A winter delivery becomes a solistice sleighride

feature-161001By Nat Henshaw
For Points East

In Maine, we’d enjoyed a warm fall, and though I did go skiing at Sunday River one weekend, it was all snow-gun made. Given the warmth, I decided to declare boating season still in force.

Phil See, a good friend and crewmember on my J/35 Beagle, is a delivery skipper (SaiLogic Marine). In mid-December, Phil secured a job to deliver a 38-foot Young Brothers Downeast gillnetter from Islip, Long Island, to Portland, Maine. Young salt Scott McCatherin agreed to join us on the crew.

We watched the weather – a possible following sea with gale-force westerlies. A forecast of 20 knots and sunny began to transition to 23 knots, with gusts over 30. Temperatures 28 to 41 F (night/day). The wind was strong, and it was winter, but it was sunny and pushing us along. Should we go out in a winter gale? The boat might have been sitting for longer than we knew. What gremlins might arise from the bilges?

The Christina Marie had had its 350-horsepower Caterpillar diesel recently rebuilt. The boat was surveyed twice, for buyer and insurer. We had three survival suits, a life raft, three cell phones, two handheld GPSs, and a VHF radio, and we were ready to call Sea Tow in Bellport, L.I., or Pt. Judith, R.I., or Coast Guard stations in Montauk or Newport on up the coast, just in case.

Islip, on Long Island’s Great South Bay, was bought from the Connecticut Indians in the mid- 1600s. The village became a farming town, then light manufacturing with tourist rusticators joining the mix. Finally, after World War II, it became the quintessential suburb. It does, however, have beautiful geography, with the 10-mile-long sound behind Fire Island.

We were to be a small part of the shifting fishing economy of the Northeast. Although Mr. Marx, the previous owner, lobstered one season, he gillnetted for 31 years. Now the lobsters were largely gone from Long Island, and Maine needed another sound lobsterboat. Perhaps climate change led to both a longer boating season and a more northerly lobster population, we thought.

Gillnetting has been around for thousands of years. Indeed, a bumper sticker on the gillnet drum proclaimed, “Jesus saved souls with the truth, but caught fish with a gillnet.” Like the fishermen of the Galilee, Mr. Marx had fished the Great Salt Sound (Great South Bay) for stripers, bluefish, and other midsized inshore species. Like the Disciples, we dropped our day jobs and decided to follow Phil and the promise of adventure – and a chance to feed the soul – into the winter Atlantic on Dec. 19.

The drive to Long Island was the worst part. Holiday traffic and quick pit stops of a non-gourmet variety, led to a nice warm Hampton Inn in Commack, N.Y. The life raft and survival suits crowded the compact SUV. Following a good night’s sleep, we met the friendly and knowledgeable broker, Jim O’Brien of East Island Yacht Sales, who provided a thorough tour of the boat, inside and out, and helped us with the rental drop-off.

We departed at 9:30 a.m. from the inlet. The Great Salt Sound spread before us in bright sunshine and a glittering and manageable chop. Scott piloted us past the two Fire Island lighthouses and into the large Atlantic swells. Spray hit the windshield repeatedly. Fortunately, when we turned east, things smoothed out, and we rolled downhill with following sea setting our “prayer-flag” gillnet buoys alive.

The engine sounded great, and the bilge was dry. The bow rose buoyantly to each wave. The large rudder and keel kept our course straight. I began my own worship of the powerful Caterpillar – through my earplugs, that is. Some 35 miles along the South Beach of Long Island, we photographed the dredger Sturdevant, our sole company this winter day, which was in the process of improving the summer beaches of the Hamptons.

Midafternoon, we ran by the radome of Montauk. Phil passed around sandwiches and Cheez-Its. Unlike the fishermen of the Galilee, “We have a friend in Cheez-Its!” Phil noted wryly. I “napped” in the small, diesel-infused cabin with both earplugs and ear protectors on, as the boat surfed down nine-foot waves. We hit 21 knots coming down one leviathan, regularly besting our 12-knot cruising speed.

It got dark; the wind increased. We were way off Block Island, R.I., heading up to its southeast corner to get some relief from the quartering seas in the lee of the east side. The lights of the shadow mass provided comfort. I steered as we approached Buzzards Bay and its tall entrance monument. We yawed about with the Jamestown and Newport bridges in the far distance.

I recited in my head, “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,” and struggled with the wheel to keep two celestial beacons near Orion’s belt in the upper right-hand corner of the windshield pane. Raging down these big seas, in flying spray and 28-degree wind, I was thankful for the excellent heater and enclosed bridge. My new idol, Mr. Cat, surged powerfully on.

We approached the Cape Cod Canal, and I rested after my two-hour watch. Phil slowed the engine to observe the no-wake zone in the canal. Soon I awoke to the sounds of docking at Sandwich Marina at the east end. The diesel dock was closed, it being 11:30 at night. The three of us turned in and slept the sleep of the dead, Mr. Cat quietly radiating heat into the small cabin.

Our iPhone alarm began playing at 6 a.m. In the dark, I put on one of my Bean boots and one of Scott’s. “Are you lucid, Nat?” asked Scott, who found us Mary Lou’s, an open coffee shop for fishermen, a third of a mile from the boat. Breakfast sandwiches and coffee warmed us up. Phil stayed behind to fuel up. Back at the dock, “Lloyd” was helpfully pumping 98 gallons of fuel into our two tanks. The engine apparently did not use a drop of oil.

We took off into the shelter of Massachusetts Bay, in the beautiful sun and deep blue of the morning sea. It would not last. As we approached Cape Ann, the wind turned northerly and showered spray on the glass. We used radar and chartplotters in full daylight, and slowed so as not to beat up the boat and ourselves. To compensate, we tried to hug the coast. And, by Isles of Shoals/Portsmouth and the mountain of Agamenticus, things calmed down, and we were able to heat up the rpm to the standard 2,200/12-13knots.

The beautiful twilight and red sky astern darkened into night off Cape Porpoise and Biddeford pool. We raced for home in the shelter of southern Maine. The new owner, Mr. Grant, instructed us to head for Portland. The moon was shrouded in a halo – maybe we would have a white Christmas after all. Bug Light in South Portland was decorated in colorful Christmas lights, as were the trees and houses on shore. How nice, I mused, that at this point we were close enough for rescue.

The Grant family met us at Dimillo’s Marina, and hauled our stuff to a waiting F-150 pickup. I asked the younger Grant why he hadn’t brought his new boat home personally, to which he responded: “Oh no, I don’t go out when it’s blowing more than 15 knots.” Wise man. But we were granted a gift of a beautiful ride and many happy memories. And I could not have asked for two finer shipmates for my winter-solstice sleighride.

Nat sails and races Beagle, a J/35, and pilots Harpoon, a Boston Whaler, with his family Michelle, Nick, Lyse and father Weld, out of the Harraseeket Yacht Club in South Freeport, Maine. He is founder of CEI Ventures, Inc., in Brunswick, where he lives on a farm on Maquoit Bay.