Whispering an engineless catboat around the sounds of Maine, Bill Cheney relies on all his senses. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Penelope Down East

I was involved in a discussion the other day about the essence of seamanship. A number of folk were taking part and we had much of what you’d expect; tales of deep water storms, Cape Horn traverses, ice-hopping off Spitzbergen, and the rest. All good stuff, of course, but then up spoke a quiet man from the Chesapeake Bay. He, it transpired, had done much of his sailing in tight waterways and relatively flat water, but from his relaxed confidence you could tell he was a master of the trade.

And so it is with WR ‘Bill’ Cheney. His book Penelope Down East is a series of essays on single-handed cruising an engineless catboat among the islands and sounds of Maine. The charm of the writing, which would give the great Maurice Griffiths a run for his money, is matched by lessons to be learned from reading between the lines. There are no 40ft waves, no 90-knot winds and no knockdowns, but there is gritty sense in every page laced with humour and poetry. This extract shows us all three.

Extract from Penelope Down East

Without an engine to get in the way, I find that fears of running out of wind and being left to endure long nights of helpless drifting are greatly exaggerated. Patience when becalmed seems always to be rewarded by an eventual saving breeze. Every moment of my time on the water becomes more intense, more interesting, and far more enjoyable. New kinds of experience are part of the reward.

I remember a day quite a few years ago when Penelope and I were becalmed in a thick fog for many long hours off the eastern shore of Vinalhaven. It was one of those days when the forestay is only dimly and intermittently visible in the all-encompassing vapour. There was no sound, and the water was as flat and glassy as a mirror, so there was little or no motion.

After hours of this, the effect can become a little like what is described in accounts of sensory deprivation experiments. Deprived of external input, the mind works overtime and perception is altered.

Then, too, the very nature of fog can change what we hear and see. A white and day-glo red lobster buoy appeared to port. The shape was right, but the thing looked as big as a boat. Others, just beyond it, glowing in a dazzling array of Easter egg colours, seemed supernaturally bright and as big as houses.

Then I became aware of very faint music. It was a tinkling sound a bit like crystal glasses shattering in the far distance, but there were harp notes and chords in it, too, an ethereal melody with no probable source I could think of. This unearthly music grew louder and closer.

Whatever was out there kept coming straight for me. The music was ever louder, overwhelming, beautiful and thrilling, but terrifying, too. I didn’t know whether to expect an angel or an alien spaceship to emerge from the fog.

Then I saw a faint dimpling on the water, and felt the first warm, gentle droplets on my skin as rain swept my way out of the mist. In seconds what had been a gentle shower became a deluge, and I dove below where I listened to the rain thundering on the deck overhead, drums now having taken over from the harps and triangles.

In a few minutes it was over and I emerged to see a faint sun overhead and the barely discernible spruce-studded outline of Vinalhaven over to the west. A seal peeked at me from a few yards off, then dove. I could see him swimming under the boat.

Bill Cheney sails his catboat Penelope in the sounds of Maine

All that happened many years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday, a magical morning I will never forget. If I’d had a motor, I would have been using it, chugging along toward Fox Island thoroughfare, cursing the rain and breathing diesel fumes. The seal would never have come anywhere near, and I never would have heard the music.

All the senses

Thursday, August 17. A beautiful bell-clear morning. The enticing smell of frying bacon drifts over a peaceful anchorage. I am experiencing considerably more fellow feeling for my erstwhile noisy neighbours than I was on the night before. If they have chosen to expend the energy and expense necessary to be in this magical place on this exquisite morning, they can’t be all bad.

We are lying close to some rocks off Round Island and somewhat hemmed in by boats farther out. On an early morning exploration in the dinghy I noted that there was a lot of good water up toward the head of the anchorage. The big boats have been conservative in their anchoring practice, leaving a big hole up there in what is otherwise a tightly packed harbour. I want that extra room as I sail off the anchor.

However well you know your boat, sailing off the anchor in close proximity to other boats has its risks. There is a chance, however slight, that your boat will somehow manage to go off on the wrong tack, with trouble and embarrassment to follow. Catboats, in particular, indulge in these occasional pranks just to keep you honest.

A still morning at anchor on mirror-smooth waters

Noting that wind and tide are both flowing toward the open water, I simply lift the hook a small way off the bottom and drift back to the desired spot. I have an oar ready, but there is no need. I lower the hook again and prepare to make sail.

Penelope has a short bowsprit and our main anchor rides there in a stainless steel roller on the starboard side. This is a 20lb CQR with 15ft of extra-heavy chain and 200ft of nylon rode. This is a good combination for the boat, not too heavy for a single-hander to handle easily, but heavy enough to be generally reliable. Adding a 25lb sentinel weight when conditions look dubious makes it pretty bulletproof.

It’s almost impossible to carry too many anchors on a cruising sailboat, and the prudent mariner will bring along more than is usually considered adequate. This goes double for an engineless boat. I pull in rode until I can just feel the chain begin to lift off the bottom. Then, with the sheet way out, the sail goes up. Now I ease the topping lift, wait for her to fall over onto the desired tack, quickly get in the rest of the rode and chain, and we’re off.

