Along the Reach

By W. R. Cheney
For Points East

Monday, Aug. 11 dawns gray and bleak. Penelope, my engineless 22-foot catboat lies at anchor off the WoodenBoat School, in Brooklin, Maine, near the eastern end of the Eggemoggin Reach. I down some coffee and scrambled eggs then row the dinghy in to the busy WoodenBoat School dock.

Tfeature1508he school runs various charters and sailing classes from here, and there is a constant PFD-clad procession going on and off dinghies and launches, heading out to and coming in from an assortment of handsome wooden sailing craft out in the harbor. I make my way along the dock, past the boathouse and up the gravel drive leading to the boatbuilding school and the WoodenBoat store. Along the way, I pass a large group preparing to launch the sleek wood kayaks they have either built at the school or built at home using WoodenBoat plans. Judging by their gear, they are off for some kind of extensive cruise-in-company. There is a palpable air of excitement and anticipation here, and I admire their spirit in the face of the weather forecast: rain, rain and more rain.

Continuing on, I reach the top of the hill and the WoodenBoat store. Here one finds one of the best selections of nautical books available anywhere, as well as an extensive collection of boat plans for the wood-boat builder. There is also a small selection of specialty tools, like caulking irons, which are hard to find elsewhere.

Normally I do my part by buying lots of books, and I do so again on this morning. A treasury from the old “Rudder” magazine, an autobiography of somebody’s life in schooners, an account of Nat Herreshoff and his last Cup defender. . . it goes on and on. I am putty in their hands. But given the current weather reports, I am likely to need lots of reading material aboard Penelope. At the register I notice that it has started to drizzle outside.

Back on board Penelope, I have a short gam with an old boy who’s sculling out to a wooden ketch at anchor nearby. He wants to know how I reach the end of Penelope’s boom, which extends a few feet out beyond the transom. I tell him that it is usually not necessary to do so as the reefing pendants are led inboard and can be handled from the cockpit. I do admit, however, that I once lost a nice brass hurricane lantern while reaching way out to hang it from a hook at the very end, and he seems pleased with this proof that, just as he thought, my boom is too long, and continues on to his ketch with a contented look.

I get into my foul-weather gear and go forward to shorten up the scope on my anchor. My method of sailing off the anchor involves shortening up until you can just feel your length of chain start to lift off the bottom. Then I raise sail with a lot of sheet let out and wait until she swings over to the tack I want, then quickly hauling in the rest of the rode, which usually gets you off in your chosen direction.

But sometimes – perhaps one time out of 50 – the bottom is such that the anchor does not wait for you, but breaks free immediately. Then you must quickly let out scope again and start over. Or, if there is nothing in your way, you can simply pretend this was what you had planned all along and sail on while leisurely retrieving your anchor. Today was one of those one times in 50, but there was nothing in our way, so we sailed off looking casual and efficient.

The rain is a fine drizzle, warm on the skin as I head northwest and then west to pass between the Babson Island and the Torrey Islands and northwest again out into the Reach. There is not much wind, just a light zephyr from the southeast. There isn’t much traffic either, just a few lobsterboats plying their trade in a monotone world – gray water, gray shore, gray sky.

About now we are passing Center Harbor, which surely must rank as the wooden-boat capital of the world. Packed into this small anchorage are massed more beautiful wooden sailing craft than you’re likely to see anywhere else (the one exception being the annual Eggemoggin Reach Regatta that starts and finishes near WoodenBoat).

The anchorage at Center Harbor lies off the Brooklin Boatyard run by Steve White, grandson of author and “New Yorker” fixture E. B. White. The yard is as wonderful as the harbor, with shed after shed full of classic boats and yachts. The easier ways of an earlier time live on here, and a discreet visitor can wander unchallenged through the sheds and take it all in.

E. B. White himself was a lifelong sailor who lived for many years on a farm in Brooklin. His essay, “The Sea and the Wind That Blows” may well be the best short piece ever written on why we sail. Find and read it if you can.

