Cruising amid New England’s lighthouses, coastal farms and quaint fishing villages is legendary. Bob Rooks of Camden, Maine, says it’s even better in fall, when the deep greens of spruce, pine and fir enhance the hardwoods’ autumn hues.
The glorious foliage forms a backdrop for the bluest waters and uncrowded harbors. The clear air carries the music of bell buoys, the swish of surf over rocky ledges, and the cry of seagulls.
“The first week in October you can sail anywhere in Penobscot Bay and see brilliant colors in every direction,” says Rooks, 63, commodore of the Camden Yacht Club. He and his wife, Karin — along with their black Labrador retriever, Percy — frequently sail their 36-foot Sabre to North Haven and Vinalhaven islands, where views of the Camden Hills across the bay compete with vivid sunsets.
Rooks and other knowledgeable boaters from the Northeast to the Chesapeake Bay welcome the crisp days of fall. Summer boaters are gone by the time the sugar maples’ scarlet leaves signal the change of seasons. As Jack Frost sweeps across northern New York and New England in mid-September, beeches and birches ignite into yellows, maples and sumac into reds, ash and hickories into golds. Lastly, the oaks turn an incredible array of coppers, rusts and maroons that can linger into November.
“Yellow and orange pigments are in the leaves throughout the spring and summer but are masked by green-pigmented chlorophyll the tree produces to photosynthesize sugars from sunlight,” says Bob Edmonds, 61, head of the Forestry and Wildlife Program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “When the lower temperatures and shorter days of fall reduce, then halt photosynthesis, the green disappears and the underlying colors become visible.”
Edmonds, of Barrington, N.H., says a variety of species growing together in a landscape produces the palette we see. “The more diverse the habitat, the more species. The more species, the more colors,” he says. “In New England, variations in seasonal conditions, such as wet years or drought, have little or no effect on the quality of that year’s fall foliage season. The day of viewing has more influence on the brilliance, with cool, crisp, sunny fall days being the best.”
The spectrum slides southward, peaking in coastal Maine in early October, southern New England in late October, Chesapeake Bay in mid-November, and states farther south almost in December.
The convoluted shore of midcoast Maine offers many opportunities to circle forested islands and thread inland passages. On the Sasanoa River connecting Boothbay Harbor with Bath, you’ll pass an expansive field capped by an 18th-century cape shaded by enormous bronze-toned oaks. Then, around the bend, a forested ridge ends abruptly in steep granite cliffs, its base a froth of swirling water. Suddenly you’re through the narrows, passing golden brown marshes alive with migrating birds.
Marshes of tawny-gold predominate along the lower Connecticut River until Essex, Conn., where the reds and yellows of the hardwoods take over as the river winds north. “The foliage around the Goodspeed Opera House [in East Haddam] is particularly gorgeous,” says Gerry Dubey, 56, of Chester, Conn., who cruises the Connecticut River into December in his Duffy 31 Down East-style picnic cruiser. “Going into upper Hamburg Cove is one of the neatest fall cruises, though you have to know the channel. On weeknights you can be the only boat there. Then the tranquility is mind-boggling. The hamlet is one of the prettiest in Connecticut, and there’s a neat boatyard with old boats — lots of varnish and sparkling stuff.”
Dubey, a Smith Barney investment management consultant, recommends following the river north to the Bulkeley Bridge connecting Hartford with East Hartford, about 40 miles from Essex. He says the reflections on the water there are spectacular.
“In the last five to ten years, great blue herons have arrived on the river, osprey populations have increased, and eagles now nest along the banks,” he says. “When I drift at night with the engine off, the east shore where there are no lights looks just like it was in the 1600s. It’s cool to be tied into history and to know that the [Nature Conservancy] land is protected forever.”
William Fortmann of Catskill, N.Y., cites the many activities at Hudson River yacht clubs as a major fall attraction. “Fifteen or 20 boats from several clubs come to Catskill Yacht Club’s ‘Last Hurrah’ over Columbus Day Weekend,” he says.
