E. Robert Eber
It has often been said that the two best days in the life of a sailor are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it.
The day I took possession of my Cape Dory 30 in Marblehead, Massachusetts was indeed magical. My total sailing experience at that time was a one-week Learn to Sail course in Tortola that Naomi and I took, as well as some lake sailing on a Sunfish. I could hardly believe that I was now the owner – the Skipper – of this beautiful sailing vessel. Little could I imagine the deep connection I would have with this boat and the experiences Naomi and I would share over the years, and how it would become a pivotal influence in eventually providing me with feelings of sublime confidence in my ability and resourcefulness in dealing with challenging situations.
I was fortunate to have friends who were able to take the time to teach me what all the lines and ropes were and where they went and to fill in the many gaps that my sailing course didn’t cover or that I hadn’t absorbed. For example, I was competent at anchoring but I don’t know how to bring a boat into a dock and properly secure her. But as time went on, I mastered the basics and became familiar with Long Island Sound and Block Island. I was lucky, I thought, that Naomi was not merely indulging me in my passion for boating, but was sharing my enthusiasm and enjoyment of our sailing experiences.
We belonged to a group of Connecticut Cape Dory boat owners called the Yankee Dorys who often sailed together and met for occasional dinner meetings in Connecticut where we lived. Our big advancement in our sailing development was a rendezvous in Newport, Rhode Island. We had never ventured that far before and we had our first taste of heavy weather.
With that under our belts, the following summer we headed for a rendezvous with other Cape Dorys, mostly from Maine and Massachusetts, only a few from Connecticut, up the Sheepscot River in Maine. The wind and spray hit my face as I stood at the wheel of our boat as the mainland gradually disappeared off to the left of us and I felt the familiar rising and falling of the boat and thrilled to the lovely sound of our speeding through the water as the wind propelled us like a wild horse. This, to me, was heaven.
Naomi was happily reading one of her stack of New Yorkers that she saved for the uneventful stretches of our passages. She grew up in Rhode Island, the Ocean State, where being at sea is not at all unfamiliar. She had never gotten seasick, even in the roughest conditions, but she dreaded being caught in suffocating fog. A testament to my skill as a skipper is the fact that my first mate (first and only wife) never followed through with what she had written in her then recent college reunion update of her life after graduation, “…learning to sail without actually divorcing the captain.”
Coastal Maine is one of the most magnificent cruising areas in the world with its thousands of islands, remote coves, snug anchorages, and picturesque working harbors sheltering lobster boats. Lobstermen would sometimes direct us to moorings that would be unoccupied for the night. There are seagulls and harbor seals everywhere. And coming ashore in our dinghy, we would sometimes be within walking distance of a lobster dinner at night or pancakes and sausages for breakfast.
But sailing in Maine is neither easy nor forgiving. The shoreline is strewn with sharp rocks, the water is bitter cold, and there is a wide tidal range. In some places there can be over twenty feet between low and high tides. With experience, a sailor can deal with the tides and the resultant strong currents by referring to tidal charts which are indispensable, and keeping a constant eye on the depth sounder. Lobster pots are always a convenient clue as to the depth of the water when near land. Each of these brightly painted lobster buoys which dot the surface is attached by a long line to one or more traps on the bottom. And these are always set in deep water, deep enough to keep us out of trouble.
But the most challenging feature of Maine waters is the unwelcome frequency of fog, that dense blanket that can creep up on you even on a beautiful day. Often you can’t see more than a few feet away, and the direction of sound is distorted. A foghorn or a bell buoy can be heard from one direction and then confusingly from another, or can be inaudible if you are upwind. Utilizing Loran (Long Range Aid to Navigation) equipment, the compass, and navigation charts, it is possible to find the way, even in dense fog, from one navigation buoy to another. These buoys are many miles apart, but Loran could put me within 50 feet of a buoy, so it can be spotted by circling around for a while. When near a rocky and dangerous coast, however, it is no fun to be cruising in such conditions.
One of the greatest dangers in a pea soup fog is colliding with another boat or ship, so I hoped that our radar reflector (which made us more visible to another boat’s radar) would be adequate protection. I would sound our fog horn continually and keep a constant eye on our radar screen. And, needless to say, Naomi would have put the New Yorkers aside.
For many years we cruised Maine waters, living on the boat all summer and exploring just about every island and harbor as far east as Canada. We sometimes were accompanied by Peg and Ed Bergethon who also had a Cape Dory and we often ran across people whom we had met before in some port or other.
It is an oxymoron to describe a Cape Dory as a racing boat. It has a most appropriate design for cruising along the North Atlantic coast. It is cutter-rigged and has a heavy, full keel. But I have a silver tray to prove that I came in second to a Cape Dory 36 in a race against about thirty other boats (no handicaps) in the waters off Newport.
The eventual sale of the boat, named Boott Spur after one of the two flanks of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, is still remembered as another happy occasion. It relieved me of the responsibilities and expenses of ownership, and it enabled us to spend time with new grandchildren and enjoy other kinds of travel. Eventually, however, I mourned the fact that someone else was now using the boat – someone who knew little about the countless adventures that we had on Boott Spur, nor about the various installations of pulleys, hooks, jacklines, etc. that made our boat unique. I wonder if he had ever sailed under a moonless night sky under a canopy of countless thousands of stars, or sailed without fear in a Maine fog. The first time we sailed through Merchants Row, an archipelago between Penobscot Bay and Deer Island, generally regarded as the most magnificent passage in Maine waters, I saw it only as blips on our radar screen.
After Naomi died a number of years ago, I moved from Connecticut to New York City, and since I no longer have a boat, my sailing activity has obviously been curtailed. I have gone out occasionally, especially when one of my friends needed an able and experienced hand. This is the time of year when the boat is winterized and put in storage until the following spring, so I don’t feel forlorn. But when the sailing season comes around again, I will miss the bracing environment and the company of like-minded people who share the love of this special pastime.