The Joy of Gunkholing
There’s more to cruising than wide-open spaces
I glanced to port at the anvil-shaped cloud rising high over the mainland to the west, then at the genoa eased to catch a southerly breeze blowing anemically up the Johns River off Elizabeth’s stern. My heavy full-keel Bristol 24 barely moved. More to the point, I was losing the race with my friend’s Tartan 27 as he glided toward one of his favorite gunkholes on the Maine coast.
“Poorhouse Cove is out of the way,” he explained before we set out from Southport Island, on the Sheepscot River, where we both had moorings. “Nobody goes there.”
I could see why. The passage up the Johns River would take over an hour, even with a good southerly behind us, and in the morning we’d face a long series of short tacks to get back into open water. Visiting Poorhouse Cove required time and patience.
Soon High Island came into view, and I watched my friend make a long, easy turn into the cove, carefully avoiding the submerged ledge north of the island. I followed him in, and we anchored just before a thunderstorm hit.
I was new to gunkholing in the mid-1990s, even though I’d sailed extensively, making solo passages from New Jersey to Maine and back, as well as to Lake Ontario via the Hudson River and Erie Canal. I realize now that the operative word is “passage.” When on passage you make miles, stopping at convenient harbors and setting off early the next day to get where you’re going. And when you get there, wherever “there” is, the natural tendency is to go where the cruising guides say it’s nice, safe, and easy. Throw in some nightlife and restaurants ashore, and you’ve got the makings of a good time.
Most of us new to cruising initially follow the herd, but eventually the crowded places lose their appeal in favor of hidey-holes off the beaten track. Looking for those hidey-holes is gunkholing. The word has plenty of definitions, but in the most traditional sense, gunkholing involves small boats nosing into coves that dry out at low tide, settling the hull into the gunk.
Gunkholes are less visited because they’re often not written about in cruising guides, are frequently hard to enter, are a pain to get to, are near other, more-popular spots, or are a golden combination of all four of these crowd-deterring elements. You can find them almost everywhere, though in many of the busier cruising grounds throughout the United States it can be a challenge. Sometimes you have to compromise, unless your boat is a true shoal-draft gunkholer and you really can go where few others will fit. Selecting nooks with enough elbow room for everyone is often your only choice, or you have to find a part-time gunkhole and go when the season is young or old.
The Sand Hole, on the west side of Lloyd Neck at the eastern approaches to Oyster Bay in Long Island Sound, is a great example of a part-time gunkhole. In summer there are typically enough boombox-blaring boats inside its sandy embrace to fill a small marina. In late spring or early fall, it is gorgeous, and you often have it all to yourself.
Not every place is ideal for gunkholing in its purest form. Too many boats is one reason, but the shape of the land is another. You need islands, peninsulas, rivers, creeks, and bays with indentations and curves that provide protection from prevailing winds and the wakes of passing boats, and not every place has these. Chesapeake Bay, and coastal Maine have the right gunkhole topography. Ditto for parts of the Great Lakes, the northern Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest. Many of us must charter to truly experience gunkholing, and that’s not so bad because it opens up new sailing vistas.
I didn’t need to charter to learn to gunkhole, but I did have to travel with a gunkholer’s perspective, and I had to travel a lot. I started in the mid-1990s aboard my Bristol 24 and continued with my wife, Liz, aboard Sonata, a 1981 Pearson 36 cutter. We sailed Maine, Chesapeake Bay, and the backwaters of North Carolina, poking into gunkholes where we swung quietly at anchor with only gulls, cormorants, heron, and jumping fish for company. When on passage we still made the miles, but we built in time for gunkholing because for us that’s what cruising is really about.
It takes practice to identify a gunkhole, and it takes a bit of courage to actually enter one. Good judgment regarding water depth, the nature of the bottom, the tides, and the weather, combined with some careful eyeball navigation, is always necessary. Feeling my way up a creek, even with daymarks as general guides, got easier with experience. I could intuit where the channel lay, based on instinct and my knowledge of how silt behaves.
