Wings of Steel

The rain falls straight down this summer, and the sun sucks it up again – muggy and still, day after day.  So when Canadian air broke through yesterday morning, I slipped the surly bonds of a fully-scheduled Monday, and by 7:30 I was fully loaded with iced-down food, layers of clothing, and a goal of Rockland by sunset, some 75 kliks away (just over 40 miles).

The morning breeze was fickle, but definitely WNW, pushing the boat onto the dock, requiring that I maneuver it around with the lines, backing it down off the end, throwing the bow line aboard, and using the stern line first as a lever to pull the stern in to bring the bow through the wind, then as a sling shot imparting some forward momentum.  This procedure – a complex way of avoiding turning on the engine – involves grabbing the mizzen stays to jump aboard at the last possible second and vaulting into the cockpit to tighten the sails and catch the wind – no steenking engine for me!  (I did actually turn it on later when things got hairy just to make sure it was working today – discretion is the better part of valor.)

The fishermen are out in force in the river, so I dance between the lobster boats, seeking out the back-eddies in the rising tide that tries to set me back. But the wind is coming over the beam, the easiest point of sail, and by 9am I am skimming past the Devil’s Washbowl, and by 9:10 I am turning left – sorry, easing to port – around the rocky end of Thrumcap, the last string in the Thread of Life. (With no light on the end of Thrumcap, ships often floundered there, and surviving sailors had to swim from island to ledge to Crow Island, the last in the chain, where they could call to the mainland for help – hence the Thread of Life.  The biggest gap, about 50 meters of swirling sea, which I have sailed through with my heart in my mouth, is called the Needle’s Eye.)

This is the open sea, and there should be a swell, but with such a leaden atmosphere this last week, there is nothing.  Just as I turn the real wind arrives.  For the next 5 hours I am stuck to the binnacle and the charging wheel, a pound of cherries and a jug of water the only thing I can reach. With no swell, I barrel along at 6 knots.  At 11, I had the chance to stop at Allen Island, the home of the Wyeth family.  Tycha and I pass through the harbor between the two islands.  Andrew is gone now, of course, but Betsy is keeping the place up well, and it is a pleasant place to stop for breakfast, with a mooring and a view of the 19th century community (in terms of architecture, I have no idea how they order their lives) – spare salt-box capes with clapboards silvery with sea-salt, a curvy greenhouse the only nod to modernity, a flock of island sheep to keep the brush down – they have built over the years.  When the Wyeths are done with it, someone will turn it into an island retreat.

But I am too excited to stop yet, so on the other side of the harbor I set it wing-and-wing – the jib on one side, the main on the other (the Germans call it schmetterlink – butterfly) – with the mizzen strapped in the middle so it doesn’t skew the stern around.  Straight downwind, especially in a stiff breeze, is a difficult point of sail, but I have to get past Old Cilley, another boat catcher: a long, low ledge just under the surface, in this tide a swirl of white water in the chop that the wind is beginning to create.  As I clear Burnt, Monhegan stands tall in the clear air to my right, the top of a mountain from the sea floor, the last one before the clean line of horizon.  To my left, the safety of Port Clyde inside the ledge and some protecting islands – but no, no run for safety yet.

As I turn left another 20 degrees to begin the long run up into Penobscot Bay, the wind chimes up a notch, maybe 25 miles an hour, gusting to over 30.  I don my life vest and hook it to the life lines – this is the most exhilarating sailing, but can turn to a dangerous mess in a minute if something parts.  I briefly wish I had reefed earlier, but then I find the groove and we barrel along at over 7 knots on a broad reach past Mosquito Head and Tenant’s Harbor.

As I approach Whitehead, with its lighthouse on a brow of granite, the wind is compressed as if through a funnel.  For several minutes I really wish I’d reefed, as the wind is so strong that I cannot hold the boat on course, and Tycha and I are forced to veer up into the wind and toward the sloping granite of Whitehead, sails flapping dangerously. (Although it does the sails no good to snap and flap like that, there is little danger of the fabric coming apart – although that did happen to me once in Montana, of all places to be sailing.  The danger is in the hardware – that violent shaking can break a fitting, or a shackle works loose or a pin breaks and suddenly you have a mess on your hands without a lot of sea room to fix it.)

