Life as a human spar

Story and photos by Michael Long
For Points East

The Joel White-designed 9½-foot Nutshell Pram can be found towing behind bona-fide cruising boats the world over. It is the perfect craft for covering ground at no particularly great pace, but in great style and passable comfort. What’s more, this capacious, incorrigible dinghy will stand up to the stiffest breezes with only the most grudging cant to leeward. Semi-experienced sailors plying the lethally cold waters of Casco Bay during a Small Craft Advisory should accept no substitutes.

We jest.

This day, NOAA promised 15- to 20-knot southwest winds and mercury-busting temperatures, so I eschewed the overheated tumult of the Portland’s Old Port Festival and set off as far east as I could get. My only parameters were 10 hours of daylight, three ham sandwiches, and a whole lot of wind.

The expedition began with good omens. A pair of bald eagles had evicted the avian riffraff from Halfway Rock (just off Mackworth Island) and held court with a glowering air. And running dead-downwind toward the repurposed bunkers on Cow Island, the nutshell gained hand-over-fist on a sullen daysailer, which, on any other point of sail, would have made two miles for our one. With my red lugsail bellying and swaying, the pram was as picturesque as anything Portland’s resident gaffers had to offer. And it felt like a square-rigger. It certainly went to windward like one, at least in my hands, which is why this would be a one-way trip.

The wind funneled through Hussey Sound, causing an unexpected yaw when it headed me from the southeast. This meant that we’d need to cruise the sedate, landward side of Long Island, playing leapfrog with the Casco Bay Lines mailboat. Passengers waved, and I reminded myself that sailing around with such a romantic, traditional rig is worth at least a point of leeway and three knots of boat speed. I’ve had lobstermen call out over the water with inquiries about the pram, and who can deny that this is the very highest honor to bestow on a vessel?

Shying away from the Hussey Sound, headwinds left me no choice but to face them south of Great Chebeague, with the bow pointed at Cliff Island. The tide had been helpful so far, but now it swept me to leeward into the strait between Chebeague and the southern tip of Hope Island. I failed to weather Hope, but it was only fitting to run afoul of that rocky obstacle. After all, the garish roof of a Greek billionaire’s mansion still sat atop the same headland, intruding just as unwelcomely into the bay.

Impatience got the better of me, and I rowed upwind to clear Hope Island. Sailing the nutshell was cramped and awkward unless you removed the middle thwart, which, then, deprived you of a proper rowing platform. I half-knelt, half-squatted on the centerboard trunk, perching uncomfortably and eventually painfully on my toes. Oars were the number-one piece of safety equipment onboard and using them for recreation was out of the question in this scenario.

Sauntering down Luckse Sound, the unsettled inshore breezes gave way to steady, tangy Atlantic airs. It is now 20 degrees cooler than in Portland. Chancy straits behind us, the blissfully soporific portion of the passage began. Sitting on any thwart put the pram badly out of trim, so the highly agreeable solution was to lounge amidships with one’s head on the weather rail and feet hanging outboard. Much of the time I held down the sheet with my toes, creating a self-vanging lugsail in the most slothful manner possible.

The pram and I emerged from the strait between Cliff and Hope, entering the comparatively unfamiliar eastern half of Casco Bay. It was time to find out if the expedition would end up on Bailey Island or someplace in a different county entirely. My sense was that Bethel Point, near Cundys Harbor, was doable, but Phippsburg, up the Kennebec River, was the grand prize. Even as a smudge on the horizon, barely visible from Cape Elizabeth, Cape Small looms large over the bay. There could be no better landmark, populated with descendants of ornery, hard-driving shipmasters.

In short, it was time to luff up. The way east was blocked by the semi-barren trio of Bates, Stave and Ministerial islands, with their web of sandbars, and I opted to sail the landward side. Rounding the end of Stave put me right in the middle of a submerged rock garden at the height of the tide. In the lee of the shore, the shallows did little to show themselves, so I yanked up the centerboard and slid through cautiously.

