A Sense of Contentment, Pride When Mabel Becomes Riverboat

By TOM DUNLOP

CROTON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. - The Mabel made it.

They pulled away from the Coastwise Packet Wharf in Vineyard Haven on Friday, June 13, their oars waggling a bit uncertainly in the air and in the water. Seven days later - late on Friday afternoon - they put the bow of their boat on the shore of a cove some 30 miles north of Manhattan and dropped themselves a bit unsteadily onto hard sand shaded by weeping willows at a park on the Hudson River.

Aboard Mabel were seven teenagers and two adults. The voyage measured something over 180 miles, snaking along the shorelines of four states, sometimes in sunshine and on fair currents, but at least as often in fog and rain and adversarial ones. The vessel was a 28-foot double-ended dory, a little longer and narrower than a Noman's Land boat, a small fishing vessel that first sailed off Island beaches a century and a half ago. Thus a boat designed to catch and carry cod to New Bedford in the middle of the 19th century would, with a little refinement, take youngsters to New York at the start of the 21st.

Like the earliest Noman's Land boats, Mabel has no engine, no cabin, no galley, no head except for a bucket in a hatch. No layovers were planned along the route - and none was taken - except six days into the trip, at City Island, once a famous boatbuilding community east of the Bronx. Sailing with her was the Sanderling, a 33-foot cutter with a crew of three that the Mabel herself could and did easily outrun with the wind behind her. "But when we're rowing, [Sanderling's] a lot faster," said Robert Blood of Edgartown who, with others in her crew, built the Mabel's six 14-foot oars, her only other method of propulsion when the wind failed her at sea.

When the Mabel reached the Clearwater Music and Environmental Festival at this muddy park sometime between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Friday, she had logged twice as many days under sail as she had ever traveled in her life. Since her launch early last June, Mabel had sailed just three times in her entire career, and never for more than two hours at a stretch. Until her departure for New York last Friday, she had never rounded West Chop.

"It's not really that amazing," said Malcolm Boyd of Vineyard Haven, the Mabel's captain on the trip. "People used to sail this far in boats this small all the time. This was how people got around. They knew what they had to do to get there, and they did it. It wasn't amazing then, you know? It's not so amazing now. These kids faced a challenge, they worked at it and they did it. That's it."

The challenge was also the maiden expedition of Vineyard Voyagers, a nonprofit group founded by Mr. Boyd and run now by Sidney Morris of Chappaquiddick, a teacher at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School who believes that young Vineyarders ought to have the chance to learn about the maritime heritage of the Island and go wherever their interests in it might take them. In this way, Martha's Vineyard will have a chance to hold on to a small but once again growing piece of what makes it different, and therefore attractive - the talents of a traditional wooden boatbuilding and seagoing work force.

The designing and building of Mabel of angelique, oak and cedar - by Myles Thurlow of West Tisbury, who will turn 20 years old this week - was a Vineyard Voyagers project. So was the planning of the trip, the provisioning of the vessel and the enlistment of the crew, all of them charter school students. Two were 17, two 16, two 15 and one 14. Five were boys and two were girls. Of the seven, only one, Bobby Blood, had cruising experience. And on Sunday morning, 36 hours after the last day's run, the exhaustion on the Croton shoreline as the rain dripped down through the willows was a weighty thing.

Faces were puffy, eyes blinked slowly and without much focus. The voice of Elliot Morris of Chappaquiddick was cut down to a rasp as he fought a head cold. Clothes were dank, hair matted and adolescent beards needed scraping. Nobody had heard a mainland news report in a week, and few had made more than one call home because cell phones could only draw power from a small battery in the boat. In interviews, the record of dates, times, courses, landfalls, names of harbors, rocks and bell buoys were either confused, contradictory or forgotten, not to be recalled until somebody went back to look at a chart or logbook.

