‘Now this is Downeast cruising’

Looking west from the float at Carousel Marina. The marina’s owner is an old highschool chum of the author. Photo by Joel Gleason

By Joel Gleason
For Points East

On June 12 of last year, after a miserable spring, Muscobe was finally launched, and a quick sea trial confirmed that everything was working perfectly. And just to be on the safe side regarding the boat’s heating problem, a new thermostat was installed. Muscobe, our 33-foot Young Brothers lobsterboat, was ready to head Downeast. On Aug. 3, I loaded her up with provisions, and early the next morning, my son Randy and I had a hearty breakfast at the Driftwood Restaurant in Marblehead before setting out.

The weather was warm, calm, and, in airline parlance, CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited) as we cast off and began our Downeast adventure. Randy took the first turn at the wheel and smoothly increased her speed to 17 knots. Within minutes, we were passing the bell at Powers Rock and Bakers Island Light, heading for Gloucester’s Eastern Point.

Our plan was to pass outside Cape Ann, cutting inside the three islands that lay just offshore to the northeast. The first of these, Milk, has a long shallow bar that extends almost all the way to the mainland, leaving just eight feet next to the shoreline at mean low water. I had the helm by the time we arrived there, and as it was just about low tide, I slowed to idle speed as we passed over the shallow point. With the twin lighthouses of Thacher Island well off to starboard, we planned to pass through the narrow gut between Rockport and Straitsmouth Island, where beautiful homes sit perched on the bold granite ledges above the water.

“We have to be careful because there’s a rock in here,” I said. “It’s low now, but this tide is a foot and a half above mean low.” I started to say, “It’s right here . . .” But before I could finish saying “somewhere,” the depthfinder showed the bottom rising rapidly, and, suddenly, WHUMP. Muscobe’s keel kissed the rock.

“There it is now,” I said, smiling sheepishly.

Muscobe has an overbuilt fiberglass hull, but we checked the bilge just the same. Assured that all was well, we aimed for the bell off the north end of the Rockport breakwater, then headed for the Isles of Shoals, almost 17 miles due north.

The seas were calm, and the wind was off our port quarter, so we decided to turn eastward once through the Isles and head directly for Boothbay Harbor, our destination for the day. With the wind from the southwest, gentle swells from the southeast, and the tide now flooding, Muscobe was pushed ahead an extra knot over the smooth, oily sea. Mother Carey’s chickens flittered around us, along with the occasional laughing gull and gannet, and, in the afternoon, we spotted white-sided dolphins.

The forecast back home had not been favorable, and we could see clouds building to our southwest. These became more ominous and continued to follow us as we proceeded northeast. Gradually, bumps on the horizon appeared – the Casco Bay islands – and then the tall spire of Seguin Island’s lighthouse rose ahead. Leaving Seguin to port, we altered course to the east and soon reached The Cuckolds, where we turned toward the protected anchorage of Boothbay Harbor.

Randy eased Muscobe up to the fuel dock at Carousel Marina at 1550, exactly six and one-half hours after leaving Marblehead. She took 51 gallons of fuel, which calculated out to a thrifty burn of merely 7.3 gallons per hour. After adding ice to the cooler, we secured the boat at her slip and walked up to the marina proper, where we were greeted by Carousel’s owner, my old high school chum Jack Cogswell.

As it started to rain, we ate a delicious dinner of seafood chowder and prime rib (Randy had steak), while we chatted with a local couple seated next to us. The rain stopped, and we returned to the boat and enjoyed a beautiful sunset from the cockpit, with a rainbow behind us.

The next morning, we slipped away from the dock and across the harbor to the town landing, where we walked up to Waves (formerly the Ebb Tide Restaurant) for breakfast, after which we poked around in a few shops. Shortly after leaving the inner harbor at 1020, we were engulfed in fog, though the sun shined through from above. Caution dictated a reduction in speed; however, the seas were calm, it was warm, and the going was easy as we had 200-yard visibility. By the time Randy’s watch was up and I took over, we were past Pemaquid Point, well into Muscongus Bay, and the fog had burned off.

Now this was Downeast cruising as it should be. Glorious sunshine, water glittering with sparkling diamonds, green spruces above granite-shored islands, a lobsterman’s windshield glinting in the sun. All this is what we dream about on those cold, dreary February days.

