Baptism by fire

The author in a rare selfie. An ill-advised trip? Perhaps. But the experience gained will serve him well in the future. Photo by John Quirk

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. You can read the second part here.

By John Quirk
For Points East

I was bound north and east from my home port of Oyster Bay, Long Island, to Seal Cove Boat Yard, in Harborside, Maine. I’d reserved dockage at the Sandwich Marina, at the east end of the Cape Cod Canal. I’d told the marina that I’d never pulled my Hinckley Pilot 35, Sea-Finn into a slip, and asked if I could tie up at the fuel dock instead. The marina said this would be OK.

As I approached, I saw that a Coast Guard boat was at the fuel dock. I’m like, sh**! Now what do I do? A slip was straight ahead. I put her in neutral and tied the fenders on the port side. I still approached the pier way too fast. I panicked, jumped off, and struggled to get the bow line over the cleat, scraping my knuckles along the concrete. The bow stopped inches away from hitting the concrete pier. Sh**! That was close. As I looked down at my bloody knuckles, I thought, “Why didn’t I just put her in reverse?”

Two days into my first solo cruise – in late October – I was wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I was armed with the confidence gained during two doublehanded passages in Sea-Finn with delivery skipper Winslow Furber, to and from Maine. So when crew proved unavailable, I chose to head Downeast by myself. I would sail the same route, but stay within sight of land and be off the boat by 4:30 p.m. every day.

So it was that I’d left Oyster Bay Marina around 4:40 a.m. two days before. The NOAA forecast called for two- to three-foot waves, a 20-knot breeze, and sun. With the course I plotted, and with a fair current most of the day, I was planning on getting to Mystic, Conn., around 5 p.m. This plan failed.

The waves were more like four to six feet, the wind was out of the east on my nose, and I was barely making three knots for the first six hours. Being new to this, I didn’t have a Plan B for a marina. The sun came out around 1300, the wind and waves died down, and I headed for Cedar Island Marina, in Clinton, Conn., where the dockmaster helped me with my lines. Safe for the night.

I asked the captain of a 135-foot yacht about leaving in the morning with the tide, and he told me I’d be all right by 5 a.m. – and to stay closer to the red buoys, and not to worry because they were lighted. It was time to get off the boat, shower and have dinner at Rocky’s Aqua. I couldn’t stop rocking back and forth all night.

The next morning I took off in the dark, slowly, looking for those buoys the captain said had lights. Of course, they didn’t. I finally spotted a green can that was lighted. Then, just as I realized we weren’t moving, I knew I was on the wrong side of the second-to-last red buoy. I’m like, Oh sh**; I’m stuck in the mud! I tried to back out, but Sea-Finn didn’t move. I turned the wheel to starboard, toward a red buoy, and she gave way. Soon I was through the Clinton channel and back into Long Island Sound.

It turned out to be another crappy day. The waves were higher than expected, and the wind was directly on my nose. I texted Winslow, who told me to go inside Fishers Island: “You might catch a break for a few hours.” He was right; the waves were much smaller. By the time I’d reached Watch Hill, the waves had morphed to large rollers from the south. I didn’t know which was worse: whitecaps on the nose, which made for a wet bumpy ride, or these rollers, which made me feel I was one wave away from dying, because they looked like they could crash over the starboard side.

After a couple of hours, in stronger wind, I saw the breakwater at the entrance to the Point Judith Harbor of Refuge. I tried calling Point Judith Marina, in Snug Harbor, but nobody was picking up. Having come in late, the marina was closed. As I turned into the channel, the wind heeled the boat way over, and I worried I’d hit the jetty. Then it began to rain. As I approached the marina’s fuel dock, I hoped someone would be there to take my lines, but no one appeared. I came back around, and two guys at the dock waved to me. I thought they’d be there to give me a hand, but that was the last I saw of them. I would have to do this by myself.

I put the fenders on the port side and slowly approached the dock, and, upon arrival, I put her in neutral and was off to the races. I jumped off the boat to cleat the bow line, and ran back to grab the stern line and cleat it off. I was totally out of breath, but another day had been completed. A Dark ’n Stormy seemed appropriate for the end of this day.

Winslow texted me, advising an early start the next morning so that I’d catch a fair tide in the Cape Cod Canal. I’d have to be through the canal by 5 p.m., he said. At 4:30 a.m., I awoke to rain and heavy fog. I could barely see the fishing boats going out, so I decided it wasn’t worth leaving early. I could barely see the boats in the marina. How would it be outside the marina? Even though I had radar, I wasn’t taking any chances.

