Sasanoa – Giving Annie Heart Attacks

Tomorrow I start fourteen days in a row of teaching, so this weekend was probably the last one for this year where Annie and I could sneak off to sea.  Already the air is sharp with the tangy zing of fall.  Even though we had a glorious summer and no real freezes yet, the turning leaves are less than spectacular this year.  As we slide the ebb down the river on a beam reach in the west wind, we see patches of red or yellow deciduous flame, but mostly russet or just plain rust among the steady evergreens.

Denied access for a day because of the rainstorm that flooded New Hampshire, we left at a chilly 7:30 am.  We didn’t beat the lobster fishermen though, and we wave to them as they haul their traps, bobbing in the last of the rising fog.  We shot through The Narrows at 7 knots as the wind picked up, taking us past the shipyards of East Boothbay, the fishing village of South Bristol, and the summer colony of Christmas Cove – normally a forest of masts, but just a few remain in this October 1st.

The wind, as we had hoped, comes northwest and really starts to blow, tossing the tops of the trees, singing through our rigging, and scuttling us out to sea.  Out beyond Heron Island, the breakers are coming in over the Bulldog, and the wind is ripping the tops of them and curling them back to sea like early Elvis Presley hair.  We’re perfectly safe where we are in the swells – just going up and down 7 feet every few seconds – it’s only where the water shallows that the waves build, curl and break that you don’t want to have your boat, but we are well outside the buoy.

Deep in the breakers is that green that painters strive for but neverfind, but glassblowers sometimes achieve by accident.  The outermost island before boundless sea is Damariscove, occupied since 1608. (Most people don’t know that English fishing boats came over here for summer fishing trips well before the Pilgrims showed up.  They used Damariscove Harbor as a summer pit stop – a place to dry fish, get stocked up, find liquor, trade gossip – before leaving for home when their holds were full – and certainly by this time of year.  It was far enough from the mainland to be out of reach of the ‘savages’ – though Indians did kill Mr. Damaris himself, the store owner, a bit later on a canoe raid, and he is said to walk the island still, a headless ghost with his dog.)

The harbor is long and thin, difficult to maneuver, but hell, men in boats have been doing this since the 1600’s, so we can too, yes?  In a northerly breeze, you sidle up next to The Motions (giving Annie a heart attack, because you can look right into the green breaker beside you), and then turn and run along the line of ledges into the harbor.  You don’t want to tack in a fresh northerly with only a couple of hundred feet of width or less to make your moves.  We run it far enough up in to be calm, though Annie has a second heart attack when she sees how close we lie to an underwater ledge, but we sit there for an hour, getting warm, never touching, and having a meal before the long slog across Sheepscot Bay.

I don’t know why the mouth of the Sheepscot is so prone to high winds, it just seems that many times when we cross, it is this: navy blue waves marching in rows (just like the Barbara Cooney books), white caps torn off by the wind, spray whistling through the rigging.  By losing the mizzen and shortening the jib, we are quite comfortable sailing (though we are on our side, so going below requires acrobatic skills).

As cruise director, I have timed things brilliantly so that we leave the Damiscotta River on the falling tide, and get to the bottom of the Kennebec as the tide starts on the rise.  Best laid plans: the tide is rising alright, but the tidal current is still pouring out of the river, and the trip from the lighthouse atop Seguin to Fort Popham takes an age of tacking, and it’s not until the double elbow of Fiddler’s Reach that we get help from the tide.

In one attempt to cheat the current gods and sneak behind a marked ledge, I give Annie a second heart attack by coming hard aground on its rocks on the northern side.  The water in Maine, rich with plankton, is pretty opaque, and you can sail into 5’ of water without being able to see the bottom.  I brought her around by backing the sail and she came off successfully, only to collide again.  The noise and the immediate angle of the boat are a bit terrifying, but the damage is minimal, and usually so is the danger.  To appease her (in fact, the tide was rising and we soon would have been off, no repeat of the deadly low tide puncture –, I break my rules and turn on the engine and with some wiggling get us free.  Some fishermen in an aluminum outboard come over.  The old local in the baseball cap is trying, over the wind and the engines, to take me to task for attempting this stupidity (and he’s right), but I am having too much fun, and his bald and goateed companion gets it and waves, smiling, across the water.

