy ride.

My frequent sailing partner Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez was accompanying me on a mission to move ‘Belle’ my eleven-year old Hinckley Picnic boat from the Edgewater house dock to Newport Rhode Island, about 200 miles in these unsettled conditions, which would only be worse east of the city. I had to get the boat to Newport and be back to work by Thursday. Belle, and her big sister Voyager, my 70 foot classic aluminum ketch, which I had delivered to Newport the day before were both heading for a boat transport freighter, a ship that was going to carry them to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. There I will meet them and move them to Puerto Rico, where we spend as much time as possible, especially during winter.

It was October 28th, the scheduled first game of the World Series. If you remember those television images of the rain-delayed game and those shots of driving, horizontal rain you get a fair idea of what we were up against. Still, we had a brace of breakfast beers and toasted ‘una otra adventura,” and moved easily down the Hudson, around the Battery at the bottom of Manhattan, then up the East River on the far side of spectacular city-scape. The weather didn’t really hit us until we had passed the area around the United Nations, moved under the 59th Street Bridge, through Hell Gate and out in the open Long Island Sound beyond the Throg’s Neck Bridge, which connects the Bronx to Queens and marks the eastern end of New York Harbor.

The wind was blowing 30 with gusts to near 40 knots and it had boiled the Sound up into a five to eight foot chop. On the Sound, those steep waves march much closer together than out in the Atlantic. It is among the worse possible conditions for a shallow-draft, jet- powered boat like ‘Belle,’ which for all its teak elegance is really just a big, Jet-ski. The boat heads up the steep face of a sometimes breaking wave, gets over the crest, and plunges down, only to face the next oncoming wave, sometimes with the prow of the vessel still pointing down. The danger is that the boat will just keep going into the belly of the next wave, acting like a diving submarine, drowning itself, taking blue water onto the hull, and into the open cabin behind the cockpit. Assuming you avoid that rare disaster there is still a real danger of swamping the covered, but not waterproof 425 HP Yanmar diesel engine rumbling under the cowling amidships.      

With torrential rain making the hard-working windshield wipers barely effective, after a few minutes of pounding into that weather, Guillermo computed that at our current speed, about seven knots, we would not make Newport until mid-day to late Thursday. Plus, we would have to stop for fuel. Figuring that it was pointless to keep trying to slam through, I fell off the wind and headed north toward Greenwich Connecticut thinking any port in a storm. The scary waves followed us all the way in the narrow and surprisingly modest harbor; modest for this swank town near the New York line. There was a spot on the dock of an upscale hotel and Gui and I walked in all soaked and weather-geared and got the semi-cold shoulder until the manager recognized me and guided us toward their excellent restaurant and some hot chowder.

After lunch we killed time in the attached bar, trying to arrange truck transport for the boat from Greenwich to Newport and get Gui a train ticket home. A psychiatrist, he lives and works in New Bedford Massachusetts and his wife Sofia was going to pick him up in Newport, but now she would meet his train in Providence. Waiting we sat drinking wine, watching cable news and a fifty-something couple right next to us making out on facing bar stools. The woman kept putting the man’s goateed face in her inflated bosoms, while people all around them pretended not to see. Wicked Greenwich! The rain was still pounding when we left the still panting pair wanting to take up donations to get them a room, I said goodbye to Gui and got back into the boat. There was no land transport to be had, so I decided to get Belle as far as I could before full dark.

The journey was soon terrifying. Dark was coming early, the weather roared unabated as I drove her back into the Sound, and when Belle flew off a wave and crashed onto the next one, I fell down on my just replaced left knee while trying to switch fuel tanks while underway. It almost knocked me out, drawing a bellow of pain in the wind, and a crawl back into the cockpit. I was making as much way as I could when the starboard windshield wiper came off. It reduced my visibility to near zero. I electronically computed that Stratford, where they do the summer Shakespeare festivals was the easiest harbor, got in and met some gracious people who helped get the wiper replaced at the local Napa store. I fueled up and left. There was still a bit of light left and I wanted to get as far easterly as possible. I was banging away when my electronic navigation system crapped out around sunset. Navigating with a paper chart and a handheld GPS after nightfall, I barely managed to find the big jetties at New Haven Harbor, thankful that I didn’t go down or break my boat apart out in the Sound.

I found a dock that was attached to a restaurant and got another bowl of chowder and a few drinks and watched the delayed Yankee game on this bar’s television. The next day, I left at the crack of dawn and slammed my way into fading bad weather, calling a break when a cold sun finally broke at Old Saybrook at the gorgeous broad mouth of the Connecticut River, just where it meets the Sound.

After an elegant brunch, I shoved off heading north of Fisher’s Island, and drove Belle past lovely Watch Hill made famous by artist Edwin Hooper, that picture of sailors just off the classic New England home sitting on the southwest tip of Rhode Island.

From there I made my way through the pass in the tricky shoals, then along the unbroken sandy 30 mile shoreline and the breaking surf, until finally making Point Judith, where the land falls away and opens into Narragansett Bay and Newport.

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