Anhinga, and the lessons learned

Photo courtesy Roger Long

June 2021

By Roger Long

Senior year in high school was when I put away childish things and became fully obsessed with boats. I’d made a weeklong cruise in my 10’ dinghy with a boom tent the summer before on Lake George, and was teaching myself boat-design from books. My roommate’s family bought an 18’ Marshall catboat that spring and my cruising life began in earnest. Forty thousand or so miles later, I look back and realize that the biggest seas and most dangerous conditions I ever experienced while in command of a vessel were in that little craft. Yes, I was young and stupid.

My roommate Bruce, his father, Bruce’s younger brother, and a family friend and I picked the boat up at the builder’s on a blustery early spring day. It was one of those smokey sou’westers that Buzzards Bay is known for, and we headed out into conditions that I wouldn’t take our 43’ trawler out in now. If the five of us had put all our combined boating knowledge on this page, I could stop typing now. Minutes after seeing the boat for the first time, we were surfing down big waves bound for the canal.

The boat was doing great. I was steering and John, the family friend, said, “Roger is doing a pretty good job of keeping us dry.”

My roommate said, “It isn’t Roger. This is just a great boat.”

I said. “Next three waves, right in the cockpit.” Splash, splash, SPLASH!

I had learned a little bit sailing my dinghy.

We arrived at Plymouth where we went in for the night. John was a funny guy and a former Battle of Britain pilot with the accent to go with it. Tied up at the town dock we looked pretty salty, and judging by the state of the cockpit the boat had gone ashore in a hurricane. John climbed up the ladder and asked a woman where he could find the harbormaster. She exclaimed, “Oh, did you sail over from England?”

John said, “Yes, we did.” That complicated things a bit when she sent the harbormaster down.

Everyone went home to sleep except Bruce and me, so I spent my first night in a boat with a cabin. It was decided that the younger brother had experienced enough sailing, so just the four of us continued on to Boston the next morning. A front had gone through overnight and the day was bright and windy. It was a slog beating up to Boston, and the sea state was terribly confused. The other three were soon very sick. They looked at the chart and decided to go into the North River.

I had poured though Roger Duncan’s “Cruising Guide to the New England Coast,” which Bruce had in our room at school. I got it out and read to them the description of the North River, which ends with “Lives are lost every year on this bar.” I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I do remember thinking I might have to find something heavy and stage a mutiny. They were all sick and disoriented, and Bruce was saying, “Look, you can see that no waves are breaking.” Relief of their misery was just a couple miles away, but I knew from my books that the first wave you see break in such a situation will almost always be behind you. We were lucky that day.

I next saw Anhinga, (named for a bird that “flies” underwater) the following summer. Bruce was out of state that summer and Eric, the younger brother, was very keen on sailing. The family thought he was too young to sail alone, so were glad to have me take him sailing, We started cruising together and this began a lifelong friendship that has included his being best man at my wedding.

The parents’ faith in my judgment was a bit of a miss-judgment. For instance, there was the time I took us out of Newburyport and only realized between the jetties that it was too dangerous to turn around. We made it out, but ended up running under bare poles for a while after the engine quit. After triple-reefing the main we somehow made it into Annisquam.

Our most memorable sail together was an amazingly fast close reach to Provincetown in big waves that I also would not have risked in the big trawler I now cruise in. We aimed for the monument and then got into the lee of the land with a six-mile beat to windward. It may have been a lee for the waves, but not the wind. With the wind now right down on the water, and dead against us, it took almost as long to motorsail those last six miles as the crossing from Boston itself.

The boat had an alcohol stove that doubled as a heater. I don’t remember how it happened, but it was filled with the wrong fluid. Eric had forgotten to bring a sleeping bag and was wrapped in the sail cover. I was woken by his scream just in time to see him grab a ball of fire from the cabin table and rush out into the cockpit to throw it overboard. The next day was dead calm, so we motored back across the bay with everything piled in the cockpit while I washed soot from every surface of the cabin. Eric steered gingerly with his burned hands.

The family kindly let me use the boat by myself. Another memorable cruise was when a cute little nurse’s aid from Boston City Hospital agreed to go with me. We rode our bikes down to the marina in Squantum and sailed to Scituate. At the time, I was very awkward with girls. We were anchored in the harbor for the fireworks and . . . well, this is a family magazine. Let’s just say that it was probably the moment I realized that a cruising boat, as well as being an object of affection, could also be my ally.

Bruce returned to Boston that fall and we became roommates again. His family was building a cottage in Maine, and we decided to sail the boat up to Boothbay Harbor that spring. I’m not sure how closely we looked at the weather forecast, but we left late in the day. We were looking at a large ship anchored in the outer harbor when it suddenly disappeared as fog rolled in. It was too deep to anchor, so we spent much of the night motoring back and forth beside the ship, convinced that leaving it would be to our detriment.

The following summer found me back in Maine, pursuing my dream of becoming a wooden-boat designer. The fact that Anhinga was there also figured in the plan. Eric and I took her out for a short cruise, and I’ve been in love with Maine ever since. More than once over the years I’ve duplicated this trip up the Sheepscot River, and I plan on anchoring in the exact same spot this summer if we make it to Maine on our trawler.

There were a lot of short cruises and day sails that summer, during which we gradually developed some level of competence. That, of course, means mistakes. The outboard motor went in for repair and the family let another friend and me borrow the boat for a pure sailing cruise to Mohegan Island. The wind shifted in the middle of the night and we ended up just a couple of waves from those breaking on a cliff. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep.

The family decided by fall that Eric had learned enough to take the boat south via the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida for his gap year. It was to be a grand adventure, but an incident in Maine involving Anhinga ultimately left Eric wondering if it was such a good idea.

Roger Long, formerly harbormaster of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and designer of commercial vessels, now divides his time between summers in upstate New York and snowbirding on the 43-foot Gulfstar trawler Gypsy Star. Check this space next month for part two of the Anhinga story.