There’s a certain rhythm to the oar sweep and oar locks that creates a focus, filling the solitude of the hours spent on the water for Kennebunkport’s Rick Wills on his solo 12-day journey up the Maine coast in his 17-foot dory.
But occasionally he had some company, too. On a downward run in heavy seas in the area of Popham Beach, Wills surfed down the face of a wave alongside a sleek harbor seal, both enjoying the brief respite from work.
“That was something really cool,” Wills said Tuesday following his 349-mile rowing feat.
A few days later, in the Fox Island Thoroughfare, the channel between the islands of North Haven and Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay, Wills rowed alongside the majestic 123-foot windjammer Grace Bailey with full sails, in a light wind.
“That was an incredible experience. It was awesome,” he said.
Wills, 51, embarked on his dory journey June 16, launching at the boat ramp at Traip Academy in Kittery at the New Hampshire border. His daughter, Tiara, who works at The Cliff House in Ogunquit, stood out on the rocks holding a sign saying “That’s my Dad!” as Wills rowed by on the first leg of his trip.
On June 17 he pulled into his hometown of Kennebunkport and enjoyed a Father’s Day brunch with his family at the Nonantum. Ten days later he pulled ashore at Mulholland Point Lighthouse on Campobello Island at the Canadian border, completing his trip two days ahead of schedule.
Wills said harbor seals seem to be drawn to the wake and the bubbles created by his oars, often following behind his dory as he rowed.
“I saw a lot of seals and their pups. They were calling calling back and forth to each other,” he said.
He saw osprey and bald eagles, and near the end of his trip because he was ahead of schedule, he had to row against an outgoing tide, so he left Cross Island in Machias Bay at about 1:30 a.m. under a full moon.
He saw and heard the beauty of the unspoiled Maine coast, something he says anyone can and should do.
“Pictures cannot do justice to what the eye actually sees. I guess I would have to say you will not see what I have seen if you’re sitting at home. Get out there and see it for yourself. There are all kinds of trails around all the towns with conservation programs. There are walking trails. You can do it 1 mile at a time, one hour at a time. Anyone can do this trip in a shorter distance. You don’t have to do it all at once like I did.”
Preparation is key
What do you do when the seas get rough? Row harder, Wills said. He rows year-round in all sorts of conditions to learn what weather he can handle and what his threshold is. He practiced rowing at night and rigged his boat with illumination, in case he got caught on the water after nightfall.
“I know at what winds and what currents I can’t row against. I can row across the winds if I have to. There are steps you can take to mitigate the winds and bad weather. You have to be prepared for things to get really bad because it’s all self-reliance, so you have only yourself to count on,” he said.
Returning home safely is always his first goal and reaching his destination is second. His wife, Rose, knows he’s well prepared, and that helps temper her worry for his safety. He purchased a Garmin satellite communicator with GPS and mapping so he could communicate with her, and also so he could call for rescue if needed.
Rose posted updates on her husband’s trip each day on her Facebook page so family and friends could follow along.
“My biggest concern was me sitting very comfortable in my tent for the night on an island and my family at home worrying about me,” Wills said.
He had plenty of safety gear, a tent to camp on land, and a hammock with a tent-like cover so he could sleep on the boat if necessary. He spent two nights aboard the boat, the rest he camped on land.
A passion for the ocean
As a kid going to summer camp in the Maine woods, Wills developed a love of the water, spending time on the lakes and rivers and going on overnight canoe trips. He always had a passion for the ocean and a passion for fishing, and when he decided several years ago, after a great deal of research, to purchase a dory, his passions combined into a serious hobby.
He purchased his used 17-foot dory, which was built at the Landing School in Kennebunkport, and started rowing and fishing.
“I would notice how far I rowed every day out fishing, and that’s when things started getting interesting,” Wills said.
He began entering races and competing with his dory and in 2014 decided to embark on a trip he had thought about since he was a kid.
He rowed 123 miles from his old hometown of Pembroke, Massachusetts, across three states in three days to Kennebunkport.
His most recent trip was almost three times as long and inspired by an article Wills read about rowing the Maine coast.
Wills joined the Maine Island Trails, which helped him find campsites to stay at. He also learned as much as he could about the Bold Coast, an unforgiving stretch between Cutler and Quoddy Narrows, where the tides are much higher, and rescue is difficult and far between.
Wills said the wind was never really in his favor on the trip and it was a challenge trying to keep the boat on track and site a target in the distance. With the weather not looking good for the last few days of his journey, he had to adjust his schedule and push farther than he planned to avoid losing a whole day to weather and winds. He had planned a full two weeks, but finished two days ahead of schedule.
“I had to know that I had it in me to be flexible and get farther along,” he said. “There were times when my schedule had to be adjusted to go farther or shorter to reach certain campsites each day. There’s a feeling of accomplishment no matter how bad the weather got to get to your destination each day.”
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