Editor’s note: Regular readers may have noticed that Cedar and Pearl did not appear two weeks ago, as it normally would have. We have moved the column to once a month for the foreseeable future, while John makes the transition between jobs.
Susan and I are back from a short week of sailing. We were out for only five nights, a far cry from the 14 to 15 days of cruising we did year in and year out for much of the past 25 years. But with my new job, and given that our kids can’t join us because of their summer jobs, we took a much shorter trip this year.
Still, 24 hours after our return to solid land, I’m still rocking.
“Rocking” is the term I’ve always used to describe the sensation of constant movement that you feel when you return to terra firma after spending time riding waves. It’s not at all an unpleasant feeling. In fact, it reminds me of the fun I was having sailing, which is a good thing to be reminded of when staring at a computer screen listing hundreds of unanswered emails.
But in this age of internet answers, I decided I’d look it up. I know now that there is a malady formally known as “mal de debarquement” or “disembarkment syndrome.” It is typically diagnosed when a patient complains of a persistent rocking or swaying after a boat cruise of some sort. And apparently, it’s a condition that, for some, can last several months and be rather debilitating.
Clearly, my experience is rather different. I feel no malady, just a connection to some recent memories.
This year’s memories include visits to some of Susan’s and my favorite places, which we never tire of, including Babson Island in Brooklin, and McGlathery Island in Merchants Row, just south of Stonington. We took long walks around both islands, which are exquisitely beautiful.
But the most memorable part of the cruise may be last Friday’s sail from Buckle Island, just off Swan Island, to Gilkey Harbor on Islesboro. The weather forecast suggested that, by midday, the winds would become strong, over 20 knots. So we planned accordingly.
I think of our little 30-foot sailboat as a little ship, tough and seaworthy. A boat like this can take strong winds, as long as you reduce sail so she is not overpowered.
As a cutter-rigged sloop, our boat has three sails: a mainsail and two headsails, one called a staysail and one called a jib. If and when the winds pick up, we would first douse the jib, so we’d only have two sails set. And if we needed to reduce sail further, we would then reef the mainsail, a process through which we tie off that sail so that a portion of it is gathered together, and the amount of sail area exposed to the wind is smaller.
We left Buckle Island before 7 a.m., in an attempt to get a jump on the winds expected to pick up later in the day.
When we cruise, we customarily start our day long before 7 a.m., but seldom are we sailing by that hour, because there is often little wind until later. Rather, the early morning is when we linger in the cockpit with a cup of coffee, watching the world, or perhaps when we row ashore to explore further. With the change of tides, what you see and find on land is constantly changing — so often worth another visit.
But on this day, the wind had held steady at about 12 knots through the night. We weighed anchor, raised the main and staysail, and made our way into Jericho Bay.
This is an especially wonderful time of day to sail: The sunlight is still low, casting long shadows, while the air is moist and somehow more pungent with the scent of saltwater and sea life.
Our boat cut beautifully through the water, with Susan at the helm. I stood on the bow. I had stayed there after raising the anchor, first to hoist the sails and coil the lines I had used to raise them, and then to wash off the mud from the anchor rode. I repeatedly tossed a small canvas bucket into the sea, catching enough water with each toss to splash the deck and push the mud a few feet further toward the scupper, where it would run overboard.
I clearly remember raising my head to catch sight of the island we were leaving behind, aglow in morning light. Our boat gently rose and fell with each wave. Cool water washed on my bare feet. The sun was warm, but not yet hot. The air was heaven itself.
I stood silently, taking it all in. And at that moment, all seemed right with the world.
The winds were no stronger out in the bay, so we raised the jib, adding to our speed. Within an hour we were sailing through Eggemoggin Reach, a stretch of water that is protected by Deer Isle and some smaller islands, so that the south wind, which would be intensifying today over more open water, would be lessened for us. Still, we fully expected that by the time we left the Reach in another few hours, we’d be feeling the full force of the wind and waves that were forecast. And right we were.
Once out of the protection of islands to our south, first the wind and then the waves increased by degrees. We doused the jib, and soon after reefed the main. It was now blowing 20 knots, with higher gusts; but our little ship took it all. Still, the waves grew to a point where a few of them stopped us dead in our tracks, and it took a long minute before we regained any headway.
It was slow going, with a lot of rocking and rolling. Tiring work. So tiring that, after a spell, Susan, who generally never wants to give up the helm, passed it off to me.
As the waves intensified further, I needed to steer with skill, to keep the boat at the best angle to wind and waves. And there were moments as the spray flew over us when I questioned why we hadn’t altered our day’s destination, so that the sail was easier. But we hung in there, and, two hours later, we could turn into Brackets Channel and — with wind and waves now behind us — fly into Gilkey Harbor.
It was one of those experiences that is perhaps more enjoyable once it is over, when you reflect on it from the safety of that night’s anchorage. But I have to admit that parts of it were also fun in the making.
And I’m still rocking from it!
John Piotti lives in Unity. His column Cedar and Pearl appears monthly.