Friday, 9 August 2013, was a rainy day in New England. In some places standing records were broken for a single day of rain for that date. It rained hard from fairly early in the morning until fairly late in the afternoon or early in the evening.
Portsmouth NH was no exception to this. Our little anchorage in the area we had come to call Goat Island Sound (for lack of any other name, and that being the name we liked best) was perfect for the conditions. Most of Portsmouth Harbor is exposed to the south, and the wind was blowing heavily from the south that day, bringing with it a very rolly and lumpy sea. Our anchorage, however, was shielded from the prevailing sea by three islands and a great deal of salt marsh. All we had to deal with was moisture from the downpour.
Unfortunately we still had to deal with both the tide and the calendar, and that meant we could not stay where we were. We needed to be back in Salem by approximately noon on Sunday. To get out of our anchorage (and off the bottom) we needed to leave in a window between two hours after and two hours before low-tide. To get back out through the drawbridge into Little Harbor, we needed a rising tide, which brought the window down from ten hours to about four. To make the majority of our passage home on Saturday would require an early departure from Portsmouth; the timing of the tide forbade making such a start from our sweet spot between Pest Island and Long Rock. So we would have to brave the weather on Friday, at least a little.
Making any real progress towards home, in a drenching rain, against both wind and sea, with two pre-teen boys aboard, was clearly out of the question. Three options thus presented themselves. One was to get through the drawbridge and pick up a mooring in Little Harbor. Another was to venture up into Pepperell Cove, and thence into the better shelter of Chauncey Creek. The third was to proceed up towards the heart of Portsmouth Harbor and then up into the Seavey Island Back Channel, between the Navy Base and the Kittery shore.
The minute we got through the drawbridge, we knew option one was out of the question. We had passed a pleasant hour or so there two days earlier while waiting for the bridge to open, but the wind that day had been out of the Northwest. The Cruising Guide hints between the lines that Little Harbor is not comfortable shelter in an easterly, but we are here to tell you: in any moderately serious conditions where the wind and sea are blowing from anywhere between NNE and due south, don't even think about Little Harbor unless you are absolutely desperate for safety and have a quantity of dramamine on board. Maybe the huge Wentworth marina is stable enough to spend the night comfortably (you could at any rate go the Wentworth bar and get too drunk to care); the mooring field certainly is not.
We figured that if Little Harbor, behind two breakwaters, was so thoroughly unappealing, Chauncey Creek was unlikely to to be much better, especially at High Tide. There is nothing particularly "shoal draft" about the Seavey Island back channel, but there is a good reason why the Guide calls it "the best protection in Portsmouth" and adds that "In any kind of bad weather it is much to be preferred."
Rounding the nun off Jaffrey point, we made a course for the can at Fort Constitution, allowing plenty of searoom for the rocky shore and the rising tide. From there, it was an easy leap to the marked channel leading into the Back Channel. Don't be distracted by the yellow cans "J" and "K" that mark a dreadfully rolly looking yacht anchorage that must be reserved for the navy. It is shown as a "Restricted Area." They can have it.
We went up the back channel almost all the way to the first bridge, which connects Kittery proper to the Navy base on the island. The view of Seavey Island (once several smaller islands, now joined together by infill) is pretty industrial from any angle (although the abandoned Naval prison has a kind of grandeur to it), but the Kittery shore is easy on the eyes (the infamous outlets are nowhere in sight, although a ride up Spruce Creek in a dinghy can get you there easily enough). We found that the deeper in we went, the calmer the water and the more available moorings we found.
It was at this point, as my uncle and I were struggling mightily with a badly tangled mooring whose pennant, already served with nylon webbing, also featured a considerable quantity of foam pipe insulation, electrical tape, and some sort of small stuff attaching it to an orange pick-up buoy, that we faced a near mutiny from the younger members of the crew.
It is the prerogative, even the duty, of any skipper to be intransigent about hard decisions in key areas. Any sensible cruising captain observes two paramount rules regarding the cabin, which are that it must be kept both dry and well-ventilated. Usually these two goals are complementary, but in a really hard rain they can be at odds. My Uncle Campbell chose to put ventilation first, knowing that we would probably be cabin bound for the balance of the day; my son Campbell took exception to this because his bunk got wet, and (like any twelve-year-old) he is no respecter of persons. He let his feelings be known. While we were struggling with a cussed mooring, his loudly voiced opinion did not meet with much respect.
But (as I was already well aware) if anyone knows how to dry out Bufflehead's moist interiors, it is my uncle, who has logged 45 seasons on the boat. Three paraffin lamps were shortly lit down below, and The Brick was placed on the alcohol stove. My grandfather, Bufflehead's original owner, always wanted to have some sort of coal or woodstove on the boat, but could never quite figure where to put it. In the interim (which continues to the present day) he would place a terra cotta brick on the alcohol stove, which would then function as both radiator and dehumidifier. By the time bed time rolled around, everyone's bunk was as dry as could be wished.