Downeaster Alexis

Alexis on her mooring in Christmas Cove shortly before departing for her delivery journey. Photo courtesy David Sharp

October/November 2022

By David Sharp

I had been searching for a seaworthy but manageable wooden sailboat for quite a while when I saw Sea Drift advertised in a boating magazine. She was a very handsome but basic sloop of about 28 feet with a one-lung Westerbeke diesel. Sea Drift was owned by Elden Westhaver, and she was built years ago for Elden by his friend Winthrop McFarland, with help from Frank Y. (Pete) McFarland, at the McFarland yard in Christmas Cove, Maine, which was still her homeport.

In the fall of 1978, after talking to Elden on the phone, I made the trip up to Christmas Cove a couple of times – first to inspect the boat and then to have her surveyed. Winthrop was surprised that someone would pay to have a boat surveyed, but I explained that $6,000 was a lot of money to me. So, I wanted insurance, and the insurance company wanted a survey.

This was a foreign concept to the elderly Mainers I was dealing with, and their advice was to “Get a big anchor, stay out of the fog, and save your money with the insurance company.” I went ahead with the survey, bought the little sloop, renamed her Alexis after my newborn niece, and left her on the ways at McFarland’s yard for the winter.

I launched Alexis in May 1979. I was working inside the boat one morning when I felt it lurch on the ways, and Alexis began sliding toward the water. I scrambled to close seacocks and stuck my head out to see what the heck happened. What had happened was the realization that when Winthrop says he’ll launch at 10 a.m., he means it. We put the boat on a mooring in Christmas Cove, and I started preparations earnestly for the trip to Newport, R.I., her new home port.

Christmas Cove to Kennebec River

It was a hassle getting things together for the delivery to Newport while working a full-time job. It was still May when my girlfriend, Sheri, and another couple headed for Maine to start the journey. I borrowed from various friends a dinghy, a big pump, two compasses and a 35-pound Herreshoff. The other couple drove up with us to return our VW bus to Newport.

We stayed in a motel in Damariscotta and, early the following day, moved the boat from her mooring to a float near shore and organized her for the trip. Finally, everything was stowed, and we headed out, raised the sails, and waved goodbye to friends.

There was no wind, and the engine was loud. I noted that I had to add some insulation to the engine box (but never did). We putted until about 5 p.m., and, since fog was due soon, we headed for the Kennebec River. An unbelievable standing swell was running at the mouth of the river where the current met the incoming tide, and I almost hit a rock when I got confused by steering with the wheel mounted aft in the cockpit.

We went up the river to anchor behind Fort Baldwin and absorbed the beautiful scenery. A trip ashore in the dink yielded a bucket of mussels but also a herd of mosquitos that followed us back. Supper was a salad and the mussels, which were good but a bit gritty.

Kennebec to Portland

We had no screens on the ports or hatches, and it was way too hot to close up the boat, so mosquitoes the size of small birds finally drove us out of the river at 4:30 a.m., after a night of constant buzzing. We grabbed coffee and soggy sweet rolls and scrambled to depart the Kennebec in the dark. We were disorganized, and by the time we hit the swell at the mouth of the river, we were in a bit of a mess, with lines tangled in the cockpit and hot coffee in our laps. Eventually, we got straightened away and headed slowly southwest, under sail, with the wind.

We could see Cape Elizabeth on the horizon as the wind finally freshened – and freshened and freshened. As we tried to beat around the Cape, we learned that Alexis is very stiff, but, thanks to her old blown-out sails, she does not like to sail close to the wind. We switched from the genoa to the small self-tending jib, which helped.

The seas were building, and we were beating ourselves silly without making much headway, so we headed back for Portland. After nearly broaching a couple of times, we hauled in the main since it wasn’t rigged for reefing without jury-rigging. We were now making good time under working jib alone.

My cruising guide had said: “Yachts should avoid Portland unless driven in by stress of weather.” And here we were, under the stress of weather. By the time we cleared the harbor entrance, after weaving through the offshore islands, the wind was blowing about 35 knots steady, it was overcast, and we were having a good time steering and surfing downwind.

We rounded up inside a breakwall on the east side of the harbor and dropped the big hook. After catching our breaths, we reorganized and savored some delicious spaghetti with wine. We listened to the dismal weather forecast, rowed ashore to explore, and found that Portland was a very industrial, busy and noisy port.

