Mad dash to go-back

Approaching the boat launch at hull speed, under mizzen alone, with mainsail and jib in a heap forward.  Photo by Michael Long

By Michael Long
For Points East

The forecast that October morning promised 15- to 20-knot southerly winds, gusting to 25. Sleighride indeed. The tide was just right for getting my friend’s 22-foot, sprit-rigged dory onto the trailer at our destination, Cundy’s Harbor, without submerging my truck’s tailpipe. And I felt that the boat, a traditional custom-design dubbed the “yawldory,” was in need of some envelope-pushing.

Designed by my father (and Points East contributor) Roger Long, and built by Paul Rollins in York, Maine, the yawldory was designed for serious open-boat expeditions for which seaworthiness is key. A boom tent can be slung between the masts, and the floorboards interlock with the thwarts to create a sleeping platform amidships. The boat is ketch-rigged; the “yawl” in the name is used in the old Maine sense: designed for sailing.

Having skippered the open, engineless boat during one 80-mile, three-day cruise, I still felt I needed to learn her limits when it came to rough weather. But, if not for the wind shadow from Portland’s Munjoy Hill and the heartening and short-lived presence of sun, we might not have launched at all.

The yawldory sailors were less than halfway on their downwind run (inset) when circumstances necessitated an about-face, and a long beat. Map by Michael Long

Sailing close-hauled into the roadstead, the wind immediately overwhelmed our unreefed mainsail. In point of fact, the main had not been reefed in years. The yawldory is a solid, powerful boat that really comes to life when cruising yachts are already shortening sail. Because reefing a sprit is somewhat of a hassle, the plan was always to “scandalize” the sail instead. Scandalize? This means to reduce sail area by dropping the peak and raising the tack. Thus, I called out to my partner Jasmine, crew for the day, “We need to scandalize.”

We had never tried this before “in anger,” and Jasmine was only just learning where the snotters – the ropes that attach the sprits to the masts – were cleated. After some tugging and twisting, the long sprit spar came down on deck, leaving the peak of the sail to collapse to leeward. This left us with a baggy Marconi sail of sorts, longer at the foot than the luff. The loosely hanging peak of the sail would flap and flog intermittently, so I looped the end of the snotter through our Small Reach Regatta pennant and led the line down on deck, cinching the excess canvas up against the mast. This kept the sail relatively quiet.

Time to turn downwind and run up the bay toward Chebeague Island. Our paltry triangle of canvas proved perfectly matched to the wind speed, and it sent us churning along at four to five knots. A 50-foot ketch sailed parallel to us, under jib and mizzen. Our dory reveled in its unstayed rig, and we stayed in company with the ketch for over two miles before she finally pulled a few boat lengths ahead. When the wind is right on the transom, and the booms are 90 degrees to the keel, the yawldory has been known to turn the tables on some much bigger boats.

Our easygoing, yet breakneck pace should have gotten us clear across Casco Bay by midafternoon, but the good times could not last. We entered Chandler Cove, a sort of watery crossroads with Long Island to the southwest and the two Chebeagues to the northeast. Here, the effortless downhill sledding of the bay was interrupted, as an easterly dogleg was required through the passage between Long and Chebeague, constricted midway through by Crow Island and its bar studded with schooner wrecks. If we could escape out into Luckse Sound, then the 20-mile joyride could resume.

The rising wind and building seas all funneled into that gap, bolstered by the rising tide. Deer Point’s surf-covered promontory was suddenly an obstacle for us to weather, and the scandalized sprit showed us its other face. With the misshapen main spilling its wind, and the mizzen mast stowed on the thwarts, we struggled to beat our way eastward. Tacking became impossible.

Wearing around, I put the bow toward the eroding bowl cut of Crow Island, but the wind and tide simply shoved us back down and out of the channel. The cove here was just too narrow. “Let’s try to bump over the bar behind the island,” I shouted. “Raise the centerboard and we can make it.”

Close in under Long Island, the wind was lighter, and we were able to row toward the chain of weed-covered wrecks, part of a submarine net from World War II. I figured that the lack of disturbance on the water prophesied a gap, but apparently my depth-sense is still calibrated for kayaks. Under oar power, we plowed straight through the gravel bar, not over it.

I think we would have made it had we not then run smack into the anti-U-boat chain. As we ground against the iron, I realized that we were surrounded by a veritable thicket of wartime rebar protruding from the shoals and ledges. The swirling wind pushed us into the island as I leapt forward to dump the halyard. We only escaped the hull-piercing rock gardens after I slid overboard to drag the boat back over the bar, flooding my knee-high rubber boots in the process. Cozy fall sailing was now done for the day.

At that point, we should have dropped anchor to sort things out, but I resisted the idea. Irrationally, I felt that fussing with anchor chain (and scraping the varnish from the rail) was too much hassle. It just goes to show that everyday lazy habits can impact decision-making, even in stressful and hazardous situations.

In lieu of anchoring, we rowed up onto the rocky beach just long enough to set up the storm jib, while the wind did its best to bang the rudder into obstructions in the shallows. I knew from experience that the brailed mainsail was down for the count. The lacings would foul on the thumb cleats and snotters if we tried to haul on the halyard in that much wind.

I called it a storm jib, but the first few seconds of its tenure disabused me of that notion. The yawldory is an uncommonly gracious craft, without any bad habits, and the sprit rig is the most forgiving in the world. Drop the sheet and the whole mast rotates in its step as the sail flies forward of the bow, depowering itself entirely. Or you can drop the whole rig in the water as a sea anchor. You can’t go wrong. Can you?

