Good counsel, and sailing faster than the wind

“The Bird” at Rockport Marine after being successfully delivered from R.I. to Maine. The trip was uneventful Ð always a blessing in October. Photo by Jack Farrell

In spite of my best-laid plans, a second season has now passed without launching our sloop Aloft. We have used the time to make numerous upgrades, and she now has a totally new rig, engine, and plank fastenings below the waterline. With her updated electronics and refurbished teak cockpit, she is in fine shape to keep me sailing in style well into my rapidly approaching golden years. There is a buyer’s market now for classic sailboats, and a few have caught my eye of late. But I know that Aloft will be my last boat, and I can’t wait to get her sailing again.

Even though sailing has been on hold for so long, I console myself with the daily trips I make to the Isles of Shoals from March through November. I get a lot of salt-water time with these island deliveries, and a growing charter business. In fact, while Aloft has been recuperating in the shed I have traveled enough sea miles to cover nearly four Atlantic crossings – over 10,000 miles – but nearly all of them over the same 10 miles of very familiar ocean.

And so when I heard from my skiing friend Peter that he had just bought a sporty new trimaran and needed to move her from near Newport, R.I., to Northeast Harbor, Maine, before the winter set in, I quickly offered to go along. In his skiing and in his sailing, Peter appreciates high levels of performance. And he likes to go fast. He is a true Renaissance man: a hard worker with a generous spirit, a skilled artisan in brick and stone, a musician, a writer and a nationally recognized ski educator. Peter has infectious enthusiasm for what he does, and an ironic sense of humor. I met him at my first audition to be a ski instructor. After watching me ski for a while, he commented that I “skied badly really well.” I took that as some kind of compliment, and I have been learning from him ever since.

This new boat, Mocking Bird, would be Peter’s last boat. She was fast, able to sail 1.25 times the speed of the wind, he told me. Her designer, the late Dick Newick (American multihull icon), considered her to be the autograph of his long career. Mocking Bird is 38 feet long and 28 feet wide, but weighs less than 7,000 lbs. Built in 2001 of foam, glass and carbon fiber, she is no longer the fastest boat on the water. But she is still a high-tech marvel with her rotating carbon fiber rig and fine curving amas (the Polynesian word for the outer hulls of a trimaran) suspended from broad transverse wings (the akas). And rumor has it that she can practically fly. Peter had spent a long time learning to sail multi-hulls and waiting for his chance to own a boat like this.

But as we loaded our gear into the yacht club launch in Bristol, he was clearly out of sorts. He had not been sleeping. The weather window looked good, but things can change quickly in late October. And “the Bird” was a brand new boat with lots of unknowns. We had ridden down to Bristol with another skiing colleague who had been consulting with Peter about the boat and its delivery for weeks. He took me aside before he went back to Maine and told me it was my job to bring both courage and calm to the trip.

Mocking Bird rocked gently in the late afternoon breeze as we approached in the launch. My only multi-hull experience was a very short tenure as captain on a relatively sluggish charter catamaran. I’d never even set foot on a trimaran, so unlike the classic monohulls to which I am generally drawn.

I was first struck be the way she was moored, tethered to the ball by separate lines to each hull. The amas seemed almost too fragile to step on, and the curving tops required careful steps. The rig appeared confusing at first: simple rope shrouds with no spreaders lead out in broad angles to the amas. In addition to the usual sheets and halyards, the double headsails, running backstays and control lines for the mast rotation created what seemed like a complex web. We stepped carefully aboard and ferried the gear across the wing to the main hull (the vaka). Peter had been down a few days before to get familiar with things, and as he went over it all for my benefit in the clear light of the late afternoon sun, the details of the boat gradually became clearer.

The little diesel was located behind the cockpit, connected to a sail drive which exited the hull all the way aft, just ahead of the rudder – which was connected to the tiller by exposed lines. A sliding, well-gasketed, hatch provided engine access at just above the waterline, and, I hoped, kept all the water out. An inspection plate in the galley counter opened to the sea lapping just below the wing. The boat was an interesting combination of technology and simplicity, and I was happy to be going on a cruise again at last.

The Yanmar started reassuringly. While it was warming up, Peter asked if I was still up for the trip. “A little late for that, don’t you think?” I replied. I told him that in my experience the worst things that were likely to happen would result in nothing worse than discomfort, boredom and/or embarrassment. We looked at the charts and agreed to motor down the river as far as we could before dark, find a mooring for the night and get a pre-dawn jump on what would be a long next day. I dropped all three mooring lines as Peter backed clear of the buoy and spun her around toward the channel. He took command on his first voyage with his fine new boat with the engine humming smoothly and the three hulls slicing easily through the light chop. I felt the tension ease as a cautious smile came over his face.

There are no white-knuckle stories to tell about this voyage to Maine, and that’s just the way Peter wanted it to be. Mocking Bird proved herself quickly to be a reliable and very stable ride. The only bad thing about the trip was the persistent head wind that limited full-throated sailing to less than four hours (during which we did in fact sail faster than the wind, giving me just a taste of what the Bird can do). The rest of the time we motor-sailed and talked – as sailors do on these trips – of family, friends, grandchildren, aspirations and memories. We talked a lot about boats and skiing. Among other things, we determined that it may, in fact, be true that dog people are drawn to single-hulled boats, while cat people prefer multihulls. But our sample size was too small to be conclusive on the matter.

On our second day we made it from just off Newport to Gosport Harbor at the Isles of Shoals, a distance of around 150 miles. The island crew brought us more fuel just after breakfast the next day, and we motorsailed offshore into the persistent northeasterly chop to reach Boothbay Harbor just after dark that night. We made Penobscot Bay by early afternoon on the third day, where we left the boat as the weather deteriorated. A happy man, Peter made the final leg home later in the week with another friend, a professional captain from Rockland.

Peter still insists that he needs to do something to thank me for helping him bring his last boat home. I tell him that, for me, the trip was a well-timed privilege; that all I need is another chance to sail with him on Mocking Bird – faster than the wind – and more of his good counsel this winter to keep me from skiing badly really well.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.