August 25th

“A man’s got to know his limitations” 

Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry) in Magnum Force

I am preparing for a 200-mile, 24-hour bicycle ride coming up on September 13th from London to Paris, with a ferry crossing of the English Channel in the middle.  It’s a charity ride sponsored by my Firm.  I really need to be training up for that instead of messing around in boats.  So I spent half of yesterday getting in some major miles on the bike.   With 65 miles under my butt by lunchtime, I didn’t have the energy to go sailing in the afternoon.  So today I am really antsy to get on the water.  

The problem is it’s been blowing like stink out there since last night, so it may not even be doable.   At my house a mile inland it’s pretty blustery, and Windfinder is predicting 21-25 knots out of the northeast all afternoon. When it blows out of the northeast, there’s at least 50 miles of fetch for the wind to whip up some serious waves to funnel into the Western end of the Sound.

I head on down the cove to take a look and decide whether to give it a try.   When I get there I see the boats on the moorings porpoising madly, and whitecaps everywhere.  There are a few larger boats sailing out on the sound, and they’re bouncing around pretty well also.   But… the wind will be on the beam for a reach straight out and then I can reach straight back.  I really want to get out on the water. I also want to see how Grey Fox manages with the sail shortened to the max.  I get up my courage and rig up.  Besides, Dave, one of our club Laser sailors, is there rigging up, and if he can go out in this, I can go out in this. 

I tie in the third reef on my mainsail, which shortens the entire sail by 6 feet off the bottom.  The foot of the sail is about 11 feet long, so that takes ~60 square feet out of my 105 sq ft foot mainsail.   I also leave the mizzen mast sitting on the dock;  I only have two hands, for mainsheet and tiller.  Grey Fox will be a sloop today with only around 45 square feet of sail instead of its full rig of 122.

In the Northeast breeze, even though it’s howling just outside, the cove is wonderfully protected and I’m able launch the boat and then rig the sail dockside, jump in and go on a beam reach.  No rowing required.  In fact there’s such a wind shadow that it takes me a while to get the 75 yards to the mouth of the cove and clear the lee of the point.  Then – BAM!  THE FAN IS SWITCHED ON.  I’m immediately on the windward rail and hiking for all I’m worth.  The greatly reduced mainsail is manageable on a reach, although I still have to luff it a bit, but the boat is moving well.   Immediately outside of the cove, I’m in the full blast of the wind but still benefiting from some wave protection from the Larchmont breakwater a quarter mile upwind.

Sailing out further, I get out into the full waves and they are big! 4 or 5 feet with some of the tops breaking.  With only my 150 pounds as movable ballast, the closest I can sail to windward is a sort-of-close reach, and with that the waves knock down my speed and occasionally the top of one jumps into the boat.  There’s also a steady stream of spray coming over the bow and collecting in the boat. But my two hands are too busy sailing the boat to bail.  

Falling off onto a beam reach, the boat speed is exhilarating but the waves roll the boat pretty severely.  On one big roll the leeward rail dips under for a split second and a couple gallons of water join me, a sign that I don’t want to stay out here. It only takes about 3 seconds of water coming over the rail for the boat to just fill up and go horizontal. It doesn’t sail well in the horizontal position.

As detailed in prior posts, the Calendar Islands Yawl has plenty of flotation to allow for self-rescue from a swamping in not-crazy water.  This water is crazy. The guy in the Laser knows that if he capsizes, he can just right the boat and sail on.  Not so in Grey Fox. Were I to swamp the boat in these waves, there is no way I could self-rescue.  It’s also too rough for a rescue boat to come alongside and help pump out my boat. And even getting a tow with the boat full of water in these conditions would be dicey and dangerous.  At least it’s warm water and warm air, so I wouldn’t have to worry about hypothermia – for a while. . .

Having satisfied myself that the triple-reef works well and would be manageable but still tricky in 20-25 knots of wind but smooth water, I’ve recognized by now that all I want to do is get back to my dock in the little protected cove without a disaster.  As my salty old grandfather drilled into me as a kid, “Discretion is the greater part of valor.”

Because I can’t point the boat close to the wind and keep it upright, it takes me three tries to execute a tack from a reach and carry enough way to get the bow through the wind.  Once over on starboard tack, it’s a hair-raising but exhilarating sail.  I even get confident enough to bear off and get a couple awesome surfing rides down some of the waves. 

Once behind the breakwater, it’s a pretty easy sail the rest of the way in. The wind is still howling but the waves aren’t breaking over the rail. On the way in and just about when I gain the lee of the cove, a friend on the dock snaps this picture of me and the Fox.   Note the mainsheet in my teeth, in true dinghy-sailor fashion.

