By Sam Low
I have to admit my prejudice up front: I like sailboats.
Under wind power I have cruised many thousands of miles in contentment — along Maine’s foggy coast and among dazzling Polynesian islands. I love the commitment to nature’s rhythms that sailing requires.
So I was a little apprehensive when a family connection to Back Cove Yachts in Rockland, Maine — and the availability of a boat — enabled my wife and I to try out a Back Cove 29 for a week. I was also anxious to cruise our favorite Down East grounds in a powerboat.
The time we spent aboard the 29-foot lobster boat-inspired yacht surprised us. We came away with some of our sailing prejudices intact, but discovered that powering offers advantages that cannot be ignored.
At DeMillo’s Marina in Portland, Maine, we need four wheelbarrows to carry our gear, and two more trips lugging our kayaks.
“Holy mackerel,” says Jon Spaulding, Back Cove’s CEO, “This boat is an overnighter and it looks like you’re making a trans-Atlantic crossing.”
Not exactly, but I did plan to use the Back Cove’s speed to range widely. We will power beyond familiar Penobscot Bay waters to cruise further Down East. Machiasport, a 400-mile round trip, is our ultimate destination.
We depart in thick haze, apprehensive about narrow passages between islands and busy harbor traffic. We needn’t have worried; the ship’s GPS plotter, centrally located in front of the helm, shows the way to Jewell Island in Casco Bay.
“What kind of boat is that? She’s a beauty!” comes the call from a sloop as we maneuver to anchor.
I tell them she’s a Back Cove 29.
“Well,” says my neighbor, “she looks like the kind of powerboat a sailor would like.”
The Back Cove’s sheer is a svelte curve punctuated by a trim cabin that sweeps back to a graceful pilothouse with windows all around providing excellent visibility. Below decks, she presents cherry joinery to accent the cabin’s fiberglass curves. A table pops up between the vee berths for dining and descends to provide a sleeping platform. The galley is to one side, topped by Corian, the head and shower to the other.
As tenders we’ve brought two small Lincoln kayaks. On this first evening, we glide on still waters listening to gulls’ cries. Seals pop up to examine us with an experienced gaze. Then they lift their snouts and slip backwards into the deep.
In the morning a nearby foghorn moans. A sailboat departs only to return out of the gloom an hour later, her captain having decided to lay over until it clears. It’s deceptively peaceful, but weather reports say it won’t last long. Hurricanes Bonnie and Charley are racing north from the Gulf of Mexico.
The fog lifts enough in the afternoon to see distant islands. I plan to go to Robinhood Cove, about 30 miles away, and hole up there. In a sailboat such a trip would mean six hours of windward slogging, but in little more than an hour we’re off the Sheepscot River. The waves are 4 feet and cresting but the Back Cove moves along at 20 knots with negligible effort. Lured by this promise of speed, we pass by Robinhood and head for Round Pond in Muscongus Bay. Round Pond is aptly named — an almost perfect circle of water rimmed by modest year-round cottages and the occasional newcomer’s splendid summer home.
Taking a mooring for the evening, we paddle ashore to the Anchor Inn, one of our favorite Maine restaurants.
NOAA weather predicts heavy downpours and fog as Bonnie sweeps across Maine, to be followed by Charley. Here in the sheltered harbor it’s peaceful. We think of moving on, but by 10 a.m. the fog creeps upriver, clinging to the cool water. Houses ashore fade from view. The lobster fleet is moored up — slickers hung in cockpits.
“That fog looks pretty thick,” says Karin.
We decide that if the locals won’t go out, neither will we. But how will it be to hole up on a 29-foot powerboat designed for day trips? We’re about to find out.
I first sailed Down East more than 30 years ago on a 28-foot Eldredge-McInnis sloop, single-handing among fir-clad islands for months at a time. I cannot help comparing her to the Back Cove.
