Power boats charging through a narrow channel with strong currents.
It started out as a low-key little session: Jeff and I were driving around the North Fork hoping to catch some of the late day wind forecasted by iWindsurf. South Jamesport wasn't happening, so we decided to take a look at New Suffolk, where neither of us had ever sailed (though it's heartily recommended by Jon Ford, The Wolf and others for the chop potential on southerlies during incoming tides.) We got there around 5PM, and there were barely enough whitecaps to inspire rigging. But the tide was in our favor, so I volunteered to be wind dummy. On a 7.0 and my JP 109, I got planing in the side-on wind. Jeff soon followed.
The virtues of the spot soon became obvious. With about an eighth of a mile between the launch and the northern tip of Robins Island, there's a bit of wind tunnel effect, and the narrow straight (called the North Race) gets quite a strong current rushing through. Tide against wind really kicks up the chop in the channel (dredged through the middle of the Race for boats to navigate,) and just past that there's an excellent flatwater section, complete with jibatorium next to a large sand spit. Once you're upwind of the channel you can reach back and forth to your heart's content, with not too much boat traffic in the mix.
As the wind came up we began to have more and more fun, reasonably powered on our big sails, even getting air (Jeff said "I was getting air when I wasn't planing!" so big was some of the chop.) A light fog started to reduce visibility to a few hundred yards (which seemed like plenty as long as we stayed out of the channel,) and coupled with the lowering sun I wanted to suggest to Jeff that perhaps we sail shorter runs closer to the sand bar. But we were always sailing at each other, and when I failed to get the message across as I headed for the sand bar and he back out into the chop field, I decided to pull up and wait.
That's when the big fog rolled in.
Okay, it's time to go in. Where are you, Jeff? One minute goes by. Two minutes go by. Five minutes. The shore, just a few hundred yards downwind, is not visible. Come on, Jeff...we're just going to look out for boats, bear off sharply, spot land whereever, jibe and broad reach back to the launch.
Ten minutes have elapsed, but no sign of Jeff. Now I'm beginning to worry. It's getting dark, and the fog is still coming in. Behind the sand bar I now see some powerboats lining up to navigate the channel single file, with full lights on. They're worried about hitting other boats. There is no way they are going to see a down windsurfer in this. My own gear this day is entirely black and white...not a drop of color to catch a vigilant captain's eye. And where is Jeff?
Maybe he's out there in trouble. More likely he jibed on the outside, saw how blind the reach was back to the sand bar, and just hugged the beach on a broad reach back to wait for me on the shore. Or maybe he's trying to make it back to the sand bar because even sailing blind, a beam reach will get him here.
Fifteen minutes now and I'm getting worried for myself as well as Jeff. I write him a big note in the sand ("JEFF I WENT IN") and launch. Given the angles I've got to broad reach about 500 yards to cross the channel and get to safe shoreside water.
Immediately a twenty-foot speedboat comes through...I have to round up to avoid getting in his path. Between the fog and the darkness I can't see through my sail to tell if another boat is coming, so I nearly tack to take a look around the sail. Clear (I think.) Bear off once again. I'm in the footstraps, planing blind (fully powered). Between having no visual references at all, fear for myself, the chop in the channel, and worrying what I'll do if Jeff isn't at the beach, the sailing is hard. I beared off even more, both to lighten the sail and to get across the channel as quickly as possible, nearly overdoing it and falling. But I didn't fall, I didn't get hit by a boat, and all of a sudden I saw some houses just 100 yards in front of me. I jibed and sailed back to the launch beach. Jeff wasn't there, neither was his gear. His van was. So he was still out on the water.
My mind is racing now. Given the situation, maybe Jeff did what I did, and just sailed downwind blind until he came to shore, and is now walking back half a mile down the beach. Maybe he's looking for me. Maybe he got hit by a boat. I walked down the beach in the direction I think Jeff would have headed, but after a minute I had a clear enough view of a long stretch of beach to see that nobody was walking on it, nor was anybody sailing near shore.
I am now swearing up a storm. I'm shouting "Jeff!" into the fog (been doing this for quite awhile) which is ridiculous given the wind noise. Walking back my plan is to find someone with a boat...he's got to be just lost out there, and we'll find him before the Coast Guard gets here...when for one second I see a mast tip flying through the fog. Huge relief! Jeff is on his board! But doing what? He was headed back to the sand bar as best I could tell. When he gets there and sees I'm gone, he will surely head in, if he's not already trying to. I planted myself on the shore and waited...at least now I can keep an eye open for boats coming through, and worst come to worst if he gets hit I may be able to tell and to do something. I hope.
A few minutes later Jeff came downwind through the fog, just 100 yards from the launch.
My cell phone was ringing in the van. My neighbors were worried...it was dark, it was foggy, I hadn't shown up for the lovely dinner they had invited me to, and they knew I'd gone sailing. My wife is traveling, and I later told her the "light" version of this story. But she reads the Puffin, and will probably slap me upside the head at her earliest convenience. I'm supposed to avoid dangerous situations. The truth is we had no idea it could go wrong so quickly.
New Suffolk is a good spot to windsurf. But I'll only return with more people, and much earlier in the day. As for fog, I'll be getting my tail off the water pronto the next time the mist starts rolling in anywhere other than an enclosed playpen like Mecox. Jeff and I have had good fun in the fog there, except for the shotguns..