|Being in Maine is a bit like being in a foreign country. I don't mean Kittery or Kennybunkport; I'm talking about really going "Down East," where it's more like Nova Scotia or Newfoundland than Salisbury or Hampton Beach.
The lobster traps in Maine are rounded - not square - and it's a place of guillimonts, loons, puffins, harbor seals, white-sided dolphins, and other exotic creatures rarely - if ever - seen in Marblehead. Maine even has its own language -at least it seems that way when you're asking for directions: ("Come to think of it, you can't get theah from heah. . . ") And the natives certainly have a unique brand of humor, some of which is so subtle you don't catch on until you hear it three or four times. For example, if you try to strike up a conversation with, "Lived here all your life?" you'll probably get something like, "Not yet," for an answer. What makes such humor so much fun is that the people who exercise it aren't really trying to be funny; they're just giving you the plain, honest truth in their own particular way.
Maine has just about everything you could wish for in a temperate vacation spot: secluded lakes, and mountains, wonderful rivers, vast forests and, of course, the seacoast. Although only 39th in size of the 50 states, Maine offers nearly 3,500 miles of tidal coastline, including its numberless islands. And that coastline, and all that comes with it, is what I love most about Maine.
I suppose it's possible to enjoy the coast by driving it in an automobile - I've certainly done enough of that. But to enjoy the full richness and variety it offers, there's really only one way to take it all in as far as I'm concerned: from the salt water. There are many uniquely beautiful places on our planet, and the Maine Coast is right up near the top of the list. One well-traveled crew member once described it to me as "like Alaska, but without the mountains. "
It really doesn't matter whether you're in a sail- or power-boat; each has its advantages. But one thing is for certain: if you're going to be spending time on the water here, you'd better know what you're doing. I have an acquaintance who owns a very substantial power boat with every conceivable electronic device except power sun visors, who once asked me, "How can you spend so much of your time "up" there amongst all those rocks, in all that fog?" When I said to him, "But, John, you have LORAN, radar, GPS, everything you need," his reply was: "Well, yeah... But who knows how to use all that stuff?"
Well, you'd better "know how to use that stuff' if you want to really enjoy what Maine has to offer. The primary reason, of course, is due to what the area is so famous (notorious?) for: fog. The water there is so cold, that when the warm summer air hits it, you can always depend on encountering a good portion of fog on any cruise.
But fog can be some of the best fun and most challenging part of cruising. Frankly, I'd be disappointed not to experience at least a little of it on any cruise. Of course, when the fog lasts so long that nothing ever dries out, you're missing all the scenery, and the boat keeps getting smaller and the crew more obnoxious, then it's time to head for Camden for a good restaurant and some shopping until it burns off !
And speaking of fog reminds me of the four greatest lies in cruising the Maine Coast. The first one is, "It'll burn off by ten." Although this has been known to occur, the much more likely event is that you'll be stuck there all day, or perhaps for several days. (One fog bank is said to have lasted for an entire presidential term!) And so, if you want to get to where you're going, you need to know a bit about reading a chart, ded-reckoning, and the use of radar and LORAN if you have them. (Incidentally, here's a bit of trivia for you: it's not "dead" reckoning, as most people think. In the days of wooden ships and iron men, when logbooks were all hand-written, the captain would describe how he had reached his current position by "deduced reckoning." To save time and space, this was often shortened to "ded. reckoning," and so it remains today.)
Now, I know all you old timers out there are bragging about how proficient you are at your ded-reckoning, and how you've done it for years without LORAN or radar. I've said the same thing myself, on occasion. But there's a vast difference between coming home to Marblehead from Gloucester in the fog, when you've done it in daylight a thousand times before, and know where every buoy, rock, and spindle are located. It's just not quite the same when you're feeling your way along for the first time outside the mouth of the Kennebec River - it's raging current pushing you seaward toward Seguin Island - which the chart tells you is off somewhere to starboard, with numerous, knifelike rocks and ledges sprinkled throughout the area. I've had those butterflies in my tummy enough, thank you, for one lifetime. It's a lot nicer when you have electronic nav-aids to tell you exactly where you are and where those rocks are. On occasion, even with these newfangled contraptions, I've been know to go through a bottle or two of Mylanta on a foggy trip.
