Etchells cruising

Even a derelict Etchells is still pretty. Photo by Molly Mulhern

March/April 2021

By Molly Mulhern

Over the last 13 years I have always had a sailboat in the water. Then along came last spring, in which I found myself not only boatless, but dealing with a worldwide pandemic. Given the mass disruptions that were taking place at the time, not having a boat was surely a minor inconvenience. And yet, the significance of this became somehow heightened. As the days on my beloved Penobscot Bay lengthened, and the temperature warmed, a like-minded friend offered a possible solution: Why not fix up one of the neglected Etchells in his boatyard? Both the restoration process and the sailing that would invariably take place afterward seemed like a much-needed balm.

And so the work began, on a Sunday afternoon. Sailing friends are terrific. Sailing friends with years of boat repair experience and knowledge are the absolute best. Soft spot in the deck? No problem, just excise the rotten core, find the right wood in the scrap pile, cut to suit (my contribution was to plane the wood to its proper thickness), do more surface prep, mix the epoxy and resin, paint over the patch, and just like that the worst of the rotten deck was fixed. Floorboards were re-braced. One of my roles was to check the mast and standing rigging, attach the spreaders, and figure out what running rigging and assorted hardware needed replacing. Part of the fun of that chore included scavenging hardware off other derelict Etchells in the yard. (Personally, I’d like to see a world where accessing our waters by sailboat was available to anyone, no matter their financial resources. “Boat recycling” would certainly have to be part of this.) I’m an accomplished sailor, but have little rigging or boat-repair experience. Last summer’s project was hugely instructional on these fronts.

At 30’ on deck and 22’ on the waterline, the Etchells was designed as a raceboat, with ample opportunities for customized control lines. My partner and I kept it simple. Channels were already cut in the sidedecks for cunningham, traveler and backstay, so we kept those. Most of the other sail-control lines were mounted on the forward bulkhead. The center console we simplified to hold only the sheet and boom vang. We had no plans for one-design racing, so we didn’t feel compelled to compete with high-end Etchells, which are outfitted with precise sail-control configurations. That said, local yacht club mixed-fleet races were on our radar.

My partner hand-painted a new name – Red Tail, in honor of the all-black air corps from WWII – on the boat’s transom, and indulged me while I performed a re-naming ritual in order to appease Neptune. Next we double-checked the tie downs, drove to the coast, and early on a Sunday in July raised her mast. A crane hoisted her into the air, we painted the bare spots on the hull, and Red Tail splashed into Rockland Harbor.

With a slight push away from the dock Red Tail’s main ate up the southwesterly breeze, filling quickly. We swung by our mooring to tie off the dinghy, cleared the mooring field, hoisted the jib, and just like that were free.

The memory of the punky deck, the unknown strength of the bulkheads, and a lack of faith in my own rigging skills made me a tad nervous as we shot past the Rockland Breakwater at 5.5 knots. Red Tail was swift, with a fine bow entry. Her speed seemed effortless. My mate, a talented sailor and teacher, masterfully played the puffs, and, sensing my discomfort, tacked Red Tail back toward the harbor.

With that shakedown cruise astern we peppered our summer weekends with adventures. A typical daysail included the delightful “where should we go?” Often voiced as we were clearing the breakwater. Soon enough we’d hoist the spinnaker, sailing north to Mark Island and Robinson Rock, then bearing off to the Fiddler and Leadbetters, chasing zephyrs between islands, switching off the helm with piloting, grinning, gazing and chatting. With a bucket for a head and one another as windbreaks we sailed Red Tail like she was a 35-foot cruiser. Chase the ferry boat through the Reach? No problem. Catch up with friends on their motor cruiser near Carver’s Harbor? Of course! See if we could sail through the White Islands and out the far western side? Why not give it a try?

With neither an engine nor a reefing system, and sailed shorthanded, an Etchells demands that you plan for all wind conditions. We did travel with a handheld VHF, but beyond that there were few modern amenities or instruments. On our longest day we logged over 28 miles. On shorter trips we’d sail for three or four hours and travel 10 or 15 miles, east of Monroe Island, exploring passages and islands in the Mussel Ridge Channel, a place I knew little of despite decades of sailing in the area.

Why did I want to get back on the bay so badly? Because in the middle of the bay the boat and I are embraced – literally held up – in a salt water world, and the sky’s ever-changing cloud-canvas enthralls. The osprey’s chirps remind me whose world I’m in, as does the deep dive of a seal. Each trip simultaneously feels like a first time out and a return to home. In my tiller hand I hold the boat, water, wind and tide, and with minute adjustments of sail, the boat and I dance. Sometimes horribly, yet we keep at it.

Becoming a sailor has been a lifelong learning process, but one that rewards me, moment by moment, sail by sail. What the sailor brings to the challenge is returned in kind by a well-tuned and well-designed boat.

The final component of last year’s experience was dipping our toes into the local Tuesday night race series, which arrived (thanks to COVID-19) late in the game in August. We alternated at the tiller, debated tactics and strategies, and at no time got so lost in our egos or standings so as to lose an ounce of fun.

Soon the season was over and we sailed her back to the dock where we broke Red Tail down for storage. The frigid nights in Maine this winter have been warmed by memories of spinnaker runs across West Penobscot Bay, tight-tacking through Leadbetters with a stiff breeze, and the kind gentleman on his motor yacht who complimented the boat as we fast-tacked out of Long Cove. On an Etchells you sit so near the water that you never lose the feel of the boat. That joy will resonate as the calendar pages turn, knowing that possibilities abound with a like-hearted friend, a great sailboat and a marvelous bay.

Camden, Maine, resident Molly Mulhern spent her professional career publishing nautical books for International Marine and Adlard Coles/Bloomsbury. She is currently refitting a Doug Peterson-designed one-tonner.