THE CHALLENGES OF CRUISING MAINE
There are a few navigational challenges I should mention, such as fog, 10-foot tides, 4-knot currents, anchoring among rocks and ledges, and lobster buoys and trap lines. I didn’t say cruising the coast of Maine was going to easy, but it can be an exciting challenge for any cruising sailor. I can think if no better place to test your skills while exploring one of the world’s great archipelagos.
Fog: There are three degrees of fog, I’m told. With “normal” fog, you can see a quarter-mile ahead. “Thick” fog is when you can see only a few boat lengths ahead. With “dungeons” of fog, it’s so thick, you can’t see the bow of your own boat. In the old days, Mainers practiced potato navigation: a kid on the bow with a bag of spuds tossing them ahead. A splash? Keep going. A thud? Tacking!
Today, AIS, radar, GPS, chart plotters and VHF have reduced the anxiety, but many lobster boats fail to use AIS, radar doesn’t see trap buoys and lines, and the currents haven’t changed. Someone on deck needs to keep visual watch while you are below glued to the radar screen. The sounder doesn’t help much in fog. Your keel could be in 30 feet of water with the bowsprit tangled up in the spruce trees ashore. The most valuable piece of equipment to have on board in fog is the anchor. Fog will burn off by late morning—if it’s going to. In June and early July, fog is more common, less so later in the summer. September is the best month in Maine.
Tides and current: Tides in Maine run 8 to 10 feet. That’s a lot of water to push up into the bays and drain back out, twice each day, at six- and 12-hour intervals. The tidal current running in and out of bays and coves can reach 4 knots. An hour’s run across the bay can set you off a mile on arrival, unless you compensate. With all those ledges and rocks lurking about, even a few feet off course can put you aground.
Anchoring means deploying sufficient scope to cope with the tidal range. Then there’s the set of the current: When the tidal current switches direction, where will your boat sit? Best to have a few anchors and extra line aboard to deploy in a Bahamian moor, to anchor astern or to run a stern line ashore.
Lobster buoys and trap lines: Lobster buoys are as much a hazard as fog and currents. Maine is prime lobster-fishing territory, with buoys so thick in places, you could walk to shore on them. The colorful buoys are not the problem—it’s the line that floats just below the surface from the buoy to the toggle. The toggle is a small float that keeps the trap line off the bottom, but when the tide is low, the toggle might reach the surface, and the 20 feet of line to the colorful buoy floats just below the surface.
Steer around the top of a buoy, not the bottom end where the line exits the base of the buoy. Do not go between the buoy and the toggle; you’re liable to find that you’ve snagged the line and fouled the prop. This might require a dive overboard into frigid water to cut the line free. And in most places, the sea rarely gets above 60 degrees, even in the middle of the summer. Lobster boats have a wire cage around the prop to keep out their trap lines. You can have a line cutter bolted to your prop shaft to cut the line, but then the fisherman has lost his trap. Radar doesn’t see the buoys, and you can’t see them at night. Keep a constant watch when navigating in Maine, and steer clear of buoys and trap lines. Even sailboats with their prop locked can snag a line on the blades or the rudder. Divers can be hired in many harbors to free a fouled prop. Still, lobster buoys are helpful in seeing which way the current flows and at what speed.
Prevailing winds: A midsummer day in Maine is apt to be under a high-pressure system, resulting in sunny, fog-free days but little wind, especially in the mornings. As the land heats up, a southwest sea breeze is likely to fill in after lunch, and might get up to 20 knots by late afternoon, just before dying off before dark. Gales are infrequent in the summer, and when a low comes up the East Coast, it tends to pass by just offshore to the east, producing northeasterly winds. Most Maine bays and harbors are open to the southwest, providing a lee to those winds. Hurricanes are infrequent.