Incidentally, the other three lies about cruising are:
2) "There's plenty of water over there." This is usually spoken by someone who is not in charge but wishes to sound knowledgeable, and almost always by one who doesn't own a boat of his own. Whenever you hear this, brace yourself.
3) "We should sight the bell-buoy in twenty minutes." Actually, you've probably already passed it, but then again, maybe it's more to starboard than you thought... "Wait! What's that roaring sound in the distance?...
And ever the fitful gusts between
A sound came from the land;
It was the sound of the trampling surf
On the rocks and the hard sea-sand...
4) "We will leave at first light." I actually do remember leaving at first light once. I was sick, we had had several days of absolutely foul weather, and one day we just got up at sunup and left - for home. (Except there was no sun; it was foggy and raining.) On almost any other occasion - especially when you have women on board - you can forget about leaving at first light, or before ten, for that matter.
Fortunately, my first several cruises Down East were made only with male crew members, and so we were able to maintain some semblance of a schedule. Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying we don't like having our wives. After all, without them there's nobody to wake us
up all night long complaining about our snoring, or to take us shopping every time we go ashore, or to make all those nice changes in the itinerary that we had so carefully thought out and prepared over the entire winter. And of course, there's plenty of room aboard for all that extra baggage.
But an all-male crew can push the boat a little harder in lumpy weather, press on in the rain and fog, and have an open discussion about "that funny engine noise. " It's also okay to admit that you're not exactly certain of your location (something the male ego would never allow in the presence of a female - even in an automobile - never mind, a boat.)
Over the years, I've learned to get a lot of mileage out of cruising. Naturally, the cruise itself during the summer is the highlight of the year for me. But I also spend a great deal of time throughout the winter, pouring over the charts and leafing through Taft's "Cruising the Maine Coast," selecting our destinations for the coming year, as the wind and snow howl outside the window. This pastime is especially helpful during the month of February, for as every New Englander knows:
Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one, Except February - which has eighty!
Today, however, I wasn't thinking of the snow and the cold. It was a a dazzling summer afternoon, with a stiff northwest wind and a brilliant blue, cloudless sky. After years of planning and months of anticipation during her construction, I had just taken delivery of my new Young Brother's 33, MUSCOBE. As I pushed the throttle forward for the very first time, and we glided out among the lobster boats of Corea Harbor, Maine, past the gorgeous blue-green trees over the granite shore, I found it hard to contain my emotions. I was both excited to have the wheel in my hands at last, and nervous to be driving this strange new vessel, about whose handling characteristics and idiosyncrasies I was totally unaccustomed.
But I was in good company, with an old family friend, Phil Cahill, who had spent his life around boats and engines, in the merchant service and running his own boat yard. Phil lost an arm in a boat yard accident many years ago, but he can do more with the one remaining than most people I know who have both. I've seen him start nails into the wood with his fist before picking up the hammer, caulk seams, and do just about every task required in the normal operation of a boat yard. The only thing he couldn't do, as far as I could tell, was tie his shoes.
Getting MUSCOBE launched and through her sea trials had taken most of the day. As it was already late afternoon, our destination for the night was the Hinkley Yacht Yard in Southwest Harbor, about two hours away. Arvid and Arvin Young, twin brothers who are both lobstermen, had advised us that it was really blowing "outside," and I had forgotten that Mainers are renowned for their usage of understatement! The wind was howling, and as we left the harbor and passed Little Rock Ledge, MUSCOBE began to show us the stuff she was made of.
I hadn't planned on "putting her to the test" this early, to see how she performed under such conditions, but we had no choice and were soon bouncing and careening over the waves, green water cascading over the bow and running down to the scuppers. Glancing over at Phil hanging on with his one arm, I yelled "One hand for the ship, Phil, and one for yourself ?"
"To Hell with the Ship!" he grinned.
It was a rough hour and one-half before we made the lee of Southwest Harbor and were able to turn off the windshield wipers. Everything was covered with salt, and I discovered that the cover to the anchor rode hawsepipe had been torn off and washed back down the deck almost to the transom. In a sense I was glad for this weather, which the boat (but not the crew) had handled with apparent ease. On more than one occasion my feet had actually been lifted right off the deck as MUSCOBE dropped into a trough with a force that seemed to me more than enough to split the hull in two.
