One day of summer sailing

By John Piotti | Aug 28, 2014

Our goal was to leave Southwest Harbor early, while the tide was still slack. Winds were light. Under sails alone, we would not be able to buck the current in Western Way that comes with a flooding tide. Our 30-foot wooden cutter had a nice little diesel engine, but we always preferred to sail whenever we could. After all, we take vacation to go sailing.

We had been on a mooring at Southwest Harbor for two nights. It’s unusual that we stay in a harbor two nights during our summer cruise, but the weather had been poor — strong winds and rain — and it had made sense to stay put.

We often try to put into one of the harbors on Mount Desert Island when weather threatens, because MDI offers more options for what we can do ashore than the small islands we otherwise frequent. Not only does Southwest Harbor offer restaurants and an inviting library, but we can hop on the Island Explorer bus and travel to Bar Harbor or throughout Acadia National Park. And that is what we did the day before.

After a stormy night when this skipper got little sleep, we began the new day with good coffee and fresh pastries ashore — a real treat when breakfasts until then had been boat coffee and cereal.

We then caught the bus to Bar Harbor where we walked about in light rain, lingering at Sherman’s, the local book store. After lunch at a sandwich shop (which boasted cushioned chairs, ice cubes, a real toilet, and other luxuries not found on our boat), we took the bus to a trail head at the base of one of Acadia’s lovely hills. By the time we had climbed to the top, the skies had partially cleared and we enjoyed an impressive view back to the sailing grounds to the south.

We rounded out the day by taking in a movie in Bar Harbor — something we’ve never done before, but could this year, as we weren’t sailing with our dog. She was home with our daughter Anna, who missed this cruise because of her summer job teaching sailing in Lincolnville. It was just Susan, John and me on MDI — and we had had a full and fun day. But we were eager to set sail again.

In preparing to leave the next morning, I first checked the level of diesel fuel in our tank, because Southwest Harbor was a place to get fuel if we needed any. The tank had no gauge, but I have a measuring stick—a far more accurate device. And the stick showed that we had more than enough fuel for the rest of this cruise, having used only about eight gallons in the past 10 days.

I started the engine, Susan cast off the mooring, and soon John raised the mainsail. By the time we had left the moored boats behind, John had set a second sail — our staysail — and we moved slowly but purposefully toward Western Way, the passage that would take us to the south side of MDI.

The hills of Acadia were now directly astern, partially enveloped in mist. Susan and I tested ourselves by naming various peaks — Bernard, Sargent, Penobscot, Pemetic, Cadillac.

When you sail, you rely on your ability to recognize key geographic features. The location of hills and islands confirm compass courses and other tools I use to know we are—and I often find myself staring at landforms and committing shapes to memory.

But within a few minutes, there was nothing to see. The fog has closed in, first hiding the hills, then reducing visibility much further — perhaps to 100 yards. The other boats traveling Western Way had now vanished from sight.

As a boy, sailing in fog always scared me. But years of experience have changed that. As long as we aren’t maneuvering through a particularly hazardous area or also dealing with big waves or strong winds, I’ve learned to really enjoy sailing in fog.

Of course, it helps that we have a small GPS that allows me to check whether my compass navigation is accurate, and radar that helps us locate other boats. The radar is relatively new for us, as we’ve had it only four years.

Susan went below decks, where the radar is located, to turn it on and get some instruction from John. (In fog, Susan is often at the helm, so she has had limited experience reading the radar.) She soon was popping up through the hatchway at intervals to announce various boats at various bearings.

“Something off the port bow at maybe 100 yards,” or “Someone behind us coming up fast.”

Though it’s nice to have this info, in those conditions, I saw each of those boats with my own eyes long before there would be any cause for alarm. Still, Susan joked that she clearly had saved our lives countless times over.

Susan was not the only one receiving training this trip. Though John has been sailing his whole life, and has been part of every activity on board, he has seldom taken complete responsibility for, say, navigating for a full day, or taking us into a harbor, finding an anchoring site, and then being at the helm and in charge when the anchor is lowered and secured. The plan for this trip was that he would take on such a role.

