’Bird Dog

Guest perspective/Paul Brown

The ’Bird: A Thunderbird 26 sloop is a so-called one-design “racer/cruiser.” In 1958, it was the winning design, by Seattle naval architect Ben Seaborn, in a plywood association’s contest for the best sailboat fashioned from marine plywood. The objective was a low-cost “Volkswagen,” simple to build and yet fast and easy to handle.

Most that were built were glassed over; there are several hundred still in existence, and a number of fleets around the world. Fleet members tend to be extremely competitive individuals who have carefully guarded secrets about sail trim and mast tuning, even though all boats must meet rigid standards of uniformity.

My first boat, and the one on which I learned to sail, was built in 1968. No. 129, she was named variously Spot, Dolly Varden, and – after I bought her and after much ruminating about a unique name – Brownscow. She was probably the ideal first boat. Cheap, safe, easy to sail. I could have sailed her onto a reef, and the loss wouldn’t have caused economic ruin. Perhaps I should have considered insurance, but only to protect other people.

Racing was, and still is, far beyond my competence-level; all I wanted to do was sail, and cruise those myriad bays, inlets and islands of Maine. The ’Bird allowed this; I could sit on the head and touch all four berths, the sink and stove. As to her sailing ability, she was quick and maneuverable, and could come quite close to 35 degrees on the wind. The only disadvantage was her light weight – 4,000-pounds – when tacking into head seas.

The dog: Burbank was a brindle-colored bulldog. He has since gone to puppy heaven, but he sailed with me for four years. He was an easygoing guy with a happy attitude about everything, especially when it came to outdoor activities.

Burbank seemed to know that traveling on a sometimes lurching and heeling vessel tended to result in exploration of exotic islands. Happiness was swimming in quiet coves, running on the beach, or assisting his people when foraging for mussels under the seaweed at the water’s edge. Little Whaleboat Island was one of those exotic places.

Located between Broad Sound and Middle Bay in Casco Bay, a small anchorage is protected from the south and east. Our neighbors on the land, Sumner and Shirley Dodge, were sailing a Hunter 25, and, on this occasion, met Sheila, Burbank and me at Little Whaleboat. We built a bonfire on the beach at sunset and grilled steaks and baked potatoes.

As dusk slowly enveloped us, we sipped our drinks and discussed the joys of cruising in Maine. Burbank, as always, sat on the periphery of the firelight, his back to the people, doing his guard-dog thing, eyeing the deepening darkness. Presently, the food was consumed, the fire was dying, and the people had obtained that comfortable glow that just such an outing can bring. Each couple, plus Burbank, dinghied back to their respective craft for the night.

Boarding Brownscow with Burbank was a well-practiced feat. He would stand on one pontoon of the inflatable, and place his front paws on the toerail of the boat. I would place my hand behind his head and push upward while, using his muscular shoulders, he would lift himself until he could hook a hind paw over the toerail and propel himself into the cockpit.

Soon, Sheila and I had made ready for bed, switched off the cabin lights, and crawled into the V-berth, the aft portion of which was separated by the mast and the toilet. My head was aft, close to the stove and icebox.

There is no comfort like preparing to slumber on a gently rocking sailboat in a peaceful cove, on a quiet night, with nothing but a fair weather forecast all added to the effects of a satisfying meal, civil conversation and an adequate amount of alcoholic libation. But something wasn’t quite right.

I hadn’t noticed, but I didn’t remember Burbank climbing into his bed in the quarter berth, on the other side of the stove. In fact, I had the distinct feeling that he was sitting on the deck a few inches from my head. Finally, I turned over and reached into the darkness. He was there, probably staring at me.

I crawled out and turned on the cabin light. Burbank looked happy to see me up and moved toward the companionway as if he wanted to go out. I grumbled, “You stupid SOB, why didn’t you go while we were ashore?”

I got dressed and pulled the washboards out. Sheila woke briefly, looked up, and inquired about the activity. “I guess he’s gotta go,” I replied. Sheila put her head down and went back to sleep.

Burbank happily preceded me into the cockpit and hopped up onto the lazarette, from where he had been taught to jump into the inflatable. Soon, we were both in it and paddling toward shore. We reached the beach and Burbank hopped out. I sat back, flashlight in hand, and waited for him to do whatever he had to do. He didn’t do anything. Just wandered around a few yards from the dinghy.

“Why you bleeping bleep,” I snarled. “What is the matter with you? C’mon, let’s go home.” He hopped back into the dinghy. I pushed off with the paddle, and we headed back to the Brownscow.

The point: And these few minutes were something for the memory to treasure, and perhaps the point of the story. I discarded my pique as the oars stirred up that brilliant luminescence from the water. I slowed my strokes and just enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of the place and time.

I stopped rowing, and we drifted quietly between the island and the ’Bird and breathed it all in. The gentle, barely audible, wash of the sea along the nearby shore, the sparkling canopy above, and the glittering radiance swirling from my lazy tugs at an oar. This was the stuff about sailing that had captured my imagination. Freedom, me and my dog, beauty all around me, everything is under control, my lovely first mate and a comfortable berth a few yards away.

A few minutes later we were back aboard. And I don’t remember what exactly I did, unless it was to trip over his water bowl, which was normally kept on the deck near his bed. Empty. Burbank looked at me with what I can only describe as an intense expression, if a bulldog can look intense, and I got the message.

“Water?” I asked. I think he nodded his head. I pumped some water into his bowl and placed it on the floor. He slurped it, noisily as usual. And I scolded myself for not noticing. He had had his supper before we did, with his usual amount of water. For some reason it hadn’t been enough. After apparently satisfying himself, he hopped into his bed and flopped down.

Once again, I undressed and crawled into my berth. Burbank had already started to snore. I was not so fortunate and lay awake for a while. But that row from the beach will always stick in my memory: the feeling of peace and tranquility that is the opposite of the sea’s demeanor so often.

“Licensed Master, 100,000-ton, fought pirates in the Indian Ocean, cameo in Star Trek, currently living aboard my Thunderbird in Taiwan, undercover spy-watching China. “Sigh…Real estate appraiser, age 81, no longer sailing: Too expensive.  Biggest sailing adventures: Fundy Flotilla to eastern Nova Scotia, offshore Cape May to Block Island, crewed from Key West to Dry Tortugas. Unable to keep pace with the captain through all of the bars in Key West. What moves the testosterone now? Driving the ’72 Corvette I bought new off the showroom floor.