West Point from Phillipstown. W. J. Bennett, 1831
I guess I'm not really destined to be a nautical man.
I am, however, a devoted admirer of the Hudson Valley. And I've enjoyed years of serendipitous adventuring during the swirls of seasons among its high wild places and its deep shadowy forests. I've rejoiced in its sinuous backroads leading to scores of wineries (now finally growing superior varietal grapes), splendid restaurants, farmers' markets, inns, and shore side taverns, stately homes galore, and a wealth of museums and historical must-sees celebrating the valley's renowned patriots, poets, painters, philanthropist-tycoons, and Presidents.
This is indeed a bounteous and beautiful -- even magical (another story) region. And I'm always ready for a new experience here, a fresh perspective on the spirit of this majestic 315-mile long waterway (not truly a river but one of the world's largest tidal estuaries--but of, course you already know that).
I'd been aware through a proud boat-owning colleague of the cliques of 'yacht club captains, commodores and members' up and down the Hudson. In their jaunty nautical gear they navigate their polished and preened Chris Crafts, SeaSwirls, Bayliners, Catalinas and Rinker cabin cruisers, exuding in many cases a distinct "I'm-a-member-and-you're-not" attitude towards their clubs and clubhouses. (Such attitudes recall the old music hall quip -- 'People who think they're superior make it so much harder for those of us who really are'!)
While not much of a joiner myself I'm always intrigued by the rites and rituals of these elitist entities. And when invited to accompany my colleague on his small but very shipshape cruiser I accepted without hesitation.
Wearing my new recommended-for-boating canvas shoes, and giving respectful nods to other members, off we sailed out of the yacht club marina and into delicate veils of gossamer mists floating low over the calm water.
The silence was eerie but seductive. I felt cocooned in a timeless limbo although I did wonder how my friend would be able to gauge the speed and proximity of other boats. I was going to ask but was reluctant to bruise the mellow mood.
Something else did that a few miles upstream. An ominous clanking and thunking from somewhere deep in the engine compartment. I was told to 'hold the wheel' while my friend scampered about brandishing unfamiliar tools. He eventually subdued the rebellious metal bits and silence returned.
Alas--not for long. As the mist thickened the erratic gurgles and grunts of our boat manifested themselves yet again in a cavalcade of creaks and mini-explosions along with my friend's expletives (definitely not deleted) about erratic pump housings, leaking gaskets, worn bearings,
'barnacle drag', crank-up valves, and depth gauges (all gobbledygook to me.)
I looked toward the beckoning shore. I was ready for home. And apparently the boat had similar aspirations.
My friend had just pointed out a narrow stretch of water between the West Point Military Academy and the village of Cold Spring as the place where colonial revolutionaries had once installed a huge cast iron chain under the surface to rip out the wooden hulls of British man o' wars. Then with an ominous crunching sound, not unlike chain-gouging I imagine, our engine abruptly ceased and seemed to have no intention whatsoever of ever starting up again. But at least we were still moving. Backwards.
Apparently the tide had turned and we were now being swept southwards at quite a lick with a possible ultimate destination way beyond Manhattan--probably somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.
Fortunately my friend managed to send out a kind of SOS and a member of his club, noisily and arrogantly bemused, arrived to put a stop to our errant antics and towed us back into the lee of the club marina.
Amidst a gathering of curious members who assisted in securing the boat at the allocated dockside space, I shouted out thanks to my friend for 'an experience I shall never forget.' No reply. I called again.
The response was a faint and gurgled 'throw me a'...line!' It came from below the boat. I peered over the side and there he was splashing about in the water in a most inelegant fashion. "Don't ask...just get me a line.' So I threw the only line I could see all neatly coiled by the deck rail and was starting to congratulate myself on my remarkable alacrity and presence of mind when I realized that the end of the line wasn't actually tied to anything...
When I finally managed to haul him out, my friend nodded sheepish-like thanks, knowing that this unfortunate escapade would quickly become the hilarious story-of-the-month among his fellow
comrades at the club bar.
I drove homeward on a tree-shrouded backroad, enjoying gorgeous Hudson River Art-School vistas of the valley from a safe and dry distance.
As I said, I guess I'm not really destined to be a nautical man.
British-born David Yeadon is author/illustrator of over 25 adventure travel books including:
Lost Worlds; The Back of Beyond; National Geographic's World's Secret Places, Seasons in Basilicata (Italy), and his latest--
At the Edge of Ireland-Seasons on the Beara Peninsula. He has also been a contributor to
National Geographic; National Geographic Traveler, New York Times, Washington Post, and many other travel magazines and publications. Yeadon, with his wife Anne, lives in Westchester County, in the Hudson Valley.