"It's been a crazy couple of nights," said Elliot. "We were kind of getting mad at each other, and things were falling apart. Last night especially, because a squall came up, and I got soaked. I had to come on the land. It was really tough. We were rowing down the Hudson River at two o'clock in the morning."

This last stretch of navigation, most everyone agreed, was the hardest. It began Thursday evening, after the Mabel rowed and sailed away from City Island after the crew spent its first night ashore since leaving Vineyard Haven last Friday.

The Mabel sailed down the East River, beneath Ward's Island, finding a fair passage through Hell Gate before turning north and rowing up the Harlem River. As the crew passed a playground, children jeered them, an unsettling development because bicyclists and boaters have been shot at from the shoreline. The crew waved back in a friendly way, and Bobby Blood took off his Boston Red Sox cap.

The Mabel turned the corner into the Hudson around 4:30 p.m. and met the Sanderling, which had motored around the Battery because her masts were too tall for Harlem River bridges. The Mabel's crew had rowed for five hours when the crew paused for a quick dinner before taking to the oars again. At 11 p.m. they dropped anchor to sleep for two hours, but at 11:30 the sky opened up. There was no tarp over their heads, so at 1 a.m., with the wind freshening, they weighed anchor and for the next four hours tacked upriver to Tarrytown. There they dropped anchor again and headed for the showers and sleep wherever they could find it. They set sail later that morning and arrived at Croton-on-Hudson after 4:30 p.m. Friday.

But the day was not done.

At midnight, the crew kept an appointment at the Peacekeeping Volunteer Pavilion to guard amplifiers and other musical equipment to be used later that day. They stayed awake and on post until 8 a.m. Saturday. Late Saturday night - the first without sail or sentry duties of any kind - the squall hit with winds reaching 40 miles an hour and a river chop of up to three feet breaking sharply on Mabel's quarter. The tarp shielding the kids from the rain had to be cut away because it was acting like a sail and threatening to put Mabel on the beach. Once again the crew jumped ashore and looked for places to sleep in cars and under gazebos.

Despite the amnesia concerning calendars and courses on Sunday, there was an indisputably precise, cross-referenceable chronology of the barfing, from first day to last. More than one crew member could recall who booted when, how many times, for how long and for what reason. "It was because of the peanut butter. They ate too much peanut butter," Elliott said of the round of woofing on the second day. The youngest crew member, a holdout through the whole length of the voyage, came close once she felt the solid ground at City Island on Day 6. "She got really land sick, she was gonna throw up a bunch of times, but she never did," said Elliott, looking both admiring and a little sad about that.

For all this, there was also an electric current of contentment and pride among the young crew about what they had just done. "I've had a lot of fun learning about boats and the wind and the feel, and just living with that amount of people in that small amount of area was interesting, because you got kind of used to each other . . . and . . . I don't know," said James Evans, 16. He laughed: "There was some high school drama, but it didn't get out of hand. People still did what they had to do on the boat. It just got to be uncomfortable socially. Because there was two couples aboard and . . . stuff. It was kind of like the weather. It cleared up every once in awhile. I just really enjoyed being on the water."

His ribs bruised from a shipboard snafu, Sidney Morris, normally a quiet man, spoke more quietly than usual on Sunday.

"I'm doing okay, except I haven't slept for about 36 hours, and it doesn't look like I'm going to get any," he said. He was already thinking of the voyage home, but was convinced that the trip, whose planning reached back four years and more, had made its mark on the crew members. "Four of them were absolutely loving it, and three of them will never do it again. But the three who

didn't love it - they were challenged tremendously. And they rose to the challenge. They dealt with personal stuff along the way."

On Monday morning, Captain Boyd was planning to hitch a ride home to the Vineyard. He is a foreman on a construction crew and has taken a week out of the busiest time of the year to sail with these young Islanders to a distant waterway. Myles Thurlow, who built the Mabel, was to take command of the trip back home. The goal is to sail both day and night, cutting the time in half.