It’s hard to go home again

The wind built steadily in the early morning hours so that we were making almost 8 knots as we sailed past the Buzzard’s Bay light tower on our approach to the Cape Cod Canal. We were flying along, having completed the crossing from Cape May to Block Island Sound in two nights and a day, without incident. We had timed our transit through the Canal perfectly. It was 0645 on the Friday before Memorial Day when we rounded up to strike our sails. The excitement aboard was palpable.

This was the home stretch for a crew of Mainers who had been called upon to rig, launch and deliver Bagheera, a 78-year-old Alden schooner, from the Sassafras River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore back to Maine, where it was built. The voyage actually started in San Francisco, where the boat was hauled out, then put on a truck and delivered to Maryland via Route 80; it was too large to get road permits for crossing New England.

We would be home the following morning, greeted by our beloved, our friends and, apparently, by a team of newspaper and TV reporters. The media was drummed up by my business partner, who had effectively stoked their interest in this old boat that was coming home. Bagheera had been built in East Boothbay, Maine, in 1924, and we were going to use it to launch Portland’s only windjammer business, taking live cargo on boat rides around Casco Bay.

“She was built in Maine; she’s comin’ home!” we announced through gritted teeth as we sweated and scraped and hauled on lines. It had become our motto.

Wet work party

While waiting for the boat to arrive from its cross-country truck journey, we camped at the Maryland boatyard’s picnic area; working in the rain and cooking meals on a one-burner gas stove that was set up in an open-air rigging shed. As the proper yachtsmen were applying finishing touches to Hinckleys, Sabres and Grand Banks yachts, coming and going from their gleaming vehicles, we were trying hard not to feel like mongrels as we tucked into plates of indescribable hash or attempted to clean up by wiping our filthy brows with a rag.

Using paint scrapers, we scraped the masts bare (the schooner’s spars had arrived by truck the week before), and restored a bright finish with a drippy mixture of Vaseline and raw linseed oil. We had all developed blisters and an acute pain between our shoulders from the scraping motion. When it wasn’t pouring rain, the late-spring sun burned our pale, New England skin &mdash which had been heavily swathed since the previous August. When the hull arrived, we stepped the masts and quickly rigged the shrouds, bent on the five sails and reeved the miles of lines. I was reminded of Ernest Shackleton who, when camped on Elephant Island after crossing from Antarctica, his men frostbitten and wrapped in rotting seal-skin sleeping bags, quipped, “I hope you’re all enjoying my little party.” My friends &mdash at least they were my friends when we started this little adventure &mdash were reaching their limits and had grown sullen. Thankfully, mutiny was averted when Bagheera’s engine purred like a cat as we fired it off and headed north.

Once through the Cape Cod Canal we would draw a bead on the seabuoy off Portland and stomp down the rhumb line, the sheets wung out on a reach that would make the old schooner plow along like a train down a hill. We would drop our sails briefly for a shot through the Canal and then off we’d go. Instead we discovered that our luck had changed. When we engaged the engine in what was supposed to be dead slow ahead, nothing happened. That is to say the rpm increased, but we continued to sit stock-still in the water, the stone monument marking the Canal entrance off our port quarter remaining in the same relative position.

An errant prop

Huh? I took the engine out of gear and tried again. There was no accompanying thunk, only the smooth sound of the engine revving without a load. We had either lost our propeller or the linkage in the transmission. I peered over the side, a crewmember holding tight to my ankles. Sure enough, the aperture appeared as a big hole through which I could clearly see, unencumbered by the dark shape of the propeller, the green water on the other side of the boat shining in the morning sun. The propeller was gone.

We were about to enter the Cape Cod Canal, a few hundred yards from the entrance, the southerly wind blowing right up the slot so that we were running out of sea room, and we had no propeller. I was tempted to sail through &mdash I was desperate, and the already anxious crew had smelled the barn! &mdash but I read in the Canal guide that it was strictly forbidden, and that any vessel caught sailing through the Canal would be admonished via radio, possibly fined, and towed to shore. What to do?

I explained to the crew &mdash there were seven of us &mdash that we would have to set sail quickly and tack back out of Buzzard’s Bay to gain sea room until we came up with a plan to get to Maine. Maybe we could haul out at New Bedford, Mass., and find a propeller. But it was Friday morning, and this was Memorial Day weekend. No one would take our case. Maybe we could sail around Cape Cod. No, too far. But the prospect of sitting on a mooring in New Bedford for three or four days, or a week, as we hunted down a propeller and waited our turn to be hauled out of the water appealed to no one.

Image Credit: Alfred Wood/Ocean Navigator illustration
After being trucked across the country from California to the Sassafras River in Maryland, the schooner sailed offshore to the Cape Cod Canal. Following a detour to Gloucester, Bagheera arrived in Portland.

A sail plan

Maybe we could get a tow through the Canal and sail the rest of the way, somebody, I can’t remember who, said. With this in mind, I listened to the marine forecast again and wrote down what was predicted for the following night. West winds would build to 20 knots and clock around to the northwest around midnight, and then it would go north and finally northeast, in the early morning hours. I looked at the chart and counted off the miles. If we got a tow, we would have to wait until the next tide cycle, which meant we wouldn’t get through until after 1500. But there was plenty of wind predicted, and if we racked up the miles on a port tack, working our way parallel with the coast, maybe by the time it came northeast, pushing us offshore, we could flop over on a starboard tack and beat the rest of the way into Portland. The plan seemed pretty simple, one long reach that would become a beat. When we were pushed too far offshore by the shifting wind, it would be time to tack anyway as we drew abeam of the seabuoy.

