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Annapolis Sailor explores Down East

The two days sailed back-to-back up and down Maine’s PenobscotBay were, at most, fraternal twins if they were even children of the same family.

The two days sailed back-to-back up and down Maine’s PenobscotBay were, at most, fraternal twins if they were even children of the same family. Tuesday was smiles and sunshine, with a breezy disposition for sailing. Wednesday awoke sullen, dank, so foggy that land was never visible, let alone the next lobster pot buoy, and never budged from its foul mood. But both were part of the Maine Course, my July excursion that took our Westsail 32, Robin, and me to the Pine Tree state and back to our slip near Annapolis in 22 quick days.

This is not a trip you want to make in three weeks. You pass by an island with a cozy anchorage and ache because you have to make 40 more miles before dark to stay safely on schedule. But even with this shortcoming, you still should go. There is beauty everywhere. The sunsets can be incredible, the landscape of long, rocky peninsulas unforgettable. One day it’s schooners under sail. The next, it’s seals doing the backstroke. On a quick cruise everything is a snapshot, a postcard of what might be if only you had time to stop.

I’m looking back over all those postcard moments now. They began July 4 in Newport, R.I., where Robin was moored following our return from the Bermuda One-Two race. Monica, my wife, sailed the double-handed leg with me from Bermuda after I had drifted alone to St. George’s in eight days. We got back to Newport on June 30, just in time for the awards ceremony.

On my own

Monica had an airline reservation for July 2, so it had been my plan to leave Newport on Independence Day. There was no message in selecting that day for another solo voyage. I’d rather have had Monica with me, but she felt she needed to return to her job in Philadelphia.

Our separation was to be for only two weeks. She planned to join Robin and me for a weekend on Casco Bay and a party at the island home of legendary solo circumnavigator Dodge Morgan.

Independence Day arrived with gale warnings for the Gulf of Maine. Robin had endured as much during the Bermuda race, but I felt that good seamanship required avoiding foul weather when there is a choice. I remained on a mooring in NewportHarbor for the next two days, aware that each hour here was robbing me of the same span somewhere on the Maine coast. On Friday, July 6, I cast off the mooring line and headed north, visions of wind stretching white Dacron tight and of Robin burying her lee rail.

Outside of Narragansett Bay, there were 6- or 7-foot swells, dense fog and not so much as a sigh in the air. The first land was sighted after Robin was already in the southwestern approach to the Cape Cod Canal.

The timing for the passage turned out to be perfect, though. Reaching 10.4 knots in the peak current, we were out on Cape CodBay by late afternoon — and chugging under power toward an angry line of thunderstorms.

Having lost two days of Maine time, I was not about to stop. My plan was an all-night voyage to Rockland, about 200 miles north of the Cape. The storms were behind Robin as we motored by Provincetown, about four miles to our east. We crossed the main shipping channel for Boston before dark, and Robin purred flawlessly into the night.

A breeze finally arrived around midnight. I rolled out the genoa and our speed increased, nearing 7 knots by daybreak. I knew that we could make Rockland before dark if Robin averaged 6 knots, so I kept the propeller turning until Robin was splashing through her own bow wake at more than 7 knots. Now, with the sails stretched and gleaming under a bright sun, the engine was off and for the first time, it occurred to me that we were crossing the same waters traveled in the 19th century by my seafaring ancestors. Around me were the same sea birds that no doubt accompanied their clipper ships — the black-and-white greater shearwaters, the wooly skuas, the darting Wilson’s storm petrels. I played to them on a harmonica to pass the time.

Down East walkabout

I had drawn a straight line on the one chart that showed the whole Maine course. The line began at the canal entrance, passed Provincetown and terminated just east of MetinicIsland, at the mouth of PenobscotBay. I had not looked at a larger-scaled chart until Metinic was in view, with waves breaking white on rocks off its shore and leaden clouds beginning to fill in overhead. It was then, as the day drifted from dreamy to dismal, that I realized my course would take me perilously close to two shoal rocks.

I found a safer path on the chart, veered to the northeast, and with some time to spare before dark arrived in RocklandHarbor. There were other boats in the small anchorage, and with the wind blowing steadily, anchoring was difficult. After one poor set I opted to help the city’s budget and rented a $25 mooring for the night.

Rockland had been home to Robin in 2006 for nearly a week. It is an interesting town, a place where the galleries and restaurants can empty your wallet. The weather forecast for Sunday and Monday were not great, so I remained on anchor until Tuesday morning, keeping most of my money except that which I spent for a haircut at Doug’s barbershop and for the shower tokens I bought at the dock master’s office. With spare time on my hands, I set my fingers to the laptop keys and actually wrote some stories for the magazine. I hope my editors run the story of the female professional first mate and her dogs in some future issue.

Tuesday dawned with light fog — the far shore of the bay was not visible — but with sun lighting the clouds overhead. Robin motored out of RocklandHarbor and turned northwest.

By noon we were passing CapeRosier under a cloudless sky. A light following breeze was helping a fleet of schooners tack down East Bay. When Robin’s bow turned into the BagaduceRiver in Castine, the wind was fresh. I pulled up to the town dock in front of a large trawler and went ashore for a quick walk around the hillside town, home of MaineMaritimeAcademy.

I had a dish of ice cream, but my scheduled tugged at me, so I returned to Robin and cast off. Just off the dock, academy cadets were practicing docking a barge with a tug. I avoided them and, before reaching the bay, had my main, genoa and staysail raised. Robin picked up the breeze coming up the bay and began reaching toward Belfast, about six miles away to the west.

