Baptism by fire, Part II

By John Quirk
For Points East

In Part 1, with crew unavailable, the author, a relative greenhorn, chose to singlehand – in late October – his 1968 Hinckley Pilot 35, Sea-Finn, from Oyster Bay, Long Island, to Midcoast Maine. He reached Kennebunkport, and it wasn’t pretty, but he’d learned enough to get him – hopefully, in Part 2 – to Seal Cove Boat Yard, in East Penobscot Bay. And, if the offshore muse calls, to landfalls over the horizon.

The Hinckley Pilot 35 came with a lofty pedigree, but her master — at the beginning, anyway — was a classic greenhorn. Photo by John Quirk

It was Oct. 31, and the good news was that I was in Kennebunkport. Looking at the NOAA forecast, I wasn’t going anywhere for the next two days. The forecast that day called for rain all day, 10- to 12-foot waves, and 25- to 30- mph gusts. And the following day featured a near-hurricane forecast of 17- to 20-foot waves and 65-mph winds. Holy crap!

Not having any electricity, or a restroom, at the marina, I would have to figure out something for the next three days. The weather started to turn colder, and at least I brought my son’s Boy Scout sleeping bag. That morning, I walked down to the Nonantum Resort, hoping it would be open, and it was. For the next three days, this would be my home-away-from home in the morning. I would sit in the lobby and have coffee, charge my phone, and wait for the breakfast buffet to open at 8 a.m. The two maintenance workers would greet me with, “Hey, Strong-Island” – apparently hip-hop slang for Long Island.

I spent the day doing laundry, and having a lobster-roll lunch at Alisson’s Restaurant, where I picked up a copy of Points East. In Final Passages, I read about the tragic death of biomedical engineer Sandra Tartaglino – a world-class competitive sailor, well known in the high-performance racing world – and knew I was in over my head.

I called Sam Vaughan, co-owner of Seal Cove Boatyard, about getting a captain for the rest of the way. He called area skippers, but not one was interested in a November delivery. And then I read a feature story in Points East – “A Late Season Delivery” by Capt. Michael L. Martel – which gave me the confidence to continue by myself. Two more days on the water and I would be done.

That night the wind started to pick up, and white caps were in the channel. I didn’t sleep much because the boat was getting lifted up and slammed down. The first time this happened, I thought the sailboat across from me had broken loose and hit my boat. I was worried about my lines, and must have checked them four times during the night.

The next morning, I learned that half the town had lost power. I walked down to the entrance of the channel and could see waves crashing over the jetties, and that a green can had come loose. That storm was so strong that even the lobstermen didn’t go out.

The next day’s forecast wasn’t bad. High tide was at 3 a.m., and I wanted to take advantage of it. I had an early dinner at the Hurricane Restaurant (I recommend the double-cut pork chop and bread pudding) and went to bed. I awoke at 4:30, and got under way at 5:00.

I took it slow, with a spotlight in hand, and soon I was between the breakwaters. At 5 a.m., with clear skies, the stars were unbelievable. Leaving Kennebunkport, the waves were about four feet, and the wind had subsided. My goal this day was to get to Boothbay Harbor, because no marina had picked up the phone, and my offshore mentor, delivery skipper Winslow Furber (see “Baptism Under Fire: Part 1,” October/November issue) recommended the public docks in the inner harbor there.

The forecast was favorable, and I hoped to have two straight days of calm water. But it was cold, and I had 52 miles to go this day. It was a straight run close to the Maine shoreline, and it was pretty much uneventful, but for a couple of whales and a school of dolphins.

Twelve hours later, I entered the inner harbor, circled it, and asked two men shrink-wrapping a boat if I could tie up at the public docks. They said there was no room, so I seemed to be out of options. I could grab a mooring, but with no head and barely enough food for tomorrow, I didn’t want to do that. I circled the marina again, and spied a brand-new, obviously private floating dock with two boats in slips. I could tie up on the outside and have plenty of room to leave in the morning.

I circled again and decided to go for it. I brought the bow line to the cockpit, and put the fenders in place, but I’d forgotten about the stern line, which I’d cleated and coiled on a winch. I pulled alongside the dock on my starboard side, jumped off, and ran to cleat off the bow line. I went to go grab the stern line, and it wasn’t there. I’d left it on the port side winch, and the stern was starting to blow off the dock.

