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Looking Back on a Lifetime of Cruising

Leight rests easy in the quiet anchorage of Three Eagle Cove in The Basin on Maine’s Vinalhaven Island.

Leight rests easy in the quiet anchorage of Three Eagle Cove in The Basin on Maine’s Vinalhaven Island.

Canada’s Bay of Fundy is possessed of a certain tension in the best of weather, but there was none of that to be seen as the 26ft Leight drifted desultorily along under a sky the color of yesterday’s dishwater. A musing breeze had shown promise, but faded to feeble scurries, while a lone petrel skimmed the restless seas and fog erased the pale thread of Nova Scotia coast.

We could have powered along, but a lifetime of sailing, and 31 years of knocking about in our International Folkboat, had shown that getting about by natural means was optimal, and days without design among the most precious of commodities. Hurrying our way through a cruise has almost always proved the wrong way to address it.

That said, patience is still not the easiest of assets to summon up, but with a fair tide under us, and a low-pressure system forecasted to blow through, we waited it out. The mate, Leigh, sighted a float of razor-billed auks, and read about them in the bird book as we slipped along at 3 knots. It is more a meditation than contest of wills. Besides, speed in sailing terms is nearly irrelevant—except when it isn’t.

“When in doubt, eat,” I remarked to the mate, and retreated to the cabin to rustle up lunch, but we’d barely taken two bites, when in less time than it takes to say “peanut butter and jelly” a rabid southeaster blew up to 25 and 30 knots.

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The fury of wind colliding with the world’s highest tide, its 53ft head of steam in full retreat, was a clash of titans, as white-crested swells erupted into warring fangs of predatory seas that staggered the full-keel sloop. Reeling, the mainsheet burning through my fingers, there was, nonetheless, a certain sense of authority to the Swedish-built sloop, her system loadings modest and she eminently manageable by veteran hands.

Leight’s snug cabin has always proved a comfortable berth

Leight’s snug cabin has always proved a comfortable berth

Leigh held her close-winded under the jib while I dropped the main to the first reef. There was no hurrying the one-handed act of diminishment, but we got things sorted out in good order and were off to the races. Corkscrewing along, the wake hissing, a dungeon of fog closed in, rain bucketed down, and a fabulous madness was upon us.

Our lengthy apprenticeship had shown there was more to be done to settle her down. Tightening the downhaul, I then snugged in the outhaul, giving the sail the barest arc of draft. Slacking the vang allowed the boom to rise up a bit and spill some of the power of rasping gusts. Leigh eased the traveler and tensioned the backstay and leech line. Still making more than 7 knots of it, we struck the jib. Like a skier playing the rhythm of a mountain, the sloop swept along with provocative energy.

“We should have waited another day before leaving,” the mate said idly.

“At least it’s a fair wind,” I countered.

“You and your damned optimism,” she responded peevishly.

“There’s opportunity in adversity,” I shot back, like one of those irritatingly perky public television fundraisers.

“That’s what you said when you lost your glasses overboard,” she hissed.

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Married 40 odd years, Leigh centers me, which is much needed, while I’ve introduced her to the margins, a good deal of which she’s seen enough of, thank you very much. The mate still sees me as in need of civilizing, and is often excessively nice; otherwise, humor runs lively aboard, and we only annoy each other now and again.

A wake of spun glass streamed aft like a comet’s tail as we settled down to the business of guiding the sloop through the tumult, slowly coming to that elusive accommodation of time, where she and we were something of a seamless force. As the velvety vastness of night descended, the sloop raced through a minefield of fog-fraught ledges and came to rest in the velvet alcove of Northeast Harbor on Maine’s Cross Island. The talk was of little else than the spectacle that had been ours.

Leight under sail

Leight under sail

Though decidedly retro, we’ve stayed with the simplicity of hanked-on headsails, for when it’s blowing the shape of a partially furled genoa is not optimal for working to weather. The jib, which sheets inboard and points higher, is our foil of choice in a breeze. The sloop, which draws 4ft, tacks with alacrity, and we sail her into the slimmest of possibilities. There’s a satisfaction of such work takes the full measure of time, which is every bit as well spent in pursuit of magic as miles.

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Closehauled and rail awash, we slanted into Winter Harbor on Vinalhaven Island, a lively southwester and flooding tide clashing as they channeled between swells of granite and greenery. Every wave showed its teeth as we laid down a cross-stitch of tacks. Easing the mainsheet as the soundings declined, I put the helm over, while Leigh cast off the jib at first flutter. Sheeting it home just before it loaded up on the next slant, usually without needing to employ the winch, there was a grace to her way in tight quarters.

