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Cruising Maine’s Penobscot River

No matter where else we cruise — Cape Cod and the islands, or Rhode Island and Long Island Sound, or New York Harbor and the Hudson, or even down the length of the East Coast (which we’ve done several times) — every other year we head for Maine.

What’s the draw?

The flawless spruce. The bold blue shores. The great seamark of Seguin

Island. The lighthouses and windjammers. And a hundred other attractions in “hundred-harbored” Maine.

The state is inexhaustible. Despite the fact that we had cruised it 15 times before, going from Kittery to Cutler (and out to Grand Manan) on various voyages, on our 16th trip Down East we would find new places to explore and things to see.

Sweet 16

Aboard our Grand Banks 36, Sea Story II, my husband, Warren, and I had decided to linger on this trip around the Penobscot Bay region. We had never yet cruised the Penobscot River and intended to, at least as far as the port of Winterport. We also wanted to revisit several harbors we’d stopped in only once before, and liked: Belfast on the upper West Penobscot, for one; along with Diamond Cove on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay and the Robinhood Marine Center at Riggs Cove just in from the Sheepscot River. No trip to Maine would be complete for us without stops in Boothbay, Tenant’s Harbor and Portland, old and oft-visited favorites of ours, or in Rockland for a visit with some relatives.

We knew we’d be playing hide-and-seek with the weather, which you always have to do on any cruise, but especially so in Maine with its fabled fogs. What we didn’t expect, as we departed our homeport of Scituate, Mass., en route to Newcastle, N.H., and the Wentworth Marina for our first night’s berthing, was a north-northeast wind of 15 to 20 knots, making us bull our way across Massachusetts Bay to Gloucester and the Annisquam River. After a rough pounding we entered the busy Annisquam at noon in company with a host of other boats, enjoying the respite of smoother waters in that bustling, well-marked waterway. And the Bigelow Bight beyond was also smoother, with a lighter wind and gentle swells. The Wentworth Marina welcomed us after 53 demanding first-day miles.

Friends all around

Weather would also intrude itself for the next several days. We began to “get the vapors” as we exited Newcastle the last Sunday in June. Running up the coast in a gentle following sea and light southerly wind, we made our way toward Casco Bay and Hussey Sound, and Great Diamond Island. We are always on the lookout for lobster pot buoys and soon commented on how often our course was leading us right over one if we remained on it. The Gulf of Maine is deep and has lots of other things in it, including a whale which we spotted in 151 feet of water. Having once been struck by one, we immediately slowed down and proceeded warily. Throughout the cruise we would catch fugitive and fetching glimpses of porpoises frisking and seals popping up to look around with their wise little faces.

Though Diamond Cove is only two miles from Portland with ferries coming and going all day long, it’s a wooded world away in atmosphere. Once berthed at a slip at its relatively new and tidy marina, we walked ashore to reacquaint ourselves with an island that had housed Fort McKinley for two world wars.

You can enjoy walking the main north-south road on the island. Here you can catch glimpses of some of the fort’s buildings as well as take a stroll through the forest to the other end of the island. You can also dine hard by the docks and provision in a modest general store.

Ghostly apparitions

We departed after lunch the next day and traveled down Hussey Sound and made our way toward Boothbay Harbor. After overnighting at Brown’s Wharf, we set off for the 33-mile passage over to Tenant’s Harbor. Though there was less roll than the day before, it was far hazier and the mile or so visibility we’d had to Old Man Whistler soon dropped to a quarter-mile — sometimes less. We remained on the flybridge holding our breath the whole way, with our radar all warmed up in case we had to go below. In the fluky visibility and eerie atmospherics of near fog, lobsterboats would appear like ghostly apparitions and then vanish. So would shards of coast. Lobsterpot buoys would be magnified to many times their size and the Marshall Point Whistler, we initially mistook for a ship.

Picking up a stout Cod End mooring in Tenant’s, we were struck once again, as we had been since we left Scituate, by the lack of pleasure traffic. Only a few other cruising vessels were sprinkled throughout this classic and usually crowded Maine basin.

The harbor felt like an inferno as we left the next morning and made for the Muscle Ridge Channel and Rockland. It’s nice to have a cousin who’s a lobsterman in the Muscle Ridge, and can approach your boat and hand you two just-caught lobsters and make plans to meet you later in the day for dinner. Here the current was against us, but we had two good miles of visibility in haze so navigating the considerable number of pots in this channel was no problem.

On we went to a peaceful, fairly empty and very hot Rockland Harbor, where we tied up at the Rockland Landings Marina, a new-to-us and comfortable facility.