That day in Maine wasn’t a turning point, just a hint of another mode of cruising that eventually led me to richer experiences. The storm passed and the sun beamed through dissipating clouds. I threw steaks on the barbecue, and we sat in the cockpit sipping beer and watching the seals.
“I’ve got a new name for this place,” I said.
» Gunkholes can be found nearly everywhere, but some locales are better than others. They attract local and charter sailors keen to experience remote islands, quiet coves, and abundant wildlife. Here’s my take on some of North America’s best gunkholes.
Sail through the Strait of Juan de Fuca between British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and the northern edge of Washington State, and you’ll find yourself in the protected waters of Puget Sound. Seattle lies to the south, Canada’s Strait of Georgia beckons to the north, and the San Juan Islands—one of the most popular cruising grounds in the Pacific Northwest—are dead ahead.
Washington State’s San Juan County contains more than 170 islands, of which more than 100 are uninhabited, offering protected anchorages, teeming wildlife, and pristine waters. The glacially sculpted terrain and rugged ambiance impart a sense of a place time has forgotten. The main port is busy Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, but nearby are Shaw and Jones islands, each with secure anchorages. Stewart, Sucia, Patos, and Matia islands also have some excellent gunkholes.
South Puget Sound is often not as crowded as the San Juans, in part because local sailors tend to look north for adventure. South Puget Sound’s twisty passages around islands and peninsulas are somewhat similar to Maine’s Casco Bay, except that the Olympic Mountains loom to the west and the Cascades tower eastward. The anchorage on the west side of Tanglewood Island, Oro Bay on the east side of Anderson Island, and Hope Island, a marine park, are a few choice spots.
Seattle is notorious for its annual rainfall of about 35 inches, but the San Juans are situated in the rain shadow of the Olympic Peninsula and receive much less rain; it’s sunny about 250 days a year. The sailing season runs May through September. Daytime temperatures in July and August average 75°F, with nighttime lows around 55°F. The tidal range in the San Juans is over 14 feet, assuring swift currents at maximum flood and ebb, particularly in narrow channels between islands.
Great Lakes sailors love to tout the virtues of their favorite gunkholes, but ask any of them about Canada’s North Channel and Georgian Bay, both located at the north end of Lake Huron in Ontario, and you’ll see wistful expressions from those who have been there or hear sighs of “Oh, I gotta go” from those who haven’t yet experienced the stark and varied beauty of these waters.
Drummond, Cockburn, and expansive Manitoulin islands separate the southern edge of the North Channel from the main body of Lake Huron, and the mainland forms its northern boundary. Within the channel are countless gunkholes and plenty of room to sail in protected water. Popular destinations are the Benjamin Islands, Whalesback Channel, and the 8-mile Baie Finn fjord with its soaring cliffs of white quartz.
At the east end of the North Channel is the entrance to the open waters of Georgian Bay. Manitoulin Island and the Bruce Peninsula provide protection from west winds that can make the big lake rough. If island gunkholing is your thing, the east side of the bay has 30,000 of them, and if you like cliffs, the Bruce Peninsula to the west will satisfy.
Another Great Lakes favorite is Lake Ontario to the east—particularly the Thousand Islands at the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River. Sailing there is different from the North Channel and Georgian Bay because of the river. Of course, you’ve still got islands for gunkholing, literally a thousand of them, with quaint villages on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the border. The city of Kingston and Gananoque (Gan, for locals), Ivy Lea, and Rockport are popular Canadian destinations. Clayton, New York, is known for its Antique Boat Museum, a must-see for wooden-boat lovers.
The sailing season peaks in July and August, but late June and September are also good. Summer highs average 86°F, with lows in the 50s. Black flies bite from mid-May to early June, as do mosquitoes, though they become less irritating as the season progresses.