The following day, we headed to the southeast part of the harbor and pulled into the only marina in the area, which was brand-new and expensive. We paid $5 for touching the dock and were told dockage was 50 cents per foot, per night.

Now that we knew Alexis’s shortcomings, we decided to use the layover to correct some of them: rig the boom for jiffy reefing, add a cleat for sheeting the genoa on the port side, and plug up the dinghy’s centerboard trunk so seawater wouldn’t get pumped inside. Ashore, we stocked up on diesel, lamp oil, alcohol, some tools, chain and more – about $80 worth. The old port section of Portland was changing, not too slick, but with a lot of nice shops, including a brass-salvage place that sold bargain working hardware.

Portland to the Saco River

My crew was now reduced to just Sheri, and we worked on the boat at the marina until we were told we had overstayed our five dollars’ worth. We returned to our original anchorage and finished making the modifications to the rigging. The next morning, we were up early and made way after breakfast.

We started out motoring in a calm, but as we rounded the point and headed for the tip of Cape Elizabeth, the wind picked up – right on the nose as usual. We sailed serenely in the warm sun around the Cape, and it was hard to believe it was the same place we beat our brains out the day before with a scrap of sail up in the cold, gray windy seas. Once again, the breeze freshened – and freshened. We put in a double reef at Cape Porpoise with the wind still increasing, turned inshore, and headed for the Saco River.

After a tough beat to the mouth, we found the tide ebbing and the wind blowing smack down the river. We barely made headway at full throttle as the red paint was burning off the one-lunger’s exhaust cooler. Finally, we threw the hook over at Camp Ellis, just at the head of the jetties. I didn’t expect the anchor to hold in the current and wind, but the big fisherman stuck. We changed into dry clothes, took a breath, and congratulated ourselves for making it to the relative calm of the river.

After some super-good spicy chili, we decided to head up the river to find an anchorage for the week because Sheri was finally out of free time. We only ran aground once on the way up, and it was on a soft bar, so while we were stuck, waiting for the tide, we pumped the bilge, did some chores and were soon on our way again. We pulled into the first “marina” we came to: a few slips on the edge of the river in someone’s backyard. Dockage was $2 per night. We hitchhiked back to Newport to go to work until the next leg of the trip.

Saco River to York

The next weekend we rode up to the Saco River with friends visiting family in Maine. We were becoming good at getting underway efficiently, and we were soon saying goodbye to the retired couple who owned the marina as their hobby. We started by sailing up the Kennebunk River to Kennebunkport to sightsee, then anchored among the moorings beside the channel.

The next morning, we headed out past the buoys. We thought we could make Portsmouth, N.H., easily, but the wind eased off, and so we decided to put into York Harbor and take it easy. The steward at York Marine Services quoted us $56 for the week, but after some discussion over a beer, admiration of Alexis (and probably of Sheri, too), he gave us a free mooring in the harbor that a friend of his wasn’t using. The only contingency: We had to be off by the next weekend.

As locals looked over the boat, one pointed out a large crack in a stem-fitting weld. If this fractured, the forestay would let go. We probably broke it while beating into the Saco River because we had inspected the rigging thoroughly before leaving Christmas Cove. So, the rigging was disassembled, the forestay replaced temporarily with the jib halyard and the cracked fitting removed. Jeff, at the marina, said he would get it welded for us by the next week.


York to Newburyport

The following weekend, Sheri and I intended to work on the boat Saturday and set sail on Sunday. We put the rigging back together, and I also finally put the cleat on the port side for the genoa sheets. We were ready to go again.

The next morning, we talked to a group of six or seven boats that sailed up from the American Yacht Club in Newburyport and were returning there. They offered us a guest mooring at their club. I singlehanded the boat down while Sheri drove to meet me. The wind was 15 knots out of the west; it was a bit cool and gusty, but I was so grateful for anything but the southwest wind on the nose.

I was really boiling along with the dinghy on a plane behind me. This was the fastest I’d had Alexis going, and I wished Sheri had been there to enjoy it after she had endured all the bad weather. I found that when on a close reach or a beat, the boat would hold her course almost indefinitely; broad-reaching, she’s not quite that well behaved, but I could still go and get my sandwich and do some chores before a gust would put her off course again.

I arrived at the mouth of the Merrimac River in good time. Unfortunately, I had to wait two hours for the tide to slack off so I could get up the river, and it was pretty late by the time we got the boat put away at the yacht club and headed back to Newport.


