Cruising the margins

Doing dishes aboard the Leight meant leaning over the side of the pocket cruiser and maintaining a firm grip on one’s crockery. Photo by David Buckman

There was a time when being told that some of my ideas were impractical, or just not done, proved no small incentive to do them anyway. Mostly I was just annoying, but did get on rather well with irregular behavior. Then I got it into my head that I should like to discover the New England and Canadian Maritime coast under sail.

Trouble was, I’d avoided a real job to work in marketing, and was reduced to sailing a 40-year-old, Lightning-class sloop that leaked like a White House aide. Then, while on a test cruise, I was told by a crusty commodore chap, that under no circumstances could my dodgy 19-foot cruiser be considered a proper cruising yacht. Well, that did it! Next thing you know I built a kennel of a cabin on the $400 wooden sloop, and wife, Leigh, and I set out on our idea of an epic voyage.

Turns out, we didn’t perish straight away after all. I’d spent a good part of my youth racing Lightnings, where we regularly did certifiably cretinous things, like putting spinnakers up in 25 knots of wind. Racing seemed infinitely more dangerous than pottering alongshore, but NOBODY else was coasting in anything of the sort. Could I have been the only one to see the light?

The fabulous scale and wildness of our organic adventures dawned on us. We refined the sloop’s simple systems, met weather, hid from it and were exposed to an inspiring breadth of drama. We had no idea the New England coast was possessed of such wild beauty, and that we could actually know perfect solitude and feel far from home.

The Leight proved the most tactile of cruising vessels. With her steel centerboard raised, she could be beached like a rowboat, and sailed confidently in a couple feet of water. You had to be quick, but she would stand a fair weight of breeze, if wetly, hide away in the most secure of eel ruts, or dry in the mud, which temporarily slowed her leaking.

Winter Harbor on Maine’s Vinalhaven Island was one of our favorite haunts, for it was a gunkholer’s delight, with its myriad of quiet backwaters all but unknown to the world. Narrow, arthritic fingers of watery guts twisted and turned under close quarters of granite and greenery, where we anchored in tiny mud holes, sometimes with but 20 feet of rode in knee-deep depths.

It was the quiet of such places that struck us, but it wasn’t quiet at all. There was always the wind, and cursing crows making their busy affairs known, while an indignant osprey protested our intrusion as a matter of form, as it went about hunting and gathering.

When the weather went south and ghostly rivers of fog flooded the coast, we’d settle in for a few days, sheltering in perfect peace, wind combing the trembling treetops, while Leigh and I read, drank wine, took naps, talked, listened to AM radio, drank more wine and did nothing. Nothing at all, but be, which was a rare treat. Rain only made our snug quarters all the more civil, and if we weren’t eating, we were talking about it. There’s an innocence and intimacy to places on the margins that is a rare and provocative thing.

David Buckman, who is still mildly annoying, has cruised from the Chesapeake to Newfoundland, and sails out of Round Pond, Maine, in a 26-foot Folkboat.

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