Bound for Northeast Harbor

By Joel Gleason
For Points East

After a three-year hiatus my son, Randy, and I finally made plans to get back Downeast with my 33-foot Young Brothers lobsterboat, Muscobe. Randy arrived in Marblehead on a Friday evening, and, despite a rainy forecast, we decided to leave. Muscobe was fueled and provisioned, and all we needed was ice.

Saturday morning was perfect, with light winds and an Arizona sky. We motored across the harbor and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at our favorite eatery, the Driftwood, then headed east at 10:30 a.m. (Whatever happened to, “We’ll leave at first light?”)

Powered by a Yanmar 420-horse turbodiesel, Muscobe cruises at an easy 17 knots at 2500 rpm, burning a miserly nine gallons per hour. Cat (Childrens Island on the chart, but known as Cat to locals), Eagle and Bakers islands were soon behind us, and we approached Cape Ann. Here, we usually decide whether to transit the Blynman Canal/Annisquam River or take the longer route outside around Milk, Thacher and Straitsmouth islands. We opted not to slow down, and were soon passing inside the breakwater off Rockport, heading north for the Isles of Shoals. Cape Ann gradually diminished, turning blue behind us, and the twin lighthouses of Thacher Island eventually disappeared.

Visibility was unlimited, and soon the outline of the Isles appeared on the horizon ahead. A small humpback whale surfaced briefly near us, and we saw Mother Carey’s chickens (storm petrels), laughing gulls and greater shearwaters – species generally not seen in our home waters.

By 12:30 p.m. we were passing between White Island Light and Star Island, with Randy at the helm and me in the cockpit sitting in a deck chair facing aft. A short time later, I noticed a trickle of water running down the deck. Turning around, I saw it came from the engine box. We stopped, and, lifting the engine box cover, saw that the bilge was full of water up to the shaft which, spinning, was throwing the water up and onto the deck.

I turned on the bilge pump, praying that Murphy’s Law wouldn’t kick in and have it choose this moment to fail. My first thought was that the stuffing box for the rudder post was leaking, so I tried opening the Freeman hatch above it, which was stuck shut. I got it free with a hammer and screwdriver, and it was wet back there, but the stuffing box was secure.

Then we noticed a serious amount of water pouring in from somewhere on the forward, port side of the engine block. “Taste that water and see if it’s salty,” I said to Randy. He did. And it was. Now this was serious. Could our bilge pump stay ahead of the inflow of salt water, or was Muscobe headed for a watery grave?

My heart was pounding. We were over six miles from Portsmouth and the nearest assistance. Should I call for a tow? Call the Coast Guard and request a pump to keep us afloat? Where was the water coming in? Despite our anxiety, Randy and I remained calm, at least outwardly. But it’s not pleasant when you aren’t sure how long you can keep your boat afloat.

Randy bent down to get a better look at the source of the leak. Feeling around, he said, “Hand me that screwdriver.” Apparently, a hose clamp on the saltwater pump had worked loose. A few turns with the screwdriver and the water stopped coming in. We revved the engine, and all stayed dry, and soon the bilge was empty. In retrospect, of course, shutting down the engine and closing the seacock on the saltwater intake would have stopped the flow. Duh . . . didn’t think of that at the time.

The level of water in the engine box lowered, we resumed our journey toward Boothbay Harbor, as our heartbeats gradually returned to normal. By 3:00 p.m. blue lumps appeared on the northern horizon – the islands of Casco Bay. We began to sight white-sided dolphins, a species we were to see often throughout our cruise. Gradually our next waypoint, Fuller Rock off Cape Small, came into view, with Seguin Island beyond.

Muscobe’s two fuel tanks hold approximately 62 gallons each. I calculated that, with the fuel line an inch or so off the bottom, plus the angle of the boat (and tanks) at cruise, there’s only about 50 gallons of usable fuel per tank. At nine or so gallons per hour, I generally plan on switching tanks after five hours, and did so at 3:25 p.m., exactly five hours after our departure. We later learned that we’d burned 45.7 gallons from this tank.

At 5:20 p.m., just under seven hours after leaving Marblehead, we pulled alongside the fuel dock at Carousel Marina in Boothbay Harbor. As Randy topped off the fuel and ice, I walked up to say hello to the owner, my old Marblehead High School chum, Jack Cogswell. I found him relaxing in his usual location, the deck of the marina’s Whale’s Tail Restaurant and Seafarer’s Pub. My plan was to refuel, then cross the harbor to stay at the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club, but Jack would have none it. He insisted we stay at the Carousel, so I let him twist my arm.

He put us on a float alongside a blue 160-foot megayacht named Cocktails, which dwarfed our 33-foot Downeaster. She hailed from Miami and had a crew of about 10 or 15, including an executive chef and the captain. There were also a number of others who were constantly cleaning, rubbing her down with chamois, or tending to her two personal watercraft and her big RIBCRAFT inflatable. Randy later learned that Cocktails could be had for $150,000 per week. She holds 30,000 gallons of fuel, which translates to about $100,000 to “fill her up.”

We washed the salt off Muscobe, then sauntered up to the Whale’s Tail for a drink, followed by dinner. We had their seafood chowder and prime rib. The chowder was the best I’d ever had (and Marblehead restaurants serve some darned good chowder). The prime rib was over an inch thick, perfectly cooked, and absolutely delicious. Well done, Jack.

