When you hit the weather right, the Maine coast is simply Shangri-la
The Maine cruise my new fiance, Caroline, and I took over the long Fourth of July weekend was a preemptive honeymoon. We’d been together and sailed together for over seven years when I donned my tuxedo and popped the question on a borrowed Rhodes 19 as the sun set over the Boston skyline on the summer solstice. Several days later, we celebrated with five days of sailing among the rocky islands and lobster pots of Penobscot Bay and points farther east on a chartered O’Day 40 from Johanson Boatworks, in Rockland.
Maybe the weather had something to do with the sublime feeling of being engaged. The northern sunshine was warming, not hot, as if coastal Maine wasn’t quite ready to kick off its short summer season. But we were, and as the wind piped up into the high teens from the southwest, the possibility of a speedy 50-mile reach east, all the way to Mount Desert Island, became a reality. We’d get “way out there” on the first day, then take our time working our way back. Every charter should start so well. We barreled through the Fox Island Thorofare (the channel between Vinalhaven and North Haven), popped out the other side, and continued east through Merchants Row under full sail. The meaning of “Down East” could not have been illustrated better—we were hauling the mail east, sailing downwind all the way. Merchant Island was in the rear-view mirror by 1400.
Gobbling miles with a steady favorable wind is always enjoyable, but reeling off miles under sail while zigzagging through narrow channels and around little islands in flat water under sunny skies is damn near perfection. By 1700 we were parked on a guest mooring off the Cranberry Islands, celebrating our arrival with coffee, cookies, and a spectacular view of the mountains of Acadia National Park—bankers’-hours cruising at its best.
We stretched our legs on Great Cranberry’s country lanes, blasted back to the boat to escape the mosquitoes that arrived as the sun set, and buttoned up every port and hatch with screens. After that exhilarating passage we were ready to relax and just poke around.
The next morning we poked into Somes Sound, the only fjord in the eastern U.S., which itself pokes into Mount Desert. It’s a place of stunning natural beauty, decked out with the green lawns, party tents, tennis courts, and expensive boats that signal Northeast Harbor’s high-rent district. We grabbed a mooring in Northeast Harbor, near the entrance to the sound, and poked around the shops, took showers at the cruiser-centric visitors’ center, explored Joseph Henry Curtis’s Thuya Lodge and Garden and the Asticou Terraces, and made reservations for a (dare I say) romantic dinner at the turn-of-the-century Asticou Inn overlooking the harbor. Ahhh.
This part of the world offers tons of spectacular destinations to choose from, and we normally try to explore new anchorages. We’d previously been to Frenchboro, a tiny community of lobstering families on Long Island 5 miles south of Northeast Harbor, but we loved it so much we had to go back. So after a lazy breakfast on deck and a glorious light-air sail, we tied the dinghy up to Lunt & Lunt’s docks in Lunt Harbor, the island’s epicenter of commerce, where fuel, ice, a genuine welcome, and the freshest lobster dinner with homemade cornbread and berry pie are all on offer during the summer. When you let them know you’ve picked up one of their transient moorings, you’ll be asked if you’ll be having dinner—don’t think about it, just say yes. With dinner accounted for, we set off to explore the 2,500 undeveloped acres that encompass the majority of the island. Walking for hours on overgrown trails that wind through forests, untouched except by winter gales, and out to rocky cliffs and beaches made us feel that we were the only two people on earth. This is one of those special places, and the combination of true solitude, the natural beauty of the wilderness, and dining on lobster at a picnic table overlooking the tiny harbor is as good as it gets.
BRRAAAHHHHH—the early-morning sound of an extremely loud, unmuffled lobsterboat engine is one of the hazards of cruising Down East. The locals were heading for the mainland and a holiday celebration, but for us it was time to start poking back to Penobscot Bay. We’d hoped for a screaming reach through Eggemoggin Reach, but a hazy, light-air motorsail gave us plenty of time to pour over the cruising guide for the next destination. We did a slow lap through crescent-shaped Bucks Harbor, but were lured by the promise of an anchorage to ourselves at the Barred Islands, a few miles to the south.
