Shakedown cruise

Caught at Isles of Shoals without an engine? That’s what sailboats are for. Tacking toward the hotel on Star Island.

October, 2003

By D.T. Lewis
For Points East

After a long year refitting Trilogy, my 1968 31-foot Seafarer, gutting her to a bare hull and building a comfortable cruiser with all the stuff I wanted, the way I wanted it, I was ready to do some sailing when she was launched one August day at Rye Harbor, N.H.

Before too long, with, Rinky Dink on the foredeck, we were motoring into a headwind bound for the Isles of Shoals. On board were were my two daughters, Nicole, 17, Heather, 15, and me, a big kid who grew up on Cape Cod and is now living his lifelong dream.

This was to be our first ocean cruise. Our plan was simple: cruise to Rockland, where my mooring at Rockland Harbor Boat Yard was waiting for us, then spend the rest of our vacation enjoying all that Penobscot Bay has to offer. At least we thought it was a simple plan.

We began to think otherwise the next morning when the engine wouldn’t start. I changed the plugs, but that didn’t work. Fine – we had sails. We pulled anchor, sailed out of the harbor and out to sea toward Maine. We’d find carburetor parts and cleaner when we got there.

That was a great day – quartering downwind and down-swell most of the day, reaching 8.4 knots on one surf. At least it was a great day until late afternoon, when a wall of thunder approached from the west. I shortened sail early and got ready for it. Then the front developed an odd break in the middle, and we watched as the sea in front of and behind us was churned to a froth by the wind.

And we got nothing. We lost all wind, then finally found enough to ghost across Saco Bay and behind the southern end of Richmond Island, where we hid from the sea swell at dusk. There was still the side swell from across the bay to deal with, but that was the best we could do. So now “swell” has become our new family run-on gag, as in, “It was a swell place to spend a night.”

The next morning we floated off, hoping to catch any breeze we could find after we cleared land. Instead, I found a pot buoy and hooked it between the skeg and the rudder and had to take a swim.

Later we got initiated into the world of windless fog, which lifted only briefly to reveal four other sailboats nearby. We crossed paths with one of them about four times that day. They were headed for Casco Bay. We’d be happy to get anywhere.

As the crow flies, that day we made about 2 or 3 miles progress, but we did make it around Cape Elizabeth – even if we never saw it – and got as far as Broad Cove. We couldn’t actually sail in very far, so we dropped the anchor just outside in the swell. I launched Rinky Dink and grabbed every available extra line and the Fortress anchor. I tied the bitter end to a cleat and rowed in, tying lines as I went. I rowed back, pulled the Bruce, and hauled us to the Fortress, where I anchored again. This time we were behind the rocky break. It was still “swell,” just not so “swell” as farther out,

To read this part with feeling you might want to rock side to side, as if the ferry or a big trawler just went by while you’re on the hook.

Next morning: “Well, girls, we can continue to stay here and do this (rock now) until things change (rock again), or we can decide to leave (and again) and try to find someplace better (again.) We could sail that way, (rock) but we’d hit shore in a hundred yards (rock again). Downwind are the rocks that gave us some shelter last night (another rock). Or we could sail off that way (rock), but we’ve got to miss the rocks as we go (rock). We have to be set and sailing when the hook breaks free (rock yet again), and we have to be pointing in the right direction or we have to re-hook (final rock) and fast or we’ll be on those rocks.”

We chose to leave.

It was a bit foggy, with a quarter- to half-mile visibility and built-up swell with wind on the nose. We got off like veterans and headed out to sea. A ways out a tanker appeared. I kept aiming straight for it because those things move surprisingly fast … except when they are anchored waiting for oil prices to go up.

We went astern of the ship, and a bit later the wind doubled in velocity. It was going across the built-up swell and made its own set. The seas were confused and breaking, with some tops blowing off. This was the girls’ first big trip. They were supposed to be having fun so they’d want to do it again, but here we were in a confused and breaking sea, in a near gale.

At this point, I must say thanks to Bill Tripp who designed Trilogy. She loved this stuff. I tacked her through and headed back to the bay and calmer seas – we’d made as much nor’easting as we were going to that day. After another encounter with the tanker, I looked at the plotter and saw that if I kept pointing high we could pass through Hussey Sound and right up to Falmouth Foreside. There would lots of yachts; docks, shoreside amenities; maybe even parts. We had it made.

Of course as soon as we got inside the sound the wind changed direction and nearly died. We ghosted and surfed the swell through the Hussey until the wind disappeared altogether. We radioed ahead and the nice folks at Handy Boat made us a spot on their dock and directed us in. One of the mechanics left us a can of carb cleaner at the desk before he quit for the weekend. We ghosted through the mooring field and right onto the dock. The fine restaurant made us some primo take-out, and we had a great dinner aboard.

Predictably, the carb cleaner didn’t do the trick so the next day we set out for Portland. Sort of. Becalmed for much of the day, near dusk we were only beside Fort Gorges and we were just about ready to cross the busy main channel when a wall of fog hit like an express train.

I turned toward the fort and put one of my daughters on the bow. I watched the sounder. I could hear the waves breaking on the rocks, but we couldn’t see them. When I got a glimpse of something, we dropped the hook. I dinghied off into the fog with instructions to ring the bell so I could find my way back. I went to find shore where I could to place a stern hook. Seemed safe enough – no one in his right mind would come in there in the fog.

Sunday we went to town and I ordered parts. Tuesday I got parts, but they didn’t help. Wednesday we got up early and with what little wind we had we headed into Portland Harbor with the tide. Just off the ferry terminal, the wind died, leaving us mid-channel with no steerage. Ten minutes later it came back, only now it was dead on the nose. We tacked up the channel toward the bridge and sailed onto the dock at Gowen Marine.

It was lunchtime when I carried my motor to the service bay. By 2:30 it was back on Trilogy and running like a champ.

That night we found the cove at Cliff Island. Boy, was it pretty. And the next day we found Monhegan Island, and the next we finally made Rockland. It was Friday – the Friday after the Friday we had expected to get there.

We were a week late, but we were all the better for it. After all, we learned to work together and to trust each other more; the crew learned to trust the captain’s decision-making; we learned to be flexible and to solve challenges together; and we learned to savor the sweetness when it comes, like the sunset at Owl’s Head after we got slammed by that thunderstorm; and we all learned to have faith in our vessel.

Given the choice, I wouldn’t have chosen to go out in that big sea and near-gale. At the same time, I don’t think we’ll ever forget the challenges we met or the intense joy we found.

So if you see us motor-sailing to windward or powering toward the harbor at the end of a long day, don’t think we’re lazy or cheating. We paid our dues, and we’re just choosing to take it easier and enjoy it a little bit more. After all, that’s why we’re doing it – for the joy.