The last waltz

Photo courtesy Hank GarfieldThe author at the tiller of Planet Waves.

Fall 2023

By Hank Garfield

It was my last sailing trip of the summer: late August, with the school year looming and syllabi still unwritten for my fall classes at the University of Maine. But one piece of business on the water remained.

I keep my Cape Dory 25, Planet Waves, on a mooring in Rockland, Maine, and maintain another mooring 30 water miles away, off my family’s home on Naskeag Point in Brooklin. Much of my summer sailing takes place between those two points. There are several ways to get there, all exquisite, none ever quite the same twice.

My mother, who died in November 2022, loved watching the boats go by, in and out of the eastern end of Eggemoggin Reach and over toward Casco Passage and the way East. A sailor herself, she and my stepfather took their 18-foot catboat several times to Roque Island and Cutler. Her final wish was to have her ashes cast into the ocean somewhere east of Naskeag.

We had planned to do it around a family gathering in late June. But the summer had been punctuated by long periods of rain and fog. I’d already made the round trip twice, both times going around the south end of Deer Isle, but we hadn’t found a day when schedules and nature aligned to lay my mother to rest.

Now only one week remained. It had been a difficult summer to find crew, especially on short notice and with a possible overnight stopover. Fortunately, Planet Waves is easy to single-hand.

All lines run back to the cockpit, and the small cabin (though I can’t stand upright in it) is fairly comfortable for one person.

I left Rockland on a Thursday afternoon, despite an iffy weather forecast – the story of summer 2023 in Maine – because I needed to get there for the weekend, and because nautical superstition dictates that you can’t leave port on a Friday. I decided to take the northern route up through Eggemoggin Reach even though it is a few miles longer. In case of fog, I’d rather be there than among the islands and ledges off Stonington.

The wind was from the south with a hint of moisture. I was somewhere between Compass and Little Spruce Islands when I spotted the fog bank marching up the east side of the bay. Uh-oh.

I took a compass bearing on the north point of Little Spruce, and fired up my hand-held GPS. I also started the outboard engine, but kept the sails up, and watched as the islands to the south of me disappeared. Soon the boat was encased in fog. It never got really soupy, though, and I was able to find my way into the anchorage at Pickering Island, where I was delighted to see two empty moorings.

Friday brought rain and more fog, with the wind from the east – exactly the direction I wanted to go. I went ashore and picked chanterelle – it was a banner year for mushrooms, at least – and decided to wait it out. I had my door-stopper book (this year it was “Don Quixote”), plenty of food, and a radio to listen to baseball and WERU, the fabulous non-commercial radio station broadcasting from Blue Hill. The forecast was for clearing overnight and southerly wind in the morning. Life could have been worse.

On Saturday morning I screamed down the Reach, passing under the Deer Isle Bridge at 8:40 with no other sailboats in sight. On Sunday, my sister and stepfather and I took my mother’s remains out into Jericho Bay. It was a day she would have loved: a brisk southwest wind and the boat on a beam reach, periodically dipping the rail and throwing up spray. Off Opechee Island we set her free.

All that remained was to get Planet Waves back to Rockland, where she would be relegated to occasional day sails before hauling out.

Monday, one week before the start of classes, came up calm and stayed that way. I didn’t feel like sailing anyway. I was emotionally spent, and tired of single-handing. A few attempts at contacting potential crew for the trip home came up empty. The forecast called for northerly wind on Tuesday. I could sail back to Rockland in one day if I left early.

So there I was, in the familiar waters of the Deer Island Thoroughfare, looking in at Stonington on a bright August morning, anticipating a passage I’d made a hundred times: past Mark Island, the Brown Cow, the Fox Islands Thoroughfare, the Monument, Owls Head, and finally the Rockland breakwater. I could be there by mid-afternoon. But that north wind . . . .

A northerly wind opens up the whole coast. Places you normally have to beat upwind to get to suddenly become accessible. Like Duck Harbor, near the southern end of Isle au Haut. I’d been there once, more than 40 years ago, with a group. I’d never sailed there by myself. And I knew I wasn’t ready for the summer to end just yet.

Duck Harbor is tiny, with anchoring space for perhaps three or four boats. The venerable “A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast,” by Curtis Rinlaub and Hank and Jan Taft, recommended getting there early. After a broad reach against the incoming tide, I made the harbor at 1:30 p.m. A Hinckley yawl with a family of four aboard was anchored in the primo spot just past the Acadia National Park dock.

One of the challenges of owning an old boat (mine is a 1976) is the ongoing maintenance and troubleshooting of things that stop working. Recently, my depth sounder had decided to quit after 12 years. “How much do you draw?” I asked the captain as I glided by.

Five and a half feet was his answer. Planet Waves draws three. I passed a dinghy on a lone mooring, rounded up, and dropped the hook. It found bottom almost immediately. I let out 30 feet of line and waited for it to bite.

The tide was halfway in, and I could see bottom all over the place. The chart said 10 feet at low. I consulted the Guide again: “Do not go past the large ledge sloping down into the water.” I looked at the shore. I was well inside the ledge. Time to re-anchor. About half an hour after I moved, the family on the Hinckley weighed anchor and left. A motor yacht had come in and anchored near the north side of the harbor. I hauled anchor again and motored over to the Hinckley’s vacated spot. Two larger sailboats came in. Later, a third sailboat would join us and anchor perilously close to a ledge near the south side of the harbor entrance.

With the boat secured, it was time to go ashore and explore. I wanted to check out Head Harbor and Long Pond, and maybe climb Duck Harbor Mountain for an aerial view of my boat. I packed up a bathing suit and a towel and a bottle of water, grabbed a map from the park kiosk, and checked my watch. Still before three o’clock – plenty of time for a hike.

After a swim in Long Pond and a short walk to a point overlooking Head Harbor, I decided to take the scenic route back, along the Goat Trail to Squeaker Cove on the south shore, and then over the Duck Harbor Mountain Trail and back to the boat. Having climbed real mountains in the Balkans and California, I figured that a 314-foot hill would be a piece of cake. I may be in my sixties, but I’m in pretty good shape. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that there were about five summits, separated by dips into the woods and steep ledges that required two hands as well as two feet. This being a national park, the trail was well-marked, but there were still places where I had to stop and search for the next blue slash, which sometimes led straight up or down a rocky outcropping covered with tree roots. At each mini-summit I stopped to catch my breath and enjoy the views of Penobscot Bay and the outer islands. It got to be six o’clock, then seven. The sun was kissing the horizon by the time I made it back to the dock, hungry and utterly exhausted.

On the boat, over a beer and couple of hot dogs in the gathering twilight, I read the thumbnail descriptions of each trail on the back of the map – something I maybe should have done before setting out. The description of the Duck Harbor Mountain Trail reads as follows: “Considered the most difficult trail. Some sections require hand climbing and scrambling. Rocky peaks offer views of Penobscot Bay and across the south end of Isle au Haut. Trail heads are near Duck Harbor on the Western Head Road and in Squeaker Cove. Very steep, rugged.” The next day, Wednesday, I drifted past Saddleback Ledge and Brimstone Island in the last of the dying northerly, then motored through the narrow, beautiful passage south of Vinalhaven.

The accustomed afternoon southerly kicked in as I came around the White Islands, giving me a nice reach up to Rockland on the rising tide.

I’d been gone only six days. On two of them I had done no sailing at all. But it had been an eventful and meaningful trip. Is the Maine Coast the most beautiful place in the world? My mother sure thought so. I tend to agree.

Hank Garfield is the author of five novels and numerous magazine features and short stories. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Maine and sails his 1976 Cape Dory 25, Planet Waves, out of Rockland.