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Maiden Voyage: When Ignorance Is Bliss

My wife, Pat, and I were excited to have moved to Newburyport, Mass., to become part of a community where the focus has always been the sea, and to be surrounded by the artifacts of 300 years of maritime history.

My wife, Pat, and I were excited to have moved to Newburyport, Mass., to become part of a community where the focus has always been the sea, and to be surrounded by the artifacts of 300 years of maritime history. But like so many who’ve been drawn to the water, its attraction wouldn’t let us stop at the shoreline. Too much of New England’s beauty is invisible to those who are shackled to the shore. We had to have a boat.

Although neither we nor our immediate families had any boating experience, like many New Englanders we had only to look back a generation or two to find boatbuilders, sailors, fishermen and even a lighthouse keeper in our past. Regardless of heredity, we were determined to become boaters and excitedly plunged into the process of learning the ropes.

We transformed ourselves in a single winter crammed with boat shopping, reading how-to manuals and, most importantly, attending boating safety and seamanship classes. Our new Seamaster powerboat arrived with spring, and we were off on the adventure that would literally change our lives.

Bumps in the road

That adventure failed to get off to an auspicious start. On launch day we managed to hit a submerged rock and turn the prop into a black-and-silver cauliflower. And not long after, I misjudged the Merrimack River’s notorious current while docking, and ended up broadside and helplessly pinned against a downriver dock finger.

And our first venture out of the river was nearly a disaster. Coming back from a day-trip in convoy with friends in two other boats, we were caught by an unexpected change in the wind that whipped up an angry sea. We were suddenly facing 6- to 8-foot seas that pounded our boat mercilessly during the long trip home, and threatened to swamp us more than once. To make matters worse, we still had to navigate the maelstrom at the mouth of the river before we could begin to relax.

When we finally reached our dock, we were dead tired, bruised, soaking wet and chilled to the bone, but better boaters because of the experience. We had also begun to develop an appreciation of the seakeeping capabilities of the boat we had chosen.

Stretching our legs

In spite of our growing list of mishaps, we found ourselves more and more committed to the boating life and began to plan a vacation voyage to wander up the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine. Recognizing that our anchoring skills were still probably insufficient, we planned to pick up moorings or stay at marinas along the way, sleeping and eating on the boat except for an occasional meal ashore. As Departure Day grew closer, we made lists, bought charts, entered waypoints into the Loran and even did a trial run overnight while the boat was securely tied to the dock. We packed and provisioned the boat, then ate and slept overnight as if we were moored at a destination.

The anxiously awaited day dawned clear and bright. Stowing most of our gear the night before allowed us a timely departure from the mouth of the river at slack tide, and we were soon on plane and cruising north-northeast on a glassy sea. There are few situations that can compare to such a confluence of conditions — the engine humming smoothly, flat seas under a perfectly clear sky and the serenity of being the only humans in sight, if only for a little while.

After cruising the length of New Hampshire’s short coastline, we ducked into Little Harbor and picked up a mooring long enough to enjoy a hearty lunch while gawking at the fleet of megayachts berthed there. Then we picked our way up the narrow, twisting channel behind Newcastle Island, motored down the Piscataqua River and swung around Gerrish Island to resume our journey.

On the way we investigated the scenery and facilities in York Harbor, and agreed that such a beautiful and protected place deserved to be added to our list of future destinations.

After taking the obligatory pictures of Nubble Light on Cape Neddick, we headed east on the final leg of the first day, which would take us to Kennebunkport, where we had reserved dock space for the night. As we headed through the breakwater, the wind — which had been absent all day — rose from the east, presaging a change in the weather.

The window closes

Although we had been there by car many times before, arriving by boat added a new dimension to our enjoyment. Even the food seemed to taste better. After negotiating our way up and back through the tourist horde, we were happy to return to the boat and settle in for the night.

We awoke the next morning to see and feel a thick fog that had blanketed the area. Even the opposite bank of the river, a scant 50 yards away, was obscured. Our radarless boat was going nowhere that day, so we resigned ourselves to a day of shopping and sightseeing ashore with the hope that the fog would lift and we’d be on our way in the morning. But it was not to be. Day Three was a clone of Day Two and the dockage charges were accumulating expensively, forcing us to confront reality. This trip was over. We rented a very tired Plymouth from the local dealer and headed back home to get our truck and trailer, then drove back up to Maine to retrieve the boat. We were a mighty glum couple as we towed it back down the turnpike in what had become a driving rain.

