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.

Author: Larchmont Jim

A 50-something investment banker from Larchmont, New York (about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan). Amateur small boat sailer, boatbuilder, kayaker, musician. I grew up spending summers sailing the New England coast on my grandfather’s beautiful 47’ 1952 Sparkman & Stevens wooden yawl. I’ve lived in Larchmont, a major and historic sailing center on Long Island Sound, for 25 years, but career and family obligations kept me off the water for all of my 30s and 40s, and only about 7 years ago did I get back on the water, first in sea kayaks, and then in small boats.

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