Down-East Cruise Summer 2020
July 4th, 2020 finds me socket-in Rockland Harbor Maine on a cold, raw afternoon. I’m busy performing the post-launch ritual of whipping my vessel into “Ship Shape” having recently launched at my go-to ramp for Penobscot Bay. I have the better part of a week to probe and explore the further reaches of the area known as “the Bold Coast”, East of Schoodic Point. The thoughts of a Down-East cruise started to take shape over the winter (as many cruising plans do). Several passages from my MAPTECH Guide helped set the hook. Comments like, “the real Maine starts East of Schoodic Point”, or “Tidal Ranges of over 25’, resulting in strong currents, will challenge even the seasoned sailor”, or “beware of uncharted hazards”. Add in the fact I had not cruised East of Mount Desert Island and I was in.
Today was not the day to get underway. I had towed my 21’ Pilot (more on the craft later) from my home in NH’s Lakes Region. I was correct in thinking I would miss most of the Holiday traffic by traveling on the 4th. Today was a day to drive, launch, organize and then enjoy a beer at the in-town brewery. I was soon to get a reality check as to how the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the Coast. Rockland, usually bustling during the summer months, was all but closed. A walk up and down Main St left me without a beer, a coffee or a full stomach. Grateful for my well provisioned vessel, I return to the docks.
The Harbor Master was long gone prior to my arrival. The lonely launch operator was happy to offer up the empty dock for the night. Clearly not a typical 4th of July.
Back aboard my floating home for the next week I was grateful for both the weather protection provided by a full canvas enclosure and my auxiliary heat source. Regardless of the forecast, I knew enough to bring a small propane heater for those cool Maine mornings. Not that I expected to be using it on a July evening. Tucked inside with music, tuna tacos, charts to broad over and yes, a can of beer, I was clearly making the best of the situation.
So, what exactly is the situation? Well thanks for asking.
I’m abord my Eastern 21’ Pilot looking for challenge and adventure. Originally I had sold the family on the runabout suggesting it could pull my 17yr old son on a wakeboard, my wife could entertain with her girlfriends up on the Lake and I could still find a way to continue my Coastal Cruising. For my purposes I had designed (and with the help of the local Canvas Guy) and installed a convertible top, side and aft curtains to create a full enclosure. Unlike the popular bimini tops the convertible top snaps directly to the windshield. The slight loss of headroom is more than made up with the improvement in weather protection. Even on days of fair weather it creates a comfortable environment. When retaining warmth isn’t the key I had a 2nd set of screened side curtains made to allow for a flow of air. While inside my glorified tent I would spend much of my down-time on the portside bench that multi-tasked as a aft-facing lounger with seatback, berth and work bench. My cooler could move next to me as a makeshift cockpit table. I use a camp style stove to boil water for my coffee (if you’ve read any of my blogs you know how important coffee is to my day) and music pumps thru a small yet high quality speaker blue-toothed off of my smart phone. The Pilot has a small cuddy with screened hatch where I keep my personal items organized and serves as a second berth during inclement weather. Some would call it roughing it however with my history of self-sufficient travel to remote areas while operating out of a backpack this seems far from it.
I wake to more of the same. Socked in with a cool rawness to the rain. Visibility is at a half mile. Unrushed to get underway yet still an early start, I enjoy coffee and breakfast aboard while reviewing my charts. 7:50 am finds me slipping the lines and getting underway towards the Fox Island Thorofare that separates North Vinalhaven and Vinalhaven then across to Deer Isle and Stonington. Very much aware I’m on a similar route as the State Ferry, I keep a close watch by poking my sombrero covered head up thru the unsnapped corner of my canvas top. Operating on compass and a 5” GPS I estimate a 40 min first-leg making 8.5 mph. As if on-command the Nuns and Cans appear out of the fog. To describe things as “uneventful” discredits the senses as they work in harmony delivering data in the form of sound, smell, movement and to a lesser extent sight. Small victories are waged and won with each confirmation of each desired waypoint. Long before Satellites aided the Mariner I depended on Dead-Reckoning, using speed-distance-time to calculate where on this planet I was at a given time. Although I have embraced and appreciate how the technologies have made travel on the ocean safer and easier my charts and tools are always present at the helm. Often throughout the trip my eye would glance at my orienteering compass first then the GPS for backup. 3hrs later I’m in Stonington Maine looking for coffee and conversation. I find coffee.
I’m focused on three things during this trip. Certainly the cruising is number #1 with everything that comes with it. I love exploring by boat and using all the skills that come into play operating in a wild, remote area. I also wanted to enjoy time on my inflatable Stand-up-Paddle board. While I’m not new to the paddle-sports game this new board is touted as a high quality performance model. I looked forward to trying it in the waves.
