Maine with Memories
I always look forward to a Maine cruise; the coast is certainly among the finest in the world. In the fall of 1999 I planned a six-week sail from Long Island which would give me a little over a month to savor the delights of autumnal cruising in Maine. Apart from a couple of overnights on the way north, and on returning, it was to be a leisurely sail, with anchorages every night.
It didn’t quite turn out to be as leisurely as planned: we were chased up the coast by Hurricane Floyd and we took shelter in the barely adequate Cape Neddick harbor. After that we had a strong wind to Portland where we effected a crew change followed by delightful and quiet anchorages at Jewel Island, Ebenecock Harbor and Harbor Island. We gathered mussels for happy hour, bought lobsters for supper and sipped on Caribbean rum in the evenings.
In a brief stopover we restocked a few things at the charmingly old?fashioned Port Clyde General Store and had a warm shower. Then it was a mooring in Tenant Harbor, still busy with lobster and fishing boats. We were now in beautiful Penobscot Bay. What better than to anchor at Butter Island for lunch and then walk among the pine trees to the summit for a breathtaking view of the bay? To add a dose of reality the usual afternoon breeze sprang up and we had a hard beat to Rockland, complicated by dodging lobster trap floats with the sun low in the west.
In the morning we dinghyed ashore for coffee and donuts. When I browsed in a used bookshop, the cool, crisp Maine morning was suddenly contrasted with memories of my first visit to the tropics, nearly forty years ago. These were triggered by a book for which I had been vainly searching since that visit.
I thought of the blast of hot, steamy air that greeted my wife, Edith, and me as we stepped off the plane at St. Thomas in the winter of 1961-62. I thought of the busy quay with native schooners unloading fruit and goods (also, no longer) as we searched for a Brixham traveler called Maverick, on which we had arranged an eight-day cruise in the Virgin Islands. She was operated by an American couple, Ruthie and Jack Carstanphen, who had purchased her in Antigua several years before.
The boat had a fascinating history; she had been built at the height of the Depression by J. A. Upham and Sons at their yard in Brixham, England along the lines of the traditional ketch rigged fishing trawler, but fitted out as a yacht. The owner was a Colonel Beddington who had retired from the Indian Army and whose ambition was to spend the rest of his days holding a fishing pole over the stern of his boat in the most exotic locations he could sail to. The owner punningly name his dream boat Cachalot.
Lying in the quiet, empty (as they were then) anchorages of the British Virgins, Jack regaled us with stories of the Colonel’s adventures in the Red Sea and on the west coast of Africa. These were drawn from the Colonel’s book, published in 1938, entitled We Sailed From Brixham, a copy of which resided on a shelf in the main cabin. This was the book I had looked for since that cruise, so imagine my surprise when my eyes lit on a perfect copy in the marine section of that shop in Rockland, Maine. How did it get there? If only books could talk. I bore my prize eagerly back to the boat and re-read it for several days. It was surprising how much space the Colonel devoted to the fish he caught and how they tasted.
An early morning start brought us through Fox Island Thorofare and lunch at Moores Harbor, Isle au Haut. During the tranquil sail to Stonington for the night, with little more than seven and eight knots of wind, I left sailing up to the crew as my mind turned over those distant adventures of the Colonel and the Cachalot more than sixty years ago. How he loved to fish!
It reminded me of an incident during our ’61 cruise; a fellow passenger caught a large fish, which he gave to Ruthie for supper. That evening we had fish, chopped in cubes, baked and served with a thick tasty sauce. There were many comments about the superior taste of really fresh fish. Years later, when Edith and I lived aboard our first ocean-going yacht, Iona, in the Caribbean, we ran into Ruthie, who confessed we had eaten cod that night. She and Jack had a fear of ciguatera, often contracted from locally caught fish, so she had simply pushed the fish through the galley port and thawed out some cod from the freezer.
After the Colonel’s book was published the sequel was quite tragic; in 1939 Cachalot was cruising in South African waters when war was declared. The Colonel volunteered Cachalot to the British admiralty for wartime service, which was accepted. As he returned to the English Channel, the boat was attacked by a German plane and the old soldier was shot to death at the wheel. After the war a grateful navy installed a new engine and the boat eventually found its way to Antigua, where she was chartered for fishing trips and renamed Maverick. When Jack bought her, she still had the original tan colored sails, probably unused since the Colonel’s time.
We sailed all the way to Castine with a brisk Southeast wind that had frustrated us in our first choice of destination for the day; Brooklin and the wooden boat school. By the next day it was still blowing from the Southeast, but more strongly, over 25 kts with gales forecast on the NOAA weather channel. We reached quickly across the bay to Belfast, the friendly harbor master waved furiously as we approached the shoal water at the head of the harbor and then gave us a break on the fee for tying up at the town dock. After all, the season was over.
