Vivian Vuong enjoyed a summer cruising Maine and the spectacular – but sometimes challenging – waters around the mist-shrouded coast
Nathan picked up our anchor in Roque Harbour in a light breeze, with a plan to sail to nowhere in particular. We were to spend time cruising Maine and discovering the vast cruising grounds tempted us with options in every direction.
Miguel was at the helm, steering out of our idyllic overnight spot while crew Peter, Debbie, and John watched for lobster traps. We settled on making a course towards Portland, and the Maine coast disappeared in our wake as noon approached, promising an overnight sail in moderate breezes.
September was just around the corner and the temperature gradually cooled the further offshore we sailed.
My husband, Nathan, and I were mid-way through a training passage on our Compass 47, Ultima, and on our first overnight sail of the week. Usually, I’d stand a night watch by myself while Nathan, as skipper, would float between the crew’s watch shifts.
This time, as we planned to tack later, he stayed up with me till we changed course. Three hours flew by as we sailed over the cold, calm sea and soon my watch was finished ready for Peter and Miguel to take over.
Nathan and I went down to our berths to rest as Ultima sailed through the night without incident, but by morning, Nathan was unable to get out of his bunk without tremendous pain. Although he tried to rest, when the boat heeled over, punching into waves, his pain intensified.
Nathan’s experience as an emergency medical technician gave him some medical knowledge and after a few hours we decided that the best thing to do was to get him to a hospital.
Our training crew were put to a true test as we tacked toward Rockland, as our biggest challenge was to navigate and sail in thick fog without catching a lobster trap. Peter sounded the horn when boats were near, the others taking turns hand steering. I made sure we were on course, trimming sails when needed.
We entered the harbour around 1630, and I radioed the public dock asking for availability.
The harbourmaster responded “No, we’re all full,” but when I replied that it was a medical emergency and we needed to get ashore as soon as possible we were told to tie up around the corner in the only spot available, just past a cruise ship that completely blocked my view of the dock.
The crew ran fenders and lines, and Miguel called distances from the bow as I approached the dock straight on, turning the wheel at the last moment to slide Ultima in between the harbourmaster’s RIB and a piling.
I was proud of how calmly and diligently everyone worked under stress. Nathan was driven straight to the emergency room where an MRI discovered a herniated disc in his lower back, which required rest.
Nathan recovered surprisingly quickly but without the help of our crew, it wouldn’t have been as easy to get him the care he needed. Often on our training passages we spend plenty of time discussing man overboard emergencies and rigging or engine failures, but we rarely examine onboard emergencies that aren’t life threatening.
While we have a full first aid kit aboard, complete with defibrillator, what do we use when a crewmember is completely immobile? I’m grateful that we’d spent the whole summer cruising through Maine in all conditions, as the challenging weather and geography left us prepared for a potentially horrible scenario that had a successful ending.
Seeking solitude cruising Maine
Back in July Ultima had sailed into the Gulf of Maine in heavy fog that didn’t lift for three days. It was strangely fitting: we’d been eager to leave the sweltering heat of summer in the south, and had a crew keen to face the challenges of an unfamiliar coastline ahead. We left from Solomons, Maryland, and sailed through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal before heading offshore around the Nantucket Shoals and into the Gulf of Maine.
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First to join us were two couples; Ed and Finese, and Bato and Ismeta. Neither couple had ever been offshore overnight together and joining Nathan and I aboard Ultima gave them an opportunity to see the dynamics of a married team operating a boat. Their willingness and enthusiastic attitude made the opening trip fun despite gloomy weather.
Ultima is not equipped with radar but we were ready to encounter the near certainty of fog in Maine. On the first night mist surrounded us, I was on watch in the cockpit and looking up at a distant star ahead.
I followed it as the clouds and haze began to thicken, dampening the air around me until my eyelashes collected dew and the last bit of the sky disappeared.
Fog in Maine is heaviest in July and August when northerly winds blow warm air from land out to sea, becoming saturated with moisture. This creates the perfect conditions for the gloomy phenomenon called advection fog, better known to sailors as sea fog.
Without radar, we sail with careful attention to our AIS and charts but also by utilising all of our senses. Taking note that fog bends sound, fog horns could potentially be coming from a different direction than where they seem to be.
Entering the traffic separation schemes or sailing near commercial fishing boats, we often sounded a horn. The fog horn can be distracting for sleeping crew down below, but we all feel safer knowing we can be heard as well as seen on AIS (radar is on our list of upgrades for our next Maine adventure).
Our cautious approach toward Portland was insightful. We learned quickly that although we were able to communicate with other vessels transmitting AIS, there were many that blasted through the channel, not responding to our calls. With limited visibility, sometimes less than 40m, markers, boats, and buoys appeared quickly as we made our approach into the busy port. It was eerie to hear the noises of land, traffic and machinery, without any sight of streets or buildings.
We motored to the dock just as the fog finally started to lift, easing Ultima onto a slip before celebrating a successful landfall with our fledgling crew.
It is always a delight to explore a new city and stock up on fresh provisions after a passage but we were also thinking ahead: the prospect of a month of cruising this area was delicious.
After signing off our crew, Nathan and I sailed together to check out a couple of spots on Great Diamond Island and Jewel Island in Casco Bay, but found them crowded, this was Maine – we were looking for a little solitude!
We crept toward Chebeague Island and dropped anchor in Chandler Cove where we were surrounded by lobster boats and small daysailers riding to moorings with just a couple of cruising yachts anchored further out.
A nearby dock for a ferry between the islands produced a small wake throughout the day, but by nightfall the traffic calmed and we were left alone in the serene anchorage. Ashore, there was a hiking trail wound through thick pines before opening to a rocky shoreline, and Maine’s summer blooms were bright and vibrant, with wild raspberries and blackberries spilling onto the tracks for fresh pickings.