Below decks, the sloop enveloped me like a spacious cave. The Back Cove, on the other hand, divides her length like a split-level ranch into the cabin and pilothouse. At first, I miss the sloop’s comfy main saloon but that changes when we zip shut the canvas to enclose the pilothouse. Karin reads there while I sprawl below on the berth, the stereo low, a cup of coffee at hand.
“The only thing I miss is my dog and my fireplace,” Karin says.
The Back Cove is not designed for extended cruising and we’ve brought way too much stuff, but we find places to stow it all. The pilothouse has many cubbies, there’s ample space in the lazarette and shelves accumulate the normal cruising clutter. Under the bunks go our duffel bags.
Our cruising range has shrunk with these two lost days. Machiasport is now out of range. The weather forecasts a window of clearing tomorrow so if we’re lucky we’ll get to Criehaven — our planned first-day destination — on Day Three.
After Bonnie’s passage, the skies clear to present pine-studded islands and sailboats moving sedately across the glistening Medomak River. Offshore, Bonnie lingers in the form of 8-foot swells, sending spray over the pilothouse and giving us a lumpy ride. Yet we maintain 20 knots, making Criehaven by 2 p.m.
Criehaven is a time warp to an era before the bustle of yachts and visitors. It’s one of Maine’s outermost islands, a fishing village in the truest sense. Lobster gear is piled high on piers. There’s no running water. No electricity. Generators and a few communal wells provide these necessities.
Karin and I walk through the tiny village and across fields lined with wild rose and loosestrife, encountering Wyeth houses under Wyeth skies. We enter a Hobbit’s forest by a rutted road, following a sign that says “Bull’s Cove.” The earth underfoot is springy, carpeted with moss, lichen and ferns. A heron hoots in the distance. We follow the sound of surf to the cove and look out at a thickening layer of mackerel clouds descending to the sea.
“Here comes Charley,” we think — and we turn back to the boat.
All day NOAA has predicted winds from the southwest, but now they decide we’ll get 30 knots from the northeast — right down the throat of Criehaven’s tiny harbor. A clear advantage of a powerboat is the ability to scamper for cover when the weather deteriorates, so we slip our mooring and beat it at 25 knots to sheltered Rockland Harbor.
In the morning we learn that Charley has taken an unexpected turn offshore. NOAA predicts light winds and clearing skies, so I plot a course to traverse Penobscot Bay to Little Cranberry Island and a favorite shorefront restaurant, the Isleford Dock.
“We’ll dine out in the style to which we’d like to be accustomed,” I announce to Karin, who — from the look of it — is none too pleased with the prospect of yet another 25-knot dash.
The trip takes us through Fox Island thoroughfare and Merchant’s Row. The seas are slate colored and oily under a monotone sky — as if Bonnie had sucked all the energy with her as she passed out to sea.
Cruising on a powerboat, I discover, is an intellectual exercise rather than a sensual one. The pilothouse isolates us from wind and spray. The engine’s beat overwhelms the subtle sound of foghorns and bell buoys. My gaze flicks constantly between the sea ahead and the GPS plotter as Karin barks out landmarks from the chart. Like flying an aircraft at low altitude, the Back Cove requires constant attention.
We duck into Burnt Coat Harbor on Swan’s Island, thread the narrow
channel to the east and head toward Little Cranberry. At 25 knots, I swerve through a minefield of lobster buoys. In this part of Maine, the lobstermen use a main buoy and a smaller one, called a toggle, attached by a light line. If you pass between the two buoys you’ll foul the prop.
“So far, so good,” I think — just as I pass over a toggle line. I cut the throttle and hold my breath. No luck. The lobster buoy trails behind, twisted around our prop.
A cold wind blows. The ocean is black beneath our keel as I struggle to unwind the lobster warp. “I really don’t want to dive into that dark sea,” I think.
Luckily, I am able to untangle the mess, cut the line and tie it off so
the fisherman won’t lose any gear. We resume our journey, now chilled to the bone.
