The sun shone a milky white. Its weak rays were barely able to drive off the damp chill of the early afternoon as we made our way eastward in the Deer Isle Thorofare, a passage snaking between Deer Isle and the beautiful smaller islands of Merchant Row in Down East Maine. I carefully checked the chart against the red and green buoys marking the channel, mindful that straying off course could mean trouble.
My wife, Liz, and I were bound for Mount Desert Island aboard our first boat, a 1976 Bristol 24 named Elizabeth. Getting there, all the way from our homeport in Bay Head, New Jersey, represented a major milestone, a true achievement for a pair of newbie cruisers who had dared to tackle the dragons of Maine in a 24-foot boat with no speedo, no depth sounder and no GPS. All we had was Loran C, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, and a homemade lead line—a knotted length of twine with a sinker on one end, wound around a paint stirrer.
Long-distance coastal cruising had always attracted us—the mystique and romance of taking a small boat far from home—and now here we were almost to the End of the World, as the waters on the far side of Mount Desert Island are sometimes called. They get that name because, being a fair distance from touristy Bar Harbor and broad Frenchman Bay, they represent “real” Down East sailing, as it were, with eye-bulging Bay of Fundy tides, fog as thick as New England clam chowder and few services for cruisers.
I glanced up from the chart. We were just south of Sheep Island, abeam of buoy #10, when It came.
“Oh, man,” I said. “Look at that!”
Liz looked off the bow at a wall of shimmering white and gray fog sweeping toward us.
“Visibility will be zero in about 10 minutes,” I said, fighting back a wave of anxiety. Dealing with fog offshore was bad enough, but in a rock-infested passage? I quickly scanned the chart for a place to duck into, noting the shores of nearby Stinson Neck were bold, with only a few nasty ledges, but that wide Billings Cove appeared to be just the ticket for a fog-duck.
I plotted a new course, using Boat Rock as a jump-off point. But the fog closed in before we arrived at the mark. For a while it was a little hairy, especially when we nearly hit Whaleback ledge, but eventually we found our way into the cove and dropped the hook. Afterward I opened a beer, filled with a sense of accomplishment at having kept Elizabeth off the rocks.
That’s what Maine cruising is all about, an adventure in waters devoid of crowds and replete with enough coves and islands to keep you exploring for a lifetime. We’d been in Maine for several weeks, slowly working our way east. Already it was exerting a sort of magical pull on us.