Fast forward to Boothbay

Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

“We’re flying!” shouted Alan, the mate, trying to be heard over the din of the engines and sound-deadening earplugs. Seguin Island loomed ahead. “Here is where we turn,” I shouted back. It was midmorning, and we were cruising along at 27 knots over smooth water, turning to enter the mouth of Maine’s Sheepscot River.

The experience of being aboard Knot Too Bad, the Formula 37 Capt. Mike was tasked with delivering, was both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. Photo by Capt. Michael L. Martel

We needed to deliver this 37-foot Formula speedster by midday so we’d have time to rent a car and drive back to Rhode Island by evening. Alan needed to be back: It was his wedding anniversary, and he was taking his wife out to dinner. Zipping along out in the Gulf of Maine amid countless lobster buoys, it seemed a tall order at the time, but it was doable, and as thrilling as the ride had been at times, I was anxious to be rid of the nonstop engine noise.

To be sure, I had not, over the duration of this delivery, managed to master the finer points of precisely maneuvering this powerful twin-outdrive boat. I had been driving a twin-screw, 1947 Consolidated cruiser around Newport and Narragansett Bay all summer, and it was easy as pie. She was 58 feet long, all mahogany, and had twin Morse controls. I could turn her practically on a dime, maneuvering predictably and sweetly, with no need for a bow thruster.

But this bird was different. She had separate shift and throttle controls for each engine/outdrive, and I could turn the outdrives together, as though they were outboard engines, with the wheel, since there were no rudders. This, plus the tendency of the boat to pivot on its transom in any sort of breeze, introduced an added degree of complexity into maneuvers with which I was unfamiliar.

All the old rules that applied to the Consolidated didn’t work here. In fact, I learned, a bit too late, that with this sort of boat you don’t want to use these controls like Morse controls. Pretend that you don’t have separate throttle and shift levers. They are located together – throttle and throttle, shift and shift – for a reason. Just use them together and turn the wheel.

Simple? Maybe. I pondered this while the port rail – once again, as though possessed – whacked a piling at the fuel dock on Cuttyhunk Island. By the end of the trip, I will have crunched, chafed, scraped, or nudged practically all of them, and there were quite a few, because this floating gas-guzzler needed a $400 fill-up nearly every five hours of running time. By the end of the trip, Alan’s biceps were noticeably stronger from all the fending-off he had done.

The upside of zooming up the coast at 25 knots or better – which, for me, is flying – is that you can cover so many nautical miles in such a short amount of time. I’d never driven, nor shipped aboard, such a vessel. Thus, this high-speed delivery gave me the opportunity to glimpse a multitude of harbors, sights and landmarks I’d seen over the years from a boat, and it allowed me to be briefly reacquainted with them, which reminded me that many wonderful places along the New England coast await me in the future when I have more time to savor them.

The downsides were the noise of the gas-guzzling MerCruiser engines, requiring ear protection, and the stink of the gas exhaust that backdrafted into the cockpit when the weather was rough, and we couldn’t open the windshield vents. Her frequent need for gasoline refills added another complexity that required planning and an advance strategy. And make no mistake about it, Maine is a long way from just about anywhere, except other places in Maine. If I’m ever going to cruise Maine in a sailboat, it will have to be post-retirement, and I will need a second lifetime to do this justice. But now let’s start at the beginning of this delivery.

We left Mystic, after fueling up, on a warm, gray, rain-spitting morning in August, with a two-day travel plan. The day was humid and hazy, but the ghostly images of Watch Hill, Napatree Point, and the southern Rhode Island coastline loomed golden in the mist. The imminent threat of thunderstorms drove us up Narragansett Bay to shelter in Bristol, R.I., home port for both Alan and me. The boat would sit at a yacht club dock for several days.

With an improved weather window, we set out early in the morning, flew down the Sakonnet River chased by a norther, and out into Buzzards Bay, stopping at Cuttyhunk for fuel. We battled across a windy, choppy Buzzards, yearning for the eventual, though brief, peace of the Cape Cod Canal. Once we emerged into Cape Cod Bay, on the other side, the gusty northerly winds beat us up again. The forecast had called for five to 10 knots that day; instead it was more on the order of 25. For interminable hours we pounded and clawed our way northward into the lee of Cape Ann. By the time we reached the shelter of Gloucester, the morning had become afternoon, and the boat again needed fuel.

