A first: Boarded at sea
The Coast Guard vessel looked like it meant business. Red and blue lights flashed; crew dressed in navy blue, black boots and carrying sidearms stood on the deck looking in our direction. We couldn’t have doing more than five knots, certainly not enough to leave a wake. But then we were still approaching Newport Harbor and were well outside the “no wake” area.
Claude Bergeron was at the helm of his Trophy 19. That morning he left Warwick Cove at about 10 a.m. and headed south to Jamestown where he picked me up. The plan was to motor over to Fort Adams and view the Volvo Ocean racers from the water before finding dockage and visiting the village.
It was to be the opening to another boating season and what better way to start it than to see these ocean racers and catch up on all the high tech sailing equipment on display at the village, not to mention being a part of a sailing crowd.
Claude waved to the Coast Guard vessel.
The crew stared ahead. Their boat kept coming at us. Claude eased back on the throttle. They didn’t change course. Claude put the boat in neutral. Now we were almost dead in the water.
As the boat came along side, in a friendly voice Claude explained our plan to get an up close view of the racers from the water. It was if they hadn’t heard him.
Had we strayed into some sort of restricted zone? Had we been mistaken for another boat?
“Have you ever been boarded?” one of the Coasties asked.
I had the feeling this wasn’t going to be good, although knowing Claude the boat would be in tip top shape. He’s that way. I always love having him as crew on my boat because he can’t restrain himself from putting things in their place and scrubbing clean any bird poop he might find on deck.
“No,” replied Claude. Now the Coast Guard pulled closer until its rubber railing brushed alongside.
“This should take no longer than 5 to 10 minutes,” said one of the two men to climb aboard. They introduced themselves as Peter and Andrew. Peter pulled out a clipboard and started copying down Claude’s registration and personal information. Andrew started asking questions like, “how many life jackets do you have aboard and could you show them to me?” Claude opened lockers pulling out life jackets, a first aid kit, flares and a toolbox.
I started asking questions, too.
“Where are you guys from?”
“Castle Hill,” replied Peter looking up from his clipboard.
“No,” I explained, “where’s your home?”
Peter McHenry is from Middletown. Andrew Johnson is from Cranston. In fact, he graduated from Pilgrim. I told him my son, Ted, graduated from Pilgrim. Claude volunteered that his wife, Gerri, had worked in the guidance department at Pilgrim. Did he know her?
The names didn’t ring bells with Andrew, but I sensed we had made a connection. Maybe this would be nothing more than a slight delay. We’d be on our way.
But no. While the flares were out of date and that was okay for the moment, Claude didn’t have a fire extinguisher aboard. We wouldn’t be free to go until we had one. I suspect the Coast Guard has the authority to seize the vessel and not release it until requirements are met.
In this situation we agreed to motor into the harbor and see if we could buy an extinguisher. The Coast Guard vessel stayed on our stern. Claude pulled up to the gas dock at the Newport Yachting Center Marina. The dock was empty, but a man came out to greet us. Having the Coast Guard on your stern with flashing lights has a way of getting attention.
“Do you know where we can buy a fire extinguisher?” Claude asked. The man on the dock paused.
“Tie up here,” he said without a second thought. “You might find one at the ship’s store.” He pointed in the general direction of the store. The Coast Guard hung alongside as we tied up and walked down the dock. We arrived at a parking lot where a man dressed in slacks and a white dress shirt stood next to gate.
I asked where we might find a fire extinguisher. It being obvious that I wasn’t in a rush to put out a fire, he wanted to know why we would need one at noon on Mother’s Day.
Claude briefed him.
We had just come face-to-face with Mark Whitehead, who operates the Smokehouse.
“I’ve got a spare, follow me,” he said. The situation was improving, maybe we’d get to see the around the world racers after all. Mark opened a back door to his restaurant and pulled out a giant extinguisher. Mark never asked who we were, but when he learned we had come from Warwick, I guess he figured we were okay. The three of us walked out to the dock and Claude and I climbed aboard with the extinguisher. Claude started the engine and as we pulled away for Fort Adams, he held up the extinguisher for the Coast Guard to see. This time we got a wave.
Two hours later we were back after touring the ocean race village. Claude carried the extinguisher. Mark was surprised to see us so soon. We chatted, learning there is no connection to the late Jimmy Whitehead who owned The Inn on West Shore Road. He had been asked the question before and had met Jim and Diana at one time.
Mark ducked back into the kitchen. Claude and I looked at each other. It was time for a beer and a sandwich. What better place than the Smokehouse, where they go out of their way to make you welcome? We would have invited Peter and Mark to join us, but they were on the bay somewhere. We didn’t see them on our ride back to Warwick Cove…thankfully.