Per­fect­ing the art of dis­cov­ery

SAIL - - Contents - Story and pho­tos by David Buck­man

David Buck­man ex­plores the nooks and crannies of Maine’s rocky and tide-swept shore in search of the per­fect an­cor­age

There’s a long­ing among coast­ers to chance upon a per­fectly pro­tected eel rut of a wild an­chor­age, in­habit it in soli­tude and know the de­lights of dis­cov­ery. Though some de­spair there are no un­pub­lished truths of the sort yet to be di­vined, they are out there if you know where to look—for there’s some­thing of an art to fath­om­ing still wa­ters and pri­vate places. Of­ten, the only rea­son such trea­sures still ex­ist is that they throw a chal­lenge or two at you and de­mand a greater in­vest­ment of self. It’s the price of ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, though most of those we’ve chanced upon have proven sur­pris­ingly straight­for­ward to plumb. The lit­tle time it takes to know the truth of such mat­ters pays hand­somely and yields a richer ap­proach to coast­ing.

Seek­ing shel­ter from weather has driven a few of the dis­cov­er­ies my wife and mate, Leigh, and I have made. One time, bul­ly­ing seas bared their teeth as our 26ft Folk­boat Leight put her shoul­der to a snotty north­east­erly un­der a Kansas tor­nado sky scud­ding low over Maine’s East Penob­scot Bay. The pre­vi­ous evening’s fore­cast had said noth­ing of east­erly weather, but when Leigh pulled up the lat­est re­port, we learned we were in for a wet, windy and foggy time of it.

The mate, who is not in the least timid about mak­ing her views on such things known, broke the si­lence. “I don’t know about you,” she said with a hint of res­ig­na­tion in her voice. “But I’d rather be an­chored in a quiet cove, drink­ing wine, read­ing and nib­bling on canapes, thank you very much.”

No longer a fol­lower of the Suf­fer­ing Builds Char­ac­ter school of cruis­ing, I came to im­me­di­ate sym­pa­thy, but the ques­tion was, where? With no se­cure shel­ter from winds out of that quar­ter along our tra­jec­tory, we hud­dled over the chart and ul­ti­mately elected to head for a teacup of a tide hole called Seal Trap on Isle au Haut. While the cruis­ing guides had noth­ing to say of it, back in the day we’d spent an hour in the dinghy, chart­ing it with a sound­ing lead, pen­cil and sketch pad.

It’s only ac­ces­si­ble at half tide or bet­ter, and it was just shy of that when we brought up un­der the im­pos­ing gran­ite swell of Moore’s Head. En­gine on, sails flut­ter­ing down and the flood un­der us, we made for a slender rib­bon of wa­ter in the lee of Trial Point, hug­ging the spruce-crowned east­ern shore. Cliffs rose abruptly a cou­ple of boatlengths to star­board, seas milked

and moshed, and the world closed in.

Depths de­clined from 20ft to 12ft rather quickly, but then held as we crept past a knuckle of ledge to port. Ten feet, nine, eight; the sound­ings de­clined and wa­ters qui­eted. With a slight nudge of the helm we skirted a low-ly­ing ledge to star­board and gained the breath­tak­ing soli­tude of its in­ner pool with 15ft of wa­ter un­der us.

An­chor down, sails furled, the lantern flick­er­ing away, our cir­cum­stance couldn’t have been more civil. Still as a pond, there was a com­fort to the close­ness of it as dark­ness fell, rain slanted down and the wind fret­ted—a par­tic­u­lar sat­is­fac­tion at be­ing privy to the beauty and soli­tude of this se­cret place.

While a row­ing dinghy is handy for chart­ing quiet wa­ters, we pre­fer to use Leight, which draws 4ft, for most such duty, prefer­ably on a flood­ing tide. While the sloop’s depth­sounder is es­sen­tial, we also carry a lead line for weedy bot­toms, which can re­flect false read­ings.

The na­ture of wa­ter, shoal and shore is rea­son­ably pre­dictable. Steep shores of­ten in­di­cate nav­i­ga­ble depths, while lower, more gen­tle shores fa­vor shal­lower wa­ter. Ledges show­ing tes­tify to the prob­a­bil­ity of ledges un­seen, and shoal­ing is al­most al­ways grad­ual. Lob­ster trap buoys are signs of nav­i­ga­ble depths and in­di­cate cur­rent flow, and an ab­sence of them may be a sign of shoal wa­ter. Vis­ual es­ti­ma­tions of depths are un­re­li­able, points of land tend to con­tinue un­der­wa­ter, mid

schan­nel can be a rea­son­able place to start, and a soft and sticky land­ing of a lead line usu­ally in­di­cates mud.

Charts and plot­ters leave a lot of ques­tions unan­swered. A good bit of this busi­ness is spec­u­la­tion, and there are plenty of ex­cep­tions to the rule. Our ex­pe­ri­ence in the Gulf of Maine has been that where there are tempt­ing sound­ings in the 6ft to 8ft range, about half the time the ac­tual depths are a bit deeper. The dinghy is kept on a short leash when we sniff out the pos­si­bil­i­ties, and if one of us is on deck, we sig­nal di­rec­tions with ges­tures, not shout­ing. Lo­cal knowl­edge can be an­other source of in­tel­li­gence. It’s been our ex­pe­ri­ence you can be­lieve about half the lies you hear at the town dock.

