IT WAS NEAR dusk when we gathered the lines from the pilings, spun the outboard's fly-wheel and motored down Back Creek toward Chesapeake Bay for the start of our sail to Newport, R.I.
That trip was seven years ago, and we intend to make it again this year to catch the same spectacle - the America's Cup races.
It's a trip other small-boat sailors from the Washington area should consider. As my more experienced shipmate said seven years ago to calm me, "It's a piece of cake." It was, and is, if your boat is seaworthy and you carry proper equipment.
My boat "Flirt" is a Folkboat, slooprigged and simple, 25 feet long, seven feet wide and four feet deep.
We carried a mainsail, working jib and small genoa, four horsepower outboard and 10 gallons of fuel in four cans. We stowed five gallons of water, an inexpensive compass, Sterno stove, a cooler, two anchors, foul-weather gear, binoculars, portable AM radio, salt pills and cheap inflatable dinghy. We had plenty of charts and guidebooks.
For emergencies: foghorn, flares, life jackets and safety harnesses, spare compass, extra batteries for running lights and flashlights and a dependable radio direction finder. We did not have a radar reflector, an addition I recommend.
Since there were just two of us and we were sailing straight through, the plan was to alternate four-hour shits at the tiller, with the off-duty man responsible for food, coffee, navigation and getting rested.
We both stayed awake those first hours, soaking in the warm August night as Flirt glided up the silent Bay. A slight following wind filled the sails; a one-knot tide helped.
I went below for sleep about midnight. By 5 a.m. we were midway up the Elk River approach to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, with Town Point looming out of the damp dawn to starboard. We reached the canal just as the tide shifted against us so we motored through.
Bright sunlight promised a heavy, hot and windless trip down Delaware Bay to the Atlantic. That's exactly what it was - a steamy, miserable series of long tacks over Ship John Shoal and Cross Ledge, Miah Maull, Fourteen Point and Brandywine Shoal. Swarms of mosquitoes kept us company.
A short canal through the tip of south Jersey connects Delaware Bay and the Atlantic, eliminating the long sail around Cape May. We stopped at a marina for fresh water and about 10 p.m. we pushed off and motored through the canal, then set out on a long, gentle night sail up the Jersey coast.
Morning was electric. A sea of sequins glittered to the rising sun and a great white ribbon of sandy shore shimmered to the west. The light winds disappeared late that morning and we rolled and slatted along. The water below was clear, green crystal; we alternated jumping into the sea and swimming with the boat as it bobbed in the ocean swell.
Enough soon was enough. Back in went the engine. We already had used one can of gas and by afternoon a second was empty, so we checked the charts for a port. Barnegat Inlet was near; we headed for its great lighthouse and the Barnegat Bay channel.
All our guidebooks and the chart agreed it was a treacherous passage - a narrow, twisting channel constantly shifting under the pressure of strong currents and breakers.
As luck would have it an offshore wind of 15 knots piped up as we neared the inlet. Off went the engine, useless in the strong ocean swells when beating into the wind.
Flirt is a stiff craft designed with the rough waters of the North Sea in mind, but her port rail was buried in the breaking sea as we raced into the channel. There was a curious mixture of fright and exhilaration as we bore through the strange channel, knowing error could turn our lovely little yacht into driftwood.
The channel shifted sharply and we eased sail in the lee of the shore, gliding into the quiet bay past fishermen casting from jetties. We quickly filled our gas cans, declining to tarry in a crowded and unappealing harbor.
Back on the Atlantic we sped along the coast on a broad reach. That night we traced the lights of the carousels and ferris wheels as we passed Asbury Park toward Sandy Hook, southern boundary of New York Harbor.
About 11 p.m. on this third night an offshore west wind brought with it gentle rain. We were comfortable dry in foul weather gear, peering about for signs of danger and flashing a light on the compass to check the course.
Three hours later, with the light from Sandy Hook off the port bow, the wind grew strong and the rain became a deluge that curtained off the beacons we sought. We searched anxiously for the comforting flash from Ambrose Lightship, the beacon that has guided thousands of ships into the channel to the Port of New York.
After what seemed an eternity there it was, blinking through the storm.
Our plan was to sail straight up the East River into Long Island Sound, but there was little point in that in the middle of the night with wind and tide against us.
