Fast run to Damariscove

Christened Wings by its builder, the 15-foot home-built runabout moved along nicely powered by a 20hp Tohatsu outboard. Photo courtesy Herb Smith

May 2023

By Herb Smith

I understood: Two weeks earlier I’d almost flipped our 80-year-old, canvas-covered, square-stern canoe. I could have drowned in Penobscot Bay, between The Graves and Dead Man Point, true locations on a chart (see “Another Crazy Scheme,” December 2017).

“Sail or power?” I asked, sensing I might soon be building a more seaworthy vessel.

“Check them both out, whichever is less expensive. Except, with sail, it will take forever to get anywhere.”

I started to investigate, called the WoodenBoat Store in Brooklin, and eventually bought a Harold “Dynamite” Payson book telling how to build a catboat for under $1,000. I asked Doris about it.

“Will it take two people, and how fast will it sail?”

“Maybe five knots. I don’t know.”

“Then, to get to Monhegan or Damariscove Island and back, it will take a day or longer depending on the wind. Why don’t you check out a larger stable motorboat?” I was fully aware that we were both getting older, and a sailboat would be more difficult to handle under way. And if there was no wind we would be going nowhere.

Some boating friends suggested I check out Glen-L Marine in California, which had many designs to choose from. I called information to get their telephone number (I don’t use a computer) and spoke with Gayle, the daughter of the founder and asked her about a good stable runabout. She was friendly and said that although they had many designs, the most popular was a 15-footer with a five-foot beam that I could build for under $1,000. It had oak sawn frames and quarter-inch plywood. That night I told Doris what I’d found out: Both the catboat and the 15-foot powerboat could be built for under $1,000.

“Go ahead, get the plans,” she replied, surely thinking this would keep her home for several years. Two weeks later, the plans came priority-mail in a long triangle box. They included full-sized patterns for frames, stem and transom, and two books on how to build it. I read the books first and it seemed easy enough. When I had a question, I called Gayle at Glen-L, and I started checking out material costs.

Marine plywood is expensive, yet costs would still be under $1,000, except for the outboard motor.

I put a For Sale sign on our canoe and placed it in the driveway, asking $1,900 with the motor. Low and behold, one afternoon a woman who lives down the road from us, in an historic house, looked at it. She and her husband liked antiques, and the canoe was one. She came back the next week and said she wanted a present to give to her husband for Father’s Day and wished to buy the trailer as well. I said $2,500, she wrote out the check, and then I knew that I could begin building the runabout; her check would help pay for the outboard.

Construction of the boat began in my small shop, where I was able to consistently log six-day work-weeks. On some days I only worked for 15 minutes (my shop has plastic tarps for walls), but even so I figured that I could have it finished over the winter.

On difficult problems, I talked Doris into helping me. For instance, bending the two bilge panels to the stem: We made up cardboard patterns and used boiling hot water to twist the plywood into the stem, bedded it with 3M 5200, and secured it with screws. In the spring, we covered it with 10-ounce fiberglass and epoxy. Doris painted it and varnished the mahogany trim around the double cockpits that I designed.

In early summer, it began costing us a lot of money. We bought a reasonably priced fuel-injected Tohatsu 20-hp outboard, cable steering with chrome wheel, and we found a new trailer for $800. That ate up the $2,500 I sold the canoe for, but it was ready to be launched.

Our son, Tom, who was now operating our last charter boat, came over with his truck and towed the boat to the Damariscotta public boat ramp, six miles away. Doris christened it Wings, Tom backed his new truck down the boat ramp, but Wings didn’t float off. I was aboard and started the outboard. The transom was deep enough. When it warmed up, I put it into reverse, and it still didn’t budge even with half-power.

Doris suggested we unhook the trailer. Tom didn’t want to back his new truck any deeper into the water, so he unhooked the trailer, and now, using reverse, I pulled the trailer down the ramp into the deeper water and we were afloat. Tom was up to his knees holding onto the trailer. We should have tied a line to the hitch.

I tied the boat to the floats, Doris got into the back cockpit with our dog Scamp, and I let Tom drive. The boat flew on “. . . wings like a dove” (Psalm 55:6), faster than Doris or I had ever been on the water. In fact, it was a little scary, out of control. When we hit a wake, it pounded more than my bones needed at my age. I was beginning to think we should have built the slow sailboat.

When we returned to the dock, Tom took Doris and Scamp to lunch while I proceeded with Wings down the long (12 miles) Damariscotta River to the Carousel Marina, where they would meet me in Boothbay Harbor. This marina sells ValvTect marine gasoline, which I bought from them all summer. They also have a nice restaurant called The Whales Tale & Seafarer’s Pub. We were now officially motorboaters, although all our sailboats had diesel motors, which we used often, except on our first Appledore schooner, which did not have one.

