Shoreline Out of Sight

WHICH is worse: a sou'westerly gale, or thick o'fog? This morning the choice seemed obvious. For the past 18 hours I'd been marooned in tiny Western Cove on Deer Isle, watching nervously from the shore while Ishmael, my small sloop, plunged and tossed at its mooring like a wild stallion. Sometime during the night the wind dropped, and I woke at first light to a miraculous, fog-muffled stillness - but for how long? Without a moment's hesitation, I rowed out to Ishmael, kicked on the motor, and set out for my home. In less than a minute, the shoreline had dropped completely out of sight.

Not exactly the scenario I would have envisioned for my first fog run: zero visibility and an eight-mile run home through the island-dotted upper reaches of Deer Island Thorofare. I'd had a little previous experience with fog navigation through seamanship courses and some offshore cruising (on friends' boats, with Loran and radar.) But the acid test - by myself, with just compass and chart - was a challenge I'd been successfully avoiding for years.

For some reason, however, I'd chosen this moment to throw myself over the hurdle, and like it or not, this adventure was underway. So I got out my chart and set up my courses and distances. The run home, down Jericho Bay to Burnt Coat Harbor, Swan's Island, was almost entirely south and southeast. The first 20 minutes, at 158 degrees magnetic, would glide me past Shabby Island and out into the bay. From there, it would be about 40 minutes at 145 degrees to clear the buoy off Hat Island Ledge, then another 40 minutes to the harbor bell and the familiar entrance to Burnt Coat Harbor. As if to confirm the accuracy of my navigation, little Shabby Island floated by, right on schedule.

Out here in this still water, the rising of an island was in its own way dramatic - a quickening. First came a profusion of lobster pots around its shoals, then a slight moving of the current - gentle V's and ripples gliding lazily over the deeper swells; then the rush of water hitting something, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a rock. Then almost as quickly it dropped astern, and I was alone again, out in open water.

In this comfortable breathing space, I fell to pondering the events of the past 18 hours. Actually, my marooning had not been at all unpleasant. Western Cove is home to the renowned Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and I'd come ashore to a good meal and warm hospitality. Part of the pleasure was the chance to renew acquaintances with Fran Merritt, Haystack's winsome founding director and guiding light, whose wisdom is exceeded only by his graciousness.

To help me while away the afternoon, Fran invited me to sit in on his beginning drawing class. One woman in the class was quite keen to draw portraits. A guy wanted to draw boats. Fran mostly had us draw patterns, play with charcoal and pencils on paper. ``After all,'' he said, ``that's the only thing that's really real in a drawing, the lines themselves. The rest is all artificical.''

Now, out here in the fog, I could begin to experience the wisdom of his words in a different context. As I'd sat there yesterday happily absorbed in making lines and squiggles on paper, it occurred to me that for the first time in years of dabbling with art, I was enjoying the motions themselves rather that being totally absorbed with the goal. Now much the same was happening out here on the water.

After all the fret and worry about fog navigation, the actual doing of it was kind of pleasant. The quiet was intoxicating; the world pinpoint still, no ripple, no sliver of horizon, only a red sun occasionally gliding in and out of the eastern sky, giving a reddish tinge to the world I was in. Where was I? I was somewhere in a picture, a picture of a bay, with a reality called ``home'' at the other end of a line that Ismael and I were carving through the water. But more important, I was here, wherever that was, and completely at ease with it.

I glanced down at my watch. Thirty-five minutes of my anticipated trek across the bay had elapsed. I must be nearly there. But suddenly the simple and obvious thought occurred to me: How would I recognize there when I got to it? In drawing a line to a destination, you take it for granted you'll recognize the destination when you get to it. But in this case my destination, the checkpoint needed for trimming my course, was a red buoy, called a `nun,' somewhere in the middle of the bay. With about thirty feet of visibility, I could be almost on top of it, ghost right on by, never knowing ... on down to Mt. Desert Rock, or Nova Scotia.

I was pondering this new wrinkle when suddenly, as if right on cue, I felt a quickening ... like before ... a rush of lobster buoys, that slow curling of the water's surface, an echoing of waves against a shore. Suddenly, out of the rush of waters popped a foggy, spruce-clad shoreline.