Making things right

The best-laid plans deserve to be tried again. With a much more promising weather forecast ringing in our ears, we were off again two days later. Same course. Same destination, but this time we lunched in York, then went to explore (but quickly exited) claustrophobic Perkins Cove. It’s no place for a novice boater who’s already on his second prop.

Bypassing Kennebunkport and its unpleasant memories, we decided to motor up the Saco River and spend the night on one of the town moorings there. It was beautiful, peaceful and quiet, but the moorings are next to a marsh, so our hatch and port screens were sorely tested by insects after sundown.

By now we had settled into a nightly routine to prepare for sleeping. The cabin was emptied of non-essential gear like deck chairs, duffel bags and extra coolers, all of which were stacked up in the cockpit and covered with a tarp. Then the V-berth inserts could be put in place and the berth made up. The portable head migrated to the helm area above, where it could be accessed without tearing the

V-berth apart in the middle of the night. The coffee pot was filled with water and coffee, and placed on the alcohol stove for instant use in the morning. A final check of dock or mooring lines was done before turning in. In retrospect, it was a nearly comic drill, which required absolute coordination to be successful, but we made it work.

Pounding along

The second day of the second attempt was a beauty — light wind from the southwest, moderate temperature and a mostly sunny sky. We enjoyed a breakfast of coffee, juice and grilled English muffins, then repacked the cabin and headed for Portland through a light chop. We anchored in the lee of Richmond Island for a leisurely lunch, and wondered at the courage and determination of the English settlers who turned it into a thriving and industrious outpost in the 18th century.

Leaving the protection of the island, we were dismayed to discover that “light” was no longer an appropriate description for the sea conditions.

We headed east in closely spaced

4-footers coming on our starboard quarter, conditions that required a lot of input at the helm and careful regulation of our forward speed.

Making the turn around Cape Elizabeth made it a following sea — a bit more comfortable, but still no piece of cake. By the time we reached the relative calm further into Casco Bay, we were a very salty boat and crew. Our short trip from Richmond Island had taken more than two hours and had thoroughly exhausted us, so we were happy to arrive at Diamond Cove Marina on Great Diamond Island where we could wash down the boat (and ourselves) in time to enjoy a well-deserved and somewhat extended cocktail hour.

A revelation

It was also an opportunity to ponder one of the little mysteries that had been bugging me. In inquiring about, and in making reservations for our stops, I had detected a certain strangeness — maybe even puzzlement — on the other end of the phone line on occasion. It was nothing I could put my finger on, perhaps a pause where none was expected or having to repeat myself when I thought I’d spoken clearly. There was nothing overt, but there seemed to be a lack of comfort somewhere in the process. The reason remained a mystery until a remark from one of the friendly dockhands at Diamond Cove cleared it up.

“From Massachusetts, huh?” he commented after seeing the registration number on the bow. “Where’d you put it in?”

“What do you mean, ‘Put it in?’ ” I asked.

“Like, launch it,” he replied. “Leave your trailer over in Falmouth or someplace?”

“No, our trailer is still back home,” I said. “We traveled here in the boat.”

“You mean you came all the way up here in that?” he asked incredulously. “I mean, it’s so little!”

It was then that the light went on. It had never entered our minds that it might be unusual to embark on an extended cruise in a 22-foot walkaround. Sure it was little, and cramped, and it took some work to make it work, but we enjoyed being on our boat enough to put up with the inconveniences. We were having the time of our life. But now we could understand the consternation, puzzlement or even a bit of disbelief when we called to reserve dock space for our miniature cruiser.

We went on to complete our nine-day trip without incident, but with the added feature of being able to recognize and enjoy — even revel in — the reaction of people who shared that dockhand’s amazement.

We didn’t repeat a trip of that length again until we moved up to a larger boat, and now we do it regularly, but I have to admit that I miss the look on peoples’ faces when we pulled up to their transient dock in the 22.

Two years after their memorable 1995 cruise, David and Pat Yetman sold their Seamaster 22 and moved up to Curmudgeon, a Cummins-powered Albin 28 Tournament Express, which they’ve extensively customized over the years. The couple now lives on Hodgdon Island in Maine’s Boothbay Harbor to be nearer their favorite cruising spots, which include the islands of Casco Bay, Camden, Castine and the many secluded coves along the inland waterways of midcoast Maine.