Vineyard Voyagers Set a Course from Island Harbor to Hudson

By BRETT FERRY

Three hours after Mabel's planned departure time, her builder, Myles Thurlow, shimmies to the top of the main mast to attach a VHF radio antenna. Countless details are attended to as the crew prepares to shove off from the Coastwise Packet Co. dock and sail west.

Five-gallon buckets of food, sleeping bags wrapped in plastic garbage bags, and each sailor's personal dry bag are passed aboard the Mabel from the dock. The weather is sour and families line the dock, looking at the 28-foot open boat with nervous smiles.

The students, all dressed in bright yellow foul weather suits, appear anxious to set out as they shuttle the last of their gear down the dock.

At 4:30 p.m. all eight people are aboard and Capt. Malcolm Boyd instructs everyone to don their life vests. The life vests will be permanent garb for the next week at sea. He quickly explains the rowing commands to four rowers, each with a 14-foot oar in hand. The dock lines are cast off the pilings and the well wishers standing in the rain bid the Mabel's crew a bon voyage.

The heavy oars are pulled through the water to get the Mabel started on her journey. Rain and wind, blowing 15 knots out of the northeast, counter the crew's efforts to make it out past the breakwater. They are under way, but the first challenge facing the young sailors is to get the sails set and to round West Chop.

Each of the six students on board immediately adopts responsibilities. Emily Kavanagh is tending to the jib sheets, the four young men are trying to coordinate their rowing, and Nirvana Hintgen is steering the boat with the massive tiller in the stern.

Everyone onboard is new to the Mabel, including the captain.

With plenty of room outside the harbor, the crew prepares to set the sprit-rigged mainsail - a huge canvas sail set by a diagonal, heavy wooden spar, extending from the mast to the peak of the sail.

All the sails now set, Mabel is tacking well between the chops. The crew is learning the names of the lines and how to tend them. They need to be ready when Mabel sails into the waters off West Chop - where a strong northeast wind is converging with a west-bound tide.

As the Mabel rounds the Chop, the crew eases out the sheets and Malcolm steers off the wind to let it push the boat down Vineyard Sound.

Only an hour into the voyage, one crew member is already seasick from the disorganized rocking of the boat.

On a long tack down the Sound toward Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, the crew has a chance to settle in, relax and playfully pick on each other as teens do.

"Okay, I'm just going to stop talking," says Matt McCurdy.

Emily Kavanagh responds, "No, don't. We're having fun."

Elliot Morris locates Tarpaulin Lighthouse through the thick fog to take a bearing for Captain Boyd. They tack back out into the Sound and push on for Menemsha.

Across the Sound and into the lee of the land, the wind is lighter and the oars are reintroduced to the crew. Four rowers pull together and help the Mabel scoot along the foggy shores below Menemsha Hills.

"I wish I was home with dinner," says Matt, cold and wet from four hours of sailing.

At anchor off Lobsterville Beach, the crew stows the sails and struggles in the dark to rig a tarp over the boat.

Working with a single burner, they cook up a warm dinner of quesadillas, then slip into their sleeping bags for the first night of their trip.

After a night of heavy rain, Mabel's crew begins to stir around 7 a.m. on Saturday. Rain continues to beat down on their tarp, and there is not a hint of wind. The prospect of rowing in the downpour enters some of their minds is food for grim thought over breakfast. But after about two hours, the weather begins to break.

The students and captain unfold a chart that extends from the Vineyard west to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Mr. Boyd, Matt and James Evans look over the chart to devise a plan. Matt has been chosen as skipper for the day. He and the captain will decide on Mabel's sailing plan. James is navigator, and will relate the plan to the charts and keep a running log of the boat's progress.

"We have some wind now," says Captain Boyd. "It's north-northwest." He explains that they can tack their way across Vineyard Sound to Cuttyhunk and then, as wind and daylight allow, move westward from there.

"How much longer will it take than going in a straight line?" asks James.

"Oh, maybe at worst, twice the amount of time," says Mr. Boyd.

"Mabel does better with more weight, right? Why is that?" James asks.

"It's a boat that was conceived to carry cargo," says the captain. "Noman's was a bit of an outpost back in the day. There was no ferry. People took care of their own stuff."

At 11:45 a.m., the Mabel sails off the anchor and Matt steers her on her way into the Sound. The course is set. Northwest toward Cuttyhunk.

Nirvana passes out apples to the crew and James and Elliot use an apple core to estimate Mabel's speed. James drops the apple core two feet off the bow and Elliot times how long it takes to run down the length of the boat to the stern, 30 feet. Eighteen divided by that time is the formula that will determine Mabel's current speed in knots. According to their calculation, the Mabel is poking along at about three knots.

At mid-afternoon the Mabel tacks back away from the shores of Cuttyhunk, unable to make it by the rocky shallows that extend from her western shore.

"I don't understand why we're going away from land," says Emily. She is obviously fond of the idea of stepping foot on stable ground.

Having cleared Cuttyhunk, the Mabel bears westward and is now aiming for Sakonnet Point in Rhode Island. It is a nice long tack with a steady breeze from the northwest. A steady ocean swell lulls most of the Mabel's idle crew to sleep. The sun makes an appearance for a few hours and starts to warm the soggy crew.

The mood of the crew swings from high to low. When one is quietly at rest, the others follow suit. When one is loud and boisterous, they all are.

In a dense fog on Sunday morning, the crew rows for two and a half hours before the wind comes up. They tack against the tide and make way down the coast to Point Judith, R.I. They put in for the night and enjoy a stir-fry dinner and a fiery red sunset.

Much to their delight Monday morning, the crew awakens to find the strong northeast wind they had been waiting for to help them along to New York. With a fair tide also in their favor, the Mabel's crew sails on a downwind run for Point Race, R.I. The young sailors of the Vineyard Voyagers program have traveled about 50 nautical miles, and have some 130 miles to go to reach their destination, the Hudson River in New York.