Hoist the Maine-Sail!

A charter down east aboard the motorsailer Burma is wholly satisfying.

July 17, 2010


The first time I saw Burma, I was at the Newport Charter Show. I’d spent the day running around, seeing one luxurious fiberglass yacht after another. They were not all the same: The Newport Charter Boat Show is for yachts that charter in New England in the summer, instead of the Med, and that generally draws a less-blingy kind of boat to begin with, but I had seen sailing yachts and power yachts, yachts with hot tubs, yachts with jet tenders, big yachts and small yachts…even a lovingly refitted old Burger and a flashy Turkish gulet. But I was weary and starting to feel like I’d had the nautical equivalent of Chinese food: All these fancy boats, and an hour later, I was hungry again.

There was a boat I’d noted on the dock plan that seemed, well, very “one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other,” to quote “Sesame Street.” Burma was a 58-foot wooden motorsailer and since I have a soft spot for motorsailers, I decided one more boat wouldn’t kill me. When I found her, off the beaten path in a quieter part of the show, my heart fluttered just a little bit faster. She sat at the dock looking out of place, yet regal, confident. I went aboard and found her owner and captain, Michael McMenemy, exuding the same bemused detachment, as he sat in the pilothouse reading a paperback. I gushed, we bonded, and a few months later my partner and I were in Brooklin, Maine, to join Michael and his wife, Debbie, on a five-day cruise of the region.

We arrived in the late afternoon and decided to get underway the next morning, on a very loose itinerary that would depart the Benjamin River for some day sailing to Southwest and Northeast Harbors. The winds were light so Michael kept the sails covered, explaining that he uses them mostly when offshore or in heavy winds. They add an extra knot to the 8.5-knot cruising speed he gets under power alone, increasing fuel economy, and they also help to steady the boat in sloppy seas.


Burma is often mistaken for a William Hand, Jr., motorsailer— not surprising when you consider that she is a Richard O. Davis design. He was the draughtsman (and collaborator) on many yacht designs with Hand. When Hand died in 1946, Davis joined the Henry B. Nevins Yard in City Island, New York. Burma was built there in 1950, fashioned with a double-planked hull of 1¹⁄8-inch Honduras mahogany over ½-inch white cedar, and bronze-screw fastened. She has a white-oak backbone with steam-bent white-oak frames and a 9,000-pound lead ballast keel. Her trunk and deckhouse are mahogany. In short, Burma is a very graceful tank, and Michael and Debbie, who have owned her for 23 years, have kept her in absolutely immaculate condition. Michael explained that Burma has never had to be restored: She has simply been maintained to such high standards that she is as new. (I wish someone had done that for me!)

We had an overcast morning as we motored up Eggemoggin Reach and into Jericho Bay, did a tour through Southwest Harbor, and then grabbed a mooring in Northeast Harbor. Karyn and I rowed the peapod dinghy ashore and tied up at the public landing at the base of Asticou Hill and Eliot Mountain, which is maintained by the Mount Desert Land and Garden Preserve. We climbed the Asticou Terraces of the Thuya Gardens to see the beautiful view and toured Thuya Lodge, where noted landscape architect Joseph Curtis, one of Northeast Harbor’s founders, once lived. Then we rowed back to Burma and returned to the Benjamin River mooring.

Maine is one of my favorite places in the world, and I’ve seen a good portion of our planet. First of all, nature has gifted the coastline with deep coves, rocky shores, towering spruces, and spectacular sunsets. The water is cold, the air is crisp, and the overall effect is bracing. It’s hard to feel sluggish or lazy in Maine. And for boat lovers? Come on…Maine is just stupid, the epicenter of gorgeous vessels—every harbor we visited was full of rugged-looking lobster boats, pretty trawlers, and stunning sailboats. And it seems like beautiful wooden classics are as common in this part of the world as blueberries or lobsters.


Last but certainly not least, as I was to be reminded on this trip, there are the people of Maine. Debbie and Michael had mentioned to a few of their friends that we were coming to town. Next thing we knew, we were having a great dinner at the home of Jon Wilson and Sherrie Streeter. Jon founded WoodenBoat magazine and the WoodenBoat School, but not content to rest on his laurels, he’s gone on to do amazing work as the founder of Just Alternatives, a nonprofit that champions the rights of victims of violence and the advancement of victim-centered practices in justice and corrections. Sherrie is a visual artist who’s also involved in prison work. And then there’s that little thing they do called WoodenBoat, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

We also met JoDee Jolley Baird, from Utah, who, with her husband, Robert, is the founder of Youth Making a Difference, which sends high-school students to the poorest regions of India, to learn leadership skills while serving local communities. We met Robin Lincoln, a great sailmaker who sold her business and has since retired, and marine photographer Benjamin Mendlowitz and his wife Deborah Brewster, who runs Noah Publications, which puts out the annual Calendar of Wooden Boats and the photography books so many of us are addicted to…We met Michael Phillips, a principal in Sparkman & Stephens, and an avid yachtsman. And we enjoyed, most of all, our time with Debbie and Michael, who had a commercial contracting business that specialized in high-tech infrastructure for major California Silicon Valley companies but retired early to do what they really love. Debbie is getting certification as a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies. And Michael has been showering his love on Burma, serving on various boards (Mystic Seaport for some time), and making the world a better place by introducing the people he likes to other people he likes. It’s a magical job, and nobody does it better than Michael. I continue to meet great folks as a result of his enthusiasm for boats and for putting people together—he has a gift. As a friend of mine used to say, “He’s the straw that stirs the drink.”

The day after the dinner party at Jon and Sherrie’s, Matt Murphy, the editor of WoodenBoat magazine, and Tom Jackson, senior editor, rowed out to Burma for lunch. Afterwards, we had a tour of the WoodenBoat compound that was inspirational. We walked through classes of people carving figureheads, casting brass cannons, making half hulls, and yes, even building boats. The WoodenBoat people are doing important work keeping the skills, craftsmanship, and artistry of wooden boatbuilding alive. It’s a phenomenal thing to see.


Back on the water the next day, we passed noted marine historian and author Maynard Bray underway with a small convoy in tow, as he helped a friend retrieve some (wooden, of course) boats. It was a gorgeous day, crystal clear, and the sun sparkled brightly on the water. I felt like I was in a magic place, removed from time, but very connected to the greater world because of the interesting and generous people who call this part of Maine home.

And I couldn’t help but wonder why everyone in the world doesn’t book Burma for a week each summer (mathematical impossibilities aside, of course)? I can’t think of a better vacation for a young family or several couples than to climb aboard this historic beauty and let her able captain take you where he will. You will be in good hands on a gorgeous boat in one of the most beautiful places in the world. And what’s better than that?


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