Just ahead, the seas were piling onto the last exposed inches of Stave Island Ledge, looking for all the world like a feeding frenzy of large fish. And it was a feeding frenzy: Smooth silvery lumps surrounded the ledge, and I sailed into the largest group of harbor seals I’d ever seen in Casco Bay. Their voices sounded like drunken teenagers on the Saco, as their prey careened into the submerged obstruction.

A few stragglers swam up to investigate, and as I am always ready to indulge phocine curiosity, I luffed up and drifted down toward the squealing, barking mob. The pram’s leeward progress was slower than expected, so I jibed around instead. Somehow the lug spar twisted itself around the mast and ended up in a cacophonous heap, stabbing viciously at its own sail. I had no choice but to lunge forward and cast off the halyard with a cry of “damn seals!”

For the first time that afternoon I was left bobbing awkwardly up and down in the bay, reaching outboard to snatch the stray halyard. A few more boat lengths to the west, and this could have been an emergency, putting me directly to windward of the ledge. Enough seal watching for today. I rehoisted the sail and set off across Broad Sound with Admiral Perry’s house-fortress on the starboard bow.

From Cape Elizabeth to West Bath, Casco Bay is a series of claw marks, as if its rows of parallel ridges were created by a cosmic garden rake instead of glaciers. On that day, the rising wind blew in perfect tandem with the run of those peninsulas and linear islands. And it blew hard, with the pram reaching east of Jewell Island and fully exposed to the Atlantic horizon. Finally, the boat began to really move, and for the first time I worried less about the overly pliant boom and more about the steep beam seas, their crests collapsing into whitecaps. I picked my way across the sound, aiming at the distant granite obelisk on Little Mark Island.

For all the drama of moving water, the pram took only a single wave over its garden-hose gunwale. It doesn’t take much 50-degree water to qualify a sailor as soaked, but scarcely more than a thimbleful ended up in the bottom of the boat itself. Slanting my way over a curling wave, I thought of all the nutshells towed through gales without needing to be bailed.

I returned my attention to the weather. The dramatic presence of Eagle Island drew nearer to starboard, while the distant sails of a schooner slid behind the day beacon on Little Mark. I became increasingly aware that all the boats in sight were to landward of me – and reefed right down. Even the 50-foot ketch to leeward was flying only jib and mizzen in the relative shelter near Chebeague. The pram was barely heeling in what must have been 20 knots and barreling along rapaciously.

This standing lugsail doesn’t reef, so I gave it plenty of sheet and let the big red balloon drag us along. What were the limits of this boat? I still don’t know, because my limits always come first. Abandoning my course for Little Mark, I bore off to run down the western, inshore side of Haskell Island.

Veering downwind is like flipping a switch. Suddenly the lugsail caught a bellyful of wind, and that meant power. Now the pram surged forward raucously, with each crest churning, foaming and hissing beneath it. My onslaught can’t have lasted more than a few minutes, because only three discrete thoughts had time to enter my head: I wonder if this boat has ever gone this fast before? Gee, the boom looks good on this course, not bending as much as it did when sailing on the wind. What’s the hull speed of a nine-foot boat?

And then the other shoe dropped.

Bang! After a year of flexing and straining, the boom finally made good on its threats and snapped in half, spitting splinters aft. For the second time that afternoon, bedlam broke loose at the masthead. For the second time, I found myself tossing about from trough to crest, peering in sheepish alarm at my surroundings. And those surroundings had suddenly changed: The 30 acres of windswept brush that is Upper Flag Island loomed directly to leeward, its cliffs flanking a pocket beach. I snatched the oars from the bow and again assumed that awkward, inefficient rowing position.

Upper Flag’s ironbound southwestern corner was closest. Row clear of that, and we could blow all the way to Harpswell without a care in the world. The wind had other ideas, though, sheering the pram’s bow to the east. The boat wanted to wallow, and I didn’t have the leverage to fight it. So I rowed the long way around, parallel to the shore with the wind in one ear, asking myself whether the situation warranted alarm. At least I was taking effective action, right?