Just off Great Cranberry Island, we overhaul a classic picnic-style boat sedately cruising at 8 knots — a relic with a plumb bow, graceful shear and an upright pilothouse. Her passengers sit on folding chairs, chatting quietly. We rush by at three times her speed, shivering and ready for a warm seat at the Isleford Dock bar.
Dinner is splendid — eggplant in Szechuan sauce, tuna tartar, calamari, Angus steak, fried onions and asparagus, washed down with a flinty Pinot Grigio.
The Isleford lobstermen are up at 5 a.m. loading bait at the Co-op.
“Fishing is good,” one lobsterman tells me, “but it would be nice if this rain would stop.”
I agree. This is our fifth day on the boat and only one has been clear and sunny.
Little Cranberry is quiet. We walk past trim cottages with dayglow lobster buoys in the door yards and summer bungalows cosseted by gaudy flowerbeds. A few folks drift past on whirring golf carts. Wood smoke perfumes the island with the scent of fall.
Back on the boat, we see Mount Desert humped against the horizon like a stranded whale. The sky is mottled steel, the ocean flat and unsullied. Sailboats motor past under bare poles. We decide to sightsee. We spend the day visiting Bass Harbor and Mackerel Cove, then motor on to a dinner engagement with friends at Isle au Haut.
Paradoxically, the possibility of speed induces lassitude. Unlike cruising under sail, there’s no need to get under way at 8 — or 9 — to make a distant landfall. So we don’t.
In the morning, we enjoy the ritual of preparing breakfast and dining in our pilothouse with a view.
Then comes an exploratory paddle with our kayaks, writing in our journals and reading.
After a hot shower we’re off to Matinicus, our last stop before heading home.
The sun rises over Matinicus harbor behind a pink scrim of fog. The ring of a bell buoy joins the cry of gulls and the cough of diesel engines in an early morning chorus.
At low tide, fishermen’s shacks stand tall on barnacled stilts. This is our last day — an 80-mile dash to Portland awaits us as we sip our morning coffee and chat with folks moored close aboard.
We make the run into a headwind and choppy seas. We cruise at 22 knots, throttling back to 17 when the seas pile up in front of us. This is not fun. The roar of the engine and glint of ocean takes it toll. When we enter the channel to Portland Harbor, we’re tired and ready for lunch at DeMillo’s.
I have to admit that I missed the sensual process of voyaging under sail — attuning myself to changing wind and current, the breeze on my face; and the acute awareness of sound all around — whooshing wake, bell buoys, moaning fog horns.
But sailing takes up most of the daylight hours. Arrival at day’s end is a time for mooring and furling sails, a glass of wine and watching yet another stunning sunset. Many sailors set out early in the morning, needing time to make another destination.
The Back Cove allowed us to make tracks from one anchorage to another with plenty of time for long walks ashore or seaborne probes in our kayaks. She encouraged reconnaissance — poking into anchorages we had never visited, moving quickly to yet another — bumblebees sampling nectar from many wide-spread gardens.
We also discovered the joy of poking along at 7 knots like picnic boats of yore, our engine a gentle hum, the fir-studded islands gliding by, a cup of tea near at hand. The unexpected thing about speed was the ability to choose when — and where — to go slowly.
As a sailor, my first impression of the Back Cove was that she’s reckless with time, compressing distance in a way that was hard to get used to. But eventually she became just another boat. Not a sailboat. Not a powerboat. Just a boat.
It happened at Isle au Haut after a party ashore with friends. There was no wind. The sea was perfectly still. A gentle rain had settled over the harbor — the drops like chimes as they struck the flat seam of ocean.
This is what it’s all about, I thought. A time away from land and its cares — moments in which the sound of rain joining the sea is all there is. When we finally discarded our prejudices, the Back Cove, like all good boats, lulled us into a place circumscribed by islands and the healing rhythms of nature.