The Last Sail of the Season

It's a wonderful gift when a boater gets to experience the perfect ending to a season on the salt.
Sailboat heading towards a bridge
When your boating season is short, every day on the water is savored, but especially the last one. Herb McCormick

Even in the best of times, it’s a short sailing season in New England waters. This year, for me, because of work and travel commitments, it was especially abbreviated. Early last October, almost five months to the day after sailing my Pearson Ensign Saunter the roughly dozen miles from winter storage at Safe Harbor New England Boatworks in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to my mooring in Newport Harbor, I was making the return trip to put it away for the winter. The last ritualistic sail of the season is always bittersweet, but I’ll also remember this one for a long time. Because it was sensational.

All the usual suspects that make up my regular crew were busy, so I was all by myself as I caught the launch from the Ida Lewis Yacht Club out to the boat on a lazy early Friday afternoon. I’d hoped to make the run earlier in the week, but a three-day nor’easter, the last lingering remnants of feisty Hurricane Ian, had ruined those plans. It was sort of a blessing in disguise: The weather had turned in my favor, with a solid southwest sea breeze rushing in and a big flood tide (thanks to the full moon) filling Narragansett Bay with dispatch. When I told the launch driver my plan for the day, he just smiled. “Everything’s going in your direction,” he said.

I hoisted the main, dropped the mooring and broad-reached out of Brenton Cove. My first obstacle was a massive Carnival cruise liner, a sure sign of autumn in these parts. I quickly put it behind me. Shortly after, I unrolled the jib for a bit more horsepower and then squeaked under the Newport Bridge in the span just west of the last section of latticework, a local-knowledge shortcut for anyone who’s raced small boats on the bay.

The southwester by now was pumping, but I was able to skirt just north of Gould Island and altered course a bit for a better wind angle, which took me right up to the north shore of Conanicut Island and the picturesque village of Jamestown. I’d been underway for well over an hour, but it wasn’t until this juncture, where I threw in my first jibe, that I had to make any sort of maneuver. The breeze could not have been pumping from a better direction.

Much to my astonishment, on the new tack, I was able to perfectly lay a course directly for the narrow entrance to the marina, which I called on my cell to get my slip assignment. (One jibe!) The helpful person on the other end of the call gave me the slip number and said she’d text me a drawing, which arrived within seconds. Saunter measures less than 23 feet length overall, so I was pretty chuffed when I checked my GPS and discovered I was trucking along at a good 6.5 knots—pretty spiffy for a compact, full-keel sailboat built in 1963. It was only then that I realized what a lovely sail I was experiencing, which made it even better.

I’d like to say I totally stuck the landing, but, in fact, I misread the marina map. Instead of sailing directly downwind to my slip, I had to scramble a bit to lower the outboard and motor in to the upwind dock, something I should’ve done well before on my initial approach. So it turned out that this voyage concluded with a lesson learned and a reminder never to get too cocky, even when everything is seemingly going your way—which was also just fine.

And so another fine season of sailing came to an end, with a nice punctuation mark on the summer of 2022. The only good thing about a last sail? It gets you to start thinking of the next one to kick off the summer of ’23.