Once underway, and clear of neighbouring boats, I go forward to wrestle the anchor up onto its roller and rinse off some mud.

Lack of an engine ensures Penelope makes little impact in either noise or wash

My onboard GPS is a new addition. In younger days I always felt confident in fog with only a compass, a patent log, and my senses. Detecting the proximity of land by the sudden spicy smell of spruce, or knowing that you were sailing under the lee of an island when you sailed from cool air into warm, was the very cream of the sport.

The sound of breaking water seemed an ample warning of rocks ahead. It was, by the way, counterproductive to use an engine very much because you immediately lost the use of two vitally important senses, sound and smell. Older and either wiser or more timid now, I find the GPS to be a magical thing.

At 4.30pm we drop anchor in Islesboro Harbour. This is pretty much an open roadstead, fine in the prevailing south-westerlies, but questionable in south winds, and bad in those from east, south-east, north-east, and north. Thus I determine to row out a second anchor. I like a second anchor anyway.

I lay the 25lb CQR and its chain in the bottom of the dinghy and drop a laundry basket with a couple of hundred feet of coiled rode in on top of it. Then with the bitter end of the line made fast to the mooring cleat, I row out at about a 45° angle to the first anchor and drop the second hook.

Today we have adhered to a rule that we try never to ignore in a place like this, which is liable to become a dangerous lee shore. To wit, you should never anchor too near shore. A boat that begins to drag while anchored too close in will not have the time or distance necessary to successfully deploy more anchors. Helpless, it will be driven back to various degrees of disaster on shore.

Barely a ripple as Penelope lies at anchor

Our thoughts turn to dinner. Tonight steak and Boston baked beans are on the menu. Nothing could be finer, at least not after a day of sun, wind, and water. I start each cruise with several large frozen steaks, which are stored in the cool bilge. Also heavily represented in our larder are cans of skinless and boneless sardines in olive oil, and, above all, spam.

Poor spam. Surely this is one of the world’s least understood and most seriously underappreciated bounties. Among the rare folk who actually admit to liking the stuff are Solomon Islanders who say it is the closest they can get to human flesh in these politically correct times. Well, I like spam, especially on boats.

Retrieval techniques

In the morning, the weather radio is making predictions about the weather to come: 30 to 35 knots out of the south-east for the next couple of days. Islesboro Harbour will be an uneasy place in those conditions, so I must cut short my visit and head for better shelter.

Leaving an anchorage can be more complicated if you have two anchors out. If the boat has swung around her anchors in wind and tide, the rodes will have twisted around each other, and, thus entwined, they can be difficult to separate. This is one reason Penelope‘s anchor rodes are all kept coiled in plastic laundry baskets. Thus, when your lines are twisted, you need only take one of the baskets forward and hand it around the other line until they are no longer foul.

As mentioned previously, this system also greatly facilitates rowing out and/or retrieving second anchors. Letting go from deck works better, too, because the rode uncoils freely with never a kink, snarl, or hang-up. The more usual procedure of pulling line up from below through the narrow bronze fixture, standard on most boats, is just asking for trouble. And feeding the line back down that same hole after the anchor is up is a boring waste of time.

Penelope’s cast bronze wheel

A final piece of gear useful in bringing up the second anchor is my (alas, unpatented) dinghy stern roller. You go out to your anchor in the dinghy by pulling hand over hand on the rode and coiling it in its basket as it comes aboard. When you are over the anchor, you lay the rode over the transom-mounted roller, sit back on the thwart, and pull in line from a seated position in the middle of the boat. Your purchase is vastly improved, and you are not inviting a swamping by hanging out over the transom. The roller is the bow roller from a small boat trailer and can be found at any marine supplier.

Anchor up and sheet eased, Penelope flies across the bay in what is now a reefing breeze, but we don’t reef. The distance, only six or seven miles, is too short, and I am feeling lazy.
Soon enough we reach the slot between Nautilus and Holbrook Islands near the mouth of the Bagaduce River. Although I want to visit Castine, I don’t want to spend the night in the crowded anchorage there, where it can be noisy and uneasy from the considerable maritime traffic. Besides, I need clean seawater for my stainless-steel pot and whatever dinner will be. Fortunately for misanthropes and nature lovers, there are several really nice anchorages just across the river.

Bill Cheney

Penelope roars in past the can off Nautilus Island and finds herself once again in flat water though the wind is, if anything, still piping up. I am a bit irked to see there is a genuine megayacht (the kind that looks like a miniature ocean liner, replete with uniformed crew, starlets, certified billionaires, and constantly running generators) anchored off Ram Island in the middle of the harbour.

A voice in my head is silently screaming, Go back to the Cote d’Azur where you belong, as we scud by. A couple of crew members wave pleasantly from a lofty deck and I return their salute. My argument, if I legitimately have one at all, is not with them.

I drop anchor off a small curving sand beach with plenty of room. Life is not so bad after all. Gulls squabble on the nearby shore, and a lone osprey wheels high overhead unleashing his shrill intermittent cry.

Yes, life is good. I’m pretty sure I’ll find something good to eat in the galley below, and the wine steward assures me there is no shortage of Côtes du Rhone.

If you enjoyed this….

Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.
Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.