Following seas, tin skiffs & Getch

The author’s family aboard their Boston Whaler, during a cruise in calmer weather. Photo courtesy Dan Edson

December 2021

By Dan Edson
For Points East

As the 15-foot Whaler entered the mouth of the Sheepscot River in midcoast Maine, I noticed a dense chop on the river, near shore, and whitecaps on the windblown waves moving upriver, but I elected to proceed. Moments later, we reached the day marker off to starboard, at about the narrowest part of the channel and definitely beyond the point of no return.

I had to maintain headway to avoid the rocks on either side of the channel and safely navigate past a small ledge straight ahead, but I also needed to quickly make a turn to avoid taking a wave over the side. With the boat rolling and pitching, I quickly hauled around and headed upriver once we cleared the ledge. We were in a trough, with a sizable wave catching up to us from behind. What now? I recall thinking.

This was in the mid-`90s, the second or third summer we’d rented a place on MacMahan, a small summer island just north of Five Islands and south of the tip of Westport Island. I’d taken my daughter, son, and a friend and his two daughters over to Cozy Harbor in the early afternoon to get ice cream and bowl on Gus Pratt’s two old candlepin lanes. I’d made the two miles or so boat ride to Cozy Harbor for lunch several times and naïvely expected that our late-afternoon ride back across the Sheepscot would be just like all those noontime trips to Gus’s: warm, sunny and uneventful.

All in their early teens, the kids had their PFDs on as they stepped into the Whaler and took their positions – two at the bow and two on the center seat. My friend shoved us off the dock and sat next to me in the stern. Then I began to wend through the snug mooring field, tightly packed with lobster boats, sailing school sloops and a myriad of sailboats and powerboats.

Earlier that July afternoon, I’d noticed the breeze had picked up as we pushed open the screen door to Gus Pratt’s luncheonette on Cozy Harbor and headed down to the floating dock. I didn’t give the wind much thought, though. The picture-perfect, sheltered harbor on the west side of Southport Island, across the Sheepscot River from Five Islands, appeared as docile as when we arrived a couple of hours earlier: the water flat and moored boats gently rocking.

I knew that entering and exiting the harbor mouth necessitates care, particularly for mariners lacking local knowledge: There’s not much room to reverse course in the mouth if things get dicey. But I had yet to learn that the wide lower Sheepscot can quickly become messy with the right wind and tide, with conditions dramatically different from the small, protected harbor.

Fortunately, I had read somewhere that to safely and comfortably negotiate following seas, a skipper sometimes can put the boat on the back of a wave and use the throttle to hold that position and ride the wave – at least for a while. The Whaler responded to my nervous, novice hand, and I was able to climb up on the wave in front of us and then ride relatively smoothly away from the shallow shoreline and safely west of small, rocky Cedarbush Island just off the harbor mouth.

By the time we’d reached Hendricks Head, a few minutes upriver, we’d moved well out into the Sheepscot and deeper and calmer water. To my great relief, this was without uncontrollably overtopping a wave crest or sliding back into a trough. Soon the aggressive chop abated, and I began to breathe more easily. What would have been little more than a rough patch for a more experienced boat handler had been white knuckles for me.

We completed the trip back to MacMahan without incident and without my passengers aware of the angst I had been feeling, but I knew I had been ill-prepared for the conditions. I needed more experience on the water, but I also needed some schooling. En route to MacMahan, I resolved to order a book on small boat handling I’d seen advertised, “Outboard Boater’s Handbook: Advanced Seamanship and Practical Skills.” The editor and primary author was a Maine outdoorsman and boating writer I admired and had often read. A guy named Dave Getchell.

I had become aware of Dave Getchell from an article he wrote about a fantastic journey he and an adventurous cohort had taken in 1980, along hundreds of miles of the Labrador coast in an 18-foot, aluminum Lund – a tin skiff. Although billed as an expedition to climb in the mountains that rise from the sea north along the Labrador coast, I suspected that Getchell also wanted to demonstrate the versatility and toughness of tin skiffs, and indeed he did.

For the bold Labrador trip, almost 900 miles total, Getchell and Geof Heath – a mountaineer and boatbuilder – first trailered and ferried the skiff for three days, from Maine through New Brunswick, up to Nova Scotia, across Cabot Strait to Newfoundland, up to the Strait of Belle Isle, across to L’Anse-au-Clair, near the Québec-Labrador border, and finally over 60 miles of gravel road to Red Bay, Labrador – the end of the road north for vehicles at that time.

After loading the skiff, Torngat, for a Labrador mountain range, with camping equipment, climbing gear, food, water, clothing, and fuel, they launched and headed north along the coast toward the Labrador Sea.

Heath had decked over part of the bow and added a nylon canopy, providing cover for almost half the length of the boat. Getchell had installed a galvanized pipe grabrail to make the boat safer for operating while standing but, otherwise, Torngat was just a tin skiff with a tiller.

Locals must have raised their eyebrows as the two outsiders in the small, open boat – powered by a 25hp Mariner two-cycle outboard – pulled into the harbors of small, remote towns along the coast to gas up and reprovision. But Getchell and Heath did successfully cruise nearly 400 miles up the rugged Labrador coast to beyond the town of Nain and into the Port Manvers wilderness.

They left the boat tied up along that faraway shore for a couple of days to hike and climb, and then motored the hundreds of miles back to Red Bay. All the while, they never needed the 5hp Suzuki outboard, taken as a backup.

That real-life, tall tale boating story did it for me. In addition to impressive small-craft operating skills, the Labrador undertaking required a lot of practical outdoorsmanship, proper equipment, and plenty of plain good sense. From then on, I looked for Getchell’s byline.

