Marshall Island is tough to top

Sand Cove beach, mid-tide, with our inflatables tied up on shore. Photo by Tim Plouff

September 2022

By Tim Plouff

The season is too short. Scheduling conflicts, family commitments, and winds that kept even sailboats on their moorings found us in mid-July with barely four trips to sea under our belts. Mentally, mid-July is summer at half-tide – we are already watching the sunsets move backward across our horizon at the lake. And next year’s firewood arrived two weeks ago. As I said, the boating season is much too short Downeast.

Yet the weather gods have favored us today. It is calm as we arrive at the Seal Cove boat ramp in Tremont. This is a predominantly working ramp tucked off a back road on the west side of Mount Desert Island (MDI), away from the regular tourist hubbubs. Several pleasure craft bob away on their moorings here, in a harbor that catches every summer sunset.

Barely a hint of the heavy winds forecast by the 50-percent-wrong weatherperson ripple the placid waters. The sky is hazy, with glimpses of blue suggesting a perfect summer day ahead. Best of all, the boat ramp is open for business with no one ahead of us.

The crew from Moorfun is partnering with us again today. Andy Moorwood and family are anxious to get some hours on their Glacier Bay 2270 Isle Runner after COVID wiped out their whole season last year. Alison is manning the navigator seat while Lookie, their stand-offish labradoodle, roams the deck.

We have Tegoak, our Sea Ray 215EC, already afloat when Andy arrives as carpenter/navigator/partner Kathy, plus our friends Diane and Nat Smith, are an efficient team and make for seamless launches. We are just past low tide; however, the trailer still drops off the end of the ramp here, quickly releasing the boat from its grip. The crew pushes the boat to the front end of the wharf to make room for launching Moorfun.

Don’t drag your inflatable on these floats – sharp-metal edges and piles of lobster traps are waiting to snag the vulnerable tubes – or along the concrete ramp, on which barnacles can tear the bottom of your small boat. This comes from the voice of experience.

Seal Cove provides adequate parking and easy launching and retrieval for both boats, either with or without assistance. On the east side of Blue Hill Bay, Seal Cove also provides ready access to many of our island destinations, complementing other launch points as a solid, steady base of operations in this region.

Pushing off from here saves us a long run down the Union River Bay from Ellsworth, which has a great ramp, too, but the mouth of the river is propeller-killing shallow at low tide. Plus, Seal Cove allows us to head west to always interesting Pond Island and the Stonington/Deer Isle islands, south to Swans Island and surrounding retreats, or even southeast, toward Black, Frenchboro, Long Island and more treasures if the winds and seas so dictate.

Thus far in the season, each trip has revealed evidence of more and more lobster gear in the water, despite falling prices for the catch not covering the rising costs for fuel and bait. The Maine lobster-fishing industry is under attack by three powerful W-forces: wind-power advocates in the Gulf working to limit trap placement, warming ocean adversaries threatening to reduce demand for lobsters, and right-whale protectors who believe Maine lobster harvesters are killing whales with their fishing gear. And now great white sharks are infesting Penobscot Bay, too, but the lobster fishing folks will somehow get gaffed for that as well.

We don’t linger on these thoughts as we plot a course southeast to Casco Passage, at the head of Swans Island. Cruising at around 21 knots, I exaggerate each turn around the navigation aids, diving tightly after each aid to navigation (ATON), giving everyone aboard a chance to reaffirm their grip. The rip current passing over these shoals and ledges is evident on each bowing navigation buoy as we enter Jericho Bay and head southerly down the west side of Swans to Marshall Island.

Today, we meet only one other boat venturing through Casco Passage, the waterway interchange between Jericho Bay to the west and Blue Hill Bay to the east. This is part of the inside route for cruisers moving Downeast from Rockland/Camden and Vinalhaven/North Haven to Merchants Row/Deer Isle Thorofare and Eggemoggin Reach on their way to MDI/Southwest Harbor as well as farther up the rocky Maine coast. The area also provides several gunkholes for sailors and powerboaters to spend a restful night in the lee of the wind or to explore the numerous public-access islands nearby.

Marshall at 985 acres, the largest uninhabited island on the East Coast – is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Acquired from a single owner who purchased the island after a failed 1980s real estate investment and development proposal, Marshall has been stripped of all buildings. Even the former dock has been removed. We once tied up there to replace a damaged prop.

At the southern end of Swans Island, the Burnt Coat Harbor Light, on Hockamock Head, is clearly visible as you approach the northern end of Marshall, yet the view from south of Marshall is someplace called the Azores, way over the horizon. Almost equidistant between Frenchboro to the east and Isle au Haut to the west, Marshall is a draw for many visitors looking to escape the reality of everyday land-living.

