Marigold kept me company on the trips this year, almost always in one or another of the little boat’s accustomed spots: when at anchor either on a line off the stern or right alongside Great Auk, or underway trailing behind over the waves.
A bit about this little craft: Marigold is a Portland Pudgy, made of roto-molded plastic, designed to work as both a dinghy and as a lifeboat with sailing capabilities. (https://portlandpudgy.com/ – included for reader convenience; I’m not receiving anything for posting.) While I’m traveling I don’t bring the sailing rig, which I have used for fun around the bay.
Since I’m not going offshore, the sailing rig for intercepting shipping lanes in lifeboat mode has not felt crucial to carry – but I love that it can be done. The Pudgy is also self bailing, with a compression plug that goes in for regular rowing so no water comes in through the drain, which otherwise happens when there is weight in the boat. But being double-hulled the Pudgy floats high and dry when unloaded, including with the plug out. Self-bailing comes in especially handy when there are showers – or storms – so the rain runs out by itself, with no additional effort required. With weight in the middle of the boat water will generally come quickly in through that drain, if it’s not closed off,but the compression plug is easy to put in.
It actually works to leave the plug out if you just stay in the bow, for example while scrambling down to get rockweed off of Great Auk’s outboard motor propellers when at anchor. With weight shifted forward, the drain at the stern is lifted completely out of the water and the boat stays dry. Three separate people I know have taken it as a point of pride to not bother to put the plug in, and to maneuver the boat with the scupper out of the water, keeping their weight forward. Learning by imitation, I’ve started to do some of the same… It’s a secure little boat, unsinkable if its double hulls are not breached, and comfortable and steady with the plug in and rowing regularly or sailing around the bay.
On the way south in May, our little Marigold was put to the test. The boat went on a foray of its own, thanks to a 2 AM interaction with a large fishing trawler off of Kennebunk, in the Gulf of Maine.
I’d like to start by saying that this story has a happy ending. It also has lessons, for me and perhaps for others who might avoid something similar through the retelling. It’s embarrassing to make mistakes, but hopefully useful to be shared. Marigold did a stellar job of coming back to a friendly beach to make the ending especially happy.
When Great Auk and Marigold and I left Gouldsboro Bay in early May there was a marvelous easterly wind, which carried on for over a week. With such abundance, and based on having gotten so overdone and tired last year from sailing overnight to catch favorable wind, I even stopped at night, anchoring for proper sleep. The wind was very reasonable at 10 to 15 knots most days. We had a serious complication with the wheel steering cable, which came apart off of Swans Island, but things went back together and we were able to carry on the next morning.
There was a nice night in the farther Mosquito Harbor, at the southwest corner of Penobscot Bay, and from there we set off with hopes of Damariscove Island, more or less south of Waldoboro, Maine. Although the wind was comfortable, there were small craft advisories for days for the seas, which were varying between six and 10 feet, the result of a distant storm that was keeping its stronger winds far offshore. Waiting for the advisories to go away would mean losing the east wind, so even though those waves had built up, we ventured out of Mosquito Harbor for a test, knowing that we could run back into the nearby Muscongus Bay if things did not feel right. The boat actually handled the seas just fine, which were by then in the range of 6 to 8 feet, and we sailed on.
The tricky part about those big seas is really not out on the open water – they weren’t breaking, by themselves, and the boat rose up and over them just fine. The problem comes near shallows, and in narrow entrances to shelter that lead straight off the open water. There those big waves rise up and break, with quite a bit of drama and hazard.
Harbor entrances that are normally mild and easy become places of significant danger in these conditions, with huge breakers on the rocks on either side, and the waves even rising up and crashing above nearby shoals that are 12 to 15 feet deep. Shoals like that are normally completely insignificant for a boat that draws 3 feet with its leeboards and rudder down, but they become the site of dramatic breakers in those big seas.
In light of this, the entrance to the tiny harbor at Damariscove Island showed itself to be completely out of the question for stopping, and the deeper reefs in its vicinity, with crazy intermittent breakers, made for a serious game of dodge’ems. Looking back, after ruling out Damariscove we could have turned into the wide, safe entrance to the Sheepscott River. From there, a few miles in it would be easy to turn into a protected cove. Ah hindsight!
