Articles

We sailed our kids to Florida

In our homemade schooner we rubbed shoulders with a shark, a hurricane, sea tramps and the floating rich. But when we got there all we wanted was a stiff breeze on Lake Ontario

Elinor Noble November 23 1957
Articles

We sailed our kids to Florida

In our homemade schooner we rubbed shoulders with a shark, a hurricane, sea tramps and the floating rich. But when we got there all we wanted was a stiff breeze on Lake Ontario

Elinor Noble November 23 1957

We sailed our kids to Florida

It happened to us”

This B another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from âme to time in Maclean’s . . . Tories told by its readers about some interesdng dramatic event in their lives. «AVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.

fU took nine months of off-hours work, $5,000 worth of material to build Elbon, but she was worth it.

In our homemade schooner we rubbed shoulders with a shark, a hurricane, sea tramps and the floating rich. But when we got there all we wanted was a stiff breeze on Lake Ontario

Elinor Noble

As soon as we were back home we sold our schooner and started work on Elbon II. The kids, Stuart and Jerry, are already right at home — and as keen as we are to sail again.

My husband Jeff came home one day from his job at the Consumers’ Gas Company in Toronto and said, “Let's sail down to Florida.”

I cheerfully answered “sure” without taking him seriously. His remark was what you might expect from a man who had put in nine months of after-supper work building a boat and was modestly proud of what had taken shape. But people don't just walk out on their living to go on a four-thousand-mile round trip in a sailboat they’ve built in the backyard. Especially people with a couple of young children, one still in diapers.

But next night our living-room floor was carpeted with maps on which we happily charted our make-believe course . . . across Lake Ontario to Oswego, N.Y., through the storied Erie Canal system to the Hudson River and down to New York City. About the time we traced the course past the Statue of Liberty and around Sandy Hook southward into the open Atlantic, we knew it wasn’t make-believe any more. We were going.

Our friends were skeptical. “How on earth can you manage it?” they asked, aware that our bank account was no bigger and our mortgage no smaller than those of any average Canadian wage-earning family. When we tried to answer, we found so many good reasons why we couldn’t possibly manage the trip that we hurried our preparations before good sense made us change our minds.

There were, of course, some circumstances that made the trip feasible. Like owning a twomasted, twin-cabin auxiliary cruiser. Owning Elbon (Noble spelled backward) was not only a matter of building her but working up to her. There was five thousand dollars worth of material in her, plus countless hours of loving labor by both of us, but mostly Jeff. When Jeff came back from five years with the RCAF we built a sixteen-foot boat and really began our married life—we had married in 1941 when he was twenty-two and I was twenty, just before he went overseas.

We sold that first boat after one season for a modest profit. After repeating the process three times we owned a single-cabin sailer worth three thousand dollars. That left a gap of two thousand for the materials for the thirty-two footer we wanted next—Elbon.

As family budgeteer it was up to me to squeeze it out of our income, via a little ingenuity and a lot of determination. I made sure our bare necessities were covered. The rest went

into the boat. But until Elbon was almost finished our most ambitious plans were for extensive week-end cruises on Lake Ontario. When we decided to live temporarily like the leisured classes it brought up a big problem: what to use for money? We didn't worry about Jeff's ability to get a job at good pay whenever we decided to settle down again. He's skilled in three trades—cabinetmaking, which was his job at the gas company, auto repairs and aircraft maintenance.

So we rented our house, sold our car, and went on a mammoth shopping spree in the nearest supermarket. We stowed our supplies and equipment in all the available space aboard Elbon and sailed out of Toronto Bay on a brisk September morning in 1951 to find out how long we could cruise on about a thousand dollars.

Our first night out of Toronto was also our first opportunity to sleep aboard Elbon and try out her facilities. The layout below decks was simple: in the bow was stowage space for ship’s gear. Next, the “nursery,” just large enough for two bunks but, thank goodness, with space under them for all our twenty-four cases of babyfood. Next, an enclosed toilet-—or “head” to all afloat.

Amidships was the main cabin, our livingdining-kitchen-bcdroom. It was furnished with berths over lockers, a folding table, icebox and sink. In the stern were the engine and the water and fuel tanks. A small dinghy, to serve as lifeboat and tender, was lashed to the cabin roof.