It's not supposed to be there, I thought. The chart says clear water. I bore off, dodged to the west, and the island obediently dropped out of sight. I adjusted my course back to southeast again, continuing on toward home.

Wham, there it was again. This time just a tip of it, and then a rock and some ledge. The rapid rippling of current; suddenly another rock. I shoved the tiller hard over. Another rock. The bottom running up to meet me. Water churning. Lively. Menacing.

Things got very clear. Forget headings; steer to deeper water. Move off in the only way possible, which seemed to be north. Gradually the shoals subsided; the water slowly regained depth.

Out of immediate difficulty, I got out the chart and tried to make sense of what had just happened. With my mental picture shattered, suddenly the chart had turned into a huge jigsaw puzzle, to which I held one small puzzle piece: turning south will produce an island and some rather nasty water. Where could that piece fit? As I pored over the possible openings, one likely candidate began to emerge. Somehow, I must have steered too far south, wound up down among the ledges and small islands just off Saddleback Island, on the west side of Jericho Bay.

So the thing to do would be to steer east till I got that island in sight again, then steer north till well clear of it. After that, it should be safe to resume my southesterly course for home. Armed with my new mental picture, I set out again, nosing toward the east. Soon the spruce-clad shoreline popped back into view.

I could just barely hold it in sight, steering along its mostly bold coast, dipping into and out of each little cove. I'd edge out to clear a ledgy point and the island would disappear; then nose back in, past the subsiding breakers, to catch a pungent gulp of warm spruce air, or the damp smell of earth, and shoreline again. We were glued to each other, mirror images, as I followed the coast around, waiting for the moment when the last point would be rounded and it would be safe to turn southeast again. Only that moment seemed to be taking its time in coming.... Then suddenly, just as gnawing doubt was about to give way to total confusion, a dead spruce tree jumped out from the shore.

I knew that tree. Improbable as it might seem, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind: it was the old dead spruce on the west side of Swan's Island, about midway down the coast between Swan's Island Head and West Point. Last February I spent a whole afternoon trying to draw it, capture its amazingly gnarled and weathered shapes. Frustrating, as usual, but now it seems that the exercise was not in vain. At least now I knew exactly where I was, and getting home is just mechanical, although a bit tedious, a long bird-dog around the Swan's Island shore and into the harbor.

By West Point the fog had lifted enough to let me see where I'd gone wrong. I'd gotten down between Hat Island and its ledge, just off West Point. Steering a little too east, I'd missed the nun I was aiming for by almost half a mile and landed on its wrong side. My mistake should have been obvious when I looked at the chart. But the possibility never even occurred to me because I had it fixed in my mind that it would take 40 minutes to get across the bay. Typical beginner's mistakes: no big deal in a dead calm, potentially disastrous if there'd been any wind up.

Anyway, this day was now definitely headed toward visual navigation. Suddenly, all around, the coast was unwrapping, headlands and summits floating out above their foggy bases, and soon even those last wreaths and tatters were gone and what was left was a mellow morning and, yes, the first stirrings of a breeze. I raised sail, and abandoning the slow creep around the shoreline, set a straight course for Burnt Coat light.

And yet, it was not without a feeling of regret to be back in this huge, far-flung panorama, back to the normal visual mode. The thing about visual navigation, it suddenly struck me, is that one navigates by reference to where one is not. It takes a huge, sprawling universe - mountains, bays, sparkling islands and spruce-clad shores - to define where one is not, to keep sufficiently oriented to deduce where one is. Out there in the fog, for a brief time, it was a whole new feeling: navigating by reference to where I was.

It was a tiny sliver of a world, barely 30 feet wide; a miniature kingdom in which lobster buoys, rippling water, and the pungent rush of spruce air were the scale on which things were happening. Minute movements, but sensuous, real, and I liked the feel of them. Sort of what Fran had said about art; it all starts with simply liking the feel of the motions, the materials, the lines themselves, noticing the real in its own scale rather than deducing it from the macrocosm. And was it just coincidence that that old dead spruce tree, the only thing I'd ever really seen to scale, was the thing that brought me home?

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