As it was, we let that opportunity go by. It was early in the afternoon, with such good wind, and Casco Bay seemed like a reasonable second option.
One by one, potential stopping places in Casco Bay were ruled out. First because of breaking seas too close to the entrance, then because of darkness, when approaching the openings that should have been okay felt too insecure with so little visibility. I didn’t want to try them in the dark, unable to see for sure what the waves were doing before being too close to get away.
These safety calculations were influenced by the configuration of this particular boat. The motors are limited – intentionally, to meet electricity usage and weight on the stern considerations, and also because this arrangement is satisfying to my general sense of working with conditions rather than overpowering them at whim. But it did make it tricky when it came to how to get in to a sheltered spot through complicated, tight entrances with current and crosswinds, together with those adjacent breakers. This is after all why they issue small craft advisories for seas, even when the high waves are long and rounded; it’s the dramatic upheaval when those waves meet the shallows and the shore that can trounce a comparatively small vessel. I found it illuminating when I learned that the “small craft” in small craft advisories refers to vessels under 30 feet.
A motorboat with big, powerful outboards on the back would have other options in those precarious entrances, but Great Auk is not that. In wind and tide, it’s a negotiation where this boat will steer, and when. I find that interesting, especially as I have learned more about what to expect and how to work with it, but appropriate caution is crucial to success.
So I stayed out, deciding to sail through the night. This had been a possibility all along – the forecast wind was favorable and not too strong, and the seas on the open water had shown themselves to be just fine. If this had not felt like a reasonable option I would have made other choices well before this point, staying somewhere more sheltered from the outset.
I actually love night sailing. I haven’t been doing it as much lately, because I find I don’t have the resilience these days, physically, after staying up like that, but it’s a treat whenever there is a good enough argument to go ahead and sail through the night. There are opportunities for rest, out far enough for no traffic, especially having the radar detector that will start beeping when somebody else’s radar hits its antenna. This generally happens when other vessels are at least 3 miles away, and even farther for bigger boats with radar mounted higher above the water. Finding that Great Auk is up to this sort of extended trip, I have been really missing the AIS that we installed on Auklet, but that’s another story.
Once you know they are out there, one way to make sure that you will pass with plenty of space from other vessels is to use a hand bearing compass to take bearings on the other boat. If those bearings change over time, you know that you are not on a collision course. Another way is to look for navigation lights, but those are harder to see at a distance. Bigger working boats often have loads of white deck lights, also obscuring the comparatively fainter red and green on port and starboard.
However, a beautiful thing about small craft advisories is that there’s a lot less traffic when they are going on. Added to that, the sensible course from Casco Bay to Portsmouth – another wide river with reasonably easy entrance in big seas – cuts across the curve of the shore of the Gulf of Maine, leaving a good cushion away from the shore itself. We were off of Portland when it was really getting dark, and the nearer options I had looked at were either not sensible because I would not be able to check the seas in the dark, or much too far out of the way, curving around into Casco Bay at that wide entrance between Cape Elizabeth and the islands near Portland. Especially with this nice alternative, it made more sense to stay out and use that perfect wind.
So off we went, headed for Portsmouth, about 45 miles away. Once it got really dark there wasn’t a scrap of traffic, just the distant lights at the shore, with the prominent lighthouse at Biddeford showing clearly. We angled across the curve of the shoreline, and after a while were about 6 miles out. At about two in the morning the Merveille radar detector started beeping. It shows the direction of the signal it’s receiving, and it indicated that there was a boat out ahead of us. Looking through the windows in that direction, there was a small white splotch of light visible in the rather far distance.
The right answer at this point was to get up and go across the boat to the hanging bag on the starboard side of the forward cabin door, to get the hand bearing compass. The seas were now 8 to 10 feet, and not perfectly gentle, and the motion of the boat was impressive. It had been a long day, and half the night, and I was daunted by the prospect of moving across the boat yet again, with everything jouncing around so thoroughly. That was a mistake! (Now the hand bearing compass lives alongside my berth, easily in reach without any scrambling at all.)
