Messing About in BOATS DOWN EAST
cruising to maine
This summer, with the pandemic and social distancing still in mind, taking the family on a Down East cruise to Maine might be just the thing. After all, it’s not only one of the world’s great sailing destinations, but also there are isolated coves, vacant beaches and uninhabited islands where self-isolation is just fine. If you take your own boat, there are ample shore services, yards, marinas and harbor towns in which to haul or moor your vessel between visits. Or you can charter a bareboat or reserve a crewed yacht. Let me provide an overview of what’s entailed in cruising Maine in the second summer of COVID-19.
The coronavirus restrictions remain fluid, and of course you’ll need to investigate the current situation before shoving off. Now, on to the fun stuff.
Sailing to Maine is the easy part. It’s only 144 nautical miles on a rhumbline course from the Cape Cod Canal to Monhegan Island. At 6 knots, that’s 24 hours. It’s another 24 miles up through Muscle Ridge Channel to Owls Head Lighthouse—the front door to what I feel is the greatest cruising ground anywhere: Penobscot Bay.
The distance from York Harbor, near the southern border with New Hampshire, all the way to the Canadian border is 200 nautical miles in a straight line…but the Maine coastline is anything but straight. If you add in the shoreline around each of the 4,500 islands—then include the coves, bays, harbors and tidal rivers—maine has more coastline than the rest of the entire East Coast, more than 5,000 miles. Logic suggests there must be a few places along that stretch where you can find a secluded spot to anchor for a spell.
Maine’s largest bay, Penobscot, is split down the middle by a chain of islands: the Fox Islands to the south, Islesboro to the north, with a dozen small islands in between. There are half a dozen harbor towns, some small fishing villages, and lots of isolated coves in which to anchor. You’ll find uninhabited islands and beaches to explore, mountain trails to hike, waterfront restaurants and seafood shacks, and open-air farmers markets. There’ll be blueberries to pick, corn to shuck, lobsters to boil, and quiet evenings aboard in your own boat.
Nice, right? Now let’s get to the particulars.
The two-week cruise I’ve outlined below will keep you and your crew safe, in your own bubble, on your own boat. Each day includes a few hours of sailing to a new anchorage. Afternoons are for exploring uninhabited islands, secluded coves and a few villages. Evenings, you are alone, anchored in a secluded cove, as the sun drops behind the Camden Hills. There are enough wilderness islands there to fill up a few weeks—if not the entire summer, and many summers to come.
I’ve lived on and cruised along the coast of Maine for 50 years, and my ideal two-week getaway would be a circumnavigation of the Fox Islands. A couple of kayaks and a RIB with at least a 10 to 15 hp outboard are essential for this kind of serious gunkholing. The anchorages I’ve described are no more than a few hours apart, affording the crew some time to test their sailing skills, and the navigator to plot courses to keep everything off the rocks. You may also find your own anchorages. There are untold options galore, so go explore. I won’t mind at all.
DAY ONE: Rockland is a good place to start (and also a good spot to leave your boat between visits). This large commercial port is easy to enter, with ample space for anchoring. There are rental moorings, docks, fuel, four marinas (including a mega-yacht facility), a large chandlery (Hamilton Marine), supermarkets, canvas shop, mechanics and boatyards. Main Street is abuzz with shops, a theater, two art museums, lots of art galleries, and half a dozen restaurants; the four-star Primo eatery is also nearby. Cape Air provides regular service to Boston from the local airport; the Concord bus line stops at the ferry terminal twice each day. US1 passes through town, and rental and loaner cars are available. Box stores are a few miles out of town. It’s almost civilized there.
To kick things off, leave Rockland midmorning and steer northeast for Pulpit Harbor on the northwest corner of North Haven Island. It’s only 10 nautical miles, and with a southerly breeze, you’ll be there by lunch. Leave Pulpit Rock, with an osprey nest atop, to starboard and find a spot to anchor inside. The moorings are all locally owned, so find a spot in midharbor in 25 feet of water to anchor, or in the two coves on the south side. There’s a public dock farther in for your dinghy. The island’s food store is a halfmile walk south, from the bridge. Take your dinghy farther up into the cove, past the traffic bridge. Farmland, fields of lupine, and cottages covered in roses line the banks and roads. In the summer, the sun sets over the Camden Hills across the bay well after 8 p.m.
DAY TWO: Two options: north around the top of North Haven, or south. The wind that day will dictate. The northerly route offers up a scattering of islands with four possible anchorages. Hank and Jan Taft have described these in their comprehensive A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast (see “Resources and References,” page 51). The Barred Islands and Butter Island are accessible and a good place for lunch, beachcombing, a hike, or even an overnight stop in settled conditions.
Quick aside on dinghies: Finding a place along these islands to beach a dinghy is one thing; securing said dinghy is another. Pull it up on the beach, and
when you get back from your hike, you might find that the tide has floated it off the beach and it’s drifting away, or it’s high and dry, 30 feet from the water’s edge.
There are numerous techniques to solve this problem. The captain can drop off the landing party and return to the yacht for a nap. Go ashore in kayaks; they are easily pulled above the high-tide line and carried back. Or rig a dinghy-retrieval mooring system: Secure a floating buoy to the dinghy anchor line with a shackle. Drop it in deep water. Nose into the beach, off-load, then with a long loop of line rove through a shackle on the anchor float, pull the dinghy back out to where you dropped the anchor. Tie the shore end of the loop to something above high tide. When you get back, just pull your dinghy in to the beach. Make your own, or try West Marine’s Anchor Buddy, a readymade dinghy mooring system using a long bungee cord that snaps your dinghy back out into deep water.
