A Lifelong Sailor Looks Back on His First Cruise

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The Owl proceeds with her mast unstepped in readiness for the Erie Canal

The Owl proceeds with her mast unstepped in readiness for the Erie Canal

It was the summer of 1952. The Eisenhower/Stevenson race was in full swing. I was in my junior year, studying naval architecture at the University of Michigan and had been offered a summer job at Jakobson Shipyard in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Practical experience is very useful to a designer. It helps prevent you from designing something that can’t be built.

I decided to get there from Detroit by sea. My boat was the Owl, a Luedtke Interlake catboat, a 22ft-by-8ft marconi-rigged centerboarder designed by Charles D. Mower and built in 1918. Auxiliary power was a 7hp Scott-Atwater outboard, which never failed to start. This turned out to be fortunate. Cooking was on a charcoal grill in the cockpit, and berthing was on two Army-surplus canvas stretchers upon which you could sleep, so long as you also got up periodically to rest. Someone had appended a crackerbox cabin over the cockpit, which was awfully ugly but kept the water out. The same could not be said of the bottom planking. There was no icebox, but none of us had as yet discovered alcoholic beverages, an oversight that has subsequently been remedied.

My crew consisted of one of my college roommates, George, and two Princeton types. On a beautiful morning, we caught the ebb from our slip in Salt River at the north end of Lake St. Clair—a simple matter as on the Great Lakes there is nothing but ebb, a nice feature. By midafternoon, we passed under the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. Later, we anchored for the night off Middle Sister Island in Lake Erie, a sanctuary apparently operated by the Ohio Black Fly Breeders Association: “We breed ‘em. You feed ‘em.”

Early the next morning, we got underway again after a hurried breakfast of what appeared to be blueberry pancakes, except we didn’t have any blueberries. We sailed into Put-In Bay for a look but did not stop. Late that afternoon, we moored alongside George’s father’s 38ft Matthews cruiser at the handsome Mentor Harbor Yachting Club. There we had a badly needed shower and a very fine dinner. At this point, my entire crew mutinied.

After a short layover, though, I was underway again with new crew, Steve, another college roommate. As the day went on the wind picked up from the north, and the sky took on a greenish cast. Pretty soon it was obvious we had better find shelter, and we made our way up a small river leading to a small settlement—which shall remain unnamed as some people have long memories. The wind was so strong it was actually now pushing Lake Erie up onto the Ohio side, so that water was flowing up the river.

Unfortunately, I was carefully watching the channel and did not notice the power cable until sparks came showering down from aloft and all the lights in the town went out. For the next three days, we were subjected to hostile looks by passing strangers. In due course, the storm blew itself out, and we proceeded under power to Erie, Pennsylvania, where I spent the day splicing in a new forestay and shrouds, a skill I learned in the Sea Scouts.

With the mast fortunately intact and restepped, we sailed toward Buffalo and passed under the Peace Bridge, marveling at the large bow wave set up by the stone bridge sponsons. Soon thereafter, the current seemed even more rapid, and we felt, rather than heard, a low roar getting nearer and nearer. A quick look at the chart confirmed that we had missed the turnoff at Tonawanda and were on the shortlist to be the first catboat over Niagara Falls. Prudence suggested a reversal in course, and the Scott-Atwater did not fail us as Owl crept slowly up the New York shore, with our anchor, “old cold nose,” rigged and ready to let go. At about 2100 we moored alongside the sea wall just below the towering gates of the first Erie Canal lock at Lockport, skipped dinner and crashed.

Sleeping aboard Owl, as has been suggested, was a challenge. Although I was six-foot-one, I was three inches shorter than Steve, so I was allotted the so-called “berth” on the port side of the centerboard. This required some acrobatics to reach, as there was not much clearance between the top of the centerboard casing and the housetop. Steve slept in the starboard berth, which only required crawling in like a dog. The next morning, we were awakened by the peal of bells and found that we had moored in front of the church. As Steve invariably slept in the buff, the sight of him backing into the cockpit must have caused some comment at matins among the ladies taking a pre-service stroll along the sea wall.