Instead I kept watching. You can also line up the distant vessel’s light with some part of your own boat, and see if the mark changes or stays the same, where the far target lines up on something like your own window frame… But Great Auk’s orientation was constantly varying in the waves, so this was not definitive. It was also incredibly hard to believe that in all that wide open water, completely dark except for the faraway shore and that one, single boat, that we could possibly be on a collision course. That was another mistake.
Binoculars are handy – and stored where perfectly reachable – and as the distant white splotch got closer I would take looks to check if there was any more to see with magnification. For the longest time it was still just white stuff. But eventually, and clearly getting closer, I could actually see red and green navigation lights. This is bad. When you can see them both, it means that the boat with those lights is headed straight toward you.
Turning to starboard – the proper direction in an unknown situation – was going to involve gybing the sail, which was going to be a bit challenging. But I should have done it anyway, right when I saw those two lights. I was concerned about whatever the other boat’s plans were, and another approach in that situation is to get on the radio and confirm the intention to pass port to port. I had fears of turning without that confirmed agreement, and that they might for some reason turn in the same direction. Both that concern and the one about gybing were “moderate” – and somehow combined to become enough to opt for trying the radio first. But it was just like so very many stories, “But there was no answer.” And again: “There was no answer.”
Three tries, no response, and the boat oncoming. We put the wheel over, turning to starboard. Great Auk did not pick up speed quickly, what with the waves and the new heading, including gybing. Marigold was on her long towline off the stern. It helps to have a really long towline out in open water, so the dinghy does not tend to run up on the stern of the sailboat as they both go over the waves. Marigold’s line was about 35 feet long.
Apparently the folks in that big fishing trawler were below deck somewhere, also thinking that it was completely impossible that there was anybody to run into on that dark night. Somewhere in there we also gave five blasts – the danger signal – on our handheld airhorn, but I have always found it hard to believe that anybody in a boat with big engines can possibly hear that.
It’s slightly possible that the oncoming boat also turned at the last moment, but I didn’t see that happen. They passed across our stern – we had turned about 90° to starboard – and there was the sound of a thump–bump. Two quick beats. I was at the forward wheel in the cabin. It’s possible that my perspective was off, but the other boat was very, very close. All I could see was the sheer vertical face of the side of their hull, straight off the stern, and it looked to me like if I had been at the transom with an extended boat hook – which goes to 8 feet – I could have touched the fishing boat’s hull. No words for that.
As the fishing boat passed and started to draw away, its bright deck lights illuminated the water behind it, and there was poor Marigold, bobbing upside down on the dark water in those enormous and roiling waves. The towline had snapped right near where it was fastened on Great Auk. There was nobody on the brightly lit stern deck of the other boat.
I briefly thought about trying to go back for Marigold, but in the distinctly un-gentle waves – and the dark, as the fishing boat continued steaming away at speed – it felt both too dangerous to try and regardless unlikely to succeed. Marigold was now upwind, which would mean motoring, and motoring upwind in waves and a good breeze is exactly what Great Auk will not do. Heartbreaking as it was, Great Auk and I sailed away, and little Marigold disappeared in the night.
Of course the worst, scariest part of the story is not Marigold. Great Auk – and I – really did come a whisker away from getting squashed. I wasn’t sure that the motors hadn’t been hit, raised as they were for sailing, extending a bit behind the transom. In hindsight I’m sure I would’ve felt it if they had been, but I just had the sound of that clunking in my mind. I went back to check, but other than the missing Marigold, and the broken line, all was as it should be. The white lights were continuing to recede off our starboard quarter.
Thinking about it afterwards, I believe that what happened is that the fishing boat crossed Marigold’s towline, yanking Marigold against the far side of their hull – the thumping sounds I heard – and pulling hard on the towline until it snapped. I had a hook arrangement high on the back of the post that supports the starboard corner of the cabin top, to keep the towline up and away from the outboard motor. It’s a carabiner tied open, that was tightly lashed to the back of that 2 x 3 post. In the night I thought the carabiner was gone, but the next morning I saw that it was pulled completely to the starboard side of that post, with gouges in the corners of the wood from the seine twine lashing. I didn’t feel Great Auk shift when Marigold’s line was broken, that I remember, but there were a lot of waves making for a lot of shifting already. It must’ve been quite a yank, but very quick.
