Cruis­ing shouldn’t be all about get­ting to your des­ti­na­tion quickly, says David Buck­man

oast­ing is less a sport than art, and those who wan­der un­der sail spend a good deal of en­ergy seek­ing an elu­sive bal­ance of mind, body, boat, sea and sub­tlety that el­e­vates it from the merely func­tional to a cer­tain state of fi­nesse.

The way we ad­dress time is first among such mat­ters. Time is bliss, time is stress, and time well spent is a trea­sure. The most fa­vor­able al­lo­ca­tion of the hours has less to do with get­ting places quickly, for speed in sail­ing terms—the 5 knots we’re pleased to av­er­age—is prac­ti­cally ir­rel­e­vant. You can sched­ule meet­ings and colono­scopies, but you can’t sched­ule a cruise. In­vest­ing in quiet and qual­ity seems more prof­itable.

Over a life­time of sail­ing, the last three decades aboard a 26ft In­ter­na­tional Folk­boat, our am­bi­tions were chron­i­cally op­ti­mistic, but at length my wife, Leigh, and I came to see that such ad­ven­tures were en­hanced the more de­lib­er­ately we em­braced or­ganic coast­ing and what we call the “glow of slow.”

The tip­ping point was our third cruise to Nova Sco­tia. Leav­ing Maine astern, we whis­pered along at 4 knots. It was as civil a ve­loc­ity as there is, but with 200 miles to go we felt com­pelled to mo­tor­sail, which left us and the sails rest­less as we plugged nois­ily east­ward. We made Lock­e­port in time to wait out rain and fog. Then it was a lively 78-mile run to Lunen­burg, where we ar­rived in the dark and were closers at the Knot Pub. Leav­ing early and ar­riv­ing late wore thin af­ter a while.

Leigh and I had just three weeks for the cruise. The weather went south, we had lay­days we couldn’t af­ford, felt off-bal­ance and made our way back to Maine in a dun­geon of fog and a snotty south­east­erly. While we can profit from chal­lenges, there were way too few idle hours and a nag­ging sense we could have made more of our pre­cious sail­ing time.

Pil­ing on the miles un­der power when there’s no wind is one thing, but mo­tor­ing when a sail­ing breeze is up is be­set with con­trary im­pli­ca­tions for the drown­ing out of na­ture’s sub­tle vi­bra­tions, di­min­ished qual­ity and me­chan­i­cal ten­sion. Beat­ing to weather is no more to be avoided than a moun­tain climber would take a chair­lift to the sum­mit. The sat­is­fac­tion of or­ganic coast­ing is in the art­ful ex­e­cu­tion of it.

In our search of a more el­e­gant sail style, we jet­ti­soned Leight’s genoa for a han­ked-on blade jib that sheets in­board, points higher, elim­i­nates sail changes, is de­cid­edly handy and fa­cil­i­tates sail­ing close-hauled and in close quar­ters, which adds drama and in­ten­sity to coast­ing.

The 40-odd miles be­tween the Cows Yard in far Downeast Maine and Swan’s Is­land is of­ten a slog, the sum­mer winds late in stir­ring, in­vari­ably on the nose and fickle as fate. As we pow­ered west­ward on glassy seas one bright Au­gust morn­ing, mak­ing for the dis­tant spike of a light­house on Petit Manan Is­land, the tide turned against us and a smart south­wester blew up. The bow swung east of south be­fore the sails qui­eted and Leight put her shoul­der to the task.

The speedo flashed 5 knots. Five knots to­ward the Azores, I mused. Our des­ti­na­tion was 25 roller­coaster miles to the west, and double the dis­tance tack­ing into it. Leight set­tled into her pace, spray flew, the jib was sheeted in and the arc of the main shal­low. Ig­nor­ing the GPS dis­tance read­ings, we made a pro­duc­tion of lunch, serv­ing up cheese, crack­ers and sar­dines south­bound, and ap­ples, cashews and cho­co­late bars as we slanted north­ward.

I read, Leigh read, we held Leight to the fang of sea and

We lev­i­tated over a sky-blue sea, breeze soft as whis­per­ing lovers

paid lit­tle at­ten­tion to time. On Leigh’s watch, I cleaned the cabin, for we’d left in a hurry. When I was “on,” Leigh looked up Wil­son’s pe­trels in her bird book, checked the weather and made hot cho­co­late. Hopes of fetch­ing Sc­hoodic Point left us want­ing as the af­ter­noon ma­tured. We plugged doggedly along and evening shad­ows were length­en­ing by the time we made Great Duck Is­land, where off to star­board the peaks of Mt. Desert Is­land mor­phed into a pur­ple moun­tain majesty. As the vel­vety vast­ness of night set­tled in, we sol­diered on, is­lands black on black. Hours later, af­ter short-tack­ing through a mere tickle of a back­door pas­sage, we made Burnt Coat Har­bor on Swans Is­land, Hock­amock Head light­house flash­ing its sober warn­ing, and barely a word be­tween us. The glow of slow means less noise, re­duced fuel con­sump­tion, less time in port to top off the tanks, fewer me­chan­i­cal prob­lems, re­duced ex­po­sure to fried food, gift shops and more op­tions. Quiet days suc­cumb­ing to the nat­u­ral rhythm of things, ghost­ing along at but 2 or 3 knots, have proved some of the most civil sail­ing we’ve known.