The first leg of the cruise, from Toronto to Olcott. N.Y., was Elbon’s first in open water. We had had time only for the briefest “shakedowns” after she was launched. Neither of us had handled a boat anything like as complex as this two-masted, staysail-rigged schooner— and above all neither of us had sailed salt water before. Nearly a year later Elbon would sail this path homeward, weatherbeaten and showing the scars of many a misadventure (usually with me at the helm). Her logbook, now all white pages, would be stained and smudged with entries — of running aground, of near-disaster in storms, of sighting a huge shark and of children falling overboard. Adventures that would in time become no more than incidents in our unforgettable year among the strange and special people who live on and beside the (sometimes) navigable waters between Toronto’s Western Gap and Florida’s continued on page 37

We sailed our kids to Florida

Continued from page 25

Western Gap and Florida’s Biscayne Bay.

At Oswego. N.Y.. the Lake Ontario terminus of the once-bustling Erie Canal system, we faced the strenuous task of dismasting and stowing all spars and sails neatly on deck so we could pass under the innumerable bridges across nearly two hundred miles of winding waterway between Oswego and Troy on the Hudson. When Elbon was just a hull covered with spars and canvas we started our twenty-five-horsepower auxiliary and began our voyage in earnest.

The water route from Lake Ontario to the Hudson is scenic and historic, no doubt, but to a boat crew it's half boredom and half rough dangerous work. Reason: no fewer than thirty locks are needed to lift boats over the hump in the Appalachian Mountains between lake and river. The process is alternately long waits at the lockmaster’s pleasure and frantic moments of coping with swirling whirlpools that rush through lock gates, and trying to tie the boat against rasp-rough cement walls to stanchions that are always too high for the deckhand (me).-

Running through locks meant that life aboard came to a standstill. With decks taken up by spars and sails there was no place for the children to play—and anyway the turbulent water running into or out of the lock gates would make a tumble overboard a tragedy. The children spent the locking trip peering up out of the cabin from behind two boards blocking the companionway. Jeff’s nerves were wearing thin from close manoeuvring at every lock. As deckhand, I was bruised; as housekeeper. I was away behind on my laundry.

So Troy. N.Y.. looked beautiful. We found a quiet backwater under an old railroad bridge and re-stepped our masts from above. Then I did an enormous washing, and hung long strings of diapers between the masts.

We had visitors, of course. One of the fascinations of cruising is that when you tie up people start arriving, small boys and old men who ask questions, offer information or just stand and look. And usually among them is a nautical character. One such sauntered up at Troy mooring, an elderly man, threadbare but jaunty in a yachdng cap. He pointed to my strings of diaper pennants and said jovially, "Madam. I sighted your signals from afar, but could not read your message.”

"That’s easy,” I said. “They mean ‘baby aboard.’ ”

It was smooth sailing down the broad Hudson, and we had a destination we were eager to reach. On the chart was a yacht club at Newburgh with the notation "Facilities," which meant hot baths, a night's sleep ashore for a change, and a tankful of good fresh water. When we got there, though, the club looked almost deserted. A couple of men were fastening canvas covers on boats already in their winter cradles. They told us the club was closed.

"The three of you going to New York City for a little holiday?” one of them asked casually. At that moment

“I was awakened by a terrifying noise. Our boat was rhythmically crashing down on some object”

Jerry swarmed stoutly up from the cabin and (lopped into the cockpit. “No,” said Jeff, “the four of us are going to Florida.”

The men on the dock looked up at the Red Ensign on our masthead, down at the two children in the cockpit, and then at each other. “In that case,” said one who turned out to be the club commodore, “I guess we’re not closed.”

We were given the run of the club for the night. Actually, that treatment was only somewhat more generous than boating people encounter at most inland yacht clubs. I mention it only because it was about the last place we would encounter "inland waters” hospitality. Atlantic coast facilities are rather sharply divided into municipal, commercial and high society. It's quite logical, really. People afloat on the waters between New York City and Florida tend to be either poor people who discover in a boat the cheapest accommodation and transport, or rich people who regard life on the water as a luxury.

