A long day’s journey into fright

Bob Knecht and his daughter Samantha onboard Tiger Rag.

April, 2005

By Bob Knecht
For Points East

Tiger Rag, our Beals Island 22, is one hell of a seaboat for her size. She was born in Calvin Beal’s boat shop and designed for Maine waters, and that’s why I bought her. On this day last summer, my daughter, Samantha (Sam), and I had enjoyed benign conditions all morning, but after lunch the wind had increased to 10 to 15 knots. I got a little salt on my glasses, but guessed the wind was thermal and would come and go. I slowed the boat for comfort, swung out of Boothbay, and headed east past Linekin Bay with a beam sea. Tiger Rag had been in these moderate conditions many times and handled them comfortably.

We proceeded across the mouth of the Damariscotta River headed for Johns Bay and Pemaquid Point in wide-open water. The wind had picked up to 15 to 20 knots, and it had shifted to the south and was now opposing an outgoing tide. The seas were confused and slapping us from all directions on top of a growing onshore swell. We were halfway there, so it made no sense to turn around.

I realized I’d made a mistake, but I didn’t know how much worse things would get before we reached our destination, Bremen Long Island in Muscongus Bay.

How did we get in this predicament? Well, Sam lives in Michigan, and she misses boating and the Maine coast, so last summer we decided to take a daughter/father cruise on Tiger Rag to attach her memories to the present and catch up on each other’s lives. We planned a short weekend trip to be with dear friends on Bremen Long Island.

The Maine coast is like no other place in this world. It is longer than the rest of the eastern seaboard put together, and the entire state has about 1.3 million people. That leaves a lot of uninhabited islands and shorelines to explore. We decided on a course that is both beautiful to see and practical to sail if one has limited time and wants to avoid the fickle offshore weather and seas. We trailered the boat from Yarmouth to Bath and put in to the wide Kennebec River just south of Bath Iron Works (BIW), the premier builder of warships. From Bath there is a scenic waterway of inland rivers and narrows leading to Boothbay Harbor and beyond. One chart will do it – #102: Cape Small to Boothbay and Tenants Harbor.

We launched the boat at the well-engineered municipal ramp just south of BIW, crossed the Kennebec River, and entered the Sasanoa River, a narrow connector between the Kennebec and Hockomock Bay about 2.5 miles long. When the tide runs up or down the Sasanoa between these two large bodies of water, one needs to be prepared, especially at mid-tide when the volume is at its peak.

In the river is Upper Hell Gate, home to a significant current that is wild at the narrows. The swirling white water will shift a moving powerboat back and forth like a two-dollar carnival ride. At one point, we watched a sailboat under forward power at full-throttle going backwards. For low-powered boats, timing at Hell Gate is everything.

Along the Sasanoa, we motored through Upper Hell Gate into Hockomock Bay. Here the water can boil. If you are moving with the current, maintaining steerage can be trying with 8-plus knots of tidal flow. Still, it is an incredibly beautiful only-in-Maine set of narrows. Farther downriver, we followed the buoys leading past Beal Island to Knubble Bay. Just before Knubble Bay, we were bounced around through the standing waves at Lower Hell Gate. We then headed south again for a few minutes to Goose Rock Passage. At this point, we realized why people come from all over the world to cruise the Maine coast. Spruce trees grow right down to the water, an occasional home comes into view, bold granite cliffs jut out into the passage, and eagles, deer, and other wildlife make cameo appearances.

The passage dumped us into the oceanlike Sheepscot River – big water with nearly the full weather effect of being offshore. Heading southeast across the river, we entered Ebenecook Harbor at Southport Island, home of the well-kept Southport Yacht Club. We wanted to visit, so we threaded through the lobster buoys and day markers to get to the club. We went cautiously to avoid some big humpback rocks between the docks and us.

Pushing forward again, we jogged north for a mile and then flipped to due south, headed for Townsend Gut, a remarkably beautiful and winding waterway with small coves, a variety of boats at their moorings, and comfortable shingled homes at water’s edge.

The Townsend Gut swing bridge from Southport to Boothbay Harbor is almost constantly in motion in the summer yielding to heavy boat traffic in both directions. The bridge attendant must have an amazing sense of humor to put up with one boater after another blowing his horn or radioing for an opening. After passing through the bridge, we thought the timing about right to stop for lunch at one of many dockside restaurants.

Robinson’s Wharf is in a quiet cove between the bridge and Boothbay Harbor proper. It is a no-frills seafood joint with everything fresh and cooked perfectly. We tied up at their dock, placed our order, took our number and sat at an outside picnic table next to where a lobster boat was unloading the day’s catch onto the wharf. If a lobsterman is camera-shy, then this is not place for him. Tourists (cameras) mix with locals (no cameras) and enjoy lunch by the bay together.

