A Cruise Down Memory Lane on a Special Boat
We left Northeast Harbor, Maine, on a Morris 32 called Fox, the day before Hurricane Dorian blew through on September 7, 2019. It was a Friday, crisp and clear, and we slept on board the night before to ensure an early departure. Awaking to my Uncle Billy steering away from the dock, I swiftly slipped on my jeans and hurried up on deck. I did not want to miss a minute of this journey.
I had contacted my uncle Bill Morris earlier in the summer to see if he had room on board for his return trip to Stonington, Connecticut, from Northeast Harbor, Maine. For 44 years, minus two, my uncle told me, he has sailed back and forth every summer. My work schedule would only allow me to go as far as Peaks Island, but I knew I would reap the creme de la creme of the trip by sailing down Maine’s gem of a coast.
We motored past the nub of Bear Island and its indelible lighthouse, out between pastoral Greening Island and the the rugged thrust of Suttons Island’s bold shores. Out the Western Way, where I gazed longingly toward the Cranberry Islands, and the half moon cove north of Great Head where I once dove for sand dollars. These islands were the playground of my childhood.
I grew up in Southwest Harbor, where my father, Tom Morris, started Morris Yachts in 1975. When my father wasn’t busy building boats, which was most of the time, we would escape to these islands for picnics with friends and family. Baskets of sundries and duffels of warm clothes for the return trip would be loaded into our Whaler (or sometimes a borrowed Morris) and we would head for a cobbled, granite, or sandy shore, to roast hot dogs wrapped in bacon on an open driftwood fire. As dusk took over the sky we would gather ourselves and return home, the phosphorescence gleaming below while the Big Dipper riveted the sky above.
There were several reasons I wanted to take this trip. One was to spend time with my uncle and, as it turned out, my Aunt Gerd, who also joined us. They are my father’s siblings, and as my father had died 11 years earlier, I saw this as an opportunity to spend time with them and be with him vicariously. Secondly, I wanted to sail on a Morris. Lastly, I wanted to cruise in Maine, as my last such foray was with my parents in 1995, the summer I married.
As we headed out the Western Way, I recalled my last trip through this channel—the day my brother and I sailed a Morris 42 that my father had built for himself in the last year of his life. We took the boat around to Bass Harbor, where we picked up other family members and headed to the western shore of Gott’s Island where we released my father’s ashes into the ethereal green water on a cloud-swept silvery day.
Gott’s was once a sacred picnic spot of ours, saved for Sundays when we could linger, swim and walk across the island from the eastern to western shore, through the dense spruce forest and out into the field with pristine white clapboard houses and the lichened stones of the fenced-in cemetery. We would pause and rest on our backs down near the tidal pool, in the summer sweet grass, and inhale the scent of beach roses.
As we passed the southeast tip of Gott’s, we raised the mainsail and released the jib, and there came that glorious silence broken only by the whisper of water along the hull that comes when the engine cuts out. Chatter on the boat ceased in shared knowing—he is in this sea. He is cradling me in this vessel where I sit on the bow. My father IS this beautiful boat of stoic solidity combined with grace; and my uncle has loved it with a depth that only a brother could since 1988 when she was built. From the deck Fox may appear just another Morris, but down below she stands apart. She holds the boating history of the Morris family in old photographs and memorabilia attached to the bulkhead. There is a photo of Bill and his mum on their Northeast Harbor A-class boat—a 27' gaff-rigged sloop built in 1911 and sailed by four generations of the Morris family. There is another of Bill, my father, and their father at Clifton dock. My favorite is of my father in a beret at the A-class’s tiller with Billy in the background, grinning from ear to ear.
We passed through Burnt Coat Harbor, Swan’s Island, and on toward Merchant’s Row, a gentle wind pushing us on a soft reach as we glided between the crown jewels of Maine’s coast. White shell beaches shimmered in the September sun and I was 10 again, playing on the shore of Shingle Island, building boats of driftwood. For one summer we owned a double-ended Leigh 30, Moon Shadow, and cruised for one week as a family.
Talk drifted to how many Morris Yachts my father’s company built; we guessed at numbers but no one knew for sure. What we did know is how my father put the whole of himself into each boat. “An Owners Original” was a Morris Yachts slogan that attracted the many clients who desired a custom yacht.
