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 Though some despair there are no unpublished truths of the sort yet to be divined, they are out there if you know where to look—for there’s something of an art to fathoming still waters and private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 boat lengths 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 depth sounder 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-channel 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. Leight has the quiet harbor of Seal Trap all to herself.
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.
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 to 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 water 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.”
David Buckman sails out of Round Pond, Maine, and has cruised from the Chesapeake to Newfoundland