Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Trip Down Memory Lane ... Up A River

A perfect German christmas tree. New sets of candles were lit several times a day.

Jennifer and I left the boat in Greece and we are making the rounds of holiday visits. We flew to Germany to spend time with the entire mishpucha.

It was absolutely perfect: Verses were read, presents were opened, Daniel’s bolognaise spaghetti was inhaled, cookies were judged, personalities psychoanalyzed, board games played, walks walked, wurst consumed, and br├Âtchen smeared.

Family, presents, cookies. What could be better? Maybe reversing the order.
Our friend Donald, who is a serious game collector and aficionado, recommened we give "Mr. X" to the cousins. It was a total hit.
From left to right, top row to bottom: The mishpucha.
Now we are in Florida enjoying the equivalent in Florida with Dad and Corinna.

This time of year is always ripe for reminiscing. So let me tell a story about one of my early sailing adventures.

It was the summer of 2006. I had bought Sunset, my Cape Dory 25, a few years earlier and had gained my first keelboat experience with her. In order to improve my skills and confidence, I had taken her out in ever challenging conditions to practice maneuvers.

Joel and I during one our less challenging outings on Sunset, a Cape Dory 25.
After several summers on the womb-like waters of Lake Champlain, I had indeed become confident, but perhaps also a bit complacent. I could feel it at the time and I knew I needed new challenges.

In the midst of that complacency and the desire to sip from challenge’s chalice, I received a weekend visit from my friend Joel. In one our late-night sessions of contemplating the world’s navel, we came to the conclusion we had nothing better to talk about since we weren’t challenging ourselves like we used to in our younger days. With the gauntlet thrown down, we mulled for a while and then came upon the capital idea of undertaking a voyage with Sunset to worlds unknown.

The coffee table was swiped clear and out came the charts and the cruising guide to Lake Champlain. The destination was worthy of our endeavor: It would be Vergennes.

The float plan of our treacherous trip was to depart from Town Farm Bay at the top red arrow and hope to arrive with the ship safe and all souls aboard at Vergennes, marked by the bottom red arrow.
The venerable city of Vergennes, Vermont.
The city sits seven miles up the Otter Creek where the navigable river ends in dramatic waterfalls. Vergennes has an august history for sailors as it provided the naval yard which built the ships which helped the Americans defeat the British on Lake Champlain in the War of 1812. (I wonder why she ate the fly?) (Humor for the few.)

An image of the boatyard in Vergennes in 1814.
This was indeed to be a splendid passage for Joel and I. Not just because of our love of connecting historic dots and ancient lore with contemporary developments and our imaginations, but also because it provided real challenges.

The Lake Champlain Cruising Guide Book spoke of needing completely different boat-handling skills than those for the lake. The Otter Creek had a current; something I had never dealt with. The guidebook warned the current was strongest at the city docks near the waterfall. Since it was still early in the summer season, we would have to watch for partially sunken logs or other debris floating in the river. The entrance to the river is described as tricky with a 90-degree turn required just at the mouth. Oh, and also, the guide warned, beware of your mast and spreaders becoming entangled in over-hanging branches at the river’s edges.

Joel and I prepared as if we were part of Francisco de Orellana’s 1542 expedition to explore the Amazon. We packed extra food and water in case we became stranded mid-river. We readied docking lines starboard and port so we wouldn’t have to deal with them in the maelstrom at the base of waterfalls. We applauded ourselves for thinking of releasing the anchor from its bracket and flaking out rode so it could be thrown overboard at a moment’s notice should the motor fail mid-stream in the river’s torrent.

As with all dauntingly large unknowns, as soon as we were in its midst, it shrunk to realistic proportions. The entrance was easy, the current minimal and the few small logs easily avoided.

The "tricky" river entrance was not easy to spot from a distance, but not so tricky. Then again, maybe because we followed the guide to paranoid accuracy.
We did encounter tree trunks floating down the river, so it was not without merit to warn us of them.
We re-read the guidebook as we put-putted up the river and now we laughed at some of the ominous-sounding warnings.

Just in case we had missed some important warning, I kept re-reading the guidebook. Regrettably, I must report it was not always accurate. This houseboat was not mentioned.
The osprey nests, however, were mentioned in the guidebook.
There was no over-hanging canopy to worry about. The river was broad enough to avoid the oh-so-threatening tree limbs supposedly hungry to snatch our mastlight or windvane.

Our confidence grew to cockiness as we approached Vergennes.

The waterfalls of Vergennes, Vermont.
We motored a loop around the basin under the falls and, accurately taking the accelerated current into account, we executed a flawless docking maneuver.

Proud explorers Joel and Mathias at the edge of the known world.
We stepped off the boat, lunch bags in our hands, a told-you-so pride in our eyes, and marched on the village. We enjoyed our sandwiches and visited a dot: a statue of Thomas Macdonough, the commander who drove the British from Lake Champlain.

The memorial to Thomas MacDonough in Vergennes' village green.
Returning to Sunset, Joel grabbed my arm and pointed up toward the masthead. Humiliated and humbled, we laughed. Sunset’s mast and shrouds were entangled in maple tree branches overhanging the dock.

Snarled by the branches of humility.

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