An Aussie’s perspective sailing down east

The author poses in the middle of a thick Maine fog. Photo courtesy Donna Price

Winter 2023

By Donna Price
For Points East

Ian and I have been sailing our 44-foot Nordic sailboat Mystic along the coast of Maine over the past four summers. We had never come this far down east before, as work commitments and other constraints always seemed to limit our time. This time it was different, and we had allowed ourselves most of the summer to live on board and enjoy the beautiful coast of Maine on our own time.

We have a lot of alarms on our sailboat. For starters, there’s the smoke alarm, just like the one you have in your home; it will also go off every time you cook. Then there’s the autopilot alarm, which goes off for a bit when you turn the autopilot off. The shallow water alarm is there for obvious reasons, but this often goes off when a seal swims under the sensor in the middle of the night. Then, of course, there’s the engine alarm which includes items like oil, water intake, etc. I am not sure why, and I should know, but the incessant beeping starts whenever you turn the engine off! Unfortunately, our engine stop is located within the cockpit on our sailboat, so to stop the beeping, it is a fun scramble over everyone in the cockpit to turn the key back to the “off” position. Apparently, this is normal for most sailboat engines. We also have a safety alarm for CO and one for propane, as well as a low-voltage alarm. You get the idea – there are many alarms, and they are all good to have.

The beep, beep, beep of one of these alarms startled me in the middle of the night, and my eyes shot open. That would be the anchor alarm. We are anchored in Cutler, Maine, our last port of call “down east.”

I get up and wake Ian. I have learned over time that the anchor alarm does not necessarily mean that the anchor has dragged. Ian sets it conservatively, so usually, it means a change in the wind direction or tide. We look at the anchor track on the display in the cockpit. If the boat is still in the circumference area relative to where we dropped the anchor, all is well. All is well. We reset the alarm.

It is a beautiful clear night, and we can see the lights of the little village of Cutler sparkling on the hill overlooking the harbor. In the morning, it is fascinating to see the huge tidal range here, around 13-15 feet difference depending on the phase of the moon. It is hard to explain, and if you only imagine the height of a ladder in your mind, this will not help you visualize the phenomenon. The amount of land now exposed at low tide gives everything a new look. Islands, rocky outcrops punctuated with a few trees on top that were once surrounded by water are now attached to the mainland.

Now, I would like to say thank goodness for the Navionics app and our nautical charts. I’m one of those people who often feel geographically challenged when it comes to navigating on the water. Perhaps if I grew up sailing, I might find it easier. I am much better on land reading a topographical map while out bushwalking (hiking) than trying to work out general distances and locations over the water. When I look out at a headland over the water to estimate how far away it is, or if I spot a red nun in the distance and try and work out its position relative to us, I really have no idea. My spacial awareness seems all wrong.

It doesn’t help that depending on the wind and the tide, nothing seems to ever stay in one place for very long; and, of course, sailing boats don’t always go where they are pointing. I guess having some practical experience is the best way to learn, and I have found over time that reading the paper charts gives me the best perspective for the larger picture, literally.

I love maps, and electronic charts are no exception. Realizing that you are that little spot on the face of the planet is amazing to me, and the AIS and radar, among the many other features available today on electronic charts, are incredible.

However, there are a few things that make navigation tricky for me. First of all, we are sailing in Maine. The phrase “red right return” when coming into port doesn’t always seem to apply here. There always seems to be more than one way to enter. Sometimes, it seems to be “green right return.” Perhaps the best idea is just to stay in the deeper water marked on the chart, or to go between the red and green.

To make things even more confusing, I am an Australian, and I need to do a “mental flip” (like driving on the other side of the road). Let me explain. When sailing into a port in Australia, the red channel marker is on the left-hand side. We leave it to port. Our phrase to remind us of this is something like “when in port, drink port.” Is that helpful for navigation? Well, not if you drink a lot of port. But I’m not sure. We also use kilometers instead of miles, meters instead of feet or yards, and Celsius instead of Fahrenheit.

I find I am often attempting to do the conversions while out on our sailing trips. Nautical miles don’t help me! How far away is that lobster pot, err, 50 yards… or is that 30 meters at 12 o’clock?! No! Now it’s 20 meters at 12 o’clock! How cold is the water? Um, err, 56 degrees Fahrenheit – take away 32 gets you 24, and then halve that gets you 12 degrees Celsius. Yep, now I get it. That water is bloody cold. How deep is that water? I once heard a lobster man talking about fathoms! No, don’t go there. Yeah, maths is not my forte.

Ok, now, shall I mention fog? Of course. With a sailing boat called Mystic in Maine, I had better mention it. This is a phenomenon that Australians rarely have to deal with, and my first experience with fog while sailing in New England was eerie and nerve-wracking. It was blowing in fast, and there was no warning. It can be both beautiful to experience and frightening at the same time, so it certainly makes sailing in New England interesting. Ian and I would often joke about the definition of fog. Oh, it is only haze in the distance. Oh, it’s a bit of mist. No, it’s just some low-lying cloud. Anything but fog.

Now, after having sailed in Maine for a few years, we have sailed in whiteouts, motored in whiteouts and anchored in whiteouts. So, we were delighted to discover some new definitions. (See the storyline cartoon below).

Ian has installed an awesome foghorn high up on Mystic’s mast. This is my favorite toy. It is set to blast automatically every few minutes, and the sequence depends on whether we are under sail (one long, two short) or not (just one blast). During those few minutes of eerie silence between horn blasts, we both stay attuned to any sound of an engine approaching. If we hear one, we try to work out where it is coming from.

One day while sailing in what I would call “dungeon fog,” I heard an engine getting closer and closer. Ian checked the radar there was nothing! The foghorn kept blasting, and the engine noise kept coming. Soon it was so loud I was expecting a collision. I grabbed the handheld air horn and began blasting. This only had the effect of deafening us and leaving our ears ringing. The engine noise became louder and louder and kept coming. Then, it was on top of us, yes, literally, on top. Holy Dooley, it was a small plane flying just above us and above the fog. #*&#

Meanwhile, we wake to a clear sunny morning in Cutler, and it’s time for some coffee. Time to celebrate our wonderful sailing trip to this pretty little village on the coast of Maine. As an Australian, I certainly feel very lucky to have had this opportunity to visit and explore the coastline of Maine on our beautiful sailing boat, Mystic.

Oh, ok, the coffee’s ready… but, really!! I think it’s definitely time to change that timer alarm on my phone from the alarming radar BLEEP to the gentle sound of wind chimes.

Donna is a visual artist and grew up riding horses in country Australia. Her husband, Ian, introduced Donna to sailing first on a Hobiecat and then later cruising on a 32ft sailboat in Western Australia. Ian and Donna moved to Massachusetts for work in 2015: and, after falling in love with the New England coast, decided to purchase, Mystic, a 44ft Nordic Sloop. Over the past few years, they have cruised the coast from New York to Cutler, Maine.