Going to great lengths for next to nothing

The author explored the New England and Fundy coasts aboard this Lightning “Weekender” for many years. Photo by David Buckman

By David Buckman

In a lifetime of sailing there were no cruises richer in beauty, drama and intimacy than those we launched in the 1970s, when cash flow was tight, and we set out to discover the New England and Fundy coasts aboard an old wooden sloop I’d acquired for $400.

Fixing up the beater of a 19-foot Lightning class sailboat was an education in itself for a hacker of my low skill level. Having diagnosed transom rot, I cut a couple of inches off the stern and landed a new transom in relatively solid wood. I worried the larks would no longer carol over her, but they sang as lustily as ever, though she leaked like a White House aide. Then I rattled the yacht club old guard by building a little kennel of a cabin on her and putting to sea.

While there was no tradition of dinghy cruising on this side of the pond, I knew it was commonly practiced in Europe and my options were reduced to cruising in what I had, or rotting ashore. Having spent a dozen boring summers of my youth racing Lightnings, I knew the boat well enough, and prepared her for coasting by fitting a triple-reefing system, jib downhaul and a tiny storm jib.

The wild places we poked the sloop’s nose into were nothing less than extraordinary. Six days out of East Providence, Rhode Island, friend Cleve Smith and I discovered Haley Cove on Smuttynose Island at the Isle of Shoals off Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A tennis court-sized rocky bight, seven miles to sea . . . the wildness of it took our breath away.

With her steel centerboard raised, we slid the bow onto the hard and visited the Captain Haley House. Built in 1750, it seemed possessed of a palpable drama, being the last manmade structure between the island and the Azores, 2,000 miles to the east. After a walk ashore, where our words seemed inadequate, we nudged the sloop off the rocks, so she wouldn’t be stranded, and anchored in two feet of water, the fabulous wildness of the eel rut striking us quiet.

Cleve and I also discovered the uncharted backwaters of Winter Harbor on Maine’s Vinalhaven Island. Edging the sloop along a narrowing gut between great swells of granite we emerged in a green velvet alcove, completely removed from the world, where we laid in perfect comfort, drank wine and pontificated on various subjects while wind and rain raged.

Later, wife Leigh and I mounted the reversing falls in the same harbor, poked about a little tea cup of a tide pool and anchored between an unnamed small island and shore, completely removed from the world, with but two feet of water under us at low tide. The solitude was breathtaking.

I was singlehanding when I sailed into Roque Island Harbor far Downeast. Skirting the crescent of its great sandy strand, I lowered sail, raised the centerboard, shipped the rudder, and the little cruiser was received with a whisper as she slid onto the beach. I just stood there for a while, struck quiet by the wild sweep of it, feeling a thousand miles from home.

These were but a few of the treasures we came to know in the home-grown cruiser. Other such discoveries included Lakeman Harbor, Seal Trap on Isle au Haut, the delight of drying out in the mud on Swans Island, a delightful shingle beach on Jewell Island, and the muddy verges of Canada’s St. John River, to name a few.

There’s a lot to be said in favor of dinghy cruising. It’s simple, economical, super tactile, and can grant passage to secret places and solitude all but unknown to the cruising world.

David Buckman cruises ever eastward, in a Folkboat, out of Round Pond, Maine.