Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fifth Day: O, The Wind and the Rain

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. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Third Day Part Two, and Fourth Day: New Castle

 Leaving Isles of Shoals after only one night was a wrenching choice, but one we felt we had to make, because lousy weather was predicted for the next day, today. In the event that weather has yet to materialize; now it is being forecast for tomorrow.

In any event, our next mission was meant to be a more trailblazing one, and one more appropriate to our mission.  Gosport Harbor has the Cruising Guide seal of approval, and even our anchorage by the breakwater was not particularly shallow. No, we had set our sights on the seemingly nameless patch of shallow water behind New Castle Great Island, NH.
The Piscataqua river reaches the sea at Portsmouth and Kittery and divides among a maze of rocky islands.  At the southwestern side is the rather large New Castle Island.  Between the island and the mainland shore is a large and somewhat exposed harbor called Little Harbor.  It is only "little" compared to Portsmouth.  Little Harbor is protected by a couple of breakwaters and its skyline is dominated by the massive Wentworth Hotel and an equally imposing marina.  If you had to spend a night on the water here it probably wouldn't be the end of the world, but we found it was a bit rolly.  It was not our goal.  At the head of the harbor is a little draw bridge, which is not continuously manned.  The sign on the bridge reads that the bridge operates between 7 am and 11 pm, but requires at least four hours notice to open.  There is a phone number posted to a dispatcher in Concord, 603 271 6862. We found the dispatcher extremely courteous, and in the event, the bridgetenders (also friendly and courteous) were on the scene within one hour (However, on our departure we were reminded somewhat grumpily by a more local official that there really should be at least four hours notice given.  It was also implicitly suggested—both entering and leaving—that we not do this run too frequently. We reassured them that we were staying for two whole days, and that we were returning to points south afterwards). The opening is narrow and the current runs hard under the bridge, and its best to hug the island side. Again, counterintuitively, it is easier to control your vessel if you go in against the current (so on a falling tide inbound, rising outbound).  Once inside, the channel is dredged and marked for a short ways. Then two options present themselves.  To port , Sagamore Creek makes off to the southwest.  It is a cool place to check out, but mooring and anchoring seems like it would be tricky, maybe even impossible in such a narrow and riparian environment.  

We proceeded to starboard, past a large and impossibly cool looking seventeenth century home on the left and Leach's Island on the right, before emerging into a large expanse of open water dotted with tiny islands.  This body of water, unnamed on the charts, is separated from Portsmouth Harbor by a chain of islands joined by fixed bridges and causeway. Small power boats can get in and out under the bridges, and small sailboats use the area as an enclosed playpen. There seemed to be an active junior sailing program of optis, Turnabouts and 420s using the area on both days that we were here.  Bearing to to starboard around Leach's and the alarmingly named Pest Island, we oonched our way past the six foot spot on the chart, but stopped somewhat shy of of the 1/2 foot spot, where we found a mooring near a float that seemed to need the attention of a lawnmower.  In all our years of cruising, we have seldom seen a more peaceful or attractive spot, though it must be admitted that we were hard aground for at least three hours on either side of low-tide.  Surveys with the boat hook suggest we have about two feet of water for a boat that draws three.  The mud is soft enough that we simply sit in it, more or less level, while we are aground.

We love tiny islands, and this little sound contains many.  On the chart the smallest ones are unnamed, but the town of New Castle's zoning map is more revealing.
Interestingly, Pest Island belongs to the city of Portsmouth.   We were anchored right about here, just off the end of "Long Rock":
The pointy end of Long Rock, attached to the much larger Mill Island, was barely a stones throw away from us.  The contemporary nautical chart, near the top of the page, does not show the anchorage very accurately.  Here is a chart from about forty years ago that offers much more detail.
From the Zoning Map and older chart one can see several things.  There is a tiny islet, exposed at all tides, with trees on it even, that is not even shown on the newer chart.  A series of old half-tide breakwaters connects this series of islets and creates a lagoon that remains full of water (despite the mudflats shown on both charts) even at dead low tide.  Based on the name of the largest islet, and a nearby street name, it would seem that this was once a Mill Pond of some sort.  It is tempting to try and explore it by boat, but the breakwaters over the two entrances suggest that utmost caution is in order, and we have no idea what the Low Tide depths might be on the far side.

