Down on the Old Eggemoggin

“Now boys take a break, and we’ll just sail away from the life that we feel like a cog in . . .”

Hard to believe, but another New England summer is already winding down out at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals. The end of my 10th season approaches without fanfare.

Historic runs of mackerel and menhaden have lured the whales in close to shore and brought a welcome assortment of fishing vessels out to Gosport. Last week the old wooden sardine carrier Double Eagle spent the night at the Island. She later followed Frank Ohara’s big purse seiner Western Sea out beyond the islands as the sun went down. The Western Sea knows where the fish will be, and the comely old carrier has been running in her wake for a week or so, hoping to score a full hold of her own.

In a few short weeks we’ll host the annual season-ending Gosport Regatta, and begin shuttering up the windows almost as soon as the racing sailors swagger out of the awards ceremony and down the creaking wooden front steps to the dock — back to the reality of their everyday lives ashore.

My old friend Catboat Bob is fond of pointing out that the only thing dumber than owning a sailboat is owning a horse. Bob has never owned a horse as far as I know, but he’s owned at least six sailboats. Our irrational devotion to these precious sailing days can be explained: the feelings of freedom, the endless possibilities conjured by the wide horizon, the fleeting moments over the course of the short season when we can live John Masefield’s “vagrant gypsy life,” if only for a few days.

While I have loved my time working on the Island, with almost 300 days a year working on boats and the water, the responsibility of it has not allowed for much seagoing vagrancy. This year marks the second season in which Aloft has remained in the boathouse through the long hot summer. As I watch the parade of cruising yachts coming and going through Gosport Harbor on their way to wherever, I find myself increasingly yearning to drop my laptop on the pier and go along with them.

It has been 10 years now since we sailed down to the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta at “WoodenBoat” magazine’s Naskeag Harbor. It’s always held on the first Saturday in August. We had a lot of fun over the years down there.

I remember the year when I sailed in that race with my father-in-law. We found ourselves neck and neck all day with Ted Kennedy’s big blue Concordia schooner. (By way of background, my wife’s father is a recovering Republican and descendant of Calvin Coolidge, with genetic suspicion of heirs to democratic legacy, especially this one.) On the reaches, the senator walked away from us, perched at his varnished wheel on a helm seat that paradoxically seemed like a throne. But on all other points of sail, we caught right back up — and tried not to notice as we passed him by.

The final leg of the race was a couple of miles dead downwind. Son Jake hoisted the spinnaker, and we began to steadily gain ground on Kennedy’s big schooner. My father-in-law was looking a little green by now, so I handed the wheel over to him as we continued to gain on the schooner. We passed ahead of it well before the finish line. As we crossed, Ed snapped a picture from our bow of a recovered, now-smiling elder helmsman that hangs on his wall to this day. In the background, across the long deck of the schooner, a red-faced senator can be seen steering grimly from his throne.

One year, the race featured a downwind start. We were on the far right side of the line as we went over on the port tack with a full spinnaker drawing hard. To starboard was a smaller sloop, also under spinnaker. To port was the 54-foot sloop Dyon, sailing perilously by the lee on a starboard tack. The 1920s-era gaff sloop had a boom like a telephone pole. Dyon was being sailed that day by a mere crew of two (an older couple, somehow related by marriage to my aforementioned father-in-law, and for whose family the yacht had been originally built). The fleet was pinched closely together as we neared a required course mark on the right. The crew on the sloop to starboard began calling for more room and I had to give it to them. We were so close to Dyon that I didn’t need to raise my voice for the crew to hear. “I need a few feet, please.”

“We can’t, or we’ll jibe and take your mast down,” came the frantic reply from Dyon’s mate.

Nonetheless, I kept pressing over toward the big sloop until we could have stepped across the rails to her deck. But Dyon’s huge boom remained all the way over to starboard, nearly touching the water when she rolled. The smaller sloop kept the pressure on us from the right. We were now effectively trapped between both boats — with a full spinnaker and nowhere to go but ahead. “Just a few more feet, if you please, Dyon,” I said, practically in a whisper now.

“Can’t do it, she’s about to come over.” Dyon’s crew was clearly shaken now. There was no way the two of them could manage a controlled jibe themselves.

The three boats sped along at seven knots as though connected at the rails, and time stood still. My heart pounded with excitement as I altered focus between steering and the state of the wind in Dyon’s huge mainsail. “What’s going to happen now, Dad?” asked a concerned son James, echoing the unspoken fears of the rest of the crew.

“Just be ready to duck, and go below if you see her boom coming over.”

Eventually we passed the pinching starboard mark, the fleet spread out, and we pulled ahead of the big sloop — enough for her to pass behind us and safely to starboard. I’ll never forget the thrill and satisfaction of those 15 minutes.

We used to make a lot of music in the cockpit after those races. Here’s a little ditty I wrote after one of them:

Now boys take a break, and we’ll just sail away
From the life that we feel like a cog in
We’ll be barefoot sailors set free on the bay
While we’re down on the Old Eggemoggin.

From up to the westward we’ll head her Downeast
With miles upon sea miles a loggin’
Bound for a yacht race and a movable feast
Way down on the Old Eggemoggin.

Tear yourselves away from those sweet Camden girls
We’ve got 20 miles to be loggin’
With bows headed east by the Isle au Haut hills
And our hearts on the Old Eggemoggin.

There’ll be yachts; there’ll be boats, some practically new
And some with their sheer strakes a hoggin’
Some captains with sailors, some with lubbers for crew
Way down on the Old Eggemoggin.

Tear yourselves away from those sweet Camden girls
And get yourselves down to the boats
There are anchors to weigh and sails to unfurl
‘Cause we’re bound where the old money floats

If a pretty white yawl breaks her moor in the night
And down through the fleet comes a joggin’
We’ll fend her off smartly; there won’t be a fight
‘Cause were down on the Old Eggemoggin.

When the sleet coats your decks and the weather turns raw
And the easterly wind brings the fog in
Just let your mind wander to August in Maine
And go back to the Old Eggemoggin

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.

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