September 1, 2004
Blue Hill Harbor, Maine
44º 24.392 North
068º 34.770 West

Ivory, Irony, and Seals of Approval

By Douglas Bernon

Sometimes the fog is a pain, sometimes it’s just plain dangerous. Almost always, it’s ethereally beautiful.

The serpentine route to the secluded inner harbor at Blue Hill curves past the easily accessible but pricey mooring field of the busy Kollegewidgwok Yacht Club, and its armada of thoroughbred power and sailboats. We passed by, choosing instead the small anchoring field to its west, where one’s best off to enter at low to half tide. Then, as you wind through the valleys of ledges, at least you see some of the hidden mounds of glaciated granite — now and then laced with copper— just waiting to deliver unwanted surprises. We slipped past unmolested, grateful for good fortune and for a little help from the only other boat anchored there, a handsome old wooden ketch whose owner welcomed us kindly. As Ithaka tip-toed into the anchorage, one eye on the depth sounder, one eye on the lobster buoys, and our third and fourth eyes on the rocks we could see, an elderly, curly-haired jack-in-the-box popped up through his forward hatch.

“You’re on a good course,” he called over to us. “Stay west of that little fishing skiff over there, and you can run almost to shore. Don’t slip too far east. Another ledge is hiding there.”

Bernadette hollered back her thanks. “How deep is it where you are?”

“I’ve got 25 at low. Beautiful mud,” he continued. “Once you get anchored, swing over and I’ll point you to the town’s dinghy dock. Be careful, though. Tide’s a good ten feet here, and the dock dries out. You can’t get in or out of town for two hours before or after low.”

He ducked below again, apparently consulted a clock, then sprang back up. “If you want to get in and back today, you can still make it.”

We passed in front of the lighthouse standing sentinel outside Bass Harbor. The narrow corridor of deep water brings your boat hair-raisingly close to shore.
“This is gorgeous!” Bernadette announced.

“Been coming here for 20 years,” he said. “Hope I’m coming here for 20 more.”

We dropped our hook in 18 feet and grabbed immediately. Around us was a perfectly protected hurricane hole with monster mud that could suck the chrome off a bumper; unobstructed views of Blue Hill Mountain -- Kollegewidgwok is the Penobscot Indian word for “blue hill on shining green water” -- and a battalion of seals, singing sentries guarding a private universe.

Cruising is often a matter of unexpected physical and metaphysical perspectives, seeing in some new way what’s directly before you, pushing in deeper to uncover what’s subtle or hidden, finding layers upon layers that reluctantly give up their veils. Cruising in Maine is especially that way. The fog often descends with mind-rattling suddenness and instantly shrinks the known world to an area not much bigger than the boat you’re standing on. As we left Southwest Harbor, where we spent most of last week, and sailed to Blue Hill, clawing through rain and patchy fog, we headed for Bass Harbor Light at the southern tip of Mt. Dessert Island, thankful for its red beacon and loud horn. Then, just as we approached it, with a snap-of-the-fingers, the shroud lifted and offered a momentary glimpse of where, high on the rocks to starboard, our sound and light show was originating. But it was only to tantalize. A moment later, the world returned to gray as the fog swallowed whole the lighthouse and the island it stands upon.

Southwest Harbor, home of Hinckley Yachts, attracts beautiful classic boats, cared for to perfection.
Fog and rain were our faithful companions as we explored Mount Desert island last week. We hopped on and off the free shuttle buses that circle every half-hour. We hiked some in Acadia National Park but the trails were crammed cheek-to-jowl, and not much fun. One sunny afternoon we sat on the town green of Bar Harbor, ate our French fries and listened to a band playing in the gazebo. There we enjoyed the crowd. And we poked around tony Northeast Harbor with its shops and galleries. Whenever the fog lifted, and we looked around Ithaka in Southwest Harbor, the home of Hinckley Yachts, we had an eye-full of the most immaculately kept boats we’ve been embarrassed to anchor near. Everyone in that world — except for us— had painted, polished, sanded, and varnished their boats beyond the point of ultimate gleam. Even on a cloudy day you had to wear sunglasses to avoid being blinded by the competitively buffed. We fess up to slothfulness in such matters, and have dozens of ready excuses, but these folks are entitled to none. With 10 months of winter and an in-the-water window that includes 60 rainy days, they have a moral obligation to be productive, lest their idle hands seek devilry, which is why, in Maine, varnishing has evolved into an Olympic event.

We resisted our own diabolic tendencies, not by varnishing — that, after all, suggests leisure — but rather by fixing stuff. Since we left Newport, here’s a partial list of repairs and adjustments. Our brand-new wind indicator doesn’t know which way the wind blows. We replaced the leaking hose on the engine that continually, drip-by-drop, was filling the engine pan with salt water. Yet again we tightened down the remote oil filter that was contributing to the ugly soup under the Yanmar. We replaced the cracked and spewing faucet connection in the bathroom; and continue to search in vain for the source of a leak over the stove. We re-waterproofed our new bimini after a family of seagulls used it for bombing practice. Bernadette washed it off with Joy, which removed all the waterproofing capabilities.