The 48-year-old union carpenter has cruised the Hudson River for 30 years, the last seven in his 24-foot Invader. “When I go north … there are just beautiful trees on both sides of the river, and hawks’ nests,” he says.
Fortmann frequently heads south, past the scenic Catskill Mountains and toward civilization and the little creeks that make great overnight anchorages. He says there are better-protected harbors, a lot more houses, lighthouses and things to see along the shore. “I like stopping at Saugerties, Kingston or Catskill for dinner,” he says. “They all have dockage, restaurants, and nice streets to walk. You can tie up at Saugerties lighthouse and climb to the top — or even rent a room for the night.”
The foliage varies dramatically along the Hudson, from Yonkers to the Troy Locks, says 73-year-old single-hander Clark DeWaters. DeWaters cruises from Tarrytown, N.Y., in his 20-foot Shamrock cuddy cabin inboard or the Marshall 22 catboat he’s owned for 18 years.
“Fall is the nicest time of year to sail on the [Hudson’s] bays,” he says. “The river scenery is very inviting. We’re past the summer heat and doldrums, the winds are steadier but not stormy, and everything is still open and active at least till the end of October.”
DeWaters primarily fishes, and has rigged his Marshall cat with rod holders. He says the boat’s cabin is snug and quite comfortable, even cruising into late October when he fishes the fall striper run. “I use my powerboat more now, unless I’m going out for several days and want [my sailboat’s] better accommodations.”
Ric Seymour, who lives aboard his Beneteau 473 at Herrington Harbour South Marina in Friendship, Md., says there are some “real Currier & Ives scenes” up the Chesapeake Bay’s rivers. “Wonderful foliage, old farms and some large estates,” says Seymour, 57, who works for the FDIC.
Seymour frequently spends an autumn week anchored near the Wye Island National Resource Management Area. “The refuge is beautiful for the colorful leaves and especially for the host of birds.” Migrating south on the East Coast flyway are geese and dozens of species you won’t see at any other time of year.
“For a bit of civilization I head for St. Michaels, which has nice restaurants and is fun to walk around in,” he says. “The same in Chestertown, but it’s 40 miles up the Chester River. Baltimore also has very nice restaurants but is still jammed with boats in the fall.”
Other Bay boaters rave about the colors along the Sassafras and Piankatank rivers, the “civilization” in Solomons and Oxford, Md., and Urbanna, Va.
“The winds for sailing are better in the fall,” says Seymour. “We often have a steady 20 knots without summer’s heat and afternoon thunderstorms. It’s nice not to need an air conditioner or wind scoop, but it’s more comfortable if you have some way to keep the boat warm.” And he says you’ll need a good anchor to hold in the mud bottom when the wind comes up.
“We leave Solomons in early November, when the colors are fading here, and head south,” says Jim Hogan, who lives with his wife, Kathy, and miniature schnauzer aboard their wooden Atkins 40 ketch. “We didn’t expect it, but the colors stay consistent all the way down because we and fall travel at the same speed.”
In November, Hogan says transiting Dismal Swamp, where trees hang over the canal, is like cruising through a gorgeous rainbow arch.
“When we reach north Florida, fall is just beginning,” he says. “The vegetation is different, not as brilliant, but still pretty maroons, golds and muted reds.”
The broadest range of hues typically is found along lakes and rivers. “Foliage viewing seems better on inland waters than along the ocean because the harsher ocean environment limits the number of species and hence the number of colors,” says U.N.H.’s Edmonds. “Rivers wind around, revealing a variety of terrain and landscapes with different elevation and soils, and trees receiving differing amounts of sunlight, rain and breezes. These and other variables produce a larger diversity of species and influence the array of color.”