Well up into 90 degrees F, Sea Story II’s crew took in the slack until late afternoon. The gift of a brisk sea breeze, which sprang up just after we were seated out on the eatery’s deck, combined with our fish and chips to lift and replenish our spirits.

Postcard ports

Next we were bound for Belfast. It was calm and sunny with a flat sea and about two hazy miles worth of visibility. Though it was the Fourth of July we had no trouble reserving a slip at Belfast, or indeed anywhere else so far in Maine. All the bad weather of spring and early summer had definitely diminished boat traffic. Nonetheless we were surprised to see how many moorings were still available in Camden when we poked in there on our way to Belfast. Camden is one of Maine’s premiere postcard ports with the blue-green loom of Mount Megunticook and Mount Battie just behind its bustling harbor. The inner harbor was jammed with vessels, as always, windjammers berthed among power and sail of every type and size, and with the junior sailors of the Camden Yacht Club buzzing about readying for a holiday race.

Berthed with the help of Kathy Messier, the harbormaster, and her crew, we spent a delightful afternoon wandering before continuing on to Belfast.

Everybody heads to the docks in Belfast, with boats literally the cynosure of all eyes. Our attention was on Gusto, a new custom 44-foot Chuck Paine-

designed sailing vessel of cold-molded construction and built by the Belfast firm of French and Webb. We were invited aboard to tour this gem, courtesy of Todd French, one of its builders, and his daughters, Anna and Maya, and other crewmembers, who had taken it out for a sail and docked beside us.

All eyes turned to the skies, however, just before dark, Belfast supplying fireworks of the natural kind, courtesy of a dramatic frontal passage with thunder, lightning and squally rains.

River current

Then it was on to the Penobscot River and Winterport. All around us stretched miles of first-class cruising country: good, protected waters with none of the Gulf of Maine’s rude rollers and bluffness, and far fewer pots to plague the crew. “People don’t come up here as much,” my husband mused. “They go on a straight line from Boothbay to Northeast Harbor.”

Again, it was the current that grabbed our attention while we were docking. It took three line-handlers to horse Sea Story II in for her tie-up at Winterport Marine. When I commented on its rapidity and strength, the yard manager told me that we should see it during the spring run-off.

Things were decidedly calmer as we strolled in this modest old Maine town later in the day, a “Walking Tour of Winterport” brochure in hand. The town’s attractions were conveniently located on a mile-long stretch of Main Street. The attractions include many late 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Some were built by sea captains, one was an old inn, another — the Union Meeting House — was a church.

When we left Winterport at slack flood and steamed down the river at 12 knots with the current, we didn’t know where we’d end up that day. Deciding that we wanted to go through the Fox Islands Thorofare east to west, maybe, we thought, we could pick up a mooring in North Haven on North Haven Island. Meantime it was a blue Maine we were relishing, full of clear skies and refreshing temperatures. The northwest wind picked up to 15 to 20 knots so when we left the river and entered the upper Penobscot it was abeam, causing us to roll down past Castine to Green Ledge Bell No. 2. We arrived at North Haven to discover there wasn’t a single rental mooring to be had.

Windjammers and lobster pots

We ate our lunch steaming across West Penobscot Bay to Rockland, choosing a return there because the skies began to cloud over, and the last time we were there the heat had been too high for any touring. Off Rockland we passed the windjammer Isaac Evans under impressive sail, while inside the harbor we were able, after docking, to inspect many other windjammers at their berths, the mammoth Victory Chimes among them, painted to a fare-thee-well.

One pleasant surprise of cruising Maine this time was the fact that the full complement of pots seemed not yet to have been set; though there were plenty to avoid there weren’t as many as we’d had to dodge on our last trip Down East. Running the Muscle Ridge Channel in flat calm at slack water the next morning was a real treat.

Not so lucky — as we overheard on the radio after we’d exited the channel — were two boats having difficulties in the Muscle Ridge. One had lost its steering and the tow boat wouldn’t arrive for an hour and a half from Castine. The other, a sailboat, was hung up on a pot and a diver (once one had been located by a helpful Rockland Coast Guard) couldn’t be had for four hours. Such are the vagaries of cruising.

Eddies and crossrips

The sun was peeking through what had been a general overcast as we passed Old Man Ledge, and Monhegan was clearly visible as a dark hump 10 miles off to port. We were heading for the Robinhood Marine Center in Riggs Cove, a harbor seven miles south of Bath and three miles from open ocean, just off the Sheepscot River.