Leav­ing the mir­rored still­ness of Seal Trap on Maine’s Isle au Haut, only a few fee­ble breaths of air scrolled the glassy reaches of East Penob­scot Bay. The sails hung slack, and it took a good while for the sloop to gather way and awaken the rud­der. We eased mag­i­cally along, tide bil­low­ing and knot­ting, the GPS flash­ing 1.8 knots. There was a preg­nant still­ness to the scene, as the mate slacked the out­haul and joined me to lee­ward to help coax the main­sail into a fat arc of draft.

To star­board, bold swells of cliff-but­tressed shore rose to the spruce­crowned heights of Cham­plain Moun­tain 540ft above the wa­ter. Peace ran deep. Spruce nec­tars spiced the air, an ami­able chuckle came from un­der the bow and tell­tales flut­tered lazily. We lev­i­tated over a sky-blue sea, breeze soft as whis­per­ing lovers.

At length we brought the light­house on Robin­son’s Point abeam, where the nar­row­ing chan­nel com­pressed what lit­tle air was stir­ring. Swan­ning along at 2.7 knots, we watched the tidy vil­lage of Isle au Haut come abeam. A woman walk­ing to the store waved to us, nuns and cans nod­ded, and the quiet was so deep we could hear the mud hiss­ing as the tide ad­vanced.

As­pir­ing to a state of pro­duc­tive in­do­lence frames the glow of slow in a ge­nial light. We once spent six days in Maine’s stunning Mud Hole, fath­om­ing its wa­ters in our dinghy, wan­der­ing trails ashore, hav­ing pic­nics, drink­ing wine and feast­ing on clams fresh from the mud. We talked to ea­gles, read, took naps, sketched rather badly, lazed about, had spir­ited games of rummy for a foot rub prize and sa­vored the preg­nant quiet. How could time be spent bet­ter than that?

Af­ter all th­ese years, dis­cov­ery is as ex­cit­ing as ever, and while it’s tempt­ing to keep to our well-worn cruis­ing grooves, we’re still chanc­ing upon wild places the guides have noth­ing to say about. An hour’s work in our dinghy, with a lead line, pen­cil and note­book, re­vealed the way into Maine’s fiercely pri­vate York Is­land Har­bor. Skirt­ing shore and hug­ging half tide ledges, we had the rock-bound eel rut to our­selves and were privy to se­crets and si­lence on a grand scale. Solitude adds depth to coast­ing. Whether the lot of a sin­gle­han­der, or a lone boat and crew tucked away in an emer­ald al­cove, the per­spec­tive shift is stir­ring. It height­ens the senses, qui­ets us and adds depth. Leight’s mod­est size is a fa­mil­iar quan­tity in the hin­ter­lands and has proved an as­set in en­hanc­ing our oth­er­wise com­pletely un­re­mark­able so­cial cap­i­tal. It was the dark­est, drip­ping wet, thick-o-fog night ever as we sailed an­noy­ingly

slowly to­ward West Head on Cape Sable Is­land, Nova Sco­tia. The en­gine out of com­mis­sion, a fit­ful breeze astern, per­ils aplenty and roil­ing Fundy tide hav­ing lately turned against us, it was the last place we wanted to get caught out. But be­ing pulled back­ward by the cur­rents, we an­chored in ex­posed wa­ters and called the Coast Guard to let them know we’d pro­ceed when we could.

It was then we were adopted by lo­cal re­tirees Baff Sy­monds and Les­lie Smith, who were thrilled to tow us in at 2300. The next morn­ing they were at the pier when we awoke, vol­un­teered to get fuel and drove 15 miles to find a chap to fix the en­gine. We vis­ited their homes, met fam­i­lies, heard lo­cal lore, toured about, shared meals and plowed com­mon ground. There’s a phys­i­cal side to or­ganic coast­ing. No small part of a height­ened ex­pe­ri­ence rises from a state of fit­ness. Our moods are im­proved, we sleep bet­ter, make bet­ter de­ci­sions, are health­ier, stead­ier on our feet and have more en­durance. While mo­tor­ized in­flat­able ten­ders are ubiq­ui­tous, a proper hard-shell row­ing dinghy has many ad­van­tages. Quiet is fore­most among them, as is their hand­i­ness, not hav­ing to schlep gas and the abil­ity to have ac­tual con­ver­sa­tions while un­der­way. We profit from the ex­er­cise, and find that walks ashore and on­board ex­er­cises main­tain tone sur­pris­ingly well.

Leight’s 9ft-long, 67lb dinghy, which I de­signed and built of 4mm Okume ply­wood and fiber­glass, tows lightly. She is re­spon­sive to her oars, a magic car­pet to wild places where out­board mo­tors chew shear pins and birds take flight.

The sloop’s sim­ple sys­tems, in­clud­ing a one-cylin­der diesel, so­lar pan­els and mod­est elec­tri­cal de­mands, com­ple­ment or­ganic coast­ing and never re­quire the en­gine to charge bat­ter­ies. The chilly Gulf of Maine wa­ters make the bilge an ad­e­quate cooler and en­cour­age us to delve deeper into the lo­cal food chain, be­com­ing more trav­el­ers than tourists.

Or­ganic coast­ing is pos­sessed of no­table depths. We sail more, mo­tor less and trea­sure the depths of it. The quiet is pos­sessed of an an­i­mal alert­ness that frames our ad­ven­tures vividly, and like many of life’s most pleas­ant pur­suits it is best sa­vored de­lib­er­ately. s

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