Trailer boaters, canoeists and kayakers can explore smaller waterways than most cruisers. “In a kayak you get a different, very close perspective of autumn’s vibrant colors, which is important to me,” says Edmonds, who frequently kayaks on New Hampshire’s lakes and rivers. “And in fall there are no bugs.”
Fresh or salt water, it’s the fall colors and brilliant sunshine — as well as the lack of Maine fog — that Rooks appreciates. “We dress for the weather, and sail into mid-October,” he says.
Hogan, who sails the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida each winter, says they turn on the Dickinson heater and keep it at 72, so they’re comfortable even when the temperature dips. “Because we leave the Chesapeake two to four weeks after most Snowbirds, we’re pretty much alone, except for stragglers like us. I prefer it that way,” he says.
Dubey just bundles up. “People are out on the Connecticut River till Thanksgiving, then we start getting ice in the basins,” he says. Many restaurants and accommodations are open all year, but Dubey says he has to go looking for operating gas docks by mid-November.
“In the late fall we expect the unexpected,” says Dubey. “We’ve picked up 150 pounds of perfect pumpkins that were floating past and watched deer swim across the river. The natural beauty changes every day — different light, different foliage, different wildlife. The changing of the leaves is particularly spectacular [on the river] because you’re so close to the banks.”
Even if you’re land-bound this season, you can still go leaf-peeping by boat. A dozen or so windjammers cruise Maine’s Penobscot Bay until early October, and other power and sail excursion boats from Maine to the Chesapeake make fall cruises.
The breathtaking panorama of rainbow-bright mountains surrounding Moosehead Lake in Maine or Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire is best appreciated afloat, particularly from an historic lake steamer. The 110-foot Katahdin, built in 1913 and converted to diesel in 1922, makes three-hour cruises on weekends from Sept. 8 to 28 on Moosehead Lake, then reverts to its daily schedule through Oct. 10. The 1888 230-foot, 1,200-passenger Mount Washington II plies Lake Winnipesaukee on day, evening lobster fest, theme and dinner-dance cruises through Oct. 31.
It doesn’t matter what vessel you choose, just get out whenever you can, says Dubey. “I’m surprised and perplexed that more people don’t enjoy the beauty of the water by boat, especially in the fall,” he says.
6 cold water survival tips
By JoAnn W. Goddard
Autumn is an ideal time for cruising — but there are risks. As water temperatures dip below 60 degrees in some areas, a sudden fall in the drink can quickly turn a day on the water into tragedy.
Perhaps none are more familiar with the dangers of cold-water boating than Alaskans, so we contacted authorities there for advice.
“Three out of four boating fatalities here involve cold-water immersion,” says Jeff Johnson, boating law administrator of Alaska. “The colder the water gets, the risks increase exponentially.”
Of course, the best advice is to adhere to safe boating practices and try to stay in the boat. But boaters can increase their chances of survival in the event of a capsize or crew overboard by reducing heat loss and getting out of the water as soon as possible. Experts urge PFD use, especially in the off-season. A PFD provides extra warmth and keeps a victim afloat when suffering ill effects from the cold water.
Most boaters are aware of the dangers of hypothermia caused by spending too much time in the water. However, sudden immersion in cold water can incapacitate even the strongest swimmers — and within minutes. Immediately after immersion, an individual will suffer cold shock, with gasping and a loss of breath control.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger or a 6-year-old kid,” says Johnson.
Cold shock can also result in cardiac arrest. Johnson says people who aren’t wearing a life jacket can drown in this stage because they involuntarily swallow too much water.
Water robs heat from your body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature. Within minutes arms and legs begin to feel numb and fingers lose their dexterity, making it difficult to swim or to grasp. Movement in water accelerates body heat loss, so unnecessary motion should be avoided.
The next stage is hypothermia, and its onset depends on water temperature as well as the victim’s clothing, physical conditioning or body mass. As a person’s body core temperature drops below 93 degrees, physical and mental ability diminishes. A person will lose consciousness when core temperature dips below 86 degrees.
