October 1, 2004
Brenton Cove, Newport, Rhode Island
41º 29.325 North
071º 19.319 West

Dividing Lines

By Douglas Bernon

There’s something inherently hopeful about leaving a safe anchorage in a dense fog. It’s not just a tacit acceptance of NOAA’s weather predictions — that would be dumb — nor a belief in the certainty of a rising barometer; they, too, have been known to execute a sudden about face. And it’s surely not confidence in the veracity of the macho lobstermen’s VHF-radio traffic you’re eavesdropping upon. Weighing anchor is always one of life’s blind leaps-of-faith, fueled by a stew of itchy feet, distant obligations, and the hope that life ahead offers something different, if not better, than what one is about to leave behind. Which is why we sailed out of Tenant’s Harbor, Maine, in a total white out.

Lobster-pot buoys, ready for deployment from a working boat.
Tenant’s Harbor, in Penobscott Bay, is a mile-long, east-west cut that the glaciers chiseled out of granite. Barely a quarter of a mile wide, it’s home to a fleet of lobster boats — including the quaintly named “Chasin Tail,” a selection of gorgeous old wooden runabouts, and some fancy day-sailors. It’s part of the town of St. George, a tiny village with growing real estate prices, a small grocery, a wonderful bakery with to-die-for blueberry pie, and one pay phone on the main drag. We had no plans to stay in Tenant’s very long, but one Saturday morning we wandered into a going-out-of-business sale at a local boat yard. I bought some scraps of the South American hardwood purple-heart, a small electric saw, and a few odds and ends, while Bernadette ran into old friends, Eric and Liz. These two gave us good reason to stay longer.

Beautiful classic yachts are the norm in Maine, a cruising region known for its elegant Down East style of boat design.
The fog had already been a misery for five or six days. You couldn’t see a boat anchored 20 feet away, but NOAA was trumpeting the arrival of a weak low-pressure system, meaning a mild cold front was about to roll through, followed by a high-pressure system, and then the prevailing winds would clock around from southwest to the north, just the direction we wanted for a 145-mile passage from Maine to the Cape Cod Canal, and then onto Newport. Eventually we had to face the numbers on the calendar and the thermometer. It was time to go. We had a last dinner with Liz and Eric, hugged them goodbye, and planned to leave first thing the next morning, figuring the fog would lift during the day.

This pretty dory with its traditional lines and fine finish is typical of many boats in Maine.
Setting a specific departure time is more often arbitrary than purposeful. Bernadette and I figure endless permutations and blather a good bit about distance, likely miles per day, wind speed, currents, drift, percentage of time motoring versus sailing. But in fact, if we’re making a journey of more than a few hours, we haven’t the slightest idea when we’re really going to get there. We once met a couple in Panama who were headed for the Marquesas, a passage of about three weeks across the Pacific. To our amazement they said they wanted to weigh anchor before 4:00 pm that afternoon so they could ultimately make a daytime landfall.

In our case, we wanted to get to the Cape Cod Canal (a major ally for mariners because you can save more than 50 miles and avoid the Monomy Shoals, the Nantucket Shoals, and Davis Bank) and cross it with an ebb tide, giving us a 3 to 4.5 knot push, a force we’d find difficult to motor against. The ebb in the Canal would run from about 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. two days hence. We estimated that on this short trip we could leave Tenant’s as late as 4:00 p.m. tomorrow, and still make it, with a back-up plan for a landfall at Provincetown, 23 miles short of the Canal. The key was not to miss the predicted north wind.

Ithaka at rest, before heading home
We wanted a morning start. At 10:00 a.m. Bernadette went to fire up the engine, but the throttle wouldn’t budge. Totally jammed. We spent the next two hours dismantling our throttle assembly, inspecting, cleaning, and lathering it with grease. The cable looked fine, but the assembly was plum tired — just worn down. I put it at the top of my list for replacement in Newport. Once back together, the whole thing was a clunky, but I felt confident it would hold till Newport. At 2:30 p.m. we were underway.

We left Tenants by radar. Bernadette drove and for the next several hours I held on to the bow pulpit, pointing out lobster pots for her to scramble around. No way you could see them from as far back as the cockpit. When we sailed parallel to Monhegan Island, which our radar and GPS alleged was only two miles to starboard, we saw nothing. Then suddenly, in an instant, the fog totally disappeared, the island was there, and we had a north wind to push us along on a course of 222 degrees. This was the wind we’d wanted, the sky we wanted and finally, we were out of lobster pot territory. It doesn’t get sweeter than that.

A lobster boat with an attitude
From that moment until just before entering the Cape Cod Canal the next day, neither of us stood at the bow and neither of us drove. We rigged the Monitor wind vane, recently re-christened as a good ol’ boy named Homer, and other than an occasional tweak as wind shifted slightly, our work was done. As we crossed the Gulf of Maine, we enjoyed one of the more relaxing nights we’ve known on Ithaka, and laughed about how we’d escaped poisoning ourselves with mussels.

