Lewis R. French Day 1: Camden to Holbrook Island Harbor, Castine
I suppose after a few years in the windjamming business, you get the return guests you deserve. Folks get a sense of who you are, and, if their personalities fit well with yours, they’ll come back year after year. It’s appropriate then that Captain Garth Wells’s passengers are exceedingly outgoing, nice, and polite.
I’d barely hustled onto the deck of the Lewis R. French — just a few minutes prior to departure — and was still out of breath when my fellow passengers began shaking my hand and warmly introducing themselves as I walked toward the companionway to stow my baggage below.
Today started out hot and sunny, but as the morning progresses, wispy fog begins blowing into Camden’s inner harbor.
After four years living on the coast of Maine, I’m still surprised whenever this happens. Even the most seemingly irrepressible hot-and-humid day on the coast of Maine can quickly turn cool. Within minutes, a 90-degree scorcher can be fully enveloped in a 58-degree bank of advection fog.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The science behind it is pretty simple: The hotter and more humid the day, the more likely the fog will appear. Advection fog forms when warm, moist air flows over cool water (and Penobscot Bay certainly qualifies as cool). An offshore wind doesn’t blow this type of fog away; in fact, the moisture it brings makes the fog bank even thicker. (Bright sun won’t burn off this type of fog, either.) Then, as the land heats up in the afternoon sun, hot air rises above the land and cool air is drawn inland off the water, bringing a rush of fog along with it.
After we cast off the docklines and motor out of the harbor, we sail directly into the dense fog hanging over the Bay. The Camden Hills and surrounding islands disappear completely from view allowing me to indulge—guilt-free—in one of my favorite windjamming activities: the afternoon nap.
In my bunk, I retreat under a thick pile of wool blankets. Cool breeze blows in through the skylight above my head, and the schooner’s gentle sway rocks me into a deep, satisfying sleep.
An hour later, I wake to the chipper sound of the messmate calling into my skylight.
“Wake up, Ben,” she says. “The fog cleared up. It’s time to practice tacking.”
Any description of Hilary Clark must begin with her voice: It’s one part Marilyn Monroe, one part Betty Boop, and two parts helium. It is so girlish a sound, so innately flirtatious, and so anachronous, that you’d half expect to see Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis pratfalling nearby for her affections. In fact, Captain Garth and and his wife, Jenny Wells, hired Hilary to work the phones for their business — a shrewd ploy to drive up phone traffic, I’m sure, because anyone who has heard Hilary’s voice has surely sought excuses to hear it again. I imagine the phones at Lewis R. French HQ ring off the hook with endless dubious inquiries from heartsick males.
Needless to say, when Hilary instructs the jib team on the tacking procedure, I’m all ears.
Tomorrow is The Great Schooner Race of 2008. All the vessels in the Maine Windjammer Association — plus a few more — will line up outside Castine and challenge each other for the cup. In the weeks leading up to the race, Captain Garth had been experimenting with different techniques to bring the French’s bow through the eye of the wind quicker than the rest of the fleet. He settled on backing the headsails.
Cully and Hilary
At best, a sailboat can sail roughly 45 degrees off the wind. In other words, if you’re heading to the windward mark, you can’t exactly sail straight for it; instead, you sail in a zigzag pattern called tacking. At each zigzag turn, the vessel’s bow tacks in a 90-degree arc through the wind and thus loses most of its forward momentum—precious seconds that could cost the race. Through his experimentation, Captain Garth discovered that the Lewis R. French tacks faster if the headsails are: 1) freed to spill the wind, which aids in the vessel’s turning; 2) re-sheeted on the windward side of the stays, which will catch the wind quicker and add speed into the turn; and 3) passed over the stays and sheeted on the leeward side, which will develop into the full-bellied sails needed to pull the vessel up to speed.
During today’s practice tacks, Captain Garth gives hand signals to initiate each step in the procedure. According to Hilary, however, the captain is much more laissez-faire when the French is not in race mode. Captain Garth is not a micromanager. Many captains don’t allow crews to follow their own initiative, but on the Lewis R. French, Hilary can trim the headsails and the mate, Cully Dorer, can trim the foresail and topsail as they see fit. Captain Garth might override a crewmember’s decision with a gentle command, but otherwise his crew is trusted with the responsibility—a freedom that everyone seems to enjoy.
The Maine windjammer fleet has planned to gam up this evening in Holbrook Island Harbor, but as the vessels arrive under the bright sun and cool breezes near the mouth of the harbor, it seems that nearly every windjammer has taken advantage of the fair weather, and is now putting their passengers through a shakedown lesson in tacking. All the windjammers are strutting their stuff in the Bay—a bit of pre-game intimidation, to be sure. In fact, it’s almost as if a de facto race is taking place between three vessels from the coaster class: the Lewis R. French, Mercantile, and Stephen Taber. At first, it looked as though Captain J.R. aboard the Mercantile was the French’s only challenger. The Merc was gaining on us until Captain Noah aboard the Stephen Taber tacked to windward of Captain J.R. and used his wind shadow to snuff out J.R.’s chances.
Heading toward the gam.
Captain Noah is now gaining on us — perhaps a glimpse of things to come—but then backs away before things get too serious, or, perhaps, before he reveals his strategies.
In any case, the wind is blowing a strong 18 knots and climbing, the air is warm and pleasant, and this is by far the best sailing of the season. Tall ships are all around us in the Bay, and they are a stunning sight to behold.
After about an hour of practice, the windjammers retreat into the harbor and begin to gam up.
As we approach the harbor, we see that two gams have formed and we’ve been asked via VHF radio to bridge the gap.
We lower sail and motor slowly toward our slot. Ahead of us, the barrel-chested Captain Ray Williamson gams his Grace Bailey alongside the Mercantile under the full press of sail. It’s a crazy and awesome sight. I haven’t been this breathless since I was three years old—back when Fonzie jumped a shark.
A few weeks earlier, I’d been aboard the Grace Bailey for the 2008 Schooner Gam in this same harbor. I mentioned that during our approach, I’d suffered an acute bout of social anxiety. Today’s approach is completely different, however. This is my sixth trip of the season and I’ve sailed aboard nearly half of the windjammers lying before us.
I am excitied.
As soon as we come alongside, I’ll be free to step from one vessel to another and spend the evening hanging out with the crews from the Grace Bailey, Heritage, Mercantile, and Stephen Taber. To me, these are no longer just boats bobbing at anchor, they’re personalities — they’re long-lost friends. As we secure our lines to the Isaac H. Evans and Angelique, I watch as the Green Boats’ Andy Gardiner playfully fires a cap gun at me, and the Heritage crew gives me a warm hello.
Alas, shortly after we tie up, it’s clear we can’t stay. The wind is blowing close to 25 knots and the gams on either side threaten to pull the Lewis R. French apart. When Captain Garth sees that the heavy iron cleat on starboard yawlboat davit is bending under the pressure, he casts off the lines and motors us to the safety of our own anchorage.
I’m a bit bummed to sail off, but one of the French’s polite southern guests puts things into perspective.
“Garth’s not going to risk his ship or our safety for anything,” he says. “He’s a damn good captain.”
Captain Garth Wells at the gam.