To reach it, we transited Townsend Gut, a slot running between Southport Island and Boothbay Harbor, yelling the name of our boat up to the swing bridge keeper as we went through. If lively is the word that comes to mind to describe the Townsend Gut, testing is the word for the Goose Rock Passage, which we entered after exiting the Gut and crossing the Sheepscot River. Against a strong current with pots being sucked under, we negotiated the eddies and crossrips, whirlpools and bubbling waters of this fetch, an adventure all to itself. After collecting ourselves on a Robinhood mooring for lunch, we went in to claim our reserved slip (starboard-side-to, bow in, for which we are rigged and which we prefer).

The facility features an arched footbridge, allowing access to a basin for tenders; a gazebo; waterfront park complete with gardens and artifacts like a Hyde windlass capstan; ship’s anchor; giant cowl and keel molds; and a gallery filled with photographs and articles detailing the history of this midcoast region. There is also a restaurant here, and the view of the cove as a whole was quietly agreeable and just busy enough to hold your interest.

Storming in Portland

On a calm, cool, hazy morning we slowly picked our way back through the Goose Rock Passage and down the Sheepscot River.

We had decided on the way back on an overnight in Portland. Ever in search of a marina in Portland that doesn’t rock and roll with the wash of other boats, we have berthed at just about every facility there except for the Southport Marina in South Portland (where, it turns out, you don’t rock). We hailed the marina on all the obvious channels with no reply. Spotting a man on a pier, we communicated our dilemma to him and he ran quite a distance up to the office to alert them that their reservation had arrived. It turned out the dock attendant’s radio had jammed, but all was well as we backed into one of only three available slips.

A humdinger of a thunderstorm passed over Portland around 1 a.m., waking us both and sending the skipper scooting up on deck in his skivvies to close the hatches. And more was to follow during the day we heard when we listened to NOAA the next morning. Before that happened (the frontal passage storms never materialized as it turned out, the skipper giving the weather channel a good piece of his mind later in the day) We walked about a half-mile to a neat little family-owned market in South Portland (“Been in business 63 years. If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!”) one of the treats of cruising.

After lunch we taxied over the new bridge into the city of Portland and wandered around that diverse town, particularly the streets of its Old Port section, which is a bit of Paris Down East: funky, elegant, interesting, perking with color and zest. The dock sections, too, add to its flavor with ferries and excursion vessels coming and going, not to mention all the pleasure boats at DiMillo’s.

Diamond days

By the next day it was blowing hard out of the northwest. We decided to remain in the Portland area. The passage we did make was six miles over to a mooring at the Handy Boat Service at Falmouth Foreside, which is a pastoral parking lot for boats. With its handsome houses and great shade trees, its stately yacht club and cordial inhabitants, the town has the look and feel of an “old money” locale in all of its best attributes of graciousness.

We woke to a diamond of a day. If the wind was still strong it was minus the higher gusts as we departed the Portland channel. Heading west we had the pleasure of going “down sun” instead of into its glare as we took the more scenic shore route, which granted us more of a lee and less scope to the brisk northwesterlies. Around Cape Elizabeth, by Wood Island and Cape Porpoise we motored, relishing the majesty all around us, though mindful never to forget the menace posed by all the pot buoys we were threading.

A ‘thunk’

Even when you are constantly alert you are sometimes surprised. While we were weaving manually through a web of pots abeam of former President George Bush’s Kennebunkport mansion, we ran over a submerged buoy, which we never saw at all. It must have been three feet under, but we heard a ‘thunk.’ The buoy popped up in the wake. Did we have a dinged prop? We worried as Sea Story II began to vibrate at her usual running speed of 2,200 rpm. After checking that there was no stuffing box leakage, the skipper found that our good ship ran fine at 2,000 rpm, giving us a speed of about 10.7 knots. A couple of feet either way, we told ourselves, and we would have been home free. How many other “sinkers” had we missed without knowing? We resigned ourselves to the fact that such occurrences are a part of cruising and couldn’t be helped — and that we would have to take the boat over to our yard as soon as we got home to have her hauled and perhaps her props rebalanced.

But there would be no need of that we would discover. Whatever had wrapped itself around our prop had evidently freed itself, and Sea Story II went back to running perfectly at 2,200 rpm.


Moderating winds gave us a fair passage back to Scituate, during which we reflected on our cruise, an assessment almost wholly positive. We had covered 500 nautical miles on our journey, run about 50 engine hours, spent $750 for diesel fuel and averaged $70 a night for slip fees (though some were $100 and others $50). We had hung on moorings for two nights, spent two nights each at three of the nine ports we had visited, experienced three new (to us) marinas and enjoyed a complete change from normal routine.

Maybe, we mused, we wouldn’t skip a year before we headed back for trip No. 17, as we had once planned.