Learning from experience

David Meeker


Returning from a late summer cruise to Provincetown, Massachusetts, my wife, Sharon, and I anchored in Loblolly Cove on the eastern side of Cape Ann. Having left Long Point early that morning, we had a long day crossing Massachusetts Bay at our usual 3 to 4 knots. As often happened, the whales around Stellwagen Bank put on a good show for us, which livened up the middle of our journey.

That night, I set our two anchors so we could sleep well, at least until the winds shifted. Sharon fixed a good one-pot dinner using her favorite Swedish Army alcohol stove on the bridge deck. Then, with the sun going down and the boat sitting easily in a light west wind, we went below to our snug bunks and were soon asleep.

Testing our judgment

The winds shifted overnight. Sharon woke me up at 3:30 a.m. to point out the rocks off the stern, which were uncomfortably near our dinghy. We pulled on some clothes, started the 6-horsepower Evinrude and began pulling the anchors. First, I brought in the big storm anchor and stowed it below. The wind and seas were picking up. By the time I had the working anchor aboard and stowed on deck, Sharon had worked our way to windward out of the rockbound cove. We raised the jib and sailed along the coast and into Gloucester Harbor, where we anchored in the lee of Eastern Point. With the fishing fleet long gone, we went below to finish our night’s sleep and take a little morning nap.

Eager to get home, we finished brunch by noon and decided the wind had died down enough to give us a fine sail to our mooring in Pepperrell Cove at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. I brought in and stowed the anchor, and we motored north up the harbor to enter Blynman Canal, which connects to the Annisquam River and provided us an alternative to the long trip around Cape Ann.

Boats on moorings, boats in slips, marinas, fuel docks and other accouterments of a nautical culture congest the narrow canal and river beyond. It’s not a path you would choose to sail through. The river flows almost directly east at its mouth, which would put us straight into the remaining 10- to 15-knot winds. Our sails would be more of a nuisance in this situation. Considering all factors, good judgment would call for us to leave the sails furled and motor through the congestion and out the river mouth. Once we had enough water to drop the centerboard, we could raise the sails, fall off the wind and sail happily home. However, the situation might turn out differently if we failed to consider all factors.

Gaining experience

Everything went well—as good judgment would expect—until we rounded the last dogleg to the north, moved out of the lee of the trees and buildings, and turned east into the wind to exit the river. We should have waited a little longer or kept a sail up. After hours of strong east winds, the seas became big rollers when they hit the shallows of the river’s mouth. Although the winds didn’t cause the seas to break, we were headed into immense rollers, which could mean real trouble. Should our engine die, we would be unable to turn quickly enough to put our stern to those monsters approaching us. While the rollers couldn’t capsize us, they could make it uncomfortable and dangerous if they hit us broadside. We needed a sail up—and fast! I gave the helm to Sharon and crept up to the bow to free the jib I’d left lashed to the pulpit. Sharon masterfully kept the boat moving to windward diagonally up and down over the rollers that looked bigger by the moment.

We weren’t the only ones concerned with the size of the rollers. While I was on the foredeck, a big 40-foot powerboat charged into the river. Its white-knuckled helmsman in the flying bridge stared dead ahead as he struggled to keep his stern to the waves. I’m not sure he even saw us; he certainly did not spare me a glance as he swept by. In a moment, his boat passed us, heading for the shelter of the river proper. I raised the jib and crawled back to the cockpit as he passed. I was ready to bring in the flogging sail should we need it or, hopefully, when we were far enough out to lower the centerboard, fall off and sail north toward home.

Sharon eventually worked the boat out of the river’s mouth, where I lowered the centerboard and brought in the jib. When we were far enough out, I raised the main, stopped the outboard and headed home at 5 knots, putting potential disaster behind us.

We enjoyed a great sail on a beam reach off the New Hampshire coast. As the sun descended, the sky to the west assumed a purple hue. With darkness closing in and a long way to go, we stopped and anchored for the night in Little Harbor to the south of the Piscataqua River. The big Wentworth by the Sea marina had not been built yet, and Little Harbor only had a few moorings. We anchored on the north side in view of the houses of New Castle, the “Great Island” of New Hampshire’s 17th-century history. After a quick dinner, we went below to sleep.

In the morning, I heard a tap, tap, tap on the hull beside my head. The last time I awoke like that was when we were anchored on the shelf off Long Point on another cruise to Provincetown. That time, the dinghy had been bumping the hull because the wind had shifted, the tide had gone out and we were aground. Few pleasant explanations come to mind when waking up in a boat to a tap, tap, tap.

Sticking my head out of the cabin, I saw the two smiling faces of a couple in a rowing dinghy. Our friends Harold and Phyllis Crosby lived in a house overlooking the harbor. Having recognized our boat at anchor, they brought us breakfast: a big thermos of hot coffee and a freshly baked coffee cake. After a good visit, we pulled anchor and sailed out of Little Harbor and around “Great Island” to our mooring in Pepperrell Cove.

David Meeker

David and Sharon Meeker began sailing on San Francisco Bay in a Picaroon sloop. After moving to New Jersey in 1964, they sailed in a Danish Honeymoon sloop on the Long Island Sound and New Jersey waters. They began sailing the Sparkman and Stevens-designed Sailmaster 22 mentioned in this story after moving to New Hampshire in 1970. Their last boat, a Pearson 34, has now been sold, and they live on dry land in a retirement community.

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