Bit off a little more than I could chew – safely

Moments later I was alongside the dock and able to relax.

Note to self:  It was good to learn what the boat can handle with max-shortened sail in case you get caught out in some wild conditions, but if it’s that wild before you start out, you’re better off just staying on land for the day. 

Last Day :( of the Small Reach Regatta

Another month has gone by and I manage one more blog post. It’s actually mid-September… So much for real-time journalism. But let’s get caught up.

July 27th. Another beautiful day.  Blue cloudless sky, and a little warmer than yesterday.   I could be forgiven for believing that every summer day in Maine is like this!  Well, let the reverie continue because this is pretty awesome.

Most of the fleet is anchored in the Reach either right off the Reach Knolls campground or just around the corner in the Benjamin River harbor, having finished yesterday’s sail and dropped anchors right here.  While I returned to Herrick Bay yesterday afternoon on Elyssa, today I’ve found a berth on Centennial, a 20-foot Banks dory that has been decked over and rigged with a sloop rig. I met Centennial’s builder/owner/skipper Dan Noyes of Newbury, Mass at dinner last night, and he graciously offered to have me crew on his boat today.

Centennial has some history behind it, as it’s a replica of the first boat ever to be sailed singlehandedly across the Atlantic.  That occurred in 1876, when a Gloucester fisherman named Alfred Johnson modified a garden-variety Banks dory, the most basic of utility boats of that era and employed heavily in the inshore as well as the Grand Banks fishing trade, to be suitable for a transatlantic passage.   (As if any 20 foot, centerboard wooden boat is suitable for a transatlantic passage…) He set off from Gloucester, Massachusetts in June, 1876, survived a major gale that capsized his boat, and finally made landfall in Wales in August 1876. 

Mr. Johnson must have been viewed as something of a lunatic by his Gloucester neighbors.   But Captain Johnson knew that a high-sided banks dory, loaded down with a thousand pounds of fish, was a pretty stable and seaworthy craft, and with a deck built over it to shed water, could handle all kinds of rough water.   So he adapted a 20-footer (a large dory even in those days) with a watertight deck, a centerboard, several hundred pounds of stone ballast and water tanks, and even a well for the skipper/helmsman/crew/extra ballast to stand our crouch in to keep weight low and keep semi-dry. It was the centennial year of US independence from Britain, so he named his craft Centennial.

After breakfast I get my gear together, hand the car keys to John, who will be sailing on Elyssa again today out of Herrick Bay, and head down to the shore to get aboard Centennial.   The rowing-only boats of the SRR fleet are doing a yeoman’s job ferrying the sailors out to the anchored boats, and I grab a lift out to Centennial.  It’s easy to spot, as Dan has painted the broad dory planks of his boat in great swaths of red, white and blue.  

Centennial… the 2nd

Dan and his regular crew for this SRR, Pike (his former high school rowing coach) are already aboard and rigging to sail.  I stow my gear and Dan hoists the sail, raises the anchor and we’re off.

Dan’s boat is impressive.  It is completely traditionally built, pine planks on sawn oak frames, with a white pine deck. The sail is old-fashioned cotton canvas and all the lines are manila or hemp.   Dan has been a stickler for authenticity in building his replica 1876 boat.  I ask him how he learned the skills to build it.  “Well, I grew up around Newbury north of Cape Ann around boats, and I worked for 6 years at Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Mass. building dories, skiffs and other traditional small boats. Then for a while I was building boats on my own commercially.  Eventually I got a more conventional job.  Building Centennial was old hat for me, except that I had to do it on nights and weekends so it took me almost a year.”  (Or something like that… I was not sailing with a voice recorder). Kudos to Dan for building and sailing the real deal.

At 10 in the morning the wind is still light to non-existent, and we start off by mostly drifting rather than sailing.  The current is ebbing to the Southeast down Eggemoggin Reach, so we move in the right direction even if we’re not sailing much at all.  It takes me a few minutes to get comfortable on the boat, as unlike most of the SRR boats where you sit pretty low in an open boat, on Centennial you sit on top of the deck, and the boat is among the highest-sided boats in the fleet.   So despite the 600 pounds (if I remember correctly) of lead ballast that Dan has in Centennial, it’s a little tender with all the crew weight up on deck, and finding a comfortable sitting position takes a little doing.

Before long the wind comes up from the East and we are making nice progress tacking back and forth up the reach, with at least a knot of current pushing us upwind.  Since we kind of got a late start we are mostly viewing the other SRR boats from astern. 

From the deck of Centennial

After a couple of hours of tacking back and forth up the passage between Torrey Island and the mainland, we make it to today’s lunch rendezvous spot, which is the sandy beach on Babson Island, across the harbor from the WoodenBoat School waterfront.   Babson Island is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and is a real gem with its beautiful (and at low tide, large) sandy beach and spruce-fringed interior.   Since we arrive just before low tide, there is plenty of room for the SRR fleet, and the beachfront boat museum is as impressive as ever.