Afterwards we readjusted our course, and I took about five minutes to catch my breath and consider. Then I got on the radio to the Coast Guard, as it was important for them to know that if somebody found Marigold floating around out there upside down that there was not a person who needed rescue. At the same time I got to tell them what happened, and there was a slight possibility that if that other boat happened to by now be near the radio they might hear about it also. The Coast Guard was appreciative, and suggested we talk on my cell phone, because the signal from my handheld VHF radio was not very strong. So we finished the conversation by phone, with them taking contact information and a description in case Marigold was found.
While that conversation was going on, the white lights from the fishing boat turned, and circled back to where we had been – Great Auk was sailing at about 3 knots, so we had covered a bit of distance from that spot. Then they turned, as if to come up behind us, maybe a mile or two back. This completely freaked me out – the last thing I wanted was to go through that again! – so we gybed again, moving at an angle away from their new course. Eventually they turned again and really went away. Who knows if they heard the radio conversation, and circled back to look for Marigold.
Although I made the mistake of not turning much sooner, technically that fishing vessel was at fault. Primarily, they were not keeping watch, and secondarily they were not actually engaged in fishing, which made Great Auk traveling under sail the “stand on vessel.” It’s not just that you have the right of way – it’s that it’s your responsibility to keep going on your original path, so everything is predictable, and the other vessel is supposed to give way, and adjust their course. But if there is risk of collision, then the give-way vessel is regardless supposed to change course to avoid it – which we did narrowly, with not nearly enough cushion for my taste. And counting Marigold being collided with, we were at fault also for not avoiding the whole thing entirely. There is a book completely devoted to these rules, for anybody who is unfamiliar and wants to get into it:
https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/navigation-rules-amalgamated is the online version.
It’s also available in print from various marine supply stores, including this one (nope, not receiving anything for posting): https://www.starpath.com/catalog/books/1832.htm
Of course in the real world, usually the bigger vessel does what it’s going to do, and the littler one gives way. But according to the actual rules, that fishing boat had really screwed up, so it’s not such a surprise that they were not getting into a discussion about it on the radio that would identify them. Especially since they would have known from the radio exchange with the Coast Guard that there was nobody in the water needing rescue, or anything like that. So they have stayed a mystery – I never did see a boat name through all that.
Once the Coast Guard call was done, from there we carried on through the night. By dawn I could see Portsmouth in the distance, and by 9 AM we were in the river. Somehow I just couldn’t get my head around the near miss. I was terribly sad about losing Marigold, and whatever emotions I had about the whole event were completely focused on that. I felt like I had let the little boat down, not taking care of Marigold properly, and we have had such a companionable relationship.
But this is what stays in mind: one often wonders why so many people have boats that sit on their moorings or at their slips for almost the entire season. I think that this is a big part of the reason: besides embarrassing maneuvers, like blowing dockings and missing moorings with an audience, things happen on boats that give you pause. Through your own and/or others’ mistakes or inattention, the stakes can get high, sometimes surprisingly fast. It’s letting go the lines that means you take that chance of relying on your own capabilities for a good outcome.
I said that this story has a happy ending, and it does.
After I arrived in Portsmouth I called Portland Pudgy, thinking about what I was going to do about an alternate dinghy. The really nice woman who answered the phone, besides remembering Marigold from the blog post about the junk sailing rig, which I had shared with their office, told me that it had twice happened that somebody’s Pudgy had been lost, and when found by some kind person the company had been contacted with the serial number from the errant boat. Portland Pudgy keeps files on who has bought them, and was able to reunite both of those lost boats with their owners. A friend with a trailer-sailing boat had even had his more substantial boat come back to him, recovered just off a beach in Florida, after a long story of it having been abandoned far out at sea after a rescue. I took some heart from this, but continued making plans for what to do to replace the dinghy.
Meanwhile, the easterly wind had run itself out. Trade-offs in the design of Great Auk mean that this boat sails primarily downwind, with perhaps a beam reach in the right situation. With the wind shifted south and southwest, I wasn’t going anywhere for some time. That was fine by me – I was ready for a rest! I set up to do some visiting, and settled into a nice anchorage on the Kittery side of the harbor.
