Sailing, biking and Rockport

Getting comfy in
uncertain times

It's hard to overestimate the importance of a well-padded derriere.

Shocked face emoji.

No, I have not joined the Kardashian Klan. I'm talking about my new sailing shorts. It's been a long and torturous road to get there, but all's right with the nether regions now.

You have to understand just how hard the seating is on our little racing sailboat, and how long some of the races are. As I've written before, this isn't heading-off-into-the-sunset-with-a-bottle-of-wine sailing. This is bare-knuckled combat, with friends turning to mortal enemies against the picturesque backdrop of Sandy Bay in Rockport, Mass.

We sail a 19-foot boat called a Flying Scot, and there's no cushioning at all. In addition, one's, er, hind end is often hanging ("hiking") off the side of the boat (the "rail") and that's not exactly comfortable either.

I actually bought these same shorts, called Zhik Deckbeaters, a couple of years ago. I tried them on and thought they were too small. Then I doubled down on stupid by wearing them on the boat and realizing that if I actually wanted to breath I needed a larger size.

Now it was too late to send them back, so I gave them away (sadly) and tried wearing my biking shorts, which were helpful but not great.

Then I bought some padded shorts that were designed for people who were ultrathin because of illness. These somewhat freakish things were padded on all sides and wearing them felt, well, horrible. Plus, my husband made fun of me. Back to the biking shorts.

Then this year Covid happened and the world turned upside down. One of the positives of this time for me has been an increased willingness to say yes to things I might previously have said no to or put off--improving the landscaping in my yard, for instance, or buying a new piece of patio furniture. Our lives have been changed and limited in so many ways it's no wonder that we're all looking for comfort where we can find it.

So I re-ordered the shorts.

It's true that I spent about twice what I would have if I had only sent the first pair back and not bought  the weird medical ones. That no longer mattered. It was time to admit defeat and get what I actually wanted and needed.

My new Deckbeaters are perfect. They're going to last for years. They're padded where they have to be, and grippy where they need to be. They keep me happy during the longest races and allow me to hike like crazy. We actually won a race for the first time in a couple years, and I fully credit the shorts.

Look at it this way. Every day we are told to buckle up and prepare for a rough ride. If that's true, then why shouldn't I be as comfortable as possible for the trip?

This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts, September 2020


Important update #2:  The nice people at ZhikAustralia liked this article enough to feature me on their Facebook and Instagram feeds.  Thank you Zhik!  Now about that free trip to Australia...

One wave at a time

There is nothing like crewing on a 19-foot racing sailboat in three-to-five foot swells to truly concentrate the mind.

Forget yoga or meditation. You have to be fully and immediately present while pulling in the jib and hanging desperately onto the lines so you don't flip backwards into the ocean. Lost your house to foreclosure? Just won the lottery? Believe me, you won't be thinking about either one of those things when seven other boats are coming at you and you're climbing up and surfing down large waves. 

These were challenging conditions for me. It was the second day of the 2017 Wife-Husband Championship at Sandy Bay Yacht Club, Rockport, Massachusetts. Does the name of the event sound a little old-fashioned in this day and age? Possibly. But when I looked up the description of this type of regatta on the Flying Scot Sailing Association website, I read that the crew for each boat shall consist "solely of a helmsman and his/her spouse," and if everyone can get over the use of the term helmsman (helmsperson?), the race is fully inclusive. There was much joking about divorce attorneys waiting on the dock for incoming boats.

Several of the skippers in the regatta were women; however not on our boat-I'm the crew, and perfectly fine with that. My husband David has been sailing forever, and I'm a relative newcomer. I swore off sailing (and swore quite a bit at him) when he took me out in similar big-wave conditions years ago, and it frightened me so much I said I would never go out again.

Well, never is a long time, and I've gotten back into the boat, bit by bit, as the kids are generally not around to serve as crew anymore (I'm convinced that one reason sailors have children is to assure themselves of readily available crew for a few years). David also said he wouldn't yell, and he has pretty much kept that promise. I've only sailed in one other competition (a previous wife-husband regatta at Massapoag Yacht Club in Sharon, Mass.) but am starting to be more of a regular in the Sandy Bay weekend fleet races.