Someone tells me not to miss the amazing fern meadow in the interior of the island.  Following the other lookie-lous to a trail at the end of the beach, I walk about 50 yards into the woods and then into this:

That’s not grass, that’s a huge open meadow composed entirely of ferns.   Well worth the short walk!

I have been freeloading for three days now on other people’s boats, so the least I can do is offer a “cool refreshing adult beverage” to captain Dan and crew Pike.  Dan is happy to accept a beer from my small cooler and we enjoy lunch in the shade of Babson Island’s spruces, on the beach made of crushed seashells. 

With our small beer supply exhausted and with most of the fleet already on their way back towards Herrick Bay, we pack up and get back on board Centennial for the afternoon sail.  By coincidence one of the other boats getting underway about the same time is Elyssa, and I get the opportunity to snap a photo of the two boats I’ve sailed on at this year’s SRR, together.  

The wind has moderated while we were ashore, so we’ll be ghosting for a while here as we make our way through Naskeag Harbor and around the point to turn into Herrick Bay.  Dan entrusts me with the helm and the navigation, which is great.  Thanks Dan!  Keeping a close eye on the chart, I note that there are some rocks named “The Triangles” right in the middle of the passage between the mainland and Hog Island that are not marked by a buoy or a daybeacon.  Not wanting to find those rocks, I tell Dan that I’ll hug the shore of Hog Island since there’s good water right up to the island, and that will keep us well clear of the rocks. 

While we are sailing in the light air, we see a nice cruising sailboat coming the other way through Naskeag Harbor.  It’s going to pass to our port, not more than 100 yards away.  When it gets close I can see that it’s a Hinckley Bermuda 40 yawl, a beautiful boat and one that is considered one of the finest fiberglass cruising sailboats of its era – the 1970s.   This one is in great shape.  It’s under power with its jib and mizzen flying, and mainsail furled. 

The calm of the afternoon and the light breeze is interrupted with a gut-wrenching CRUNCH! as the Bermuda 40 hits the rocks and lunges up out of the water, then remains pinned on the rocks with its waterline at least a foot out of the water.  I would guess it was going 5 knots when it hit the rocks, so it did a bit of climbing.  OUCH – it hurt to hear that, even more to see it occur up close and personal.  Well, the B40 is a well-built and sturdy boat, and he probably hit the rock with the lead of the keel, so hopefully no major damage was done.  It’s low tide rising, and they are in protected waters with no chop running and no real wind pushing them farther up on a lee shore.  So if they just sit tight and wait for the tide to lift them off, they’ll be ok.  Still, that was a horrible experience I’m sure for the skipper of that boat. As we pass I note the homeport listed on the transom of the B40:  Houston, Texas.   I guess in the Gulf Coast area if you hit the bottom with your boat, it’s not very hard.  In Maine, the bottom tends to be some pretty immovable rocks…

As we pass through Naskeag Harbor, an active lobster fishing harbor, Dan decides it would be great if he could buy some lobsters for tonight’s dinner.   As we sail by a handsome looking lobster boat that just made its mooring and has a long line of lobster “cars” (floating cages) strung astern, Dan inquires if they can sell him any.   The deckhand aboard the lobster boat replies “sorry, we’ve finished pulling traps and I can’t sell you any lobsters now” but points to a boat outside the harbor still working traps and says “check with her—she’s still pulling and might be able to.” So as we sail out towards the point and into Blue Hill Bay, we try to get near the working lobster boat.  As we near the lobster boat, Dan pulls out a greenback from his pocket and waves it, hoping the universal language of money makes it clear to them what we are looking for, as it’s a little windier and they are a bit too far upwind to hear us. The crew on that boat also signals that they can’t sell us any lobsters.  There must be some rule in Maine nowadays that the fishermen can’t sell retail off their boats.  It’s OK, as Dan will be able to buy lobsters cheap in Brooklin on the way back to the campground.  Me, I just signed up for the lobster dinner provided by the SRR caterer tonight at the event closing dinner.  

We round the point and have a great downwind leg into the anchorage at Herrick Bay, and drop the hook close to the Atlantic Boat dock to make Dan’s recovery of his boat tomorrow as easy as possible.   Another fantastic day small boat sailing in Maine… it doesn’t get any better than this!

Well, it could… what if the Swedish Bikini Team just happened to drop in… (obscure and completely incorrect reference to a 1980s Old Milwaukee beer ad)

Bikini team fantasies aside, it really doesn’t get any better than this.