A whale in Lowell’s Cove

The author’s 16-foot C-Dory beached at Fort Gorges in Portland Harbor. Photo courtesy Chuck Radis

December 2023

By Chuck Radis

When I was 35 and came down with a bad case of boat fever, I treated it by buying a 16-foot skiff with a 60-hp, two-stroke Suzuki outboard. Never mind that the prop was slightly bent, creating a vibration in the lower unit, the price was right at $3,500 and it came with a serviceable trailer. In preparation, I signed up for a Coast Guard small-boat safety course, but life being what it is, I made exactly two sessions. It is safe to say that although I passed the multiple-choice test, there were significant gaps in my knowledge.

I had planned on using the boat on Casco Bay in Southern Maine where I live, and in anticipation of summer fun, my friend David Quinby guided me in the purchase of a mooring ball, chain, shackles, and a concrete block with an I-bolt. Then he methodically put the pieces together on his 45-foot metal workboat, Imelda, before setting the mooring 50 yards off the beach. I was acutely aware a misstep might end up with one of us overboard with a missing finger or crushed foot. When we were done, David declared the mooring adequate. “It’s heavy, but you can’t have a block too heavy. Everything is bigger than you need, but that’s what you want. The Queen Mary could tie up on this mooring.”

My wife Sandi grudgingly set foot on the skiff. She liked the high gunnels, making it more difficult for our children, 3-year-old Molly and 5-year-old Kate, to tip overboard, and noted that I seemed to be “more careful than I’ve ever seen you.” And in fact, our early forays on the Bay were flawless as we nestled our flat-bottomed skiff on nearby islands on an incoming tide. With more than 100 uninhabited islands yet to be visited in Casco Bay, the future looked bright for our gunkholing family.

Then one weekend I heard that a young humpback whale had been sighted in Lowell’s Cove about 15 miles up the coast. Local lobstermen had laid a 500-foot barrier net over the entrance to the cove, trapping a large school of pogies (Menhaden) inside. This was perfectly legal, a traditional method of corralling bait for lobster fishing. Also inside the cove was a 25-foot juvenile humpback feasting on the fishermen’s bait. The humpback was safe; it had been sighted on both sides of the net. The real problem was the possibility of a collision with an ever-growing fleet of recreational boaters gawking at the whale.

Oh, how I yearned to be one of those gawkers.

The next morning, I was off for Lowell’s Cove with my daughter Kate, my good friend Geoff, and his son, Bryan. I consulted my chart for the quickest route to Lowell’s Cove and decided we’d cut between Little Chebeague and Great Chebeague Islands. From there it would be a straight shot to Lowell’s Cove.

Abruptly, not 20 minutes into our trip, we hit a sandbar. The kids fell off their seats and after a moment of silence, laughed like drunken sailors. Scrambling back on my own seat, I consulted the chart and located where we were. Except for a small ding, the prop looked serviceable. What a relief.

Even a novice like me knew that Casco Bay is the land of 11-foot tides, and it was dropping rapidly. I slipped over the side and grabbing the bowline, muscled the boat off the sandbar. But the waterscape was rapidly changing. Around us, tufts of sand poked through the surface, forming a semi-circle around our hapless boat. Geoff climbed over the side to help, but moments later, we went aground in a body of water as large as our living room.

I knew the next few hours would be challenging, but what the heck, the boat seemed to be undamaged, it was a spectacular finest-kind late summer morning in Maine, and we’d packed enough water and sandwiches to feed our young charges. Sure, we’d have to wait nearly an entire tidal cycle to get underway, but we had the novelty of Little Chebeague Island to explore.

Geoff reminded me that a nickname for Little Chebeague was Tick Island, and before I could say, “You can have a nature pee by that clump of bushes,” I quietly picked off three ticks from Kate’s shorts. Okay, we’ll stick to the shoreline and concentrate on flotsam and jetsam. I glanced over to our boat. As the tide had receded connecting the two islands, a sand desert now dominated the landscape. Our boat looked as if it had been dropped by a helicopter into the middle of the Sahara.

For the first four hours, the children were in island heaven as we explored the perimeter of Little Chebeague Island. Lobster buoys were discovered at the high tide mark. A stick figure with a mooring ball head and a razor clam mouth took shape. For a time, the children simply ran as fast as they could back and forth down the deserted beach. When the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were gone, we carefully rationed our Goldfish cheddar cheese crackers. Thank goodness we brought enough water.

By the six-hour mark, we still had two children left. They were mostly going with the flow, but were beginning to miss their mothers. I gazed out at my boat and, thankfully, the desert was clearly shrinking. It was time to pack up and go home. To hell with the whale. By the time we reached the boat, the water was above my knees and rising fast. We placed the children onboard and pulled the anchor. Water filled our sand prison and we glided over the sandbar before I started the engine and headed for home. After dropping off my friend Geoff and his son Bryon at the town dock in Falmouth, I was acutely aware of how worried Sandi would be, but was more concerned about saving my own skin. It was time to rehearse our story. No fabrications, only omissions. “Kate,” I began, “you’re okay, right?”

“Yes Daddy! That was fun!”

“You know mom is going to be worried about us being so late. I’m not telling you what to say, but maybe you can tell her how much fun this was. It was fun, wasn’t it?” Then I handed Kate the last of the cheddar cheese crackers and patted her on the head.

As we came into sight of Peaks Island, I spied Sandi on the beach looking our way. She was not amused. I cut the engine and the boat settled onto the beach. Kate scrambled out of the boat and ran to Sandi and buried her head in her arms, sobbing, “Mommy, it was the worst day of my life! I hit my head when I fell out of my seat when dad hit a sand something. We were stuck forever on an island. Tics found my shorts. I drank water.”

Sandi exhaled and quietly shook her head. Without a word, she reached down and picked up Kate and placed her on her hip. With Molly in hand, they walked back towards the house. I tied up our boat on the mooring and rowed toward shore. I was being super careful but it was too little, too late. By then, Sandi had reached the back door, and I watched as Molly darted inside and Kate wiggled off her hip. Then, just before the door closed, she looked back and waved one finger in my direction.

Relief. I am a knucklehead, but I am Sandi’s knucklehead. We’d keep the boat.

For more than three decades, Dr. Chuck Radis and his family have lived on Peaks Island, commuting year-round on his boat, Dasakamo Ja, to the mainland. As a young doctor, he provided primary care to four year-round islands in Casco Bay. In addition to his clinic duties on Peaks and Chebeague Islands, he traveled year-round by boat to the outer islands and logged more than 100 annual house calls. If you enjoyed the story you’ve just read, go to www.doctorchuckradis.com for more Maine storytelling.