The Last Leg
It was only fourteen-and-a-quarter miles and a single day, but it stamped finis on hundreds of miles and 42 years.
Photographs by Art Paine
Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 1966
David Stookey was in his first year at Harvard Business School when he realized that he needed adventure, diversion, and exercise—a way to get away from his studies. Having spent his summers on Cape Cod, he was fond of rowing, and even of sculling done with just one oar. While driving around down in Falmouth, he spied a small, brand-new plywood sailing dory, painted bright blue, with a For Sale sign on it. Even though it had, as he said, “the kludgiest sailing rig I’d ever seen,” it looked as if it would row well so he bought it. The trouble was he owned a tiny car; somehow he had to get the boat back to Cambridge. It was mid-fall, with cold fronts and blustery northwest winds—right on the nose for traveling the Southeast “Distressway”.
He had a rowboat. Why not row? So one day he quietly launched his newly purchased dory and set out for Boston. Little did he know, but with that first dip of the oars he had begun a journey that would stretch for almost 1,000 miles, and almost 47 years.
Bernard, Maine, July 2012
One of my pet peeves regards telephony. I hate the answering machine and the rude behaviors that have evolved from it. I guess I’m a Luddite, because I expect people to answer the phone—you know, in person. So, despite the possibility that telemarketers in Bangalore might be calling, I sprint for a phone whenever it rings.
On or about July 19 I leaped dripping out of the bath and snatched up the poisonous thing. The guy on the other end said he was David Stookey, from Rhode Island, that he was looking for a rowboat, and that he had just talked to someone at Morris Yachts in Bass Harbor. Now, Morris specializes in craft of a grander scale than rowboats, but someone over there recalled something about Art Paine in the newspaper, something linking me with rowboats. So there I was trying to be cordial while drip-drying, and this guy was spieling off about having a crying need to find a two-station rowboat that would be seaworthy enough to venture offshore.
Something in this guy’s voice convinced me that he wasn’t an outright crackpot. For several minutes while he related his intriguing personal waterborne history, I kept thinking to myself that if he didn’t need a captain or a sailing lesson or a damn good piece of marine art, or a varnish job, then Morris had sent him on a wild goose…
Then it finally smacked me right upside the head: ROSE!
“Mister,” I said, “you just hit the jackpot!”
I told Mr. Stookey that I “had” the perfect one- or two-person rowing dory. I told him that because everybody involved in my extended family loves a play on words, this perfect boat was named Rose, because, well, it does. Specifically I told him I had a 141⁄2-foot-long modified Swampscott-style cedar-and-plywood rowing dory of my own design which, like all good dories, rowed like a witch, handled high seas, and looked sweet to boot.
I neglected to tell him that it wasn’t exactly mine, and that it was moored elsewhere, but I figured I could sweat out those minor details.
Marathon Cay, Florida, February 2012
Ben Stookey is the son everybody would want. He’s 32 years old, super friendly, has a great smile—and is gainfully employed. He lives aboard a sailboat and makes his living through web design, which he can do anywhere there is a cyber-signal.
Ben invited a friend over from the boat anchored nearby, and over pizza and beer he told him about “his crazy dad”—the one who graduated from Harvard twice, who did business stuff all over the world when he was young, who married a beautiful free-spirited Englishwoman (Ben’s mom), and who was the best possible publicist for the lesser-known sport of open-water long-distance rowing. Ben related that this coming summer his dad would be turning 70, though he looked and acted maybe half that. He went on to say that his father once owned a magazine called Open Water Rowing, and that he’d rowed the entire coast of New England, from New York City all the way to Digby, Nova Scotia...
Ben paused for more pizza and beer and then said, “…except for one tiny stretch…less than 20 miles…that my father had always hoped to finish, from a little place called Bass Harbor to a stony beach at the outlet of Otter Creek.”
The companion did what anybody would do. He jumped up and exclaimed, “You’ve gotta do this with him! You’ve got to call him up and say that, as a birthday present for him, before he turns 70, you and he are going to do this together! You’re going to complete that journey!”
Peaches Point, Marblehead, Massachusetts, November 1966
A couple of weeks after David Stookey rowed the little blue dory to Cambridge, a friend from Marblehead said she was throwing a party at a house right on the shore. David thought it would be wicked cool if, having proven his boat seaworthy and with nothing better to do that day, he arrived during full revelry by boat. While the reaction ashore was markedly ho-hum, he realized that he loved rowing far from land.
New Hampshire Coast, Spring 1967
By this time David Stookey reckoned he’d done nearly 100 miles from Cape Cod all the way to Cape Ann. So he figured he’d just continue on, to the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire, and, who knows, maybe all along the coast of Maine. One thing does lead to another….
Newport, Rhode Island, July 21, 2012
During a visit here to the Stookey clan’s home, I learned that once Ben proposed his idea to his dad, the first sobering reaction was that the logistics would be daunting. Despite a lifetime of rowing, no Stookeys at present owned a rowboat. And Maine was a ways off. And father and son had never rowed in unison. And there was the fog. And the rocks. Ben wasn’t to be deterred, so the thing was to try and find a two-person rowboat somewhere near Mount Desert Island.
