Grateful summer: Cruising with cancer

The author’s Finngulf 391, and attendant paddle boards. Last summer these vessels served a very special purpose. Photo by Ben Emory

By Ben Emory
For Points East

“Do you realize how lucky I am?!” blurted my wife Dianna as, anchored in a foggy Blue Hill Bay cove, we savored dinner at the cabin table. Not many people with stage IV lung cancer would view life that way.

We always spend as much time as possible on our Finngulf 391 sloop West Wind, a 39’ masterpiece from Finland. Whether we would be aboard this past summer was certainly in doubt. Our sailmaker, hearing the news of Dianna’s illness, even called to see if the boat would be launched. Launched she was, and frequent daysails and short cruises ensued.

Dianna’s summer afloat stemmed from a fortuitous circumstance. Laboratory tests revealed she has a gene mutation that makes the use of targeted therapy possible. For her type of non-smoker lung cancer, targeted therapy is a game-changer. During the months prior to her diagnosis, Dianna was increasingly winded hiking and cross-country skiing. Other than that, she felt fine. But being barely able to ski up a Vermont cow pasture just before Christmas led to Massachusetts General Hospital, the staggering diagnosis, then being admitted to a clinical trial of three tiny pills a day. Those miracle pills put her into remission in three weeks.

Hence, the following summer was one of deep gratitude. For me, that was both for the times with Dianna aboard and my solo sails when she was otherwise engaged. Dianna’s ailment was never out of her mind – or mine, either. We both felt more driven than ever to get on the boat, go sailing, go rowing, go stand-up paddleboarding, and enjoy favorite anchorages and hikes ashore. One September day, landing for a walk on Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Harriman Point Preserve, Dianna commented that the destinations she loves most have hiking involved. To that end, we made sure to get to Acadia National Park’s Isle au Haut and Schoodic Districts, Maine Coast Heritage Trust’s Marshall Island and Frenchboro preserves, and other places where trails can be accessed by our towed peapod. Unusual for us, we did not go east of Schoodic Point. We missed favored hiking at Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge, The Nature Conservancy’s Great Wass Island Preserve, and elsewhere along the Washington County coast. This year we surely hope to return to those eastern waters.

Due to the rigorous requirements of the clinical trial, trips to Mass General have been every four weeks. All the time on the water between Boston trips made the visits there more bearable. We went to Boston truly grateful that the summer was providing so many enjoyable days on Maine’s matchless waters.

Between Boston trips, though, we lived with the realization that at any time a health crisis might arise. Not that life is ever certain. And, indeed, plans did change swiftly early one calm July morning while we were anchored among the islands of Seal Bay, in Vinalhaven. That morning, around 6 a.m., I was on deck alone enjoying the quiet early hour. Dianna came on deck to say she thought she might have a detached retina. While an eye injury some years ago permanently weakened her eye, retina problems could also be connected to side effects of her targeted therapy medications. She needed to see an eye specialist, and fast. Within five minutes the anchor was up, the throttle was pushed forward hard, and we were on our way to our mooring in Brooklin.

We crossed East Penobscot Bay, threaded through the Deer Isle Thorofare, and headed up Eggemoggin Reach. I prayed all the way that we would not snag a lobster trap line. At precisely 9 a.m. I hauled aboard our mooring pennant. Two hours later, both of us showered and in clean clothes, we drove up to the doctor’s office in Ellsworth. While Dianna’s condition turned out to be short of a detached retina, she was told to stay quiet for a week – advice she grudgingly accepted. During that week I never was completely guilt-free as I went on early morning rows and frequent day sails alone.

There was considerable irony in Dianna’s diagnosis, and our subsequent turn toward nature. She’d only recently published a book entitled “Bonding with Nature: Responding to Life’s Challenges and the Aging Process.” The book drew on her professional background as a licensed clinical counselor and set forth creative approaches to connecting with nature when faced with major life challenges, including illness. This past summer, confronted with a major life challenge ourselves, we turned to West Wind as our magic carpet to the natural world.

A morning anchored in Buckle Harbor brought home just how rejuvenating and uplifting nature is as it manifests itself along the coast. Dianna took off on her paddleboard. I decided to row our peapod. In York Narrows we encountered porpoises and seals. In the Buckle woods a raven squawked, while sandpipers lifted off from the water’s edge of a gravel beach. A great blue heron flew slowly across the harbor. The sky grayed, and the southwest wind picked up as a weather front approached. We felt delightfully alive, filled with positive thoughts.

Birds are treasured companions on our sailing adventures. Northern gannets and owls especially inspire us. We rarely see gannets except along the very outer coast, and during the summer we commented that we hadn’t spotted any. Then, on the first autumn-like day, reaching in a cool, mostly cloudy northwester from Frenchboro to Winter Harbor, a small flock of gannets swooped low over the waves, so graceful, so white. A couple of weeks later, anchored off Calf Island, an owl in the island’s woods hooted through the night. These birds helped connect us to the natural world at a time when maintaining that connection was vital.

Also, we are thankful for being able to witness last summer two examples of thriving fish and bird populations. One was the dense schools of menhaden we saw. Very often several schools simultaneously churned the water’s surface. We have no idea about the significance, but seeing so many fish in coastal waters was heart-warming.

Also rewarding was one September morning when we anchored off Racoon Cove on the Lamoine shore. For some years we have commented that we see far fewer sandpipers than we used to, but in Racoon Cove were some of the largest flocks of least sandpipers we have ever seen. That abundance made our day.

A day earlier, anchored up the Skillings River at the head of Frenchman Bay, we had launched our paddleboards in the brilliant sunshine of a calm September morning. We understood how lucky we were to be enjoying such superb times. As Dianna set forth on her paddleboard, she unambiguously expressed herself. “I didn’t think I’d be here. Wow! Wow!”

Ben Emory of Bar Harbor and Brooklin, Maine, has decades of experience afloat. When not on the water, he has been deeply engaged in land conservation, professionally and as a volunteer. His book “Sailor for the Wild – On Maine, Conservation and Boats” was published by Seapoint Books in 2018.