Dismasted!

The author’s 25-foot Cape Dory, Planet Waves, her summer scuttled before it had even begun.

Guest Perspective / Hank Garfield

Sailing is the ultimate slower traffic. When I’ve got the boat trimmed just right in a fresh afternoon sea breeze, with spray flying and my crew laughing in exhilaration, it’s doing maybe seven miles an hour. Nonetheless, I do occasionally use it for transportation.

I own a 25-foot Cape Dory sloop, Planet Waves, that I keep in Hampden, Maine, in the winter and Rockland in the summer. Ten years ago, I stopped owning cars, but that hasn’t stopped me from sailing. I can leave Bangor on the 7 a.m. Concord Coach Lines bus, be in Rockland by 9:00, spend the day on the water, enjoy a leisurely dinner, and get on a bus back to Bangor at 9:30 p.m., arriving between 11 and midnight.

My folks live in Brooklin, near the WoodenBoat School. Without a car, it’s easier for me to visit them by boat in the summer if I have a couple of days off. I can make the trip west-to-east in about six hours with decent wind. The return trip usually takes a bit longer, but it’s doable in a day.

In 2015 I got the boat launched, and left on my annual trip down the Penobscot River and the west side of Penobscot Bay with my son, Rigel, on board as crew. We left Hampden on a Friday, in defiance of superstition, after pouring a shot of rum into the river to appease the sailing gods.

They were not appeased.

The wind was from the south, in our faces, but the outgoing tide was our friend as we motored down the river. We passed under the bridge at Bucksport, thinking about an overnight stop at Fort Point, or maybe Stockton Harbor. The forecast for the following day was for northerly winds, which would provide smooth sailing to Rockland.

But this afternoon, the south wind strengthened, pushing against the tide, and at the river’s wide mouth it became difficult to keep the outboard engine’s propeller in the water between the building waves. We decided to raise the jib and sail to Fort Point, a sheltered anchorage a few miles away.

We made about four or five tacks, and then the next time we came around I heard a loud crash, and looked down to see half the mast on the deck, the loose shrouds around our feet and ankles, the top of the mast and the sail in the water. The mast had come down as we were tacking, with Rigel and I shifting to the windward side, and that’s probably why we escaped injury. It was my first dismasting. I hope it’s my last.

One of the biggest dangers in a dismasting is that the broken mast is still attached to the boat by the stays and shrouds, and can punch a hole in the hull. The first thing to do was get the water out of the sail so that we could haul the broken mast onto the deck and secure it. This was easier said than done amid the waves in the mouth of the river. The mast is longer than the boat, and even bent in half it was a handful. We had to be mindful that our feet didn’t get caught in the rigging while we worked as quickly as we could.

It took several minutes of scrambling to get the mess onto the deck and the motor started, and a tense hour and a half to get back to the public landing at Bucksport. I called my lovely, car-owning girlfriend Lisa, and she drove down from Bangor to pick us up. At sea and on land, fossil fuels came to our rescue.

At the dock, we laid out the wreckage of the mast and the tangle of shrouds and spreaders, and then secured it all to the boat. After looking it all over, my best guess was that a cotter pin had either broken or come loose, because one of the clevis pins at the base of one of the shrouds was missing. It’s always the small things that kill you.

We checked in with the Bucksport harbormaster’s office and told them we intended to return the following day, Saturday, to motor back up the river.

If you’ve ever been in a car accident in which you came out physically okay, but your car – which you’d saved for, and picked out, and drove with pleasure – was totaled, you know what getting dismasted feels like. Sleep comes hard that night even though you’re exhausted. You wake the next morning hoping it was all a dream. You feel queasy, sick to your stomach, your short-term plans shot, and the process of finding a new mast – and paying for it – weighing heavily on your mind.

Saturday turned out to be a beautiful June day with a brisk northwest breeze – a perfect day for leaving Bangor and heading down the bay. Had we waited, obeyed the old superstition, and, more importantly, double-checked those pins . . . .

Instead, we thumped upriver against wind and spray, mast and rigging secured in a clump on the starboard side.

Penance, I suppose, for leaving port on a Friday.

Hank Garfield is the author of five novels and numerous magazine features and short stories. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Maine and sails his 1976 Cape Dory 25, Planet Waves, out of Rockland.

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