Outside magazine, June 1996
We had rounded schoodic point some hours before, or so we thought and dearly hoped, and were motoring slowly northwest past Winter Harbor into Frenchman Bay, on our way in thick fog to perdition or Bar Harbor. This was before GPS locators came in cereal boxes, and our modest sloop did not have radar, because the skipper considered radar pretentious and evidence of deeply flawed character. We did have loran and a depth sounder, which were arguing about whether we were about to run aground. The chart showed nasty shoals, but while the loran said it was time to call the Coast Guard, the depth finder said, stay cool, there was water under the keel, maybe as much as 12 to 18 inches. The skipper had considered these auguries and issued instructions: "When you see trees, turn left."
At that point the muffled whup-whup-whup of an old truck engine grew louder, and out of the fog, 50 feet away, appeared not a truck but a beat-up lobster boat, going dead slow. An old bird in yellow slicker pants and a green plaid shirt was winching up pots. Maine lobstermen are renowned for taking a lively interest in watching summer people make damnfools of themselves, but this gent took pity. With one arm he made a big, expressive, come-the-hell-out-of-there wave, and in a conversational tone said, "Rocks." I said, "Thanks very much," and shoved the tiller across the cockpit.
That's not even a story, as Maine sailing yarns go, lacking the necessary loss of life and property. And what happened a bit later wasn't much, either. We continued on in the fog toward Bar Harbor, taking careful account of speed and direction, till it was obvious that if we were not somewhere else, we were there. Nothing was visible, and then abruptly there was a mast. Quite a tall mast, and then beside it another of the same proportions. We were about to ram, ever so gently, a considerable sailing ship, a two-masted schooner of the sort once used to haul granite and firewood and now an excursion windjammer for tourists, tied peacefully to the Bar Harbor dock.
Bashing broadside into maritime history is the sort of opportunity that Maine sailing offers. For the most part it is a workaday, fish-smelling kind of history. This is because the gaudier, Battle-of-Hastings, Peak-in-Darien sort of chronicle requires robbery in the name of God and a monarch, and Maine has little that seems worth stealing. The Maine coast has been known to Europeans for nearly five centuries, but it has never possessed portable loot to tempt conquistadores. What it has are cod and white pines, gulls, harbor seals, lobsters, and water too cold to swim in. And thousands of rocky harbors, thoroughfares, inlets, isles, ledges, reaches, heads, and points, and over the course of time, summer people and locals, each tribe convinced that the other talks funny.
Maine's bony coast, however, is perfectly situated to make it the best sailing ground near the North American continent. Fiberglass and Dacron have made yachtsmen of half the doctors and brokers in New York and Massachusetts, and a three-week vacation gets them up past Block Island, through the Cape Cod Canal, and into Maine waters. Dodging lobster buoys in Penobscot Bay is an amiable adventure, and if more is wanted there's the run past Rocque Island and on to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.
But it is the infinitude of small voyages that has made Maine a sailor's paradise. The Pacific Coast offers nothing similar. A friend of mine in California bought a modest cruising sailboat and by the end of his first season had discovered that although there are mighty voyages to be done from the left coast, there are few small outings of real interest. Seen Catalina Island once, seen it twice. He shifted his boat to Maine. It was the right move. From any mooring in Maine waters you can plot a dozen runs in whatever direction the day's wind suggests, ending at a restaurant in a crowded port or at an anchorage with little company.
Short runs off Maine are not always easy. Water temperature at the peak of summer will be about 60 degrees, and air temperature on an overcast day not much higher. Hurricanes rumble in from the Caribbean, and nor'easters blow up toward Greenland, not always at your convenience. Head out single-handed and watch weather that was forecast for 20-knot winds--a useful breeze--turn to 40 knots. Get the mainsail and the roller jib mostly furled, and discover that with a bare pole and the triangle of jib that's still showing you are doing a knot and some more than your boat's theoretical hull speed. Fight the wheel for six hours, sea boots full of water that has swamped the cockpit, and skid into harbor at hellacious speed. Now figure out how to spin to a dead stop in eight-foot waves, let go of the wheel, grab a boat hook, and snag a mooring buoy. (The way to do this is to stay with the wheel, throw pride overboard, call the harbormaster, and ask for help.)
Sailing and suffering keep the ruling class out of mischief, and it follows that a certain degree of display must be tolerated. But in Maine the rule seems to be that if you can't avoid being wealthy, you should manage to do so with a decent appearance of shabbiness. This does not mean suiting up frayed sails and may require nothing more than wearing cruddy boat shoes in port. Among Maine's summer sailors, there seems not to be a lot of lounging about at dockside, and seamanship figures heavily in determining pecking order. Commercial fisherman are honored. Private powerboat drivers are disregarded utterly. Vast, professionally crewed sailing yachts are not much seen.
Still, given the realities of tradition and economics, there is an Ivy League tone to Maine's summer sailing. If you are an unpedigreed midwesterner (and suspected Democrat) invited along by some loftily descended skipper, it is an eerie surprise to find yourself a guest on an island owned by the same family since colonial times. I admit, however, that single-malt Scotch offered by a gracious host goes a long way toward justifying ancestral privilege. So does unflappable courtesy. One of my skipper friends needed to meet a crew member at the Bangor airport and intended to borrow a car from his prep school roommate, whom I will call Jones. The skipper and I anchored and rowed ashore, unannounced, at a place listed on the chart as--what else?--Jonesville. As we walked up through a meadow toward a large, nicely weathered house, it was clear from certain clues--a huge tent in the side yard, caterers rushing about--that a considerable wedding was about to detonate. We had come at a hideously wrong time, and instinct told me to leave these people alone. But no; here was Jones himself, father of the bride, saying, no problem, don't be silly, take the station wagon. And he gave us the keys to a large, nicely weathered Chevy. "Come back for champagne," said this civilized soul. If we must have a ruling class, this is the kind to have.
And though it's not my class, I'm drawn to Maine sailors and their austere coast, hours from anywhere, on the edge of nowhere. Maine's tang of seaweed and former fish is a reek unlike any other. I am not much of a sailor, but my head is cluttered with the rough poetry of marine charts: Eggemoggin Reach, Isle au Haut, Misery Ledge. A hundred miles inland, beached and becalmed, I smile to myself by the woodstove: Castine, Damariscotta, Blue Hill Bay. Rockland and Bucksport. And Boothbay, and Deer Isle! Machiasport, O my soul! I dial my brother-in-law, the one with the boat. Maybe I can wangle a berth...
John Skow, a longtime contributor to Outside, wrote about sailing the North Sea in the January issue.