Damariscove Island

Guest perspective/Tim Plouff

“Chummie, take that mooring, ain’t no one using it,” came the deep Downeast voice over the stern of the lobster boat tied up to a float in the middle of the harbor. The issuer of the invitation stood before a hot grill on this glorious Saturday, cooking food for the assembled friends who were tied up alongside him at the float. We were only too happy to oblige the welcome invitation to Damariscove Island. Our slow weave around the harbor, as we looked around for a place to drop the hook, made our intentions clearly evident. In an unknown harbor, what mariner wouldn’t take a solid mooring ball over working the anchor rode?

And so our good fortune continued after a fine trip down the Sasanoa River and across the mouth of the Sheepscot River. We’d overnighted along the Bath waterfront with our close friends, Diane and Nat Smith, visited the local farmers market under cool, overcast skies and escaped with numerous bags of delicious treats from cousin Bob and Beryl’s pastry stand. Launching at the North End Ramp on the Kennebec River was stress-free as the tide is easier to handle there, and apparently we were ahead of the Saturday fishing crowd – as well as the forecast.

Traveling three rivers on the way southeast to Boothbay from Bath is one of my favorite boating trips. Running Hell Gate when the tide is hard is always a thrilling challenge in the narrow Sasanoa, while exploring the various harbors of Georgetown and Five Islands provides a real sense of the prototypical Maine coastal community. On this day, we extended our exploring to Southport Island and Newagen Harbor near the infamous Cuckolds, before making the calm five-mile crossing out to Damariscove Island just as the skies started to brighten.

Damariscove Island has an important place in Maine’s early history, as well as playing a significant role in the success of the early settlers at Plymouth.

The first residents of Damariscove were the Native American Abenaki Indians. By 1604, several European explorers had also visited Damariscove and established a fishing community there. Three years later, the first Europeans to establish a mainland colony in “New England” arrived at nearby Popham Beach, in what’s now Phippsburg, but with almost half of the colony succumbing to disease and sickness the first winter, this initial settlement lasted just one year.

By 1620, more settlers were arriving regularly from Europe, with colonies established in Plymouth (Mass.) and Jamestown (Va.). The second winter for Plymouth was rough. They ran out of food and dispatched a ship to Damariscove Island (did they text, Snapchat, or carrier pigeon the food order?) where 13 resident fishermen and 30 fishing vessels out there that summer had plenty of cod available to share.

So how many Brewsters, Bradfords, Martins, Standishes, Winslows, Hopkins or other Plymouth family names would be there now without that cod from Damariscove Island in 1622?

That initial charity didn’t earn Damariscove settlers much help during the subsequent series of Indian raids that decimated the island several times over the ensuing decades. In the worst scenario, Captain Richard Pattishall – the owner of Damariscove in 1689 – was attacked on his sloop in nearby waters, beheaded, and thrown overboard. Legend says that his loyal dog jumped in to “save him” and also perished. Their bodies washed ashore on the island, where they apparently haunted Damariscove for years.

While fishing remained a staple of Damariscove life, the island also provided farming and grazing for countless critters, as well as ice from the island pond and granite from a small quarry. One farmer even delivered milk to nearby Squirrel Island via rowboat. In the late 1800s, there was also an attempt to mirror the rusticator colonies of nearby Squirrel and East Boothbay.

In 1896, the island’s most famous landmark was constructed – and still stands today. The Life Saving Station at Damariscove was built at the south end of the narrow harbor that bisects this two-mile long island. With numerous wrecks off the ledges surrounding the island, rescuers were frequently challenged in saving fishing crews unfortunate enough to disrespect the waters that provided their livelihood. A second tower was added a year later to help scan the horizon for distressed vessels on the east side of the island.

Integrated into the U.S. Coast Guard, the Life Saving Station closed in 1959 as services moved to Boothbay. There were no longer any year-round residents on the island, yet the local fishermen continued to use floats in the harbor – as they still do today.

By 1987, the Life Saving Station, now privately owned again, was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the island and most of its grounds are owned by the Boothbay Region Land Trust, which installs a caretaker on the island each summer, operates a nifty little museum in a former fishing shack, and maintains a healthy series of trails that lead to various historical spots all over the island. There are no trees on the island.

Walking the trails and listening to the surf roll over the granite beaches is somehow different from many other Maine islands. There is a character, a feel here that is more living history than on many other offshore islands. It’s quite easy to be consumed by the history and the beauty of Damariscove.

After thanking our welcoming party, we slipped from the mooring and slow-motored up the east side of Damariscove Island to Ram Island Ledge Light and across Linekin Bay to Burnt Island Light. With more trails, an active museum and terrific views of the innermost workings of Boothbay Harbor and its fleet of pleasure and working vessels, we were once again rewarded with solitude and entertainment.

But activities were planned for the evening on Burnt Island, so we had to leave. We headed under the Southport Bridge and up Townsend Gut, across the Sheepscot River again and into the meandering Sasanoa River for Bath. On this pleasant July Saturday evening we were virtually alone all the way back to Bath – an anomaly never previously experienced.

Full of learned history, and satiated from another great day on the coast, we smoothly pulled out and loaded up for another day on the water, from another landing down the coast, in search of more great Maine memories.

Tim has been trailer-boating with the 2000 inboard-V-8-power Sea Ray 215 Express Cruiser Tegoak (“place of breaking waves”) since 2005. He writes the weekly “On the Road Review” automotive column for “The Ellsworth American,” while his day job is as wholesale oil and gasoline sales manager for Dead River Company.