As usual, being on the water all day wears me out, so I retired early. Randy, ever the people-person, hung out in the Whale’s Tail with the crowd, well into the night. I slept deeply, except at 3:00 a.m. when the growl of an early lobsterboat awakened me.

The next morning, we awoke to cloudy skies and a few sprinkles. Randy walked up the road to Brown’s Wharf Restaurant for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, while I satisfied myself aboard the boat with juice and a couple of breakfast bars. Camden, our next destination, was only a three-hour hop, so we delayed our departure until 10:30 a.m. By then, the ceiling was increasing and the day was improving.

This leg is interesting because, after crossing Muscongus Bay, you can meander through and around the passage past Port Clyde and enjoy the scenery through the islands of the Muscle Ridge Channel and Owls Head. Passing Owls Head Light, we entered West Penobscot Bay, and, as the day was still young, we decided to take a side trip into Rockport Harbor.

We were now deep in wooden-boat country, and we were rewarded by seeing numerous Concordia yawls and other gorgeous wood boats. Rockport Marine, as most boaters know, is well-known as a mecca for wooden boats, new and restored.

Motoring up the shore to Camden, we rounded Curtis Island Light, headed for Wayfarer Marine, which was bought by Lyman-Morse Boatbuilding in 2015, and now can fix anything. Megayachts abounded, both power and sail, and Ticonderoga of Greenwich, the 72-foot Herreshoff ketch, and a large sailboat hailing from London also were there.

The harbor was busy this beautiful Sunday afternoon, and, calling the yard on Channel 71, we were advised it would be a 20-minute wait to get to the fuel dock. We requested our mooring number and went straight there, instead. After tidying up the boat, we hailed the launch, which dropped us at the harbormaster’s office at the town dock.

Walking up Bay Street, we were anxious to visit the Ducktrap Trading Company, a favorite haunt of both Randy and myself. Besides exhibiting exquisite bird carvings and decoys, they also have a gorgeous selection of Maine prints and a fabulous scrimshaw collection. Arriving at the familiar brick building we’d visited in the past, we discovered that Ducktrap Trading Company had relocated to Main Street, a few hundred yards into town. There we found a scaled-down version of the store we once knew, but it’s still well worth a visit.

From there, we walked back to the harbor for dinner at one of our favorite watering holes, the Waterfront restaurant, for refreshments and dinner on the porch overlooking the water. I ordered a seafood salad, and Randy got the lazy lobster (all the meat out of the shell, soaking in melted butter.) Enjoying our meal, we watched several schooners, loaded with fresh “crew,” motor by, and a host of gorgeous boats, including a beautiful wooden Bunker and Ellis, a tricked-out Bruno and Stillman (I’d never seen a Bruno rigged other than for fishing), and a lovely Concordia flying, of all things, the Argentine flag.

When we finally got to the fuel dock, the boat took 28.3 gallons. At our reduced pace (3.8 hours), this equated to less than seven gallons per hour.

We awoke the next morning to high clouds and a few sprinkles. The launch picked us up so I could shower at Wayfarer, while Randy was dropped off at the town landing so he could have breakfast.

After a brief wait, I heard the harbormaster call the Wayfarer launch for a pickup, which I assumed would be Randy, so I grabbed two bags of ice for the cooler and hopped aboard. At 9:25 a.m. we headed across Penobscot Bay under clearing skies, in the company of some busy lobstermen.

Entering the Fox Islands Thorofare is tricky as there are numerous rocks and ledges around the west entrance. As many times as I’ve traversed this passage between Vinalhaven and North Haven islands, I’ve never tired of its spectacular scenery. By now the clouds had surrendered to another gorgeous cobalt sky, and the water shone with millions of diamonds.

Soon we were passing Goose Rocks Light, entering East Penobscot Bay. Now we were in what I call “bobber country,” where the lobstermen attach a second, smaller buoy, called a toggle, some 15 feet below the main buoy. This holds the pot warp off the bottom at low tide, so you must keep your eyes peeled and pay attention to the direction of the current to avoid snagging your prop.

By 11:00 a.m. we were passing Mark Island, at the entrance to the Deer Island Thorofare, where we cruised past Billings Diesel & Marine and tied up at the town landing. I cannot pass through Stonington without stopping for breakfast at the Harbor Cafe on Main Street. Unfortunately, we arrived about three minutes after they stopped serving breakfast, so I had to settle for a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich as we admired Muscobe from the window.

After a leisurely lunch, we boarded the boat at noon and again headed east. Our destination was Northeast Harbor, but, as we left the thorofare and entered Jericho Bay, alarms began going off. Our engine was badly overheating. Slowing to an idle, I went aft to check the water flow out the exhausts. It was minimal on one, and zero from the other.

If we were going to have engine trouble, we couldn’t have been in a better place, with Billings just a hop, skip and a jump away. However, the engine was so hot that I didn’t dare push it, even idling, all the way there. So we picked up an empty mooring, shut down, and called them on the VHF. Half an hour later, the Billings workboat, Su-San, came alongside to tow us in to their yard. After a short wait, the chief mechanic, Greg Sanborn, diagnosed the problem.

“I’d say your [salt water pump] impeller is gone,” he told us. “But we can’t work on her ’till tomorrow.” Randy and I would be in Stonington for a while, and we’d have plenty of time to decide what we should do next.

Part 2 of “Bound for Northeast Harbor” will appear in the July issue. Joel Gleason, a regular contributor to Points East, holds a 100-ton USCG Master’s license, and has been boating out of Marblehead, Mass., since he was six.