Self-quarantine cruise

Sunset lights the shore of Burnt Coat Harbor, a small but well-sheltered anchorage on the southwestern side of Swans Island. Photo by Ian Moore

June 2021

By Ian Moore
For Points East

Sunshine, a steady breeze, and uncharacteristic lack of other boats, made for a good start on an easy first-day “shakedown” sail from our homeport of Potts Harbor, in Casco Bay, to The Goslings, in Middle Bay. Here, we planned to shift mental gears and tidy up a few remaining jobs onboard. The water was warm enough for a swim, the anchorage deserted, life was good. In the evening, the fog rolled in; by 6 p.m. we couldn’t see the nearby islands. Of course, this was Maine.

Last year, 2020, was our second season in Maine, and my wife, Donna, and I had expected to spend most weekends on Mystic, our Nordic 44, with the hope of some extended Downeast cruising. But, with quarantines in place, preparing for launch became complicated, and our April 30 launch date had slipped by with Mystic firmly on the hard.

With perseverance and precautions, however, we launched seven weeks late. A week later, the sun was rising on this beautiful late-June morning, and Mystic headed east. And, over the next two weeks, we worked our way toward Rockland. There was no hurry, and foggy days kept us in one place longer than we expected.

At The Basin, in the New Meadows River, we enjoy watching the ospreys and bald eagles while drifting in the dinghy. Normally the water here is fairly warm, but a planned swim turned into a bounce off the surface; the temperature had dropped 10 degrees, and swimming was canceled.

At Seguin Island, a couple of miles off the Kennebec River mouth, we found a setting for a children’s adventure novel: the sheltered cove, rocky beach, old boathouse, trestle railway, and gulls wheeling around the steep cliff whetted our imaginations. It was deserted, and we tied up to the massive Coast Guard mooring and explored the trails and eastern shoreline.

Rocking gently in the windless cove, we realized that collisions between our bow and the 1,000-pound steel mooring would do more than disturb our sleep. I lashed our spinnaker pole through the pulpit and ran a line out and back to the mooring to hold us off; this was a setup that would allow us to fall back onto the main mooring lines if the wind came up. Next morning, I rowed ashore at 4:30 a.m. and walked up to the lighthouse to watch dawn break over Monhegan Island.

A few days later, we sailed toward Lewis Cove, just east of Boothbay Harbor in Linekin Bay. Here, we planned to shelter from forecasted thunderstorms and a northeast wind shift. Off the Sheepscot River mouth, we ran into a whiteout. Running lights, PFDs, automatic foghorn sounding one long/two short; air-horn at hand, radar spinning, ears open, and one eye on the AIS (Automatic Identification System) – such is sailing in Maine.

Near the green Bell 1 “C”, off Cape Newagen, with barely 50 yards visibility, a large vessel showed up on AIS approaching at 15 knots. We eased sheets to make sure he passed well ahead of us. Luckily, the storms fizzled, to be replaced by fog and a little rain for several days.

The appeal of Lewis Cove’s shelter wore thin, and we left via Fisherman Island Passage, between Linekin Neck and Fisherman Island, onto an eastward beat in 20 knots, with short confused seas. At Moser Ledge buoy (N “ML”) we tacked toward Muscongus Bay, past Western Egg Rock and Franklin Island Light and along Hall Island to a short motor into the deserted Harbor Island anchorage, south of Friendship. We explored the southern tip of Harbor Island, and watched some sailboats glide past, shrouded in fog.

Fresh food was running low, and backup tins of beans lacked appeal, so resupply beckoned. We woke to rain, then fog, followed by a line of thunderstorms sweeping across from the northwest. Weather in Maine never stops giving. And, contrary to the forecast, southeast winds were freshening, ideal for a quick sail up to West Penobscot Bay and Rockland. We set out before the fog could reform behind the last of the squalls. A tight reach took us across to Jenks Ledge and a couple of tacks got us through the channel between McGee and Seavey islands. Beating out past Carey Rock, we sailed almost to Burnt Island before we could tack clear and ease onto a fun reach up the bay to a marina berth and untimed hot showers.

From Rockland, we sailed to Pulpit Harbor, in and out of fog banks sweeping up the bay. In one patch, Donna became concerned, hearing a rapidly approaching engine. With no AIS targets, I searched for a radar trail, all to no avail: It was a plane flying directly overhead. Better safe than sorry.