Eastern Egg Rock came and went, then the passage between Thompson and Davis islands, and soon we were threading our way through the ledges and islets off Port Clyde. Passing Port Clyde, we rounded Mosquito Island and headed for the Muscle Ridge Channel. We were bound for Castine, so, once clear of Owl’s Head and into West Penobscot Bay, we turned eastward.

“Let’s stop in Pulpit Harbor for lunch,” Randy suggested.

And so, at 1315, we eased through the entrance, past the tall rock for which the harbor is named, and upon which sits an osprey’s nest said to have been there for over 100 years. We set our own anchor, and tranquility prevailed. Forty-five minutes later we were under way again, steering north along the west shore of North Haven Island, under blue skies and scattered white, puffy cumulus clouds.

Continuing northward between Great and Little Spruce Head islands, we approached Cape Rosier. The water is deep right up to the shore here, so we stayed close in, the better to appreciate this gorgeous stretch of scenery. After just an hour of steaming, we were easing past the State of Maine, the Maine Maritime Academy training ship.

We slipped alongside the floats at the Castine Yacht Club. When I was here last, some 15 years before, this beautiful little club was mostly deserted. We had tied up overnight at the float, taken advantage of their showers, and left a contribution per their honor system of payment. Today the club was bustling with activity.

First, we needed fuel, so we idled up the shore a few hundred yards to Eaton’s Dock. Kenny Eaton – the proprietor, harbormaster and elder statesman of Castine – was still there and hadn’t aged a day since my last visit. As Randy filled our fuel tanks and I got ice, I told Kenny we planned on staying the night at the yacht club.

“Why would you want to do that?” he asked. So we stayed at Eaton’s.

Castine is a lovely little town, with a lot of history involving battles for its possession between the French, English, Dutch and, eventually, the Americans. First discovered in 1604 by Samuel de Champlain, it was the last outpost the British surrendered at the end of the Revolution.

Kenny’s Jack Russell, Dobbit, loved the water, and became quite perturbed, howling furiously, when Kenny climbed aboard a boat or a dinghy without him. Ken’s workboat, an old wooden Downeast-type craft, was well over 80 years old, though she had been repowered with a “new” engine 48 years ago. Kenny gets up every morning at 4 a.m. to haul his lobster pots before assuming his marina and harbormaster chores. Randy and I soon volunteered to help out with some of the tasks, hauling lobster traps to and fro, among other tasks.

Work done, Randy and I headed for Dennett’s Wharf, a popular oyster bar and restaurant next door I’d enjoyed on previous visits. Under new ownership for just over a year, the place was now known simply as The Wharf, and we savored cold drinks there. Upon our return to the boat, we found Kenny retrieving several lobsters from a container under the float. He invited us up to his workshop, and he boiled a large pot of water in which to boil the crustaceans. “For my dentist,” he said, smiling.

Twenty minutes later, he said, “Go get a bucket and take four of these for yourselves.” We tried to pay him, but he refused to take our money.

After eating the most delicious lobsters we’d had in years – if not ever – we sat in the cockpit enjoying the coolness of the evening. Later, a blanket of brilliant stars spread out over our heads.

At 5 a.m., the growl of Kenny’s workboat woke us briefly, as he set out to haul his lobster traps. Sometime later, Randy and I hauled ourselves out of bed and walked down Water Street to the corner of Main, where we found a place open for breakfast. Finishing breakfast, we said goodbye, and cast off at 0910. We proceeded out of the Bagaduce River and back down the shore of Cape Rosier on what was another day with brilliant sunshine and little wind.

At the southern end of the cape we turned east, then northeast inside Spectacle Island, and threaded our way between the ledges toward the bell at the entrance to exquisite Eggemoggin Reach. The weather could not have been better. Oddly, we saw few cruising boats, though we passed numerous fishermen hauling traps.

Exiting the reach, we turned east again through Casco Passage and traversed Blue Hill Bay, crossing the bar at Bass Harbor and its lighthouse at 1100. After nearly 30 years of cruising here, I have yet to find the words to describe the beauty of this place, or how it affects me.

After making the green bell at Long Ledge, we turned up Western Way, then east again between Great Cranberry and Sutton islands. Once past Sutton, we headed past Seal Harbor, inside East Bunker Ledge, then north, following the cliffs along the eastern edge of Mount Desert, with its spectacular summer “cottages.”

