ONBOARD THE FRIENDSHIP SLOOP BELFORD GRAY
Photos by Cathleen Adkin and Dave Bill
Each summer I teach two weeks of sailing classes at the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine. One of the courses I teach is appropriately named “The Craft of Sail on Belford Gray.” In essence, this course provides five days of sailing experience and adventure on a traditional (engineless) Friendship Sloop on the Down East waters of Eggemoggin Reach and Jericho Bay.
As a result of teaching on Belford Gray for the past many summers with different student crews, I have amassed an arsenal of yarns, which could fill many pages. Here though, I will share the account of a particularly memorable Maine day aboard Belford Gray.
The day started as many summer Maine mornings often do with NOAA broadcasting a chance of afternoon thunderstorms, patchy fog in the morning, with light and variable winds. A forecast like this typical one is always a challenge for a sailing instructor on an engineless craft with no electronics. How does one make an engaging lesson plan for his students if the wind never fills in and/or the afternoon thunderstorms threaten sufficiently to abort leaving the mooring?
When I arrived on the waterfront to meet my class for our morning meeting, the fog hung over the Reach like a wet blanket. I discussed our tentative plan (weather dependent) for the day. We would go over necessary skills on Belford at the mooring while we were waiting for the wind to fill in (from past experiences on the Maine coast, I was banking on the fog lifting and the sea breeze filling in around 11:00ish).
First on the lesson plan was to experience propelling Belford under oars (appropriate to try out because there was 0 wind). Belford has two sculling oars, which we set up with oarlock sockets. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with one crewmember on each oar, and a helmsman on the tiller, we let go of the mooring and successfully propelled Belford around. We added a complimentary force from our Shellback skiff, pulling ahead with a towline off the bow.
The next lesson was to work out the particulars of man overboard recovery. For this necessity, Belford is equipped with a LIFESLING deployed off the stern. We discussed the steps required for a man overboard and the figure-8 recovery method. The challenge (which I had never tried out before on Belford) was to lift a person out of the water and up to the deck. We found that if we unshackled the main throat halyard and added an additional length of line with a double sheet bend, we could attach the throat halyard to the LIFESLING and drop it to the waterline. One of the students, Simon, volunteered to go into the water to test out our procedure. Bingo, with one person on the throat halyard, Simon was raised easily out of the water and up to the deck!
While still waiting on the wind I proposed an early lunch with the after lunch plan of a short (1 nautical mile) voyage to the north side of Hog Island near Little “Piglet” Bear Island. With consideration for the unstable weather conditions, our plan was for a conservative local voyage. During lunch we took a peek at the weather radar on the iPhone. We immediately noticed a solid red line of inland thunderstorms heading our way from west to east and parallel to the entire Maine Coast. We decided that we would take another look at the radar when we got to Hog Island to get an update on the progress of the cold front.
The wind had not filled in when we let go of the mooring pennant. We put into practice our morning propulsion lesson. With Mark towing ahead with the skiff and one of us on each sweep oar, Belford carried us along to our destination. After a good 50-minute workout including singing Annie’s sea shanties, we arrived at our anchoring location. Anchor down, we reviewed the radar as planned. The front was developing and still heading toward us. We could see the building clouds to the west and north of our location. The temperature started to drop and the wind was consistently clocking around . . . south, southwest, west, northwest, north. We considered two options: stay put, set out a second anchor, and ride the weather out or head back immediately toward the approaching weather and make the relatively short distance to the mooring. If we decided to make the trip back, we would take a tow from the school’s launch to ensure that we made a safe and efficient return and drop sails en route. We phoned the Boathouse base for a second opinion and to coordinate a game plan. We agreed that we would raise anchor and start sailing back (under staysail and our “peak reefed” mainsail, which would allow us to get sail down quickly if necessary). This as the launch escort came out to meet us and give us an auxiliary push back home to our mooring.
Safely back on the mooring and while putting the boat in order, we were very aware of thunder and lightening increasing around us. Many cruising sailboats were coming in from the Reach and securing themselves in the anchorage. The atmosphere had all of the bad signs of a “good one.” The Belford crew gathered in the cockpit for a quick debriefing. “Did we do the right thing?” was the topic of our final discussion. But we all knew that without the benefit of hindsight, only time would tell.
Belford’s crew called it a day and headed ashore. Simon, Annie and I remained aboard and watched the rain, thunder, and lightning roll in. The atmosphere was clearly unstable and unhappy. Small swirling funnel clouds were forming, rising and dissipating. The rain came in heavy downpours. Much to our surprise, the wind never materialized. But it could have. Some summers ago 60 knots of wind had rolled in with an afternoon thunderstorm into Great Cove and capsized a moored (sails down) 18’ catboat. My recommendation is constant vigilance, minimize risk, and utilize many measures of common sense.