The wildlife here is spectacular and the water is very calm, even in a nasty blow.  We saw a bald eagle, several great blue herons, and numerous terns.  The city of Portsmouth is an easy walk or motorized dinghy ride away and has many charms.  Of our two days here,  the weather was spectacular on one day and horrendous on the other.  It was a good place to be for either situation.  You should not come here and spend less than two nights out of consideration for the bridge tenders, who have much demanding work to do on the Piscataqua bridges.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Third day (part one): Exploring Star Island

The Isles of Shoals are a beautiful place.  Really, this is a severe understatement.  Before bed last night we were treated to this sunset, soon accompanied by the evening star.
By the time the boys were asleep, the Milky Way was plainly visible and an ocean of stars one can never see in a town like Salem, unless there is a serious power outage on an unusually clear night. There were shooting stars, presumably part of the annual Leonid Brezhnev meteor showers.   
When I was last in Isles of Shoals, more than twenty years ago, the impression I received was that it was off-limits to univited visitors. We explored White Island and Lunging by inflatable raft but did not set foot on shore. It remains true that most of the islands are private property, and that the prospect of people on cruising boats traipsing around on them is about as welcome to the owners as the idea of tourists in the back yard would be to you and me.  
But times have changed. Star Island, in particular, is now a hive of activity, and well worth a trip ashore. Tour boats from Rye and Portsmouth (Star, Lunging and White Islands are in New Hampshire, technically in Rye; while Appledore, Cedar, Malaga, Smuttynose, and Duck Islands are in Maine) dock several times a day. Anyone who is interested can book a "personal retreat" in Star Island's magnificent Oceanic Hotel.  As unexpected visitors, we were welcomed at a float attached to the main pier by a friendly lifeguard who helped us to tie up our dinghy.  At the top of the gangway is a map of the island, and a donations bin (the donations bin suggests a donation $10 per person; I am embarrassed to say that  had left my wallet on Bufflehead and thus gave nothing).  Despite my own failure in this regard, I do strongly recommend a donation; if for no other reason, than that if you use the Oceanic Hotel's toilets (which I strongly recommend) you should at least help pay for their upkeep.  If you do use the Oceanic toilets (they are in the basement, accessible from the right hand side of the lobby via stairs), you might notice that there are also showers adjoining.  I did not ask about using these, but I did notice that even the Oceanic's paying guests are only supposed to shower every other day.  Do not presume.

Also in the lobby is a remarkable little bookstore (selling mostly titles relating to the islands or to spiritual matters—the isaland is run by the Unitarian Universalist association), a fun gift/craft shop, and a snack bar.  The lobby itself, as well as the grand front deck of the hotel is a throwback to another era of vacationing, and is sight to behold in itself.  There can be few such sights left anywhere in New England.
Just to left of the hotel is a little graveyard, honoring members of the Caswell family, most whom died before 1880 or so.  Here can be found some of the best examples I have seen of Victorian marble headstones, still legible after all these years.
Beyond that, on a low rise, is a gazebo called "the summer house," with a fine view (pictured above) of the White Island Lighthouse and its causeway.

If you continue around behind the hotel, there is a sort of industrial looking zone where we assume a lot of the maintenance work of the island and its buildings takes place. There are also some sheds where boat building, mainly of dorys, is being done. Travelling up the hill behind the hotel, you come to a little village of stone structures.  One of these is a chapel, where candlelit services are held nightly.  Another is a small museum dedicated to Island history, and its principal bard and gardener, Celia Thaxter,
It is not clear exactly how old these buildings are.  In style they match the chapel, which was built in 1800, or so.
The plaque is deliberately vague about why the islanders burned the the previous building to the ground.
Beyond the little square of stone buildings, out towards the Atlantic shore of the island, are a series of monuments. The famous is a monument to Captain John Smith, who stopped here and spoke highly of the islands, attempting to the name them after himself.  The name did not stick.  There are numerous cairns of uncertain provenance, which are not dedicated to Smith.  The most visible monument, below, is also not dedicated to Smith.  
This monument, which is not visible from any distance, is:
Many of the sponsored activities on Star island revolve around the arts.  The Art Barn is located between two cistern-pools.

Circling back around the island towards the wharf, one begins to walk by Gosport Harbor again.  There is a short stretch of industrial looking stuff again—construction debris and old screen doors—before one comes to a building housing a small marine laboratory and exhibition space.  Here one can see baby lobsters and touch starfish, and examine bones.  Right next to this building is a playground, which is useful for expending any excess energy your children may have retained even after walking around the island.

We are told that Smuttynose also has a nice walking trail.  We didn't get to check it out on this visit.  At certain times of year, especially early in the summer, it is worth noting that human owners and seabirds may have different ideas about whether a given island is open to visitors.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Second Day: Annisquam, MA to Gosport Harbor, Isles of Shoals

Between Cape Ann, MA and Cape Elizabeth, ME is a long stretch of water called the Bigelow Bight. A "bight" is an indentation in the coast that is so shallow that, with the proper wind direction, it can be entered and exited without having to tack.  In fact, it is barely an indentation at all.  The shoreline is an extraordinarily long stretch of beach, stretching from Wingaersheek (at the mouth of the Annisquam) to Old Orchard (just inside of Cape Elizabeth).  The beaches are pierced by a few rocky outcroppings, but mainly by the mouths of rivers.  The combination of beach and river is a double-edged one for boaters.  Every river mouth is a harbor, but those harbors are often difficult to enter, subject to strong currents, and resistant to accurate charting of things like depth.  Once inside the river mouth, ones options for accommodation may be limited or complex.  Marinas often predominate; moorings may be unavailable; places to anchor may be severely limited.

