Incident at the Cuckholds

Cuckholds Lighthouse, in calmer weather. Photo by Joel Gleason

July 2021

By Roger Long

Editor’s Note: This is part two in a series by Roger Long detailing his adventures aboard Anhinga, a 18’ Marshall catboat that belonged to the family of a college roommate. In part one of the series (“Anhinga, and the Lessons Learned,” June, 2021) Roger has become good friends with Eric, the younger brother of Roger’s college roommate, who at the end of the New England sailing season plans to sail the catboat from Maine to Florida. Here Roger’s story picks up on Labor Day, shortly before Eric’s planned journey.

Labor Day weekend that year featured a storm with gusts near hurricane force. The wind blew from the same direction all day and night, and built up an impressive sea. Eric and I decided to drive down to Pemaquid Point in Bristol, Maine, with some other friends to watch the waves beat against the cliffs. We laughed at the ocean that seemed to be reaching impotently for us, safe up on the high cliff. Gee, it was the early ’70s, you would think we had heard of karma? A superstitious lot we were not.

The next day Eric and I decided to take Anhinga out for a sail, and recruited frequent crewmember John and another friend, Paul, to come along. Eric was to be captain on this sail, which was a change. We always had a very easy arrangement in which he was the owner who decided where the boat would go, and I was the captain responsible for seeing that it got there safely. But Eric was fairly experienced at this point, so much so that his family was comfortable with him taking a year off from college and sailing the boat down to Florida. There had never been a hint of friction until this day. A much younger brother of Eric’s was also supposed to be with us, but in a last-minute decision chose not to; a decision that probably avoided a tragedy.

It was a perfect day. The storm had blown out leaving behind light winds, fluffy clouds, and big swells that ran up the Sheepscot River and crashed in sunlit white flashes on the shore. We sailed down to the mouth of the river and Eric decided to run over to look at Cuckholds Light, which guards the entrance to the river and Boothbay Harbor. I looked at the chart. I don’t remember what I said, but it must have been along the lines of, “I don’t think you should do this.”

In uncharacteristic fashion – we had never before fought while sailing together – Eric replied, “This is my boat and I’ll sail it where I damn please! If you don’t like it, you can go sit in the cabin.” I sat in shock, perched up on the aft cockpit coaming. As you approach Cuckholds from the west to pass inside the islands, the water shoals quickly from over 100 feet to between 20 and 30 feet, and there are rocks that nearly touch the surface at low tide.

I sat staring out to sea in embarrassment, not looking at anyone. The deceptively smooth swells were getting larger and larger. I was watching the waves go up and down in a predictable fashion when suddenly what resembled a nice little sledding hill appeared right next to us. The next memory is of falling through the air, and seeing the top of the mast plunge into the water. In a surreal moment, before either of us hit the water, I heard Eric yell, “That was a bad mistake. I’m not taking this boat south.” Then I was in a washing machine, struggling to reach the surface.

When I finally surfaced the boat had turned turtle, and the heads of various crew began to emerge. John, in his British accent, huffed, “Well, well, well.” We climbed up onto the bottom of the boat and almost immediately an outboard lobster skiff appeared. Roger Duncan, the author of “A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast,” was in the little harbor we’d left that day aboard his Friendship sloop. He saw where we were headed and suggested to a nearby lobsterman that he stand by in case his fears were realized.

We climbed into the skiff. The skill with which the man threaded us through the breakers into the harbor, with large waves breaking close on either side, still impresses me today. It was decided that Paul and I would return to assist the Coast Guard in Anhinga’s recovery. Poor Eric climbed on the dock soaking wet to immediately meet Roger Duncan, an icon of New England cruising, holding out his hand in welcome. This was not the way Eric had envisioned first meeting Roger, but there it was.

The Coast Guard 40-footer was rounding the Cuckholds just as Paul and I were delivered back to the boat, so we climbed out onto the hull and the lobsterman returned to shore. Just before the Coast Guard arrived there was a rumble and big bubble of air as 700 lbs. of lead ballast slid from the bilge into the bow, leaving Paul and I sitting on the transom just a couple of feet above the water.

The Coast Guard realized that it made more sense for us to be on their boat rather than ours, and took us aboard. Just as I was beginning to wonder why no other waves were breaking, I looked out and saw another white crest a couple of waves away. I think the coxswain saw it about the same moment as I did, because he gunned the engines and spun the wheel. The bow went up into the wave and the boat was promptly knocked right back.

The Coast Guard vessel was not one of the current self-righting rescue boats, but one of the old, and quite capsizeable, 40-foot utility boats. It went into a shuddering, sideways slide down the face of the wave. I clung to the rope netting on the frame behind the helm as the coxswain screamed something like, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, please!” White water was pouring over the rail high above us and I remember feeling like we were inside a wave. The wave passed, and the boat seemed to hang poised for a few moments, as if undecided about what to do before flopping back flat in the water.

This was one of only two waves I saw break there that afternoon, something to think about when venturing into shoal water in large, high-energy, swells. A Coast Guard chief showed up in a small boat to supervise, just in time to see the near loss of the 40-footer. He later told us he had previously been the keeper of the Cuckholds Light Station for many years, so was able to make an educated guess that the breaker that had capsized Eric’s dreams of sailing south was about 20 feet high. The sea heaped up between two shoals, the bottom of it hit a rock, and hundreds of tons of water exploded into us.

Having just seen his 40-footer nearly capsize (think of the paperwork!), the chief was in no mood to watch any further fooling around. He started barking orders and soon Anhinga was being dragged backwards by a line to each quarter cleat, with her rig trailing behind, attached only by the headstay. They took her into the Coast Guard boathouse in Boothbay Harbor where she was pumped out and the remains of the rig put aboard for the tow to the boatyard. You have not seen a mess until you have seen a catboat rig that has been dragged four miles through the water by the headstay. Little of that was salvageable, but the boat was rebuilt over that winter.

Five years later, I borrowed her again for the first long solo cruise of my life. About 40,000 cruising miles later, it still ranks as one of the most epic and memorable of my life – young and stupid still being a big factor in my approach to matters nautical. But, that will have to be a tale for a future issue.

Roger Long, formerly harbormaster of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and designer of commercial vessels, now divides his time between summers in upstate New York and snowbirding on the 43-foot Gulfstar trawler Gypsy Star.