Working along the north shore, a 2ft shoal narrowed the channel to the width of a tennis court. With several boards less than a minute long, white sails flashed close against spruce green as we clawed past rocks and hard places, the fathometer dipping into the single digits. At length we anchored in an eel rut unknown to the cruising guides.

Leight is easy to care for and keep to a high standard at modest expense. A half-gallon of bottom paint answers our needs for antifouling, while deep maintenance and simplicity is a recipe for dependability. System malfunctions, the bane of quality cruising, are rare, and when they do happen, gear of the Leight’s order is almost always repairable from the various bits and bobs in our trusty parts box. Time is valuable capital, and chasing down mechanics and waiting for parts when we could be sailing is stressful.

A foot pump assures conservation of fresh water resources, and the sloop is fridge-free, our wine, cheese, eggs, meat and greens chilled naturally in the bilge. Enthusiastic foragers that we are, local seafood is easy to come by, frequently on the menu, and refreshingly fresh.

Even the 9ft long, 67lb dinghy, which I designed and built of plywood and fiberglass, reflects our taste for deftness. Towing lightly, and responsive to 7ft oars, rowing contributes to a vigorous state which is a significant sailing asset. While the physical side of sailing rarely rates a mention, it’s essential kit that we address by walks ashore and core-strengthening exercises.

The author and his wife enjoying the cruising life

David Buckman and his wife enjoying the cruising life

A full-sized bicycle stowed away in the V-berth offers another workout, as does the sloop’s ground tackle, which is set and hauled manually, often by Leigh. Our primary anchor, a 25lb CQR with 10 fathoms of chain and a nylon rode, has always held fast. Leight’s modest wind profile adds security, as does the fact that her agility allows us to set the hook in the most protected of shelters. Her single-cylinder diesel, turning a feathering prop, is easy on fuel, and her low-demand electrical system and solar panels keep the batteries up without the need to run the engine.

[advertisement]Leight’s snug, mahogany-paneled cabin is possessed of a homey warmth that has been the scene of many a day spent waiting out weather, and hard-fought rummy games, where the foot-rub prize is much sought after. The flickering kerosene lantern adds civility, pages of books melt away, naps happen, and music fills the air.

The subject of comfort is of much interest, we being decidedly not devotees of arduous living. While standing headroom is often thought of as a benchmark of cruising civility, and we can take to our feet beneath the dodger in the aft part of the cabin, the decades have proved uprightness aboard as essential to wellbeing as French fries are to good nutrition. We’re perfectly at ease in Leight’s coziness, and nowhere do we sleep better.

Leight’s suppleness has positive implications in matters of safety, wellbeing and breadth of discovery. Making for Penobscot Bay, before the outliers of tropical storm Andrew, the mate pulled up a forecast calling for winds that night gusting to 45 knots. The Basin on Vinalhaven Island was our first choice to wait out the tempest. Conventional wisdom holds it can only be entered at high slack. We were nearly two hours early.

Having threaded the needle often, we sailed past the narrow entrance, which looked like a whitewater rapid, but the flow being fair, we hopped aboard the escalator. It was lively going, but she answered every call to action as depths declined to 10ft, swirls whirled, we swept past a tiny island and a swell of ledge herded us to starboard.

In a heartbeat we were in quiet water and turned north for the perfect protection of Three Eagle Cove (our name), which doesn’t rate a sentence in the coastal pilots and where we’d never seen another cruising boat. Though the wind huffed and puffed, and the treetops danced madly, it made little impression on the teacup of a tide pool. Uncorking a bottle of wine in that particularly delicious state of ease that comes from escaping a lashing, we raised a glass in praise of the modest sloop.

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Highly amenable to singlehanding, I’ve spent many a quiet week wandering the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy. One of the most memorable cruises was my second tour of Canada’s Saint John River and adjacent lakes, where trim farms, rolling meadows and rural villages looked like a pastoral scene, a century removed from the moment.

The pleasures of becoming a traveler, instead of a tourist, know no end. Our long haul to weather has been a particularly appealing composition. As da Vinci wrote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

David Buckman, a sailor for 74 years, has cruised from the Chesapeake to Newfoundland. His book, Bucking the Tide, is available for $10—for info contact him at buckingthetide@gmail.com

Photography by David Buckman

May 2016

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