And familiarity is breeding a little bit of comfort, as I literally learn the ropes. Because that's what I do-I handle ropes, sorry lines--uncleating the jib from one side of the boat, then scrambling over to the other, pulling that line in and cleating it, filling the jib sail with wind as David sails the boat and deals with the mainsail. I also help to watch for about oncoming boats (often in hysterical fashion "WE'RE GOING TO CRASH!"). In addition, I steer during downwind legs when David handles the spinnaker, and hang off the rail--called hiking-- when instructed.

The wind wasn't screaming on this day, but it was gusty. The higher the wind, the more the boat heels over, and the more its sailors need to counterbalance by putting their combined weight as far as possible in the other direction. I didn't even look up as we left the mouth of the harbor, just concentrated on my lines as the boat began to roll and churn through the waves. My stomach was knotting but I couldn't look down forever. As we headed toward the start of the race I raised my head and realized there was only one option, and it wasn't crying like a baby. It was to help David sail the boat. 

So I tried not to anticipate the waves but to look past them and pretend that they weren't there. There was only one tangled line, and though my heart was in my mouth, I drove the boat as David wrestled with our big skull and cross bones spinnaker.. As I noted before, there is nothing  like a little terror to increase mindfulness.

Well, needless to say, I survived. We didn't win the race but we came in second in the Challenger division and I won my first sailing trophy. Our beautiful new sails from Ryan Malmgren of Mad Sails might have given us a boost as well-thank you, Ryan! We made some new friends and I thought for a brief moment that maybe a new boat would be kind of awesome (then slapped myself in the face before mentioning this to my husband). I used to wonder why we didn't have the kind of sailboat on which you just drank wine and looked at sunsets. But I think I'm pretty happy with our Flying Scot now, and Patriots-like, I'll just keep doing my job on it.    

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News and the Gloucester Times in  August 2017.  Photo below by Beth Leahy                                                 

Taking to the waves together

Normally at this time of year, I take you on a bike ride. We've gone around the Rockport quarries, seen the world famous Paper House (awesome), and had transcendental iced coffee at the Common Crow. But let's do something different. Let's go sailing.

But I'm not talking about bobbing around the harbor or pleasure cruising. This is racing, and it's serious. There is no admiring of sunsets, opening of wicker picnic baskets or uncorking of wine bottles onboard. There is no comfy seating. There is no relaxing.

Wait, don't everybody leave!

OK, a couple of you are still here. Phew. You and I and the skipper are headed out to our sailboat, a 19-foot Flying Scot called Talk like a Pirate. We leave little Sandy Bay Yacht Club by launch and head out to our mooring. The sun is shining, the waves are sparkling, the ocean is sapphire blue.

The launch operator pulls up alongside our boat and we climb aboard. We pull off the boat cover and mount the rudder and tiller. We pull the jib out and fasten it to the shrouds (wires that hold up the mast) and untie the rolled mainsail. We hoist the main and the jib, and pull on our sailing gloves and life jackets. You and I will handle the jib (the smaller front sail) and the skipper steers the boat and works the main sail.

The skipper unclips us from the mooring and we're off.

Here's your quick sailing lesson: Number one, we're not in a motorboat. We don't just turn the key and go. A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind. It can sail in a straight line downwind or with the wind from the side. When sailing upwind, sailboats tack, or turn, zigzagging back and forth to get where they want to go. The wind shifts constantly and we must continually make incremental changes to the lines that adjust the sails' shapes.

When the skipper says, "Ready about," we uncleat the jib sheet (rope) we are holding with a quick jerk. When he says,"Hard-a-lee," later we let that line go, scramble to the other side of the boat, and pull in and cleat the jib on that side. This all has to be done in a split second, sometimes in high wind and waves and often with boats bearing down on us from all sides.

We leave the harbor and are now out in Sandy Bay. I said that there was no relaxing, but while we sail out to the start of the race, we can admire the incredible view - granite pier, the breakwater, Straitsmouth Island lighthouse - the whole beautiful vista.

OK, that's enough sightseeing! The boats are milling around, jostling for position and we wait for the starting gun. Bang! We cross the starting line between the yellow inflatable mark and the committee boat in a tight pack. The boats are only feet away from each other and it's a high-pressure scramble as everyone heads for the other yellow mark barely visible across the bay.

