My favorite passage

Hank Garfield
My favorite passage on the Maine Coast is between Rockland Harbor and Naskeag Point. I keep Planet Waves, my Cape Dory 25, in Rockland in the summer, but visit family on the other side of the bay once or twice a season. Their place is easier to get to by boat than by car – not to mention more fun.

The route features two open crossings and two narrow thorofares, and requires some tacking and a bit of navigational skill. It’s 30 miles by GPS and variable by sail. The shortest route is from the Rockland breakwater to the Monument on Fiddler Ledge that marks the entrance to the Fox Islands Thorofare, then past the North Haven ferry landing, and out the other side, across to Stonington, and finally northward among the ledges and small islands along the eastern side of Deer Isle.

It’s a trip you can make in a day, in either direction, and the route offers several variations. There are two towns. At the North Haven Community Center you can get lunch, but the grocery store is several miles up the road. In Stonington, the store is right by the public landing. It can be a tight squeeze to get in, especially at low tide, but once you’re tied up, you’re steps from the store and the center of town.

You can also detour to several of the islands in Merchant Row, stop for a swim or for lunch, or explore the many small anchorages in the sheltered waters between North Haven and Vinalhaven. You might sail through a small-boat race, or encounter an oceangoing trimaran, and you will almost certainly see seals and ospreys and maybe a bald eagle or two.

The fastest I ever made the passage, west to east, was on the shirttail of Hurricane Earl in 2010. I was singlehanded, and the wind had come around to the southwest, pushing the swells. My Cape Dory sails well under jib alone, especially downwind, but on most other tacks, too. It’s a large genoa, and plenty of sail by itself in heavy weather.

Beyond the bulk Owl’s Head, I felt the power of the swells. Out by the Monument, I surfed six-foot waves that looked bigger from the deck of my 25-foot boat. In the thorofare, the sea calmed down, and Planet Waves scooted past the North Haven ferry landing and out into the east bay. Once again, the farther I got from land, the more I encountered those swells from the deep ocean. I surged past the Mark Island light into Stonington. The trip took four and a half hours, mooring to mooring.

The return trip is usually longer, but I did it with my son Rigel in six hours and 15 minutes. The wind was from the northwest, moderately strong. It meant a run to Stonington, close reaches across both sides of the bay, a modicum of tacking in each thorofare, but no beating to get around the Monument. I like to challenge myself to sail mooring-to-mooring without using the motor. It isn’t always possible, or practical. I’m no longer patient enough to wait out a calm, and sometimes it’s just easier to lower the sails and pick up the mooring under power. But I didn’t touch the engine on either of these two trips.

I never trust an engine as much as my sails, anyway. Once I got stuck in North Haven with an outboard that refused to start. The wind was blowing right onto the dock. Lisa, my girlfriend and first mate, grabbed one line, and I grabbed another, and as we swung the bow away from the wind, I unfurled the jib as we both jumped aboard. But then the sail began to backwind and fill from the wrong direction, and I had no choice but to bring the boat around the other way. This meant heading for shore and doing a tight jibe, and, for a scary moment, I feared running the boat aground in front of the whole town. But we managed to maneuver out into the Thorofare and head for Rockland. We were about a mile away when I realized I’d left the dinghy tied to the dock.

Fog can be an occasional problem, especially in the islands off Stonington or near the Brown Cow, an incongruous bit of ledge in the middle of East Penobscot Bay that is awash and invisible at high tide until you are right upon it.

Once Rigel and I got caught in the fog out by the Monument. It’s an easy, linear course from there to the Rockland breakwater that I’ve navigated many times in low visibility. I’ve got it programmed into my hand-held GPS. But this time, the fog rolled in quickly and thickly; visibility diminished to a few boat lengths.

And the North Haven ferry was coming in. We heard the blast of its horn. I thumbed our small aerosol horn in reply, hoping my little Cape Dory was substantial enough to show up on the ferry’s radar. Another blast from the ferry sounded even closer. I cheated northward from my course, giving the ferry some room, mindful of nearby Drunkard Ledge. We never saw it, or the ferry. We didn’t see anything until the Rockland breakwater.

But on good days, there’s a lot to see, and there’s always a lot to do. The trip by water from Rockland to Naskeag is never the same twice. That’s why it’s my favorite passage.

Hank Garfield learned to sail on his father’s 36-foot schooner, Lively Lady, and a succession of smaller boats in the waters around Deer Isle. He now lives in Bangor and sails his Cape Dory 25 Planet Waves out of Rockland. He is the author of five novels, including “The Lost Voyage of John Cabot,” and writes a weekly blog, “Slower Traffic” (slowertraffic.net), about living in Maine without owning a car.

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