A sailor’s experience is defined by the constantly changing, interdependent relationship between weather and ocean. Sailors read sky and sea, noting the speed and direction of wind, the pull of currents, the height of waves and tides, and the degree of menace carried by approaching fronts. With the aid of sophisticated forecasts and radar, we attempt to track approaching storms. All of these variables govern whether a vessel can travel safely, stay put or seek shelter. However, when sailing on the ocean, even along the coastal United States, there is not always an accessible port for refuge from a storm. In such case, a vessel may have to move through whatever weather it encounters. As the effects of rising sea temperatures become increasingly evident, being anywhere on the North Atlantic ocean during hurricane season feels more perilous.
Delfina rode out the remnants of the storm that had been Hurricane Ida on a secure mooring in the harbor of Bristol, Rhode Island. Christoph and I sought shelter there en route to Block Island to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with our kids, their partners and Juniper, our perspicacious four-year-old granddaughter. In preparation for what we expected would be a long and stormy night, I placed our Ipad inside the microwave in the galley. The microwave acts as a Faraday shield in the event that our boat is struck by lightning: if the boat’s electronics are fried, we can still navigate using charts downloaded onto the Ipad.
Throughout the night, torrential rain pounded the deck, thunder cracked open the sky, lightning lit up the harbor, and wind gusted to 35 knots, causing Delfina to strain against her mooring lines. Neither Christoph nor I slept, remaining alert to anything that might require our attention. It is always possible for mooring lines, ours or another vessel’s, to be subject to intense chafing, and to fail in high winds. The storm subsided at about 5 a.m., and after sunrise we found that the sky had been washed clean. There was some minor flooding on shore, but the vessels in the harbor were intact. An old salt we met on the launch referred to the storm as “pitter patter.” Hardly, though perhaps he’d been through worse.
Delfina sailed under light northwest winds and a bright blue sky to the Great Salt Pond anchorage at Block Island. The sparkling harbor was crowded and festive, as Labor Day revelers rafted up, ready to party away the end of summer. When Hurricane Henri had blown through a few weeks before, the busy harbor had been cleared of all vessels, but the remnants of Ida had not posed a similar threat to this anchorage.
Back home in Lambertville, NJ, others had not fared as well. The Delaware River and two creeks that run through town had flooded, decimating homes and businesses, many of which will never recover. Several tornadoes touched down in the area, uprooting trees and tearing off roofs. New Jersey wound up with the highest death toll of any state from the remnants of Ida.
On the beach at Block Island, our family tumbled in the surf at Crescent Beach, where waves built daily from the effects of Larry, another Atlantic storm that didn’t come up the east coast. We marveled at the clarity and warmth of the water as we frolicked in the pounding surf. NOAA has documented a steady rise in average global sea surface temperatures due to a warming atmosphere over the past 100 years; now there is data showing that the deep ocean is also being affected. We know the ocean warms as it absorbs excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions. As global sea temperatures rise, damage to marine species, ecosystems, fisheries and coastal life increases. The rise in surface sea temperatures is causing more severe hurricanes, droughts, floods and more intense, slower moving storms. We are all living through these effects, one way or another, wherever we live on earth. The end of our summer sailing voyage brought them home to me in an embodied way.
After a week of respite on land filled with biking and swimming, playgrounds and beaches, our kids took their respective ferries back to Point Judith. Christoph and I waited for a few days for strong, gusty winds to settle before setting off for an overnight sail to our home anchorage in Keyport, NJ. The forecast called for light SW winds eventually turning to the north, and no rain, so we dropped our mooring and set off across the Block Island Sound towards Montauk.
That night, as I stood watch at the helm and we motor sailed off the shore of Fire Island, I watched the waxing moon play hide and seek behind thick, darkening clouds. By the time Christoph came on deck close to 11 pm for his watch, lightning was flashing further west of us. Christoph checked the weather radar and tracked the movement of intense thunderstorms that had not been forecast earlier, now moving offshore from Suffolk County. There was no place for us to seek shelter, and we knew we would have to press on through the storm.
Suddenly, a sailboat motored across our bow. Between the shore lights, the darkening clouds, a fishing vessel I had been keeping my eye on, and the bewitching moon, I hadn’t seen it coming. The captain radioed to say that he hadn’t seen us on his radar. It was a close call, a reminder to remain vigilant at all times when on watch, and to check 360 degrees in every direction at least every 10 minutes.
Christoph took down the sails as I went below to stow the Ipad in the microwave and to try to get some rest, in spite of knowing that we were about to traverse a large, severe storm system. We slowed down to give the storms more time to pass. Strong gusting wind followed every sudden flash of lightning. Luckily, we missed the worst of the system, which moved offshore just east and west of our position. Lying below deck on the settee in the salon, I covered my head with a pillow and prayed for our safety.
By the time we reached our mooring in the morning, the Raritan Bay was as calm as a mountain lake. But my mind was roiling with the perils of the recent storms and the critical question facing our species: will we heed what the ocean is trying to tell us?