No oysters today

Guest perspective/W.R. Cheney

Someone once said, “Go west young man,” and I usually do, although I’m not that young any more. I go west not to build a sod house and start a farm on the Great Plains, nor to join the forty-niners seeking gold in California. I sail in that direction simply because I know that, however far along the mid-Maine coast I get in my engineless catboat, I can pretty much count on the prevailing onshore breeze to waft me back home to Swans Island when I am ready.

There are other reasons, too. Westward lies North Haven Island, Pulpit Harbor, and my friend Adam Campbell’s oyster farm. At least once a summer, I make the pilgrimage there to load Penelope up with oysters, and then dash home with the precious cargo. Friends who are on my invite list for oyster and white wine orgies follow these bivalve-bound sorties with interest. And when, as sometimes happens, I’m not successful in reaching my destination, their disappointment is ill-concealed.

It took me several tries last summer. The first was a very promising start back in July. NOAA was predicting east winds five to 10 for a couple of days. What better way to go, I thought? A gentle run all the way. Just the way I like it. Nothing demanding or dramatic. An easy run in the sun. A sybaritic sojourn among some of the most beautiful islands on earth.

Not halfway out of the harbor, that sweet east breeze died two days ahead of time. The replacement, when it made its appearance after a frustrating fly-infested interlude, was about 10 knots out of the northwest. Well, disappointing, but still not too bad. We would be on the wind, not running, but it would be pretty much a matter of one tack going west.

Those guys in Washington, or wherever they are, had promised sunshine to go along with the following breeze, but ol’ Sol soon disappeared, too, and the day assumed a sullen grayish cast while the temperature dropped noticeably. Our idyllic westward romp had been transformed into a colder, grimmer quest.

Off the south shore of McGlathery Island, the northwest breeze began to falter. We had already passed the cut between McGlathery and No Mans Island that leads to the anchorages there, and, with a now- feeble wind and a strong westward flowing tide, there was no going back. We’d have another shot at getting to the McGlathery anchorages when we reached the opening between Round and Wreck islands, but the same combination of weak wind and strong adverse current would make success unlikely.

The last chance of finding an anchorage before being swept out into West Penobscot Bay, to become the helpless plaything of the tides on what promised to be a windless afternoon, was the little notch between Harbor and Merchant islands, over to the southwest.

What faint zephyrs now prevailed were from the southeast, meaning that I could point her almost south, upwind and up-tide from the harbor, but a glance at my handheld GPS showed I could not hold her high enough. The westward-flowing current would sweep me by Harbor Island before I could make the opening.

Time for the ash breeze. Penelope carries a pair of long oars left over from a long-defunct Alden Ocean Shell. I quickly deployed one to the starboard coaming and began rowing as hard as I could. The GPS indicated that, thus assisted, Penelope might just make it into the harbor. It was a close thing, but a half-hour of intense effort succeeded at last. Exhausted but relieved, we made it into that bony little slot. A good thing, too, because the late afternoon, evening, and night that followed were as eerily still and windless as any I can remember.

The harbor formed by Merchant Island and its close neighbor Harbor Island is pretty much wide-open to the northeast, east, and northwest, but Taft and Rindlaub, the excellent Maine cruising guide, cites it as one of the best and most attractive anchorages in the area. One nice feature is that the very few dwellings along the Merchant Island shore are set far enough back so that you don’t see them from the water.

The next morning, a consultation with the weather radio revealed that the forecasts had been somewhat revised. The predicted westward flow had been postponed for a day or two. Now we would have a west wind for the day ahead (meaning, I would have a dead beat all the way across West Penobscot Bay, and around the corner to Pulpit Harbor), and then, on subsequent days, a dead beat all the way back to Swans Island. Heavy rain and thunderstorms were featured as an added treat for those subsequent days.

Call me a quitter if you will. I took the friendly west wind and headed home. It goes without saying that certain ungrateful friends of mine greeted my oysterless arrival with ill-concealed disappointment.

W. R. “Bill” Cheney sails the engineless Marshall 22 Penelope out of Swans Island, Maine, in summer, and his Marshall Sanderling Shorebird out of Lady’s Island, S.C., in the winter.