No sea room, and lots of other boats, most less equipped than I to deal with this wind, or so it seems, for these lighter, newer boats are no good in heavy breezes, and several are dropping their sails in wrinkled messes onto the booms, and struggling out of the fray with their engines.  Whitehead is the entrance to the Muscle Ridge Channel, where I was sure to get some respite, but no, after a brief reduction behind Whitehead’s protective arm, it set the chop green out of Seal Cove, and I was rail under, standing on her cockpit sides, trying to maintain a steady-ish course and avoid those who were erratically coming up into the wind to flap, and then falling off again to be flattened sideways.

Sailing these channels one goes from one avoidance to another – Yellow Rock, Clam Islands, between the green spindle on Gardner’s Ledge and the red one on Otter Island.    Thank God for the GPS, as I could not sail the boat in this weather and consult a chart to plot a new course every five minutes.  At Ash, with three buoys in a row marking its outcrops, I really am cornered by one of these ‘Clorox bottles’ (our derisive name for the modern sailboats – high-sided, plenty of room inside, but not much for sailing) got turned up into my path by a gust, forcing me first up toward the rocks, but as that got too hairy, I turned and ran down below them.  Turning your back to 30 mph of wind is not fun, poised on danger if it gybes around, but it was only for a minute, and I got back on my beam reach , but shaking – ‘You shouldn’t be out in this if you can’t handle the boat,’ I mutter, but hell, I am on my edge too, and I am out here, all sails set when I should have shortened sail long ago.

By the time I am at Owl’s Head, a mostly fishing village inside Monroe, I have had enough for a moment – spotting a mooring I decide this would be a great time for a little something.  The current is pouring down the channel, and the mooring spot is shaded from most of the breeze, so after a couple of tries of doing my usual – coming up into the wind to stop dead (you hope) right at the mooring – and having it not work, I remember my lessons from the British Yachtmaster course, and veer away, drop the main, and come downwind (but uptide) on the mooring, letting the jib fly as I reach it to grab the pennant.  It is a small motorboat mooring, so I set the mizzen just right to keep the boat balanced between the current and the wind, so it tugs only lightly on the mooring.  It’s 2 o’clock, and I have been at the wheel for 6 1/2 hours straight. I could use something other than cherries and water – literally the only things I could reach for the last 6 hours. Time for making the boat shipshape – the ropes are a mess – making a boat sandwich (lots of everything, as much as you can hold between two slices of bread) and a few phone calls to the folks I left in the lurch.

Replete and rested by 3, I dropped the mooring, let the current ease me back away from it, and then set the jib to nose on out into the channel, where the wind catches me again.  As I round the light on Owl’s Head, I am by now hard on the wind (meaning close-hauled, all the sails pulled in as tightly as possible, sailing as close to the wind direction as God allows), so I can let the main sheet go and raise the main while I am underway.  A bit tough in this wind, but I git ‘er done and change my destination for Rockport instead of Rockland (no shortage of rocks around here – Stonington is just across the bay), horsing across the fetch of Rockland harbor and finally into the relative calm of the long sleeve that is Rockport.

I cannot bear to turn on the engine after such a fine day without it, but trying to maneuver the inner harbor by sail in this wind with such a crowd of boats in the mooring field sounds challenging, although it might well result in damage to someone’s boat, even mine.  So I settle for an easy pick-up of an outer mooring and a long upwind row to shore and my ride back to the real world.

No whales or porpoises – hardly any seals in that spumy chop, but the feeling I carry home in the car is like that of having been out dancing all night – tired, spent, satisfied.  And indeed, a boat is a device for dancing between the wind and the water – the heavier element that nevertheless moves prettily out of the way of the hull, and the lighter element that takes on the character of steel itself when it gets up to these speeds and comes in contact with the sail.

Wings of Steel I call my sails, sewn last year by Nate Wilson down river here.  The name comes from a Japanese fairy tale.

More than 40 miles in 8 hours, with an hour out for lunch and a nap.  Nothing like it, finest kind.


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