The fog lifted and the rain stopped around 6:45 a.m., and I took off. As I was heading out, the sun broke through, and the wind was out of the south but blowing hard. I finally had an opportunity to raise the jib. This being my first long, solo sail, I didn’t want to leave the cockpit to set the main. I kept my harness on at all times, but I still didn’t have the confidence to do that. I had put a sail tie around the jib because of the strong winds the past week, and I’d forgotten to untie it before leaving Point Judith. As I made my way to the foredeck to the jib – pretty much crawling and pulling my harness up the lifelines – I held on for dear life as I freed the sail tie. Then I quickly made my way back to the confines of the cockpit.

As I was preparing to set the jib, I saw another sailboat whose two-person crew was struggling with their headsail. If these two sailors were having a problem with their jib, I knew I’d be screwed if I had a similar situation occur. So I decided not to raise mine just to pick up another knot or two.

I made good time entering Buzzards Bay, anyway. As I entered the canal, I kept the red cans pretty close to my starboard side, and I could see the bridges connecting the mainland to Cape Cod. I also saw that another sailboat – with surfboards and bicycles on deck – was approaching me dead ahead. Is it me, or isn’t he supposed to be on the other side of the channel? Why isn’t he moving to his starboard side? Am I on the wrong side? I didn’t understand why he would be so close to me.

As we passed each other, the skipper did not wave, and I thought that I must be doing something wrong. After that a large, red tanker bore down the channel. Maybe this sailor was hugging my side of the channel because of the tanker coming? He could have waved.

I entered the canal, and my speed, with the current, reached nine knots. And here we were again, with another sailboat coming right at me. I was about 20 yards from the Cape shoreline, and this boat was not changing course, so I turned to port and ended up in the middle of channel. Thus, as this sailboat was heading down on my starboard side (he didn’t wave, either), I was really questioning myself. Was I doing something wrong? (See sidebar, “Cape Cod Canal Navigation Rules,” on Page 31)

Since I didn’t pay for a transient slip at Point Judith, once in Sandwich, I called the marina and explained that I’d come in late at night, left early, and wanted to pay for dockage. “Don’t worry about it; any port in the storm,” the lady replied. “We’re just glad you were safe.” Nice.

I didn’t sleep much in Sandwich due to seagulls squawking and concern about how I was going to get out of the marina by myself. I saw a maintenance worker cutting the grass, and introduced myself to Charlie. I asked Charlie for help getting out of the slip and tying up at the fuel dock. Charlie probably saved me from another embarrassing moment getting out of that marina.

I wanted to get to Gloucester on Day 3. Leaving after 8 a.m., I knew I wasn’t going to get there before sunset, so I settled on Marblehead. There were no whitecaps, only big rollers and a light drizzle. I called marinas in Marblehead, with no luck of getting a slip. All I could get was a mooring, but not having a head, I didn’t want to spend the night on a mooring.

I called Salem, with the same result: no slips, just moorings. A marina in Manchester had a slip, but I’d never make it there before sunset. And another challenge: I started encountering lobster-pot buoys – lots of them. I truly couldn’t afford to get one stuck in my prop. Running out of time, I called the Beverly Port Marina, which had transient slips and fuel. Passing Marblehead and Salem, Beverly was just up the channel.

I entered the marina and did my two loops hoping someone would help me. No luck. So, getting my bow and stern lines ready, I slowly approached the fuel dock and did my jump-and-run to the bow. This landing was uneventful. After tying up, the owner of Beverly Port Marina, Frank Kinzie, came down and asked, “Are you alone?” When I told him, he said, “You did that well. You should have called me; I would have helped you.”

After I fueled up, I went up to Frank’s office to pay for the slip and fuel. I told him where I was going, to which he replied, “A little late in the season – and you’re doing this by yourself?” Frank pulled out a chart and showed me the best way to get out of this area. “Once you get past Gloucester, you have three marinas to shoot for,” he said, and they’re in Portsmouth, York or Kennebunkport.”

Frank showed me where the bathroom, showers and washing machines were, and recommended a restaurant across the street called the Anchor Pub & Grille. This was a Tuesday night, and the place was packed. I couldn’t believe how crowded it was for a Tuesday. The food was great, so I highly recommend the Anchor.

Every morning before pulling out I would make coffee, look at my paper charts, and decide what harbor and marina to shoot for. This morning, I chose Kennebunkport. I followed a lobster boat out of the Beverly Channel into Salem Channel, going between Great Misery and Bakers islands. The weather looked good, and I knew that if I wanted to make Kennebunkport I wouldn’t be able to run close to shore after passing Gloucester and Rockport.