And that is what he did — and did well. I think John is ready to take the boat out on his own sometime — perhaps with some friends for an overnight or a weekend. Susan questions this. But my feeling is that John knows so much more than many people who sail, and that he will only advance to a higher level by taking on the full responsibility that comes with being skipper.

The fog persisted for about an hour, but as we approached Bass Harbor Light, it lightened. As we headed further west across southern Blue Hill Bay, the skies cleared. But the wind fell off to nothing. We felt the need to start the engine, as we wanted to get to Buckle Island, one of our favorite spots, before lunch. The plan was to spend enough time at Buckle that the afternoon sea breeze would come up, and we’d have wind to propel us to our evening’s destination.

We dropped anchor at Buckle, John at the helm. We ate a quick sandwich and then rowed ashore in our dinghy, an 11’ pram I built a decade ago.

Buckle is a beautiful, uninhabited island that, like so many on the Maine coast, is open to courteous visitors. Our usual goal when we go ashore at these small islands is to walk the perimeter by following the rocks and beachfront. But it was almost high tide and the trek was hard going in spots. In addition, the mosquitoes that day were ravenous; and with no wind (yet) to drive them off, it was not the pleasantest walk. Surprisingly, the mosquitoes were lightest when we went inland along the path on the eastern shore, the path along which we built so many fairy houses when the kids were young.

I have so many good memories of Buckle from the trips we’ve made here over the past 23 years. But I can’t think of this island without thinking of the late Richard Rockefeller, especially this year, just a few months after his tragic plane crash.

I had occasion several years ago to fly with Richard from the Portland area to MDI, in the small plane he piloted. I remember the day as ideal for flying. Richard and I talked the whole way about the islands below us.

My knowledge was limited over Casco Bay and some of the Midcoast peninsulas, but from Muscongus Bay east, here were islands I knew well. I knew the shapes from years of staring at nautical charts and horizons. I had explored many of them on foot.

We flew right over Buckle and I learned of Richard’s love of this island — one of many that had been (and may still be) owned by his family. (Those of us who love the Maine coast, have the Rockefeller family to thank for stewarding and protecting so many islands — as well as, of course, for donating the land that became Acadia National Park.)

Richard had been on Buckle countless times and (if I heard him correctly, which I believe I did) he was the one responsible for erecting the famous door. An old door — complete with frame — that presumably had washed ashore, was then placed on a trail, so that you had to walk through the doorway to stay on the path. It’s unique and fun — especially the first time you come upon it.

We rowed back to our boat, quickly, to leave the bugs behind. We ate a few cookies and soon a light south wind came up, as I had hoped. We hoisted the mainsail, weighed anchor, quickly set the staysail to swing the bow around, and then raised the jib.

We were on our way to Babson Island, at the southern end of Eggemoggin Reach. Babson is another favorite spot, another beautiful uninhabited island, this one with great rocks and a magical fern field. Babson is permanently protected by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, on whose board Richard Rockefeller served for years.

We dropped anchor at Babson mid-afternoon. As it was the height of the tide, we decided to save our explorations for the next minoring. So John and I played cribbage, and he beat me both games. Susan and John then worked on some logic problems as I made a pasta sauce from the remaining beef we had bought frozen several days before. It was boat food — good for what it is.

After dinner, talk turned to John’s sailing and my belief that he is ready to solo. Susan, who remains hesitant on this front, then decided to test him.

“What’s 310?” she blurted out. Maybe it was the dinner Chianti talking, but in Susan’s mind, this number was clearly connected to John’s readiness to sail without us. John did not have an answer.

Susan ultimately revealed that 310 is the compass course back to Belfast from the bell buoy outside Castine Harbor, Holbrook Island, and other points east; as such, it meant “home” to Susan.

This became a game. I quizzed John — clearly in jest, as no one could do it — on all the compass courses, in order, from Belfast Harbor to Harbor Island in Muscongus Bay.

Then John asked us a realistic question, one we might know — the course from Cape Rosier to the north side of Islesboro, an actual course we would follow the next afternoon. I can’t remember what Susan guessed, but she was off. But I guessed 355, nailing it precisely.

Susan then grumbled something and quickly pulled out the evening game, Bananagrams, a word game in which you spell words with tiles. John won the first round and Susan won the second. Between my lack of skill today at both this and cribbage, maybe I should stick to nautical games.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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