Capable hands

When you’re stuck in bad weather, it’s good to know there are people who can help. Stock photo.

March/April 2021

By Paul Brown

In the late 1980s I was relatively new to sailing, and had recently purchased a 1968 Thunderbird 26 I named Brownscow. Brownscow’s design was the result of a contest offered by a West Coast plywood company in 1958, and – as per the requirements of the contest – she was built of plywood. I could sit on the vessel’s marine toilet and touch all four berths, the sink, the stove and the ice chest. It had a pop-top, a large cockpit and an outboard engine. Part of her appeal was that she was cheap, safe and easily handled. If I sailed her onto a reef the loss wouldn’t have caused economic ruin.

At the time, Brownscow was moored at Dolphin Marina in South Harpswell, Maine. One Friday evening my friend Norman and I dinghied out to her, intending to spend the night before a sail the next day. The forecast that evening was for thunderstorms. Dolphin Marina is located on Potts Harbor, which is open to the south. A number of islands provide some protection from incoming seas, but occasionally the weather can be nasty.

And so it became this particular evening as the storm approached. We had a few Ballantine Ales, discussed supper, and before we were fully aware of what was happening the seas had made getting back to shore in the dinghy impossible.

Norman expressed his concern: “Paul, I think the guy in the black coat is out there, waiting for us.”

I wasn’t particularly worried, and rather enjoyed watching the rolling of the nearby boats and the flashes of lightning. At some point Norman pointed at a nearby lobster boat on a mooring. “Isn’t that boat moving?”

I didn’t think so.

But Norman was insistent. “Yeah, it’s moving backward,” he said.

I looked again, and this time I thought he might be onto something.

In the late ’80s there was no meaningful cell phone communication in Casco Bay, if at all. There was only VHF radio. I called the Coast Guard on channel 22. I described our position and urged them to call Dolphin Marina.

Bill Saxton, son of the marina’s owner, appeared moments later in the marina launch. Norman pointed at the errant lobster boat. Bill brought the launch alongside it, disconnected the mooring line and hauled the boat to security elsewhere.

But Norman wasn’t finished. He hailed Bill and pointed at a sailboat near the north (open) end of the harbor that was sailing nicely 90 degrees to current and wind, sails furled, and nearing the shore. Bill roared off in the launch, returned with the sailboat a few minutes later, and secured it to another vacant mooring.

Norman and I probably should have asked Bill for a ride back to shore, but for some reason this didn’t occur to us. Maybe it was the Ballantines. Anyway, we settled down to watch the lightning strikes in an arc of about 180 degrees. One massive bolt appeared to hit shore on Harpswell Neck, while the bow of our vessel bounced to the waves.

We had left the radio on channel 22 and suddenly it crackled to life; the Coast Guard was talking to a mariner in distress. We couldn’t hear the seaward end of the conversation, but it was obvious that some boat out there was in trouble.

“Count 10 seconds and fire a flare,” urged the professional voice of a Coast Guardsman. And then, a minute or so later: “Did you fire the flare?” This went on for several minutes. The distressed sailor may have been counting to 10 by fives, and the flares were unseen. The Coast Guard had sent out a rescue boat. There was a communication from the vessel: “We’re out here in a 25 footer. This is 50-footer weather.”

The answer? A laconic, “Copy that, we’ll notify command.”

Then a new voice was heard. A familiar Maine accent. It was someone from a local rescue service.

“I’ll get him, I know where he is,” the voice said.

The Coast Guard radioman on shore tried to give the local some information about the location of the distressed sailor.

“Nope, I know where he is.”

The Coast Guard provided some bearings to an approximate location.

“Nope, ain’t got no compass. This boat just come off the ways. But I know where he is.”

Several minutes went by while the Coast Guard talked intermittently with the distressed sailor. Soon it was apparent that the “distressed” was under tow and bound for Portland. We heard the Coast Guard agreeing to call his wife to inform her of his safety.

To this day, I marvel at the skill displayed by seasoned boaters like Bill Saxton, the unknown (to us) man aboard the local rescue vessel; and, of course, the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Raymond, N.H., resident Paul Brown describes himself as “a farm kid who never dreamed of being a yachtsman.”