The wind built enough to produce 6 knots of boatspeed with the sails cracked off a bit. The haze became thicker and thicker as we navigated around the tricky rocks at the entrance to the cozy anchorage between several small wooded islands that make up the Barreds. Almost as soon as we had the anchor down, a dense, can’t-see-the-bow fog enveloped us, just as if a switch had been flipped. We’d have faced some complicated navigation if it had caught us out half an hour before (a reprise of one of our first dates). But we were snug on the hook, and coffee on deck segued into dinner on the grill. The exquisitely textured silence was punctuated from time to time by the plip of a drip falling from the boom, or the whoosh of a bird flying past our little self-contained world, or the brraaahhhhh of a distant lobster boat.
An isolated anchorage in the fog is conducive to contemplation and cultivates patience and a good night’s sleep. Why would we care if we were stuck there until the fog burned off? The hiking trails of Butter Island were only a short dinghy ride away. Butter and the Barred (Escargot and Bartender) Islands are privately owned, and a portion of Butter is open to hikers. Happy to respect the no-trespassing rules, we landed on Orchard Beach and were surprised to find several small fluffy sheep, the remnant of an attempt to raise livestock on the island, escorting us to the trail that leads up Montserrat Hill. By the time we reached the top, the fog had lifted and we had one more anchorage on our wish-to-return list.
Caroline and I have spent some time in Camden, and we’ve often looked to the east and thought about cruising to the islands that are within a day’s sail. Pulpit Harbor, on North Haven Island, has always been near the top of that list, and we agreed that spending our last night out in Pulpit, where we could watch the sun set over the Camden Hills, would be the perfect finale. And it was close enough to Rockland to easily get the boat back at noon.
We trimmed in tight for a pleasant little beat into a building southwesterly that blew out the fog. We had the boat humming along, so much so that we overstood the layline by miles just so we could sail longer. But I was getting used to having coffee and cookies on deck in a new anchorage, and teatime was getting close. We powered past Pulpit Rock, which guards the harbor entrance, and there was another perfect spot to spend a night. The fog was long gone, and early-summer sun was shining. Sufficiently jazzed on coffee, we took to the dinghy and returned to Caroline’s youth—we went crabbing. She was convinced the little estuary at the mouth of the harbor was the perfect place to catch crabs, and I humored her by tying some chicken on a string for bait. As I held the string over the side, trying to catch a crab I thought we had no chance of catching, and listened to Caroline’s coaching, it struck me just how happy we were. Of course, when I finally convinced her we were never going to catch a crab with some chicken tied to a string, she pulled up the smallest, hungriest crab in all of Pulpit Harbor.
The sun set over the Camden hills, just as we thought it would, and we had just settled into the bug-free zone in the cabin when we heard a throaty whump-whump-whump that seemed to be getting closer. It was megayacht man, lights blazing, looking to anchor right next to us in a small anchorage on our last night out (thankfully he didn’t). Around 2200, we got more company in the form of a large schooner that ghosted into the crowded anchorage, kerosene running lights ablaze, found a tight spot, came into the wind, and backed down on its anchor, all without an engine.
But all was peace and quiet as we got up and away early the next morning. With little wind to speak of, we motored across the bay, made a quick stop in Camden, and brought the boat back to Johanson’s. Of course, we’d have been happy to keep our preemptive honeymoon going; picking the next new anchorage to explore sounds like a lot more fun than picking napkin colors for the wedding. Maybe that’s why we haven’t set a date yet.
Why go: The Maine coast deserves its reputation as a legendary (though not necessarily easy) cruising ground. There are enough harbors, coves, and islands to make exploring it, and revisiting favorite places, the work of a lifetime.
When to go: Cruising early (late June/early July) or later (September) in the season keeps you out of the crowds and less likely to experience the prolonged summer fog for which the area is famous; modern navigation instruments make fog less scary. Locals tell me that the season doesn’t kick into high gear until late July/early August.
Cruising guide: We relied on Hank and Jan Taft’s A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast (International Marine). It helped inform our destination selection and was always spot on.
How to go: There are a number of charter companies along the coast. Our boat from Johanson Boatworks (877-456-4267; www.jboatworks.com) was well equipped and worked perfectly.