Blowing in the wind

The schooner Isaac Evans waits for the wind on Maine’s Jericho Bay. Photo by David Buckman

To those of us who set sail for Downeast and the Maritimes, the summer winds are our best friends and most demanding of adversaries. They fulfill our ambitions, deny our intentions, try our patience, keep us awake, lull us to sleep, and cool, chill and comfort us.

Ashore, we hardly notice the breeze; at sea we can’t ignore it. There is nothing at our command that mediates it. We have to take it as it comes, and make what we can of it, which frequently falls short of our designs. There is a decidedly melodramatic temperament to the wind. The sound of a halyard thrumming against the mast in the dark of night wakes and worries us. We come to a high state of alertness, sleep is troubled, and we feel vulnerable, though we may have known hundreds of such occasions.

And that is just the beginning of it. We are frustrated when there is too much or too little wind, and when it comes on the nose, rather inconveniently doubling the miles to be made good. We grouse when it blows in a dungeon of fog, is too feeble to keep the mosquitoes at bay, or the sails drawing. Oaths are muttered when we have to crawl out on the pitching deck to reduce sail, or a snotty southerly blowing against a Bay of Fundy tide heaps up a remorseless fang of house-sized seas that arrest progress and send torrents of spray flying.

And none of the above takes into account the annoyance of weather forecasts. On one cruise years ago, wind speed and direction predictions were right 14 days, wrong 17 days, and partially correct four days. That’s the gritty reality of it. The actual in-your-face weather is rarely as good, or as bad, as announced, yet we still get our hopes up and have them dashed.

While various cruising sages advise against beating to weather, those bound for the land and sea of the rising sun enjoy no such luxury. In nearly 50 years of cruising the Gulf of Maine and Nova Scotia, making our easting is often a civilized, if somewhat foggy, business, and heading west a challenge. In all that time we’ve enjoyed fair winds on the homebound leg three days – all of those snarling easterlies, replete with rain and impenetrable mists.

Relying on an engine to grind your way homeward is an unsatisfying business, too. Cruising is natively about challenging ourselves, getting our hands dirty with life’s work, and knowing something of our comfort zones. Otherwise we might as well stay home and mow the lawn. A New England summer is too precious and short to squander, so set your jib flying, haul it in tight and beat to weather. It’ll feel great when you stop.

David is off cruising. This is a reprint of a piece he wrote for the August 2009 issue.