How nasty can the weather get out there?

August 2003

By William E. Macdonald
For Points East

Without a doubt the worst weather I ever encountered on the water was a snowstorm during the winter of 1983, on my way home to Frenchboro during the early evening hours on my 26-foot Trojan.

And just what was I doing “on my way home” in the middle of the night in the middle of the winter in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a nor’easter on a relatively small pleasure craft?

Many years ago my young family and I, while cruising the coast of Maine, fell in love with the tiny village of Frenchboro on Long Island, eight miles off Mt. Desert Island. We eventually bought a small home on the island and after a fashion found that we were spending more time year round at our island home than our mainland home in Bangor.

Being young and adventurous, we decided to enroll the children in the one-room schoolhouse on the island and stayed through the winter. Of course this created a significant commuting problem for me, as I had a very busy law practice in Bangor.

But back in those days it seemed there was no mountain so high that it couldn’t be conquered, so I got very comfortable making the 8-mile run from Bass Harbor through the islands to Frenchboro at all hours of the day and night and during all seasons of the year.

On this particular Friday night I met my passenger, a high school student returning home for the weekend to the island, at Chummy Rich’s marina. Of course it was dark early and NOAA weather radio was forecasting a significant storm to come up the coast the following morning. As we left Bass Harbor, conditions were excellent for a nighttime winter crossing.

All was well threading the needle through Great Gott, Placentia and Black Islands, but just as we cleared Little Black Island the weather took an immediate and terrific turn for the worse.

Those who have visited Frenchboro may recall that the harbor is somewhat open to the Northeast, as is the final 2-mile approach. Shortly after entering this open section we were hit by the largest seas I have ever encountered. They must have been in excess of 8 feet with an occasional really big one. The wind raged so that it sounded like the roar of a freight train. To make the matter infinitely more complex, it had started snowing and rapidly turned into a blinding blizzard.

In those days, small boats like mine were usually not equipped with radar, GPS was not in existence and loran seemed to be used only by commercial fishermen and super yachts. Instead, I relied on the depth sounder, compass and clock for my position.

The conditions that night, however, made the use of the compass essentially useless. The boat was being tossed around so violently that my 5-inch Danforth compass was swinging in all directions all the time – up, down and sideways. It is not an exaggeration to say that every item below in the cabin that was not nailed down ended up on the cabin sole.

And as if that wasn’t challenging enough I was unable to see exactly which way the next wave would strike the boat, since I could not see anything. When I turned on my exterior lights, all I could see was a complete whiteout, so I would have to wait to see how the boat was reacting to the wave before I could take counter-measures at the helm to remain upright.

The only navigational aide on the boat that was still functioning was the depth sounder. This turned out to be a lifesaver as I probed my way through the storm toward the invisible harbor.

I was so busy handling the helm and throttle and making hundreds of mental calculations as to where I might be that I almost didn’t realize how serious the situation was. There are a number of ledges between Black Island and Frenchboro – Otter, Beaumont, Crow – any one of which would prove fatal if I ran onto them in the night.

I considered calling the Coast Guard, then realized there was nothing they could do for us; the waters around us were so violent and the visibility was so poor that we had to make it on our own.

Two harrowing hours later, the young man that was with me pointed out some treetops and lights dead ahead. Thank goodness for his sharp, young eyes and his cool under fire. We had miraculously run straight down the harbor at Frenchboro and were welcomed by concerned townsfolk who had gathered at the ferry landing, aiming the headlights of their vehicles into our direction.

An hour later I was sitting in the living room of my cozy island home, listening to NOAA radio as it continued to forecast a significant nor’easter that would strike the area the next morning.

I now do my winter boating on Pine Island Sound in Southwest Florida.