The Third Beach Syndrome

By Douglas Bernon
August 22, 2000
Seal Harbor, Mt. Desert Island, Maine
N 44 17 59 W 68 14 42

Photo of blueberries A rhapsody in blueberries.

The Buena Vista Social Club is serenading us on the CD player, Ithaka is resting peacefully in Seal Harbor at Mt. Desert Island, and I've just gorged on yet another bowl of the sweetest blueberries ever. It's not even noon and with that last mouthful, I've spooned my way past the two-pint mark for today alone. Last night the moonrise came late. Before it stole the distant drama, the sky was so clear that I lay in the cockpit in my fleece and stared up at the outline of the Milky Way. It's been many years since I've had that pleasure. Today, however, the fog is so thick I can't see the second level of spreaders on our mast. It's a good day for blueberries, and a good day to stay put.

I was reminded this week of third grade, when my next-door neighbor, Donny Snyder, and I would dare and double dare. We used to teeter on the curb by our houses at the intersection of Tolland and Lomond in suburban Cleveland and either wait forever for cars to pass (not much adrenaline in that) or just be immortally stupid, damn the fates and run like mad across the roads. For Bernadette and me, that's how it is in Maine with the fog. Do we dither or dart? We've named this quandary our Third-Beach Syndrome.

A number of years ago, on our first 10-day cruise in our previous boat, Ruby, a 24-footer with a small cuddy cabin, we left Newport's main harbor one late afternoon and sailed all of about 3 miles around the outside of the island to Third Beach, where we anchored for the night and rolled every which way in a storm that abated at dawn but to me still looked lethally menacing in all directions. Being scared but good doobies, we listened to NOAA on our little weather radio, but the mechanical voice offers history and opinion, not personal advice. So we drank coffee and tea in the rain and fretted about whether to make the jump out to the islands or stay there. We watched some boats remain and others leave. Millions of what-ifs later, we wasted most of a day, hostage to our fears. Finally, we weighed anchor for Cuttyhunk, and had a terrific sail without incident.

All of this came rushing back to me over the past week as we were intermittently totally fogged in at Tenants Harbor in Penobscot Bay for what started as a quick one-night stop and became a three-day layover. Not so horrible, really, as a short but damp dinghy ride to shore yielded an endless bounty of lobster, tuna, mussels and clams, and I find good food to be a reasonable yardstick for most things in life. But my Commodore was growing impatient to get up to Mt. Desert Island, where we looked forward to seeing several friends who'd only be there for a few days, and between them and us there were beautiful places we'd hoped to visit along the way.

Photo of sailboat in Carve Cove Our neighbor in Carver Cove.

I worried that, fog-o-logically speaking, we'd run out our string of luck. Our fogbound departure from Newport had leaped the line into the absurd. Our radar-navigation of the Cape Cod Canal a month ago, in what turned out to be even worse fog, was impressive but just plain nutty. And since then we've missed hitting several quite large things when their sudden presence in our path rather surprised us. I was feeling sheepish.

In Tenants Harbor, the fog obscured even the channel. A few boats came and went, but most stayed. We decided to wait a day, counted ourselves among the prudent, and devoured every snack we could lay our hands on. I secretly worried that we were chicken, but decided I could live with it. The next day, some of the fog began to lift, and more boats left. We listened to NOAA. We dithered and debated and discussed. The loud flotilla of boats on a yacht club cruise rafted near us suddenly set off. Bernadette began to side with the opposition, and said she was comfortable enough to leave. But we have a system on Ithaka whereby each of us has a vote, and if we don't agree, the conservative vote wins. My Commodore voted go and I voted stay. We stayed. A few more boats left, and Bernadette stared after them. It would have been simple to play follow the leader, but whom should one follow? Our friend Andy Burton (he has about a quarter of a million blue water miles under his belt), e-mailed me recently "when trouble arises and things look bad, there's always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that person is a half-wit."

Photo of Bass Head Lighthouse Bass Head Lighthouse on Mt. Desert Island.

By day three, Bernadette no longer wanted to go ashore, had assembled a persuasive case for leaving, but said she wouldn't push if I wanted to stay. There was still plenty of fog, but a glimmer of clarity was beginning to burn through. Once out of Tenants we only had about 17 miles before we reached the opening to the Fox Islands Thorofare separating North Haven from Vinalhaven. Without good visibility it still looked to me like a rock-strewn gauntlet of large accidents with our names scribbled all over them.

But we'd entered waypoints all along the route on the GPS, and we had alternative harbors thought through in case the fog was too thick to negotiate the route. "We know how to use our radar," she said, "and we know what to do if the fog rolls in more thickly. If you think it's really unsafe to go, we'll stay, but let's just make sure we're not losing our nerve and falling into the Third-Beach Syndrome." She was right.

"OK," I said finally. " I'm ready to change my vote. Let's go."

We weighed anchor and fewer than ten minutes out of the harbor we found ourselves in the first of a continuous line of foggy squalls. But radar is becoming our friend, and by the time we rounded Crocket Point at the entrance to the Fox Islands Thorofare, we were chugging along with smiles. We didn't hit anything; nothing hit us, and I could pretty well predict the length of each downpour by monitoring its approach on the radar screen.

Even in the rain and fog, the thorofare, a term not worthy for this magnificently snaking waterway, was breathtaking. With just the jib and a following wind we plowed through, oohing and ahing at the lighthouses, the pink granite shoreline, the seals, the cliffs, and the perfume of the fir forests on each shore. We bypassed Southern Harbor and Seal Cove, and Waterman Cove and Kent Cove, all of the places we'd considered for refuge, so we could prolong the joy of soft colors and sailing in the mist. We rounded Goose Rocks and crept into Carver Cove at the far eastern end, dropping anchor in a rain-free, purple and orange dusk, and shared this half-mile bay with only one other boat, a 90-foot schooner.

We were right to leave Tenants when we did. As always, facts are pretty much secondary to feelings, and it's not so much about weather as whether. On that rainy afternoon, gliding into the sunset, we'd gained some perspective on what's bad weather, and what's just inconvenient weather, and we'd defeated the Third Beach Syndrome, at least for this week.