For several qualm-free weeks in Maine, with total abandon, we’d been delighting ourselves with great feasts of the black mollusks. Either paddling about in Chuckles, our kayak, or in the dink, we’ve waited for low tides, headed for shore and willy-nilly plucked mussels from the underbellies of rocks, filling bucket after bucket, smugly amused that we were clever and gentle hunters, bringing home the bacon for only the price of our efforts. We’d been gorging on mussels at The Basin, in the New Meadows River, at Roque, and in Quahog Bay – all our favorite places in Maine. In every anchorage we’d been harvesting great quantities, and cooking up a storm of mussel stews, mussel salads, pasta with mussels marinara, even mussel omelets. Just about every other meal included some form of this yummy delicacy.

Harvesting from the sea in Maine.
Collecting mussels requires neither great skills nor fancy tools. If you can see them, which is easy enough when the tide is low, all you need to do is pull them off the rocks, wash off the mud, tug off the beard-like strands that had served as their tether to the rocks, and toss them into the bucket. Back on Ithaka we’d sit on the side decks with two buckets of salt water, wash each mussel several more times, and even scrub them with a rough brush to get rid of the remaining dirt. We’d sort as we went, throwing back those that were already open even the slightest, or those that simply look funny.

Invariably our cleaning process was accompanied by heated discussions of whether we wanted tarragon in our melted butter, or a light curry taste, or something more Viet-Namese — a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, cayenne and fish sauce perhaps. Bernadette, a wise soul, would suggest we each could have our own dipping sauce. Peace would reign again, and we’d return to cleaning our mussels rather than flexing them. With cavalier nonchalance we’d finish our task, steam the mussels, make our sauces, and indulge. Or at least that’s what we’d been doing until we got the word about Red Tide.

The shellfish ban put the skids on our consumption.
Common sense dictates that you forsake mussels found in foul harbors or in areas where there’s minimal tide, and of course you should avoid mussels altogether if there’s a warning of either polluted water or something known as Red Tide. When mussels are tiny, they attach to other mussels or to rocks and pilings in large clusters, feeding twice daily from special deliveries offered by the rising and falling of tide, a chuck wagon of microscopic organisms. Scientists are not entirely clear on what Red Tide is, or why it effects certain critters but not others. Essentially, it’s a bloom in the algae that causes the mussel to produce a toxin that can be lethal to carnivores at the top of the food chain: that’s us.

Red Tide smacks a little of Red menace. You can’t actually see it anywhere — it’s not always red — so you must trust the experts. To learn about whether it’s prevalent in an area, you can talk to locals or call the Red Tide Hotline at (800) 232-4733. Unfortunately we found out about these options about 15 meals into our magical mussel tour. Now, as we sat in the moonlight aboard Ithaka, heading comfortably for the Canal, and leaving the ethereal Maine behind us, we were thankful for not having been poisoned with any of the three versions of Red Tide: Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning, or Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning. Probably better off not knowing we’d been building up large reservoirs of toxins, we’d been blissful and lucky.

Our self-steering system is attached to Ithaka's stern. Homer is a "servo-pendulum" type that uses no electricity and draws on the combined power of the wind against the air blade and water against the rudder.
Ithaka made such good time to the Canal that when we arrived a little before 3:00 p.m. the following day, we listened to the weather forecast for Buzzards Bay on the other side (only seven miles away), and marveled at yet more good fortune. The prediction was for light winds of no more than 10 knots. What the hell, we figured. Our luck’s been good. The seas are flat. We’re not exhausted. It’s only about 45 miles from the other side of the Canal to Newport. Even if we average only 5 knots, we’ll be in before midnight. And we know the entrance to the harbor like the back of our hands. It’s home, for heaven’s sake. Let’s go for it!

Bad call.

Good-bye and good riddance to the lobster traps and their buoys that speckle almost every surface of every bit of water in Maine..
Half way through this short canal, with almost no wind, we were scampering at 10 knots over ground. Friends on a boat a couple miles ahead called on the radio and announced they were getting smacked at the Canal exit with 25 to 30 knots on the nose. Hard to believe, but true. Then, as we reached the exit into Buzzard’s Bay, we watched our own boat speed plummet from 10 knots over ground to 1. As nearly-gale-force winds collided with opposing current, it felt like a bad day in the Gulf Stream. Square waves, wild bronco bucking, Ithaka rising wildly and falling wildly, Bernadette struggling to keep us straight, and me ricocheting about on the foredeck, trying to hold on, and raise the staysail. We thought at first this must be some anomalous land effect. Not so. It was a major dividing line between weather systems, one that NOAA hadn’t anticipated. Nor had we.

Sunrise on the Gulf Of Maine, on the way home from our two-month cruise Down East.
We plugged on, with wind directly on the nose, our homecoming sprint now a teeth-grinding beat to windward. Instead of a pre-midnight arrival followed by a great sleep, we tucked into Brenton Cove in Newport just before 4:00 a.m. and practically collapsed with weariness. We got ourselves squared away, washed up slightly, and then followed our usual ritual at landfalls, regardless of time of day, and popped open a cold beer. Several months earlier our friends Bruce and Leslie had given us some gifts: a pair of T-shirts embroidered with the latt long of their house, so we’d find our way back again, and two beers that they suggested we save for a special moment.
One crosses so many dividing lines in life, with calms on one side and havoc on the other, and very little separating the two extremes. With those beers we toasted our good fortune.