Just plain scared silly

Conrad at the helm with Alex fishing on the trip out to Damariscove Island. The beautiful sunshine would soon give way to much rougher weather. Photo by Meredith J. Rushing

December 2021

By Anne Cyr
For Points East

The weather was perfect for a picnic on Damariscove Island. Our Florida cousins were visiting us at our cottage at Cape Newagen on Southport. Meredith grew up spending summers at the cottage along with the rest of the family. She is just a year or two younger than me, and our time together was carefree – fooling around with boats, smashing periwinkles for mackerel bait, hiking along the Lichen Trail looking for blueberries. By this particular summer, however, we had advanced into our forties. Meredith, her husband, Steve, and their two teenagers, Chelsea and Alex, were reveling in their brief escape from the steaming Florida heat.

We packed enough food and water for a full day of hiking and picnicking. Damariscove is only two nautical miles from Newagen, and we zipped across the calm, open channel in my brother’s 17-foot Bristol skiff. When approaching from the west, you have to motor well beyond the southern end of the island, all the way out to the channel marker, before you can turn left into the narrow, sheltered harbor. Otherwise, you would be cutting across “The Motions,” a group of sunken rocks where many vessels have foundered over the years. Even at high tide in a small boat, one would be wise to avoid temptation (and trouble) and go the extra mile.

Damariscove is a long, thin island, 210 acres in all, and 150 feet at its highest point. When the Indians plied the waters, the north end of the island was heavily wooded. Once the Europeans arrived and built houses and a fort, the woods were rapidly depleted, and today not a single tree stands. Back in 1622, a small year-round settlement of Englishmen fished cod from small shallops, dried and salted the fish on wooden racks, and then loaded larger ships with salt cod for the European market. The bristling masts of at least thirty fishing vessels packed the tiny harbor.

Today, while a few lobstermen still use Damariscove as a base of operation, the harbor on a beautiful summer’s day is mainly filled with pleasure boats. Only the crumbling foundations found on the western lobe of the island suggest the communities that took turns flourishing, and then dying out, over the centuries, the remains nearly obscured by a thick cover of wild roses and raspberries.

The Boothbay Region Land Trust owns the island, save for a private point of land where the old life saving station is located. Seasonal caretakers live in a small cabin near the dock and help keep the trails clear of poison ivy and remind visitors of the rules (no dogs, no fires, etc…). They were out on their tiny porch when we arrived, and waved hello. We waved back enthusiastically, and made our way to a nearby cove, where we dropped our packs and tucked into our picnic lunch. Cameras came out and picture-taking commenced.

We had stationed ourselves on very warm slabs of granite, and the next thing we knew my husband, Conrad, had stripped down to his shorts and was jumping into the icy water. He disappeared under the surface, and when he came back up his head was draped in seaweed, which he tossed about like a mane of hair. His torso was a pale white contrast to his tanned neck and arms. Meredith announced, “Look – it’s a merman with a farmer’s tan!” We all hooted with laughter, and the rest of the day continued on a similar high note.

After lunch we set off on the trail over to the East Tower, stopping briefly at the tiny “museum” – an old fisherman’s shack that has photos and collections identifying the island flora and fauna, along with relics found in archeological digs dating from the days of the Indians, to the English fishermen, to the dairy farmers who had lived there in the `20s. We didn’t linger as the sunshine beckoned and soon we were rounding the head of the harbor and heading over to the east side. The trail cut through brush that was head-high in places. We had to watch our feet so as not to touch the poison ivy or step in muskrat scat. The air was scented with bayberry and roses; we kept losing the tail end of our gang who hollered “Berries!” every few steps, and then stopped to pick and eat every raspberry and lingering blueberry within reach.

Side trails took us to the high cliffs of the east side, where the surf pounded against the rocks and the view of the outer islands was spectacular. We still had the whole west side to explore, so we backtracked to the head of the harbor and noticed – even though it was still early afternoon – that all the boats that had been moored when we arrived were heading out. Now you’d suppose someone in our group might have asked, “Do they know something we don’t know?” but alas, no one did. So we just continued on our merry way, eating berries, taking pictures, exploring the old foundations, watching the birds, soaking in the scenery.

Finally, at the end of the afternoon, as we circled back to the dock and an eerily empty harbor, we sensed the change in the weather and a shift in the wind direction. We hustled to get our boat off the guest mooring and load her up for the ride back. It was still calm as we were chugging out of the harbor, but as soon as we hit the main channel, mountainous waves began breaking over the bow. Alex, who on the way over had spurned the suggestion to wear a life jacket, was now the first one to fasten his on, cinching the straps tight. The boat – being an open dory type – offered little protection from the spray, and we were soon soaked through.

Silence reigned as Conrad struggled to keep us from capsizing. His eyes flicked from side to side as he assessed each wave and decided what to do. Two or three waves in a row would be moderate, and then – a monster. He had that little 25hp outboard going full throttle, but the waves were rolling past us faster than we could motor. He soon worked out a zig-zagging pattern: motor in the wave trough, riding the trough straight towards home; and then angle away and surf the crest of the next wave. Motor and surf, motor and surf. An interminable journey.

Meredith’s eyes were flicking about as well. As a competitive swimmer, she was noting the closest points we could swim to should we capsize. First it was the west shore of the island; and then, when that grew too distant, a sailboat that was moored. Then the bell buoy that one could clamber onto in an emergency. I was scared beyond thinking straight. At one point I started laughing hysterically. I couldn’t control it. I remember 16-year-old Chelsea saying to me in a scolding manner, “This really isn’t very funny!”
Conrad’s skill and tenacity prevailed, and at long last we arrived at the town dock: shaken and wet, but grateful to be alive. Meredith’s mom, Aunt Shirley, was sitting on the cottage deck, armed with binoculars, when we got back. It was just like when we were kids and arrived home after a boating adventure. The parents would be lined up on the deck with drinks and binoculars, not especially worried, but happy to see us back in one piece.

We have since bought a used Boston Whaler (legendary for being unsinkable) with an 85hp engine. When Meredith came back last summer with her husband, their children, their children’s spouses, and two grandchildren, we ferried them all out to nearby Burnt Island Light for a picnic and a hike. This island even has a small beach, so hunting for sea glass was an added bonus. Conrad reprised his merman role, much to the delight of four-year-old, Gavin. It was another picture-perfect day – only this time, all the way to the end.

Anne Cyr has been cruising the waters off of Cape Newagen, Maine, since she was a child, and still loves nothing better than mucking around in boats. At the age of sixty she took up sailing, and now owns a Rhodes 19 (circa 1959) with her sister and husband.