This Side Up

Avoiding those things that can go bump in the night


Claude pulled away from the dock. We could see the shapes of boats at their moorings from the lights at the marina ahead. He navigated between them as we headed for the mouth of Bullocks Cove in Riverside. It was silent; we appeared to be the only ones on the water.

We could make out the dark forms of three fishermen on the stone jetty and the piling that demarcates the channel. To our starboard was the glow of Warwick. Lights lined the shores of Conimicut, Cole Farm and Gaspee Point.

“No need to rush,” Claude said, easing the boat into a comfortable pace. From the glow of the dash I could see him reach for an oblong plastic box. He clicked it open and I could guess what he was going to do.

“Hold the wheel,” he asked. I reached over. He put the cigar to his mouth and bit off the end before flicking the lighter. It was a flamethrower. Those fishermen surely must have wondered what was happening. Claude took a deep puff and extinguished the torch. We were enveloped in darkness where the distant shore lights drew the line between where the bay and the horizon. The cigar glowed, its sweet smell carried into the warm night air.

“Do you see Conimicut?”

I scanned for the flashes of the lighthouse. We would need to find it if we were to get back to Warwick Cove.

We had spoken earlier in the afternoon and agreed to race the Rhodes 19 sailboat Claude moors in Bullocks. I was to meet him in Riverside. But as soon as we had a plan he was back on the phone. He had a better idea. Instead of fighting the commuter traffic, meet at Warwick Cove where he keeps his powerboat. I couldn’t imagine a better way of spending a summer evening, although my reason for being in Riverside also involved working the dockside grill after the races. It would be after 10 before we’d be on the water, heading back to Warwick.

Now where was Conimicut Light?

I found it further east than I thought. Claude honed in on the target in no rush to get back.

Yet, we questioned what we were seeing.

The flash of the lighthouse was evident, but then seemingly alongside it was a band of bright white lights. It was the kind of thing you see when a night crew is working on Route 95, only this was out in the bay. Were we looking at something on the distant Middletown shore or was it coming at us?

Nights on the water can play tricks on you.

Distances are deceptive.

On an equally black night some 15 years ago while sailing the Solo Twin race out of Newport – an 80-mile course around Block Island, to Buzzards Bay light and then back to Newport – I turned the helm over to Claude and ducked below decks to see if I could get some sleep. It was 2 a.m., the wind moderate and we were holding our course for Newport. We didn’t have GPS, but we had been picking up Buzzard’s Bay gongs and markers and knew where we were. Everything was on target, or so we thought.

“Remember when I yelled what are those islands? You shoot right out of the cabin,” said Claude.

How could I forget? There aren’t any islands between Buzzards Bay light and Newport, yet there were dark forms against the starry sky. I could faintly hear crashing waves. I glanced at the depth sounder – 25 feet. I had no idea where we were.

We headed the boat into the wind. The sails luffed. I dropped into the cabin and turned on the light. I scanned the chart. We should be seeing Sakonnet Light to our starboard. I got out the binoculars. Now that we were barely moving, the boat was rolling from side to side. The crashing waves were louder.

We shone a light in direction of the “islands.” They were rocks, big rocks. Off some distance to our port was a light. It was Sakonnet Light. Amazingly, since we didn’t hit anything, we had sailed into the field of rocks near the light. I looked at our heading and figured if we sailed 180 degrees in the opposite direction we could get out.

We monitored the depth sounder, fearful that at any moment we would feel the crunch of hitting rock. We made it out.

The mysterious lights on the horizon posed no such threat. They grew in intensity. They looked to be coming at us. Then they veered to expose the white hull of the Newport ferry.

Claude maintained course and soon enough we were bouncing over the wake.

Claude gave Conimicut a wide berth. The bay was calm. Warwick Light was our next mark. We maintained our speed. There was no need to rush.

It was a night to be on the water and, most comforting, we knew where we were.


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