Caught out

Playing the weather cards in the Gulf of Maine can be an uncertain business, for the forecasts and local meteorological realities, particularly wind speed and direction, are at odds as often as they’re on the mark.

Summer 2016 was a blustery one, the forecasts regularly calling for winds gusting 20 to 30 knots, which was a lively enterprise while we were heading east, but a grind when we began clawing westward. After waiting out two days of southerly weather in Corea, we were pleased to pull up a forecast that had downgraded a previous prediction for a 30-knot southwesterly to a decidedly more civil 10 to 15 knots, gusting to 20.

Anxious to head west, our cups of hot chocolate went cold as we hurriedly got under way. Raising the main and jib to a smart westerly off Western Island, the 26-foot Leight put her shoulder to the task, torrents of spray flying as the bow cut through lively seas, the only sail to be seen on an empty arc of ocean.

The steady hiss of white water made conversation difficult, not that we had much to say beyond complaining that there was nothing to be seen of a 10- to 15-knot breeze. It had blown 20 knots from the get-go. It was sobering to realize that while Northeast Harbor was but 19 miles to the west, adding the foul tide and the wind’s toll, we’d have to sail well over 40 miles to make good.

The thrash to the whistle off Schoodic Point was dispiriting, a hard-running tide churning up remorseless fangs of sea, and a chill in the air that was a disgrace to the month of August. Leigh suggested we return to Corea and wait for another day, but having invested three hours to make only seven miles, I was loathe to give up an inch of it and lobbied to press on. That the mate had a point was obvious a hour along, when the wind blew past 20 knots, and the tide pouring out of Frenchman’s Bay churned up a sharp-sided chop that sent spray flying halfway up the mast.

Slam … slash … slam: Predatory seas staggered the sloop. The mate huddled under the dodger. Easing the main when the rail went under, and hardening up in gusts, it was dreadfully slow work as the tide gained full stride, slowing the sloop to three knots, every sea punching her in the bow. For annoyingly significant periods of time, our position didn’t seem to change.

Not much later, a worrying Kansas-tornado sky piled up to seaward, the wind shifted southwest, freshened to something on the order of 30 bloody knots, and we were in need of a reef. It was madness in motion, as I performed the one-handed sail reduction drill. She was now more wholesome, but we had to hold onto our caps at times as we labored across warring seas, the dinghy dancing frenetically on its tether.

Baker Island was forever coming under the bow; a lunch of sea-salted almonds and cranberries unsatisfying. Blundering along, it took hours and hours to weather Otter Point on Mount Desert Island, the sails strapped in flat as we slanted off toward the North Pole or the Azores.

Putting her lean bow to it in the authoritative way of a Folkboat, we came to make near five knots. It was a long, fractious haul to Bunker Ledge, our bodies dodging and parrying in sympathy to the sloop’s rhythms, and we were coming to see that there was something virtuous to this minor epic of ours. As the saw-toothed peaks to starboard turned a purple-mountain majesty, the scene was possessed of a stirring intensity that took the full measure of every minute and mile.

Tacking, tacking, tacking, the sky came steel-blue by the time Little Cranberry Island showed through the lee rigging. Three o’clock, four o’clock – the afternoon was fading by the time we made Eastern Way, hissing torrents streaming aft, and every bit of it hard-fought.

There seemed a nobility to our labors, and, as evening showed its colors, it was a relief when the lighthouse on Bear Island came abeam, we eased the sheets, and came to rest in Northeast Harbor’s genial inner pool. Only then did it come to us how lucky we’d been, for the day had been nothing less than a spectacle, and we’d known drama on a grand scale by our admittedly modest standards.

“The seeker embarks on a journey to find what he wants and discovers along the way what he needs.”

– Wally Lamb

David Buckman’s book, “Bucking the Tide,” is about discovering the New England and Fundy coast in a wreck of an 18-foot, $400 daysailer. It’s $19, including shipping. To buy one, send your mailing address to buckingthetide@gmail.com.

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