Early sailing lessons

Guest perspective/Paul Brown

I bought my first sailboat in 1987, when I was 52 years old. It was a Thunderbird 26 sloop, a pretty little one-design built for cruising and racing. One could sit on the un-enclosed marine toilet and touch all four berths, the stove and sink. Needless to say, I hadn’t a clue about sailing and boating in general. I’d hatched the fantasy during the 1970s gas crunch. You know, a wind-powered vessel – no fuel to burn.

I’d known Don Gorman since the 1960s when his occupation was waterproofing foundations. Since then he’d completed Coast Guard courses, earned his Master license, and had sailed ocean-going tugs in the Mediterranean, Africa and off the U.S. Gulf Coast servicing oil rigs. He’d survived a fatal boating accident in 1975 in bad weather off the coast of Massachusetts.

As a complete boating novice, I needed the assistance of any experienced boater willing to help me “learn the ropes.” Gorman was one of two friends I could call. Gorman was an experienced mariner. But, perhaps he wasn’t aware that he didn’t know everything about small-boat handling.

My first intimation might have been a dicey docking maneuver in South Freeport, Maine.

Gorman and his lady friend had come along to assist with the navigation from Potts Harbor, which went perfectly. But, on arriving at the dock from downriver, I was at the tiller, and he instructed me on the docking procedure. It was simply “come in slow, and put the engine in reverse just before touching the dock.”

What Gorman didn’t know, and what I was unaware of, is that the current in the Harraseeket is the deciding factor in any docking maneuver. We were coming into the dock with a strong current behind us. There was a lobster boat at the far end of the dock and I aimed for the near end. A fender bumped the dock, I reversed the engine, and the current pushed the stern away from the dock and we kept moving forward toward the lobster boat. Gorman’s friend hopped to the dock and was trying to hold the bow off the dock and prevent forward movement. She called for help. Gorman took the tiller. I stood and watched, helplessly.

Ultimately we managed to dock without hitting the lobster boat. A remark from a bystander was something like, “I hope your insurance is paid.” When I think of that, I wonder why some assistance was not offered to these amateurs.

I was too green at that point to understand our error, and a few weeks later I invited Gorman to join me for a cruise, perhaps even an overnight. He accepted, and after looking at the chart, thought it would be fun to anchor out at Halfway Rock. With adequate amounts of beer and other provisions aboard, I happily thought of this as an overnight picnic.

It was a cloudy afternoon when we left, with thunderstorms forecast. There was no breeze, so we motored southeasterly, through Broad Sound, toward our destination.

Halfway Rock is so-named as it is halfway between Cape Elizabeth and Cape Small, the extremes of Casco Bay. It’s a small, rocky islet with a lighthouse on it. On the northwesterly side, the depth ranges from about 8 to 25 feet at mean low tide, and then it drops off. Gorman’s plan was to anchor in the shallows on the northwesterly side for the evening. What did I know?

The island is about 12 miles from South Freeport, and three to four miles from the outer islands of Casco Bay. As we motored past Eagle Island on our port side, I noted that the sky was getting darker. I also noted what appeared to be a thundercloud approaching from the land, and that it was overtaking us. Gorman, at the tiller, suggested, “Better get the radar reflector up.”

I found the radar reflector, an aluminum gadget with several reflective surfaces, and proceeded to the mast. I attached the reflector to a halyard, tied a haul-down line to the bottom, and raised the reflector while looking at the top of the mast. The mast was describing irregular circles against a darkening sky. It probably took no more than 30 seconds before I felt the onset of that malady known as seasickness. I cleated the halyard, and crawled back to the cockpit. “Ho, ho, ho,” said Gorman, “Give me a beer. Also, a corned beef and onion sandwich would taste good now. With lots of mustard,” he added. It was too late. I was seasick and felt miserable, and said so. About two miles remained to Halfway Rock. It would have been wiser to turn around and run for shelter, but Gorman was oblivious to any danger, and especially to my discomfort.

We arrived just westerly of Halfway Rock at the moment the storm hit. As thunderstorms go this one may have been average, but, to this country kid, it was a maelstrom. The wind was deafening; rain drenching us. Gorman, unfamiliar with the five-foot cast-iron fin keel that the Thunderbird carries, shouted for me to drop the anchor as he was powering forward. The rode caught first on the keel, as the wind was pushing us sideways, and then on the rudder. The tiller snapped out of his hand and I heard it crack into the stern rail. Another deafening crack signaled a lightning strike nearby. The wind and a torrent of rain were making breathing difficult.

To this day, I remember those few moments as incredibly intense. I suppose that even at that point, my intuition told me what was wrong, and that slacking the rode was necessary. Somehow, crawling to the bow, I dropped more anchor rode, pulled it back and dropped it again to gain some slack. Perhaps the wind lessened or changed direction for a moment, and the rode was free. The boat settled back, the rode took a 30-degree angle into the depths forward, and the anchor held. Gorman was unperturbed. “When you’re anchoring a tug, it sets when you’re under power,” he said.

Within a half-hour the storm had passed and the weather was delightful. The boat’s owner ate saltines and drank ginger ale while curled up in a berth, while Gorman sat in the cockpit with a beer and corned-beef-and-onion-with-mustard sandwich, entreating the owner to join him in the enjoyment of this lovely evening in this unusual anchorage.

So began my early sailing lessons, exasperating and sometimes scary, but none of them able to keep me from falling in love with the Thunderbird, and, eventually, sailing itself.

Raymond, New Hampshire, resident Paul Brown is a self-employed real estate appraiser who lives in the house where he was raised, about 200 yards from the farm where he was born. A two-time N.H. state representative and one-time local selectman, at age 83 he no longer sails; too expensive. He still drives his 1972 Corvette and 1972 Honda 350 motorcycle. He’s available for crew, but only on nice days.