Some might say that being able to poke up rivers is the whole point of owning a shoal draft boat.  We would not disagree.  But if you aren't sure of your own ability to read tide and currents, or you don't want to deal with drawbridges or marinas, one stop on the passage east to the more spectacular parts of the Maine coast that does not require crossing a bar or navigating a river mouth, is Gosport Harbor, at the Isles of Shoals, which is where we are this afternoon.

Three of the six and a half islands that make up this little archipelago are joined together by two breakwaters. One connects Star Island to Cedar, and the other connects Cedar to the poetically named Smuttynose.  The result is a harbor of extraordinary stillness in a environment that otherwise, looks, sounds, and smells thoroughly offshore.

The trip from Annisquam, on which we averaged five and a half knots over the bottom, is approximately 19 nautical miles.  We covered it in slightly more than three hours, under power, with a headwind, and a very calm sea.  We are travelling with children, something the original writers' of the Guide do not much acknowledge as a possibility.  To a ten year old and a twelve year old boy, an multi-hour offshore passage on beautiful day holds about as much appeal as long stint in a waiting room without any good magazines.  Had we wished to get all the way to midcoast maine today, we could easily have done so.  We would have just had to get up earlier and rest content with arriving in Casco Bay near sundown. The boys would have been intolerant of this plan.  I did it myself at their age, and I remember it as one of the longest (if also most memorable) days of my life.  

I also remember being enthralled by the Isles of Shoals as we passed through them.  Rocky, with scrubby vegetation, they have a bizarre mixture of buildings on them: a lighthouse on White Island, at the southernmost extreme, a large and somewhat ramshackle summer hotel, which is now the property of the Unitarian Universalist Association on Star Island, A large house on the tiny Lunging Island, a weathered obelisk commemorating Johns Smith's visit here, a submarine watchtower on Appledore island, and a famous garden.  And then they were gone.  Staying here, on a weekday afternoon, is not technically a solitary affair.  But it feels high lonesome, and quiet in the best sense.  

Bufflehead, as viewed from above and behind the Star Isl.-Cedar Isl. Breakwater.
The Breakwater itself, on a falling tide.  This mooring is the one furthest inside.  "If you can read this, you are aground."  Actually the water is quite deep here, even at low tide.  The six foot spot on the chart is somewhere off to starboard.

Monday, August 5, 2013

First stop: the Annisquam river

The Cruising Giude to the New England Coast has some pretty harsh words for the Annisquam River. It is, as the author's claim, "one of the busiest stretches of water in New England."  It is also one of the most demanding to navigate.  First a word about what it is.

The Annisquam is a fairly large tidal river, with its mouth at the northern side of the narrowest part of Cape Ann.  Its southernmost reaches are connected with Gloucester's massive harbor by a small cut, called the Blynman Canal.  The latter is both short and narrow, with a drawbridge over it at its (southern) entrance called "the cut bridge." Northbound (as we were today, coming from Marblehead) there are two more bridges to deal with: the MBTA drawbridge, and the 128-fixed bridge.  If your rig is more than 65-feet tall (highly unlikely for a shoal draft boat) do not attempt the Annisquam at all, as you will not fit under the 128 Bridge. The river is shown in detail on chart 13281, and is subject (like many tidal rivers) to constant shifts in the channel.  Some passages are dredged, but as the primary users of the river and canal are pleasure craft, money for maintaining dredged channels is scarce, and we have heard reports that recent hurricanes and noreasters have wreaked havoc on them.

The tidal current rips hard through the channel, especially at the Gloucester Harbor end. The canal and drawbridges should not be navigated under sail under any circumstances, and (as the Cruising Guide notes) your engine needs to have both balls and the ability to work in reverse.  Traffic in the canal and river on the weekends can be downright frightening, but on a weekday (like today) you have only the current to deal with, which is probably plenty.  Counter-intuitively, coming into the canal against the current (that is on falling tide, for a Northbound/Eastbound traveller; rising, for the opposite) is easier than going with the current.  It is a slower going, but you have more control over your boat.  Going with the current can be unpleasantly like surfing.

If the conditions are right (the tide is high and you have an up-to-date chart) there are several tributary branches of the Annisquam, on both sides, that are worth exploring and maybe even anchoring in.  Frankly we are reluctant to give names because we want to keep them to ourselves.  But if you don't have a good chart and the ability to read it, it isn't safe to visit these places anyway.

