Aground on New Year’s Eve

Thurston aboard his pretty Penny, which on more than one occasion he’s sailed the last day of the year in Maine. Photo courtesy Scott Thurston

“We could have at least looked at the chart . . .” someone said.

“Or we could have turned on the GPS,” I said, reaching across to the boat’s Garmin unit and pushing its little red button.

“Well,” said Beth, reaching into her canvas bag and pulling out a bottle of Champagne, “since we’re not going anywhere for a while, I guess we’ll just have to open this.”

“That’s the second best idea I’ve heard all day,” said Phil, as he took the bottle from her, and, with a practiced flourish, sent the cork flying. “Now, where are the glasses on this barge?”

The glasses were where they always were, in the rack in the galley on the port side of Penelope, my Camper-Nicholson 32, which at the moment was gently, but firmly, aground in the middle of Portland Harbor. She’d placed herself there, with no help from us, after having been underway for about two minutes after leaving Chandler’s Wharf. It was Dec. 31, New Years Eve, 2010. The temps were uncharacteristically warm, the wind was light but steady, and we were (trying to go) sailing.

“We” were three people who should have known better. Phil is a delivery skipper, who has more than 20 trans-Atlantic trips in small boats under his belt, and frequently sails from New England to the Caribbean. Beth is a ski buddy, whose last boat was a 36’ wooden sloop built in Taiwan, aboard which she had sailed from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts and back with her partner. And I had owned Penny for at least a decade at that point, and had cruised her short- and single-handed from Boston to Penobscot Bay nearly every summer in those years. Experience aboard wasn’t the issue.

And alcohol wasn’t either – it was only noon, and we’d all had busy mornings getting ready to meet at the dock for this adventure. No, we’d ended up there thanks to those old demons – Nonchalance and Inattention – but, in our defense, we HAD been busy raising sails and stowing gear, getting ready to enjoy the last day of the year in a rare but memorable way. I mean, how often does one get to go boating, comfortably, in Maine in the middle of winter?

I’d done it once before, in the winter of 1999, since that New Year’s had also been blessed with warm, clear weather. I’m in the habit of occasionally leaving Penny in the water for the winter. Her bottom has been barrier coated, so she doesn’t need an annual drying-out, and this particular winter I had been taking classes again at the University of Southern Maine, and, since I lived in New Hampshire, having space to hang out in between was kind of nice. When I’d heard the weather report for this particular holiday, I called my friends, and we made plans accordingly.

So there we were, stuck in the mud. I tried to back her off with the still-warm diesel. The bottom of Portland Harbor has mud that goes on for ages, and the suction is impenetrable. That’s great for moorings, but not so much when it’s your keel buried. We’d had some way on when we hit, and the wide, flat bottom of Penny’s keel was held firmly. The one saving grace was that it was a making tide – if we were patient, Mother Nature would lift us free.

Phil made a move to lower the sails, and I stopped him. We were in a very obvious place, and people from both shores, in office buildings and on docks, and those driving across the South Portland Bridge, could clearly see our predicament. I figured that I’d rather be an object of envy rather than an object of derision. If they saw us there with sails up and drawing, they might not notice that we weren’t actually moving and might think of how lucky we were instead of how stupid. “Leave ’em up,” I said.

We settled into the cockpit. Beth had brought lunch along with the Champagne, and we were just diving into that when we heard a motor coming from the South Portland side of the harbor. We looked up, and headed our way was a small boat from the U.S. Coast Guard station. Things must have been really slow around the station that day, because as it got closer, I saw eight heads sticking up from behind the windscreen. As they came out the channel that leads into their docks, it was obvious they were headed our way. “Quick! Hide the Champagne!” I said.

They pulled alongside, and grabbed Penny’s rail. “You guys okay?” one of them asked.

“Yep, “ I said. “Just feeling a little dumb.” That raised a chuckle from the other guys in the boat, all decked out in survival suits and PFDs.

“You know it gets shallower in front of you?” he continued.

“Yep,” I said, pointing at the GPS. “We do, now . . .”

After a few minutes more of ensuring that we were okay, that Penny wasn’t taking on water, and that we were relatively safe to be out on the water, they left us. But not before advising us to take our sails down. “You know, it gets shallower in front of you, and you don’t want to get driven further up the bank,” the gentleman advised.

“Yep,” I said, “good idea,” and smiled and waved. The guys in the back smiled and waved, as they headed out towards Portland and the outer harbor. I guess if you’re suited up for a boat ride, you might as well go for one. We returned to our lunch.

About an hour later lunch was over and the Champagne was gone. We could feel Penny starting to lift and pull away from the mud. I fired up the diesel, and slowly backed her away from the bank, and with Beth and Phil handling the sails, we pivoted and headed back into deeper water. The Coasties swung by again, on their way back into the channel, headed home, as we gathered way before the still slight but steady southwesterly. They all waved, and we waved back. And for the next couple of hours, we truly were objects of envy, as we celebrated the end of the year, thankful for boats and friends and people who look out for us, as we ghosted along in a warm breeze, past all the boats asleep under their winter covers.

Scott Thurston is a long-time sailor who left the marine business in New Hampshire so he could move to Falmouth, Maine, and be closer to his boat and family. In addition to Penelope, Scott also owns an Acapulco 40, a Bristol 19 and a fiberglass Beetle Cat that, before he acquired it, had been used as a planter in someone’s yard.