Maine: Always different tomorrow

Lee and Jon show the strain of concentration required when sailing in fog. Photo by Ian Moore

October/November 2022

By Ian Moore with Jon Kane and Lee Grimes

With steady 10 to 15-knot southerlies, sunshine, and record high temperatures, you couldn’t ask for a better forecast for the first sail of 2022. Despite the forecast, I had reminded Jon and Lee several times to bring plenty of warm clothing and foul weather gear. Still, I felt like Cassandra prophesying doom as the sun shone down on our meeting in the boatyard early on Saturday.

By 10:30 a.m., we had completed a briefing and were away from the mooring, motoring Mystic in circles. For some reason, the new autopilot compass needed to calibrate its deviation. Once it declared itself “calibrated,” we raised the sails and reached off towards Hussey Sound. Tacking out the passage between Great Diamond, Peaks, and Long islands swept away the off-season cobwebs. What was this ahead? A lone fishing boat uncharacteristically reversing away from our course – that could only be a good omen. Beyond that, it looked like we had the ocean to ourselves.

Seguin Island, about 20 miles to the east, was our destination, and there was one final tack to clear Outer Green Island before steadying onto a course to take us past Halfway Rock Light and onto the bell buoy lying off Seguin’s southern tip. The excitement of hand-steering a soldier’s course is hard to maintain for several hours, so we engaged the new, still-to-be-nick-named autopilot computer. The complex combination of ropes, sheaves, levers and widgets that make up Lewinski, Mystic’s wind-vane pilot, watched from the stern in silent contempt of the power-consuming modern technology, engaged with the push of a button. Meanwhile, the human crew enjoyed the perfect conditions. Behind the dodger, it was T-shirt weather. Exposed to the wind, a fleece jacket and beanie made it comfortable. With surprisingly few lobster pot buoys, there was little to distract from the simple enjoyment of sailing-related conversation and quietly slicing through the water at 7 knots until it came time to jibe and, shortly after, douse the sails for the final approach to the cove.

A small power boat was tied to the Coast Guard mooring; the mooring I usually use because it is ideally positioned in the middle of the cove in the deepest water. With “CG” on its side, one expects it to be reliable; but its appearance has degraded steadily with each visit since I first came. So, I wonder now if the corrosion on the chain is as bad as that on the float. Maybe it’s not a good choice anymore. In any case, conditions were benign, and two FOSIL (Friends of Seguin Island Light) moorings had floats and pennants in place, so we took one I had seen used by boats of similar sizes to Mystic. Even though I knew there was enough swing room, it looked like with a run-up, you might leap onto the rocky shore.

A sitting osprey’s head was just visible over the edge of her nest while her mate stood guard on a nearby tree. A flock of Eiders was in residence, the males in their white-tuxedo mating plumage. The perennial gulls, uncharacteristically quiet, concentrating on their oddly comical courting rituals, which seem to include regurgitation. After a quick late lunch, a short row in the inflatable took us to the sandy beach. At low water, the landing was smooth and easy. At high, it’s an ankle-breaker onto cobble and boulders. With careful timing, I managed to step ashore last, with dry feet. Jon and Lee were not so practiced or lucky.

On the way up to the lighthouse, we stopped at a viewpoint and discussed the optical refraction in the atmosphere that made Mohegan Island, far off on the eastern horizon, look like a mesa bounded by sheer cliffs. A reverse mirage resulting from air temperature increasing with height.

The caretakers had not yet taken up residence at the lighthouse for the summer, so there was no tour of the tower and museum, but we hiked some of the northern trail and took in the 360° views, sighting a mysterious island a couple of miles to the west where I insisted there was no island. Through binoculars, this non-existent but also clearly visible island displayed typical island features: it was stationary, with a dome-shaped profile including tree and bush-like bumps. Jon was convinced my mental chart was flawed and was determined to locate said island on his phone’s charts, but he could not. We eventually agreed that it was another effect of the atmospheric distortions acting on a large power yacht that, for some reason, was loitering in one place. It slowly drifted off into the haze, confirming its non-island status. A modern Mary Celeste?

The night was mild; we were rocked to sleep by the swell sneaking around the corner and the accompanying lullaby of waves gently breaking on the rocks outside the cove. In the morning, the view out the port lights was less than ideal. I’ve heard it said that statistically, 50% of the sailing days in Maine are foggy. Here was the evidence: a few hundred feet of visibility. The wind had backed a little overnight and was now laden with moisture after passing over waters warmed by the gulf stream out near Georges Bank. The fog prediction on my Windy app suggested this would not clear away quickly; we could wait until 2 p.m. on Monday or face the facts and head off.

After breakfast, three pairs of hands set to re-threading the spinnaker into its sock, a job I had left undone after pulling it out over winter to make some adjustments to the control line. You never know when you might want that spinnaker! It gave us something to do while delaying departure, hoping the weather gods might grant a miracle. We also reviewed the use of Mystic’s radar and, for fun, triggered the Seguin’s MRASS foghorn with five clicks on 83. All excuses exhausted, it was time to prepare for fog conditions and slip off the mooring.

Outside the cove, near the island and ledges, the sea was confused and occasionally steep, so we motored out into 100 feet of water, where the swell was a little more predictable, before raising the main, unfurling the genoa, silencing the diesel, and setting course for a waypoint off Halfway Rock.

The visibility waxed and waned, between ¼ nm and ¾ nm; we did not see land again until we entered Hussey Sound. At the helm, Jon noticed clear effects of the local magnetic disturbances on the course according to the pedestal compass; we are so lucky to sail in the age of GPS. To break the routine of scanning the grayness, we threw in some heave-to and sailing-in-a-circle practice around a convenient lobster buoy during one of the periods of better visibility.

In my opinion, once properly prepared, there tends to be one major hazard in conditions like this: other boats. Sure enough, long after setting sail, we heard an engine and saw on the radar a large power vessel passing by, sounding no foghorn, transmitting no AIS, and, when close enough for us to see, confirmed to be running with no lights. Perhaps it was that island, Mary Celeste. Later in the day, another sailing vessel showed up on AIS but never came closer than a couple of miles.

Two major wind forecast models disagreed; we were either in for a close reach in decent winds all the way home, or the wind would die off mid-morning and then back further to the east before returning. Eventually, the wind indicated which forecast model it subscribed to, dying and leaving us drifting with slatting sails, waiting… a whisper of intermittent breeze backed to the east, but it struggled to reach Force 2. Main and genoa were exchanged for the iron spinnaker. Slowly the wind increased to around 7 knots, making it viable to fly the real spinnaker. After several attempts, I managed to get the lines organized correctly, and Mystic was doing what she did best.

We continued under the kite until shortly before entering Hussey Sound, where we sailed in slowly against the ebb tide under genoa alone. By this time, it was definitely cold; reminders for warm gear were well appreciated. A while later, after wrestling with the mooring pennant that had wrapped around the riser chain, Mystic was secured, and we hailed the launch driver, who was patiently standing by. He’d probably been wondering why he was being paid to wait in the cold and damp; why would anyone be out in these conditions? We knew the answer.

Ian grew up and developed a passion for sailing in Australia. Moving to Massachusetts in 2015 for work, he discovered that the New England coast was sailing heaven and purchased Mystic, a Nordic 44. Since then, he and his wife Donna have spent the summers cruising as far south as NYC and east as Machias Seal Island. Ian is a member of the Pelagic sailing club.