We entered Pulpit in glorious sunshine, anticipating the sunset behind Camden’s Mount Battie. But at 4:30 the fog rolled in and our view was truncated at Pulpit rock. A lobsterman provided alternative entertainment by “moving house” – towing his floating structure across the harbor under the shroud. We joked that this was to avoid the scrutiny of the building inspector.

From Pulpit, we sailed on to the Holbrook Island harbor, at the mouth of Castine Harbor, where we plowed a few furrows trying to find good holding close in to the isthmus that separates the anchorage from Smith Cove. We finally found something stickier in 20 feet, farther off the beach. Minutes later, satisfied we were holding, with everything secured and evening snacks deployed, we noticed something was different.

Then it hit us. It was completely silent. Not quiet: silent. Dead calm, no wavelets slapping the hull, no traffic noise, no bird calls, no schools of fish erupting above marauding seals, no lobsterboats roaring, no bells or horns, nothing. Eerie but wonderful. Like an old friend, fog swept in and wrapped us up in a blanket for what has to be the most peaceful night I have ever spent at anchor.

We explored the nearby nature reserve, then took a dinghy trip across the Bagaduce River to the beautiful village of Castine to wander the strangely deserted streets. Close-hauled south down East Penobscot Bay, I was looking forward to a nice reach around Cape Rosier, but the wind became fluky, and, between Pond Island and Cape Rosier, we coasted into a glassy calm, disturbed only by the wake of a passing Coast Guard cutter.

Motoring toward the Eggemoggin Reach bell buoy, we contemplated pulling up short for the day in Buck Harbor. But ripples appeared, the wind built steadily, and we passed Pumpkin Island and turned into Eggemoggin Reach sailing in style. The wind gusted to 15 knots across the reach, but we had no fetch to raise waves and our SOG sat at around 8 knots. Mystic leaned into the gusts, and I could not suppress a grin.

Toward the eastern end, we were forced to tack to clear of the Torrey Islands before a fast reach into the deserted anchorage behind Little Babson Island. I don’t know why that sail seems so unforgettable to me; we’ve certainly sailed longer, faster, more exciting reaches out in open water. Perhaps it was the proximity of the shores on either side and the flat water that made a difference. Whatever it was, the mystique of the Eggemoggin is real.

We were treated to an extraordinarily beautiful sunset, the result of storms way in the west. An isolated downpour swept over us; the glassy water smashed into hissing white noise, leaving Mystic washed clean in silence a few minutes later. Jericho Bay, west of Swans Island, lay to the east in the gloaming, like a different world. The eerie call of a loon marked an apt end to the day.

We enjoyed Little Babson Island during the morning wait for wind. Ospreys were nesting near the apex, patches of forest were festooned in spooky wisps of lichen, and the shoreline was a mix of granite outcrops and sandy or pebbly beaches. But soon a freshening northerly was ready to take us into a new world. At the eastern end of Casco Passage, the wind strengthened and veered east. We reefed down and started smashing our way through whitecaps, with 28 knots on the nose.

Our thought had been to transit the cut through Bass Harbor Bar and head for Southwest Harbor. But anticipating wind-against-tide, we diverted to Goose Cove, where the shelter was good. Predictably, the wind eased as soon as we set the hook. From here, we slalomed south through lobster floats and toggles, turning east through Bass Harbor bar. The cut seemed benign on approach. Furling the genoa, we turned on the engine and lined up the transit, but soon we were in a ferocious crosscurrent. The breaking seas two boat lengths to starboard were a stark reminder not to lose concentration. The longer alternative around the islands to the south developed a certain appeal.

We ended the day in Valley Cove, in Somes Sound. After our experience at Seguin, we avoided the massive Coast Guard mooring there. We anchored in 75 feet and slept soundly, well away from hazards.

In the morning, Swans Island lay at the end of an easy reach south, followed by a turn west past Long Island. At the entrance, lobster floats were scattered like rainbow sprinkles poured onto ice cream by a greedy child. Negotiating them, and a couple of unpredictable lobsterboats, we anchored in a clear spot just west of Potato Island, about 700 yards north of Harbor Island. Rental moorings are in Burnt Coat, but they are located on the western side, where vessels tend to crowd together. We’re not stingy; we just prefer to trust our own ground tackle and have some space around us.

The lighthouse at the entrance, an abandoned lobster pound, the eclectic collection of buildings, some eccentric and garrulous locals: All these combined to make Burnt Coat a quintessentially Maine experience. After exploring the headland reserve, we reversed course and walked a mile or so to The Island Market & Supply where, according to Donna’s research, we could procure takeaway seafood.

Buying some incidentals and a paper bag containing one take-out lobster, we returned to Mystic, and I joked that Donna should check that our lobster was actually cooked. Of course, it was alive. Donna immediately took pity on it, saying, “We must throw it back.” Given we had trudged two miles to procure the creature, I quickly applied an acceptably humane method of dispatch.

After a too-short stay, we beat southeast to clear the ledges south of Marshall Island, before turning southwest toward Isle au Haut, then up into a fast reach through the western end of Merchant Row and across Eastern Penobscot Bay to Winter Harbor on Vinalhaven. Along the way, I used the binoculars to check out anchorages around the northern end of Isle au Haut, adding to the must-visit list.

Winter Harbor was already on the list. We threaded our way down the long, tapered gash in Vinalhaven’s northeast corner, passing Starboard Rock, while frequent southwest bullets coming over the hills pushed us in to the last pool accessible with our draft. Dropping the hook dead center, I stood watch for a while: The shoreline was unforgiving if we dragged, or if the swing room was insufficient.

In the morning fog, we explored in the dinghy, old farm buildings on the shore past Vinal Falls all the prettier for being shrouded in mist. Encouraged by the “10-knot southwest developing” forecast, and with signs of a breeze coming over the hills, we unwound our inward track, bound for another resupply. The forecasters had been optimistic.

After several hours of drifting and motoring, we met the promised wind and charged the final miles across to the passage south of Lasell Island, easing onto a glorious reach toward Camden. Approaching the harbor, boats were struggling to find wind as they sailed out toward us. Some strange, local wind effect was going on here because they should have the same stiff breeze we had. I blamed Mount Battie. But taking the hint, we dropped the sails early and motored in.

Anticipating a beat into strengthening winds, we left Camden with one reef in the main, a staysail set, and a partly furled genoa. This combination makes tacking more interesting for doublehanded sailing, but makes shortening sail easy. Half a dozen tacks southward we entered the upper end of the Muscle Ridge Channel, and pulled up at the mostly deserted anchorage between Dix and High islands. Both islands are private, but Birch Island, in between, is open and gorgeous. There are sandy beaches (the ones hidden from the anchorage are nicest), rocky outcrops, wild raspberries, thick clusters of rosa rugosa, and masses of wildflowers. Bald eagles played in the sky under scattered fluffy white clouds. The crystal-clear water enticed us in for a dip, despite the temperature. The sunset was once again spectacular. We did not want to leave.

On a beat again, we sailed down Muscle Ridge Channel. Well, mostly out of the channel to extend our tacks, relying on charted depths, a close eye on the sounder and careful pilotage. Once clear, longer tacks took us past Matinicus Island, then across to the St. George River, bound for Maple Juice Cove. After a pilgrimage to the nearby Olson House, setting for Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” we cooked soft-shell lobster bought from the local co-op at silly low prices.

We enjoyed another peaceful night before a slow sail down the St. George River on a weak ebb, to Burnt Island, which marked our final turn toward home and real life. The next few days contained light and fickle winds. We sailed first to Christmas Cove, where the Coast Guard provides red and green osprey platforms to mark the narrow entrance chicane. The inner cove was tightly packed with moorings and there was no hope of anchoring. Instead, we took a Coveside Restaurant’s rental mooring, a 100-yard row to the restaurant dock to pick up takeout.

Not willing to make the final transition to reality, we pulled up a few hours short of our home mooring at Potts Harbor. Sighting two whales, a pod of at least 20 dolphins, and a full-grown Atlantic white-sided dolphin brightened a few hours of motoring. We anchored in a quiet spot and reminisced about the weeks past, thentook one of my favorite routes to our mooring, a run across to the northern tip of Chebeague Island, then turning south onto a fast reach where the wind accelerates up the passage east of Little John Island. Once through, the final four miles home were an enjoyable close reach.

We sailed about 420 miles, and made 19 stops in just under five weeks. We planned from day to day, based on the weather. Although I had dreams of reaching Roque Island, our overriding aim was to relax and enjoy the trip, leaving something for next time. And next time will be longer.

Ian is a physicist turned mechanical and electronic engineer. He grew up sailing dinghies in Australia before racing and cruising larger boats off Western Australia, and among the Whitsunday Islands on the northeast coast. His wife Donna moved to Massachusetts in 2015 to work for Raytheon. Discovering the wonderful New England coast, Ian purchased Mystic in 2017, and has so far cruised from New York City to Mount Desert Island. Ian is a member of the Pelagic Sailing Club.