As Finisterre boiled past New London, a long forgotten song began to run through my mind. "East of the sun and west of the moon," it went, and as I looked over the bow toward the squat stone lighthouse at the corner of Fishers Island, the words changed to "east of The Race and west of the Cape." Until that moment I had no handy way to describe my planless itinerary, embracing one of the most unique and delightful collections of little islands and coves and villages to be found in the world of sailing: the Elizabeth Islands, taking the charted name of the string under the uplifted arm of Cape Cod, or Vineyard Sound, if you chose to ignore the equal claims of rival bodies of water from Montauk to Monomoy—Block Island Sound, Nantucket Sound and Buzzards Bay.
As though pleased that the problem was solved, Finisterre put her shoulder down to a puff and sped toward The Race. Under us the water began to churn and spin into giant whorls, silent reminder of the power of the sea. Twice each 24 hours, millions upon millions of tons of water surge from the open Atlantic Ocean into Long Island Sound, running westward toward Manhattan, flowing through the arteries into the smallest capillaries, refreshing and revivifying every foot of shoreline. Then with clocklike regularity the cycle reverses, and the buoys begin to lean the other way as the tide rushes back out into the ocean.
We had caught the ebb just right, and Finisterre shot through The Race like an arrow from a bow. A crisp northwest breeze leaned against the sails above, while the current gripped the keel below, both hurrying us in the same direction. As the elements were in accord, there were none of the steep, breaking waves that sometimes make the passage unhappy for small-boat voyagers; instead, the water ran with a deceptively glazed smoothness, only patches of roiled white showing the forces at work. Fishing boats circled, now barely stemming the tide, now spurting downstream, until suddenly the water changed color and character, and we were through, east of The Race.
Almost as suddenly there was a perceptible difference in the very air. For The Race is more than a tidal portcullis: it is a geographic and climatic boundary, as clearly defined as though Plum and Gull islands were walls reaching to the sky. Behind, there is a feeling of the hinterlands of Connecticut and New York, crowded, dusty and sometimes insufferably hot: people, noise, neons and clogged highways. Beyond, there is the feeling of the open sea, a chill tang in the shadow of the mainsail even though the sun may lie warm on bare shoulders at the wheel. Somehow this is part of the world of drifting ice, of long winter nights, of fog and rock and raging gales, just as the other side of The Race is the last stand of sand and rolling lowlands stretching all the way back to Florida.
As I lounged in the cockpit, keeping an eye on the luff of the jib, Finisterre responded as always to the open sea. There is something in the way she lifts to a long ocean swell that is different from the way she meets a chop, a reserve of power waiting, come what may. Now beyond the shelter of the shore, creaming wavelets slapped under the counter, riding the backs of a sea from an earlier southerly.
On the port hand was Fishers Island, summer haunt .of names symbolizing wealth and position, a narrow irregular bastion behind which lay another exit from Long Island Sound, a passage to be preferred to The Race in strong winds and a foul tide. And Fishers Island Sound is something of a cruising microcosm in itself, with two good harbors on the parent island, and the picturesque towns of Stonington and Mystic across, the former a fishing port maintaining its character, the latter through the Marine Museum probably the closest link with the Golden Age of Sail to be found outside English Harbour, on the faraway isle of Antigua.
To starboard, distant but visible, was the eastern tip of Long Island, culminating in Montauk Point. Under it I visualized Gardiners Island and the bay of the same name, flowing toward and around Shelter Island to join the Peconic bays, Great and Little, with such lovely nooks as Sag and Dering harbors—another little cruising world in itself, so remote yet so close to great population centers and not even requiring an open sea passage to attain. It is hard to think of any other area blessed with such variety for the boatman as the environs of New York City.
Yet despite these remembered blandishments Finisterre remained on course toward a smudge on the horizon that could only be Block Island. We 20th century voyagers were sailing in the wake of an almost forgotten little sloop named Onrust (Restless), under the command of Adriaen Block. That doughty Dutchman, too, had seen the smudge in 1614 and sailed toward it to an anchorage called Manisses by the Indians, thus endowing the island on future charts with his own name.
Block Island is shaped like a stingray swimming south, the head a steep bluff topped by the green, blinking eye of a lighthouse, the tail a long trailing reef, cause of many maritime tragedies. It smells of seaweed tempered by small shrubs clinging to damp earth. Gulls wheel and cry above creeping tendrils of fog and the wash of surf on the outlying rocks. Even the weathered shingle houses seem to huddle against the coming of savage winter gales. It is only when flying over in a small plane that another aspect appears, mute record of attempts to wrest the land from the sea. Patterning the surface are stone fences, monuments to Block Island pioneers who cleared fields in hope of establishing farms.
Modern sailors have an advantage not enjoyed by Adriaen Block. In the old days there was no shelter. Now there are two harbors, man-made, at opposite sides of the island and at opposite poles in character. To the west is Great Salt Pond, created by cutting a channel from a lake to open water. Extending over a mile into the land, bordered principally by rolling meadows, it has an air of spaciousness, of detachment from the hurrying throng. No matter how many boats may crowd in over a summer weekend, there is always a place to escape to anchor in solitude. Not so on the other side. The old harbor, held fast in the embrace of stone breakwaters, is pure Baltic or Mediterranean, boats moored to the quay; it is in turn the focal point of the community, rimmed by restaurants and shops oriented to fish and fishing. Rarely uncrowded, the old harbor can become so jammed when the swordfishing fleet is in that the water may be crossed dry-shod by stepping from one deck to another.