Even when a person is recovered, they can suffer post immersion, characterized by a drop in blood pressure and continued body cooling. Cardiac arrest is also possible at this stage.
The following are cold-water boating tips from the book “Water Wise,” published by the University of Alaska Sea Grant and the U.S. Marine Safety Association. In addition to signaling for help and making yourself as visible as possible if you fall overboard, the authors recommend these “Stay” rules:
1. Stay dry. If you have to enter the water, try to do it slowly and keep as much of your body as possible out of the water. This will keep you drier and help you control your breathing.
2. Stay with the boat. Once capsized, many vessels float due to air trapped inside. Staying with the boat also makes you more visible to rescuers and keeps you closer to your last reported position. Abandon the boat only if staying with it is more dangerous than being in the water.
3. Stay afloat. A PFD gives you buoyancy, helps control the involuntary gasping that can occur in cold water, and can reduce risk of panic. Sinking boats often leave floating debris in the area — fenders, buoys, coolers — that can aid flotation. Leave clothes and boots on as long as possible and remain still to minimize loss of air between layers.
4. Stay still. You can lose as much as 30 percent more heat if you swim or tread water.
5. Stay warm. Wool, polypropylene and similar fabrics will keep you warm; cotton will not. Protect high heat-loss areas: head, neck, armpits, sides of the chest and groin. Since 50 percent of body’s heat loss is from your head, keep your head as dry as possible. If you’re in a group, huddle. If alone and wearing a PFD, assume the heat escaping lessening position, or HELP — basically crossing your arms in front of you and pulling your knees up to your chest like a fetal position.
6. Stay together. Staying together makes you a better target for rescuers, allows you to share body heat, and boosts each other’s morale. The will to survive can be much stronger when friends and loved ones are at hand. Help each other. It’s harder to give up when you’re part of a team.
By Jack Sherwood
After dealing with the frustrating Chesapeake Bay doldrums of July and August — enlivened by almost-daily warnings of isolated afternoon thunderstorms accompanied by heavy downpours, possible flooding, lightning, damaging winds and hail — we welcome the settled months of September and October that usher in a second season on the water.
Autumn for many Bay boaters has little to do with searching out brilliant foliage, which is better accomplished on land. We look for the changing hues of clear blue skies and water turning from a murky coffee brew to a greenish-blue tint with a dancing sparkle and flare.
These new winds are far less fluky, more sustained, and delivered with punch and heft. They arrive sooner from a northerly direction rather than the southerly sea breeze that meanders slowly north up the Bay while diverting its energy to pause and visit other areas along the way. One hopes for this hazy breeze to eventually reach the middle Chesapeake, but sometimes it just poops itself out.
There’s a way of thinking in these parts that if you behave like a prudent mariner and stay at the dock when these afternoon weather alerts of July and August are issued, you’ll seldom get out on the water. Better to go out anyway and deal with whatever may come — if and when it comes — knowing that the bad news will be all over and done with in about 20 minutes.
One rarely gets caught out in such tempests because there is usually plenty of advance warning, with low, menacing black clouds building in the west. To prepare for the worst, I’ll tie down my Sailmaster 22’s mainsail tightly and sheet in the boom, securing the head of the sail with a downhaul shock cord and snap shackle. I roll up a few sheet wraps around the roller-furling jib, secure that and start the outboard, close the hatch and put the companionway washboards in place. I also remove the cotton ensign from the lazarette hatch because the strong wind likely will blow it to shreds.
Aware that blinding rain also may accompany violent winds, I snap-shackle a big, old school bell on the lifeline so that other boaters I might not see can hear me before they can see me. Then, if I’m near land, I look for car headlights on shore to keep me away, and run before the wind with the engine engaged in forward to stay on track and prevent broaching. It may seem like the end of the world, but the hole eventually fills and all is well again.