Newburyport to Gloucester

By the time we got to Newburyport on Friday evening, the American Yacht Club was closed, and we couldn’t get to our dinghy. So, we rented a “cabin” for $20 nearby. We soon headed for Annisquam at the head of the Blynman Canal.

It was a beat, and I was still cursing the tired old jib as we made the last tack. Down with the sails and into the canal and the Annisquam River, we enjoyed a picturesque ride and a well-marked channel with two drawbridges. As we entered Gloucester Harbor, it was a real zoo because of both blessing of the fishing fleet and an Italian festival. We dodged boats going across to the seaport moorings and picked one near Babson Ledge. The cost was $25 per week. It was a bleak Sunday morning when I hitchhiked back to Newburyport to get the car, and we headed back to Newport.


Gloucester to Onset

Sheri dropped a friend, Matt, off in Gloucester the next weekend, and he and I headed out of the harbor on a glorious broad reach in 12 knots of wind that lasted for about 10 minutes. We were becalmed at the harbor entrance. Winds stayed light most of the day, with the Boston skyline in sight for what seemed like forever.

About 3 p.m., we were beating in a light southwest breeze when a whale blew about 50 feet off our port side, scaring the heck out of us. We were off Scituate at 6 p.m. I repaired the running lights, and we decided to go on toward the Cape Cod Canal.

We were up early, and off we went. Just past the Pilgrim nuke plant, the wind died, I scrubbed down the wooden strip-planked decks with seawater, and we took a bearing on the east end of the canal. Matt kept adjusting the sail trim and had Alexis pointing much better by the time we reached the canal. The canal was lumpy when we arrived, the wind funneling down against the current.

Entering Buzzards Bay, the tide and wind were too much for Alexis, so we headed into Onset. After renting a mooring (Onset Marine, $5 per week) and doing boat chores, I called Sheri to pick us up, and Matt and I headed into town.


Onset to Westport

Sheri and I rode to Onset after work on Friday with one of our workmates, who lives on the Cape. We loaded ice and supplies and were up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the ebbing tide. After groping around to find the channel in the fog, I decided it would be nuts to continue into the canal-channel traffic in the soup, and we motored till we thought we were clear of the channel and anchored. Three hours later, we were still sitting there reading and drinking coffee. Finally, we returned to the mooring to try again the next morning.

At 6 a.m., it was still foggy, but by 9 a.m., it was clearing, so we headed out. It was dicey navigating out in the channel with just our ears, a compass and a lead line. By the time we got to the end of the channel markers, it was raining hard, and the fog had really set in again. Still, we were reaching like a banshee in the right direction and were clear of the main channel traffic. Since we couldn’t see more than 50 feet ahead, I decided the safest thing to do was keep heading away from the traffic.

About an hour later, the fog cleared a bit, and we finally started to relax. By the time we reached Horseneck Beach in Westport, it was getting late, and we could see another fog bank approaching. It was tempting to head for Newport, but common sense said otherwise, so we headed for Westport.

About two miles offshore, we were in pea soup again, inching our way among rocks and the shore. A big sloop from New Hampshire followed us, right on our stern at every turn, probably thinking we were a local boat. After inching our way in, we picked up Halfmile Rock at the entrance, chugged up the river and picked a convenient mooring.

We rowed into the Westport Yacht Club and convinced them we could get Alexis into the only slip left without damaging all their beautiful yachts – even with a strong cross-current. The pressure was on, but by now, we knew Alexis well, and we pulled it off. Another workmate picked us up, and we left the boat for $10 per night while I went on a business trip.

Westport to Newport

As much fun as we’d had, by now, Sheri and I needed a break from spending every spare minute going back and forth to wherever Alexis was, then sailing her to the next port. Thus, we did not object when friends offered to make the last short leg from Westport to Newport. They sailed Alexis on a gray, windy day to complete the trip to my mooring off The Point section of Newport. It was quite the journey but well worth it. I spent many hours restoring Alexis, and she became a well-loved and well-used boat for years.

David Sharp is a retired Ocean Engineer living in Newport, R.I. He started boating as a child and has owned over 20 boats so far, but Alexis was a favorite. David and his partner, Nancy Grinnell, currently day-sail their Pearson Ensign and cruise New England aboard Carry On, a 2001 Cape Classic 30 trawler.