A sailboat race isn't like an auto race. There is no track. Each boat can go in any direction and that is the challenge. Every skipper uses his or her experience to gauge the wind, the waves and the current to decide their course. Idle chitchat is strongly discouraged. Yelling has been known to occur. Language may be colorful. There is the occasional scream (from me) as we cross other boats with only inches to spare.

And now the wind picks up and the boat starts to heel. We lean way out over the side to balance her, far enough that we feel like we're going to fall over backward (Pro tip: Hang on to something). Now, we're flying like the gulls overhead as Pirate slices through the water. It's an incredible feeling.

photo by Beth Leahy

When we round the mark, everything changes. This is the downwind leg and we take the tiller while the skipper hoists and handles the spinnaker, a large billowing sail that captures the wind on this slower portion of the race. Our spinnaker is a giant black and white Jolly Roger that I like to think strikes fear into the hearts of our competitors but probably doesn't.

And now we head back to the starting mark and do it all over again. Most of our races are two upwind/downwind legs and then a final upwind one. Sometimes, a single boat wins by a large margin and sometimes several boats duke it out until the end. When you're so far behind that no one can see you, it's called a "horizon job." When you're dead last, you finished DL - there is a more explicit version of this that I will leave to your imagination.

Finally, it's time to hang out and enjoy after-race snacks on the dock. We had a great race and finished respectably. Don't worry if everything seems to be pitching and rolling. That will pass. You've got your sea legs now.

Published by the Daily News of Newburyport and the Gloucester Times, August 2018.  Photo by Beth Leahy

My Cape Ann soundtrack

"Noises Off" is a famous play and is also the story of my life when I am in my Rockport cottage. "Noises off" is a stage direction meaning sounds made offstage meant to be heard by the audience of a play. My cottage is not particularly quiet. I wouldn't want it to be. The 'noises off' are part of what make it special to me, and they meant to be heard through wide-open windows, screen doors, and car sunroofs. They are part of the soundtrack playing in the background of my summer.

Our cottage is within sight of the water, but we can't hear the waves from the house. However, the ocean is alive to us in other ways. When it is foggy we hear the mournful chant of the foghorn from Straitsmouth Island. When the wind is right we hear the clanging of the bell at Avery's Ledge, the south corner of the submerged outer breakwater and the gong buoy at the northwest corner. These sounds bring me right out into Sandy Bay, and I can picture the seals on the Dry Salvages and the giant sunfish, lazing at the water's surface, that we saw while we were sailing toward the end of the summer.

The water sounds that we don't hear from the cottage surround us elsewhere. There is the bumping and churning of rocks and sand on Old Garden Beach when the surf is high. There is the crack and thunder of waves against the breakwater at the end of Bearskin Neck, delighting tourists. And there is the almost musical sound the water makes during the downwind leg of our sailboat races, when the spinnaker is flying and the wind is pushing the boat from behind-a tinkling noise almost like a fountain as the boat cuts through the surf.

The wind is a constant auditory presence here, amplified by the large trees that surround our house. On weekend mornings when we are slated to race our little boat I wake up with a pit in my stomach when I hear the leaves roaring (too much wind!) or dead silence (not enough!). And speaking of morning sounds, the dawn chorus at our house is conducted almost solely by crows. I'm certain that crows have a sense of humor and think it's funny to perch directly outside our bedroom window and caw really loudly at 5:30 am for as long as it takes to make certain that we are completely awake. They leave after a while (Crows: "Okay, they're up. Our work here is done"), but we hear them calling and chattering around the neighborhood throughout the day.

The train whistle can be heard from our house, even though the train station is a good mile and a half away. Often we can hear the engine too, a low vibration that you feel in your chest. I love the deep throaty rumble and the smell of diesel when I am boarding the train to head into Salem or Boston. I am not a commuter and I ride the rails strictly for fun, so to me the train sounds and smells like adventure.

