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A taste of island life in foggy Frenchboro

The fog was no surprise as we left the clear air of inland Somes Sound and Mount Desert Island and headed for Frenchboro, the small Maine fishing village on remote Long Island.

The fog was no surprise as we left the clear air of inland Somes Sound and Mount Desert Island and headed for Frenchboro, the small Maine fishing village on remote Long Island.

Poking its bow through the white wall ahead, Christmas disappeared into the fog-bound Western Way Channel and rode

Read the other stories in this package: Feeling your way in fog   Visiting Frenchboro

the outgoing tide back to the sea. Horns, bells and securitee calls crackling on the VHF radio mingled with the solid background rumble from our diesel auxiliary engine and created a din of confusion in the lumpy thoroughfare. Times like these will one day have me installing radar on Christmas, our 38-foot, restored 1961 Alden Challenger yawl.

What a relief it was to clear the channel, raise the sails and shut down the diesel. Wet glossy sails shuddered, then filled as our boat fell off onto a quiet reach in the moderate southeasterly wind and we left the din behind.

We enjoy sailing in the fog. We didn’t see much in the haze between MDI and Frenchboro, but we were acutely aware of most everything that was around us. The near silence of our yawl under sail switches all our senses on. Without a spinning prop, lobster buoys are no longer a worry as an occasional float slithers along our full keel fiberglass hull, often with a soft thump. The colorful buoys become our current sensors, flashing through the small moving circle of water that is our visual world in the fog.

In the muffled quiet, communication was easy with the bow lookouts, our youngest eyes and ears on board eager to be the first to report a sighting. Like everything else on deck, Thomas and Mary Jane were coated in a web of fog. Eyebrows and eyelashes suddenly laden with tiny droplets of dew brought chuckles from the bow. My nose picked up a lobster boat safely upwind. With the sound of its engine idling as the fisherman pulled a trap, the strong smell of bait and a glance at the wind indicator marked the invisible lobster boats location nearly as well as radar.

Broad reaching gently and carefully through Bass Harbor bar, the quiet was intense. Engine sounds, clear but safely far off, allowed us to locate boats around us. We spotted a nearby ghost ship as the hazy outline of sails on an old wooden sloop moved quietly by to our starboard.

Keeping watch

Steering onto a beam reach, our piloting, depth sounder and chart plotter put us safely off Placentia Island and the smoothing seas confirmed this as we moved into the islands lee. We sailed the invisible island’s length in those soft sounds, following a path of safe water depth. An occasional flutter of the genoa luffing was all that broke the gentle hissing sound of our wake in the smooth water. I felt the end of Placentia pass as we entered the fetch of waves on the edge of the invisible islands lee. Unblocked, the southeasterly wind hit our beam and we heeled a bit with its power.

In the open wind, hardening up the sails puts us on a course for Frenchboro on Long Island. Christmas, like most sailboats, wants to sail this windward course and the compass settled with little effort on the helm from me. Noisier with the wind well forward of the beam and a long fetch for the small waves, the semi-solid foggy air appeared to race by as we sailed a safe course for Northeast Point on Long Island.

Our lookouts were taking a little spray over the bow (and appearing to enjoy it) as we beat into the waves unhampered and coming from seaward. We paid particular attention to keeping hazardous Otter Ledge safely to starboard. Our low visibility and modest speed felt comfortable together. Approaching our destination, there was a slight lessening of the wind and waves. We were feeling the effects of Long Island safely to windward but still invisible in the fog. The lowering tide sent an occasional pungent smell of an exposing weedy coastline from our windward direction.

Still sailing in the mist but keeping close track of our depth and location, all eyes on board narrowed on the wall of fog dead ahead. How would Long Island show itself? A low hazy bit of dark shoreline in the mist, or would it startle us from above, sometimes as just a jagged row of fir or spruce tree tops floating high on the smoky white wall below? We never know. Islands seem to generate their own micro weather systems in the huge monolithic sea climate they exist in.

The coastal mainland can cut a thick fog to ribbons on the shoreline and dispatch it all together just yards inland. Islands like Long Island are smaller out at sea and have a more subtle effect on the fog. In the shadow of an island’s warmer land mass downwind, fog may lighten and shred, a shaft of blue or a bright area may appear and then finally a foreign stark outline in the white haze.

A small portion of Long Island appeared suddenly to me off our bow in the layered fog less than a quarter-mile away. As a section of heavily treed granite shoreline floating in the lightening haze appeared, I kept the sighting to myself just to hear “land ho” from the bow when the island caught their eyes only seconds later. It’s a good feeling to find you’re where you ought to be in the fog. With the fog now appearing to lift a bit, we dashed our sails and motored into the protection of familiar Lunt Harbor.

All ashore

Safely fastened to the bottom of Lunt Harbor on a rental mooring, we had a short row to the fishing docks for some island exploration. The fog was much lighter and thinner in the harbor but it din’t mislead us into thinking that conditions had improved outside. Thick North Atlantic fog was piling up for miles on Long Island’s southeastern side; you could almost feel the moist air tumbling overhead and wrapping around the sides of the island. The well protected and snug harbor would be a good place to be for the night.

