Aloft is ready to sail me into my golden years

In this column, I share stories from the Isles of Shoals and beyond. Some six miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Piscataqua River, this amazing place is host to a variety of interesting vessels, wildlife and people – a rest stop on the East Coast maritime highway.

We finally launched Aloft a couple of weeks ago into the green Piscataqua at Great Cove Boat Club in Eliot, Maine, just under the interstate bridge. With her newly refastened and re-caulked bottom, she barely leaked at all. After missing an entire season, it was a great relief to see her gleaming white hull finally bobbing gracefully at the mooring in Pepperrell Cove. A week or so into it, the pumps were quiet.
It has been very interesting to watch this old boat react to the changes in her environment during the overhaul period. The boat is double-planked, mahogany over a cedar-like Asian softwood, and caulked with polyurethane. When she is kept wet and conditions are stable, her topsides are so smooth as to be often mistaken for fiberglass (aka that other material). A winter in a heated shop opened up the topside seams, requiring some pre-paint filler to eliminate the hairline cracks that inevitably developed. The bottom of a wooden boat is usually rougher than the topsides, but a complete re-caulking below the waterline was part of the upgrade plan.

Aloft was moved in late spring to a shady shed with a gravel floor for final prep and painting. Almost immediately, plank swelling below the boot top began to squeeze caulking past the shrinking gaps of the bottom seams. I laid down one of the better roll-and-tip paint jobs in 16 years of owning this boat, and she was looking pretty good when she rolled out into the July sunshine. But once back in the water, the same thing happened to the topsides, as the swelling planks forced out tiny but visible lines of seam filler.
I remember hearing Elmer Dion say that it takes a couple of seasons of sanding, fairing and painting after major work to make a wooden boat look her best. So I patiently assure myself that a return to the regimen of late haul-outs and early launches will get the hull back to a seamless gloss.

At 55 years of age, were she a person, Aloft would qualify for membership in AARP. But over the years she has received good care and periodic upgrades, and her recent refit leaves her as sound and strong as when she was first launched. She is ready for me to sail into my own golden years. Cape Breton? Newfoundland? St. Pierre and Miquelon? Bermuda? Bahamas? Part of the magic of owning an oceans-capable sailboat is in the dreaming of where she might take you.

For the past two years, I have logged nearly all of my sea time running the workboats back and forth to the Isles of Shoals. I didn’t sail even once in 2016. Running Aloft once again down the River to Kittery Point, I was struck by the quiet: the thundering diesels and churning wakes of Star Island’s powerboats were replaced by just a little rumbling way below and the sound of the water flowing easily past the smooth planking.

I was also struck by the lack of power. The boiling river made her feel almost fragile compared to the husky beasts I’d become used to in the same water. Even with her 12-ton displacement, Aloft is powered by a relatively tiny and quiet 27-horsepower diesel that efficiently burns about a half-gallon per hour. But in contrast to our workboats, the little diesel seems to take forever to achieve hull speed, and can’t be relied upon as a brake in reverse.

I digress here to tell a story from many years ago. We had replaced the ailing Palmer gasoline engine in our wooden Hinckley Pilot Hopestill with a shiny, green Volvo diesel. The new engine was powerful and reliable, and the positive reverse gear could stop her on a dime. Moreover, the new installation had corrected the previously inverted connection of the gearshift lever, so that, when the lever was moved ahead, the transmission now went into forward instead of reverse.

Proudly demonstrating the boat’s new capabilities on a christening cruise with my old friend Catboat Bob, I approached the town dock at Kittery Point at a high rate of speed so as to stage the most convincing braking demonstration. At the same time, the late Tom Dudley was provisioning his sloop Wild Hunter in preparation for a cruise to Bermuda. The bow of Wild Hunter stuck out well beyond the end of the float, directly in Hopestill’s path. No matter, I thought to myself, this new engine can stop her cold.

We drew rapidly toward the float, shedding some speed by coasting along in neutral. Rounding up, I reached down to the heavy bronze gearshift lever, throwing it ceremoniously into what was formerly the reverse position (now properly corrected to be the forward position), and gave her a good shot of throttle. The boat immediately obeyed, surging ahead toward the helpless bow of Wild Hunter as her owner glared back in taciturn disapproval.

A frantic yank backward on the lever placed the gear finally into reverse, and the powerful little Volvo stopped us cleanly – with less than a foot separating me from catastrophe. Mr. Dudley shortly went back to preparing for his Bermuda trip without uttering a single word. I looked over at the astonished Catboat Bob, and counted my many blessings once again.

Maneuvering the heavy workboats is difficult without applying literally tons of leverage, and often includes intentional contact with fixed objects. Running a delicate sailboat, on the other hand, is usually a game of timing and finesse. While workboats rely on engine power applied against pilings and heavy springlines under tension to come alongside smartly, the quality of a yacht landing is measured by the degree to which an egg would have remained uncrushed if placed between vessel and fender during the operation. I’m trying lately to apply a blend of the two approaches to whatever type of boat I’m running in pursuit of both versatility and style.

And back on Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the short season has begun to wind down. Sunset cruises now begin at seven, and it’s nearly dark when I wake up at 5 a.m. to go down to the dock. There have been far too many days of easterlies and big swells this year, but this summer has been free of major storms and squalls – so far at least.

The rumors of an albatross sighting at the Shoals in June turned out to be true. This is a remarkable occurrence as the species is not known to frequent the North Atlantic. Of the 27 species of this iconic seabird, most live in the colder regions of the Southern Hemisphere. This rare event led me to my dusty copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and a re-reading of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in which the captain of a ship deep in the Southern Ocean arbitrarily kills an albatross which had been seen by his crew to have been a magical bird whose presence brought fair winds, guiding the vessel safely through a treacherous sea of ice bergs. (The word rime refers as much to the frost on the vessel as it does to the nature of the verse.)

With the benign mystical albatross dead on the deck, the ship and its company experience no end of misfortune. The mutinous crew ultimately places the dead bird around the captain’s neck, inspiring a turn of phrase that has come to symbolize the self-wrought hardship with which we mortals routinely undermine our own good fortune. Redemption (including safe passage home) is finally achieved when the captain opens his heart to the beauty in nature and in all creatures.

One wonders what figurative albatross we may have caused to be hung about upon our own necks (arrogance, jealousy, vanity, fear?) that prevent us from reaching for our dreams to experience the joy our cruising boats serve us to inspire.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.

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