Casco Bay fog daze

The author’s Catalina 42 Little Wing on her home mooring in Pepperell Cove. The fog would persist throughout the journey. Photo courtesy Richard Schultz

September 2021

By Richard Shultz

Friends Arch and Terry met us at our house at 8 a.m. to start our weeklong September cruise to Casco Bay and back. A good weather forecast of little rain and favorable winds gave us optimism. But when we arrived at Pepperell Cove – in Kittery, Maine, where we moor our Catalina 42 Little Wing – everything was socked in with fog.

Over the years, my wife, Sue, and I have gained valuable experience in fog, so we turned on the GPS and the radar, hung our radar reflector to the flag halyard and brought Little Wing into Frisbee’s Wharf to meet our crew. After loading all our supplies and pulling the dink up on the davits, we were on our way. It was a little tense, but we made all our government marks in Portsmouth harbor, and then turned east at buoy “2KR.” By the time we passed Boone Light eight miles out from York, the fog had begun to retreat.

Following five–to six-foot seas were a little uncomfortable, and Sue and Terry began to feel ill, so we decided to make for Biddeford Pool, about 30 miles up the coast, instead of pressing on to Portland or farther east. Once we made Wood Island Light, we turned west, and I noticed a big flipper sticking out of the water. It was an ocean sunfish (Mola mola) that had arrived here from the Gulf Stream. These pelagic giants (weighing up to two tons) move off into the colder Gulf of Maine to eat large jellyfish.

Once we passed the Wood Island light, we turned up into the Biddeford Pool to get a mooring. The Biddeford Pool Yacht Club (BPYC) launch driver met us and directed us to our pendant. We went ashore, walked about the village, and ended up at the imposing Marie Joseph Spiritual Center on the beach. A great night of dinner and laughter on board followed.

We awoke in the morning to, you guessed it, fog. We waited to see if it would lift during breakfast. It did not, and since Little Wing needed some diesel, we went into the BPYC dock for some fuel and water. The entire time, the fog would thin, we’d think we could go, and then the pea soup would return, and we’d wait. Although we can run in fog by instruments, if necessary, none of us like the uncertainty, danger, and anxiety when you can’t see more than 100 feet in front of you. So we waited.

Adjacent to the mooring field is a half-mile by three-mile area that shows as a giant beach at the dead-low tide. Low tide was at 10 a.m., so we got in our dinghy, Wing Ding, and headed to the enormous sandbar. It did not disappoint. The water made beautiful patterns in the sand, and the strand was full of shells and debris. Many damaged lobster traps were buried there. We could not see more than 100 feet in the fog; the shore and ocean were not visible. The feeling was surreal and haunting.

A small island about 500 yards from shore had a single house with a garage just above high tide. Once the tide was completely out, you could easily walk across the sandbar from the shore to the house. To our surprise, we saw a car driving across the sand to the small island. We guessed they’d be staying there at least until the next low tide.

“Come look at this,” Terry cried, pointing to a purplish blob some three feet across that resembled a giant blood clot. We googled and found that it was a jellyfish native to the Gulf of Maine called a lion’s mane (Cyanea capillata).

After our giant sandbar exploration, we returned to Little Wing for lunch. The fog had not lifted, so we continued to wait. We saw other boats arriving out of the fog and a few departing into it. We’d planned to wait until 3 p.m. or stay. Just in time, the fog began to lift, so we headed for Portland; if it got thick again, we’d double back on our GPS track to the mooring.

After about an hour, there was no turning back. We saw a seal and a minke whale, although we could only see about 200 feet from the boat. We passed Cape Elizabeth Light, headed into Portland, shrouded in fog but less than in Saco Bay. This made us nervous, as Portland is a commercial port with significant ship traffic and a high-speed ferry to Nova Scotia. All kept a sharp lookout.

We made our way around the end of South Portland, past Spring Point Ledge Light, and up the bay to our mooring at the Centerboard Yacht Club. On the way in, we passed a larger sailboat on a family cruise. The kids were having a blast swinging up and down the side of the boat from the spinnaker halyard.

We had stayed at Centerboard before, so we knew our way around. After showers at the club, we took the complimentary launch to Portland for a quick walk around the waterfront. By nightfall, the fog rolled back in, and the city disappeared.

Day 3 brought fog. After lunch, we had a brief rain shower, and the fog lifted. We returned to Little Wing for a three-hour sail to Jewell Island. Arch took the helm as we snaked our way between other islands to Jewell. About halfway to our destination, between Cushing and Peaks islands, the fog rolled back over us.

Fog can be confusing, and it had me questioning my chartplotter and mistakenly heading between Long and Peaks instead of Long and Cliff islands, our correct course. Once Arch and I understood we were going the wrong way, we reversed course and found our way to Jewell. A good co-captain is a fine safety tool.

