This Side Up

We made it to Rio...and eventually back


“This is crazy.”

Of course, Claude Bergeron was right. Friends thought we were crazy when we told them we would be racing to Rio. And then they would laugh when we explained. For nautical readers, Rio is actually R10. For landlubbers it is red buoy #10 that is off the Bristol shore and the channel to the Warren River.

But there’s more to the race than the unusual name. Run by the Narragansett Yacht Club, this race is for any club member with a sailboat, whether they are hardcore racers or prefer cruising. Handicaps are applied for those who haven’t skippered a boat in a race, for old sails and for initiating newcomers to racing. The trophies are absurd such as a boat fender shaped like a mermaid whose well-endowed shape is certain to protect a hull from scrapes and dings. You only get to keep a trophy for a year unless, of course, you can win it again.

But trophies were the furthest thing from Claude’s mind when he declared what we were doing as crazy.

We were sailing Claude’s Rhodes 19 in a fleet of more than 15 other boats, the largest being a 36-foot Catalina. The Rhodes, named Sparkle City after Claude’s hometown of Central Falls, is an open boat with a small cuddy in the bow large enough to stow a few things you might want to keep dry such as a knapsack with cell phone and a package of pretzels. The beer went in a cooler, which was also slid out of the way up front – all the essentials, or so we believed.

The forecast was for rain that afternoon although that didn’t seem likely as the fleet jockeyed at the starting line off Bullock’s Cove a week ago Saturday. It was steamy and sticky, the wind blowing no more than 10 knots from the southwest – a typical August day on Narragansett Bay.

We and one other Rhodes, “Red Rocket,” took an unconventional port tack start knowing we risked being protested by the starboard track boats that have rights. Our gamble paid off and the two of us took an early lead.

A far greater risk faced us as we were to learn after leaving Conimicut Light in our wake and tacking upwind toward Rio, a distant marker on the horizon. At first a gray curtain obscured the Warwick shoreline. It grew darker. There were spikes of lightning and distant rumbles.

“Glad we’re not back there,” said Claude. I agreed, speculating the storm would move to the northeast and miss us entirely. My hopes were misplaced. Slowly any sign of land behind us was blotted from vision. It was a wall of black threatening to pounce at any moment. Ahead was Rio and the Papassquash shoreline, clearly visible. We were going to make it – at least to Rio. The trip back was another matter.

We rounded Rio, easing the sail for the downwind sail home.

It didn’t last. The wind died. Heavy drops fell. And then an ear-splitting blast and flash all at once. Ozone was in the air. What could we do? There was nothing to say. We were barely moving.

The two boats ahead disappeared in the advancing rain. The wind hit first, now 180 degrees from where it had been blowing. Sparkle City gained speed. Then came the rain, spanking the waves flat, pellets raking the sails and sending turrets splashing into the cockpit. I tried to look ahead. Water poured down my forehead, I was blinded. I kept my focus on the sails and the “feel” of the boat, adjusting not to overpower us, yet fearful we could lose steerage – caught in irons – if we lost momentum. Claude was at the helm. Holding course wherever that was going to take us.

The heavens rumbled. Indeed, it was crazy to be out here. Yet we were there and so were others.

Water sloshed, waves within the boat as the wind lay us on our side.

“I think we better get bailing,” said Claude. He was right. We traded positions. Claude ducked into the cuddy, a hose snaked over the side as he worked the pump frantically. The visibility improved to maybe 50 feet, yet the rain pounded. We held our course. The storm was relentless. How long had it been – a half hour, 45 minutes – I don’t know.

“We’d better tack, I think that’s land over there,” said Claude.

I strained to see. Wasn’t there a dark line over there, could that be Nayatt Point?

No point risking the rocks. I tacked.

“I’m going to try my cell phone,” said Claude, “there’s a navigation app.”

He ducked into the cuddy. I heard curses from his dark form, evidently things weren’t going so well. Then there was a triumphant cry, “I got it.” There was a yellow glow from the cuddy.

“Here we are,” he said pointing to a red dot while shielding the device from the rain. We were off Barrington Beach, not far from Nayatt, headed toward the channel.

The storm wasn’t done. It hit us with a second torrential downpour with more wind that came in billows of hot and cool air.

Then it gradually lifted. Conimicut Light came into view and the Catalina off our stern with a flotilla of smaller boats being towed. They signaled. We waved them off. There was wind. We could make it back, or so we thought.

Our expectation was short lived. The rain subsided. The wind died. Another racer was motoring back. We waved. He changed course and we threw him a line. Claude lowered the sails. We packed them away, pumped more water out of the boat and surveyed the bay and the retreating heavy clouds. It would be another half hour before we were back in Bullocks Cove.

“Time for a beer,” announced Claude.

He fished them from the cooler and popped them open. We clinked.

“Here’s to Rio,” he said as we, soaked to the bone, toasted an adventure on the bay.


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