Adopting a kinder, gentler approach

The schooner Roseway in Gosport Harbor. “…to my mind there is nothing on the water to beat the combination of utility and beauty that a traditional schooner embodies,” the author writes. Photo by Jack Farrell

August 2021

By Jack Farrell

Five days after it happened, I’m still smarting over an unfortunate conversation on Channel 16 with a local lobster boat. The captain was apparently unhappy with my course, and made a rude, and let’s just say unprofessional comment about it. I think he was wrong in his assessment (there is room for debate over such matters, especially when there is no risk of collision), but what bothered me most was the language and dismissive tone of his transmission. I think the real problem was that the guy is just plain cranky, with little tolerance for anyone whose presence on the water appears to be less important to him than his own. I don’t ever want to be that guy.

The issue involved an interpretation of the rules of the road. The navigation rules include a pecking order for determining right of way with which most of us are likely familiar: overtaken vessel, vessel not under command, vessel constrained by draft, fishing vessel, sailing vessel, power-driven vessel, seaplane – in descending order. But there is another unofficial pecking order in effect out there which often mirrors the official one, but which has as much to do with the captain’s perception of the gravity and importance of the mission of other vessels as the rules themselves. Tugboat captains place themselves at the top of this list. They seem to have a hard time even recognizing the presence of other boats unless one strays into their path, in which case they, rightfully, send a stern and definitive warning. (I recently watched from our dock on the Piscataqua as a 40-foot sailboat veered into the path of a tanker with tug escort as it approached the Sarah Long Bridge. Calm and respectful radio warnings from the pilot on the bridge of the ship were met with silence. They were soon followed by five thundering blasts from the ship’s horn – danger warnings which had to be repeated twice – until the sailboat finally moved out of the way.) Given the gravity of their responsibility, a little attitude on the part of ships, tugboats and harbor pilots is understandable.

Likewise trawlers, draggers and seiners have a right to be left alone, especially when fishing, and an equal right to act a little superior to the rest of us. We do our best on Utopia to give a wide berth to working lobster boats, which seem nonetheless to be forever in the middle of our path to the islands. Some of them even recognize the respectful gesture with the wave of a bait-gloved hand. We also slow down when passing recreational fishermen, small sailboats and kayaks, although not always with the same level of respect. But since the unfortunate radio incident a few days ago I have decided to adopt a kinder and gentler approach to all manner of vessels and voyages. We all have a right to be out here, after all, and we all have more to learn, always.

On a recent trip into town from the Shoals I shared the wheelhouse with this summer’s manager of the tiny museum on Star Island. He had just finished a Master’s degree in Nautical Archeology and was full of enthusiasm for the subject. He asked me what was my favorite type of sailing vessel. While I remain infatuated with our beautiful old broad-hipped sloop, even after twenty years, my quick answer was the schooner. We’ve had two big schooners at the Shoals so far this summer, and to my mind there is nothing on the water to beat the combination of utility and beauty that a traditional schooner embodies. I’ve only ever sailed on one schooner, the Great Lake’s Denis Sullivan, on part of a fall transit from Milwaukee to Florida. I was aboard for ten days from Bermuda to Nassau as part of a celestial navigation training. (Captain Tom would wake us up for study before dawn with a quiet challenge: “The sky is alive with stars.”) We would heave-to every afternoon for a swim in mile-deep water with a shark watch in the rigging. I never was the same after that trip. Schooners.

I sent a photo last week of the schooner Roseway anchored at Gosport Harbor to Mrs. Crabby’s cell phone, all the way up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. She must have been weeding the garden at the top of the hill with a clear shot to the cell tower at the time, because she got right back to me. She said that she and Catboat Bob were missing the Ocean really badly. “The low saltwater light is flashing red.”

It was soon agreed that they would get down to the Seacoast sometime in August for a sail in Aloft. They would set up their miniature trailer in our yard over by the boatshed. Living space in the trailer is only a little less than one would expect in the cabin of a medium-sized catboat. My wife said to remind them that they could sleep in the house with us if they preferred. But I know Bob is more comfortable waking up in a space where he is forced to pull on his pants in the morning while still sitting down.

We’ve had so many wonderful sails together over the years. I’m thinking now of one trip home following a dismal windless Monhegan Race in our old wooden Hinckley Pilot, Hopestill. The wind was up from the Northeast, but with little rain. We left Peaks Island under main and spinnaker after bacon and eggs with a steady breeze at about twenty knots. It was Bob’s birthday, and a cake was brought up about noon, just about the time the first spinnaker blew out. We set the cake aside, set another chute and continued on past York on the final leg home. The last crumbs of the cake were long gone by the time we hit Pepperrell Cove in what I remember was something like a total of six hours from Casco Bay. Unforgettable.

Meanwhile out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the yachts come and go on their annual migration, and I’m reminded by their passage that before I was a “big boat guy” (as my then six-year-old nephew once called me) I was a wooden boat sailor ranging anonymously along the Maine Coast. The mate, India, is very close to receiving her hundred-ton license. Once she has it, I’ll be free to escape for a week or so on Aloft to get back to my sailing roots. In the meantime we’ll be happily ferrying food, freight, luggage and guests to the islands while minding our radio etiquette, keeping the hotel’s ice cream frozen, and doing our best to respect everyone’s right to experience the freedom and joys of cruising along our incomparable coastline.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Islands at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.