This was the smiling day, the happy postcard. Robin met a sistership, Heron, owned by Don and Margaret Lacoste, and sailed in tandem into Belfast harbor for the night. By the time we arrived it was too late to visit the boatbuilder, French & Webb, which is restoring three Herreshoff Buzzards Bay 30s. (More on that in an upcoming issue of Soundings.)

Wednesday dawned foggy, the somber postcard. Robin slipped out of Belfast at 6 a.m. and within five minutes had lost sight of the shore. For the next 11 hours, or 60 miles, there was the sound of the engine but nothing to see but fog and green blips on the radar screen. One blip became the ghostly shadow of a small schooner. At another time, the moan of a freighter’s foghorn marked that ship’s location not far away in the murk.

But radar and the GPS brought Robin safely into the DamariscottaRiver, a few miles west of the PenobscotBay. There, with the help of a cruising guide, I found a snug anchorage in Farnham Cove, only three miles inland from the ocean. I saw land for the first time since Belfast about a mile before the cove. It had not been an entirely happy day.

Taking in the scenery

Thursday morning dawned clear, however, and I got to see both banks of the Damariscotta as in early afternoon we motored back to sea.

Robin passed in solitude by the mouths of BoothBay, the SheepscottRiver and most of Casco Bay. At first there was wind on the bow, but by midafternoon, the engine was off and Robin sailed past green fingers of rocky land, a rolling beam sea rocking her gently. We picked our way inland between the rocks near Jewell Island and anchored in the northwest cove of Cliff Island, about 10 miles from downtown Portland. Here, with a seal as company, I watched the sun set over the evergreens to the west and awoke in the morning to the sound of a lobsterman harvesting his pots nearby.

It was a short jaunt to Falmouth Forside and Handy Boat, cutting between several islands on the way, sailing some, motoring some, on Friday morning. Monica arrived, and after a night moored to Handy’s dock, we took Robin deep into QuahogBay and Dodge Morgan’s party on SnowIsland. I wrote a profile of Dodge earlier this year (July issue) after meeting him on the island last year. One of the many benefits of this job is you get to meet the people you find interesting. Dodge is unique, and the chance to meet his friends and family was a treat for Monica and me.

We anchored in the lee of SnowIsland, spent the night and then returned to Handy Boat so Monica could make her flight home.

Making my way

Monday was a lay day. I was waiting for my friend, John Morrison, to arrive and help me bring Robin farther south. But I used the time — and a rental car — to drive back to Belfast for that visit with Todd French, co-owner of French & Webb, and a tour of the Buzzards Bay 30 project.

In the afternoon I visited Peggy McCrea, an artist I had met in June during the Bermuda One-Two. Her story, too, will be in Soundings one day soon.

John arrived Tuesday and for the next six days we shared one adventure after another. First it was two straight days of motoring through the fog from Maine to Massachusetts. Then there was a rough return trip through the Cape Cod Canal, ending in a quiet night at anchor in Onset Harbor.

Saturday morning was white-knuckle time, navigating against the strong current to pass through Woods Hole from Buzzards Bay to Martha’s Vineyard for an interview with noted maritime artist Ray Ellis. Saturday evening it was a blind entrance into Newport Harbor after midnight, groping for unlit buoys.

John had to leave once we reached Old Saybrook on the Connecticut River. I put Robin aground there taking a mooring. And then, once more, I was on my own. The 70-mile trip on Long Island Sound to Manhasset Bay was without problems, just as it was without wind.

The homestretch

The next morning I caught the change of the tide in New York City’s Hell Gate right on time and passed an awakening Manhattan between 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m.

Outside the Verrazano Narrows Bridge the fog closed in, leaving less than 100 feet of visibility in some places. Ghost-like boats and buoys drifted by, mere shadows, their engine and bell sounds often the only indication of their presence until about five miles offshore, where the fog ended abruptly and Robin turned south along the New Jersey coast.

With stops in Barnegate Light and Cape May behind her, Robin motored northwest on the Delaware Bay, arriving on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal on a Friday night. It was then that she got her rousing welcome back to her home waters. A cloud wall had moved across Maryland and Pennsylvania that afternoon and appeared before sunset over Chesapeake City, where I had anchored for the night and where Monica met me.

I had put out 90 feet of chain on a 45-pound CQR anchor. This should have been more than enough for the depth of Engineers Cove. We went to dinner ashore, only to have the storm hit during appetizers.

First it was rain — big drops splashing down on the tranquil canal water. Then the wind arrived, sweeping ferociously from the west, pushing the water into long, deep waves, driving the rain horizontally. I had never seen a more powerful display outside of a hurricane.

When the violence ceased after perhaps a half-hour, I went to check on Robin. She had relocated to the far end of the cove, apparently having dragged all the way to a dock, where she rammed her windvane against some stationary object, breaking off a piece of cast aluminum.

We boarded Robin and spent the night in her new location. In daylight we saw no indication of serious damage. It appeared she had dragged past other boats in the cove without disturbing them. So we hauled the anchor, and in eight hours we’d backed Robin into her slip at Ed Darwin’s Boatyard in Arnold, Md., near Annapolis.

The Maine Course had been completed. Next year we hope to try it again, with more time to poke around those anchorages, the postcards and snapshots replaced by detailed, lingering memories of new harbors and new friends.

Including his sail to and from Bermuda, the author estimates his successful summer cruising accounted for some 2,400 nautical miles under his keel before returning to his home waters on Chesapeake Bay.