Much later, I talked about this with Colby Young, who assured me that I'd had nothing to worry about. On one occasion, a Young Brothers caught in a storm, actually dropped twelve feet into a trough, after which the wave broke over the transom and completely flooded the cockpit. She was hauled and surveyed, and not a crack or a ripple could be found. (The same couldn't be said for the passengers.) These boats are built with more layers of fiberglass at the gunwhale than most have at the keel. And over the years, MUSCOBE has proven herself time and again, to the point that even my wife has no qualms about the boat on those occasions when the weather picks up.
We arrived at the Hinkley floats at dusk. After checking the boat, engine and lines, we cleaned up and walked up to the nearby restaurant, The Moorings, which was once the summer home of the Hinkley family, and which prides itself as the restaurant with "the billion dollar view. " Whether they say this because of the spectacular vista you see as you look across at Somes Sound and at Cadillac Mountain on Mt. Desert Island, or because at any given time you're looking at around a billion dollars worth of Hinkleys, Jarvis Newmans, Wilburs, and other new boats isn't clear. Either way, a billion dollars is an understatement.
This is one of my most favorite places to eat. Not only is the view spectacular, the food is also excellent, and the atmosphere is just great. I'd been here with my family several times on our trips to view the boat's progress during construction, and we all became endeared to this unique spot. Southwest Harbor and the area around it is the home to some of Maine's best known builders:: in addition to Hinkley, there's Jarvis Newman, Wilbur, Ralph Stanley, Ellis, Duffy, Morris, John Williams and, of course, Young Brothers.
You'll see no Sea Rays, Carvers or Bayliners here. Nor will you see the giant mega-yachts found in Newport, Nantucket or Camden. Here you find what one would call character boats, with strictly traditional lines. Each of these builders is especially proud of his particular designs, and fiercely competitive.
For years I had been nurturing a dream, part of which was, of course, to own a boat built here. Coupled with that was the thought of one day sitting here in this restaurant, and looking out at a boat built to just my specifications Iying at that Hinkley dock. And so, there was a lump in my throat as Phil and I ate our meal in the Moorings that night, glancing down frequently to look at the mighty MUSCOBE resting there at last, surrounded by million-dollar Hinkleys. "The billion-dollar view" was now complete.
They say the two best days in your life are the day you buy your boat and the day you sell it. And they are certainly correct about the first. I had been on quite a high for several days leading up to this one, and especially wired for the last twenty-four hours. This wonderful day had been a long, long time coming, and it had used up most of my adrenalin. By the time we had finished eating I really began to let down, and after an after dinner celebratory "corner" (cocktail,) I was ready to crash. Within minutes after walking back to the boat and checking the lines and fenders, I was sound asleep.
Next morning the rumble of fishermen's diesels woke us up at first light (that's right.) Hinkley has one of the best crew facilities for transients I've seen anywhere, and after a shave and shower we were on our way at 5 :30 AM. The dawn promised a carbon copy of the previous day: cloudless, crystal-clear visibility, and gale winds.
We passed Great Cranberry Island, rounding Long Ledge, and turned west to cross the bar at Bass Harbor Head. The wind continued to strengthen as the morning progressed, and I could see that MUSCOBE would be tested again today. Leaving the wheelhouse was out of the question, in spite of the beautiful visibility. I had hoped to try the flying bridge today, but it was under sheets of flying spray. We didn't even roll up the canvas behind the wheelhouse.
Everybody we passed - large and small - had slowed to around six knots, while we bored through the seas at more than twice that. MUSCOBE's Chrysler Crusader kept humming, as her hull knifed through the waves. I began to see that my apprehension of the day before was unfounded. Our feet left the deck again a few times as the hull dropped from under us, falling against the bottom of the troughs. And we gritted our teeth in anticipation as we waited for the gut-wrenching jolt that never came. Instead, she always seemed to settle in nicely, and no matter where the seas came from - ahead, abeam, off our quarter or from behind, the boat handled like a dream. Even Phil, who's driven everything that floats, was impressed.