DAY SEVEN: From your anchorage in or near Long Cove, there are small coves and islands—including Fiddlehead and a spot called the Basin—to explore. Use the kayaks, but someone should be in the RIB as a chase boat. The Basin is a large, almost landlocked body of water that’s worth a whole day fussing around in small boats. The narrow entrance to the Basin provides a reversing-falls effect, so enter at slack tide, or with the RIB. Be warned: The narrows can be a whitewater experience.
DAY EIGHT: There are dozens of small islands to the west, a few with limited anchorages. One is south of the neck between Lawry’s Island and Cedar Island. There’s enough room for one, so leave early enough or give it a pass if someone is there. Farther south in Hurricane Sound are White and Garden islands, with two possible anchorages. Go ashore on the beach and take in beautiful vistas of the Camden Hills, and across to Owls Head.
DAY NINE: Sail south to the anchorage and mooring field off the east side of Hurricane Island. In the 1800s, this island was a bustling community working the granite stone quarry, still visible today. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was home to the Outward Bound School. In 2009, the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership took over the site, with science, technology, engineering and mathematics experiential education programs for youths between the ages of 11 and 18. Guest rental moorings might be available, and you are invited to go ashore. Anchoring is possible, but the bottom is rocky, with kelp. There are trails around the island and a center to visit.
You’ve been gone a week now, and you might need a few provisions. There’s a small grocery store nearby in Carvers Harbor. You can get there by going southeast around Herons Neck light or up and around Greens Island, then down the Reach, a narrow, twisty passageway between Vinalhaven and Greens Island leading to Carvers Harbor, the main settlement on the island. Keep an eye on the chart and markers as you go because they can be confusing. You might meet the ferry on its way to or from Rockland.
Just before the ferry terminal, drop the hook off Dodge Point or on the opposite side of the entrance, south of Potato Island. Send in the dinghy to see if there is a rental mooring available. Look for a buoy with a bottle wired atop a stick. It’s for the rental fee. Call the harbor master if necessary (207-756-0209).
Carvers Harbor is one of Maine’s busiest lobster-fishing harbors, landing some 5 million pounds of lobster annually. The harbor is narrow, full of lobster boats, and the shore is lined with floating docks piled high with the traps, wood crates and scales. It’s there where fishermen offload and weigh their haul, and cash out. There’s no room in the harbor to anchor, and the bottom is too hard anyway, so anchor outside.
There’s lots to do ashore, so take the crew to the dinghy dock at the head of
the harbor, where you can tie up. Across the street is the Nightingale Restaurant, formerly the Harbor Gawker. There are shops, a grocery store, art galleries, pubs, offices and buildings that date back to when this town was a granite shipping port. The streets lead to lanes, past Victorian homes and farms, summer estates, forests, and abandoned, water-filled quarries. Stay overnight because tomorrow will be a long day.
DAY 10: It’s just 4 miles from Carvers Harbor to Brimstone Island, a tall, rugged, uninhabited island on the outer edge of Penobscot Bay. It might as well be on the edge of the world. Anchor off the pebble beach at the northwest corner. This is a day-only anchorage. The bottom is rocky with kelp. Holding ground is better on the south side between Brimstone and Little Brimstone but only in settled weather. Dinghy ashore, but keep an eye on the tide or set a dinghy mooring.
The island beach is famous for its small, round, black basaltic pebbles, polished smooth by 100,000 years of wave and tidal action. The stones arrived there eons ago from far, far to the north, carried by the ice sheet as it moved slowly south. I’ve carried three of these small black stones in my left pocket for years. Wherever I am in the world, I can grab a handful of Maine. Stay clear of the east side of the island because it is a bird nesting area.
By early afternoon it will be time to gather up the crew and return to the boat for lunch and a discussion of what to do with the remaining days of the trip.
