Naviguessing

August 2021

By Fred Douglass

My father’s family had built a Shingle-Style cottage on the western shore of the Sheepscot River in 1903, when my father (Alfred W. Douglass 1899-1970) was just four. His father had decided to spend the plupart of his father’s money (generated by the spinning of plow-steel cables for John and Washington Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge). He built many houses, but also contracted CM Lawley and Sons to build 14 ever-larger boats. This culminated in a 90-foot schooner, built in 1906. It was aboard this great yacht that my father acquired his skills as a sailor, and I believe the finest one I have ever known. Under my father’s expert tutelage, I had become an “able hand” (sailor) at quite a young age.

As my father grew into his teens, he helped his favorite science teacher, Clarence “Skipper” Allen, at Newton’s Country Day School found Split Rock Camp on the New York shore of Lake Champlain. They then relocated it to Wiscasset, where, in 1915, it became Camp Chewonki, on Hockomock Bay, just north of what is now Robinhood Marina. As a mere lad (aged 10, I believe), I had begun my 3-year tenure as a camper. I enjoyed the camp immensely. At that point, Chewonki offered sailing, but only in hysterically tiny “Turnabouts”.

One fine summer day, “Skipper” Allen, who ran the camp, sent a runner down to my cabin. He had me come up to the Camp’s library and asked me about my sailing experience. That had been primarily in Beetle Cats, down in Cataumet, on Cape Cod. Skipper Allen asked me if I felt comfortable on larger boats, and, since I had been out on Concordias, I said, “Yes,” tentatively, not knowing what lay in store. Skipper had already received my father’s blessing, so I was told to “Get ready to sail.” I was driven in the camp’s truck to what is now Robinhood Marina (named after a 17th-century Indian, who claimed half of Georgetown Island).

There, lying dockside, was possibly one of the most beautiful little 38-foot yawls I have ever seen. Its transom could not have been much larger than a slice of cantaloupe melon. I cannot remember the name of this beauty, but, as I recounted to Joe Burke, it couldn’t have been many letters. At the helm, motor running, was an extraordinarily handsome older gent. A lot, older. I could hear the auxiliary motor, barely audible, except for an occasional spit of the cooling water. This gentleman (whom I now believe to have been over 80 and a spitting image of the TV host Bob Barker), was replete with hound’s-tooth plaid jacket and a bow tie. He asked if I was ready to “hoist all.” I responded, gleefully “Ready, Sir!” I had done a little big-boat sailing on Concordias, and I was a “braw lad” (very strong for my age), in large part due to sailing Beetle Cats with their large mainsheet loads. Up went the mains’l and mizzen (which he did himself with alacrity). I raised the jib with its little self-tacking boom. Away we went, heading directly into the Sheepscot via Goose Rock Passage. As most sailors in Maine know, fog can sock in densities that defy description. Sure enough, Robinhood, being in the lee of Georgetown Island, was bathing in clear sunshine. By the time we breasted MacMahon Island, visibility was zero.

The old skipper was heading dead east, on a powerful reach, with a decent breeze, maybe 12-15 knots. Breeziness, is another odd trait that “pea-soup” fogs can have in cold Maine waters. The little yawl stepped out smartly and soon we were crossing the river. When he estimated that we were beyond mid-river, he tacked us onto port. Only easy trimming was necessary to tack her and go from a reach to a beat. At this point he said calmly, “Listen for Hendricks Head fog horn and tell me when it’s drawing abeam…” I was a little disconcerted by the utter trust he put in me – a 10-year-old neophyte. I opted to extend my left arm while sitting on the forepart of the trunk cabin. When my arm was pointing straight out to the eastward, he nodded. On we went to the south, on port tack, tight to the SSE breeze. I noticed lobster pots betrayed slight incoming tide. After about 45 minutes, he declared he could hear the Cuckholds, quite a few points forward of the port bow. It was close enough to “outshout” Hendricks and the distant Seguin, far to the southwest. We knew we had maybe 2-3 miles left, going south, before tacking back to starboard and bringing the Cuckholds a few points off the port bow. My skipper used his Monhegan Box foghorn to warn other boats of our presence. It sounded like a sick cow. On we sailed.

At this point, he reckoned we were clear of the deadly Cat Ledges and Lower Mark Island, which skirt the western shore of Southport Island, and about halfway to the point where we could tack back over onto starboard, and clear the Cuckholds to the south. Then all that remained was to reach down into Boothbay, where the islands would present lees with less fog. I am sure fog can distort sounds, so it sounded like we were just west of the Cuckholds, now hooting its warning loudly. At this point, out of the fog, came a large dark-blue sloop. It was on starboard, and close–-its skipper shouting in surprise, as we popped into visibility, not 30 feet from his bow. He was running free on starboard, so my skipper casually sheared off to starboard. We missed, the two captains acknowledged each other amicably (how times have changed!), and pressed on to their own destinations. My skipper – apparently not in the least unsettled by the close call –started working his “Monhegan Box” fog horn again.

At this time, Cuckholds seemed right abeam. My skipper said, “Let’s go over and see where we are.” He suggested that I drop and “fist” the jib, to lend more visibility. On we reached eastward, back on starboard, but at a largely reduced speed. “Keep an ear ahead, and your eyes, peeled, Freddie.” I responded, “Yessir” and sat once again on the forepart of the cabin. After about five minutes, the horn of the lighthouse was sharper and louder, but still seemingly dead ahead. Suddenly, a tall, slender “tree,” painted red, loomed up close aboard, starboard side. Atop it sat a small nail-keg, also painted red. I shouted to the skipper who calmly held his course. No sooner had we passed this odd object, when a few boats popped out of the fog. All were on their moorings, and presented a mixture of small sailboats and motorboats.

My skipper said, “By God, we’re in Newagen! Let’s turn about!” This he did, casually, after going about 100 feet into the crowded harbor. He then reached out on port tack, past the odd channel marker, and well out, back into the Sheepscot. “Hardening up” on a beat with the freshly reset jib, we sailed south, bringing the still invisible Cuckhold Light well north and abaft the beam. He then tacked onto starboard, reached off, sending us well east of the lighthouse, then fared well off, running “downhill” into Boothbay’s outer harbor. We rushed past what I learned later were Squirrel, Burnt and Mouse Islands. By the time we were nearing the docks, we had the auxiliary motor on, the sails down, furled and covered. As we approached the dock, he had me put out the fenders, and a spring-line. Down onto the dock ran three hardy-looking college boys and three lovely young ladies. Introductions all around–-turned out they were Bowdoin College kids!

I wondered – but never asked – why the heck they hadn’t joined us at Robinhood. Maybe they needed their cars. Nonetheless, it had been quite a lesson in “naviguessing”, I’d say, and remember it fondly even to this day, over 65 years later.