I had originally given some consideration to purchasing a sailboat, and I still love sailing, but this day convinced me that I had made the right decision. We passed many sailboats of all sizes, and in every one we observed the crew bundled in their foul weather gear, taking the elements head on as they sat in those open cockpits. Even dodgers afforded little protection in this weather. I felt especially sorry for those captains I saw who were with their wives. While we could hear nothing of what they were saying, we didn't need to; their gestures and facial expressions were clear enough. This was the type of weather that could ruin the hardiest of cruising wives.
We had to keep our wipers running all the time (in fact, they were practically worn off by the end of this trip.) At one point Phil remarked, "If we tried running like this all day in a wooden boat, we'd sink!) We felt rather smug, watching those other boats, as we sat warm and dry in MUSCOBE's wheelhouse.
We chose a route which took us inside most of the area's islands, not only for protection from the seas but because it was more interesting to look at. I have made this journey many times since, but I will never forget my impressions on that first full day of cruising the Maine coast:
the visibility was that rare spectacular form, whereby islands on the distant horizon appear to be suspended above the water. And everything - the blue-green trees, the pink granite beneath them, the sparkling water and the cobalt sky - all combined to provide us with a stupendous panorama. Each time we would round an island to find a scene which took my breath away I was certain it was the most beautiful I'd ever observed - only to find one even more magnificent a little further on. We were amidst some of the most wonderful scenery in the world, and we were seeing it from a standpoint enjoyed by only a tiny minority of the population.
Parts of the trip were relatively calm and quite pleasant, as when we passed through the Deere and Fox Islands Thorofares. Navigating between all these islands, rocks, buoys and beacons for the first time was challenging and fun, but it was also tiring. It had been my intent to spend the night in Boothbay, but I hadn't counted on Phil, who is on the same sleeping schedule as the chickens, who never seems to get tired, and who seemed to feel that this was a "delivery" and not a cruise.
Because we were making such good time we arrived in "Boochbay," (as Phil's daughter used to call it) at one o-clock. And rather than stopping, Phil urged me to press on. We fueled up at the Carousel Marina, but I did insist on stopping for lunch, so we picked up a mooring. I had been bragging to Phil that MUSCOBE was a "fully found and stocked" vessel, with every convenience and provisions of all sorts. We had been munching on granola bars since 5:30 AM, and after grabbing a sandwich we were on our way again in half an hour.
We ran south towards the Cuckolds lighthouse, after which we turned southwest. No more inland passages to protect us now. From here on we had long stretches of open sea, with the afternoon sun swinging around into our faces. The wind was as strong as ever, and by mid afternoon I was as convinced as I ever would be about the kind of pounding MUSCOBE was capable of taking. We had long since ceased grinding our teeth, and no longer winced in anticipation as the boat dropped from under us. By mid-afternoon we had settled into a sort of routine and each found a place to wedge our body to avoid being thrown about. (One of the first things I added, upon arriving in Marblehead, was an assortment of hand-holds and grab-rails inside the boat.)
As we passed Falmouth Foreside we saw a squall line approaching. One minute it was blinding sun, and the next it was pouring buckets for about twenty minutes. This was welcomed, as it washed away a good deal of the salt that had built up - especially on the windows. Anybody who has ever gone to the west on a windy afternoon, knows that boats need windshield washer fluid as much as automobiles. I don't know why somebody hasn't invented one yet, but every year I say I'm going to install one, at least for the driver's windshield.
We were heading for York, which would leave us an easy run to Marblehead on the last day, but because of the pounding all our bodies had been taking, and the difficulty of seeing into the setting sun through the salt-encrusted windows, we stopped an hour earlier at Biddeford Poole.
We eased through the narrow gut into the "poole" and tied up at the BPYC float at 5 :45 . The manager advised us that the club closed at 6 PM. "Ten dollars for a mooring; fifteen if you want to take a shower. " I handed him a ten, and Phil grumbled, "We should have arrived twenty minutes later and just stayed at the float.
While I washed down the boat, Phil went for a jog. It was very cool for August - more like early October, almost - and by the time he returned, he was complaining about not having a shower. "Just use the hose," I told him, and I assured him that by the time he dried off I'd have him out on the mooring with a cup of coffee and a hot bowl of stew in front of him. ("Remember, this vessel is fully-found and provisioned.")
