Sailing Among the Islands in Maine
On a trip along Maine’s coast, you learn that there are islands, and then there are islands.
Sailors considering a cruise along the coast of Maine should keep in mind that the hundreds of islands there fall into two distinct categories: ones with bridges leading to them and ones without. Both have their merits. It’s hard to go wrong in August in Maine. But given a choice, I’ll take the ones less traveled by, if for no other reason than that the locals there wave to you, on every island, almost every time.
On a brief summer’s cruise, we visited six Maine harbors, three that connected to the mainland by roads and three that didn’t. The ones with car-friendly hookups to America had everything Maine is famous for: fresh lobsters, pretty coves, soft summer nights, clear water. The remoter ones had all that and more.
Like beautiful Burnt Coat Harbor, at Swans Island, only a few miles from the roar and bustle of Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Northeast Harbor, on Mount Desert Island. OK, that’s an overstatement. Mount Desert is accessible to noxious cars, but it’s also the natal grounds for those elegant Hinckley and Morris yachts that you see bobbing around in pools of glitter and gloss the world around, and it’s home to pristine Acadia National Park. It’s not exactly, you know, Provincetown.
But Mount Desert, well, it’s not soothing Burnt Coat, either, where, when the fog lifts, you creep past softly chiming entrance buoys to find a cluster of pin-neat houses framing the harbor and half a dozen wooden schooners from the vintage-charter trade tugging at anchors, oil lamps dangling in the rigging and a young woman of arresting beauty perched on a bowsprit—and nattering on a cell phone, of course.
Four of us spent five days poking around coastal Maine from Mount Desert to Casco Bay. It wasn’t adequate time to even scratch the surface of the rich cruising life there, but it whetted the appetite, particularly for the placid islands that cars can’t get to on their own and where people acknowledge even complete strangers.
We were on a leisurely delivery from Halifax to Annapolis, bringing Tom Vesey’s Freedom 44, Jackrabbit, down from his six-week family cruise in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland to wait out the hurricane season in the Chesapeake before heading back across the Gulf Stream to Vesey’s home in Hamilton, Bermuda. When you arrive in the States from Canada, you must clear customs, of course, which meant stopping first at an auto-accessible port where immigration could “process” us. We picked busy Southwest Harbor, whose lights hove into view after we’d spent two cold days and nights at sea while mostly motorsailing against prevailing southwesterlies, often through fog.
We were under a rare patch of clear sky when we fetched the entrance, but it was still black dark at 0400. Vesey, ever cautious, elected to heave to and wait for daylight to plumb the unfamiliar channel, a strategy that backfired when clear sky degenerated into thick fog. Ah, the best-laid plans.
Westward we plunged anyway, into the spreading dawn, a cloud of mist, and a forest of lobster pot buoys so thick that it rendered the first-timers-to-Maine nearly speechless. “How does anybody ever get in and out of here?” muttered Hank Weed, my Annapolis, Maryland, neighbor, who’s had plenty of experience with crab pots in the Chesapeake but had never encountered anything like the buoy farms here.
As it will, the fog dissipated just as we cleared the entrance and by 0930 we were safely lashed to a floating dock at Dysart’s Great Harbor Marina, which has everything the weary cruiser could need, from Grumpy’s breakfast bar to a laundromat to an evening cabaret for entertainment. It was, Vesey noted, a far cry from Newfoundland.
The place was buzzing. By 1100, customs had been and gone, we’d all had showers, and we were already on the guest list for a big dinner party. It seems all you have to do to crack the social circle around here is wave the flag—in this case, the Cruising Club of America ensign. Vesey, a newly minted member, handed it up to the cockpit to run aloft, but before we could even get it on a halyard, we were set upon by club members from boats berthed nearby, who evidently monitor the docks for signs of the C.C.A. “Tonight’s our big summer party,” gushed Milton Baker, off the Nordhavn trawler next door. “You have to come.”
Foggy dusk found us slurping rum punch from a bottomless keg and picking at mountains of barbecued pork tenderloin and a groaning board of side dishes and desserts at the seaside home of Dick and Rocky Homer. It was a leap from tide-swept Cape Sable and the frigid Labrador Current we’d weathered a night or two before, but we were buoyed by snippets of respectful conversation overheard about “four guys on a ketch who just piled in from Halifax.”
Everyone brought a little something. We brought Gosling’s Black Seal, tar-colored Bermuda rum that Vesey stockpiles in the bilge for “gifts to natives.” A glorious night it was, capped off by the ride back to the marina in octogenarian Jim Gourd’s new Lincoln S.U.V. with a GPS even more sophisticated than Jackrabbit’s, which is saying something. Gourd had a bit of parting advice: “Don’t even bother going over to Bar Harbor,” he said. “It’s a freakin’ zoo!”
So next morning, we dutifully set off in the opposite direction, bucking a fresh breeze toward Swans Island and Burnt Coat Harbor 10 miles away, motorsailing briefly alongside the most beautiful yacht in the world, the 138-foot, low-slung, flag-blue, Frers-designed ketch Rebecca, which charged up our transom at a scalding rate and was about to leave us in her wake when a fresh fog bank swept in. At that, Rebecca turned tail like a big, scared bunny, leaving us to navigate the twists and turns of the narrow channel through the Cranberry Isles alone.