From the west, a storm came in. Five U.S. Navy boats watched the clouds sweep in from the opposite direction they sailed, with lightning flicking out of dark skies.
With the direction of the officers on the small 44-foot crafts, they knew what to do.
Two made it into Port Jefferson Harbor through the night of Aug. 7, while the other three stayed out in the Sound beyond the harbor. People on the vessel Valiant said they saw gusts of wind driving them at 38 knots, then staying in the mid 20s for a time after that. With two reefs in the mainsail and no jib, the boat, carrying eight midshipmen and two other officers, was as light and fast as a bird over a rough swell.
“We did hit that storm for a little while; for an hour and a half it was pretty rough,” said senior officer first class Joe Llewellyn, laughing, “It was a bit of a thrill … these guys,” he looked to the other young midshipmen, “handled the boat great though.”
The rapid entry into Port Jefferson Harbor was part of the U.S. Naval Academy’s Summer Navigation and Seamanship Training Block, where Lt. Matt Vernam, a commanding officer on one of the vessels, took around 40 young midshipmen (despite the name, it consists of both men and women) from Annapolis, Maryland, to Delaware Bay into New York City Harbor, where the cadets watched the Statue of Liberty and Freedom Tower roll by, before climbing up the Hudson and visiting the USS Intrepid. The boats then sailed down the East River and made good sail until they came outside Port Jefferson during the storm.
The program that Vernam helps run, called the Offshore Sail Training Squadron, is meant to give cadets a leadership experience. Four midshipmen are up on deck at a time and are instructed to listen to advice as they carry out operations of the vessel, even getting the vessel safely into dock through their own muscle and sweat.
“We try to let these guys run the boat and exercise leadership,” Vernam said.
George Hoffman, cofounder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, had helped suggest Port Jeff as a place the sailors could visit on their tour. When the boats came in the Thursday morning, they did so with a police boat escort.
Vernam, a graduate of Shoreham-Wading River High School and a Wading River native, said it was nice to be back to his home on the North Shore. His father, Don Vernam, was acting on the Valiant as a civilian volunteer, and his family reunion would include his mother who came up to greet them both on the harbor.
“It’s nice having two local bodies to plan this,” he said.
Rob LoScalzo, a Wading River resident, helped contact the Navy to have the midshipman take their boats into Port Jefferson. His son Mike, a fellow SWR graduate, had just graduated from the Navy academy in May.
LoScalzo said he has been trying to get the Navy to Long Island for years, originally trying with the Village of Patchogue but the keel was too long for the harbor.
“With all the naval history that’s around here, with the Culper Spy Ring, to the Taylor Brewster, to the shipbuilding — its rich history — we’re just so excited that we could piece it together.”
The Town of Brookhaven allowed the visitors to use the dock space, and the public was able to visit for tours on the vessels.
People on the Port Jefferson Tall Ship Committee, who have been working to bring tall, masted sailing ships into Port Jefferson Harbor, watched the tall ship Lady Maryland sail away on the morning’s tide, listening for the cannon shot to announce its departure. Chris Ryon, village historian, said he expects the historical schooner Amistad to make its appearance once again in PJ Harbor some time in the near future.