I also wanted to focus on another favorite of mine, hiking on the Maine Islands. Several groups including the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the folks at the Maine Island Trails maintain a network of trails along the Coast. I planned on overnighting at Frenchboro on Long Island in hopes of stomping around on a weather whipped island at the edge of the continent.
Jackpot! Upon arrived in Lunt Harbor, I almost immediately meet David and Sandy Lunt. David’s family has been living and working on the island continuously for over 200yrs
(he’s quick to point out that he’s only been around for 84 of those years). They graciously offered me free docking for the night (not even a mooring) and were generous with their time and knowledge of their island and trails that run thru it. Their son had chronicled life growing up on a Maine Island in a book titled Hauling by Hand (the book is next to my reading chair now).
Despite my far-to-short stay I could almost start to feel the pulse of the community. Sandy offered she would tell her son a visitor was at the dock for the night. Somehow, I felt word of my visit got around.
Despite my late start, and thanks to the long summer days, I was able to ramble over almost 10 miles of remote yet well maintained trails. From the time I left Frechboro to the time I returned I did not encounter a single person. Truly a Heaven-sent place.
I’m watching and listening as a small working port wakes up. Skiffs carrying Lobstermen (and woman) to their boats waiting patiently in the Harbor.
By 7am and I’m riding on the back of a ground swell towards Mount Desert Island. I plan on running up Somes Sound, the deep fiord cut into the heart of MDI. Again, the persistent fog creates an ominous effect. I can hear the waves breaking to port, trusting my line is true.
After cruising the Sound and refueling in SW Harbor I set my sights further East. This next leg will see Schoodic Point pass on my port beam with Jonesport as my next stop. Visibility is still limited however a promising high-pressure pattern is pushing thru. The 2S Bell appears as it’s supposed to setting up the way to another test-piece, the Petite Manan Bar. The Bar runs approximately 1.5 miles from the Point to Petit Manan Island. It’s known to break in all but settled weather prompting the Guide Book to issue several highlighted warnings. “Take the longer route around if unsure” says the prudent sailor. But what fun is that? Despite the lack of any real view I depend on my ears and the quicker motion of my vessel to tell me things are closer at hand. The West bell greets me hello and the East Gong wishes me goodbye. As if entering a different dimension, the sun burns thru the sky and for the first time on the journey the aft curtain comes off.
The Sun, and the warmth it brings, has the ability to change one’s view of the World. For starters I can see where I’m going reducing the level of hyper awareness required to operate a vessel in unfamiliar waters. I further uncover the boat removing the side curtains and stowing the top in its upright position. With clear visibility I’m able to throttle up to a comfortable 20 mph. Islands like Bois Burber, Jordan’s Delight and Big Nash were left in my wake as I make up time towards my destination. Pine and granite islands topped a long skirt at low tide. My route constricts at Tibbett Narrows and Moosabec Reach leading the way towards Jonesport. If I were expecting a grand welcome, I’d have been disappointed. My first few attempts at fueling found me at commercial outfits that did not have an interest in my request for gasoline. That all changed when I docked up at O.W. & B.S. Look Co Inc. The guys working the dock could not do anymore to make we feel welcomed and provide local knowledge of their area. If it was fuel and ice I needed they made sure I got plenty of both. I had seen Roque Island on the charts and they confirmed this was the place to drop my hook for the night. With the bright ball in the sky still drying my boat I thanked my hosts and made way to the anchorage only a handful of miles yonder.
Clearly on Island time, I slackened the pace and chose to drink responsibly. With nowhere to go and no one to meet I poked my bow around the cut between Great Spruce and Little Spruce Islands. It’s like they invented gunkholes around here with one spot just a little more inviting then the last. With the promise of an expansive sandy beach just around the corner I pressed on to Roque Island Harbor. As the scene unfolded, I counted the first two or three pleasure boats since I left Mount Desert. Further south this would be the day- anchorage for hundreds of boaters. On the Bold Coast boating neighbors are few; seals and seagulls are plenty.
I tucked into the lee of a small bluff that created a private corner. With good fortune I find a solitary mooring ball. Being mindful of the extreme tides I figure my shallow draft Pilot should remain floating throughout my stay. In time, I inflate the paddle board (8 min from folded to floating) while scanning the beach. This is not your typical Maine Coast peddle beach. Laying out before me is a full mile of blonde boarder separating the land from the Harbor. Any trace of human passage had been erased by the receding tide. I hop on my board for a look around. Apparently, the island is home to a small academic community challenged by farming the land the way it was done 100yrs ago. There are no signs of their efforts however a posted notice informs visiting boaters they are welcome on the beach but not any further inland. A pleasant evening is spent gliding around on my board followed by a dinner and a restful night.