With our fogbound sail behind us, it was pleasant to walk over damp, familiar roads. Luckily, the small museum was open and we had it to ourselves and, as always, found new interests.

Back out into the haze we were off to circle the harbor and see what was new. It had been a couple of years since our last visit. Despite having outgrown the swings and teeter-toters at the schoolhouse, our two near-teenagers couldn’t resist jumping on as they had in the past.

The low-looming fog that had us looking closely out on the water would keep us near the little harbor and the few roads around it that day. Distant explorations of the deeper island on the many public paths, could wait for another clearer time. Few people were out in the fog, Frenchboro, like us, seemed quieter that day.

A misty exploration

It’s a short walk around the harbor. Sprinkled on the hillside, small island houses, compact and well proportioned, sit on their fence cropped yards. There is a similar architectural theme that seems to connect the old island houses on our coast even though the islands themselves are isolated from one another by the powerful moat of the sea.

With their smaller scale, functional trim and adequate well placed windows, these basic houses give off an aura of a spare island life. Old island houses are well rooted in the hillside like the compact and near stunted island trees and bushes surrounding them. These old houses went into the ground quietly, with shovels, a long time ago. A recent excavation just off the road appeared as if it must have been noisy in comparison. Just a few years old, soil was too non-existent to cover the raw rocky wound exposed around the new building.

Interesting little outbuildings are woven into the hillsides, functional and colorful fishing gear decorates fences and yards, though not by design. Smaller, lower power poles and drooping wet lines connect the houses. The damp roads are narrow, a nice island standard. New large houses are non-existent here on the harbor or hidden in the fog somewhere.

Simple pleasures

Halfway up the gentle hill overlooking the misty harbor, our daughter made a discovery — berry bushes. Our family has an eye and pallet for wild berries. At first glance, the roadside bushes looked picked over. That day, the fog overhead and the luxury of time had us looking closer and then deeper into the bushes. Hidden below the upper canopy of leaves, a few bright red plump raspberries had survived the passing walkers as well as the birds harvesting from above. Spider webs, heavy with dew, guarded some bushes like ship’s rigging, but deep inside, glistening in the foggy dew, we found a few shiny, ripening blackberries as well.

On hands and knees in an old church yard, someone uncovered another find, tiny low-bush blueberries hidden below the field grass. Some plastic cups stowed in our pack began to slowly fill with the dew-rinsed berries.

Scouring the bushes and grasses around the harbor, we had a different, closer view of the water and the little village shrouded in fog.

As a small community out at sea, Frenchboro has existed much on its own. Small scattered family graveyards document a community a couple of centuries old. Surrounded by the North Atlantic, it’s safe to say that those centuries passed somewhat differently on this small island than they did on the mainland.

Nearing low tide, the inner harbor was mostly dry as the last of the tide streamed out, exposing the soggy remains of a few ancient wharfs and the frames of a derelict boat hull. A few hours time would completely fill it again and a few fishing boats would later reach the inner tidal docks. A small crew on a barge worked at redecking an old wharf in the deeper water with fresh heavy rough sawn planks and huge spikes driven with a sledge hammer. This is a working harbor out at sea with a history. Like finding a quart of berries, it takes extra time and effort to do some things on this island.

Local color

With a fine quart of moist plump mixed berries we made our way back to the deepwater fisherman’s dock where our dinghy was tied between floating lobster crates and small boats. Of course there was and still is no store on the island. Most everything comes on board the small daily (in season) ferry from the mainland. The lobster shack on the docks of Lunt and Lunt still serves great food and the outdoor seating is the best. Lobster boats returning at the end of the day and unloading their large daily catch was our entertainment as we enjoyed the finest lobster dinners —those that only come from watching the cook pull yours out of the crates below.

It’s always good fishing on Frenchboro’s docks, and I could see my son hooking harbor pollock from the docks on the edge of the little misty harbor below.

A local man offered some Frenchboro news as we cleaned up the table. It was a good day to listen. A couple of houses were for sale on the harbor (did we look like buyers?). A sudden growing infant population of one or two promised to increase the demands on the local schoolhouse, and that was good news. Schools tie an island community together. The young woman cooking in the lobster shack was biding her time until a position on a lobster boat opened up for her. Mail still arrived, on Frenchboro time, at the post office. There was still a small compact fishing community rooted into the harbor and hillside of Frenchboro and although it seemed nearly invisible in the mist that day, it was still on its own and doing well.

Rowing back out to Christmas, the thickening fog appeared to be rolling down the hillsides in the cool early evening light. Frenchboro gave up a few secrets that foggy day and a quart of its well hidden wild berries. I remember thinking we’d return again, of course, and hopefully things would be much the same.

Later that evening below in our cabin, the warmth and wonderful scents of a baking berry pie radiating from the hot cooker were welcome as darkness and a cool damp fog descended and filled the small harbor around us.

Tom Young, 53, and his family sail out of Rockport, Maine. The four-member Young family has sailed the East Coast from Canada to the Exumas. For the past 10 years, their primary cruising ground has been New England and the coast of Maine, which they sail extensively.