DAY 11: Six miles north of Brimstone, halfway up the eastern shore of Vinalhaven, is Seal Bay, a nifty piece of water with anchorages, coves and islands. The entrance is between aptly named Bluff Head and Hen Island. The channel is narrow and the current swift, but inside there are five or six individual and secluded anchorages. You’ll be surrounded by a granite and spruce wilderness. The only trail access is through Huber Preserve, south of Burnt Island. With a kayak or the dinghy, you can explore the coves and islands, and watch wildlife, birds, dolphins, foxes, and perhaps see a deer. Next to Seal Bay is Winter Harbor, another narrow cove cut deep into the island. There are three or four spots to anchor, but mind the current and swing room.
DAYS 12 AND 13: It’s time to get back into civilization, and cellphone service. Let’s head to Camden. This is a morning trip from Seal Bay. Head up through the Fox Island Thoroughfare, put the Sugar Loaves to port this time, and turn right at the Fiddler, a granite stone monument at the southern end of a ledge off Stand-in-point. From there, it’s an 8-mile dash across West Bay to Camden. Watch out for the Graves,
a ledge above high tide, marked by a light, a mile and a half southeast from Camden.
Put Curtis Island Lighthouse to port as you enter Camden’s outer harbor. There’s room to anchor inside to the right, east of the mooring field, west of the ledges. The Yacht Club, Wayfarer Marine and the town have rental moorings. Call ahead. The inner-harbor floats are filled with local craft, but Wayfarer and the town docks might have space to come alongside. Wayfarer has a fuel dock and pump-out station. The town has a pump-out boat that will come to you in the outer harbor. Call ahead.
Ashore, Camden is as charming a town as you could imagine. It was the film set for the 1950s movie Peyton Place. There are shops, a library, provisioning, laundry, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays, there’s an open-air farmers market. There are hardware stores, T-shirt shops, and art and home-furnishing galleries.
Camden has also become Maine’s foodie town, with more a dozen restaurants, featuring Italian, Asian and French cuisine, and good-old New England seafood. There’s waterfront dining, and Harbor Dogs—a fish-taco truck—is right there on the public landing.
There’s a large, freshwater lake nearby and half a dozen hiking trails that wander through the Camden Hills. A halfhour climb to the top of Mount Battie, which oversees Camden, provides stunning vistas of Penobscot Bay. You can see the islands you just explored, with views all the way to Blue Hill, Cadillac Mountain and Isle au Haut. The trail begins just a 10-minute walk from the dinghy docks.
In NON-COVID times, there are concerts and plays, as well as performances on the library lawn and at the Opera House. Wandering the streets or hiking over the hill to Rockport will get you back in shape from two weeks of cruising. It’s so nice there, you could move in. I did.
DAY 14: Last day—it’s back to Rockland, 7 miles south of Camden. The crew can pack up, unload and head back to civilization. The boat can get parked on a mooring until the next adventure, or take you south. From there, it’s roughly 36 hours to Newport, Rhode Island. Or you can haul the boat for the winter, with plans to sail farther east next summer. You can also think about future trips. Northern Penobscot Bay needs a visit, including Warren Island, a state park next to Islesboro Island with hiking trails. Then into East Bay to visit Castine Harbor, Smith Cove and a dinghy trip up the Bagaduce. There are small coves and anchorages such as Bucks Harbor, along Eggemoggin Reach. Swans Island is next, then up into Blue Hill Bay, over to Mount Desert Island and Somes
Sound. That’s another two-week jaunt before returning west, back through the Deer Island Thoroughfare, with stops in Stonington and the islands of Merchants Row. Then a day’s sail back to Rockland.
The opportunities are endless. This could become a habit.
David H. Lyman is journalist, author, photographer and sailor. He sailed into Maine in the early 1970s and started a summer photography school, the Maine Photographic Workshops, which continues today as Maine Media Workshops (mainemedia.edu). He has been owned by four different sailboats, from an Alden 34-footer to a Bowman 57. He has sailed the entire East Coast, and made more than 24 offshore voyages between Maine and the Caribbean. His first memoir about his hitch as a Navy photojournalist with a Seabee outfit in Vietnam in 1967 was published in 2019. He lives and writes in Camden, Maine.