Nathan’s parents and a good friend joined us aboard for more exploring and as we set sail towards the St. George peninsula. Here was our first introduction to the lobster pots that are placed all throughout the coastal waters of Maine. The further east we went, the more numerous they became, spanning wider with toggles, with some traps fixed with two or three, and sometimes even four toggles attached to a single pot. Each trap was often coated in two different colours top and bottom, which helps the lobstermen identify their traps from others, and can be found in waters as deep as 150m.
Thick with pots
Entering the town of Port Clyde the fields of lobster pots were the thickest we’d seen. As we passed the old coastguard station to the east, there were hundreds of traps sprinkled in the channel and beyond.
I steered a weaving line, dodging the colourful obstacles into a picturesque town that has deep roots in commercial fishing and lobstering. From Port Clyde we spent another day avoiding pots while marvelling at the stunning coastline and dramatic lighthouses on the way to Rockland Harbour. Occasionally, seals, dolphins and whales would surface alongside.
When not conducting training passages, we explored the quaint towns of Penobscot Bay, both us and Ultima quickly feeling at home in Rockland’s vast natural harbour. We could provision with fresh food on Thursday mornings at the local farmer’s market, enjoy the art scene on Friday nights, and walk along a harbour trail that spans out to the Rockland Breakwater lighthouse at the end of an impressive long jetty which protects the harbour from devastating nor’easters.
Classic schooners grace the piers, and charming antique shops and local seafood eateries line the main street. Just seven miles up the Bay are the smaller, but equally gorgeous, towns of Rockport and Camden, both with their own charm and laid back atmosphere.
As we left Rockland with our next crew of Peter, John, Debbie, and Miguel, the fog rolled in again and we sailed in light airs to the island of Vinalhaven. On this calm daysail the fog thickened and in a brief lapse in concentration we snagged a lobster pot on Ultima’s prop.
We tried pushing the line off with the boat pole but, after a few failed attempts, Nathan decided to jump into the icy water to get the line off. In the low visibility with ferries and other vessels sounding their horns around us, we rolled in the jib to slow Ultima down.
With a safety line trailing behind the boat, Nathan quickly swam down and wrestled the line from the prop. Once freed, we watched it disappear into the fog behind us. Later, as we neared Vinalhaven, the gloom lifted once more and we slid onto a mooring ball during an exquisite sunset for a peaceful night in Perry Creek.
With south-westerlies back in full force, the fog lifted the next day and we sailed under a bright blue sky to Buckle Harbour, where we anchored in about 10m on a 4:1 scope at high tide. Having dropped our hook just a few hundred yards ahead of a rock marked on the chart, we watched as a great craggy wall appeared as the tide fell 3m. Venturing ashore, we found a hiking trail on Buckle Island littered with faerie houses, odd piles of bark, twigs, and other pieces of forest scrap arranged to make tiny, whimsical structures. Though we didn’t see any faeries, mosquitos and ticks kept us walking fast through paths of golden sunlight dripping between the thick pines.
As we sailed on across Jericho Bay the winds not only offered great sailing conditions but teased out tall, fluffy clouds that made our view of the landscapes surrounding Ultima even more spectacular. We spent a day tacking in and out of sun and shade as we entered Somes Sound and cruised past Mount Desert Island. Somes doesn’t have the steep glacial rock typically associated with a fjord, but instead is edged by green rolling hills that meet more jagged terrain as it juts into the water.
Exiting Somes Sound, we arrived at Southwest Harbour just as a thunderstorm rolled through with heavy winds and loud echoes of thunder. The summer squall passed quickly and we were able to moor among pretty Hinckley Yachts; Southwest is home of the renowned Hinckley brand and you can spot stunning examples of these beautiful boats throughout Maine and around the world.
The north wind was fair and steady and Ultima cruised along at over seven knots on her way to Roque Island. Roque Island sits in a large crescent shaped bay that offers protection from all directions and allows for a quiet night. The entrance was easy and direct with only a few lobster and fish traps around, and once inside the anchorage, the holding was great. The beach is sandy and soft and stretches for a mile.
We saw lobster boats anchored on both sides of the bay so while the crew ran wild on the sands, we dinghied over to ask the lobstermen if they had any spare lobster for sale. As it was a Sunday their boats were rafted up enjoying the summer evening with friends and family, and the men replied that their catches were their meals for that night. However, they invited us aboard for a drink and we couldn’t refuse their hospitality.
It’s common for sailors and commercial fishermen to pass by each other without chatting, as if we are from different worlds, but we love meeting locals, especially fellow mariners. We told them we were sailing Maine aboard a yacht and one of the fishermen told us he’d just bought a small keelboat; his eyes lighting up as he described his new little sailing boat. Immediately, he invited us to visit his place in the next town over and said that if we ever needed a dock, it was there for us.
As we were getting ready to leave, they told us to take some crab with us, and refused to take our money, apologising instead for not having enough lobster to share for dinner. In the end, they gave us around 20 large cheddar crabs. “Put them crabs in your tallest pot with some beer and steam them for 20 minutes,” were the cooking instructions.
We brought our prized haul back to the boat and I prepared a feast as Nathan collected our crew. That evening we dined at anchor on cheddar crabs accompanied by roasted vegetables and toasted sourdough bread, the crab claws huge and delicious. The fading sun set the sky ablaze with pink and purple, as we on Ultima and the lobstermen’s boats anchored in the still waters sheltered by a crescent of warm sand.
Maine’s remarkable geography makes it an absolute joy for cruising sailors,and with nearly 3,000 islands the area is like no other sailing ground in America. One summer wasn’t enough to see it all and we’re already anticipating Ultima’s return to the legendary drowned coast.
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