Well, you can understand the rude shock when the tiny jib began to flog uncontrollably, raising a fuss of unprecedented vehemence. The sheets tore themselves from Jasmine’s hands and tied themselves in Gordian knots. It felt like a helicopter rotor had been lashed to the bows.

“I’m setting the mizzen!” I cried, suddenly aware that the Little Chebeague Island bar was forming a lee shore that left us only two narrow exits from the cove. These channels were at 90-degree angles to one another, and they were both somehow upwind.

Jasmine held the boat steady with the oars while I lifted the hollow mizzen mast in one hand and dropped it through the thwart step. Back under way, we tried once more to escape past Crow Island, but we still could not come about. Now the swells were slamming right into Deer Point, and rising steeply up as they grazed the backside. Wearing away out of danger, that left us with only one option: sailing out the way we had come in and slink back to Portland in defeat.

Of course, I say that as if getting home would be easy. This entire trip had been predicated on not sailing upwind, and the East End Beach boat launch was six miles to windward.

Even extricating ourselves from the snare that is Chandler Cove seemed dubious. In the lulls, the boat sagged toward the beach. In the gusts, the jib proved entirely unmanageable, laying the dory over on its side and bullying the bow to leeward, despite being less than half the size of the sprit mizzen. The jib seemed to exert all its leverage on the masthead, while the sprit simply tugged lightly on the snotter, a few feet above deck height.

Time and again, I bellowed at Jasmine to ease the jib for our own safety, with the ensuing outbreak of thundering sailcloth mayhem. She struggled incessantly to trim the sail as the sheet whipped at her head or locked itself up in the gap between a rib and knee. The flogging was exacerbated by our failure to get the halyard fully taut; the boat’s owner had taken the tack shackle home with her. Because the yawldory had just been stripped for linseed oiling, I had also forgotten to bring the sheet blocks. All in all, our level of organization was comparable to that of a shakedown cruise.

Despite it all, we gradually learned to handle the sail plan of jib and mizzen, clawing our way out of Chandler’s Cove with frayed nerves and sore knuckles. A port tack put Falmouth’s Mackworth Island on the weather bow, almost five miles distant. The emergencies were over; now the marathon began.

With wet legs and bare feet, I hunched over the tiller for endless repetitions of the very same battle: The jib trying to turn the boat over, Jasmine wrestling it back into shape; the twisted mizzen sheet resisting my one-handed pull; and swells from Hussey Sound rolling the lee rail under. For hours, we balanced on that threshold that precedes capsizing and swamping. Water in the bilge sloshed around over the strakes, and fresh linseed oil frothed beneath the floorboards.

I knew what would happen if we went over: Jasmine would need to cling to the boat and corral the floating gear as I swam around to douse the sails and step on the centerboard to bring the boat up. The fore and after decks would float above water and keep us relatively dry, even if the waves made it impossible to bail the boat. We would be in little real danger, but I couldn’t imagine a hypothermic ordeal more terrifying than that.

Not that Jasmine was scared. Even as the strain of steering and shouting orders began to wear on me, she was having a ball. She was consistently cheerful, albeit with richly deserved expletives directed at the jib. Two or three years ago, Jasmine was an Ohio farmgirl who didn’t know the difference between port and starboard, but now she was in that rare cadre of sailors who would find this outing neither threatening nor deeply unpleasant.

Still, the wind rose. The periodic flogging of the jib took on a more threatening timbre, amid a growing sense of alienation and mental exhaustion. Looking back, we had found no time to eat or drink, and I was probably wilting from dehydration. The wind at the Portland National Data buoy was a steady 25 knots, with 20 knots sustained at the Portland Jetport.

On the third long tack past Mackworth Island, our objective was still over a mile to windward. I found it increasingly difficult to hike out over the rail while simultaneously pushing at the tiller to counteract the lee helm of the out-of-control canvas on the bow. After many gusts while steering with my feet, the jib dragged the gunwale toward the water for the umpteenth time, and I gave it up.

“Take down the jib, Jasmine.” The sail flung itself into the water, then consented to be piled on top of the dripping heap that was the mainsail. We bobbed there in the middle of the harbor, as the boat lay to under the mizzen as if moored. Immediately, I realized we could no longer keep the bow low enough to make more than a snail’s pace toward Portland.

Plan B was to get to the boat launch at Falmouth, under our lee, but could we even steer to get there? In a flash, I realized I had to rid the boat of its entire rig, one sail at a time, options vanishing, until we ended up adrift in the bay. Now what?

“We can steer!” Jasmine called brightly. Unnoticed during my several seconds of despair, the boat had turned beam-on to the wind, beginning to wallow. Now the bow pointed down just far enough for the mizzen to provide steerageway, and under that canvas alone we fell off toward the Falmouth town dock. If any ultimate evidence was needed for the magnanimity and benevolence of this dory, this was it.

The boat slid gently downwind in half a gale, under its ludicrously unbalanced sail plan, with the pressure on the helm too light to knock over a wine glass. In the past, she had shown that same ironclad nonchalance when surfing down five-foot breaking seas or tacking through a tidal race. Whatever confidence those prior experiences had given me, it was nothing compared to the rush of knowledge and hard lessons to be gained from the past five squally hours in mid-October.

At any rate, by that point I really appreciated the boat giving me a break. We sailed down to the landing and finally hauled out, with waves smacking into the truck’s tailgate. No doubt about it: We got saltwater in the exhaust pipe after all.

Michael Long, who lives in Portland, Maine, spent last fall covered in linseed oil.