We ghost on past Center Harbor and soon find ourselves off the Benjamin River. This is an almost perfectly landlocked harbor, also full of classic wooden boats. One that I used to visit every year was the C. C. Hanley cat ketch Mollie B, which Maynard Bray kept here until recently. Another favorite is the handsome Chinese-red 25-foot Folkboat Tomahawk, which was sailed to Cuba and back a few years ago. Less interesting to me, but certainly awesome in her way, is a plus-or-minus 40-footer aptly named Yar. All perfect bright work and polished bronze, she is so immaculate that it is hard to imagine anyone actually taking her out and sailing her.

Back on the Reach, the breeze is picking up a little, and we are encountering the first of a batch of large sloops engaged in some kind of race, which seems to cover considerable distance. They appear as tiny specks to the northwest, and will disappear the same way to the southeast. We do our best to give them all the right of way, and note the various attitudes of the different crews. Some are all grim business and refuse to even look at us as they pass. Others wave. Some offer compliments. Sadly, the friendliest of all – the one brimming with politesse and good will – is also the one struggling along in last place.

All the racers behind us now, we near the Deer Isle Bridge. This is an impressive structure that seems way out of place in its surroundings. The architecture and infrastructure in these parts is human in scale, reflecting the rural nature of the area. Coming upon a giant mile-long suspension bridge here is like encountering a space ship from another planet.

Today the bridge is crawling with workers, part of the nationwide repair and upgrading program that began when an unseemly number of these structures began collapsing due to age and neglect. As I sail under the bridge, the roar of jackhammers and rivet guns, mixed with the crashing and clanking of heavy machinery, rings in my ears. I flinch involuntarily, fearing a large hunk of something may hurtle down on us from high overhead, bringing a definitive end to our cruise.

Penelope escapes unscathed, and we continue in the direction of Bucks Harbor. Some kids in an open 23- or 24-foot daysailer pass us going the other way, then immediately do a 180-degree turn so they are running along behind us about 50 yards back. It looks like they have decided to have a little fun showing up the old gaffer. Or maybe they have just decided it is time to go home. In any case, if they thought they could catch Penelope, they were mistaken. Soon their boat is only a insignificant speck in the after distance.

Warm though the persistent drizzle is, I am beginning to feel chilled after a few not-very-active hours out in the cockpit. I contemplate heading into Bucks Harbor for the night, but a look at the forest of masts in there is somehow intimidating. I’m feeling a little tired as well as cold, and, for once, the idea of anchoring under sail in a really crowded place is just too daunting to face.

Orcutt Harbor, a long, narrow gut running southwest to northeast – with Cape Rosier to the west and a peninsula tipped by Condon Point to the east – is just a few more miles along my route. And this is what I like about it this day: It’s described in Taft and Rindlaub (the Maine coast cruiser’s bible) as “little used by yachtsmen.”

Penelope reaches all the way up into the gut, just over one mile, and I note that, if the wind is onshore next day, we will have a longish beat all the way out of there. We anchor right at the head of the harbor, not far from a Bristol-fashion 50-foot sloop on a mooring, the only other boat anywhere near.

Except for five or six yachts moored in a little indentation along the eastern shore, about a half-mile away, there are no other boats. Bucks Harbor is crammed full like a sardine can only a few miles away, and this place with only a lone visitor – me. It says something about the herd instinct in man, and I’m glad that it is so.

I quickly realize that Orcutt Harbor is home to an astonishing number of ospreys. In my experience, ospreys usually operate in pairs, with a centrally located nest and a territory to themselves. But here, there are five or six pairs all wheeling around overhead and swooping on what seems to be an inexhaustible supply of fish.

Osprey nests can be quite monumental, and are frequently passed down through the generations. There are several on the Maine coast said to have been in continuous occupancy for a hundred years or more. Here at Orcutt Harbor, there are any number of birds, but I don’t see any nests, so perhaps what I’m seeing is a special avian convention.

I am also learning that Orcutt Harbor is also home to an impressive population of mosquitoes. The wet weather we have enjoyed all summer has upped the mosquito count everywhere. In fact, it has been so bad that the time-honored tradition of “mosquito hour” is no longer in effect.

In normal years, when the mosquitoes arrived at an anchorage around sunset, you could button up your boat for an hour or so, then open her up again, confident that “mosquito hour” was over. Not this year.