We discussed our options, each person having his chance to make suggestions or voice concerns. “Does anyone want to get off?” I asked. “Anyone who doesn’t want to keep going under these conditions can get off with the tug in the Canal.”

I had talked myself into it. As long as I kept a plan in my back pocket, a harbor to duck into (Provincetown, Gloucester, Portsmouth) we would be in good shape. We might drift, but it didn’t sound likely. We were a sailboat; we should sail.

The “tug” was a Towboat/U.S. vessel sporting a pair of 300-hp outboards on its transom. We rounded up off Hog Island at 1330 and passed the towline’s bridle through our hawse pipes. We felt silly &mdash a flaccid crew of a once-proud schooner being towed on the end of a wire by what looked like a Boston Whaler &mdash as we hung around on deck, watching the joggers and cyclists move along the Canal’s footpath on this otherwise perfect spring day. Every now and then someone would wave at us, an old man sitting on a bench, a Red Sox cap on his head and a pair of earphones clapped to his ears, or a young mother pushing a jogging stroller. We occasionally chatted with the towboat skipper over the radio, but there was little to do except steer.

Spirits soar

It was 1515 by the time we dropped the tow. We immediately raised the main, the mainstaysail, forestaysail, and jib and fell off on a reach that was soon pushing us along at 8 knots. The wind was westerly, blowing over the land, so there was no sea running as we plowed along, our spirits restored. Provincetown dropped out of sight under our starboard quarter, and just before dark I called all hands to put a reef in the main. The wind had built to about 18 knots, and I knew I would thank myself for this later if the wind continued to build. I had split the watch with the mate, tugboat style, so that he was standing the 1800 to midnight. I ducked below for some rest after the crew toasted the boat &mdash a splash even tossed in the bilge &mdash with a slug of Gosling’s rum.

When I came on deck at midnight, the wind had shifted northwesterly and was blowing at considerably more than 20 knots. An hour later it was blowing straight out of the north, a little earlier than had been forecast, and was gusting to more than 30 knots. We had taken in the jib, still making good time under reefed main and two staysails, but we were losing ground too early, and the seas were beginning to build until they were steep and breaking and washing green water down the deck.

The three of us on watch were clipped into the jack line, which had been rigged in a triangle shape from the quarter bitts forward to the mainmast. We could remain clipped in as we dropped into the main companionway to do a boat check or plot our position. (We were navigating primarily by GPS, having also taken sun sights on the leg from Cape May to Buzzard’s Bay.)

By 0400 the boat was laboring in the steep waves, and we were being pushed farther offshore. The wind had shifted to the north and stayed there, blowing a steady 30 knots and gusting well over 40. We dropped the main and tacked, and I realized that unless the wind shifted northeast soon, we would make no progress toward Portland.

At this point I wasn’t exactly scared, but I wasn’t feeling cool and confident, either. More like a profound shame, really. Here I was in a situation I had brought &mdash entirely unbidden &mdash on myself. I didn’t have to buy an old wooden schooner; I already had a decent job that many people would find more than adequate. I didn’t have to invite six friends on this expedition, and of course, I could have done the most prudent thing of all and not &mdash damning the torpedoes &mdash continued to sail after the propeller had fallen off. Such is the nature of a storm at sea: You bark your shins; you gain little sleep; you eat bad, cold food; you’re wet; and you promise yourself you’ll never do it again, if only…

The boat was creaking and groaning, and the rigging, I realized, had not been tuned as carefully as I would have liked. I thought of Rockwell Kent, recalling a passage of his I had read, when he was bashing along in Cabot Strait: “The darkness and the wind! the imponderable immensity of space and elements! My frail hands grip the tiller; my eyes stare hypnotically at the stars beyond the tossing masthead or watch the bow wave as we part the seas. I hold the course.”

Turning away

At some point on that cold, miserable night, I made the choice to turn back for Gloucester. Twenty to 25 knots and a few breaking waves was one thing. Thirty to 40 knots and green water washing down the decks of an old boat that deserved better &mdash and a seasick crew &mdash was no one’s idea of a good time. We turned back at 0500, and immediately the motion eased. The dawn broke clear, as I lay below for a nap.

We would need another tow in from the seabuoy off Gloucester. We got to the dock and were hauled out at Roses &mdash the yard crew had been coerced into staying an extra hour to help us. A new prop was fitted, and miraculously, we were back underway by 1600. (We never did figure out why the prop worked free, especially since I had inspected it before launching in Maryland.)

Instead of the hero’s welcome we had once imagined, we were greeted by darkness and silence as we limped ignominiously into Portland Harbor at 0230 Sunday morning, my security call on Channel 16 ringing hollowly over the airwaves &mdash feeling every bit like the wreck of the Hesperus. We docked at Peaks Island’s public landing, our sails bunched in clumps on their spars; our jerry jugs lashed crookedly to the rails; our sunken eyes and unshaven faces making us resemble the cast of the cult film Night of the Living Dead. But, we told each other as we walked home through the quiet streets, Bagheera was finally back in Maine.

Contributing Editor Twain Braden is a freelance writer and co-owner of Bagheera, which is based in Portland Harbor.

By Ocean Navigator