Why Sail in October?
When I boarded the American Eagle yesterday morning, I was nagged by two questions.
The first question was general: Why would anyone choose a Maine sailing vacation in early October? Sure, the fall foliage is nice, but we’re still a week or two away from peak color. Second, the temperature this time of year can be uncomfortable, to put it mildly: average highs are a brisk 60 degrees; and the average lows are a bone-chilling 44. Last, the sun sets at around 6:00 p.m., which means we’d likely spend the greater part of this trip cowering under piles of woolen blankets awaiting the triumphal return of daylight.
The second question was more specific: Why on earth did Captain John Foss install handrails on his aft cabintop?
On nearly all windjammers, the aft cabintop is where guests luxuriate for long hours under the sun. Very few captains provide deckchairs, and the ones that do tend to stow the deckchairs while underway. So the aft cabintop is generally the sole location to sit, relax, and enjoy the passing scenery. On the American Eagle, however, wooden handrails are mounted down the length of the cabintop on both the port and starboard sides. These handrails are mounted just close enough to the edge that there’s barely enough room to accommodate the average American-apportioned ass. And, if you try to sit farther inboard, the handrail will dig into your calves and cut off circulation to your feet, which dangle numbly in the path of anyone strolling to the quarterdeck.
Yesterday, during that chilly, rain-soaked, October morning, I told myself that if I were captain of the American Eagle, I’d take a reciprocating saw to those handrails sometime before breakfast.
Today, however, I’m clutching the starboard handrail for dear life.
We’ve just sailed beyond the lee of Mark Island and the southwest winds in East Penobscot Bay are pushing the American Eagle on her ear. The Eagle’s windward side is high and dry, and her leeward scuppers are submerged—sea foam rages onto the deck. At amidships, two young couples from Texas cling to a bench by the seat of their pants.
This is sailing.
In an instant, all my misgivings about vacationing in early October are obliterated. The winds at this time of year are wild, and the American Eagle is uniquely equipped to deal with them.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the season, the American Eagle is a fishing schooner. “Fishing schooners were built to weather rough offshore waters: they have deep keels to provide righting stability in high winds. More importantly, however, fishing schooners were built for speed. If your cargo is as perishable as seafood, it’s important that you get to port as quickly as possible. Also, the first ship back to shore gets a better price for its catch. So, if you’re the last boat in the fleet to return from the Grand Banks, there will be a glut of fish in the market and your price will suffer; a powerful incentive to design a faster boat.”
Captain and mate skip stones.
Today, we are hauling ass. There isn’t a soul aboard the American Eagle who isn’t beaming from ear to ear—including her captain.
As one of my readers said back in May, Captain John Foss has been in the windjamming business “since dirt.” In the early ‘70s, while enlisted in the Coast Guard, John Foss passed long watch duties by poring over printed lists of registered U.S. vessels (which makes you wonder just how long and lonely night watch can be). One night, John made note of the Lewis R. French — a coasting schooner that had been converted into a sardine carrier and pressed into service in Passamaquoddy Bay near the Canadian border. When John left the Coast Guard, he bought the Lewis R. French, rebuilt her hull and re-rigged her for sail, and began boarding passengers in 1976. Later, in 1984, Captain John bought the American Eagle and spent the next two years rebuilding her in painstaking detail.
Captain John literally knows his vessel inside and out, and can recite for you the precise depth, length, and weight of her keel; the precise weight of her ballast; and the precise downward-most degree to which she can be heeled yet still regain her upward posture.
I am not comforted by numbers, but Captain John’s easy enjoyment of this day is all the reassurance I need. After all, Captain John is an earnest chap — the kind of guy who reserves smiles for only the situations that truly deserve them.
This is one of those situations.
Captain John eeks every ounce of speed from his American Eagle as we sail to a cluster of islands along North Haven’s southeast shore. It’s time for our lobster bake.
Captain John rows to the Eagle.
During peak sailing season, lobster bakes are generally served in the evening; but, with the daylight hours now dwindling, lobsters are served for lunch.
We drop anchor off Stimpsons Island and row in groups to shore.
I’m proud to say that after a season of lobster bakes aboard the Maine windjammer fleet, I’ve never been to the same island twice. And, although I’d groused in July about eating so many lobsters this year, I resolve to eat them today. This is my final trip of the season and quite possibly the last time I’ll ever be begged—begged!—to eat as much lobster as I can.
I eat two.
When the pile of lobsters is gone, the Eagle’s makeshift crew packs up the picnic supplies. This time, however, they’re not repacking supplies for the next bake, they’re packing it in for the season. Food that would otherwise last until next week is discarded: half-eaten bags of chips, condiment bottles, and salt and pepper shakers are tossed into a trash bag. The end is truly neigh.
When we return to the vessel, Captain John opts to sail more conservatively. Other late-season holdouts in the fleet—the Isaac H. Evans, Lewis R. French, and Angelique—are sailing East Penobscot Bay with sharply reduced rigs. It’s still blowing stink today, so Captain John raises just the foresail and staysail and we cruise leisurely toward tonight’s anchorage in Bucks Harbor.
Convinced that I’ve seen the best the day has to offer, I retreat to my cabin and read a paperback from under a thick pile of blankets.
I was wrong.
Sailing out of Stonington.
From the comfort of my bunk, I hear a loud commotion on the wooden deck above me. I hear people shouting, sails flogging, and rain pelting. I scramble into my foulies and climb onto the deck. The American Eagle in the midst of a sudden violent squall.
In his book The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger describes the onset of his titular storm thusly: “The sea takes on a grey, marbled look, like bad meat.”
Today I know exactly what the hell he was talking about.
A steady 35-knot wind blows over the Bay with gusts up to 50. Rain and sleet stings my grinning face as I peer through the cinched hood of my foul-weather jacket. I join the deck crew to help furl the staysail. We each take turns lashing the sail as — one by one — our fingers go numb in the freezing wind.
The sea to windward is angry and gray. The waves are still low — they haven’t yet had time to develop — but the color of the water is unforgettable. It is dull and chalky and capped with streaking foam. It is opaque.
Then, as quickly as it appeared, the squall speeds past us and the sky grows clear.
At our anchorage at nightfall, a passenger carves a Jolly Roger into a pumpkin and sets it glowing above the forward companionway. Below, in the wood-fired heat of the galley, Captain John ends the evening by pulling a book from his shelves, thumbing through its pages, and stopping on a story befitting an October sail. The book is Salt-Water Poems and Ballads by John Masefield, and Captain John reads aloud for us a long poem about a sailor-killing witch called “Mother Carey.”
Twilight in Bucks Harbor.
She’s the mother of all the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms or sleets or snows.
The noise of her wind’s her screaming;
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed young seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine.’
You’re young, you thinks, ‘n’ you’re lairy,
But if you’re to make old bones,
Steer clear, I says, o’ Mother Carey,
‘N’ that there Davy Jones.