The only fuel dock we could find in Gloucester was at a tiny marina in the Annisquam River, a narrow, shallow river on the other side of an even narrower, low-clearance, single-lane and antiquated bascule bridge. On this summer afternoon it opened – perhaps – once every half-hour. Boats were lined up on both sides of it, waiting to get both into and out of the river. This included powerboats. The bridge appeared so low (seven-foot vertical clearance) I doubted we could make it through, with our antennas and radar.

To get through this passage, one had to radio the bridge, get in line with the other boats on your side, and hold position despite wind and tidal current. And then, once it opened, you had to try to race through. Boats were coming from the other side out into the harbor, while we were transiting from the harbor side – and the bridge would not be open for long. To add to the confusion, cars, waiting on the street above, honked their horns impatiently.

Once through, the Annisquam was little more than a mud hole, and the marina was tiny. The gas dock, at the end of a narrow alley, was lined with powerboats. While Alan was fueling I rubbed out scratches, with an emory cloth, on another boat’s pulpit rail, another ding attesting to my maneuvering challenges. The owners were understanding and didn’t raise a ruckus. I was finally able to breathe easier once we’d left Gloucester and were safely back in open waters.

By now we were tired, and, even though the sea state had become smoother, there was no way that we could continue onward once it grew dark. It was late in the afternoon, and we decided to find a slip in Portsmouth, N.H., and tie up for the night, planning to complete the last leg in the morning. We booked a slip at the marina at Wentworth by the Sea, a magnificent wooden hotel built back when my great-grandmother was born. It was a little pricey, but it would be the only dockage fee the owner would have to pay for. The five nights that the boat had stayed at the Yacht Club in Bristol, where I am a member, had been at no charge.

Wind was minimal, the water mirror-flat, when I eased her into her slip at Wentworth. I was ecstatic; I crunched nothing. We went to dinner nearby, then slept well. When I awoke at dawn, the sun was rising red in the mist over the Isles of Shoals, and calm, glassy seas promised a hot day.

We’d had no breakfast – the nearest restaurant opened at 9 a.m. – but Alan and I agreed that we needed to leave while the sea was calm, before the wind came up. The half Thermos of coffee I’d brought was still warm, which I enjoyed alone, since Alan doesn’t drink coffee. We hadn’t fueled up, so we stopped in Portland, at a marina in the inner harbor. I docked the Formula without incident, but when I tried to leave, it was chaos.

The bow went the way I didn’t want it to, and two dock workers made quick, desperate – and successful – attempts to fend us off before crunch-time. As we left the marina and emerged into the harbor, Alan high-fived me. “No more gas docks until we reach her destination,” he exclaimed with a broad grin of relief. I, too, was relieved. Only one potential crunch remained – the worst one – crunching her at her owner’s feet.

Soon we were on our way up the Sheepscot, protected from any weather changes that might slow us down. The passage upriver wasn’t something to be done at night; unmarked rockpiles and shoals would be impossible to see after dark. It was a local-knowledge-only sort of place.

This area was so beautiful, with the bluish forested hills of Maine in the background, I knew I would return someday. Someday, I would take my time exploring it at cruising pace, perhaps during that second lifetime after retirement.

We entered a small basin, where we spied the owner’s float at the base of the steep hill, upon which his house stood. It was a picture-postcard Maine scene. There was a welcoming crowd on the dock: his wife, father, brother and his family, and neighbors and family friends – and they all waved. Alan crept out onto the foredeck, lines in hand, and as I approached bow-on, he turned to me and hissed, emphatically, motioning with his hand, “Slow! Slo-o-o-ow!”

The boat drifted to the dock, with a slight breeze wafting behind her, and she nudged the dock obliquely, as if the gentle approach had been intentional. Eager hands reached out and held her, she was cleated off, I shut down the engines, and managed to find a grin. The Formula 37 had arrived at her destination, and her new family and friends were delighted to see her.

“I’ve been on edge for days,” the owner said as he drove us to the car rental office at the little airport. “You won’t believe how stressed I’ve been. But I knew inside that I had nothing to worry about with you two guys.”

“Amen to that,” Alan replied.

Capt. Mike Martel, sailing out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean, and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.