The fog was thick and the wind fresh as we headed up into “Cocktail Cove” at Jewell. This was Sue’s and my second time at the cove, so we knew where to go and how to anchor there. Typically, this is a quiet anchorage, and certainly, there was no roll. But the wind was 25-plus knots from the southwest, which caused some uncomfortable swing. An open-cockpit, 25-foot fishing boat was anchored ahead of us, and a group was ashore camping. A similar boat came in when we did, and the young skipper hastily tossed his small mushroom anchor overboard, jumped in a kayak, and went ashore. An older couple on a trawler arrived behind us and anchored.

As part of my anchoring process, I sit in the cockpit for 30 minutes after setting the anchor. I pick a landmark ashore as a reference point, then monitor our position to ensure we’re not dragging. After a few minutes, I could tell that the hastily anchored fishing boat was beginning to drag. The boat was slowly moving northeast in the cove, heading out to open water. We yelled ashore, trying to get someone’s attention. As it was foggy and windy, and we were safely anchored, I was unwilling to chase down the dragging boat. It drifted away for a half-hour and disappeared into the fog.

We radioed the Coast Guard to alert them to a vessel adrift. After about an hour, the young skipper returned to find his boat gone. He recruited the other shore campers to take the other boat and look for his. Much to our surprise, in about 30 minutes, they loomed out of the fog with the wayward vessel. The drifting boat’s anchor had fouled several lobster traps and stayed in place until somebody found it.

After another delicious dinner by Sue and Terry, we went to bed. I awoke several times during the night and looked out my portlight to see if the shore was in the same position, which it was. At about 5 a.m., I heard Terry open the companionway hatch and step into the cockpit. Much to my surprise and worry, Little Wing’s position had changed 180 degrees overnight when I looked out. We were now facing the opposite direction due to a wind shift.

Our Rocna 25 (55lb) anchor had done its job, turning with the boat and staying set despite the dramatic wind shift. I was concerned, though, as we were in much shallower water near shore and closer to the trawler, which was now ahead of us. The owner of that boat was ashore, taking his dog for his morning walk. His wife waited in the cockpit. The couple looked to be in their late 70s.

With the wind blowing hard, the fog thick, I was concerned that Little Wing might run aground as the tide fell. I planned to move to deeper water. Arch took the helm, and Terry, Sue, and I went forward to retrieve the anchor. Sue managed the trip line, and Terry communicated my directions to Arch. We got the anchor up, moved to deeper water, and re-anchored.

When I returned to the cockpit, I saw Sue in the dinghy. She’d noticed the older man and his dog in his dink, rowing as his motor had died. He was making little headway against the wind, and Sue had gone to help. I was unsure if our new anchor set was holding, so I asked Sue to get back on Little Wing.

After a few minutes, we knew our anchor was dragging, and I pulled it up again. This time, it was full of grass, and all agreed it was time to leave. As I secured the anchor on board, I saw the elderly man and his dog get back to his trawler.

Our next destination was Great Chebeague Island, where we’d moored on a previous cruise. On the way, the fog lifted, and once we had Little Wing on the marina mooring, we went ashore for a walk. We walked to the Chebeague Inn, which was closed due to COVID-19. We learned from island residents that the entire inn and staff could be rented for $38,000 a week. We returned to the boat for a quiet and unworried evening and sleep.

To no surprise, we awoke on the morning of day 5 to fog. It was time to start our way back to Pepperell Cove – as soon as conditions permitted. In the interim, the girls decided to take the kayaks to tiny Crow Island, off the northeast tip of Long Island, to explore. When they returned, they told us a young man and his toddler son were caretakers on the island. He was restoring an old cabin, in which a woman had lived for decades before she died a few years earlier. She would row ashore daily to get supplies and the newspaper. Although she was “hermit-like,” locals were fond of her and encouraged the rejuvenation of her homestead.

We had lunch, the fog lifted, and we headed off toward Pepperell Cove – a long 60 miles away. After several hours of sailing, another whale sighting, and good weather, we stopped for the night at Kennebunkport.

We arrived at the Kennebunk River at low tide. On the way upstream to DiMillo’s Kennebunk Marina, our depth sounder at times showed two to three feet of water under the keel, which was too close for comfort. DiMillo’s is an excellent place in the heart of town, and we walked about the village and its side streets. After a takeout dinner on the boat and a hot shower, we savored a peaceful night of sleep.

Ironically, we had an early, fogless start on the sixth and last day of our cruise. A sunny, uneventful four-hour sail took us to Pepperell Cove. We’d covered about 150 miles on this trip and learned a lot about fog, anchoring, flora and fauna – and, especially, about each other. Before we split to our respective homes, we planned to ski with Arch and Terry in the White Mountains throughout the winter. We thanked them for their friendship, and we all fervently anticipated the end of COVID-19 and a return to normal.

Ric has been cruising and racing sailboats for 40 years. He and his wife Sue are retired in Kittery Point, Maine, and plan to do more extended cruising along the New England coast in their Catalina 42.