Maine is technically a drowned coast. The sea level rose after the last Ice Age ended, around 10,000 years ago, and the ocean covered valleys and mountains, turning them into bays and islands. The gunkholing possibilities are seemingly limitless, particularly from Casco Bay east to Frenchman Bay, home of Mount Desert Island’s Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, whose 1,532-foot Cadillac Mountain is the tallest peak on the Atlantic coast. The scent of pine on a warm afternoon southerly breeze, the cries of loons at dusk, and curious seals swimming around the boat are just some of what makes Maine gunkholes special.
It’s not hard to avoid the summer crowds if you get off the beaten track. Muscongus Bay is often passed by on the way east to popular Penobscot Bay and the touristy hamlet of Camden, the islands of Merchant Row, or the coves of the Fox Islands Thorofare. The charm of Muscongus Bay is its remoteness, especially the coves on the St. George River. Northwest Harbor, on the west side of Deer Isle, and Seal Cove, on the west side of Swans Island, are other examples of overlooked spots.
The sailing season is short, spanning late June to Labor Day. Average summer daytime highs hover around 80°F, and nighttime lows linger in the mid-50s. September has spectacular sailing, with clear skies and almost no fog, but most sailors have left by then. The tidal range is around 12 feet in the midcoast region, and strong currents run in narrow cuts. The ubiquitous lobster pot buoys demand vigilance.
Gulf of Mexico
In the northern Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to points west, the sounds, bays, rivers, and bayous tucked behind strands of barrier islands offer some of the best gunkholing spots in North America. The charm and hospitality of the South, the balmy breezes, the sunshine, emerald-green seas, pristine white-sand beaches, and abundant wildlife in the national parks spanning much of the coast make these parts something to reckon with.
Take Florida, for instance. Two excellent jumping-off points are Fort Myers and Pensacola. From Fort Myers, in the southwestern part of the state on the Caloosahatchee River, it’s a relatively short hop south to the Everglades, which has myriad twisting channels winding through countless unnamed keys. Much less remote and entirely different in character are Pine Island Sound and the barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva, among others. Wildlife refuges, protected waters, and secluded gunkholes abound.
To the north on the Florida panhandle is Pensacola, just east of Mobile Bay and the Alabama state line. Located on the Emerald Coast, Pensacola is close to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, including historic Fort Pickens State Park on Santa Rosa Island. The area is known for its unspoiled bayou anchorages and offers great sailing in the bays and sounds.
The sailing season runs all year, but it’s most comfortable from December through February, when average daytime highs range around 65F, dropping into the mid-40s at night. It’s also drier. Rainfall averages roughly 6 inches per month, June through September, and daytime high temperatures exceed 90F with high humidity and frequent afternoon thunderstorms.
»The only defining rule for a gunkholing boat is that it must have shallow draft (not much more than 4 feet) and must be able to fit into small spaces close to shore. Apart from that, does size really matter? Many people gunkhole happily in small trailersailers or dayboats; you can buy
a 40-foot monohull that can sneak over 3-feet-deep shoals or an even bigger catamaran that can cozy up to a beach. Here’s a quick guide to choosing a boat that will suit your needs.
For: Cheap to buy and run; will float on a heavy dew; you can take it anywhere; easy to handle.
Against: Can be crowded with more than two aboard; not suited to exposed waters.
LARGER SHOAL-DRAFT CRUISING MONOHULL (>30′)
For: Spacious; generally good performance; some have offshore capability.
Against: Mast height, draft could restrict cruising grounds; weight; windage; cumbersome in close quarters.
SMALL MULTIHULL (<35')
For: Can be squeezed into reasonably tight spaces; more spacious length-for-length than small monohulls; some can be trailered.
Against: Generally more expensive to buy; beam can be a nuisance.
LARGE MULTIHULL (>36′)
For: Excellent accommodation; reasonable performance; easy to maneuver.
Against: Beam is a negative factor in tight anchorages; mast height a concern near power lines and bridges.
David Shaw writes about boats, boating, and maritime history from his home in New Jersey.