Maine chartering: Nobody got hurt

Tom Dudley engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, sailing. Photo courtesy Dudley Dudley

July 2021

By Thomas Dudley

This posthumously published essay is the second in a series of lively, often wry, reminiscences to be published in Points East over the coming months. Thomas Minot Dudley, of Durham, N.H., died at the age of 83 the day after Christmas 2013. Tom’s wife Dudley Webster Dudley, believes he would have wanted to share his distinctly New England memories (with some Caribbean ones thrown in) with Points East readers. His first article, “Dudley and Sailing, Evermore,” appeared in the May 2021 issue.

In the 1960s, Tom and Gail Parke from West Chester, PA., rented summer vacation cottages at Tenants Harbor, just east of the St. George River, and asked us to visit and to sail with them. And through this generosity, we were introduced to the boat-chartering option.

Tenants was a busy summer village then. It was close to the entrance to Penobscot Bay, and provided easy access to many beautiful places: Owls Head, Rockland, Rockport, Camden, Vinalhaven, North Haven, Islesboro, Pulpit Harbor, Islesboro’s Sabbathday Harbor, and the Muscle Ridge passage. We had picnics in Port Clyde, on the ledges next to the lighthouse. Sometimes Gail brought her 14-foot Cape Dory sailing rowboat, which was perfect for protected sailing in Tenants, into nearby Long Cove, and even around the approaches to Port Clyde.

Sailing with her boys – Andy, Larry and Danny – was always an adventure. Fog surrounded us, winds made us ship water, and if Aeolus failed, we could row home. I loved that boat – the See Turkey – sailors always have bigger boats in the backs of their minds.

So we chartered a Tartan 27, which took us up the Muscle Ridge for the first time, and we fouled the spinnaker around our headstay. Tom Parke cleared it by releasing the tack and backing it off the turns. Not to worry: A Pearson 35 took us out to Matinicus Island, with Tom, Gail, Joe and Jean Hey and nine or 10 children.

The Heys found a property for sale there, on Wheaton Island, which forms the southeast shore of Matinicus Harbor. A real estate agent flew out, and her small plane appeared just as we sailed in. I stupidly chose to anchor in the northerly portion, which turned out to be reserved for lobster fishermen, with chains crisscrossing the harbor bottom, to which their moorings are secured. Of course, I hooked a chain. A lobsterman came alongside and, without a word, fastened to us. He then motored us over to a mooring in the southerly part, and left – without a word. When I retrieved the anchor, it was useless, bent into an alien sculpture. He had pulled us along until that anchor gave up under the strain. Such is the power used by professional fishermen to get out at dawn and back before the sea gets uncomfortable.

Wheaton Island was a revelation in astonishing ways. First, it was a “true” island, accessible by boat only. Second, it was, for 70 years or more (until recently sold), home to a fishing family who had their own well. Third, on the highest point, it held a tiny cinder-block mausoleum, with the remains of the current owner’s wife. And fourth, the occupied portion of the island was utter chaos, mostly evidence of a colossal struggle to “civilize” the place into a homestead with all possible mainland conveniences.

At Wheaton Island, we all met the property agent and the caretaker, who brought her out in his outboard skiff. He was, it seemed, under orders to let her do all the talking. As she escorted us around, he spent the entire time playing his harmonica, and dancing to his own music on the rickety old landing . . . all by himself. This made a big hit with me. Anyone who lives in these remote places needs ways to enjoy their own company, and he had become resourceful in finding music, motion and contentment.

The recent owners first ran the well dry. They then brought water ashore in 50-gallon, blue plastic barrels, which were scattered all about. Their color, new or faded, had a quality of perfect incompatibility with this once beautiful setting.

The couple then brought in sand and concrete. Mixing cement with water from the barrels, they built an entire flight of steps leading from the landing up a steep grade to the old dwelling. The steps had high risers and narrow treads, with no hand rail. They spoke of a desperation imagining. Every heavy, bulky item imported to this place had to be hauled up this precarious entry, another shock to the eye.

Wheaton is barren of real mainland growth as it is wholly exposed to the harsh gusts of all seasons, and salt spray as well. Eight or nine torpedo-shaped kerosene forced-air heaters appeared in random spots. All their fuel had to be brought out by hand. Also gas for several electric generators. An open-ended shed contained much lumber destined for some imagined expansion or new dwelling. It dwarfed the traditional gabled house, which had obviously served the fishermen well for decades. The weather entered this house as easily as we did, and it badly needed security from vandalism and “borrowers.”

A system of propane or other gas-fired lamp fixtures appeared throughout the house, each with its own gas supply. There was a battery-powered television set still in place, reeking of hopeless impracticality as witnessed by not having been stolen.

Broken windows, a wheelbarrow, folding plastic screens in place of interior doors, rusted handles and hinges: It was a war zone. Everywhere, human physical power and bad judgment had come up against natural obstacles, all of which had won. The owner was hospitalized somewhere. All the frustrated hope and effort had killed one partner and ravaged the other. Who’d want to try again, seeing all this desolation?

We sailed home, humbled. The real estate agent paid her pilot, and Wheaton Island had stood fast against its latest assault. Jim Brown, our charter agent, was very kind about the anchor, and thought he might get it straightened. In a pig’s eye.

Clione was a 53-foot fisherman’s staysail schooner, gaff-rigged, pale green, and heavy. Her brush with greatness occurred when she appeared briefly in the opening credits of “The Great Gatsby,” a disappointing film with Robert Redford as Gatsby. In the summer of ’73, we planned to take her from Tenants for a day, with the Parkes and Heys aboard.

That day, I stopped at the boat early to be sure she was ready, and to get instructions. To my dismay, the crew advised her generator was not working, so we might not be able to start the diesel. Joe Hey pulled out of the venture when he heard this, though I was willing to chance getting her started twice – once on leaving, once on returning to Tenants.

So, I asked the charterers about the Chrysler engine. Lo and behold, we then drove Dudley’s old Chrysler New Yorker, and rode it to Tenants. I opened the hood, took out our generator, and the crew replaced theirs with ours, which worked just fine. Joe Hey then returned to action, and we all left as planned. Clione’s rig was so heavy, the main halyard pulled me right off deck. It took Tom Parke and Joe to set our sails.

The southeasterly carried us out to Carvers Harbor, on Vinalhaven. We entered smartly and then ran aground on the way to a landing, from which the kids could go ashore to run around. We moved everyone to starboard to raise the keel a bit, but to no avail. As the tide ran out, we stayed in place. People on shore had watched as we motored in, but they returned to their enterprises as soon as we stuck. My wife, Dudley was surprised that no one had waved or offered a warning. But this is Maine: Stupidity needs no acknowledgement; it is self-sufficient.

On the other hand, another visiting boat, with a furious skipper, offered a tow astern. He must have been ordered to offer help by his wife, which put the kibosh on his timetable and set him on fire. He barked orders at the kids, to all go below decks, to me about where to secure his line and when we should power in reverse. He got us off and left at once, steaming full-throttle. We arrived at Tenants well after dark, singing for entertainment all the way. We recovered our generator the next day.

Sailing was Tom’s lifelong passion, spanning 74 years, beginning with his first lesson at Camp Chewonki in Wiscasset, Maine, and summers spent sailing catboats on Nantucket. From racing his Star boat Princess on Lake Sunapee with his brother, Dick in the 1950s, to cruising Maine and the rest of the New England coast on his boats Viking, Right On, Celia and Wild Hunter, to offshore cruises in the North and South Atlantic, Tom cherished time spent on the water in good company.