Around the corner from Fiddler’s reach is Bath Iron Works, the treasure of Senator Olympia Snowe, supposedly a ‘moderate’, though you wouldn’t think so from her voting record.  She needs to get her head far enough out of Mitch McConnell’s wrinkled fundament to free her ears to hear the people of Maine: we need relief from health care gouging, we want Wall Street and tax reform to reverse the class war that the upper crust has been winning these last 30 years, and we want clean energy that we don’t have to go to war to get.  But Senator Snowe just keep s bringing home the bacon – navy contracts for BIW – and we keep voting her despite her neo-con record (and Susan Collins too with her really awful voice – Maine’s senators are often tagged as the last of the moderates, but Reagan couldn’t get elected as a Democrat these days, so ‘moderate’ doesn’t mean much.)

But BIW is magnificent from the water: the giant cranes from Star Wars, the dry dock from The Abyss, the huge boats from 2012, all made strange in the sunset light.  We cannot pass under the Bridge, so we turn right into the Sasanoa.  That involves a bridge too, and I have read in the cruising guide that the vertical clearance at high water is 51’, and we can’t be much over 35’, but it looks dodgy anyway, and Annie has her third heart attack (we did hit a bridge once, to be fair) as we go under (safely).

Once into the Sasanoa, a thin and kinky inland passage between Arrowsic Island and Woolwich, everything quiets down – the wind is shaded, the water calm, the light fading. The master plan would have brought us in here as the tide turned, but once again the tide may be high, but here in the Sasanoa it is still flowing against us to beat the band.  There is no place to stop for the night on this side of Upper Hell Gate, so we must get up it – literally ‘up’, as the water is flowing like a tesseract.  You can literally see that it is higher where we are going than where we are.  You don’t get this out at sea.  “Well named,” I say to Annie as we turn on the engine to attempt the climb.  Even revved up so high I don’t want to keep it there long, we are barely making forward progress.  Many a boat has been flushed backward here, and the passage is barely wider than a Vermont stream, so we are careful to keep bow to current, and not let the flushes and thrusts turn us sideways.  Finally, muscles and motor straining, we make it to the tongue of smooth water at the top, and escape the velocity.

Soon a welcome little cove with a mooring in it appears in the fading twilight, and we gratefully break the rules of courtesy to snub up to it (not likely anyone would be coming back here after dark) and get to the side of the current.  Once the sdails are put away, we start up a fire in the good little wood stove.  Annie has brought oak kindling – the stove is small, of course -that burns hot, and in the dark we can see the stainless steel sides and top start to glow red. This scares us in a wooden cabin, so we lay off loading in more wood for a while – but a warm cabin is a balm after a cold day in the air.

As we heat up the chili (good to get hot from both endo- and ecto-derm), it is an evening of birds: an eagle flies over the sky gap between the trees, still bathed in golden light as we darken, just one piercing raptor cry.  Then an owl hoo-hoos from the black cotton of the trees before going silently off on his hunt.  Then a heron (I think, we never did see him) starts a cycle of scratchily cawing that he will repeat all night (he was still doing it when I got up to pee at 2, and there still at 5 when I got up to warm myself up), for no reason we can discern.  At 5, some rooster around the corner starts in an unending round, reminding me of Greece.  He does shut the heron up, though.

Morning brings a fair tide, and we continue what is now ‘down’ the Sasanoa, through shallow Hockamock Bay past Montsweag into Knubble Bay.  Somewhere in here we give Annie her last heart attack in Lower Hell Gate, which is another tidal boil – though this time we are going downhill – where we are shouldered past a ledge by the rushing water so close that we could have reached out and touched it.  I knew we were safe – the tide won’t take you onto rocks – but it sure looked hairy.  Taking a kayak with a 6’ draft into these rapids I probably not such a good idea, but it is unique.

Once safely back in the Sheepscot, we turned around the Cuckolds and headed across Booth Bay for home.  No hot tea, not even Quan’s soup can penetrate the cold now, and we’ve had our adventures and want a warm bath.  The sere north wind has us tacking up the river, and the first of the students is waiting on the dock to hand us in – the life of the vagabond is over, and I must put my shoulder to the wheel for the next two weeks.

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