Most of our dis­cov­er­ies have of­fered per­fectly ad­e­quate swing­ing room, but when space is con­strained, a chain rode works best. Only oc­ca­sion­ally have two an­chors been called for. The sin­gle-digit sound­ings we of­ten en­counter al­low for a gen­er­ous scope ra­tio with a moder­ate length of rode, which lim­its swing­ing arc. Leight’s pri­mary an­chor is a 25lb CQR.

There’s a stir­ring drama to the wild wa­ters of The Basin on Maine’s Vi­nal­haven Is­land, and in all our years of calling there we’ve never shared it with an­other boat. While the first look gave pause, once it was in our wake, we were im­pressed with how straight­for­ward thread­ing the nee­dle had been, to say noth­ing of its fabulous beauty, pri­vacy and se­cu­rity.

That the wa­ters had been used as win­ter­ing grounds for schooners gave historic ref­er­ence to its ac­ces­si­bil­ity. A sail-by re­vealed a mid-chan­nel ledge, 20 yards or so into the rock­bound gut, and op­po­site it, just off the south shore, a com­pan­ion ledge. Be­tween the two was an 8- or 9-yard-wide sluice­way, where at high slack the stream proved em­i­nently nav­i­ga­ble.

En­gine tick­ing over, we made our way along the mid­dle of the chan­nel at 3 knots, the depths de­clin­ing to 12ft. A small is­land slid by to port; beyond it was an­other knot of ledges. Mind­ing them, we stayed pretty much cen­ter chan­nel as much as we could, depths in­creas­ing to 20ft and the cur­rent evap­o­rat­ing.

The Basin has the look of a bo­real North Coun­try lake, with no sign of man’s am­bi­tions to be seen. A knot of small is­lands gath­ered to the east, and we turned north­ward into a nat­u­ral chan­nel-way. Seals hauled out on ledges port and star­board, and a scat­ter­ing of lob­ster pot buoys con­firmed the cor­rect­ness of our drift. Sound­ings were in the teens.

There’s a stir­ring drama to the wild wa­ters of The Basin on Maine’s Vi­nal­haven Is­land, and in all our years of calling there we’ve never shared it with an­other boat

Soon af­ter travers­ing a mi­nor bar, with depths of 9ft, we were re­ceived in a teacup of an an­chor­age, with bold, spruce-crowned shores rising high above the emer­ald al­cove. An­chor­ing where we’d have 10ft at low wa­ter, the still­ness was pregnant. An ea­gle traced sweep­ing ges­tures against the sky and there was some­thing de­cid­edly prim­i­tive to our iso­la­tion.

We spent three days cul­ti­vat­ing the quiet. Time melted away. We took naps, walked ashore, lis­tened to Coltrane, washed our socks and flossed. Books, Bordeaux, bird­ing and foot mas­sages: we lived qui­etly, en­dowed with a cer­tain an­i­mal awareness.

Some dis­cov­er­ies are so ridicu­lously easy, it’s hard to imag­ine why the world doesn’t know of them. An­chored in The Cows Yard on Head Har­bor Is­land, a bit of southerly chop made it in, so I de­cided see what the lee of nearby Steele Har­bor and Black Is­lands had to of­fer. Sniff­ing about on the flood I found a quiet, 7ft-deep pool, called it Cor­ner Pocket Cove, and an­chored with 10 fath­oms of chain, the sur­vey hav­ing taken 40 min­utes.

Some ex­plo­rations re­quire a new way of think­ing. York Is­land Har­bor was one of them. We were slowly feel­ing our way in, hav­ing watched a few lob­ster boats work­ing the wa­ters, when we came upon a car-sized glacial er­ratic block­ing the way. Twice re­buffed as we tried to get by to the west, we backed and filled, put the sloop’s nose into a rock-girded slip, lit­tle more than 30ft from shore, and watched as the sound­ings de­clined to 9ft—and held. Un­lock­ing such de­signs is a pow­er­ful thing, and ly­ing in the lee with 7ft of wa- ter un­der us, we were en­dowed of a par­tic­u­lar sense of sat­is­fac­tion for the se­crets we knew.

Mak­ing a late ar­rival at Dix Har­bor in the Mus­cle Ridge chan­nel be­fore a frisk­ing southerly, we found a yacht club cruise in port and no room at the inn. Dis­cussing the op­tions, our eyes fell upon a ten­nis court-sized pool un­der the lee of An­drews Is­land and The Neck. The chart gave no en­cour­age­ment, but for a sin­gle 8ft sound­ing.

The way be­tween Birch and High Is­land was much ob­structed by ledges, but the north shore of High Is­land was steep, and we slowly chanced along on the flood, skirt­ing a shoal on the north­east cor­ner of the is­land. The way proved rea­son­ably nav­i­ga­ble, and we soon came un­der shore of The Neck, cir­cled about and dropped an­chor in a pocket par­adise. We could hear wind in the tree­tops, but our berth was still. Look­ing west to­ward the fleet at Dix Har­bor, we saw their an­chor lights danc­ing to the breeze and were pos­sessed of a de­li­cious sense of sanc­tu­ary.

There’s a dis­tinct en­ergy to things new and afresh, and to learn­ing on a grand scale. It re­minds us how lit­tle we know and how much is yet to be dis­cov­ered. Imag­i­na­tion is the cur­rency of still wa­ter and pri­vate places. The poet Robert Frost dis­tilled the essence of it when he wrote: “Two roads di­verged in a wood and I took the one less trav­eled by, and that has made all the difference.” s

Leigh ex­plores wild Blacks Is­land, next to Cor­ner Pocket Cove, Maine

A proper row­ing dinghy can be a great tool for dis­cov­er­ing new places

Leight has the quiet har­bor of Seal Trap all to her­self.

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