Sadly, Scamp died that summer and we were missing him terribly. Ironically, three days later, Doris saw a black butterfly and said it was Scamp, free-at-last, which seemed to help our grieving.

At the end of the summer, still missing our dog – and better understanding the grief of others – we decided to visit Damariscove Island. We filled the six-gallon gas tank on a beautiful calm day and departed Carousel Marina around noon. We had discovered that no wind, with flat-calm seas, were the days we wanted for enjoying Wings. Quite the opposite of sailing when, many times on our voyages, I was hoping for a strong following wind to cross oceans.

In the inner harbor of Boothbay Harbor, you can only proceed at five knots. Therefore, it took a few minutes to get out to Tumbler Island, a mile away. There, you can open the boat up. I advanced the throttle until we were planed off, Doris sitting next to me in the forward cockpit enjoying the ride. It was easy to do with only two-thirds throttle on the 20-horse outboard. We found out our fuel range at this speed was over six hours. But, just in case, we had a reserve six-gallon tank.

We were now making 16 knots smoothly, and Damariscotta Island was only six miles out. Soon we were at Burnt Island light house, and we saw a few sailboats becalmed, just like we had been at times. We cruised past Squirrel Island on the east side and headed for Ram Island lighthouse. There, we slowed down and went between Ram and Fisherman islands as we often did with the Appledore schooners. It was nostalgic.

Then we went around Fisherman Island on the east side and headed for outer Heron Island and opened up the throttle again. We were now out in the Atlantic Ocean, with a slight groundswell from a recent hurricane that passed out to sea. Wings took the swell surprisingly well, and we didn’t have to slow down. It was fun – up and over we rode the swell. No pounding like in wind chop.

When we arrived at Outer Heron, we could see the full length of Damariscove Island to starboard. Once it was two islands: Wood Island on the northern end, with many trees; and Damariscove to the south, covered in granite. When the settlers came, they built a causeway. Now it’s one island.

We were headed to the southern end where there is a small harbor. When we came up to the mid-channel gong buoy, a half-mile outside, we slowed down. I asked Doris to start up the handheld GPS, and we started on a northerly course into the harbor. I could see the old Coast Guard Life-Saving Station (1897-1959) ahead of us. I could never have served there because I didn’t join the Coast Guard until 1960.

It’s now a private home with a nice dock. Going into the narrow harbor, ledges are on both sides. Basically, it’s a straight line from the gong buoy to the middle of the harbor. Not many other boats were there, just a few belonging to the private home.

We headed over to the floating dock just north of the granite pier made up of huge square stones.

The Boothbay Region Land Trust, which now owns most of the island, provides the dock with small rowing dinghies tethered to the end. You are supposed to tie up to the front of the dock, pick up a dinghy, and go out to anchor or tie alongside one of the floating docks, then row the dinghy back for hiking. However, Ed and his partner Bailey, the caretakers who have a small shack there, said that we could tie up to the end of the dock where the dinghies were, which we did with a short bow line.

We then picked up a map of the trails and decided to hike the Pond Trail, which led to the end of the first island, past a four-acre pond. This freshwater pond, plus an overabundance of cod that fishermen could dry and sail back to Europe, was probably the reason the English and French came here in 1607, before Jamestown and Plymouth. Capt. John Smith charted the island around 1614, reportedly naming the Damerils Isles after 17th-century owner Humphrey Dameril. The first account of a year-round fishing settlement on Damariscove Island was written in 1622.

On the hiking trail, we passed old foundations and came to the four-acre pond in 20 minutes. There, we had to cross over the north side on a beach with huge rocks scattered around. It wasn’t easy. On the east side, we were back on a good trail that eventually went along the coast on huge cliff-like rocks. The surf was breaking below. After an hour, we came to the museum, a small building at the head of the harbor. It was open and we went inside to look at the many artifacts and to read about the history of the island.

Shortly we returned to the boat, where I checked the six-gallon fuel tank to find that it still looked full. I wondered how Joshua Slocum ever got in here with his engineless boat. He probably waited for the right wind direction. We then headed over to Pumpkin Ledges, just south of Outer Heron Island, and saw seals in the water and on the ledges. The sun was setting as we came back into the harbor.

The next weekend, we took our daughter Lisa and her husband Luke and walked the Pond Trail on Damariscove Island with them. We had a good summer with a very fast motorboat, but decided to build another boat – a slow catboat – during the winter, thinking we needed to get back to sailing.

Herb and Doris Smith have sailed around the world twice on schooner Appledore. They have a son and two daughters. Herb has written a self-published book, “Appledore’s Child,” about a descendent of French Canadians who once wanted to become a nun until meeting a Baptist preacher’s kid and sailing around the world with him. Smith’s books are available at Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shops. This article is a lightly edited excerpt of chapters 18 and 19 of “Appledore’s Child.”