Last fall at the marina, the Boss was awfully eager to take my boat out of the water, so I expected the same this year. I had enough gas in my tank to run the motor for about an hour and a half, and I was going to use it up and then hang up my oars for the season. But the Boss hasn’t yet shown any sign of taking boats out of the water, and conditions were perfect on Saturday: sunny and mild, with a light breeze and an incoming tide. So I put two gallons of gas in the tank and pointed the boat west to Sheepshead Bay.
I had been wanting to go to Sheepshead Bay, but it is a long trip—two hours out and one and a half hours back (with the tide). I amused myself on the way out by timing a measured mile that begins, according to my chart, at a green can west of the Marine Parkway Bridge and ends at the stack of the Neponsit old-age home, which Giuliani evicted all the old people from in the middle of the night several years ago so that the city could do something more profitable with the beachfront property. (It sits there vacant still; all he succeeded in doing was confusing a lot of old people, who had until then enjoyed a fine view of the nude beach at Riis Park.) I set my diver’s watch and covered the mile in about twelve or fifteen minutes—not a very precise measurement, but I couldn’t tell when I was abreast of the stack and, anyway, who cares?
I have at last discovered that, at the right speed and under the right conditions, you can let go of the tiller, and the boat will go by itself. That’s what boats do. It was good that I made that discovery, because I had a little bailing to do: water was seeping out of the sealed hollow seat beneath me, puddling at my feet, and I had to keep sponging it up and wringing out the sponge, something it is hard to do with just one hand.
Sheepshead Bay is where the party boats dock. The Golden Sunshine was there, and a few fishing boats came in while I was putting around. I did not tie up and go ashore, though there is a Loehmann's in Sheepshead Bay, and often there are fish for sale (off the boats, not at Loehmann's). I was tempted to try to buy some blackfish: my mechanic had told me, when I went to pick up my car, that blackfish was in season; he says it's delicious. I looked for the American Princess, thinking she might have been towed here for repairs, but I didn’t see her. There were flotillas of swans on the bay, and a lot of sailboats to steer clear of.
Sailing seems kind of pokey to me (as if with six horsepower I attained blistering speed), but I am beginning to get curious about it. How do they do it by themselves? How does a lone sailor manage? In Sheepshead Bay I saw an old guy sitting by himself in the middle of his sailboat with his arms outstretched, a line in each hand connected to a sheet at each end. (I believe “sheet” means sail and “line” means rope, and the sailor was sitting amidships.) It looks to me as if sailors have to be equally adept with both hands. On the way back, I decided to try sitting on the opposite side of my outboard, the port side, with my right hand on the tiller. Well, I am not equally adept: I couldn’t figure out which way to point the tiller to change course, and twisting the throttle to control the speed was out of the question. But while I was sitting over there I noticed that I had sprung a leak: water was spurting out of a previously plugged crack in the transom. Would this be, as they say in baseball, a season-ender? I wedged a towel against the crack, so as not to soak my back, and resumed bailing. Thus ended the experiment in ambidexterity.
This morning I took the ferry back to Manhattan to celebrate Columbus Day (Observed), leaving the Éclair in Rockaway, where it could take full advantage of the week's alternate-side suspensions. I took the bus to the ferry landing, and the bus driver drove like a maniac, so I got there early enough to recognize the American Princess heading up the bay from the Parachute Jump at Coney Island. So she was back. I asked one of the crew where they took the ferry to get its engine fixed. “We bring it to Freeport,” he said. “We have a good mechanic there, so that’s where we do it.” Some of the crew had worked on the catamaran that replaced the American Princess—passengers called it "the yellow boat"—but the guy whose name I think is Joe, who collects tickets and occasionally drives the boat and cleans it and serves drinks and welcomes people aboard and points out things like a World War II submarine tied up at Red Hook, says he stays with the boat all the time. He had to drive out to Freeport every day. I asked him what happened the day the engine blew. Nothing, he said. Then he explained, “This boat has three engines. You can run it on one, you can run it on two—we run it on three engines all the time.” The crew heard one of the engines failing, and they could have kept going (as I certainly would have) but they knew it would only get worse (which I would have learned the hard way). So they delivered their passengers safely to Rockaway and went to Freeport under their own power.
Vs of geese flew over the harbor. A low fog rimmed Manhattan. All that is left of a sign on the Brooklyn horizon is a backwards R.