Today, the ocean was almost like glass – finally, a day I wouldn’t be bounced around. I spent roughly 12 hours a day on the boat, and would plot every 45 minutes. This way, the trip wouldn’t get too monotonous. But now, in this part of New England, I had to keep an eye out for lobster buoys every five minutes. Once I got around Cape Ann, my quickest route to Kennebunkport would require eight to 10 miles offshore. I would have the Isles of Shoals to port.

When 10 miles off, you still have to look for the lobster buoys – and other hazards. For example, I noticed a boat wake about three miles away, and this boat was coming directly at me, fast. Now, I’m like, sh**, what’s this boat doing? It’s a lobster boat, and it’s still coming straight at me. I’m heading northeast; it’s heading southwest. I’m going five knots; he’s going at least five times that, straight at me toward my port side. Then it’s less than 50 yards off. What is he doing? How are we the only two boats out here, and we’re about to collide? At the last moment, he turned away and went astern of me and kept going. Was he checking to see if I was all right? I doubt it, because he didn’t wave or slow down.

As I spied the first signs of Kennebunkport, a seal popped his head out within 15 feet of me. It gave me a look like, What the hell are you doing out here? I didn’t need that. I saw a few more lobsterboats, but none of these were in any way threatening. I’d had enough excitement for one day.

I was going to barely get in to Kennebunkport with any light, so, earlier that day, I called Chicks Marina, and the dockmaster said, “Tie up at the fuel dock. You’ll have plenty of room, about 50 yards to yourself. Just look to the starboard side for the pilings painted orange.” I knew the drill, docked with my new finesse, and felt relieved to be in.

Leaving Oyster Bay, I had no idea I’d be docking Sea-Finn solo. I didn’t think the weather would be as bad, and I assumed all marinas would be open. The first four days were horrible. I did keep in touch with my family, especially my dad and delivery skipper Winslow Furber. I had the Navionics chart app on my phone, and I highly recommend this in case you lose your GPS chartplotter. And always carry paper charts.

Part 2 of “Baptism by fire” will appear in the December issue of Points East. In it, I bravely enter the heart of Midcoast Maine, bound for Penobscot Bay.

John Quirk resides in Oyster Bay, N.Y. He learned how to sail late in life after moving out of New York City. John sails, and is still restoring, Sea-Finn, his 35-foot, 1968 Hinckley Pilot.


Cape Cod Canal navigation rules

It turns out that Sea-Finn’s intrepid owner/skipper, John Quirk, had good reason to be confused by helmspeople who ignored any “port-to-port” and stay-on-starboard-side regulations. We recognize that canny skippers play eddies in foul-current situations, but check out “Obstructing Navigation” in the second paragraph below.

Speed/Excessive Wake: A 10-mph speed limit and “no excessive wake” is in effect for Cleveland Ledge and Hog Island channels and the land cut of the Cape Cod Canal. The wake restrictions and speed limit are strictly enforced to ensure the safety of vessels using the canal and approach channel, and to protect visitors along the banks of the canal.

Obstructing Navigation: Stopping, anchoring, unnecessarily idling at a low speed or otherwise obstructing navigation within the limits of the canal is prohibited. Low-powered vessels not making adequate headway are an obstruction to navigation. Vessels must stay to the right-hand side of the channel while transiting.

Railroad Bridge: Vessels shall not travel under the Railroad Bridge while it is in the process of being lowered, or while it is fixed in the lowered position. In accordance with posted restrictions, all vessels must maintain a safe distance from the bridge while it is fixed in the lowered position.

Fishing: Fishing, trolling, or lobstering by boat within the land cut, or the confines of the approach channels of the canal, as defined by U.S. Coast Guard buoys and beacons, is obstructing navigation and is strictly prohibited.

Swimming/Diving: Swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving within the limits of the Cape Cod Canal is prohibited.

Emergencies: Boat operators are required to notify the Marine Traffic Controller immediately, via VHF Channel 13, if an emergency situation has developed, or appears to be developing. When the Marine Traffic Controller, or patrol boat operator, determines that an emergency situation exists, they are authorized to require boat operators to accept assistance from government vessels.

Right-of-way hierarchy: While transiting the Canal, the following right-of-way hierarchy shall be observed, in addition to the U.S. Coast Guard Inland Navigation Rules:

1. Vessels under 65 feet in length shall not interfere with vessels 65 feet and over in length.

2. Recreational vessels shall not interfere with commercial vessels.

3. Vessels traveling against the current shall not interfere with vessels traveling with the current. The two greatest dangers recreational boaters face in the canal are the swift currents and encounters with large commercial traffic within a narrow channel.

FMI: Write Canal Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cape Cod Canal Field Office, P.O. Box 1555, Buzzards Bay, MA 02532, or phone: Cape Cod Canal Field Office at 508-759-4431. Website: