Rhumb line Downeast

“The first sight of the faint, bluish-gray mountains of the Maine coast some 40 miles away, cheered me,” writes the author. Photo by Mike Martel

September 2022

By Capt. Michael L. Martel

A delivery to Southwest Harbor prompts epiphanies for a Coast Guard-licensed delivery captain who covets exposure to the iconic Maine coast from the decks of other folk’s seagoing dreamships.

I have always wanted to cruise the coast of Maine. Think of it: a starkly beautiful, pine-wooded, rocky coast, dotted with bays and inlets with quaint harbors. Add to this picture seaport villages marked by white-painted church spires in their centers, and cottages perched on high pilings along the shore. Irresistible.

The Maine coast is a considerable distance from southern New England shores, and there’s a lot of coastline to explore by boat. So, to cruise these shores, one must have patience and plenty of time, a solid, seaworthy sailboat, and no urgent schedule. A well-padded wallet is also advisable.

I was not born under such a benevolent star, however. I was not “to the manor born,” but, rather, to the bungalow. As such, I found that I could get the good things, too. I simply had to work for them as a USCG-licensed yacht delivery captain.

I’d been to Maine in an old Ford station wagon with a wooden crate packed with camping gear on top, hunting-down state campgrounds, young kids screaming in the back seats. In later years, I’ve had the opportunity to deliver a couple of small boats to southeastern Maine ports. But recently I had the good fortune to land a yacht delivery job, taking a custom Morris 51 to Southwest Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, from Warren, R.I, in Narragansett Bay.

Certainly, it would not be a leisurely cruise. It would be a Downeast adventure. I learned that if you want to sail nice boats, but cannot afford them, then you should seriously consider becoming a Coast Guard-licensed captain. Then you can sail other people’s nice (or sometimes dodgy) boats – with some conditions, of course. But delivering a boat is, after all, preferable to scraping barnacles.

Once the details of the contract were finalized with the owner, I invited two good friends and fellow mariners to come along as crew: Capt. Tom Bradford and brother-in-law Joe Crilly, former airplane pilot and sailor from Cape May, N.J., who is always gung-ho for a good boat trip. We planned departure for the end of June, when the weather was generally cooperative for an offshore trip.

Tom is a seasoned master mariner and engineer, having spent his career in the Merchant Marine. Joe is a whiz with navigation systems. As it turned out, we had trouble with mechanical things (pumps, Tom’s bailiwick) and a balky, dated chartplotter (Joe made it work properly); so between the three of us, we brought the boat to port.

We would leave with the turn of the tide, at the break of dawn, head down Narragansett Bay, past Newport, then turn east and head up Buzzard’s Bay toward the Cape Cod Canal. Here, if our timing was right, we would cruise through the canal with the east-running flood tide and emerge into Cape Cod Bay. We would then proceed to Provincetown and, rounding that “fist” at the end of the Cape, make a northeasterly beeline for Mount Desert Island. One hundred and fifty miles or so later, before dusk the following day, we planned to arrive in Southwest Harbor.

Planning before a departure is essential. Fuel and water tanks must be full; the boat must be provisioned with food and essential items. Even in summer, one must bring warm clothing because, at night on the ocean off the coast of Maine, the water is cold and the air quite chilly. It is not uncommon to start shivering in the cockpit at 2 a.m., when you are sleepy. I had to secure the proper charts for the Maine coast because the boat, which had been down in the Virgin Islands, had only Caribbean charts aboard. This was only one of countless critical details that had to be attended to.

The evening before we left, we remained aboard at the dock, since we planned an early departure at dawn to catch the beginning of the outgoing tide. We wanted to make a quick run down the bay and get the most out of the available daylight. The days approaching the summer solstice offer the longest daylight of the year, and the shortest nights, which is great when you are planning to travel on the water through the night. We also had a half-moon forecast on a mostly clear night. All light is helpful.

It was still early in the day when we rounded Newport’s Brenton Point and began our trip up a bright, blue, sparkly Buzzards Bay. Midafternoon, we reached the west end of the Cape Cod Canal and flew through “The Ditch,” with engine and fair current, at 13 knots over the ground. Then we shaped our course for Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, from which we would steer northeastward toward Mount Desert Island and Southwest Harbor.

Some 40 miles at sea, east of Boston and heading northeast toward Stellwagen Bank, I watched the sun setting, and what a beautiful sunset it was. Boston was well over the horizon; we could only see the frosty trails of the big jets in the distance as they circled over Logan Airport. And then we were on a long, straight course toward Mount Desert Island, motoring across the swells, plunging into the night.

The half-moon overhead shone with a pale light in the wispy, cloud-hazed sky; the weakly blinking shore lights of Provincetown gradually sank into the sea behind us. We had a crisp night ahead – and 150 miles of open water to cover – before we reached the Maine coast.

The rolling groundswell, a gift from the North Atlantic, constantly pushed us from abeam, and it would do so all night and most of the following day.

Without any wind, we were motoring. As we headed toward Stellwagen, I thought of the sad, crusted, algid bones of the 281-foot side-wheel steamer S.S. Portland below us, somewhere in the deep blackness. En route from Boston to Portland, the steamer sank off Cape Ann in a violent gale in November 1898, with an estimated loss of 193 to 245 souls. There were no survivors, and the thought of this sent a chill through me. But as much as the sunset reminded me that we had nearly nine hours of darkness ahead, it also cheered me as I considered the prospect of the next day’s arrival in Maine.

We would be some 50 miles offshore as we ran the rhumb line to Southwest Harbor, traveling in the company of distant fishing boats during the night, and occasional seabirds of different species. We set the watch, settled in, put on warm clothing, and watched until there was no longer any glow to the west.

The long night of powering through the rolling swells finally passed with the first gray light of dawn. It would be hours before we would reach Southwest Harbor. We had a functioning stove, so we had the obligatory coffee to warm our cockles, and foods to sustain us, including wraps, cold cuts, cheese, cookies and fruit. In that rollicking sea, we decided against any stovetop cuisine.

The first sight of the faint, bluish-gray mountains of the Maine coast some 40 miles away, cheered me, and, of course, it seemed like we were nearly there. Joe saw two whales surfacing in the distance, and dark-bottomed clouds threatened rain but did nothing as we gradually closed the shore.

Alternately, we were subjected to drafts of cold, dank sea air that made us grab for sweaters, then brief periods of warmth when we were tempted to strip down to underclothes. There was no consistency, just the battling of currents and columns of water and air all around us, all operating at different temperatures.

The coast of Maine, from a distance, reminded me of the bluish mountains of the Virgin Islands rising out of the sea in the Caribbean. But we had to navigate with care; there are small islands, rocks, and ledges everywhere along the shore: The coast has teeth, lobster traps and buoys abound, all hazards to navigation. We had to get into port before dark, otherwise we could be in trouble, as there were no other harbors or anchorages along the way. So we pushed the throttle to its limit, motoring at nearly eight knots, and, as it turned out, we arrived at the Hinckley dock in Southwest Harbor a good hour before sunset.

What a world-change or, more appropriately, sea-change takes place when we go offshore for miles. We know we are in a different world – the world of the whale and the seabird – Neptune’s realm, the realm of the deep. We know this because the smell of the land is gone, replaced with the salty-sweet, cool, briny air that is so different from the everyday oxygen to which we have become accustomed. The ocean air smells sweet and fresh, without pollen or sneezes, and your nostrils open wide, eager to inhale it.

The waters of the North Atlantic are cold, the air cool, and the fresh scent of the deep is a constant reminder that we are no longer in the comfort zone of land but at the mercy of the watery world. We are trespassers, without fins or flukes, ill-designed for life in such a place, but moving through with the consent of powers unseen. As a solo circumnavigator told me years ago, “I did not conquer the sea; I was allowed to pass.”

An hour before sunset, with our charge safely berthed at the Hinckley dock, our job was done, the delivery complete. We had a celebratory drink of rum to toast the success of the passage, dined ashore, got a good night’s rest, and, in the morning, rented a car at the Bangor airport, an hour and a half away. We arrived at the marina in Warren, R.I., before sunset.

In the end, is it worth it, given the low money, one asks? If you want the freedom and adventure, then yes! And, of course, always remember that whenever you step outside of your comfort zone, what follows will be either an adventure or an ordeal. Whichever one it becomes is often entirely up to you.

Capt. Mike Martel sails out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton master’s license, and is a lifelong boating and marine industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.