Belfast is a very traditional Maine town with many interesting, substantial brick buildings in the downtown area. As we discovered when we sailed south to Camden, Belfast has so far avoided the horrendous tourist development that has completely changed Camden since my last visit, about a dozen years ago. We put into Rockland for another crew change; the bus service to the coastal towns makes it a good meeting point. The weather was turning colder, our short day trips headed generally southwest, into Muscongus Bay and past Seguin Island to Casco. We had several blustery days, some with driving rain. Frankly, I quite enjoy that kind of sailing, but at this stage I had but one hand crewing, a charming lady from Italy who was not too impressed with Maine’s beauty when viewed through slitted eyelids in the driving rain.
When we moored in Portland prior to heading south I found a wonderful old bookshop, piled high with books stacked higgledy-piggledy on chairs, the floor and sagging shelves. I asked the proprietor if there was a marine section — he indicated a dusty corner with a sweep of his arm. I browsed through the dozens of books, many were familiar but I saw one stranger — The Yachtsman’s Yearbook for 1935, edited by Alfred F. Loomis. I flicked through the pages; suddenly a familiar word caught my eye — Uldra.
Again, the memories crowded in of that wonderful cruise aboard Maverick ? of my wife Edith sitting in the sunny doghouse and idly turning over a brass bowl used as an ashtray. On the reverse side it read “Uldra, Royal Thames Yacht Club, 1905.” That rang a bell, because we had first read about Uldra in Dennis Puleston’s charming book, Blue Water Vagabond, the story of how he and his friend Geoff Owen had sailed Uldra from England to the Virgin Islands in 1931. Dennis now lives about a mile from our house on Long Island’s south shore, and is quite a celebrity among the sailing fraternity; he has been a CCA member for many years.
We asked Jack where the brass bowl had come from. “Well” he said, “Uldra was a small boat some crazy Englishmen sailed here before the war, it sank during a hurricane years later and we found the bowl while snorkeling on the wreck.” “But we know Dennis,” we told him, “he’s our neighbor.” Jack was amazed he was still alive. “If you let him know I’ve got it,” he said, “I’ll mail it to him.”
Mr. Loomis had included two articles about Uldra: the first, written by Geoff Owen, described a cruise from the Virgin Islands to New York. Geoff had apparently acquired a small dog and a wife, Nicky, who had no sailing experience. Nevertheless, he conned her into making the long cruise to New York via the Bahamas. On the way, they picked up Dennis in the Dominican Republic. The second article was written by Nicky, who discovered Uldra had no plumbing beyond an oaken bucket.
Her account was wryly written, poking fun at herself. For the nonstop leg to New York from Nassau she had been responsible for laying in provisions. But she cut it fine; on the very night they finally staggered into the New York Yacht Club anchorage at E. 26th St. she had planned to serve their last protein ? dog food pie. In fact their original destination had been Montauk Point, prior to sailing down the Sound, but an unreliable watch, the loss of the log rotator and guesstimation of their dead reckoning position put them over 100 miles west of there. How lucky they were to sail past Cape Hatteras without disaster!
Our trip to Long Island consisted of lengthy daylight legs; Portland to Gloucester, where we waited three days for a fair wind to the Cape Cod Canal, then a mooring at South Dartmouth. We waited out Hurricane Irene, safely tied up at Wickford Yacht Club, before leaving for the last leg around Montauk Point to Fire Island Inlet and the tricky channel in Great South Bay to the Patchogue River.
A few weeks later Dennis Puleston, now in his nineties, gave a talk and slide show about the local wild?life. He is a recognized authority on ornithology. I asked him about Geoff Owen. “Oh” he said, “Poor fellow’s dead, died during the war.” I reflected that Jack and Ruthie had sold Maverick many years ago and Jack had died from the complications of skin cancer. Maverick sank at anchor at St Thomas during a hurricane in 1995, I believe.
On our second vacation aboard Maverick, Jack had showed me how to take a sun sight with his sextant. On the same cruise I met some South African cruisers heading for New York who ultimately took Edith and me on our first transatlantic sail. I had kept in touch with Ruthie via the odd letter so I sent her a card from Rockland saying I had found Beddington’s book. She never saw it. When I got home I saw her obituary in a sailing magazine.
Only my wife, Edith, would have fully comprehended all these skeins of memory; but sadly, she passed away ten years ago. The loss of a spouse of many years is also the loss of shared memories. Perhaps that is why I am writing this yarn.