Once on the mooring, I attempted to impress Phil with the dazzling assortment of menu choices available: beef stew, ravioli, meat balls, corned beef hash, spaghetti...
"I don't care!" he exclaimed. "Just get me some coffee. I'm freezing!"
"Not to worry, Captain," I assured him, as I began setting up the stove. Then, when everything was ready, I reached for the matches. "Hmmm... Now where did I put those matches."
"Got a match, Phil?" I queried hopefully, and as nonchalantly as I could manage.
"You DOPE!" came the response. "You mean to tell me you don't have any matches on this boat?"
"Don't worry, buddy," I assured him. "This vessel comes complete with all the comforts and necessities. They're right here somewhere. I know I brought some aboard."
Phil's language became progressively more colorful as I searched, going through cubbyholes, cabinets, shelves, lazarettes, every conceivable storage space. There were, quite simply, no matches.
We each had a cold Spam sandwich, followed by two slices of cold Spam. And to this day, Phil will not let me forget how I let him down that night. (About a week later, I found those matches, right were they were supposed to be: in a plastic bag inside one of the cooking pots. Phil: I told you this vessel came fully-found.)
We turned in, exhausted, at sunset. Phil was still sputtering and muttering to himself in the lower V-berth, while I drifted off to sleep in my double berth. I found out later, that each time he got up to hit the head during the night, he banged his own head on the base of the berth above him. It was not a good night for Phil. (And I thought he was a mariner!)
We awoke next morning at 4:00, but it was cold, so we stayed in our sleeping bags and shot the breeze for a while, finally setting out, literally, at first light. The wind was gone, and the sea was a mirror. We idled through the gut and the numerous lobster pots in the cove, and as we turned seaward the sun peeked over the horizon. It rose directly behind the lighthouse on Wood Island. The reflection of the sunlight off the flat sea and through the lens of the lighthouse, with the land, the lobster pots and the navigation buoys still black silhouettes, made this the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen - before or since. I would love to have taken a picture, but there were too many lobster pots, and the passage behind Wood Island was particularly tricky as it was dead low tide. Phil was below in the head and missed the whole thing.
Once outside, we turned south toward the Isles of Shoals which, although a bit out of our way would break up the very long leg from here to Cape Ann. At last we were able to enjoy the flying bridge, where we discovered a small discrepancy between the compasses there and below. We also noticed that the hydraulic steering system was leaking slightly, but otherwise we had no problems.
After passing between the Isles of Shoals, we steered 214 degrees toward the Annisquam River. Off Newburyport we sighted a pilot whale for a while. The sea was still mirror calm, and we covered this 18-mile leg with ease, making Annisquam Light at 10 AM.
I was quite familiar with the canal but hadn't been here in several years, and I'd forgotten how beautiful it is here (in August, that is, when the flies are gone. Much later, on a July afternoon here we destroyed an entire Boston Sunday Globe defending ourselves against greenheads!) As we wound through the interior of Cape Ann, I considered my good fortune at having grown up in a place where I could enjoy such a variety of gorgeous scenery. In just three days, we'd observed the rustic beauty of small Maine fishing communities surrounded by evergreens growing on pink granite ledges, gazed across at the splendor of Cadillac Mountain adjacent to the only true fiord on the east coast, and were now surrounded by sandy beaches and vast salt marsh habitat.
Suddenly we were back in civilization, passing first under Route 128 and then the Blynman Bridge into the familiarity of Gloucester Harbor. Leaving Norman's Woe to starboard, we turned onto our last leg toward Baker's Island, and home. Still the sea was calm, and numerous small boats were enjoying the morning, as were we. The water sparkled like millions of tiny diamonds, and the sun was reflected back toward us off the rosy granite cliffs of Cape Ann.
As we approached Marblehead, I wondered, "Do Eagle and Cat Islands look especially good today, or was it just my imagination?" And, passing under Marblehead Light, I thought about the thousands of times since my childhood, that I'd looked up at it from here. This time, of course, was very special.
MUSCOBE was home....