So far this summer, I have sailed in winds of 20 knots that gusted to 25, creating 3- and 4-foot rollers on the open Bay. That is when I begin paying attention to my wooden spreaders and monitor the slack of the leeward shrouds, thankful that Chesapeake Rigging of Annapolis inspected and beefed up my aging (25-plus years) aluminum mast at the masthead and around the spreader base.
(Riggers also suggested I pull at least one of my old chainplates and bring it into the shop for close examination. I decided to pull all four, which resulted in the fabrication of stainless replacements, installed with much effort and help from one of my sons.)
When the autumnal winds arrive, they often come marching in well before noon so that you can make some firm destination plans, unlike the summer flukies that may shift, die or suddenly scare the hell out of you and send you fleeing into port only to lure you back out again when the storm devils depart.
Sea boots and heavy socks come out, along with foulies, a sweater, lined and waterproof gloves, a long scarf, and a fleece cap over my ears. Keeping hands, feet and ears dry and warm is a priority, although the occasional spray that catches you off guard before you can turn away can leave you with salt water in your mouth and eyes.
Sometimes I sit on a seat cushion in my companionway with my legs covered by a wool blanket dangling inside the cabin, and only a hooded head exposed above the main hatch. A fixed tiller extension, secured in a straight line with an eye bolt, extends to this dry perch where steering is easy, especially when motorsailing.
I have pondered rigging a small collapsible windshield on the sliding hatch to dodge and duck spray from a wayward wave. If I did that, then I suppose a windshield wiper would be next. But there’s only so much comfort you can provide in a small, open cockpit, and sailors are accustomed to discomforts.
I recall bashing out the Miles River from St. Michaels, Md., this summer and into a nasty 3-foot headwind chop, seated in the companionway, when I became aware of being tailed by a 50-foot motor-yacht. When this yacht finally passed close alongside, its occupants were staring in wonder and taking photographs of a drenched madman going nowhere fast in a bucking 22-foot pocket cruiser.
Sailing, at least for me, is about being in close contact with the water and the sound of it rushing by, often within inches when seated to leeward and the boat heeling. It provides an unrealistic sense of rewarding speed, courtesy of the wind. Those who cruise in motoryachts with enclosed helm stations high above the water aren’t privy to this experience from the comfort of their padded swivel chairs.
During the Indian summer days of October when the leaves begin to change and migrating Canada geese and Tundra swans fly and honk overhead, an overnight aboard requires some heat. I’ll lug along my Heat Pal 1500 alcohol heater and head for the Wye River in a favorable breeze. There are many creeks and coves surrounding Wye Island, on Maryland’s middle Eastern Shore, where you can tuck in tightly with trees close enough to deposit leaves on deck. I’ll also tow along my Walker Bay dinghy, so I can row ashore for a walk in the woods if the mood strikes.
In years past I used to daysail throughout the winter, but I stopped that in 2000. The day ends too early, and the cold comes on too quickly for me now. Autumn indeed ushers in a second season on the water, and I’ll end my sailing for the year with its fair winds and sparkling greenish-blue water.
Steady breezes, crisp air, hot chowder
By JoAnn W. Goddard
Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer, but captains of the Maine windjammer fleet say the best days of sailing are still ahead. Clear skies, comfortable temperatures, steady breezes and less-crowded harbors make fall a perfect time for cruising in the Northeast.
“It’s a great time to go,” says Meg Maiden, marketing director for the Maine Windjammer Association. “It quiets down, and it’s probably the best sailing.”
Most of the 14 members of the windjammer fleet sail through mid-October, offering slightly discounted off-season prices and special foliage tours.
“September and October are clearly the best times for sailing,” says Cathie Dorr, who with her husband, Owen, recently purchased the Nathaniel Bowditch, an 82-foot schooner built in 1922 and formerly used for racing, coastal patrol and fishing. “The days are sunny, the nights cool. It’s crisper in September.”