At least the location was definite. This trip had to either begin or end in Bass Harbor, a tiny fishing harbor David Stookey hadn’t laid eyes on in 42 years. So David looked up “boats for rent” and “Bass Harbor, Maine” on the Internet. Morris Yachts popped up, so that’s where he phoned.
Coast of Maine, 1967 and 1968
In 1967 David rowed only as far as Kennebunkport before winter stopped him, but he instantly fell for Maine and Mainers. The guy at the marina in Kennebunkport let him keep his boat on the dock there all winter for free.
The next spring his goal was Canada, and he was armed with a tent and a sleeping bag, a few charts, and an orienteering compass. It was so cold when he started that he had to bust ice for ten yards just to get going in the river.
Along toward the second evening came a decision: go in to Portland for the night, or hasten down the track? Conditions being benign, he struck across Casco Bay.
David rows conventionally, meaning he faces aft. Night having long since fallen, he aimed for Seguin Island lighthouse, which showed a fixed white light. As he got closer, that bright light made his task easier—he just had to keep his shadow aft to maintain his course until he heard the crash of surf on Seguin’s cliffs. But when he passed below the brow of the escarpment he found himself in full darkness.
The hour of 1 a.m. found David circling bold Seguin, trying to find a safe place to land. He was dead tired at that point and didn’t relish the prospect of rowing all night. He rowed until he heard less crashing of surf, eased in backward, facing the dimly lit dangers, and pulled away strongly when he felt an upsurge and heard the growling of surf. David rowed on and around. Eventually he found a stretch of some 10 or 12 feet of smooth rock upon which the waves surged but didn’t break, and made a rough landing.
There were three Coast Guardsmen fast asleep in the lonely Seguin lighthouse. We don’t know for sure, but we suspect that they practically jumped out of their skins when David knocked. He was offered a hot mug and a rough bunk, and fell instantly asleep.
After Seguin, David made it to Port Clyde, where he met a middle-aged lady who drove a taxi, by which he accessed Thomaston and the long hitchhike home. Later, in the summer, he continued his journey along the coast. One night, on a tiny beach on Placentia Island, he had a change of heart. (He had a girlfriend back in Cambridge who was holding a party that night, and he was feeling especially lonely.) The next day he rowed over to Mount Desert Island. The first safe landing he encountered was at Bass Harbor, just short of the ferry dock. That must’ve been at the old cold-storage shed that had become a boatbuilding shop run by Simmie Davis. David asked if he could leave his boat there for a spell, then he went home to civilization and basically hung up his sword.
Bernard, Maine, Late July 2012
I had to help, though it was difficult to explain that to Carey, my wife. We’d had houseguests frequently all through the beginning of the summer. Here I was telling her that I had told one Mr. Stookey that somehow I was going to get my hands on Rose (a boat not technically mine), and that David Stookey and Ben and even David’s wife Hilary, if she decided to come, were going stay with us for a few days, and I was going to borrow a Whaler to accompany them at sea for the dicey parts.
Otter Creek, Maine, August 1988
The next time David came to Maine to row he’d been overseas for ten years. He had married Hilary in England, and now had a nine-year-old son, Ben. David still loved the sea. He had raced a 21-foot sailboat in a transatlantic race. He had bought a nice waterfront home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and it was there that he rediscovered rowing. He joined a rowing group called the Cape Cod Vikings and began publishing Open Water Rowing.
The blue dory was rotten by then and had become a garden ornament, so David borrowed a fiberglass gunning dory built by Crawford Boatbuilding. Having done the better half of the New England coast already, he set his sights on venturing beyond Schoodic and continuing to Nova Scotia. Tides and fog and distances would be serious. Once the tides turned to ebb at Petit Manan, he would face his longest, farthest offshore challenge. For that reason he would begin his easting at the southern tip of Mount Desert Island at Otter Cove. Once he made Roque Bluffs, he’d strike out for Grand Manan Island, and then cross the Bay of Fundy, which would involve an overnighter.
At Otter Cove he kissed Hilary and little Ben goodbye, and rowed toward Canada. About an hour in, a little Cessna airplane made a beeline toward him from the northwest, circled, and waggled its wings. Days later he learned that Hilary had hired a sightseeing plane at the Trenton airport, put Ben in back, and flown out to wish him well.
Two days later, David Stookey made landfall at Digby, Nova Scotia. His brother was working as first mate on a schooner there and they had a joyous reunion. In later years David went on to row west from Falmouth, Massachusetts, to New York City and beyond. He had thus rowed the whole watery boundary of the New England coast.
The crux of this tale is this: The short distance between Simmie Davis’s boathouse in Bass Harbor and the beach in Otter Creek remained undone for some 42 years.