While there are ten beaches around the island, most are rugged, round-stone strands that are wonderful to listen to with the crashing surf, but a little hard on the feet, or the forearm when you fall. Don’t ask. Most mariners gravitate to Sand Cove, on the southeast side of the island. Sand Cove offers a firm, sandy bottom, which is uncommon in Maine’s coastal waters. There is room for numerous boats to swing on their anchors. Yet, many visitors arrive without an auxiliary landing craft and just bail out over the side or stern and wade/swim to the flat beach. The chart plotter says the water is 57 degrees today: We will skip the swimming option.

We motor in and interrupt the solitude of a single sailboat and its family. Before we know it, our two boats are rafted together and having a quick lunch in the cool, sunny cove. Then six more parties arrive – all powerboats. Nat takes delight in watching the anchoring processes of the larger boats, knowing that we have our procedure down to a well-oiled machine. And apparently we have sufficient ground tackle to hold our two boats when we travel together.

After watching several swimming escapades and semi-beaching efforts by the newcomers (you have a new $200,000 boat, but didn’t buy a $900 inflatable?), we row our dinghies to the beach. With Sand Cove’s fine sand, it’s easy to see why visitors spend all day there, soaking up the sun, grilling, drinking or reading.

Instead, we gallop up the center of the island on one of several miles of maintained trails that bisect and loop around the island in the Ed Woodsum Preserve. Crossing diagonally to the northwest, along what was formerly a dirt road, we encounter the former airstrip built for the supposed investors. Persistent rumors long circulated that drug smugglers flew their contraband into deserted Marshall during the `80s, as many properties along the Maine Coast were acquired by “outside investors” in the ’70s and ’80s. During a long dry spell for the fishing fleet, fishing boats were reportedly “compromised” to move these illegal cargos ashore.

After exploring the stone and sand beach with impressive, restive views of Deer Isle, I offer the group the chance to continue around the shore trail back to Sand Cove or go to the former dock/beach with its welcome sign and then cut through to the airstrip and back inland – an easier loop. We chose the former . . . and got more of a hike than we bargained for, when we missed a trail marker on the east side of the island. Oops.

Once back at the beach, we found that all the other boats had left. It was only 3:15 p.m. on a Saturday, and no other boats came in for the night as we lingered and relaxed. Marshall’s solitude was all ours; gentle waves lapping the sand beach just over our shoulder, barely 50 feet away. Nap anyone?

While the crews snack and enjoy beverages, Andy and I discuss the particulars of our pace and boat performance. His twin Yamaha 115-horse outboards give him 10-more horsepower than our 5.0-liter V-8 sterndrive. However, his motors are spinning at 4,300 to 4,400 rpm, versus our 3,100 rpm while cruising at 21 to 22 knots, our preferred pace. Each boat is achieving roughly two miles per gallon, given that we were running against the tide going out to Marshall and coming back.

Leaving Sand Cove, a hint of fog is visible over Frenchboro. This is a solemn reminder of our initial visit many years ago, when the fog completely overtook us in minutes. But this would not happen today as neither the predicted heavy winds nor the fog would spoil our run back to Casco Passage and north to Tremont.

As we pass Buckle Island at the northwest tip of Swan’s Island, we find nine weekend cruisers moored for the night in this shallow, protected cove. Another great stop on the Maine Island Trail of public-access islands, Buckle offers trails, history, a mystery door in the woods, and another granite pearl.

Exiting Casco Passage, the horizon is void of other craft this early Saturday evening. The ferry, Captain Henry Lee, is visible at its berth in Swan’s Mackerel Cove, leaving us to worry only about the numerous lobster pots sprinkled about our path back to Seal Cove. We don’t even need the chartplotter as 949-foot Mansell Mountain, in Acadia National Park, provides a landmark to guide us home. The crew is primarily silent, watching for porpoise breaches and seals and soaking up the glittering waves.

The ramp at Seal Cove is busier than during our departure as a family reunion is beginning in the adjacent picnic area. The delicious smells of summer foods waft over the dock, subduing the ever-present scent of bait, lobster and diesel. The added water of mid-tide aids the glide-on loading of Andy’s boat, while the Sea Ray slips onto its bunks with barely a tug.

The sea is still relatively calm, and the evening invites us to stay longer. A glance westward towards the dipping sun reminds us to come back soon. We have had Marshall for this excellent summer day, and Marshall is tough to top.

Tim and wife Kathryn, the navigator, live lakeside in Otis, Maine, 30 minutes from Acadia, where they trailer-boat up and down the Maine coast with their 2000 Sea Ray 21-foot Express Cruiser Tegoak.

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