Back aboard again, I put the boat into reverse and threw the stern line toward the dock, which I missed. Then the line got caught in the prop. When the stern was about four feet from the dock, the prop spit out the stern line. I grabbed it, jumped onto the dock, and tied off the stern to a cleat. I’m sure anyone watching this fiasco had a good laugh. After pouring myself a Dark ’n Stormy, and getting out of my gear, I walked up to the house above the dock. I asked a woman there if this was her dock? She said it wasn’t; that she was the property manager. I asked if I could stay on the dock until the morning, and she said it shouldn’t be a problem. “Just leave me your phone number and I’ll ask my boss.”

Her name was Beth, and her boss was Paul Coulombe, owner of Pinnacle vodka – and the yacht/golf club at which I was docked. Beth would not take my credit card for the slip. This was the second time on the trip that a marina/yacht club had refused to take my credit card. As I was getting ready to go to sleep, two Boothbay police officers appeared on the dock with flashlights and asked what I was doing there. I told them I had permission from the property manager, and, thankfully, they believed me.

For the last leg, I had to leave very early because of daylight saving time (falling back an hour). Instead of shooting for a 5 p.m. arrival, I would have to be at Seal Cove by 4 p.m. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. to start the engine and to have a cup of coffee. It was really cold, and the engine took a couple of starts to kick over. I followed a lobsterboat out of the marina, with spotlight in hand to spot for moorings and lobster buoys.

It was a clear pre-dawn morning, with an awesome array of stars, and the sea was calm. I went past Squirrel Island, then through Fisherman Island Passage. I wanted to keep close to shore so I wouldn’t have to go too far south just to go north again. I was going toward Metinic Island, from which I could go straight up Penobscot Bay. As I entered the bay, I sensed the finish line was around the corner. The weather was good, and the only worry I had was lobster buoys.

As I passed Vinalhaven, then North Haven, I could see Cape Rosier ahead. By 3 p.m., I could see the entrance to Seal Cove, at Harborside. I’d made it. Thinking back on all the things that could have gone wrong, and didn’t, I was proud of myself. At times, I questioned my sanity on this trip.

I could now see the Seal Cove dock and moorings. I took out my phone to call Sam Vaughan to tell him I was here. All of sudden I slammed into something and was jolted into the wheel. I was so busy making the phone call, I never saw the markers for entering Seal Cove Marina at low tide. Luckily, Bob Vaughan, Sam’s father and co-owner of the yard, saw me run aground, took it in stride, and told me, “You’re in good company: Both Bobby and Ted Kennedy got stuck on it, along with Nelson Rockefeller and Walter Cronkite.” The locals call it Kennedy rock. I gave Bob my halyard, and he pulled me off. I was embarrassed because of hitting the rock, and upset because I thought I’d damaged my boat. However, Bob and Sam assured me that there was no damage, Sam adding, “It’s a Hinckley.”

I learned a lot about myself on this trip – about what I could accomplish, and how not to push the envelope. Safely back home, I learned that the 28’ sloop Blue Dog (ex-Tally Ho!), skippered by 72-year-old Peter Farrell – a lifelong seafarer from Babylon, N.Y. ( threads/sailor-peter-farrell-sv-tally-ho-missing.331912) – had gone missing during the same timeframe as my delivery. This made me realize how fast things can go wrong.

Was I just more lucky than other sailors? Probably, because I know I didn’t have as much experience. Would I consider myself conservative by limiting risks? Yes. When a couple of my friends wanted to go with me, I brushed them off because I didn’t want to put them in harm’s way. The people I met along the coast of New England? They couldn’t have been more hospitable.

Would I do this trip solo again? Probably not. But, if I had to, I wouldn’t go in late-October and November. Too many things can go wrong in late-fall conditions. Bottom line: By doing this alone, I’d become a better sailor.

John Quirk resides in Oyster Bay, N.Y. He learned how to sail later in life after moving out of New York City. John sails, and is still restoring Sea-Finn, his 35-foot, 1968 Hinckley Pilot. “I’ve worked two jobs for the past 30 years, and recently retired from New York City Sanitation Department,” John says. “Buying this boat was kind of my retirement gift.”