I wake to sunshine, coffee, music and thoughts of the days route. I’m reminded how life on shore tends to be “rushed” however that should not be life underway. “‘why yes, I’d like another cup of coffee please”. Up with the sun allows for a relaxed start yet I’m still free of the mooring by 7:15. It didn’t take long to realize the abundant sunshine would be short lived. As I thread my way between Anguilla and Halifax Islands i head thru a wall of heavy fog. I’m back in the soup.
Operating at safety speed, around 8.5 mph, I probe my way up towards the mouth of Machias Bay. I had thoughts of the famous Blueberry pie Machiasport is know for (apparently the local blueberries have a high sugar content making for the best baked items to be found). Despite my insatiable sweet tooth, I opt for a change in direction. Eager to take back some of the miles I ready myself for the long slog towards Penobscot Bay.
Operating in thick fog is an acquired skill. With no reference from land and roughly 100ft of visibility (based on how far I can see the next lobster buoy) I call on all my other senses for navigation. There is no horizon, no definition between the sky and the sea, no left or right. I plan on staying outside of the Islands keeping America to my right. I plug in a waypoint and dial-in a compass setting. Long ago I’d observed how a compass can swing wildly in the fog on an apparently straight course. The compass won’t lie, you just need to trust it. Trying to hard to get a visual can also drive a Capt crazy. I double check my charts, refer to my GPS and compass then set a course and speed. I find my Pilot operates well in the 12 to 14 mph range. Like any boat with some V to the bottom her bow will rise just not to a point where I lose visibility. Although I’m not dealing with large waves at the moment, I’ve built confidence in its ability to ship huge water under the keel while not pounding down the other side. The Pilot also performs well on-plane in the low-to-mid 20’s, just not in the fog. For whatever reason I think back to my mountain climbing days. Avoid having too strong a grip on the rock, that will tire you out quickly. Use no more energy that required. I try for that same grip while driving in zero visibility.
My winter nights pawing over the charts had left plenty of pencil marks suggesting points of interest. One such spot was coming up reasonably soon. Head Harbor Island, exposed to the open ocean, I had identified “the Cow Yard” as a safe refuge from an angry ocean yet otherwise hidden from danger. I could get a visual as I got closer and figured it was a good place to know if my travels ever brought me back this way. Entering the remote harbor, I re-entered the world thru that wall of fog revealing a true boaters Heaven on Earth. If it was later in the day I would have said it’s home for the night. I drew on my memory to make a sketch of the area then turned back into the fog.
Patience and attentiveness work together as I count down the miles to my next waypoint. Constantly drinking water, snacks rather than a full lunch, monitoring electronics. Time and space truly appear altered from my helm seat.
Now that’s a Lighthouse! The first man-made thing I’ve seen since leaving the anchorage stands 123ft (the tallest in Maine) on the edge of Petit Manan Island. My trip East took me over the Bar in fog so I had not seen this towering structure until it stuck it’s light out of the clouds. Although off-limits to travelers the island claims home to a colony of Puffins, more native to the North. I got to know these Parrott like birds on a trip to Seal Island off Matinicus last year so I didn’t feel the need to explore any closer. Next waypoint, one I had already set the day before, “2S” off Schoodic.
I can now get a visual of Mount Desert giving me the confidence to apply more throttle. 22 mph changes the cruise, I take aim at Bar Harbor. I was half expecting a culture shock from waking Deep Down-East then dropping into the heart of Touristville however the shock I got was to see just how dead the town looked for the first week of July. Rather than waiting in line for fuel I found the docks were empty and the gas pumps closed. The restaurants lining the harbor were either closed or offering reduced services. Even a quick stretch into town revealed a minimum of foot traffic. I was saddened by the though that many of these small businesses simply will not survive to see the summer of 2021. I return to my boat and get back underway.
Decision time. I had allotted a week to explore the area. The weather dictated that I kept moving rather than play in the sun, so I had already covered most of the miles I had planned on. One of my favorite cruising grounds in Maine, Merchants Row, lay ahead. Certainly it would be easy enough to find a hide-away for the night however the thought of my wife caring for her mother back home gave me reason to push on back towards Rockland. Despite my proximity to Canada when I awoke, several hours from now I could be on the trailer and 3.5 hrs later would put me in our living room. I opted to cut this trip short in favor of adding days-off closer to home.
5pm saw me return to Rockland Harbor having logged 231.7 miles over 22hrs of underway time. My avg speed was 12.9 mph consuming an avg of 3.6 gph. When I look at the chart, I can see a huge swath of islands and land that I’ve covered in only a few days. Having filled in some gaps in my cruising resume I can now say I’ve operated vessels from the Canadian Border, down the East Coast and the ICW, thru the Bahamas and The Caribbean as far south as Grenada. (I’ll leave out the Great Loop for another story). The only stretch I haven’t done is between Newport RI and NYC. Stay tuned for next years cruise. I’ll try and close the gap.