After getting dressed we completed the necessary paperwork and entered the massive lock. The only other boat in there was Malabar X, a shapely Alden schooner headed east. We moved at a leisurely 4 knots, pushed by the faithful Scott-Atwater, until somewhere between Rome and Utica when we sheared a propeller pin and came to a halt. I was then elected to play the role of the Mule Named Sal (a song about the Erie Canal’s conversion from mule to engine power, otherwise aptly known as Low Bridge, Everybody Down) after which we towed to the next civilized port where we found a spare.

Back under power, we motored through miles of serene country, without another boat to be seen moving in either direction. We soon found out why. Lock 9 was down for repairs, and the canal was drained between locks 8 and 10. As we were a small shoal-draft boat, a borrowed trailer soon solved our portage problem. However, we had to say goodbye to Malabar X, stuck there until the lock was repaired.

Re-launching Owl, we proceeded through the beautiful Finger Lakes region, crossed Lake Oneida in a torrential downpour that required us to steer a compass course between buoys, and finally arrived at the five “staircase” locks at Troy. These took us down into the Hudson River, where we again stepped the mast. We had been told to expect a broad reach all the way to New York City, but as it happened, a hurricane was sniffing around, and we had 20 knots on the nose. We soon tired of this and sought a mooring for the night, which we found behind a large rock on the east side of the river, quite close to a lovely colonial mansion sited between the river and the New York City railroad tracks.

Owl under full sail on the Salt River

Owl under full sail on the Salt River

We were beginning to think of dinner, as cocktail time did not yet exist, when we saw two heads swimming out from shore. I invited them aboard. As they crawled out of the water, one of the heads said, “This is Gore Vidal.” I introduced my crew and myself, but the head said, “No, you don’t understand. This is Gore Vidal.” I should explain that Steve and I were both engineering students and consequently had not the faintest idea who Gore Vidal was. I have since read some of his books, which are rather good. We were invited ashore to meet Mr. Vidal’s stately mother, ensconced in the colonial mansion. She was very pleasant and courteous to us as we stood dripping on her parquet floors. She showed us a music stand that had once belonged to Felix Mendelssohn. We had just missed Tennessee Williams and the composer Samuel Barber.

The next morning, the wind returned to its customary quarter, and we had a spanking reach down the Hudson: past the United States Military Academy at West Point and the now-abandoned castle ruins at Bannerman Island, after which we finally moored for the night at the New York University crew dock in the Harlem River. The following afternoon, we picked up my former Sea Scout skipper, “Monk” Farnham, then editor of Boating magazine, who piloted us through Hell Gate and out into Long Island Sound as night fell. Owl left a glowing ribbon behind her as we slipped into Oyster Bay and anchored alongside the 110ft yawl Manxman. I had never seen phosphorescence before. We had a fine dinner with the Farnhams, who lived in the gatehouse of the former J.P. Morgan estate. For a change, we slept in a bed.

The following day, Steve picked up a berth as crew on Kawamee, a large steel motorsailer that was going on the annual New York Yacht Club cruise, and I went to work at the shipyard. At the end of the summer, I sold Owl for a pittance and returned to the university. She was leaking pretty badly. Those “drinking water” boatbuilders used steel and brass screws interchangeably. I heard later she had been broken up as a derelict. I got more use out of that boat and learned more from it than from any of the many boats I have owned since. Eventually, I received my degree and went into the submarine service, where my experience sleeping aboard Owl was very helpful. 

Bill Hickman eventually built seven boats for himself, including a steamboat, all made of wood. A former member of the Cruising Club of America (CCA), Bill passed away last August. The Cruising Club of America is North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization. It is comprised of more than 1,200 accomplished ocean sailors, has 11 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda, and is also the principal organizer, along with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, of the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. For more on the CCA, visit cruisingclub.org

April 2019

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