Back on the land

American Gothic 2005: Dave and JaJa Martin pose playfully on their 25-acre parcel in Round Pond, Maine, where they’re building a home.

By Dave Martin
For Points East

In August 2003, we sailed into Round Pond harbor, Maine. We dropped the anchor in the crowded mooring field, dinghied to shore, and had a glimpse of the place that would alter our gypsy lifestyle. The harbor and village held some kind of magic. Maybe it was the correlation between people and place that remained relatively pure; since many of the locals were born and raised in the area, the pace of life that reared them hadn’t packed up and moved on.

Round Pond harbor is as close to landlocked as you’ll get in Maine. This is what attracted us. We’ve learned if we want a good place to live we first have to find a good harbor. Part of this equation is practical: If the boat is safe, we’re safe. The other half of the equation is less scientific. If the local watermen have a safe harbor, they are more likely to be easygoing. It’s like having a large bank account. Security.

The voyage that led us to Maine began in North Carolina in 1997. It was there we bought Driver, our 33-foot steel sloop. She was a boatyard derelict, leaning against time with the help of boat stands and blocks of wood. Built in France in 1980, she was sailed to Africa’s Ivory Coast. In 1992, she was gutted, sandblasted inside and out, coated with Awlgrip, and given a new interior – one that resembled the tree houses I built when I was 9 years old. Rustic. The second set of owners sailed her to Texas, then up the Intracoastal Waterway to North Carolina. When we discovered that the boat had been on the hard for over a year, we offered half the asking price. She was ours.

Following a yearlong refit (during which I gutted the interior and started over again), we set off for Iceland. The general scheme was a summer cruise to the Land of Fire and Ice with our three kids (ages 2, 6 and 8). After that, our plans were vague. Go to the Faroe Islands, perhaps, or on to Scotland. But our six-week stopover became a yearlong stint when we discovered a good harbor on Iceland’s northern coast. We hunkered down, put our kids into Icelandic school, and savored our first northern winter.

We became addicted to the high latitudes. What followed were two winters living aboard in Norway, a voyage to Spitsbergen (just south of 80 degrees north latitude), Greenland, and a winter aboard in Newfoundland. We couldn’t get enough. As one might expect, our cruising friends in the tropics gave us a lot of heat for choosing to cruise in cold climes. “Why are you sailing where it’s never warm?” they’d ask. “Where ice is a threat and the water is cold and murky?” As obnoxious as this is going to sound, if you have to ask that question you will not understand the answer.

Our arrival in Maine blew us away because we were unprepared for the sheer volume of boats that filled every nook and cranny. Compared to the northern waters, where the sight of another cruising boat was rare, our landfall in Northeast Harbor at Mount Desert was awe-inspiring. We saw more sailboats in six minutes than we’d seen in six years. Seeing another boat up north was an occasion, a reason to party.

We stood on deck waving at these fellow sailors. How exciting! So many friends! What greeted us was big-city indifference. In truth, we must have been a sight – a battle-worn slab-sided steel boat, complete with three kids hanging from bosun’s chairs, and the captain and mate barefoot in faded jeans. Jaja enjoyed the uncomfortable reaction we elicited upon cocktail hour, so she made a big show of standing on deck, waving cheerily to all we passed. That’s my girl.

By the time we reached the public dock in Northeast Harbor (we needed to phone customs and immigration), our senses were clogged. We felt tired – and it wasn’t the overnighter from Nova Scotia. Around us were big homes, big boats, and fancy cars. To top it off, all and sundry were decked out wearing impossibly clean clothing. We felt like prisoners inside an L. L. Bean catalog. After checking in with the authorities, I went to the marina office. People for miles around heard me shouting: “YOU WANT HOW MUCH FOR A MOORING!!!?”

Our plans were vague. But that was normal. Itineraries reek of inflexibility, both in mind and spirit. Three things were for certain: We needed a good place to park the boat, jobs, and a school for the kids.

Our summer was geared around seeking a place to live. We hit all the likely spots from Bar Harbor to Thomaston. The harbors either were too big, too small, too rural, too seasonal, too yuppified, or worst of all, too exposed. We didn’t want to go any farther to the south because we had an aversion to the overcrowded mayhem that begins in Portland and doesn’t let up until you get 10 miles offshore from Key West. Midcoast Maine is where we wanted to be. But where?

Ten days before Labor Day, Driver was swinging on her anchor in Valley Cove, on Somes Sound. It was hot. Blue sky. The dynamics of that anchorage are interesting. It’s right in the heart of Maine’s tourist mecca, yet few boats bother with it. The ones that do, however, seem more connected with reality. In Valley Cove, there’s no dock or moorings. Imagine! The best part about the cove is nature. Hikes abound.

We noticed a family cruising on a Nonsuch 30. Mom, dad, and daughter. Their dinghy was fiberglass, and it did not have an engine. Oars. Just like us. We like rowing. It is quiet, so you can have conversations going to and from shore. Cruising is all about slowing down the pace of your life. Dinghy motors speed it up.

The guy from the Nonsuch rowed past Driver, and Jaja said hi. They got into a conversation – a conversation that would change our entire lives.

“Where do you live?” Jaja asked.

“In Bremen, but we keep our boat in Round Pond,” our new acquaintance replied. “Great place. Very protected. You should stop by and check it out. Good schools and plenty of work.” School was starting in a week, and our three wanted to be on time for the first day. We looked on the chart. Round Pond was a leisurely three-day hop. We left the next morning.

Robert Ball, lobsterman and harbormaster in Round Pond, came alongside Driver after seeing us anchored in the mooring field. “Seen you anchored here for several days,” he said in friendly fashion. We told him that our kids were enrolled in school, down at Bristol, that we’d be staying through the winter.

I mentioned I’d inquired at Padebco Boats for a mooring, but that none were available. I have no problem paying for a mooring for long-term use, but Robert took over. “Well,” he said, “I have a spare mooring near to my lobsterboat. It’s a 3,000-pound block. Plenty big enough.”

“How much?”

“Oh, I don’t want any money for it. Be just as pleased to have somebody use it who really needs it.”

When our new friends Davie Wilkins, his wife Karen Ottenstein, and their daughter Katherine returned on their Nonsuch and saw us in the bay, they were surprised. Surprise turned to disbelief when they learned we were staying. “But, if things don’t work out, it will be our fault,” they worried.

“We forgive easily.”

As the winter of 2003 approached, we moved off Driver and rented a summer cottage on the harbor. Cheap. I took a job as finish carpenter at Padebco Boats. Jaja found a job at the kids’ school. That was 18 months ago. We’ve since bought 25 acres of forest about six miles away from the harbor, where we’re building our first house. Driver is temporarily high and dry in the boatyard, a monument to our current way of life. As soon as our kids get through high school, Jaja and I will hit the high seas again. In the meantime, we’re enjoying this leafy interlude. It forms a comfortable counterpoint to high-seas adventure.

Lewis Carroll said it best: “If you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

Dave and Jaja Martin are authors of “Into the Light: A Family’s Epic Journey” published in 2002 by Beowulf Publishing Co. (www.setsail.com).