Fortunately, in New England, “By David R. Getchell, Sr.” was pretty easy to find for many decades. In addition to Points East, over the course of 22 years, he was managing editor and editor of the “Maine Coast Fisherman,” “National Fisherman,” and founding editor of “Small Boat Journal.” Getchell also wrote for – and/or edited – “The Essential Outdoor Gear Manual” and “The Mariner’s Catalog.” Getchell’s article “My 30-year affair with Torngat,” in the May 2010 issue of Points East, describes the Labrador adventure in Torngat, as well as how he was reunited with the skiff years after selling her.

In the mid-’80s, Getchell worked part-time for the Island Institute, which the State of Maine had contracted to evaluate hundreds of uninhabited, state-owned islands for recreational potential. As part of this project, Getchell visited many of the islands from Penobscot Bay to Canada, often in Torngat. The idea for a Maine Island Trail emerged from the Island Institute’s survey, and Getchell served as the trail’s coordinator for several years. Eventually, he helped found the Maine Island Trail Association (MITA) to provide stewardship for the hundreds of islands on the 375-mile trail – certainly his legacy achievement.

A video tracing the history of MITA on the organization’s website recognizes Getchell’s contribution and, in turn, to the thousands of small craft paddlers, rowers, and operators who now enjoy that Maine coast recreational waterway.

Within weeks of returning home from Maine and my experience on a testy Sheepscot River, I obtained a copy of “Outboard Boater’s Handbook: Advanced Seamanship and Practical Skills,” edited by David R. Getchell. Eagerly, I scanned the contents – The Boats, Engines, Boat Trailers, etc. – and quickly flipped to the Seamanship chapter and a section written by Getchell titled “Rough-Water Handling.”

Getchell begins by reviewing wind and waves, the nearshore “breaker zone,” and fetch. Basics. He then discusses a sea state phenomenon that I’d sometimes experienced but not understood – what he terms “wrong-sized” waves. “Every boat has a range of waves that give it a hard time because they are roughly the same distance between crests as the length of the boat,” he wrote. As Getchell explains, traveling straight through wrong-sized waves, at right angles to the wave crests, can cause severe pitching and pounding (think of motoring directly into a rising wind), with the risk of plunging down one wave and into the next. Banging into wrong-sized waves also can be extremely uncomfortable and probably quite wet.

Since the problem for boaters facing wrong-sized waves is the distance between crests, Getchell advises skippers to lengthen that distance by traveling from one wave crest to the next at an angle, not straight on. Geometrically, that means taking a hypotenuse from wave crest to wave crest. Traveling that longer path down and up waves reduces steep pitching, which, in turn, gives the skipper more control. A boat operator does need to pay attention to the direction angle to avoid getting turned sidewise to a wave and possibly broaching, but traveling through wrong-sized waves generally demands close attention to sea conditions anyhow, as well as reduced speed.

As for following seas, the bugaboo facing me as I left Cozy Harbor, Getchell notes the importance of proper trim, getting the weight in the boat just aft of midship to keep the bow light and help prevent nosing the bow into the back of a wave. “A delicate hand on the tiller and throttle so often is necessary in wild places,” Getchell notes near the end of the “Rough Water Handling” section.

Although “Outboard Boater’s Handbook” is targeted at boaters using crafts up to 20-feet long (a blurb on the inside front cover reads “How to handle a little boat in big seas”), much of the book applies to boating in general, and the “Rough Water Handling” section most definitely has real-world applications beyond small outboards.

For powerboaters, in particular, navigating the New England coast, as we do in a 24-foot cabin cruiser, wrong-sized waves are a frequent occurrence. Tacking through these seas in a smooth zig-zag – lengthening the distance between wave crests – can make the ride a lot more tolerable and keep items in the cabin from relocating themselves, as well as enable us to better maintain control in rough water.

Dave Getchell, who died in 2018 at age 89, loved being out on the water in a small, open boat. His enthusiasm for small outboards – particularly tin skiffs – motivated me to buy a 12-foot Lowe Sea Nymph at a hard-to-resist, end-of-the-season sale about 20 years ago. For a few years, I’d often head out in the skiff near daybreak to explore Plum Island Sound and the tidal rivers and creeks near Newbury, Mass., where I docked the boat.

Revisiting Getchell’s trip into the Labrador Sea in an 18-foot Lund has got me thinking again about the versatility and enjoyment of tin skiffs, both for boating coastal waters like the Maine Island Trail, and for gunkholing the river tributaries and estuaries and marshes in New England.

I regret never meeting Dave Getchell, but I exchanged letters with him a few years after my experience off Cozy Harbor. By then, “Outboard Boater’s Handbook” had become a trusted resource. I told him that the rollicking ride on the Sheepscot had prompted me to buy his book and thanked him for his informative discussion of wrong-sized waves. I added that his handbook had made me better aware of my shortcomings, too. Getchell replied, modestly, as I suspected was his fashion, that he had “experienced the lower Sheepscot in a snorty sou’wester,” and understood my “bit of apprehension.” An understatement for certain, and I appreciated that Getchell had not tagged my ride out of Cozy Harbor for what it was, another summer person in over his head.

Postscript: To fully comprehend the magnitude of Getchell and Heath’s Labrador cruise, locate a map or chart that shows the small community of Nain, Labrador’s northernmost permanent settlement, which is accessible only by sea or air. Slide a finger 40 miles up the coast. There was nothing up there – nothing but two men and an 18-foot tin skiff.

Dan and Marcia Edson cruise Sol e Mar, a 24-foot Hinterhoeller Limestone powerboat, out of Newburyport, Mass., where they regularly encounter following seas or wrong-sized waves in the mouth of the Merrimack River.