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The Last Sail, but Not the First Time

By Clinton W. Trowbridge / October 22, 1997



'Don't worry about it," I said. "There's plenty of wind." The sailboat had an outboard, but I'd forgotten the portable gas tank for it - for the second time. We weren't going far: from Naskeag Harbor to the Benjamin River, about 5 miles. But it was against the tide, and the tides in this part of Maine, in the waters of the Eggemogin Reach, could run 3 to 4 miles an hour. The wind was light, though favorable, predicted to shift and increase in strength later that afternoon. We tacked out of the harbor, Elaine and I and our friend Lois. It was a warm afternoon in mid-October. We were putting the boat away. It would be the last sail of the summer.

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Elaine's expression conveyed doubt, only partially masked by a humorous questioning. Had not all this happened before? Just two weeks before, as a matter of fact? Hadn't she questioned me about this very gas can before we left the house? Hadn't I assured her that it was on board? Yes. Yes. Yes. So I had made a mistake. I had misspoke myself, as they say.

But everything would be all right. Hadn't that other trip worked out well? The wind had held. Of course, there was that time back in July when we'd motored out to see the sunset and we'd had to paddle back in - at night - against the tide, the outboard having failed. It was warm, the stars were beautiful, and the phosphorescence in the water was brilliant. But it was nearly 11 o'clock when we reached the dock, and we were understandably weary after two hours of paddling.

I looked over at Lois. She seemed unperturbed. It was her first sail of the summer. As we flapped our way out of the harbor toward a nearby island, I could see the signs of stronger wind beyond. "We'll be all right once we get out there," I said.

"Would you like us to paddle?" Elaine said, just the slightest touch of hauteur in her voice.

"If you want," I said. "Just a little bit." They used the oars from the dinghy. Lois's oar was crooked.

Sedately, we moved toward the wind. It was only 1:30. There was plenty of time.

And then we were sailing, on course, toward the Benjamin River, invisible to us beyond some islands. I began to relax. But what was that in the distance? A sailboat becalmed? Hadn't we better go back, after all?

When I was a boy, summering in Hancock Point, only a few miles from here, I thought nothing of sailing without a motor. My parents had a boat about this size, a 17-foot sloop called The White Seal, and we used to go off on it for days at a time, towing it with the dinghy if we ran out of wind. Returning from picnics to the islands off Bar Harbor, we almost always had to row the last mile; inevitably, it seemed, against the tide. Most of the songs (rounds) I know, I learned then. If we didn't get in till midnight, our appetites for dinner were that much stronger, that's all.

We'd been sailing for two hours, and the wind was still moving us along, but we were not making much progress against the tide. We were halfway there, but the smart thing to do would have been to turn back.

"Just steer us toward that point of land," I said to Elaine as I took up an oar. "Pull the tiller toward you. The other way."

The boat moved very slowly forward toward the Benjamin River. Lois and I were both paddling now, but we were only just keeping even with the tide. Rescue! I thought. We have to think in terms of rescue. In the distance, far behind us, there was the sound and then the sight of a large lobster boat. But he went straight by.

" 'A painted ship upon a painted ocean,'" chanted Lois.

" 'Water, water, everywhere,' " Elaine intoned. " 'But not a drop to drink.' " At least they seemed amused.

I STOOD in front of the jib waving my oar. Lois did the same from the cockpit. Fortunately, the motor boat approaching us slowed. An elderly man called out. "Trowbridge! Is that you, Trowbridge?"

"Yes, yes!" I cried. And then, cravenly, "Do you suppose you could give us a tow?" I'd met the man at a party. He had told me a funny story having to do with boats. All right, I thought, let him dine out on this one every night for a week, if only he tows us in. "We've got a motor but no gas can," I said. "I left it at home." Smiles wreathed the faces of all aboard. Much joviality and throwing of ropes.

"Too fast?" the man yelled out as we skimmed through the water at 20 m.p.h. No, no, I shook my head and smiled as the other man caught us in his camera's eye. But when he sat down and took up pen and paper, I groaned. Not just dinner parties, I said to myself. The newspaper! "Sedgwick Man Rescued in Classic Bungle...."

"Next time," I vowed to Elaine later. In the manner of the Cheshire cat, she smiled.