A couple of days later, wouldn’t you know I got a phone call! Somebody had reported to the harbormaster in Kennebunk, Maine – about 25 miles from Portsmouth – that Marigold had been found on the beach. The harbormaster went to investigate, called Portland Pudgy with the serial number, and next thing you know the harbormaster and I were having a conversation. Me being in the Portsmouth area, I had been in touch with Luke Tanner – regular readers might remember him from the previous post. He and his wife Merrilea drove to Kennebunk with their trailer! Faster than you can say I can’t believe this happened, there they were in Kittery sliding Marigold down the gangway to the public dock, with the sturdy little boat barely the worse for wear. Perfectly, perfectly miraculous.
Now Marigold has a special sticker with contact information, for an even more direct line than the kind folks at Portland Pudgy. Many thanks to Dave Estes, harbormaster in Stockton Springs, who offered that sticker after I told him this story. But we dearly hope that Marigold will stay close by from here on out.
I took this whole experience to be a little like falling off a horse – and that it’s important to get back on soon afterwards. When a north wind eventually came around we set out from Portsmouth and on to Cape Ann, near Gloucester, Mass. After another few days of waiting for the next favorable breeze we continued south across Massachusetts Bay, which led to another night sail, this time across Cape Cod Bay (see previous post for more on how that came about).
I went into that second overnight passage with some trepidation, but with the feeling of it being important to get back on the horse. There was actually a good bit of traffic on Cape Cod Bay the first half of that night, but on the upside, in all that traffic nobody running those fishing boats was asleep below deck, for exactly that reason; there was enough surrounding activity to keep their full attention. The hand bearing compass was right beside me, and in regular use. Proper distances were kept throughout, and I came away with renewed faith that we could sail at night and be okay.
Nowadays Marigold feels extra chummy. The boat used to stay on the starboard side of Great Auk, at anchor, keeping the slapping of the little waves at a bit more of a distance in the night. But now I rather like it, in my berth, hearing the bit of splashing and seeing Marigold right there out my window. Such a steady companion.
This blog entry has languished for months. It’s now closing in on the end of November, and both I and the boats are off of the water, as of mid-October. But there was another story before that happened:
One evening in September I sailed after dark in upper Penobscot Bay, leaving Stockton Springs at about 9 PM for various reasons of weather and wind. We were bound for the very snug harbor a short distance away at Holbrook Island, around the corner from Castine. This is a trip of about 6 miles from Stockton Springs, doable in about two hours with a decent breeze.
One part of this little hop involves crossing a very low-traffic shipping lane, that leads up the Penobscot River. It’s possible to go all over these waters for weeks and never see a ship in this particular track. But wouldn’t you know it. As I was about halfway to the harbor entrance by Castine, there was the Merveille sounding that it was picking up a radar signal, and an indistinct white splotch was visible out ahead, about 3 miles off. My preferred course involved angling across the shipping lane marked on the chart, and I was in it.
Out came the hand bearing compass, and the binoculars. The white splotch started to reveal itself as a very thoroughly lit cruise ship, and the bearing stayed the same. You couldn’t have made this up, that a second time I would be out at night with zero traffic, only in this crossing for a scant two hours, and would be on a collision course with the only ship out on this track for days.
You can bet that I turned instantly. Dropped both motors into the water for additional speed, headed perpendicular to both the marked shipping lane and the approach of the cruise ship, and zipped toward shore. This not only took Great Auk quickly out of the shipping lane, but for good measure led into water too shallow for a cruise ship but plenty deep enough for us. When we were safely near the shore and well out of the track marked on the chart for ships, we turned to parallel the land, also staying safely away from the rocks.
It’s a tight area, where the shipping lane is marked, and there was a time when we could see both the red and the green navigation lights on the cruise ship. Their crew was wide awake, and at one point shone a spotlight in our direction (we also had our giant inflatable radar reflector at the top of the mast, as we had on that other less fortunate night). I believe they turned, in order to leave a better cushion, as they had loads of deep water to work with on the other side of the shipping lane, away from the shore, and then they straightened out again. With both of our course changes we passed at about a mile away, with no drama other than Great Auk’s quick skedaddle toward shore, long before the other boat was close.
But seriously! As in, really?!?
I did appreciate the opportunity to do it right, and I appreciated the previous lesson, so there was no question of disbelief, and no hesitation in taking immediate action. Funny, how the Universe provides.