Mount Desert Island, Maine, July 23, 2012
Anne Wheeler is accustomed to rowing the dory our families built together (see sidebar, p. 58) every morning that the tide is up. She never actually said yes or no when I asked for the use of her precious Rose. I think she was waiting to see how the wind would blow, so to speak. She might agree if she liked the look of these Stookey characters. But one thing was sure—they’d have to bring their own oars. No way were they getting their mitts on her pair of Shaw & Tenneys.
The Stookeys rented a big box-truck in Ellsworth to carry Rose safely to Bass Harbor. The minute they laid eyes on the boat they recognized the jackpot factor. The minute Anne laid eyes on them, any reluctance she had been harboring dissolved. Yet challenges remained. It looked to be thick-a-fog all day long.
Otter Creek, Maine, 1545 GMT, July 23, 2012
It had been 42 years and approximately 20 days since David Stookey was last here. The trip from Bass Harbor was 14.25 nautical miles. It was pretty dramatic, running compass courses right off the crashing cliffs. There was zero visibility at the end, and we had to sound our horns in order to keep in contact, Whaler to dory, as we felt our way in to Otter Cove.
Ben rested on his oars and let his dad do all the pulling for the final quarter mile. It was too shallow for me in the Whaler, even with the motor tipped up, so I only got a distant photo, through the mist, when they waded ashore. Even so, their smiles penetrated the fog like Two Lights when they pulled Rose at long last onto the gravel.
Building Rose: by any other name she'd row as sweet
It all started because my daughter Bekka’s father-in-law, Hook Wheeler, had one of those five-trap lobster licenses, and lobster fishing out of an old sea kayak wasn’t cutting it. Bekka wasn’t married to Bik Wheeler at that time, but they’d been joined at the hip since junior year in high school.
Now, Hook sometimes takes lunch with Agnes, down at her famous bagel shop in a Bar Harbor back alley. Agnes isn’t only a bagel genius; she is also the universal fount of all knowledge. It was she who pressed a copy of John Gardner’s The Dory Book into Hook’s hands and insisted, “You want to go rowing for lobsters, you got no business doing it in anything besides a dory.”
Anything that has the least to do with boats just naturally gravitates to my ears, so Bekka told me that I ought somehow to come up with a workboat for Hook. She and Bik wanted me to employ the building of Hook’s new dory as a means to teach them, hands-on, all they would ever need know about boatbuilding.
After a couple of planning parties, we came up with a materials budget of $200, a boat length of just over 14 feet, a level spot in the Wheelers’ spruce forest, six heavy-duty extension cords, and a kit of West System epoxy.
I couldn’t find exactly the boat design I wanted in Gardner’s tome, and two free sheets of quarter-inch marine plywood had magically appeared, so I designed a bit of a hybrid. It was a modified Swampscott-style dory that would have two-plank native cedar sides and bottom, with plywood to handle the twists in between. This would be light and strong and durable.
Next we went up to Aurora, Maine, and found an old fellow of French-Canadian extraction, with a couple of fingers gone, who milled live-edge flitches of cedar. Unfortunately, he chopped his “fellers” to 12-foot lengths. That’s because cedar, being a swamp wood, is harvested in winter, so he was standing on swamp ice to do it, and there were no logging roads out of the swamp, and he couldn’t afford anything fancy like a skidder. I knew I’d have to do some scarphing to plank a 14-footer, but the cedar was crystal-clear free of knots and the price was right.
The spot where we located our building jig was adjacent to the chicken coop where “the girls” were accustomed to scratching up grub. They were creatures of habit, so all of our boatbuilding took place under the scrutiny of their beady little eyes; more than once we noticed that they had pine needles epoxied to their spindly chicken feet. Aromatic cedar shavings, sawdust, and a few feathers flew.
“The kids” took to the boatbuilding. The boat, I have to immodestly admit, was sweet from the very start, and only improved as it took shape. There was just one problem—and I guess the root of that problem resides within me, as the designer and conductor of this symphony. I am, despite humble origins, a yacht person, not a workboat person.
We stepped back and surveyed our creation one crisp day and realized that what we’d wrought was akin to the Taj Mahal. I’d been collecting the bent crooks of apple trees for about three decades, and there is nothing more exceptional for a dinghy than apple knees. The Taj has its gold-leafed parapets; our dory has fiddle-grained breast hooks and quarter knees. Not to mention the multiple coats of spar varnish, the mahogany seats and rails, and, most un-workboat-like of all, the white bottom.
There came the day when the last paint-stroke was drawn, and the gloss was deemed righteous, and the hardware was on, and the painter was spliced through with tapered lays; when the builders—Bekka and Bik and Hook and Dan and Jesse and me and all those nearer the bottom of the pecking order—scratched the last task but one off the to-do list. We were critically in need of a name.
Hook’s wife Anne provided that essential finishing touch. She was entirely responsible not only for the genesis of the name but for painting it on the varnished transom in her own special hand. And also for the blossom on the cutwater strake.
“Let’s call her Rose,” she said, and as it turned out the boat does just that. Beautifully.
Art Paine is a writer, artist, and boatbuilder. He lives in Bernard, Maine, and can usually be found building a boat somewhere.