So we sailed until Ambrose Light was directly to starboard, then set our course for the Coney Island shore. At 4 a.m. we dropped anchor and crawled into the cabin. At 7 the sun awakened us.
After taking a reef in the main we were off on a glorious sail into the jaws of the huge city, past freighters and cruise ships, past Ellis Island and Bedloe's Island, the Statue of Liberty beckoning us as we perched high on the windward side of the cockpit, feet braced on the port coaming.
We drove Flirt toward the twin towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center, between Governors Island and the Battery, past the Brooklyn piers into the East River with Manhattan on our left, Brooklyn and Queens to our right, and under the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge.
Wind and tide had been with us, but now the wind failed and the tide changed. Mainsail and outboard together were no match for the East River current; we moved close to the Queens shore to cut the effects of the racing water.
We were poking along a stone's throw from the Long Island City shore when the stones came. Kids on the shore were heaving rocks at us. We were helpless, unable to move and with no means of retaliation. Suddenly you knew how Columbus, Magellan and Cook felt when slings and bows hurled missiles at their unwieldly craft.
Luckily no damage was done before we were out of range, fighting our way through the five-knot current of Hell Gate, under Triboro Bridge and around Throgs Neck into Long Island Sound.
The engine stayed on another two hours before the wind picked up and Flirt moved serenely up the Sound. Darkness sped the wind and moved us steadily through the night.
Morning again was bright, the wind constant, but by midafternoon the breeze disappeared as we neared Plum Island. The engine was on again.
Although Newport, our goal, was theoretically within reach that night, we decided to make for Block Island, a short haul south of Newport.
Powering all the way, we spotted Block at 5 p.m. Two hours later we were in Great Salt Pond and tied up at Champlin's Wharf, our bow nestled under the jutting boomkin of Baccara, the famed racing yacht of ship owner George Coumantaros.
We hiked across the island to Old Harbor and a sumptous bluefish dinner at Ballard's Inn. After a brief stop at Dead Eye Dick's for beer we moved Flirt, anchored and slep the deep sleep of weary men.
The next day was best of all, cool and bright, sparkling green water, deep blue sky and steady wind. To Newport was a perfect sail to end a perfect trip.
As Flirt crossed the sound to Brenton Reef Tower the 12-meter boats that would battle for the America's Cup were knifing through the water, whirling and wheeling in their never-ending bid for perfection.
We sailed into the East Passage of Narragansett Bay past Jamestown's Beavertail Point, past Newport's Castle Hill Light, past the Jamestown rocks named the Dumplings, around the tip of Fort Adams and Goat Island and into Newport's inner harbor.
The harbor, as in Annapolis, is the center of the city. There are rental moorings or one may anchor, as we did, if there is room. There also are extensive and expensive marina facilities, but reservations are suggested. Farther up Narragansett Bay, just above Goat Island, are good anchorages used by local residents. Other anchorages lie across the East Passage in Jamestown.
Narragansett Bay offers excellent sailing. You can sail as far north as Providence and Fall River or visit enchanting towns like East Greenwich, Bristol, Barrington or Wickford.
On the other side of Newport is the Sakonnet River, which offers interesting sailing. Not far away are New Bedford, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
Our return trip to Annapolis was more eventful. We took the outside route along the ocean side of Long Island.
There was no wind for two days; we used all our gasoline and lay becalmed. The last 12 of those hours we were enveloped in impenetrable fog.
We switched on the RDF to find Fire Island Inlet, where we could refuel. The fog persisted despite a bright sun. We homed in the beacon, inching along under puffs of breeze.
Suddenly we both heard land sounds; first distant noises of automobiles, then people laughing and the crashing of surf.
Instantly we came about. The fog lifted to disclose a beach and swimmers in the Fire Island surf. Another few minutes and we would have been caught and smashed in the waves.
As we moved offshore and searched for the inlet we found ourselves among fish traps. They were marked on our chart and locating the inlet was easy. We entered and refueled and by the time we left the wind had come and the fog had gone. We set a course for a long ocean leg from the inlet to Barnegat Light, which we hit on target and on schedule late the following day.
From there we retraced our northward course and arrived at the slip in Back Creek at 6 p.m., six days later leaving Newport.