Grab a sweater and step aboard one of the historic two- and three-masted vessels that ply the protected waters of Penobscot Bay. The fleet consists largely of turn-of-the-century cargo schooners retrofitted to carry passengers. There is no set itinerary; the vessels rely on the wind and the tides, with destinations based on the day’s weather.
While the windjammers generally are fully booked at the height of the summer season, there often are openings in September and October. Many of the schooners offer three-day cruises — perfect for a long weekend getaway in the fall. Four-, 6- and 8-day excursions also are offered.
Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, says Capt. Kip Files, who owns the 132-foot three-masted schooner Victory Chimes. (The schooner is featured on the Maine state quarter.)
Files says the autumn skies are generally clear — free from Maine’s signature fog — and the breezes ideal for sailing. The wind picks up soon after a hearty breakfast and is relatively steady until late afternoon.
“It’s one of my favorite times to cruise,” says Files, who grew up along the Maine coast and has owned the Victory Chimes for 15 years.
There are fewer boats in the harbors, and water temperatures are comfortable for swimming — at least by Maine standards. (The water is warmer in early fall than in spring.) The shops are still open but without summer’s throngs of tourists.
There’s no denying that one of the best ways to view Maine’s fall foliage is from the water, and the romance of a windjammer cruise adds to the adventure. The first blush of color begins in mid-September, with peak foliage viewing around mid-October. Leaf peepers also are likely to catch a glimpse of migrating whales and birds, or seals basking on rocks.
With the cooler temperatures, passengers seem to better appreciate the windjammer cuisine: piles of pancakes, homemade soups, hot biscuits and steamed fresh seafood. “There’s definitely an appreciation for the hot coffee,” says Dorr. Lobster season is still in full swing, so guests can expect a traditional lobster bake on one of the 3,000 islands that dot the coast.
“Of course the food tastes good all the time, but when it’s a little colder out, the chowder and the lobsters taste even better,” says Files.
Cool evenings are spent huddled around the wood stove, playing games or singing. It’s perfect sleeping weather, and thick wool blankets in the cabin keep passengers warm.
One of the season’s best celebrations is held in September, when the fleet gathers for the WoodenBoat Sail-In in Brooklin, the waterfront home of WoodenBoat magazine. Now in its 18th year, festivities include tours of the magazine’s headquarters and the WoodenBoat School, steel-band music and fresh-steamed mussels. The harbor will fill with historic schooners Sept. 14 for this year’s Sail-In.
“It’s the last time we all get together for the season,” says Files.
The windjammer fleet sails from the ports of Rockland, Rockport and Camden on Penobscot Bay in midcoast Maine. Nine of the schooners have been designated National Historic Landmarks. The fleet is the brainchild of Frank Swift, a captain and artist from rural Maine who was fascinated by the old schooners that transported cargo and fished off Georges Bank in the 19th century. In the mid-1930s, with the schooners’ days numbered, Swift set out to buy and refurbish as many of the old wooden vessels as he could. A group of windjammer captains formed the association in 1977.
• www.visitmaine.com, (888) 624-6345
• Katahdin cruises, www.mooseheadlake.org, (888) 876-2778
• Maine Windjammer Association, www.sailmainecoast.com, (800) 807-9463
• www.visitnh.gov, (800) 258-3608
• M.S. Mount Washington, www.cruisenh.com, (888) 843-6686
• www.vermontvacation.com, (800) 837-6668
• Lake Champlain, www.vermont.org, (877) 686-5253
• www.massvacation.com, (800) 227-6277
• www.ctbound.com, (800) 282-6863
• dep.state.ct.us.com (type “foliage” in search window)
• www.visitrhodeisland.com, (800) 556-2484
• www.iloveny.com, (800) 225-5697
• Hudson River, www.hudsonrivervalley.com, (888) 576-4784
• Adirondack Mountains, www.adk.com, (800) 487-6867
• www.mdisfun.org, (800) 719-5900
• www.virginia.org, (800) 847-4882