This inland waterway passage is not to be rushed. It is a worthy cruise, gunkholing into a myriad of island coves and harbors. One can meander for days around the Kennebec River, Hockomock Bay, the Sheepscot River, Knubble Bay, and Boothbay Harbor. There is mile after mile of coastline to explore without ever having to go offshore in fog, uncomfortable winds or seas. It is certainly more interesting than looking at the horizon and wave tops hour after hour.

After lunch, we approached Boothbay Harbor, a very fun place to visit. Boothbay is a collage of schooners, lobsterboats, sightseeing (rubbernecking) boats, sailboats of all dimensions, big offshore power cruisers laden with professional crew, skiffs, character boats, an island ferry, marinas, restaurants, shops, and repair facilities. Even the Coasties were buzzing around keeping the villains at bay. We did the spin around the harbor but we were on a mission. We were due at Bremen Long Island by midafternoon and we had to put some water under the boat to be on time.

When it starts to blow, minor problems can become life-threatening. I have been on the water for a lot of years, and I get real preachy when it comes to boat safety because I have had a close call or two. I have all the gear – radar, radios, GPS, life jackets, flares, mirrors, a first-aid kit, tools, and more. I carry all that stuff planning to never have to use it. None of that gear replaces experience. Lots of things can go wrong – and things do go wrong – and typically that’s okay as long as the seas and wind are not complicating the situation.

Sam and I left Boothbay, lulled into thinking that the rest of the ride would be as relaxing and comfortable as the first half of the day. Not once did I turn my radio on for a weather check, nor did I notice when leaving the busy harbor that there was no other boat traffic in either direction. Brilliant!

We dipped down between wave tops where all that was visible was water. Invariably, we rose as the waves slid under our beam for a look around and then back down again. I got the rhythm, and outside of being a little nervous and getting an occasional salt bath, things were okay. We stayed the course to Pemaquid Point. By then, this usually inspiring landmark was shrouded in fog and spray as waves exploded on the rocks. All that was visible was the gray outline of the lighthouse, not really a calendar photo-op. The GPS was precise: I knew where I was but really did not want to be there.

We rounded the point and headed north up Muscongus Bay with the wind parallel to the shore and on our stern. Then the fun really began. I have no idea how hard the wind was blowing, but when it gusted, we could here it sing around the T-top just above our heads. Our course change brought about following seas. Most were six-footers, some were eight-footers, and occasionally a 10-footer would show up to keep us from getting bored.

The wind would blast the top off the waves, and the water would sheet horizontally. I worked the throttle and wheel to keep from driving the bow into the wave trough and broaching. Sam’s knuckles were a little white, but she hung on quietly. We coasted along, the boat handling just as Calvin Beal thought she would, and we began to settle in for the next 12 miles.

I kept jogging the throttle, sometimes getting a long sleigh ride on the big swells, being always careful not to bury the bow. Sam kept her sense of humor, and she made me very proud. This was a bad situation, and she stood by, life jacket on, ready to do anything required. We were doing great until Sam spun around to look aft and exclaimed, “Oh . . . .”

I could hear the roar as a wave top collapsed and broke over the stern. All of sudden, we were ankle deep in water as hundreds of pounds of water cascaded forward and piled up against the forward deck bulkhead. The boat was instantly bow-heavy, causing her to yaw and founder. Steering was close to impossible as the stern started to pivot around the bow. We were about to broach as we prepared to go overboard and hang on to whatever was still floating. In a counter-intuitive move, I slammed the Yamaha into reverse and backed into the oncoming sea. Very fortunately, that held our position momentarily and let the rogue wave slip under the boat. As we dropped to the backside of the wave, the bow floated higher than the stern. I chased that angle and stayed on it long enough to drain most of the seawater out of the scuppers. Gratefully, I was then able to regain control.

There’s always more to learn about being in big water in small boats, and I don’t necessarily want to learn this the hard way. One thing I’m sure of is that there’s not a lot of distance between having a nice day on the sea and becoming a part of the sea itself – reduced to flotsam, a most undesirable transition.

The wave action diminished as we headed our salt encrusted bodies and boat way up into the bay and crossed into the lee between Hockomock Point and Hog Island with Bremen Long Island in sight. Our friends, the Briggs, came out to meet us in their beautiful home-built Muscongus Bay sloop. The sun was shining, there was no fog, and the seas were calmer. The inland influence had produced the perfect Maine day.

“How was your trip?” The Briggs asked.

“Just great,” I answered. “We’re very happy to be here.”

Bob Knecht is a real estate broker in Portland, Maine, and a frustrated maritime novelist.