The sound of cars and human voices is a constant background presence here. We are located on the corner of a well-traveled road not far from downtown Rockport, so there is plenty of activity. Odd as it might sound to those who prefer complete privacy, I don't mind those noises. I like to hear the familiar voices of my neighbors talking and laughing. I like the rhythmic thump of a basketball as the boys down the street shoot hoops. I even like the scraping sound of skateboards, as young kids and people old enough to know better risk bodily damage grinding down the long hill in front of our house. All those noises tell me that there are other people-friends-close by, and I find that comforting.

Finally, I love the sound of gulls. The crows may be more raucous around my cottage, but the gulls are everywhere else. On Front Beach, in Rockport and Gloucester Harbors, along the Back Shore, following lobster and fishing boats-they are the lords of the air and they proclaim it loudly. I was struck by their boldness when I visited Thacher Island last summer; it felt like the dominion of the birds. Gulls were everywhere, and the look in their eyes told me that I was the intruder. Over this Labor Day weekend, as we drove down Main Street in Gloucester with the sunroof open, for block after block the sound of gulls calling was the loudest noise I could hear.

The crying of gulls, the foghorn chanting low and deep, the train whistle-these sounds go on but increasingly I am no longer there to hear them. Fewer people walk by the house. Doors and windows must be shut against the weather, and neighborhood voices can no longer be heard. But the Cape Ann soundtrack plays in my head and on the coldest winter days I can hear the bell buoy in my mind and feel warm sun and spray on my face..

This article originally appeared in Cape Ann Magazine

Biking the other side of Rockport

This is how lucky I am. I get to spend lots of time in Rockport (Mass, not Maine), thanks to my husband's grandfather, a man I never met but to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. He bought a little cottage there back in the 1920s. I married into it, and although it was NOT the reason I wed my husband (see my previous column about how we decided to get hitched in three weeks), it certainly has been a fantastic perk. This cottage, updated and made slightly bigger in recent years, is pretty much my favorite place in the world, and Rockport is my favorite town. Most tourists only see Bearskin Neck when they come to Rockport. That's a shame, because although the Neck is marvelous, Rockport has so much more to offer. Lately I have been exploring Rockport by bike, and making amazing discoveries, so let's go for a ride, shall we?

We start by heading down Old Garden Road. Old Garden borders the ocean, and there is a lovely little beach just down the street from our cottage. Sadly the beach was almost unusable all summer because the sand, which migrates in and out, was hit particularly hard by last winter's brutal storms and just didn't come back in. So right now the beach is nearly all rocks with just a little sand but this doesn't stop the divers, who come here by the dozens.

Up a little hill now and around a corner and we are on Atlantic Ave. We get our first glimpse of Rockport harbor, Bearskin Neck and Motif #1. The Motif is our Eiffel Tower, our Leaning Tower of Pisa, our Grumpy Cat. This little red fishing shack is said to be one of the most painted buildings in the world, hence its name. It was destroyed in the Blizzard of '78, but was rebuilt and lives on to be photographed, painted and selfied by artists and tourists alike.

Now we turn right on Main Street, and continue through the heart of Bearskin Neck. We won't go right down to the newly reconstructed breakwater at the moment, but turn left instead, passing the Shalin Liu Performance Center with its spectacular floor to ceiling windows overlooking Rockport harbor. We take a right and pass Front Beach, quiet at this time of year but with a few hardy souls enjoying the early fall sunshine. A little further on we whiz by Back Beach, a long sweep of rocks with just a little sand at the far end and a spectacular view of both Bearskin Neck and the open ocean surrounding it. This is also a favorite spot for divers and is where the giant tower of wooden pallets is set up every year for the 4th of July bonfire.

We are on Route 127 now, passing Granite Pier on our right and taking a left up a quiet hilly street, through a gate and into the woods. We have left the ocean behind and are riding on wooded trails, sometimes smooth dirt, more often loose gravel and rocky outcroppings. It helps to have a bike with wide and knobby tires and that's what we've got. Suddenly you see it-Big Parker's Pit, the first quarry on our ride. It's a huge expanse of water, closely ringed by trees and surrounded by towering granite walls at the far end. In summer the voices of swimmers and the sounds of splashing float across the water. Colorful towels are laid out on the flat rocks.

