Smoke from Canadian wildfires had turned the skies over Manhattan yellow and tanked air quality across the Mid-Atlantic earlier in the week. Most of that was gone, although the fires burning in Burlington County were still sending an occasional whiff of campfire into the air over Barnegat Bay as we sailed south.
It’s also possible that I was detecting the scent of a smoldering bridge, since I officially left my sailing club. People in certain circles will know the Japanese word rōnin as a “masterless samurai.” It can also mean “vagrant” or “unemployed person” or “kid who failed a college entrance exam and needs to kill time until next year,” but those are all idiomatic: the literal characters 浪人 mean “person of the waves.” I’m embracing my own version of that rōnin life and sailing under no flag. There weren’t really any bridges burned (the reality is that I soft-quit the club years ago) but that hint of drama made for such a great segue. Speaking of which:
WINDJAMMERS! WINDJAMMERS! The radio hollered.
WINDJAMMERS! WE'RE MAKING 3.5 KNOTS SPEED OVER GROUND ON OUR WAY TO MARKER 42! Obviously, in my own writing I would only ever use an exclamation point sarcastically, but they were distinctly pronounced in these transmissions.
WINDJAMMERS! WE'RE MAKING 4.2 KNOTS IN 12 KNOTS OF WIND! It wasn’t stopping. I hadn’t reprogrammed my radio, and it was still scanning my old club’s working channel.
WINDJAMMERS! WINDJAMMERS! WE'RE APPROACHING ICW MARKER 42! “Loud and clear” is such a cliché, and such a weak pull if you need to make fun of a HAM radio operator and can only come up with two or three bits of CB radio lingo from Smokey and the Bandit, but in this instance they were truly so loud; so clear.
WINDJAMMERS! WE'RE APPROACHING THE BUILDING WITH THE GREEN ROOF! CORRECTION! CORRECTION! CORRECTION! THE BUILDING WITH THE GREEN ROOF NOW HAS A BLUE ROOF! REPEAT! THE BUILDING NOW HAS A BLUE ROOF! I declared to the void that I could see an orange rectangle—nay, a yellow square. My affectation became increasingly vaudevillian as my level of profanity increased. Jenn asked legitimate questions about what was happening and I responded only by yelling into the middle distance that I’d seen a blue diamond and a purple horseshoe.
I didn’t know what was happening either. I hadn’t heard that much jibber-jabber on that channel in the past five years combined. I knew the landmarks that they were calling out and knew about where they were. Other boats were chiming in with their positions and speeds and individual needs and desires, like this was some kind of organized event.
I asked aloud if they were racing, but immediately caught myself and backed it down to “conducting a promenade.” They used to do a distance race that might have gone that far down the bay, but no one in a race would narrate it on VHF. Right?
I made the decision to go hunt them down, started trimming the boat, then asked Jenn if it would be okay to “sail down there and investigate.”
We intercepted the lead boat just north of Marker BI. They were sailing north, coming back from 42, and we were heading south. I considered sailing on and finding some of the presumably slower boats, because Fortuitous isn’t inherently fast, and in that wind, reaching, we’re not competitive with a thirty-something foot boat. But they were apparently the scratch boat, and they were the ones doing most of the squawking, so we sailed a sporting distance past them, came about through a long tack, and began the pursuit.
We started off on their port quarter. We were close reaching and they were close hauled or near to it. They fell off a bit, and it made me wonder if they had noticed us and were trying to pick up speed, but they were likely just giving a wide berth to some drifting fishing boats. My plan was to sail as straight a line as I could with limited tiller movement and adjust the sails as the wind skittered from different directions. Jenn took the main and I adjusted the jib from the leeward side. The other boat changed course so much that we were on their starboard side by the time they headed up again.
We held our course and stayed on the faster point of sail. The wind had eased a bit and Jenn came down the low side of the cockpit to induce more heel.
WINDJAMMERS! WINDJAMMERS! WE'RE GOING 7.5 KNOTS!
No you’re not. If you’re making 7.5kts then we’re making 8, and a Catalina 27 barely hits 8kts when dropped from altitude. But whatever the absolute speed, we relentlessly chewed up the distance between us, approaching to leeward as they continued to occasionally point higher and shift east.
Somewhere between 40 and BB, the topic of what the flotilla should do next was discussed in approximately 1200 lines of dialog over the VHF, while over our stern rail, they faded into the distance.