Bound for Northeast Harbor?

By Joel Gleason
For Points East

When we left Joel and his son Randy in the June issue, their march toward Northeast Harbor aboard the 33-foot Young Brothers lobsterboat Muscobe had been thwarted near Stonington by a seriously overheating engine. What to do? Abort the cruise or press on once the repair was made? There were no easy answers.

I was disappointed to be stuck in Stonington. It is a beautiful place, but there’s not a lot to do here, folks. However, I considered us fortunate to be at a crackerjack outfit like Billings Diesel & Marine. So we set out to explore the facility, with its numerous docks, floats, machine shops and sheds, railways and Travelifts. Billings is huge, and they have the capacity to haul some very large boats.

Stonington is a big lobstering community, and while we saw a few older boats, it seemed as if every fisherman in town had himself a new – and big – lobsterboat. Muscobe was right at home here. Of course, there were plenty of yachts around, too, as Billings has a reputation par excellence. In one of the machineshops I came upon a Caterpillar diesel engine almost as tall as I am. I stopped in at the ship’s store and purchased a couple of Billings Diesel & Marine T-shirts.

It was hot at the dock, so we were grateful when the sun began to set and things cooled off. We hauled out the propane stove, and Randy prepared a dinner of Spam and beans. After a couple of cocktails, we turned in and slept soundly until the wee hours, when the rumble of lobsterboat diesels began.

At 7 a.m., our mechanic, Tyler, woke us as he rolled up the wheelhouse canvas. “Oops! Didn’t know anybody was aboard,” he said cheerfully. We weren’t expecting anybody before 9 a.m. We didn’t mind, and he went right to work removing the saltwater pump, which, because of the way it’s positioned, is a really nasty job. But he finally got it off and took it up to the shop to replace the impeller. I had pulled out my spare, in case they didn’t have one in stock, but it wasn’t needed.

An hour-or-so later, Tyler returned with the pump, the old impeller in his hand. I was hoping to see it shredded, as that would be an easy explanation for our predicament, but it looked as good as new. Perhaps, I concluded, it was spinning on its axis and not pumping water. Tyler took a break for lunch, and Randy decided to walk into town to eat. I declined, as I know it’s over a mile and uphill both ways. I settled for snacks.

After lunch, Tyler, with great difficulty, got the pump back on. At that point, I asked him to troubleshoot our shifting mechanism, which had been sticking somewhat. Saltwater had been getting to the reverse gear, but it seemed to be functioning at that end. We began to dismantle the Morse Control on the helm. To do this, we had to remove an access panel, and, upon doing so, he found that the fitting on the bottom of the expansion tank for the Hydro-Slave was leaking hydraulic fluid. This explained the oil slick I had seen each time I turned on the bilge pump, as well as the dirty bilge. Muscobe’s bilge had been spotless for years.

Tyler called service manager Greg Sanborn down, as he was more familiar with Morse, and he diagnosed the problem: The shifting arm on the transmission was worn and needed replacing. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the parts in stock, and as it wasn’t an urgent problem we decided to live with it for the time being. He also told me that the shaft seal was leaking salt water, which was the cause of the rust on the reverse gear. This was another day’s repair, and they didn’t have the parts, so we’d wait on that also.

At that point, we wrapped things up and idled out for a check ride. Running the engine up to 2,500 rpm, we cruised out past West Mark Island Ledge for 10 or 15 minutes. Everything seemed satisfactory, and I was relieved as I walked up to the office to settle my account.

At noon, we were on our way east again, wearing our Billings T-shirts. It was calm and conditions were, as they say in airplane parlance, CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited). I was grateful to be underway again and was anticipating perusing Somes Sound and showing Randy the beautiful Japanese gardens at the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor. But that was not to be.

A we left the Deer Island Thorofare, bells and whistles began going off again. I checked the exhaust, and, sure enough, only a little water was coming through. “This cruise is over,” I told Randy, and we made a 180 and turned back for Billings. “We’ll leave the boat here and rent a car or something and go home.”

Randy, who was driving the boat, said, “Let me try something.” Gradually increasing the throttle, we found we could maintain 2,150 rpm without difficulty. Above that, the alarms would go off. “Want to keep going?” he asked me.

“No, I don’t trust the boat. Let’s go home.”

We continued west, first heading for Camden, where we’d have Lyman-Morse at Wayfarer Marine available if we encountered further difficulties. However, by the time we had passed through the Fox Islands Thorofare, things seemed to be going smoothly, so we pressed on toward Boothbay Harbor by way of little Marblehead Island at the northern end of Mussel Ridge Channel.

It’s very deep there – with depths over 400 feet nearby – but there were still plenty of lobster buoys. I tried to imagine, so many thousands of years ago, a mile of ice over our heads as the glaciers carved out these beautiful Maine estuaries. The sea was calm, but there were many masses of seaweed floating on the surface, with boards and other debris trapped within. Randy did his best to avoid them, but at one point our hearts stopped when the prop gave a loud BANG as it whacked something.