If you prefer a sure thing, Cape Marina has slips, and Annisquam Yacht Club and the Market Restaurant in Lobster Cove both have moorings.  The latter's moorings are more sheltered and are further up inside the cove, but they are also $50.  What?!  We went for it anyway.  This the view.

In the background is Wingaersheek Beach, possibly the finest beach on Cape Ann, and one of the finest on the whole North Shore of Boston.  And this is the view looking up the cove towards the foot bridge.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

I'm going on a six day cruise, and I'm going to bring...

Packing for a cruise is always a little tricky, especially in August. The weather is likely to be both very very hot and rather crisp and chilly. It is also likely to rain at some point. Space on a shoal draft boat is likely to be limited, yet opportunities to do laundry will be scarce (not to say unappealing). All of that is what it is. 

But practically, what to bring? I suggest at least one of each of the following: a wool or fleece sweater/overshirt; a pair of long pants that are not too heavy (if they get wet, you don't want have to wait for days for them to dry); a bathing suit; some sort of foul-weather gear, even if its just a light raincoat. For the rest, assuming a cruise of a week or less (more than that and I recommend fInding a laundromat) bring 2-3 pairs each of shorts and summer shirts. A lifelong natural fibers freak, I have lately come to embrace the virtues of quick dry fabrics on the water. I like lightweight long sleeve shirts over short sleeves in all but the hottest weather because it's one less area to apply sunblock to.  You probably won't want socks as often as you would at home,  but it's a mistake not to bring any, because cold feet are the worst. Bring enough clean underwear for the duration. An extra hat is a good idea in case one goes over the side.  You should always know where your towel is. 

What about non-clothing, non food items?  Know the bedding situation before you go and plan accordingly, but even if all bedding is provided, you might want to bring an extra pillow of your own. Pillows that live on a boat all summer inevitably take on certain pong- a cross, perhaps, between mildew and diesel fumes. Items for personal hygiene are critical. Ask yourself: what are the things that help you to feel cleaner when you can't take a proper bath? Bring those things. Any medicines you might require, you should obviously bring, although you may want to consider specialty items like Dramamine as well. For adults who drink, your preferred hangover remedy is probably a good idea as well. Bring books and magazines. Games that are very compact, like a deck of cards, are good to have.

As for luggage, multiple small bags are easier to manage than a single large one. Remember you might be sleeping with your bag(s) so rigid or poky luggage is to be avoided. Good luck. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Meal Planning

As with any human endeavour, how to eat while cruising is always a key issue, and requires more planning than living on land.  In some ways it is a great deal like planning for camping, and (as with camping) a lot of what you plan depends on what you go in for.  Some people who camp like to stay in an orderly campground and eat in nearby restaurants.  At the other extreme, people who are long distance hikers tend to eat foods that are ready made, won't spoil, and can be prepared quickly and easily on a single burner. Plenty of cruisers can be found who subscribe to waterbourne variations on both these strategies.  Shoal draft cruisers tend not to fit either of them.

Why?  Well, part of the point of shoal draft cruising is getting to anchorages that other boats cannot reach.  These are not especially likely to be convenient to restaurants or even to grocery stores.  But by the same token, shoal draft cruisers are not generally very well adapted to sailing long distances offshore—and if that's what you are into, the appeal of getting deep inside some quiet salt marsh probably isn't very great.  So chances are you are going to plan on cooking aboard, with something less than a fully equipped kitchen.

Bufflehead's galley has a pump sink, a two burner alcohol stove, and an icebox, which is only kept cold with real blocks of ice.  If you are up for the challenge, cooking on the boat is very satisfying.  Things to bear in mind when planning a menu (of which the one below is an example) are pretty simple.
•Use perishables early in the trip.  Many fresh fruits and vegetables respond poorly to the humid salty air of a cabin, and to the strong possibility of getting knocked around in the cabin or submerged in the icebox.  Cryovaced meats do better than standard plastic wrapped fare.
•Freeze what you can before you leave.  Not only will this help it last longer, but helps the whole icebox work more efficiently.
•Try to plan meals that will only need as many pots as you have burners.
•For later in the trip, canned goods are awesome.
•Try not to put anything in the icebox that isn't packaged in such a way that it can be fully immersed in water.  Big Ziplocks can be handy for things like cheese that might otherwise get waterlogged. 
•Be flexible in your planning.  You never know what weather might do to your plans (or your appetite!).  This is especiallty true of lunches, which are more likely to be prepared while you are underway.  The notes I made below were simply a basis for my shopping.  Expect things to switch around.  
More Thoughts? Share them in the comments.