By Douglas Bernon
August 10, 2000
Seal Harbor, Maine

Ah Narcissus.

Photo of Seal Harbor at sunset Seal Harbor at sunset.

We're anchored tonight in Seal Cove, off Richmond Island, just outside Portland, Maine. It's been an easy sail today of fewer than 15 direct miles, but oodles more than that while we went around in many circles, experimenting with our new Monitor servo-pendulum wind vane, screwing up often, and finally getting enough of the hang of it to proceed in a reasonably straight line more or less in the direction we wanted to go. It was another one of life's daily lessons in humility and human relations, but ultimately very cool to see the wheel adjusting itself back and forth on its new lines and the compass pointing to success. It will take Bernadette and me some practice to get this down smoothly but I'm convinced that the freedom from the helm it will offer with zero power draw — makes the effort much worth it.

My conviction was strengthened earlier in the week, in one of those situations that teaches an almost uncountable number of embarrassing lessons about the dreadful intersection of overconfidence and danger. I more or less exploded the wheel-mounted, belt-driven Autohelm by wrenching the wheel with a powerful twist without the reasonable act of first releasing the break that holds it. If you've got one of these, you know the inevitable result. Plastic snaps, then splinters. Large shards and small springs fly everywhere; you descend into an ugly funk and say several stupid things that those around you feel an exquisite need to identify as such.

Photo of autohelm carcass bound to pedestal Autohelm carcass bound to pedestal.

However, since then, with my trusty red bungee chord, I've executed an innovative but tolerable knot with some several twists and turns and secured the Autohelms’s ruptured carcass to the pedestal, where it serves, I hope, as a talisman that will protect us while I ponder yet more clever moves. My excuse was that I performed this heroic act when out of fog as thick as milk a boat far larger than Ithaka roared right at us. All this raises several meritorious queries regarding a noticeable deficit of common sense.

But that was several days ago and many lessons back. I've since pried the wheel off, jury-rigged parts of a spare Autohelm unit which will get tested on our next passage. Today we're anchored in what up until about twenty minutes ago I thought was a gorgeous anchorage, with only two other boats, a couple of kayakers and a small pine forest with a herd of deer that seem to just loll about at the edge of a rocky beach. However, three jet skis seem to have escaped from some nasty corner of hell and are buzzing us like mosquitoes. As I write this, their depraved waves are only now diminishing and their clatter is just dying down as they return to the underworld, much to the relief, I'm sure, of the two kayakers who just paddled over to admire and compliment Ithaka's lines, and who then glided on.

Photo of 19th century lobster boat Traditional 19th century lobster boat at Cape Porpoise.

As we've inched north and east along the coast, we find that with each anchorage, we feel more like we're finally on the road. There's less ambient light and bigger skies. Fewer people, less noise and lots more stunning wood boats. In Cape Porpoise, where we anchored last night, there was almost nothing but work boats, each more personal than the next, and a skiff dock with a hard-working wooden work-skiffs to match. Our rubber dinghy was a pathetic wuss among the big tough guys.

It wasn't surprising that there weren't too many sailboats in Cape Porpoise. There are no yacht services. There's a nine-foot tide, and the fuel pump, on a non-floating dock, hovers about 800 feet above our second spreader. This is a system well suited for large work boats but not so good for us. If you need fuel, they drop down a hose to you. And sometimes that's not all. The wonderful Taft and Rindlaud book, A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast offers a warning: 'Yachts are not particularly popular here, and bait has been known to fall unexpectedly on pristine decks.' Well, count me among those who don't relish being pelted with bits of dead sea creatures.

But it's a beautiful town. I have an older friend who spun tales of her family summering there in the 30's and 40's, and I'd always wanted to see what some of that world was like for her. Bernadette and I were much taken by Cape Porpoise's beauty and also by the novelty of the Deep Water II Theater Cruise, an open-air boat that sat about 30 people and crept slowly through the harbor with a woman in a black cape performing improvisational theater about the history, ecology and current goings-on in the area. Last night's airs were mild. As the small theater boat circled the harbor several times, depending on the breeze, we could lean over the lifelines, cup our ears and catch snippets of her stories before the winds grabbed that paragraph and left us to fabricate our own transitions.

Photo of lobster boat at Cape Porpoise Proud new lobster boat at Cape Porpoise.

Other than Ithaka, there were two other sailboats, one a much used, handsome old gaff-rigged sloop, a traditional 19th century lobster boat design with a clipper bow, a bold sheer and a dramatic stern that angled up sharply. Ithaka has some of those features in more modest, contemporary form. As we sat in the cockpit admiring this old beauty, wondering her age and story, a local lobster boat roared by, then circled, came back and admired Ithaka. 'Nice lines' he called out. We liked that, and I began to forget about the dead Autohelm, as well as other calamities I'd created over the past month.

A few minutes later, the old man from the wooden sailboat came rowing along. We waved and he came over. We complimented him on his pretty boat, which he explained was built near to here, just 27 years ago. He commented on the similarities of Ithaka to his boat, and suggested how it must be easier to live on a modern boat than on his. I allowed as it might be.

'Interesting lines,' he said, giving Ithaka a wary once over. 'You know, you could fix that stern. Oh, but it wouldn't do you any good. Your rudder would end up in the wrong place, and then you'd have to fix that too. Too bad.'

Unearned vanity deflates quickly, and with that comment, my sails went slack. Sometimes I think we've got a cool looking boat, and that very thought, just noodling around inside my head — not even spoken aloud — sends some bizarre telepathic signal into the cosmos inviting an instant lesson from some close-at-hand stranger. And some days I make the fancy-pants error of imagining I know a little bit of what I'm doing, admire what we've done, avoid a bullet or two and let up on paying attention. That just about guarantees that within the hour I'll pull some dunder-brained move that proves I've barely got the sense not to sleep in the highway. Perhaps all this is the marine equivalent of Narcissus. Take your eye off the wheel, admire yourself too long in the big pond, and WHAM, you're one dead duckling.

The old man in the skiff took up his oars and prepared to row away. Well, says he, 'I'm going over to see the people in that other sailboat. They seem to think they know me. I think we had dinner with them once. Now, my wife, she can put out a pretty good meal, but these people had crystal on the boat, and they kept each piece in individual socks. We don't impress easy, but that impressed us. These glasses were so clean you could see yourself in them, and when you were all done drinking, my wife said they probably licked them clean and just put'em away back in their socks. She doesn't have time for them, so I'm going to go see these people, who I think are Republicans, but that's alright I guess, and after a while I'm sure they'll be glad to see me go.

And then the lesson-giver rowed his dory to his next encounter.