This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue
We’d been racing Counterpoint, our C&C 33, intensely and it was time for a break. So when my wife, Susan, said, “Let’s take a cruise, just the two of us,” I eagerly agreed.
Racing can be intoxicating, but it can also mirror the stress of corporate life; it can’t refresh the soul the way cruising does when you yield to the timeless rhythms of the sea and the weather. Certainly not when, as happened in that last race, we approached the leeward mark and performed an unplanned experiment to see if our spinnaker could double as a fishing net. That led to a few lost places and some harsh words as the crew, most of them business colleagues of ours, sought to assign blame. Back on our mooring, while the spinnaker floated out from the main halyard to dry, Susan served cocktails and cheese to soothe wounded spirits. Then, after the crew went ashore, she proposed her cruising idea.
We decided to sail from Marblehead, Massachusetts, to Maine and back the following week. On departure day we loaded provisions and brought aboard the hefty stern-rail barbecue we always left ashore when racing. Knowing we wouldn’t be using our racing spinnaker, which had been carefully packed for the next race, we stuffed a dozen bottles of wine for safekeeping in its nylon folds. Then we slipped our mooring and headed into Massachusetts Bay.
The late September morning was clear and crisp and the visibility was almost unlimited. Averaging 7 knots on a foaming broad reach, the #1 genny pulling nicely, we easily made New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals the first day. In the morning we woke to a thick scrim of fog, so we settled for a short jog over to York Harbor to position ourselves for the cruise along the Maine coast. Despite Maine’s reputation, that would be the only fog we’d see the entire trip. From York, we rounded Nubble Light at the tip of Cape Neddick and gunkholed along the jagged coast, eventually finding ourselves, on the fourth day, approaching Christmas Cove.
And what an approach it was. We enjoyed some of the best sailing we’d ever experienced—gentle seas and an invigorating 12-knot breeze over the port quarter. Because the genoa was having fits trying to stay full, we decided to fly our small, heavy-air spinnaker. We got it drawing nicely, loosely snubbed the sheet and guy, then rigged the portable boat shower to the mast. I went below to check the charts, turn on the CD player and strip off my clothes. By the time I stepped buck-naked into the cockpit, the sun had heated the shower water. I soon learned that few things can beat showering in the cockpit of a scampering sailboat while listening to the intricate counterpoint of Bach’s Goldberg Variations piping up from belowdeck.
Because it was so late in the season, it seemed as if we had the whole ocean to ourselves. After hours of sailing, we were so energized that we delayed taking down the spinnaker until the last possible moment. Susan gathered it in perfectly as I let the halyard slide through my hands while steering into the wind with my knees. Soon, we picked up a mooring and buttoned down Counterpoint, feeling snugly surrounded by spruce trees that serrated the sky.
We ate lobster at the Coveside Restaurant and Marina, a popular spot for cruisers because of its wonderful harbor views. What sailor doesn’t love to dine ashore, drinking a fine glass of grape juice and admiring their boat from afar, watching as the light, refracting off the water, dances along her graceful hull?
But Mike, the owner of Coveside, provided us with more than fine food and great views; he also provided tranquility. As the operator of the only fuel pump in the cove, he refused to sell to people who made a racket by speeding around the anchorage. Apparently, everybody got the message because we were undisturbed as we sipped scotch in the cockpit of Counterpoint and wondered at the canopy of stars overspreading the world. After an around-the-buoys race it’s difficult to see the stars for the lights of the yacht club or to hear the wind for the music of the band. But in Christmas Cove the panoply of stars shone brightly and the wind set up a soothing rhythm of flapping flags and slapping halyards. And there, at that moment, shot through with starlight, we came to a transforming understanding: racing wasn’t the only thing that mattered…nor was our corporate existence. And in the morning, the moon, now a day past full, hung low over Christmas Cove. We gazed at it, allowing the immensity of the world to suffuse our souls with a new sensibility.
Soon, we made our way out of Christmas Cove, skirted the string of rocks and islets known as Thread of Life, and sailed for the St. George River. In this part of the world, the islands had been carved by glaciers that produced parabolic shapes reminding me of whale pods—some with a gradual rise and fall like the profile of a humpback, others with a sharp dropoff like a sperm whale’s blunt head.
We explored the coves and harbors of the St. George River: Maple Juice Cove, where we had a wonderful view of the Olson House, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World; Turkey Cove; and, unhappily for Susan, Port Clyde. Somewhere we’d caught a length of rotting rope around our propeller shaft.
Since Susan is a far better swimmer than I, the job of clearing it fell to her. I’ll never forget the grimace of shock on her face when she shot to the surface a nanosecond after jumping overboard—it told me that she had discovered a finger of the Labrador Current. She slashed at the rope with rapid, frantic strokes, cleared the prop, climbed aboard, dashed below, stripped off her clothes, toweled down and fled into warm, dry clothes before I even had a chance to ask, “How was the water, honey?” When she emerged topsides again, she stomped into the Port Clyde General Store for a piping hot cup of coffee.
On that cruise we gradually came to understand that we were rehearsing our retirement from the corporate world and, perhaps, even from racing. This could not have been made clearer than when, back in Marblehead, we reached the weather mark in our next race. We rounded in first place on starboard tack, ready for a bear-away set. Up went the spinnaker. A hard tug on the sheet snapped the stops…and three forgotten bottles of wine tumbled onto the foredeck. The astonished looks of the forward hands said it all: Susan and I had passed into a different place—a parallel universe to theirs. Of course we would race again, but at heart we had now become cruising sailors.