The scenery of Maine is so spectacular everywhere you sail that, sometimes, if you take your eyes off the road for just a minute too long, Whammo! You can snag a lobster bouy! I found diving in 48F water to untangle lines from our prop not to my liking.
Did I mention the transmission? I thought not. I learned they can be disassembled quite easily, really. No fancy tools required, but you do need a couple of moose-like friends to help you lift up the engine so you can loosen the coupling. It’s working much better now, and cruising has become a jollier experience now that we again have a forward gear.

While we were in Southwest Harbor, effecting this magic with our transmission, we poked around the back acre of Hinckley’s boatyard and stumbled upon the maritime equivalent of the secret elephant graveyard in old Tarzan movies, where the great beasts trundled off to die, and greedy hunters came to cash in on the ivory tusks waiting to be carried away. We too found ivory piled atop itself, abandoned in the jungle of plenty. Fans of Jerry Garcia would’ve loved it.

The toilet graveyard at Hinckley. Almost all are in perfect condition, having been replaced with fancier models.

Close to ivory was irony. One great Hinckley, set high on chocks, was named Priapus, after the son of mythological Greek Gods Aphrodite and Dionysus. In Greek art and sculpture Priapus is always depicted with a larger-than-life erection. Down at the dock, Priapus’s tender (TT/Priapus) was deflated---symbolically perfect. A woman never would’ve picked this name, but we guys think no one could—duh—get that our choices in boat names often are forehead-slapping, bullhorn-loud, public testimonials revealing who, what, how or where we’d rather be.

Priapism is defined as a pathological condition characterized by persistent erection of the penis without sexual excitement. Nuff said.
The sail from Southwest Harbor to Blue Hill, fewer than 25 miles, was a generally windless amble between islands that played their part in a giant strip-tease, the fog now-and-again lifting just high enough and just long enough to offer sun-drenched peeks of sun-drenched peaks before covering the world again and making us lust for more. As we came within a few miles of Blue Hill, in payment for patience, the mist disappeared all together and made our world large again.

From Southwest Harbor, we’d telephoned our friends Lucy and Christopher, who we’d last seen four years ago, and excitedly told them we’d be arriving in Blue Hill sometime after noon. None of us had cell phones with coverage here, so once we were anchored and put the dink back in the water, Bernadette and I went ashore, found a good bakery, a New York Times, and a blueberry stand, after which we gobbled our treasures. Fully sated, we plunked ourselves down in the main park, and watched the traffic roll by. We figured we’d spot our friends sooner or later, which worked just fine. In 10 minutes a car lurched to a stop, Christopher and Lucy jumped out, and we all hugged each other. These are friends of a quarter century, and it was sweet to spend several days catching up on each other’s lives, enjoying the growth of their children, musing about the future, and laughing at ourselves.

In between gluttonies and visiting, Bernadette and I read, wrote, checked e-mail at the library, did boat projects, listened to the seals around Ithaka engaged in their á Capella choral practice -- which started most evenings around seven -- and we walked every day. One of the great joys of cruising is getting off the boat long enough to stretch your legs to happy tiredness. The hike from the center of Blue Hill to the top of the local mountain is less than two hours, but long enough still to remember the pleasures of quiet striding. The view from the fire tower atop the crest, looking out to sea and down at trees and clouds, holds me still.

After climbing Blue Hill, named for the blueberries that grow there, were rewarded with an expansive view of the harbor.

Blue Hill is a quietly comfortable community where folks from all over the east coast have summer homes here – many of which have been in families for generations. Life has a bountiful, idyllic quality. While we were in Blue Hill, for instance, there was a dog show, to which one woman brought her Siamese cat and won First Cat—only cat—In The Show. Another night, a home-grown steel drum band played the night away. There are a few nice restaurants, TWO bookstores, a food co-op selling organic produce, a plentiful supply of national and international newspapers, lots of antique stores, a quality bakery, a well-endowed library, and art galleries on many corners. Our favorite was Leighton, whose outdoor sculpture garden, with bronze, clay, marble, and wooden figures passing this portion of their lives among the pine trees, entertained us for hours. Bernadette and I circled through the collection several times, as we tried to determine which figures most resembled us.

Sculptures by Elizabeth Ostrander displayed in the garden of the Leighton Gallery in Blue Hill – “As A Tree” and “Heart Of The Fawn.”

After a couple of days, the old man on the old wood ketch sailed out of the inner harbor, and our only companions were boisterous seals who acted as though they owned the place. As the fogs and tides rolled in and out — dictating our life and schedule — the seals frequently swam by Ithaka, checking us out, descending again and re-congregating on the rocks or on a floating platform. There, they sang, gossiped, considered the news of the day, and decided if we’d get their approval, if like the old man, 20 years from now we’d be lucky enough to share this anchorage again.