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Dennis Ahern has warm memories of a cold Down East adventure
By Peter Tuttle
ROCKPORT — Duffy Blatchford's white Sandy Bay Class sloop still rides the winter waves in front of the yacht club like a big gull, but the rest of the yachts are gone from the outer harbor. The Sandy Bay captains sit in armchairs reading yachting books, or show slides of cruising and racing during the summer past. One Rockport navigator who cruised beyond Sandy Bay last season was Dennis Ahern. Like many other Cape Ann navigators, he went Down East for his adventure. Unlike most others, his cruise was in a 12-foot open sailboat known as a Firefly, or more affectionately, a Fruitfly.

“It was just a week,” Dennis recalled yesterday, “although by the time it was over the time seemed a lot longer. I started at a place called Beal Island, Maine. It's a property that the Appalachian Mountain Club owns on the estuary of the Sasanoa River, a wooded island the club bought and maintains as a camping area. I'm on the committee that maintains the property for the club and I went there for a meeting. So what I did was I brought the boat there by trailer and stayed Saturday for the meeting planning to sail afterward. Both Saturday and Sunday were miserable. It rained.

“I spent Sunday night there on the island after the others had left and I started Monday morning. There wasn't a wind and I sort of paddled the boat down the river and it ended up almost like white water. In the narrow tidal channel with the tide going out, it was almost like white water. The boat spun in circles a couple of times. It got to be kind of scary, going round in the eddies and currents. Then I got into the Sheepscot River, got my sail up and started to go down towards the ocean. It was raining then and kind of drizzly and misty. It was a very quiet, woodsy area. There were seals and all kinds of birds. I was a little bit scared when I heard a hissing sound which turned out to be porpoises playing games with me. They hung around for about ten minutes.

“I went down the Sheepscot and north to Boothbay late Monday afternoon. There had been reports of a hurricane—it was the hurricane that never materialized. But because I had been hearing about it, I had a little transistor radio with me to listen to weather reports. Monday night I got to Boothbay Harbor and went to the yacht club which was closed, except the locker room was open. So I hauled out my soaking wet gear and spent Monday night in the men's room of the Boothbay Harbor yacht club. I was thoroughly ensconced. I had my stove set up, fixed my supper, took a shower. I spent Tuesday night there also. On Tuesday night I slept on the boat for the first time. I had it rigged up with a Navy canvas hammock. It just reached from the mast to the transom, but it sagged right at the base of my spine over the centerboard trunk. I put some foam rubber there to soften the spot and had a boom tent jury-rigged over the boat, open fore and aft. By that time I was getting a little stir crazy from spending all day in the men's room and I resolved to pull out Wednesday.

“I got under way around noon and sailed over to Boothbay Harbor to get some clothes washed and dried—I only had two changes of clothes with me, counting the one I had on. This is the kind of story you hear about. At the laundry I had everything off but my gym shorts and my nylon windbreaker. The local native ladies were looking at me a little strangely. But the really fantastic thing was running into Shorty Lesch. [Harbormaster of my home port - Rockport, Mass.] I sailed up to a float in front of one of those hotel complexes in my little Firefly and I hear this voice calling down, “When you get done tying up, Captain, come up and have a beer with us.” I can't tell you how good it felt to hear a friendly voice after all that wet and spending a day and two nights in the men's room. So I tied up and had a beer with Shorty and his friends before going over to the laundry.

“After that I ended up sailing out of Boothbay Harbor, and wound up getting in an hour after sunset at Cape Newagen. There's a little harbor there just on the point of the Cape. This was the first night I cooked and slept on board riding at anchor. I opened a can of chop suey and had that for supper. By this time I was kind of cold and damp and it felt pretty good to get some hot food down. I crawled into my sleeping bag and slept except every once in a while I looked out to make sure I was in the same place. The next morning it was a little foggy. I cooked the rest of the chop suey and had that for breakfast, got everything squared away and started to tack out of the harbor entrance. Thing is though, Shorty and his wife were all staying at a cabin on a little island outside the harbor. So Shorty was out there in the surf swimming when I sailed by and his wife came out and took a picture.

“The rest of the day was pretty boring. In fact that was the day I fell asleep at the helm. The place I wanted to get to next was Small Point. This was the longest stretch of sailing I had during the trip because I had to get to Freeport Saturday. It was a long day's sail and I rigged up the boat to sail itself. As long as it was going close hauled, I had some shock cord which would bring the tiller back when it started to luff up. I spent a bit of time writing in my log, wrote some postcards, had some lunch and generally got very tired and cramped. My bottom kept falling asleep from sitting on the bottom of the boat.

“Finally I got into Small Point Harbor. I got a couple of things at the general store. I had plans to do a little sailing at night, but just as it got dark, the wind died down. So I anchored in the little cove on the landward side of the island. It had been sunny, so I didn't bother to set up the boom tent. Three in the morning I wake up and see this lightning to the south and west over the land. I said to myself 'This is September, it's a little late for heat lightning.' Five minutes later I started to hear thunder—but it was so warm and cozy in my sleeping bag. Then the wind picked up. I had just enough time to unrig my hammock and I had just got the top of my foul weather gear on when it started to pour buckets. I was getting a little scared because this protected cove turned out to be a trap. When the storm came in the cove, I had the rocks on three sides. There was no way I could have gotten out, with the wind blowing as it was—straight in the narrow mouth of the cove.

“I had to ride that out for two hours. I heard later over the radio that that freak storm had winds of 50 miles per hour and blew down trees in Freeport and Portland. I wasn't afraid for myself—I could have swum to the island if the anchor let go, but I could have lost the boat. And it seemed like I was moving. It seemed like I kept getting further away from the lobster buoys I anchored near, and it was just a little four and a half pound Danforth, but, boy, that anchor really dug in. The next morning I had a heck of a time pulling it out. At one point I rigged up a flare—thinking some fisherman might come out at four in the morning and rescue me—It kind of cheered me up with its bright light and I started singing songs.

“At five it started to get light and the wind died down, so I could rig up and get out. The wind was still blowing 20-25 mph. So I proceeded to rig up and went back to Small Point Harbor. I set up camp on the porch of the general store, with the natives walking back and forth, looking at this guy who had set up camp cooking his breakfast on their porch.

“So by then everything was all soaking wet again, and it was another miserable day and I had to make it to South Freeport by the end of that day. So I set off, had sometimes a good breeze, kind of spookey with a heavy swell. You would get knocked back and forth off course. The wind picked up pretty steady in the afternoon and by the time I came to Casco Bay, I was riding along on a beam reach, going like hell, surfing down those long swells. I got into South Freeport around five, and got in touch with some friends of mine. They came down and picked me up and gave me a hot bath. It felt good. I was so tired and cold and miserable and cramped—it got to be too much of an adventure.”

Dennis says that if he did the trip again, he'd go earlier in the season, so he would have the company of other cruising boats. “I could have pulled up in some cove next to one of those 40 foot cruising boats.” “I've always liked boats,” he added. “In fact you might find a reference to me in the Gloucester Times of 1949 or '50. I was seven or eight then, and I wanted to look at the cruising boats over at the yacht club. They fascinated me, I used to run my fingers along their portholes when they were tied up. This was on a summer Sunday, I remember the Legion Band was playing over in the park. I went down to the Granite Pier and borrowed a rowboat to row across the bay. The only problem was I didn't know how to row. I drifted past Gull Island and the tide took me out to sea. I got picked up the next morning by a lobster boat out looking for me. That was one of my earlier adventures in boats.”

The Gloucester Times 11 December 1971

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