There are mosquitoes before “mosquito hour” and mosquitoes after it. In fact, mosquitoes are sometimes encountered in the middle of the day, in the middle of large areas of water, far from land. But here in Orcutt Harbor, it is even worse than elsewhere. Reluctantly, I retreat below and pull the companionway hatch and doors shut behind me.

Leaving the boat open for so long was a big mistake. The cabin is full of mosquitoes, and I am not well equipped to deal with them. I am reluctant to spend time in a small, enclosed space full of poison, so I don’t carry and won’t use insecticides. Thus, my only way of dealing with mosquitoes is to hunt them down one by one, a not very efficient endeavor.

Alternatively, I can take to my sleeping bag, pull the covers over my head and cower there, still being bitten by the considerable number of enterprising creatures that manage to get inside with me. This is not a good option now because I haven’t cooked and eaten yet, and I have a real day-on-the-water, fresh-air-type appetite going.

Reluctantly, despite a deep-seated mistrust of chemical companies (the people who brought us DDT and Agent Orange, after all), I do carry Deep Woods Off or other DEET formulations, and, when in extremis, use them. I douse myself with the stuff, and an uneasy chemical truce is established between me and my winged tormentors. I can cook, eat, drink and make an early night of it.

Tuesday, Aug. 12: I wake up early to the sound of torrential rain pouring down and crashing on the cabin-top. It is a little like being inside a snare drum, but I like it, really. It reminds me of when I was a kid and slept in a room with a tin roof overhead.

It is about 6 a.m., and there isn’t much point in getting up yet. Nothing to do outside but get drenched, and not much to do inside either but read or listen to the radio. I flick on the weather radio and hear news of record rainfalls moving up the coast. This is going to be the kind of day when your dinghy fills right up to the gunwales and floats only because of the air compartments at bow and stern. I switch to Maine Public Radio, and drift off again listening to the world and local news being repeated over and over again as it always is at this time of day.

By 8 a.m., I am awake again and restless. I can’t sleep all day, although it would be good if I could. The rain is still pouring down undiminished, and, peering out one of the port lights, I can’t see anything but sheets of water. I pull one of the large wine jugs I use for drinking water out of the bilge and measure out a mugful into my all-purpose, stainless coffee pot. Beans go into my German hand-grinder from the Lehman’s catalog (old-fashioned stuff for Mennonites and other throwbacks like myself) and grind away happily. Not only will my coffee be better than something out of a can or jar, but I am thankful for these small, pleasant tasks.

The coffee is good. Columbian Supremo twice as strong as recommended, and twice as much of it in my special mug than you would get in a regular cup. Suddenly, inexplicably, I am very happy. It is good to be here in my diminutive boat with the rain pouring down. Good food, good books – we have everything we need.

The day did pass quite pleasantly. There were a couple of short breaks in the weather when I was able to get a little exercise in the dinghy. For the rest, the books from WoodenBoat and my CD player provided ample entertainment. It was cozy and snug aboard as we wiled away the hours, and it was hard to imagine any other place we would rather be.

Because of the rain and the ever-present mosquitoes, I had to keep Penelope buttoned right up for most of the time, leaving the interior a little dark and cheerless. To combat this, I fired up a large hurricane lamp as well as the gimbaled kerosene lamp on the main bulkhead. This took care of the cheer department nicely and provided some warmth, but, around nightfall, I noticed that droplets of water had started falling from various points on the cabin roof.

For a brief moment, I wondered if it had rained so hard that rain had found its way right through the solid cabin top, but investigation revealed that the inside of the entire hull and deck was filmed with water. Since it is well known that solid fuel makes for a dry boat, whereas oil stoves make for a wet one, I deduced that the problem was condensation caused by burning the oil lamps in so much humidity. I quickly doused the lamps before all that water started running off into my bedding, books and supplies.

Lying in the dark, I listened to quirky riffs, off rhythms and discords from the inimitable Thelonious Monk blending with the still-thunderous rain beating down on deck, until I fell into a pleasant, dreamless sleep. Another early evening aboard Penelope.

W. R. “Bill” Cheney, who moved to Lady’s Island, S.C., from Vermont in 2011, sails the engineless Marshall 22 Penelope out of Swans Island, Maine, in summer, and his Marshall Sanderling Shorebird out of Lady’s Island, S.C., in the winter.

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