We made our way through the Fox Island Thorofare and to Vinalhaven’s western shore where we moored in a small harbor. I was the youngest on board by 25-plus years, my uncle being the little brother at 76 of my Aunt Gerd, 82. My father would have been 79 this year. Also on board was a friend of Bill’s, Susan Connell. I quietly declared myself the galley wench and set about to making dinner. In the glow of lamp oil my father was present. I could recall the steady, punctuated rhythm of his voice and see his meticulous movements. I seared pork chops raised by my husband with a side of new potatoes and asparagus. A tired crew would retire early. There was a little chatter about Dorian’s forecasted arrival, but my uncle offered no hint as to whether we would set sail in the morning.
Once again, I awoke to movement on deck, threw my father’s old grey Patagonia thermal shirt over my head, and layered two wool sweaters under the foul weather gear he had bought me when I was 16. Once on deck, Uncle Billy raised the mainsail and I cast off the mooring. No engine needed today! Ironically, we crossed Hurricane Sound, leaving Hurricane Island to port and then began a great sleigh ride across Penobscot Bay in waves and winds brought by Dorian.
We saw just one boat as we departed, the Vinalhaven ferry, and I wondered what the passengers thought of us crazies heading out in this weather. Remember, it had been many years since I had sailed except on beatific afternoons off MDI and I will confess I was unnerved. The dark grey skies were ominous, at best, and drizzle prevailed. A fierce southeasterly of 25 to 30 knots, gusting into the 30s was our engine. On a broad reach, riding 10-foot-plus swells from the open ocean, we averaged 7 to 8 knots, occasionally surfing 10-plus as we crossed the gaping mouth of the bay.
I have often worried about my uncle’s solo sails between Maine and Connecticut. What I learned on this journey was that I need not have worried.
With Uncle B. at the wheel, my aunt and I sat to windward. Stoic would be an understatement to describe her demeanor during this slog of a sail. Sue sat to leeward and, with her infectious smile, hooted and hollered as we crested particularly wild swells. I wrapped my arm inconspicuously around a stanchion and held on for dear life. I thought of my college-aged children. Would I ever see them again? My husband?
This was the moment for me to remember whose boat I was on and who had built it. Fox was drawn by seaworthy designer Chuck Paine, with whom my father collaborated for decades, and built by the exceptional crew at Morris who constructed each yacht with integrity. My father worked seven days a week when I was growing up (except for the picnics) and it showed in every minute detail. I was safe on this vessel.
And then there was Uncle Billy. From the moment we dropped the mooring until we reached Pemaquid Harbor at 5:30 that night, he guided Fox with an instinctual precision. As he maneuvered through the deep chasm of swells, only once, just once, did we swing about wildly enough that I imagined for a moment what a rogue wave could do to us. That wouldn’t have been my uncle’s fault, that would have been chance.
This is what we have, each of us in this life: chance. We either take it or leave it behind. My father took it when he decided to move to Maine and become a boatbuilder. Before he moved to Maine he lived outside of Philadelphia where he was born. He tried his hand in the insurance business and apparently it did not go well. One day his boss called him into his office and told my father that he was going to do him a favor and fire him as he could see how unhappy the job made him. My father worked in the shipping industry in Philadelphia for a while, and eventually moved us to Maine in 1972, where he worked briefly for Jarvis Newman before starting Morris Yachts in a shed behind our house. Just a few years later that boss in the insurance business contacted my father and had him build him a boat.
My father took a chance; so here am I taking the chance to sail aboard Fox with my uncle and aunt. When I spoke of my fear later, sheepishly, tucked into the safety of Pemaquid Harbor, my uncle with surprise and a huge grin said, “Ohhh, look how Fox handled it!!”
The day after Dorian was sun drenched, calm, and full of reflections. We passed through the narrow “Thread of Life” passage and the name brought tears to my eyes. As we passed to the north of Seguin Island, I saw the lighthouse where Uncle Billy had taken my children when they were 12 and 15, along with a cousin, when they sailed with him from Connecticut to Maine in 2014. I loved knowing they had been on this very boat and on the crest of the sunlit island hill.
My uncle told me there is not a day he is on Fox that he doesn’t think about his brother. As we sailed from Seguin to Sebasco Harbor in the deep gold of the late afternoon’s turning light I wonder what thoughts cross through his mind. I took position on the bow for this stint and found myself singing “Top of the World” by the Carpenters, which I used to sing as a girl while I lay on deck, hanging my head over the side to watch the endless ocean curl off the bow. Over and over, I was On Top of the World. I am still, and I hope my uncle is, too.
On my last night on board, I sat on deck under the clear, September sky, long enough to see a single shooting star. I am certain it was my father giving me the wink of an eye, knowing that I was there on Fox, having one of the most memorable times of my life, while he held me up from below.
Helen Tirone lives with her husband in Freedom, Maine. She is primarily a poet. This is her first published essay.