I probably made a yard of leeway for every yard of headway, but that was more than enough to clear the breakers. I veered down into the channel between Upper Flag and Haskell Islands, which looks straight into Potts Harbor. With the boom now in two even halves, we decided we’d continue on loose-footed.

Hauling on the halyard triggered an explosion of thundering red canvas. With the pram wallowing beam-on to the wind, the sail thrashed out to leeward in a crazed dance. I lost my nerve and dropped it into the water, concerned that the jagged boom ends, still attached to the sail, would tear it. An unfriendly-looking rock approached from leeward, so I took up the oars to clear it, while trying to think things through. Let’s try something else, I thought. I moved the oarlocks into the forward station and rowed the bow into the wind with my left hand while my right attended to the halyard. After a moment of flogging and fluttering, we were in business.

Just hauling on the sheet didn’t work; it curled the foot of the sail into a crooked curve. We still had miles to go, and I didn’t want the pram slouching along like a hunchback. Instead, I dropped the sheet and grasped the truncated meter of boom half in both hands, bullying the sail into shape. All at once, I found myself trimming this most-traditional of rigs with something that resembled a kitesurfer’s control bar. That works, doesn’t it?

It did, in conjunction with some armpit-steering. The pram emerged into the relatively sheltered waters between the various prongs of Harpswell’s peninsulas. The sail might not have had the most picturesque shape, but the boat didn’t seem to mind. We were scudding along with no apparent loss in speed, and the only problem was my aching arms.

Sailing like this was equivalent to holding up a 20-pound weight at arm’s length, but I couldn’t bear the thought of losing headway just to fiddle with knots and cleats. Instead, I settled on a more convoluted solution to the boom problem, devising an arrangement which has since been dubbed the Podiatric Whisker Pole. With my back to the transom, I used my right foot to pin the shattered end of the boom to a stringer just abaft the centerboard trunk. Then I grasped the pole’s other end with the toes of my left foot, aiming it skyward. This held the sail more or less in trim laterally, while the sheet took up the rest of the strain, wrapped under my suspended knee as an impromptu block. So this was life as a human spar? All you needed was some semi-prehensile toes and a willingness to lie on your back with one foot in the air for a while.

The unnerving rig blowout off Eagle Island had been transformed into a triumph. I was unspeakably pleased with myself to be running a blissful four knots with a busted boom and my toes as a cleat. More than that, I was seized by the urge to put my eccentric jury rig on display and generally just show off.

Unfortunately, there was no one around except powerboaters, and they all churned blithely past, seeing nothing out of the ordinary in a spar protruding from a sailboat’s bottom at a jaunty angle. Without an audience to share my exultation, I make do by belting out a few rounds of “Roll the Old Chariot Along,” with custom verses.

Just over four hours out of Portland, I hauled my wind and rowed onto the strand opposite Bailey Island’s Cribstone Bridge. I was unwilling to give up the expedition so soon and set off on a fruitless search for a tourist map or public WiFi. Luckily, Captain Bethany of the dude schooner Alert was on hand to tell me about an unmarked town landing at Ewin Narrows, some five miles north. The wind saw me to that final landfall without the slightest moderation or lull, despite the surrounding ridges.

By the time the pram left its calling card of teal bottom paint on the Ewin Narrows gravel, I had covered over 21 statute miles. Perhaps it’s hard to talk up the results of a six-hour, walking-speed jaunt through coastal waters in terms of quantitative accomplishment, but it felt plenty impressive to me. Twenty-one miles is the equivalent of crossing the entire length of Casco Bay, even if I ended up closer to Brunswick. And if you measure a journey in number of boat lengths, 21 miles in a pram equals the world-record day’s run for a clipper ship.

Yeah, that’s our soundbite, and we’re sticking to it. Maybe pram sailing isn’t cruising. It’s miniaturized passagemaking.

Michael Long ( lives in Portland and sails on other people’s boats whenever he gets the chance. Just after high school, he was a protagonist in “Strider’s Surf’n Turf Science Show” (Points East, September 2009), by his father Roger Long.