I love old wooden buildings, writes Rebecca Hayter, and Marblehead, Massachusetts, USA has thousands of them, often adorned by a brass plaque denoting the house’s date of build, original owner and his occupation; eg: Built for Joseph Lemmon, physician 1742.

There’s another reason for loving the USA’s east coast: lobster, often served in a bread roll with mayo. And stuffies: chopped clams, onions, celery, bacon and spices with crumbs, baked and served in a large quahog half-shell.

It’s served with a bowl of golden yellow liquid.

“What’s that?” I had asked.

“Melted butter.”

Old timber houses and melted butter on the side. Perfect.


But I was here to go sailing with Peter Nielsen, editor of Sail Magazine. We’d worked through his job list for Minx, his Pearson 39, prior to a shakedown cruise to Maine and back, before he took the yacht on a 500-mile delivery south. Basically, the more problems we found and fixed, the better.

After a week of sunshine working on the boat, we set off into a blurry day and average forecast. Pete had intended that we’d sail 150 miles north through the night, but between us and Maine lay about 100,000 lobster pots.

Lobster pots are not generally a problem for yachts under sail, but with no wind we would be under motor and it was pretty much guaranteed we’d foul the propeller in a lobster pot line if motoring at night.

Some pots were plain white, black or blue or red. Some were homemade from what might have been handy and floatable at the time. Some had whips to make them easier to see and pick up. Occasionally we’d go through a flock of garish pink or green pots.

They stretched in random disarray from close inshore to 10 miles out at sea, sometimes in depths of 250ft. Luckily the east coast is a yachtie’s paradise of sheltered harbours along the coast and at outer islands.


First stop was the Isles of Shoals. Six miles offshore, desolate and sparse, it comprises about 11 islands and was named by English explorer Captain John Smith in 1614 for the shoals of fish found in these waters. The lighthouse gleamed white on seaweed-stained granite as we weaved through yet more lobster pots to pick up a mooring off Smuttynose Island.

The low-lying islands have snared many a vessel but they also have a dreadful murder story. In March 1873, Louis Wagner knew the menfolk were absent when he rowed out to the island to rob their houses. He killed Karen and Anethe Christensen; Maren Hontvet escaped and lived to name the culprit.

Pete had told me no one swims in Maine because it’s too cold, but last year recorded the hottest August ever and I was only just in Maine because the Isle of Shoals straddle the Maine/ New Hampshire border. The water was warm enough to stay in for an hour and the strong current delivered a good workout.

The next day was yet more motorsailing – as it would be for most of the trip – but there was plenty to see: lobster boats working their pots; immaculately maintained yachts of classic, 1970s and 80s designs; funky junk rigs and the occasional seal.

We overnighted at Jewell Island in Casco Bay. It was used by the military during WWII and we walked to the coastal artillery gun batteries set up for air and sea targets, and risked the bird poo to climb to the lookout in the fire-control towers.

But I wanted to see the mainland so our next stop was Boothsbay Harbor, Maine. En route, in a messy seaway and little wind, we stopped to drop the mainsail to stop it flogging but then the engine refused to engage forward gear.


In some ways, this was good, because it was our mission to find problems, but it was hard to see it that way in fog, a rolling sea state and Taylors Reef to leeward. While Pete ran through the options, I mentioned that in a crisis my father always made a cup of tea.

“What a great idea,” said Pete.

Amazingly, the cup of tea did the trick. By the time the kettle had boiled, the gearbox had cooled down and happily went into gear. With the oil topped up, it gave no more problems.

The Maine coastline comprises thousands of bays, channels, harbours and islands. The chartplotter knew and understood the approaches to Boothsbay Harbor; I didn’t.

I knew the American buoyage system uses red, right, return – meaning that boats returning to harbour keep the red buoys on their right, whereas in New Zealand, boats return to harbour with green buoys on the starboard side.

But I hadn’t realised that in America, although red and green have swapped sides, the shapes haven’t, so the red markers are pointy and the green markers are flat. What really confused me was that a green, flat marker is referred to as a port marker and a red, conical marker is referred to as starboard.

I never did figure out why a red channel marker is called a nun, but at least the left side of the boat is still red and port; the right side is still green and starboard.

Boothsbay Harbor is a popular spot for visiting old lighthouses, such as Monhegan Lighthouse built in 1824, but I think I missed it in trying to figure out the navigation marks. On final approach I radio’d the harbourmaster for a mooring. “I can always pick an Irish accent,” he said. Not this time, mate.

We wandered ashore, past a memorial to lost fishermen and walked the 1000ft bridge built in 1902 across the harbour to the cafes and shops. There was a huge church and yet more timber buildings. A pilgrim in stockings and cocked hat would have fitted in perfectly, perhaps browsing at Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop, Maine’s oldest bookstore.

As we left Boothsbay Harbor early next morning, the silvergrey sky reflected onto the glass-smooth water so that the hundreds of lobster buoys looked like pin tacks. A lone lobster boat worked among them.

Tenants Harbor seemed to have even more historic wooden houses, lighthouses and immaculate yachts of 1970s vintage or older. Throughout Maine, fibreglass production yachts were a rarity.

Along with the traditional designs came traditional sailing and it was common to see a yacht cruise in slowly under sail, round up into the wind and drop the sails as the for’ard hand picked up the mooring or anchored.

I had my lobster fix at an old lobster co-op warehouse; its worn wooden floors, rustic nets and fishing detritus maintained the ambience as the tables on a scruffy balcony provided the view. Below, a lobster fisherman managed live lobsters in cages in aerated sea water, as lobster boats puttered past after offloading their catch.

The farthest north we got was Christmas Cove. I kept a lookout of lobster pots as we motored into the tiny harbour, past the resident osprey nest on a green channel marker to pick up our designated mooring.

Well, I think it was our mooring. Over VHF radio, the harbourmaster had directed us to mooring number four, which was yellow, he told us. All moorings were white and in a confined area. Number four proved elusive but finally we picked up a white mooring to take a break from doing pirouettes among moored boats. It wore a faded ‘4’. Later a yachtie told me all the moorings used to be yellow but they’ve faded to white. Maybe the harbourmaster should look out his window.

We visited some locals staying at Christmas Cove. Their house was solid wood, a staircase, a huge coal-burning stove in the kitchen and a view of the harbour entrance. Above the fireplace in the tiny lounge was a brass plaque: 1702.

We left Christmas Cove and headed for the open sea. I was admiring yet another lighthouse on an island close to starboard, when the autopilot suddenly spun Minx in a hard turn straight for a red channel marker. Presumably its metal in the marker had attracted the autopilot. I hit the standby button in time to avoid crashing into a nun.

We worked out way back down the coast and for our last night returned to the Isles of Shoals. Flags flew at half-mast to honour the passing of John McCain and over the next few days, hours of television time were dedicated to the war hero who had declined freedom and spent five years in a POW camp rather than feed the Vietnam propaganda machine.

Through the night, gentle swell sea from open water swung a constant dong-dang of channel marker bells.

It seemed in sympathy with the tragedy of the Isles of Shoals.