Sail Away!

After time away from the water, Richard Dey drives the Freedom 20 sailboat toward the inner harbor, happily dodging buoys and boat, all the while rediscovering the sailor’s sixth sense.

From the dock in Brenton Cove, we sailed downwind, wing-and-wing, with the mainsail out to port and the jib to starboard. It was a perfect late-summer day on the Rhode Island coast, with clear skies and a southwest wind blowing 12–18 knots. I was back in the saddle, so to speak, as I drove the Freedom 20 toward the inner harbor, happily dodging buoys and boats on their moorings.

I had been living for this moment for some time. It had been a year and a half since I fell and sustained a spinal-cord injury, 53 weeks since spinal-cord surgery, and 16 weeks since a right hip replacement. My two sons had made the arrangements, and as a life-long boat guy, I was psyched!

Out in the main channel, I decided to save the harbor proper for last and tacked out into Narragansett Bay's East Passage, toward The Dumplings. This was the best way to use our two hours, and heading up and beating to windward on the port tack was exhilarating. But once out from under the lee of Fort Adams, the flat seas grew to a good foot or two, the wind pressed, and I could no longer hold the tiller. I didn't have the strength. In fact, as I turned it over to Alex, I realized it was all I could do to keep myself comfortably in the molded plastic chair.

And onto the starboard tack we went. But it was this tack back toward the gentle slopes of genteel Newport that was the killer. Suddenly, with Russell now steering, the boat was heeled hard over and pounding. This was where I wanted to be, but I couldn't take it. I was good but not this good. Not yet. This was a work in progress.

On a lazy reach toward a lighthouse to the east of the Jamestown Bridge, my body relaxed. We stayed in the outer harbor where the wind and seas were lighter and the sun was warm. Gazing to leeward, I felt grateful to the several doctors and countless nurses who had made this first day under sail possible.

Toward three, I sailed back into the harbor and then on a broad reach around the curve of Newport's waterfront. I had first sailed here in the late 1950s when it was a commercial port and a Navy town, and then over the years as it became a yachting capital. Thousands of boats dot the seascape today, but landmarks like Christie's restaurant have morphed into residential condos.

To return to the cove and the docks of Sail to Prevail (, we had to start beating upwind again, and I surrendered the helm. But I was happy.

I recalled what I'd rediscovered when I took the tiller earlier and sailed wing-and-wing: the sailors' sixth sense. Suddenly all the different pieces of knowledge needed to sail a boat fall into place and together they work as no computer can, for the sense is instinctive and it contains all your time on the water.

The sailor, simply put, registers simultaneously everything around him, does so loving the nautical idiom: the wind, waves, water depth, tide, current, the weather; traffic and navigational aids and the leeward shore; the feel of the boat, the positions and weight of the crew, the set of the sails, the tension of halyards and sheets; time and distances and how best to reach the next mark.


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