Beware the last sail

Roger Long’s fall delivery trip took him across only a small corner of Casco Bay. But remember, big things can come in small packages.

September, 2006

By Roger Long
For Points East

I learned a good lesson on the last sail of 2005: If you are going to have your boat hauled several miles away, don’t take all the cushions, food, spare clothes, and other gear, including the Scotch, off at your home dock just because it’s handy to the car. You might need that stuff.

Especially the Scotch.

It wasn’t supposed to be a sail, just a quick trip as a powerboat from Portland, Maine, up to Yarmouth for the haul-out. I’d taken the 130-percent roller-furling genoa home in anticipation of a solo slog to windward on a day when it was blowing hard and gray out of the northeast. There was enough of a slant to the wind to set the main, and motorsailing with a steadier motion and less noise than the engine made running alone was an attractive option.

It was reasonably gnarly. I was heeling 30 degrees under main alone in the harder gusts and getting well wet down with flying spray. It didn’t seem worth reefing so I put up with some sail flogging and worked up under the lee of the Diamonds. That got me far enough to windward that I could ease the sheets sufficiently to send almost half the spray off to leeward instead of straight into my face. It became quite pleasant storming along at maximum speed, modest heel, and mid-range engine speed.

About half way up the sound, I heard a beeping and looked down at the engine panel to see the water flow alarm blinking. I thought it might be the intake sucking air from the heel, but heading upwind to level the boat didn’t help. I ducked below and felt the water pump. It was very hot.

Moments later, we were a sailboat again.

Now this was a pickle. I got the boat jogging along and took out the chart book to study my options. Yarmouth was on the next page. Wow, I’d never realized how long, narrow and twisted that river is. The dinghy was back at the marina, so anchoring and rowing ashore was out. Returning to Portland to attempt a docking under sail in those conditions wasn’t a very attractive prospect either. I called Susan on the cell phone to tell her that the engine had died and the plan to pick me up was subject to alteration.

I went below and started trying to restore the cooling water. The strainer was clear, and I was able to blow air back through the intake line. We didn’t have a lot of sea room. I ducked back up and could see the ledge and day mark off Cousins Island coming up fast, so I tacked.

Then I learned another new thing: This boat steers herself quite well to windward under main alone when you shut off the engine or roll up the big jib. Once you slow down by tacking, however, she can’t pick up enough speed under main alone to reach equilibrium. I tried, but she just ended up slatting and jibing while I took the water pump cover off, expecting to find a toasted impeller.

Though the impeller looked fine, I decided to put in the spare anyway. Of course the old one wouldn’t come out. Trying to work in snatches while running back and forth to steer isn’t conducive to careful work or clear thinking, so I buggered up the old impeller enough to render it useless in the process of discovering that it wouldn’t come out. (I now have an impeller puller in my on-board toolbox.)

I went to plan B, put up the working jib and start sailing. It wasn’t really a plan, since I didn’t know how I would get up the river or spend the night without sleeping bag, food, or even cushions. I figured vaguely on anchoring as close as possible to minimize the bill if I had to have the yard come out and tow me in. Surely something would work out.

The wind had eased a bit and the sun was low and red on a cloud-studded horizon. It would have been a grand and stirring sail if it weren’t for the uncertainty of it all. I looked over at the lights of the Chebeague Island Inn and thought about a mooring, a fine dinner, a luxurious bed.

And 250 bucks. Nope.

I finally beat far enough to windward of Little John Island that I could ease the sheets and we went tearing off on a close reach into the deepening twilight toward the blinking green buoy at the mouth of the Royal River. I’d checked the compass close-hauled and studied the chart and figured I could make it up the worst part of the channel by pinching hard. Short-tacking up a 100-foot-wide channel with infrequent buoys and vast invisible shallows on either side hadn’t been in my plans.

By the second buoy, it was dark enough that I couldn’t spot the next more than 100 feet away. The buoys are a few hundred yards apart, and there were few shore lights so it took some careful steering.

There are people who would be impressed if I told them that I sailed a 32-foot boat up the Royal River.

There are more who would be impressed if I told them that I did it on a very dark and windy night.

Even more if I mentioned that I’d never seen the place before.

I’m sure there are few, though, who, also knowing that I did it alone without an engine and on the top of a falling tide, would think that I was very foolish. Ah, nothing quite matches the satisfaction of doing something foolish and difficult and pulling it off.

I got all the way up to the first boatyard in town before I touched bottom. The depth sounder said 10 feet and I was less than 100 feet from the boatyard dock, so it took a while to figure out that, yes, I was on the bank. The keel was on the edge of the steep drop-off to the dredged channel, while the sounder was reading out in the deeper water. Thanks to the separate rudder, I was able to pivot around the keel and let the current drag the bow around to break her free, thus depriving you all of an even better story.

I unrolled the jib again but we were making no headway at all against the increasing current and dropping breeze. I swung the bow over towards the dock of the wrong boat yard and we slowly, very slowly, inched sideways to the dock. About a foot away, I stepped ashore smartly and had plenty of time to put the lines out before she covered the remaining distance.

I stripped off the sails and straightened up. Then I heard something rolling around as I moved about the decks. It turned out to be the tag end of a bottle of single-malt Scotch, so I had a quick toast to the gods of the sea and the end of the sailing season before walking up the road to meet Susan and the boys.