In the fifty miles from Newburgh to Manhattan both the weather and the river became increasingly unpleasant. A strong wind blew upriver; barges, logs and other floating debris made it impossible for us to tack against the wind, and reluctantly Jeff started the motor and we lowered sails. His reluctance was caused by misgivings over the clutch. He had calculated the number of hours the new motor should run before the clutch would require adjustment, and planned to do the job at New York City. With the motor in operation now, we might run into trouble from a slipping clutch. With the engine full open we barely made headway, which was just as well because the river was full of driftwood and unidentified debris ("dead horses,” Jeff said cheerfully) and to ram an obstruction at any speed might have been disasirous.

Then the rains came—and the clutch went. Jeff slowed the racing engine, and by some contortion managed to keep the clutch mechanism engaged with his foot. He had to stand uncomfortably all the rest of our painfully slow run into New York City. Eventually we could see the fabled lights of Manhattan through the murk, and limped toward the boat basin at the foot of 72nd Street. There wasn’t a vacant berth to be seen inside the breakwater, and in desperation we tied up to the breakwater pilings. Almost immediately a voice boomed at us through a loudspeaker:

. “Jt is prohibited to moor to the pilings. Please tie up at floating buoy number three.”

We peered out at the buoy marked “3,” a metal cone lurching in what seemed midstream, right in the path of tugs and assorted vessels going their heedless way. Reluctantly we cast off from the solid sea wall and edged out to the exposed buoy. We tied up. made coffee and decided to call it a day— the most eventful and exhausting day of the cruise so far. I had scarcely fallen asleep, though, when I was awakened by a frightening noise: our boat was rhythmically crashing into something. I scrambled up on deck, with Jeff on my heels. What we were crashing into was the buoy. Wind and current were fighting an evenly matched battle, with our boat in the middle. Every time one of

the elements gained the upper hand for a moment poor Elbon smacked the buoy. We tried shortening line and then lengthening it, but periodically jarring crashes would recur. I spent a miserable night thinking of the battering my paintwork was taking.

Ashore the next morning we learned that the bad weather was nothing less than the lash of a hurricane’s tail. Our hurricane w'as How, the last of that year. While we had been sailing down the Hudson. How had been rampaging from Florida northward. Much of our voyage south was to be in the wake of hurricane How.

The hurricane’s tail kept us bottled up at the 72nd Street basin for three days. It was morning rush hour on the river when we finally sailed, and our course lay across the ferryboat traffic. Ferries, we decided, had signals all their own. Certainly in our brief but hectic encounters we never deciphered their toots. Consequently there was a good deal of frantic last-minute dodging on both sides, and we undoubtedly left behind many nerve-shaken commuters from Jersey and many choleric ferry skippers.

Abreast the Statue of Liberty we hoisted sail. Beyond Sandy Hook the sea “lengthened” and we were riding swells born in the open ocean. This was our first sail on real salt water. Its difference from lake sailing, we decided, was the difference between a gallop and a trot. We would change our minds later, but on that bright October morning the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast was the most wonderful thing the Nobles had ever seen.

Until, that is, we encountered the fishtrap stakes. It happened while I was at the helm, of course. We were sailing merrily along when suddenly the stakes showed up, acres of tree-trunks four to six inches in diameter driven into the sea bottom. Steel cables were strung between the stakes and fish nets hung from the cables. Some stakes were broken off just below the water line, and these could mean sudden death to a boat. If a pitching hull came down on an unseen stake it would be holed and sink quickly. Danger lurked on our other side, too, where a heavy surf was rolling up the shore.

Jeff and I held an emergency meeting and decided to take our chances on being blown ashore rather than try to pick our way through the stakes to the offshore ship channel which now I discovered clearly marked on our chart. We had been off course almost from the time we rounded Sandy Hook.

In the end we had to run the gauntlet of the stakes. We were approaching the first day’s destination, Manasquan. N.J. The sun was lowering, and breakers ahead warned that we would have to sail seaward of a buoy to enter the harbor. With sails lowered we chugged slowly through. Fortunately the tide was high and we fouled no cables. We rounded the buoy and were about to breathe a sigh of relief when we saw the entrance to Manasquan’s harbor. Waves were building up as they poured through the narrow opening. We watched fishing boats approaching cautiously, and then one by one make a dash for the harbor mouth and ride in on the

crest like so many sporty surfboards.

"If they can do it we can—maybe,” said Jeff. "We have to try it, anyway. There’s nowhere else to go."

We picked a wave and Jeff gunned the motor. For one wild moment the boat broached to the wall of green water and I thought we were going over. Then she straightened up and roller-coasted buoyantly through the breakwater into sudden calm.

This first ocean stopover was also the entrance to the Inland Waterway. We had hoped to have some days’ sailing in open ocean, but that first experience impressed us with the dangers of the sea route, particularly with young children aboard, and we decided to use the less adventurous route even though it would mean less sailing and more use of the engine.

Probably not many Canadians know that it is possible to cruise by small boat from New York City down the Atlantic Coast clear to the southern tip of Florida with only one twenty-five-mile unsheltered stretch—the stretch we had traveled from New York Bay to Manasquan. For fifteen hundred miles southward the Inland Waterway runs via bays, rivers, canals, lagoons and coastal waters sheltered by offshore islands. For long reaches it is a hundred-foot-wide ditch dredged in water three or four miles wide but only a foot or two deep. This can provide startling sights. On our first day in the waterway, Stuart called from his lookout position astride the bowsprit:

"There’s a man walking in the water!” Since the low shorelines were barely visible on both sides we paid no attention to such nonsense—until we came abreast a man in hipboots raking for clams at the edge of the waterway, miles from shore. I should have remembered him a day or two later when, at Ocean City, N.J., I let my attention wander to a big square-rigger pulled up on shore. Suddenly I was "off the road” and hard aground. It was the first of countless groundings during the voyage. Sheer need developed a technique for becoming waterborne again. The drill was for all hands to weigh down the bow, alter Elbon’s trim and make her draw less water, and usually allow the thrashing propeller to ease her into deep water.

Not all the waterway was shallow and sheltered, however. At Cape May, the entrance to a canal leading into Delaware Bay, more than sixty boats were tied to every conceivable mooring, waiting for high winds to lessen. We had met an increasing number of southbound boats at each night’s mooring, and now we were in the thick of the winter migration—sports fishermen who had been tuna fishing off Nova Scotia, cabin cruisers from the New York and Great Lakes ports, and even a cruiser that had come farther than we had, the Trudy Anna from Ottawa via the St. Lawrence River, Lake Champlain and the Hudson.

After three days filled with grumblings, the radio predicted good weather and at dawn on the fourth day an amazing procession streamed through the Cape May canal and spilled into Delaware Bay for the long run up to Delaware City and the canal that would take us into that great inland sea, Chesapeake Bay. At Delaware City we docked next to a strange craft, all unaware that she was to become part of our lives for many weeks to come.

She was a large and ancient cabin cruiser. Her moth-eaten plush upholstery hinted she had once been owned by a wealthy sportsman. From her depths came the clankings of an engine

being worked on and presently a man emerged. He introduced himself as Charlie Read, owner. "She's got carburetor trouble — I think,” he said.

Jeff, who has a weakness for engines, quickly found the trouble and fixed it. Mrs. Read and two children, a boy and an eleven-year-old girl named Ann, returned while we were having coffee, and we heard the family’s story. Read was a plumber in Yonkers, N.Y., but suffered from chronic asthma. He finally sold the business, bought the old cabin cruiser and headed south. As a navigator and mechanic, he admitted, he was a good plumber. His plan was to rent a permanent mooring at Miami and make a living betting at Hialeah racetrack.

“I have an infallible system,” he explained matter-of-factly.

To complete their saga, we tied up near them at Miami and Jeff and Charlie went off to the races. Jeff came home early. He had been terribly bored by the races, he explained, especially when they wouldn’t let him bet on the prettiest horse at the track, a piebald pony with flowing mane. “They said it was the lead horse and wasn’t eligible,” he

said indignantly. He had left Charlie busy with his system.

That evening Charlie came over, looking sheepish. “I wonder,” he said, "if you’d mind loaning me ten dollars? There are some bugs in my system that I have to straighten out.” We never did see the ten dollars again, but we figured his daughter had more than earned it by baby-sitting for us.

At Annapolis (with me at the helm) Elbon trespassed in water reserved for the Naval Academy’s bombing or gunnery range, and we were firmly shooed away by a patrol boat. We docked next to a seagoing cruiser the size of a small liner. It had been a rough tiring day and I was throwing something together for supper when there was a knock on our companionway. A crisply uniformed young man stood there smiling— with a steaming pie in each hand. He explained a little sadly that he was steward of the luxury boat. “The owner is seldom aboard so I have nobody to appreciate my cooking,” he said. “I am French.”

We appreciated his cooking. We ate one pie at a sitting.

Our favorite food discovery, though, was shrimps. At home our family budget (including boatbuilding) doesn't include shrimps at a dollar and a half a pound. But when the shrimp fleet docked just after us at Page’s Creek, North Carolina, and I timidly asked the price of a pound of shrimps, a fisherman told me, “Don’t rightly know, ma’am—but a bucketful’s fifty cents.” So shrimp became a luxurious staple—to be firmly removed from the menu back in Toronto, of course.

At Norfolk, Virginia, we headed back

into the Inland Waterway proper. We had our choice of two routes, one via the Dismal Swamp. Naturally we couldn’t resist such a fascinating name, especially since our guidebook said the Dismal Swamp canal had been dug by George Washington. It turned out to be fifteen miles of ditch bordered by mangroves. It was a roofless tunnel lloored with water. Our topmost sail, the fisherman’s staysail, reached above the mangroves and caught a breeze. A negro fisherman stared as we glided silently by. “First time I ever see a boat sail through Dismal Swamp,” he called.

At Belhaven we met Teepee, a Bahama - built schooner seventy - five feet long, owned by Caleb Crandall, a retired U. S. naval officer. Teepee had been double-dismasted by Hurricane How. Crandall had put in new masts, and now was cruising south under power

while re-rigging his sails. Jeff agreed to help him, and for the rest of the way to Miami we tied up almost every night together.

Mrs. Crandall had two black cats and delighted the children by promising them a kitten when they were born — any day now, she said. But as days and weeks went by and we got closer to Miami and the parting from the Crandalls, no kittens appeared and the children became more and more worried. Those kittens never did arrive.

When we bade a catless farewell to the Crandalls we took up residence at Just’s Island, a snug mooring nine bridges up the Miami River from the sea. Near us was a rotting houseboat whose hull had long since settled into the ooze. It was inhabited by a couple who quarreled frequently. One night after a violent disagreement the woman departed and the enraged husband started to throw

things into the water. At midnight we were woken up by piteous cries outside. From the deck we could see feeble splashings in mid-channel—our neighbor had thrown his cat overboard.

Jeff launched our dinghy and rescued the almost-drowned cat. We forced some wine down her throat and washed off the Miami River sewage (“too thick to swim in, too thin to walk on,” they say down there). Bilgewater, as she was immediately christened, became a fullfledged member of the ship’s company.

Unfortunately, Bilgewater wasn’t housebroken, an impossible situation aboard a small boat. So we started intensive training, built around a sandbox on deck. Bilgewater learned fast and with a thoroughness that became exasperating. She would be roaming a quarter of a mile away when an idea would occur to her. She would gallop back to the boat over a dozen acres of the finest sand in Florida, making a beeline for her box. Then she would gallop back over those acres of sand to whatever had been occupying her interest in the first place. She fell overboard at least once a day and if she happened to be beyond reach of an outstretched arm we would have to launch the dinghy to rescue her. This became such a nuisance that we finally bought a longhandled crab net to scoop her back aboard.

Child overboard — again

The children were better disciplined. Stuart understood boating safety rules, since he had literally been cruising Lake Ontario before he was born—he arrived a few hours after 1 got back from a sail. Under way, we made sure Jerry was in a safe place, usually in the cockpit or, in rough weather, peering over protective boards at the top of the companionway. But when we tied up at docks and discipline relaxed a little there was an occasional “child overboard” crisis. Stuart went in a few times when the fishing off the bowsprit got too exciting. One day Jerry was playing

ashore not far from our mooring in the Miami River when a woman on a nearby boat gave her a pair of small cowboy boots. She ran back to show us. But the unaccustomed boots tripped her and she fell into the water. The boots filled and she sank.

We were in the cabin when we heard the splash and rushed up. Jeff saw bubbles rising between boat and dock, reached down, and hauled Jerry out. We hosed her off on the dock, and under a layer of Miami River sewage she was none the worse, except for indignation that, having got wet by falling in, she should be immediately given a second bath.

Days and weeks went by. We sunbathed and just relaxed, and less and less did we take Elbon down the river for an open-sea sail. We spent Christmas in shorts and shirt sleeves, and people came to our mooring to look at the first Christmas tree they had seen on a sailboat. We ate great quantities of fruit and vegetables and seafood at bargain prices. The children grew before our eyes and never had so much as a cold. I turned from a fair-skinned brunette into a tanned sun-bleached blonde. We were spending less than a hundred dollars a month and living well.

One day we were about to cast off to head down river under the nine bridges for a sail when a "neighbor” in a powerboat pulled alongside and offered a lift downtown. We accepted as a matter of course. It was so much easier to scoot under the bridges than to

wait for them to be raised for our tall mast. But that night we admitted to each other that we were falling into bad habits.

“When last did we go sailing?” Jeff asked. We calculated—and it was more than two weeks before. Yet sailing was our favorite activity. Jeff said he had come to the conclusion that people with sailboats did more sailing in four summer months on Lake Ontario than the year around in Florida.

“Let’s go home in time to do some real sailing this summer,” Jeff suggested, and suddenly I was as eager as he was. We started back in long runs, fifty and sixty miles á day. But the Inland Waterway wouldn't let us pass without a last and nearly fatal mishap.

One day in late April we set out on the seventy-five-mile leg from Chesapeake City to Cape May through Delaware Bay. Headwinds battered us to the point where in early afternoon we had to decide whether to turn back or carry on. We kept going. At least, we kept our bow pointed toward Cape May. But wind, waves and tide matched our combined sail and engine power. By dusk we had to get out of the ship channel or risk being run down by freighters headed up toward Wilmington. The only alternative to the channel was the fish stakes.

We entered this perilous wilderness at dark. We knew that an encounter with a broken-off stake could finish us, especially with waves up to nine feet high tossing us around. Slowly, blindly we drove into the darkness. Every time our bow rammed down into the black water we shuddered.

Finally it came, a loud crash forward. But instead of being pinned on a stake, Elbon’s bow rose as usual. Once more came the crash. Jeff couldn’t leave the helm, so I worked my way to the bow with the help of lifelines we had rigged all around the deck. Immediately I was drenched to the skin with cold spray. There were two more crashes before I reached the bow—where I found with relief that the anchor had broken loose from its deck lashings and gone over the side. It was dangling from its chain and banging against the hull with every wave. I lashed it back in place. Then I went below to change and to heat a can of soup each, to be eaten right out of the can because nothing would stay in a plate or bowl. I peered into the children’s cabin. They were sound asleep. Bilgewater was nowhere to be seen.

1 heard a shout from the cockpit. “Cape May canal light!” Jeff was calling. We anchored in calm water at three in the morning. That night we felt nothing more could happen in the hundreds of miles that lay between Cape May and our berth at the Port Credit Yacht Club that hadn't happened already. And nothing did. really, if we don't count being escorted for a while by a fourteen-foot shark on our open-sea leg up the New Jersey coast.

There are a few loose ends to tie up. Bilgewater, a seagoing cat, didn't survive long on land. She thought all vehicles were boats, friendly things that usually approached her to rescue her from drowning. She died under the wheels of a truck she went on the road to greet. Our boat Elbon has been sold — for enough to build a slightly bigger schooner on similar lines.

And the very process of recalling our trip has stirred up an irresistible urge to get under way again. We’re going back, this summer or next, with an extra youngster, another boat—and a store of invaluable experience. ★