The rest of the day passed pleasantly and uneventfully, except when I temporarily mistook Old Hump Ledge for Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay. Going on the wrong (north) side of that would have put us up on some nasty ledges. However, I’m sure I would have recognized my error well before that happened.

After a long, tiring but beautiful day, we reached Carousel Marina, in Boothbay Harbor, at 6:30 p.m. After refueling, we went up to the Whale’s Tale to find my old Marblehead pal, owner Jack Cogswell, and get assigned a slip. Recounting our problem to him, he mentioned that we might have a faulty thermostat and suggested removing it. There just happened to be a mechanic with him, and I offered to buy him dinner if he removed it, which he did. We had some excellent chowder for dinner and turned in.

After a comfortably cool night I was awakened at 3 a.m. by a lobsterboat idling past. After a shower, we took Jack’s SUV down the road to Mama D’s Cafe Mercantile for breakfast. Back at the boat, we switched tanks and idled out of the inner harbor toward Tumbler Island. Suddenly, the engine began to run rough, then stalled. I pressed the starter and she ran for a few seconds then quit for good. “What now?” I asked myself. I got on the radio and called Carousel for a tow. A good Samaritan heard me, pulled alongside in a little Ranger tug, and offered assistance.

Back at the marina office I asked Jack to call his brother, Tommy, who is a marine mechanic. As we were talking, Randy walked in. “I got her running,” he said. “We’re good to go.”

Randy had switched fuel tanks again, and, when he did, he heard the unmistakable rush of fuel into the filter. Inadvertently, when he had first switched them he mistakenly turned the selector switch to the “off” position, and, though I was looking directly at it, I failed to notice.

So, at 11:30 a.m., we were off yet again. Once past R “8”, off Tumbler Island, we turned into Townsend Gut. We had a brief wait behind a Hinckley Talaria at the Southport swing bridge, then proceeded across the Sheepscot River into Goose Rocks Passage. The tide was coming, so we picked up an extra knot as we passed Robinhood Cove and ran up through Lower Hell Gate into Hockomock Bay.

Here you must pay strict attention to the marks and stay in the channel, as much of this wide expanse of open water has a depth of only one or two feet at low tide. Once past there, we negotiated Upper Hell Gate with no difficulty, leaving behind the scenic Sasanoa River – one of my favorite Downeast passageways.

Entering the Kennebec River across from the Bath Iron Works, we saw two of the very strange looking new Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers under construction. The largest destroyers ever built, these guided missile ships are over 600 feet long. When finished, there will be three of them, at a cost of over $22 billion. The first of these, the Zumwalt, was commissioned in October 2016. The second, the Michael Monsoor, is named after a Navy SEAL who courageously threw himself onto a grenade in Iraq, saving the lives of his buddies and earning a posthumous Medal of Honor. The third ship will be named Lyndon B. Johnson. The last two are reportedly to be commissioned in 2019.

We lost a knot as we turned downriver against the tide. Eventually, we left the river behind and Randy went below for a nap. The seas were calm, so I headed directly for Portsmouth, N.H., rather than follow buoys/waypoints down the coast as I usually do. As the afternoon wore on, a mild chop developed, and, by 4 p.m., our navigation system was telling us that, at our reduced speed, we weren’t going to make Wentworth Marina, in New Castle, by their closing time of 6 p.m. My original reservation was for Friday (it was now Wednesday), so I called them to get our slip number and ask if they would leave two bags of ice there for us before they left.

By late afternoon the wind had picked up, making for a rather long, lumpy ride. At just after 6 p.m., two very tired seamen eased Muscobe into her slip in Little Harbor. We could get fuel in the morning and, thankfully, our ice was waiting for us.

While Randy washed down the boat, I walked up to the office, where our bag of Wentworth goodies and pass keys was hanging on the door knob. After refreshments aboard, we walked up to the marina restaurant, Latitudes, for dinner.

Waking to yet another gorgeous morning, we cleaned up, got fuel, and were off by 8:25 a.m. By 9:30 a.m. we were abreast of Newburyport. As the morning progressed, a substantial swell of five to six feet built up from the southeast, gently raising and lowering Muscobe. By 10:10 a.m. we were entering the Annisquam River. At the other end, the Blynman Canal bascule bridge was opened for us, and just before noon we pulled alongside the fuel dock at Marblehead Trading Company. After topping off the fuel, we walked over to the Driftwood to finish our cruise as it had begun – with a hearty breakfast.

We hauled the boat and found nothing blocking the saltwater intake. When we ran the engine, we found the source of the overheating problem: The hose leading to the cooler for the transmission fluid was expanding to nearly twice its normal diameter. Upon removal, we found it clogged with barnacles, mussels and miscellaneous crud. Over the winter, we planned to replace all the hoses, and remove, flush and clean the heat exchanger. However, as usual, Muscobe had brought us safely home again – albeit inelegantly.

Joel Gleason, a regular contributor to Points East, holds a 100-ton USCG Master’s license, and has been boating out of Marblehead since he was six.