February 26, 2010

Winter keeps all but hardiest of sailors at bay


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click image to enlarge

Photo by Derek Davis: Chris Kean lives on her sailboat "Soulmate", a C&C 41, which is docked at DeMillo's Old Port Marina in Portland. She has been living on a boat for nine years. Photographed on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009.

Staff Writer

Casco Bay is often compared to a freeway during the summer months -- when sailors trim their sails hard to race with other boats or maneuver around commercial fishing vessels or the ruthless Casco Bay ferries.

Winter is another story.

Christine Kean, who lives aboard her C&C 41-foot sailboat, is among a rare group of hard-core sailors who brave the blustery winds and frigid waters to sail in the winter in Casco Bay.

Kean, 51, along with a small crew, bundle up every Sunday and take an afternoon sail, barring severe storms like the one forecast for this weekend.

''As long as it's not snowing or raining -- at noon I'm out of here,'' said Kean, who keeps her boat at DiMillo's in Portland.

''Some days it's very brisk and cold. Other days it's beautiful. The sun is shining on your face, keeping you warm. It's like sailing in the spring.''

And for the most part, they've got Casco Bay to themselves.

Kean said that on windy days, they use the time to sharpen their skills in handling the boat in heavy weather.

They practice reefing, a sailing maneuver intended to reduce the area of a sail, which can improve the boat's stability and reduce the risk of capsizing.

They also practice man-overboard drills when a gust of wind blows a hat into the water.

In the winter, ''the most important part is to recognize the danger and take appropriate action,'' said Michael Howell, a service writer at South Port Marine who has been sailing with Kean for the past nine years.

''If someone falls in the water, they're as good as dead. The shock of the coldness makes you gasp. You go into hypothermia very quickly and could possibly have a stroke or a heart attack.''

The crew dresses for a sail as a skier would dress for a mountain -- with lots of layers, warm coats and heavy gloves.

Each sailor packs a bag with foul weather gear, including waterproof pants and jacket, extra gloves and an extra hat.

Kean said she wears her life jacket when they are racing another sailboat or sailing hard.

Howell usually wears a float coat.

''Cold is cold. It's all relative,'' Howell said. ''It's invigorating when we're out there by ourselves.

''If we see another sailboat, there's a race whether the other guys know it or not.

''You've got to love sailing to do this. That's what this is all about.''

Kean, who has been living aboard her boat for the past nine years, has a state-of-the-art heating system that can keep her boat at 70 degrees even when the temperature dips below freezing.

So when the sailors get cold, they can go below to warm up.

Kean bought the boat in 2000 and named it Soul Mate.

She said she got hooked on sailing the first day she stepped onto a sailboat, in 1992.

Kean said she loves the feeling of the water moving beneath the boat, and the sound of the sails when they fill with wind.

''I love the sound the boat makes as it goes through the water and the peace and quiet that is out there,'' Kean said.

''If there's another sailboat out there, we hit race mode and start trimming the sails better. Other days, we are lazy sailors, just gliding along. It's just about being out there.''

Hank Welch of Washington, a member of the crew, drives more than an hour to make the sailing trip.

He used to live on his 36-foot Heron and said that if he had a chance, he'd do it again.

Welch said winter sailing is generally better than summer sailing, even when the temperature hovers around 20 degrees and the wind is blowing at 15 knots.

''It's almost indescribable,'' Welch said.

''We get lots of wonderful sailing days. My significant other thinks we're crazy. That is her right.''

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:


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