Innocents abroad

When we left the restaurant, at 3 p.m., much to our dismay a field of fog had changed our sunny day into something close to night.  Points East file photo

By Frederick Findlen

One beautiful October morning, my wife and I, both novice mariners, decided to take our last boating trip of the year. We checked the marine forecast, then launched our 17-foot motorboat in the New Meadows River in Brunswick, Maine. The plan was to run down Harpswell Sound and lunch at Cook’s Lobster House, by the old Cribstone Bridge.

We had a scenic ride down the river, through Gurnet Strait, into Long Reach, and down Harpswell Sound. Arriving at the restaurant at around 1 p.m., we had a great dinner with a couple of drinks and lots of conversation.

When we left the restaurant, at 3 p.m., much to our dismay a field of fog had changed our sunny day into something close to night. With the help of naivety and the drinks, we convinced ourselves that the best alternative was to get in the boat and use the 20 feet of visibility to hug the right-hand shore to run up the sound. Surely, we would motor out of the fog as we made our way inland. Starting the motor, I began to maneuver out of the small cove where we had docked.

I briefly lost sight of land, but picked it up again on my right and proceeded to follow the shore. I was sure we would soon be out of the fog. All would be well in a few minutes, when we crossed under the bridge connecting Harpswell Peninsula with Orrs Island.

Not only was the bridge not where I expected it to be, but I had also lost sight of the shoreline. Since I was in a body of water between two shorelines, I decided I could motor around in ever-increasing size of circles and would soon see shore.

I didn’t. Instead, I tried to keep my wife from panicking when I, myself, was starting to wonder why I couldn’t see shore. Why was the once-calm water getting choppy? Why was the fog getting thicker? Something was amiss.

Now a bit about our compass. Having read this far, one might think we didn’t have one. To the contrary, I had thoughtfully just mounted a brand-new Walmart compass costing $3.99. However, I had never used a compass on the water, and was surely not going to trust our lives to a cheap plastic model, when I knew we were going the right way. So even though the compass indicated we were headed south, I knew we were headed in the opposite direction. They must have put it together wrong.

Suddenly my wife hollered, “Land!” I looked in the direction of her pointed finger, but only saw more fog. I told her that if we followed mirages, we would get lost, adding that we had to follow a scientifically laid plan. A short argument ensued before I saw the wisdom of going the way she pointed. I was running out of options.

As we neared her bank of fog, we indeed saw land. And as we followed the shoreline, it seemed to be an island. But there were no islands in Harpswell Sound. We got close enough to shore to see the seaweed. It did not look like the seaweed found in an inland sound. However, I knew these inconsistencies could be explained somehow.

We came to a cove and saw a raft with a dinghy attached to it. When we reached the raft, we could see a dock, so I tied our boat to the raft and proceeded to shore in the dinghy. Due to the thick fog, nothing could be seen around us. However, a path had been mowed near the dock, and we followed it through a wood to a cottage. We were saved. We only had to knock on the door, find out where we were, and continue back down New Meadows River.

Wrong. Nobody was home. So we followed the path to another cottage, with the same result. And so on. It began to get late and cold – this was October, after all. With no more cottages on the path, and dark coming on, we chose one of the cottages as a refuge. As I searched for a window big enough to crawl through, my practical wife found the door unlocked. So maybe we weren’t breaking in after all.

As we explored the house, it became apparent that it had been winterized. The beds were sheetless, no food was stocked, and the water pump and refrigerator were turned off. No blankets or drink could be found. Since we were already felons for entering one camp, we decided to try another cottage. We met with the same situation, and finally stood in front of the last cottage. It was locked.

Now my wife took the lead, and, like a lifelong criminal, she grabbed the lock and pulled it from the rotting door. Searching like pros, we found champagne, crackers and blankets. It was a fabulous find. We would live like a king and queen, filling our famished bellies with saltines and that year’s spirit of the grape. Having nothing better to do in the dark, we bedded down for an early morning rise to what we expected would be a wonderful day.

We couldn’t sleep. I lit a candle and found a weather radio. A big storm was coming. At least it would drive out the fog. However, tomorrow’s weather was not looking good either. Because we planned to be gone only a few hours, we hadn’t told anyone of our trip. We wondered if the authorities would find our pick-up and boat trailer at the launch site. Maybe they were searching for us. Perhaps we were on the eleven-o’clock news as missing and likely drowned.

My wife began to talk about our young daughter. Fortunately, she was spending the weekend with her grandmother, and was to be dropped off at our house the next day. Now, we didn’t know when we would be home. This delay would start an investigation that would cause a lot of worry for our loved ones and embarrassment for us when we did return.

I looked around the cottage and found a framed map on the wall. It was a 100-year-old map of Haskell Island. I reasoned that having that old map on the wall was a sign that this was Haskell Island. Quickly, I opened my sea charts and found Haskell Island, less than a mile off the end of Harpswell Neck – in Merriconeag Sound. We knew where we were at last.

To my embarrassment, I admitted to my wife that, upon leaving the restaurant, I had crossed the sound, and, keeping the shore on my right, I inadvertently headed out to sea. It was also apparent that if my wife had not insisted we check the “fog bank,” we would have headed into the Atlantic Ocean – in the fog, in our 17-foot bow rider, until we would have been swamped by a wave, run out of gas, or reached Ireland. Those prospects were eye-opening.

About midnight, we went outside and found that the fog had lifted, and we could see the lights of houses on the mainland. We began to hear the storm coming from the south. As the wind got closer, pine branches and sheets of rain hit the roof. Even with the blankets, champagne and crackers, we were cold and hungry. We waited for the morning light, hoping that a break in the storm would allow us to return to civilization.

As the dark turned to dawn, I could make out the Harpswell shore, which seemed so close I felt I could touch it. In the haze of the morning light, I saw the island, beautiful and surreal, for the first time. We were in a meadow surrounded by hills of pine. However, we had little time to enjoy this paradise. We had to be quick. The morning calm might dissipate any minute and the rough seas could return.

It was raining heavily, in horizontal sheets from the direction we would be heading. We put everything back the way we found it, except, of course, the champagne and crackers. We didn’t take the time to write a note, but left a $20 bill on the table.

We rowed out to our boat, cranked up the engine, and sped toward the mainland. There was no way I was going to try to make it to the boat launch in the rain. I headed for Cook’s Lobster House, the only place I knew to tie up. And soon we were on the mainland. Cold and hungry, we asked two old fishermen for a ride to the nearest store. We called for a taxi, which took us the 18 miles back to the boat launch, and the store fed us a welcomed breakfast. We drove home in our pickup, changed into dry clothes, and returned to Orrs Island to get the boat and trailer it home.

As I walked into the house, the phone was ringing. It was my mother, who asked what I had been doing this weekend. “Nothing interesting,” I lied. “We just took a little boat ride for a great meal at Cook’s Lobster House.” Mothers don’t need details.

Dr. Frederick A. Findlen was a retired dentist from Topsham, Maine, a U.S. Army veteran, and a boating enthusiast. He enjoyed Maine waters whether by canoe, sailboat or motorboat. His story is published posthumously by his wife Audrey A. Findlen.