DAYS THREE AND FOUR: With a fair breeze, steer southeast from Butter Island, down to Oak Hill on the tip of North Haven. Give the hodgepodge of small islands and ledges a wide berth on the way. Mind the current. There are two possible anchorages: Marsh Cove, below the hill on which sits the Watson Estate. No access ashore. Mullen Cove is better. The beach provides access to hiking trails through a town-owned park. Just south is Burnt Island, now a North Haven park, with a walking trail all the way around and a float to which you can tie a dinghy at any state of the tide. Or head for the beach off the northwest tip of Calderwood Island. You can’t go wrong with any of these. Calderwood is tucked in between Simpson and Babbidge islands on the northeast side of the Fox Island Thoroughfare. Uninhabited and open to the public, it is now owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which keeps the trails open now that the sheep have left. There’s a spruce forest at the southern end where the kids can build fairy houses. Anchor off the beach on the north side where hiking trails begin. Be aware of the rock in the middle of the anchorage. I spent a few hours there once waiting to be floated off. This is a popular anchorage, and if too crowded, there’s another spot to the east, between Calderwood and Babbidge. Two beaches provide access ashore and to the trails. The passage between the two islands is strewn with ledges and rock. When departing, go back around the north side of Babbidge or Calderwood. Calderwood might need two days to fully explore. I’ve spent weeks there photographing.
Nearby are two obvious anchorages for the night: Carver Cove, south of Widow Island, is calm, with views of saltwater farms, fields and forests. To the north, past the Goose Rocks spark plug lighthouse is Kent Cove. There’s no shore access, but if there’s a breeze, there’ll be no mosquitos.
DAY FIVE: You have decisions to make: You could go east to Stonington, the Deer Isle Thoroughfare, and on to the islands farther down the Maine coast. (We say “down” up here in Maine when heading up the coast, as in Down East. The prevailing winds are southwest, meaning you’re mostly sailing “downwind.”)
But for the purposes of this itinerary, that cruise is for another time. So we’ll head west through the Fox Islands Thoroughfare, a narrow body of water separating North Haven from Vinalhaven. It’ll be busy with schooners, fishermen, gleaming classic yachts, and powerboats of all sizes passing through. The shore on the south side has a few summer cottages from the previous century. In the 1800s, Maine was a summer retreat for the wealthy from Boston, Manhattan and Philadelphia. With extended families and servants, they arrived by steamship to “camp out” in rambling cedar-shingled cottages. These “cottages” might look small from offshore, but up close, they are massive mansions with dozens of rooms, rambling porches, and servant’s
quarters. They are still there. In recent years, the wealthy have returned to buy up fishermen’s shore frontage to erect evenmore-lavish estates, with a jet-powered Hinckley picnic boat tied to the dock.
On the north side of the thoroughfare is the small village of North Haven, established by wealthy New York yachtsmen in the last century. North Haven is a world apart from its neighbor, Vinalhaven. The only grocery store is in the middle of the island, but the village might have places to order lunch, ice cream or dinner. This changes annually. Anchor outside the mooring field and out of the ferry’s approach to its terminal. Dinghy docks line both sides of the ferry terminal. The village has a library, art galleries and a community center with frequent performances, plays, lecturers and concerts. The roads wander inland past Victorian cottages, farms, fields and forests. Eric Hopkins, an island painter with a wide reputation, has a studio and gallery in the village, and there may be others. Seasons change, as do the residents.
Spend the night at anchor, or duck around to Perry Creek, a narrow cove on the south side of the thoroughfare. Ashore is a wilderness park with walking trails. Wander through spruce forests, over ledge outcroppings with views. It’s tight in there, but there are a few moorings that can be used by transients for a donation to the Vinalhaven Land Trust. Or drop the hook at the eastern entrance in 20 feet of water. If that’s too crowded, head farther south into Seal Cove. Watch the chart closely because rocks are about, but you should be able to find a spot with sufficient swing room. Take the dinghy back up to Perry Creek, where there’s access to the trails on the southeast side. Watch for a sign nailed high up on a tree. Set your dinghy moor and climb ashore. DAY SIX:
Heading west down the thoroughfare, pass Browns Light to port, the Sugar Loaves to starboard. You’re heading to Leadbetter Narrow. Pass north of Dogfish Island. To port is Crockette Cove, where there’s room for a boat or two, but mind the underwater cables. At high tide, you can take the dinghy or kayaks a mile and more up into the cove. There are more anchorages on the other side of Leadbetter Narrow.
Narrow is the operative word. It’s a tight squeeze between Leadbetter Island and the mainland of Vinalhaven. Steer north of the green can that marks a rock in the middle of the gap. The current is swift through there. Pass through, and you are at the head of Hurricane Sound, surrounded by a string of islands to the west and Vinalhaven to the east.
There is a lot to explore there, but first get the boat anchored. There’s a nifty spot to the east of Turnip Island, a small treetopped isle at the entrance to Long Cove, a milelong fjord carved into the solid granite of Vinalhaven Island. There is an abandoned quarry on the hill that provided building blocks for the post offices in Boston and New York in the 1800s. At that time, more people lived and worked the granite quarries on Vinalheaven than live there now.
The entrance into Long Cove, to the east of Hall Island, narrows to 200 feet, but once through, the cove opens up into a quiet pond with room for a few boats to anchor. The shoreline is tall, covered in spruce. There are a few floating docks along both sides of the shore. Pathways lead up to large private estates. No access there. A third of the way in, there’s a ledge barring the way, so take the dinghy and explore. Be back before the tides are low because the bar might be too shallow to navigate.