The trail borders the quarry's edge, far enough away to be safe but close enough to be exhilarating. We pass another quarry, even bigger than first. A spooky, long-abandoned granite building stands guard among the trees, an enormous relic of Rockport's quarrying past. On either side of the trail the woods are littered with giant chunks of granite and huge dips in the ground where rock was dug out.

Out of the woods now we find ourselves on quiet Pigeon Hill Street, home of Rockport's famous Paper House. This is an actual house made of rolled up and shellacked newspapers, begun in 1922 by Elis Stenman, a mechanical engineer. It's a little underwhelming when you actually get inside of it, but how many other towns can boast a house made of paper that has been featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not?

We could go much further, but today we will turn around here. It's into the woods again, headed back around the other side of the quarry. We have to be careful-it's a steep downhill with big granite outcroppings and loose rock everywhere. We are rewarded further on with smooth dirt trails and deep green overhanging trees. Now it's back to pavement. We whiz down Beach Street, through town again, and home. Are your legs tired? Maybe a little, but it's so worth it, to see the other side of Rockport.

This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News

Biking the OTHER OTHER side of Rockport

Well, it's summer in New England again (that three weeks we enjoy between monsoon rains and crippling blizzards), and I'm lucky enough to be hanging out in Rockport once more. And you know what that means, right? BIKE RIDE! We're leaving politics, responsibility and any errands that require going to the DMV behind today. Let's go!

This time we will head in a different direction, away from the quarries where we went last time and toward the beaches. It's a gorgeous sunny day and we only get, like, six of those per summer, so let's get moving before the clouds come.We head up Marmion Way and turn left onto Rt. 127, also known as South Street, the main road that runs through Rockport center. We are heading away from the downtown today, whizzing toward Gloucester. In about a half mile we turn left onto Eden Road and follow it along the water because it offers a superb view of some of Rockport's most famous icons, the Twin Lights and Thacher Island. If you've never been out to Thacher, you should do it. The island is just a touch creepy, with all the seagulls glaring at you-it's their dominion, and they know it-but that just makes it more fascinating and beautiful. You can also climb a narrow spiral stairway to the top of one of the lighthouses and get the most amazing view of Rockport.

We leave Eden Road and coast onto the sandy stretch along Pebble Beach. I'm afraid Pebble Beach is not in the best of shape at the moment; most of it is covered with tons of red seaweed. However the ocean gives and the ocean takes away, so this may all be gone shortly. Now we bank back onto Rt. 127. It's cool and shady here and we continue until we reach the super secret parking lot down Seaview Street which backs up to Cape Hedge and Long Beaches (resident parking only, sorry...).

The big parking lot is rocky but still navigable on a bike, and we head toward the end and push the bikes over the metal footbridge that brings us onto beautiful Long Beach. Now the tricky part-pushing the bikes along a narrow catwalk onto the road behind the Long Beach cottages. It's particularly challenging at high tide, as the water laps at your feet and the bike tires.

That's done, and we cruise down the road, admiring the charming beach cottages. Now a little shortcut between the houses and we're back onto Long Beach itself, with a gorgeous view of the ocean. We have to drag the bikes through the sand here, but just for a few feet. Up a hill and onto Salt Island Road, with an incredible view of Salt Island and the beautiful houses that overlook it. We've got a hill to climb, but it's worth it-you get a magnificent view of Good Harbor Beach and can see the steeple of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church in Gloucester.

Now we say a (sad) goodbye to the beaches and head up Witham Street where it reconnects with our old friend Rt. 127 again. We come out opposite the Common Crow, an amazing natural food grocery store. This is the perfect place to cross the road, park the bikes and grab a nice iced coffee. I usually sit there until I finish my drink or am overwhelmed with a belated but irresistible urge to vote for Bernie Sanders, whichever comes first. Now it's back on Rt. 127 for less than a quarter mile, and then we swing a right into the woods. Hang on, it's downhill and pretty rocky, but this trail is a blast. Pretty soon we come to beautiful Cape Pond, and it feels like we are in New Hampshire or Maine-you can't see anything but trees and water and sky.