At noon, we slipped inside the breakwater at Bar Harbor as a beautiful Hinckley 42 yawl passed us going out. A large white Carnival Cruise ship lay at anchor nearby. We were unable to get fuel because the shuttle boats from the ship monopolized the docks, so we called the harbormaster, who directed us to tie up at one of the town floats. We backed in, easing between the float and a huge, 50-meter yacht, Casino Royale, from Bikini, Marshall Islands. I later Googled her and found she could be chartered for $255,000 per week (plus expenses).

It was HOT. The tide was out and the float was well below the level of the town pier to which it was attached. Nestled under that, with Casino Royale towering over us, there was no breeze, and the temperature must have been 100.

Randy wanted to explore. The place was mobbed with tourists, and I had no enthusiasm for walking up the hill to town in the heat. Instead, I walked over to Harbormaster Charles Phippen’s office, to chat with him and revel in his delightful air-conditioned office. Charlie is a pleasant and accommodating guy, and we chatted for a while until Randy returned with a Bar Harbor T-shirt for me that read: “The captain is always right. And I am the captain.” Ah, but would Randy follow that edict?

Later in the afternoon we walked up to Paddy’s, an Irish pub and restaurant just off the main town pier. After a nice visit, and a delicious meal, Randy and I retired to the boat. Tied up ahead of us was a Carver, roughly 38 or 40 feet. This was a new boat to the owners, a young couple from Portland cruising with their daughter and miniature poodle. Randy struck up a conversation with them, and we were invited aboard their boat, which was opulent compared with Muscobe’s spartan accommodations.

The next morning we returned to Paddy’s for breakfast. Back at the float, we had to play musical boats before we could cast off. But we finally headed across Frenchman Bay toward the Schoodic Peninsula. Once again, the weather was perfect. We passed inside Schoodic Island and turned east to go around Little Black Ledge before heading for Corea Harbor. Local knowledge – and the charts – say you can go between Big and Little Black ledges. But I stayed outside; I’d hit my rock quota for this cruise.

An hour after leaving Bar Harbor, we were in line for fuel behind a couple of lobster boats waiting to get into the Corea Lobster Co-op. Two other boats were already at the float. Since I knew these guys had lobsters to unload, I went directly to the Young Brothers family float and returned for fuel later.

The tide was low as we inched alongside the end of the float, and I suspected we might hit bottom. But there was plenty of water, and Randy secured the boat as I called Colby Young to announce our arrival. I got his answering machine, so we sat for a while until I heard a familiar voice and turned to see my old friend walking down the gangway. Colby Young, now 80, had been just 49 when he supervised the building of my beautiful boat.

He climbed aboard, shook hands, and sat down. I presented him with a gift: a white T-shirt imprinted with “m/v Muscobe” on the front, and a picture of the boat herself on the back. We chatted for a bit, and after about 15 minutes I became re-acclimated to his speech and was able to decipher most of what he was saying in his distinct Downeast dialect. After a while, we walked up to his new truck, a GMC pickup with full cab, and drove to his house to meet his friend Bea, who joined us as we drove over to Prospect Harbor for lunch together.

We returned to the boat, said our goodbyes, and idled over to the Co-op for fuel. At 1530 we headed out past Western Island and turned east again, bound for Petit (pronounced ’Tit) Manan Bar. A brisk afternoon breeze had picked up, and high, thin clouds were developing.

Once you pass Schoodic Point, you are really Downeast. No more fancy marinas. No more resort hotels. And few, if any, of the huge summer “cottages” that line the shores of places like the Fox Islands Thorofare or Mount Desert Island. Here are working harbors, with clusters of little cottages and stout piers jutting out from shore on pilings.

Around Jonesport, Beals Island and the surrounding areas, more lobsters are caught than from just about anywhere. Before the bridge from Jonesport was built, Beals Island was so isolated that it had its own peculiar Elizabethan speech, which has now disappeared.

The approach to Jonesport and Moosabec Reach takes you between a series of little islands, many uninhabited. Lobster pots are everywhere. And the area has a different feel about it, almost like that of a foreign country. You’re not in Nova Scotia. But you’re surely not in Boothbay or Camden, either. You just know you’re someplace special.

East of Schoodic and ’Tit Manan Light, you are well aware that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Marbleheader Joel Gleason is a regular contributor to Points East. And he and Muscobe take us way east of Schoodic in Part 2 of “Now This is Downeast Cruising,” scheduled for the September issue.