The humble sloop that launched a lifestyle

I can hardly launch spring fitting-out season without thinking about cruises past, and when the photograph above surfaced amid the chaos of my desk I was reminded of the excitement of discovering the New England and Fundy coast in the ’70s, aboard a leaky old wooden sloop I’d acquired for $400, but was worth half that. Like my current boat, a 26-foot International Folkboat, she was named Leight.

Leight started out life as a 19-foot, Lightning-class sloop, but a case of transom rot, which had spread to the adjacent topsides, necessitated cutting a few inches off the stern to land a new unit in relatively solid wood. I wasn’t sure what the impact of this lopping-off would be, or if the larks would continue to carol over her, but it didn’t seem to make the slightest difference – so I built a kennel of a cabin while I was at it. We broke rules by the dozens and trashed conventions left and right. It was the anarchy of poverty that delighted me.

In the photograph above I was reefed down and trying out a new storm jib in a freshening southeasterly. She was a lively cruiser, requiring close attention to the sheets and telegraphing her moods with alacrity as she trembled from masthead to keelson in a blow. We could feel her joy and distress. It was obvious when it was time to ease the sheets, reef, raise the centerboard, or pump the bilge, for fetching along was a matter of sailing and bailing.

With friend Cleve Smith crewing, we made thoroughly respectable passages by our low standards. Buzzards Bay was a quick study, the 40-mile run from Sakonnet Harbor to Marion, before a 15-25 knot southwester, a veritable gale for the barebones cruiser. We made it in six hours, reef and all, the mate hurling graphically and I not feeling well.

Two days later a bigger challenge confronted us. Leaving East Sandwich on the Cape Cod Canal we encountered a fresh northeaster, foul tide and a 37-mile dead-noser to Cohasset. The prospect of 70-odd miles of beating to weather was sobering, for she was colossally wet close-hauled.

Steely seas came flecked with whitecaps as the wind picked up to 15-18 knots, the very edge of our reefing range, but we hiked out and held on under main and jib, hour after ass-numbing hour. We almost kissed the ground when we landed in Cohasset as the velvet vastness of night fell.

Wife Leigh was an able hand, and we found the Maine coast breathtaking. With the centerboard raised we made fabulous discoveries of quiet eel ruts unknown to the world, as at Winter Harbor on the east side of Vinalhaven. We dried out in the mud, felt our way through dungeons of fog with watch and compass, cooked on a camp stove, ate well, drank wine and slept like babies.

We knew excitement, expansive sweeps of sea and breathtaking drama. Singlehanding Downeast, I slid her bow onto the alabaster sands of a beach on Roque Island, feeling far from home and a little lonely, but life possessed of a drama never imagined. The humble sloop knew the Bay of Fundy’s nervous seas and floated the pastoral beauty of New Brunswick’s St. John River.

She opened the door to a world in which 40 summers of cruising have not come close to exhausting the possibilities. She showed us we could go to great lengths, close to home, and that Maine and the Maritimes were as spectacular as the world knows – and that there was much more to be learned.

David Buckman’s book, “Bucking the Tide,” is about discovering the New England and Fundy coast in a leaky wreck of a $400 yacht. It’s $19 including shipping. Send your snail-mail address to buckingthetide@gmail.com.

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