We'd like to stay and admire the view but the deer flies motivate us to keep moving. We walk the bikes up a steep hill as we leave the water's edge, and just keep going through beautiful pine woods, up and down more hills, just flying along like the birds around us. Too soon we pass peaceful Beech Grove Cemetery and hit pavement again on Pleasant Street, and here we are one more time-Rt. 127. Cross over, onto Norwood Ave, up a hill, around the corner and then onto Old Garden Road, with a magnificent view of the blue ocean and the Rockport coast.

Phew-we're done. Flop down on the cool grass and take a well-deserved break. You've seen some places that most visitors don't get to see-you've seen the other OTHER side of Rockport, and this time some of Gloucester too. Come by anytime. I'm always up for a ride.

Published by the Daily News of Newburyport, June 2017

Small things are not
forgotten in Rockport

I like to joke with my husband that I married him for his cottage in Rockport, Massachusetts. He knows that I'm kidding because we got engaged three weeks after meeting each other and I hadn't even seen the cottage at that point. Still, I can't deny that my ears pricked up and my heart beat faster when I learned that he grew up spending every summer at his family's home in Rockport.

The house was a simple summer cottage for most of its history. David's grandfather bought it in the 1930s and we inherited it in 2001. Later we renovated the property to winterize it and add some needed extra space. We were careful to keep the cottage dimensions modest, and not to block our neighbor's view. The result was a place where our family could be comfortable but still cozy.

Much of the furniture and even the kitchen accessories date back to David's parents and grandparents. A little red antique desk, the braided rugs and the yellow ware bowls are all part of the eclectic mix that gives the cottage its charm. Though there are heart-stopping views around every corner in Rockport, many of my favorite things about the cottage and the town itself are small, personal things; for instance...

The mint in my front garden. It grows rampantly around the little stone pool that my husband built as a boy. I often cut a big handful and put in a tall glass on the edge of my sink. When I wash a dish or run the faucet I pinch off a leaf between my fingers and lean over to breath in the cold fresh scent.

A sign from the past. The blue and white sign says Straitsmouth Inn and beneath it The Golden Oar. It hangs in our narrow stairway and speaks to me of another era. According to the website Vintage Rockport, by Robert Ambrogi, the Straitsmouth Inn stood on nearby Gap Head from 1906 until it burned to the ground on New Year's Eve in 1958. We found the sign at a flea market in Somerville about ten years ago. Karma was obviously at work that day, leading the sign back to Rockport where it belongs.

Lattof Farm Anadama bread I start many mornings with a slice of Anadama bread from nearby Lattof Farmstand, where everyone goes for the best produce. The bread is light brown, a little sweet and redolent of corn meal and molasses. The loaves come out about 11:30 am, still warm, and are usually sold by noontime, but customers can reserve one if they pre-pay. I like mine toasted with butter and raspberry jam.

My (small) view. The water view from my cottage is a minimal one, hampered by trees, but it still makes me happy. I wake up every morning and look for the edge of the long breakwater in Sandy Bay, the wedge of blue ocean around it, and if I'm lucky, a glimpse of a lobster boat making its rounds.

Ghost writing. In the right light I can read the word "lemonade" engraved in the veneer of our old dining table, a remnant of when my kids made signs for their lemonade stand. Luckily I didn't think to protect the table, and now I have a permanent reminder of those wonderful long-ago days.

My shutter cupboard doors. These tall narrow shutters, with a cutout silhouette of a sailboat, used to hang on the cottage windows many years ago. When we renovated the house, I pulled them out of the basement and painted them a warm dusty red. Now they are the doors to my small pantry cupboard. I love the happy clicking sound the little drop latch makes when I open or close it.

The gift of ladyslippers. "Don't pick the ladyslipper! It's illegal!" That's what we would say to each other as kids if we came upon a lady slipper in the woods. Riding my bike last spring around one of Rockport's many quarries, I was stunned to find a patch of about 50 of them. If I hadn't looked down at that exact moment I wouldn't have seen this quiet gift of so many pale pink jewels.

Our lives are full of uncountable small things and little moments that can delight us if only we see them, smell them, taste them before they go. My small things are in Rockport. Yours are somewhere else. Small is big.

Keep looking -up, down, around or within- so you don't miss them.

This article was originally published in the Lowell Sun in July 2020.