Gunkhole getaways: Maine’s Muscongus Bay

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By Kate Laird

The narrow notch on the southwest end of Otter Island shows no soundings and no protection from the prevailing summer southwesterlies or the ocean swell coming into Maine’s Muscongus Bay. But when a steady northerly flow brings in clear, cool weather and knocks the swell flat, Otter Island is a magical spot.

My husband, Hamish, and I sailed in on 28-foot Ariel in 1998. We nosed our way through the lobster-pot buoys and set a bow and a stern anchor so we wouldn’t swing into unknown dangers. The inlet’s only about 150 feet wide, with a steep, rocky shore on each side. After a cup of tea and a lung-squeezing swim to shore, we rowed around the harbor with our leadline — a piece of string and a 7/16-inch shackle — and sounded the harbor. There didn’t seem to be many hazards apart from a submerged rock at the east side of the entrance. The water shoaled up gradually to the southeast but was deep almost to the rocks on the northwest side until it reached mudflats on the northeast end.

We ended our row at the beach in the inner harbor and walked around among the tangle of damp windfall and tall firs, glad to stretch our legs after too many nights anchored near islands blazed with NO TRESSPASSING signs. (Otter Island is privately owned; hiking ashore may no longer be allowed. When we visited, walking was permitted, fires were not.)

We gathered mussels for the next day and clambered around the southern point on the rocks. A loon cried to the sunset, and the wind shifted around to the north, giving us complete protection. We felt utterly alone — from the boat, we could see no signs other humans had ever been there, apart from the sprinkling of lobster buoys. A rope swing — the only human mark on the island — was hidden in the trees.

In the morning, two teenage lobstermen came by in a skiff and sold us a lobster for lunch from their haul. Hamish cooked it, then steamed the mussels in garlic and “Chateau Cardboard” (white wine in a box). We didn’t want to leave, but the problem with Otter Island is the wind conditions that let you visit are the exact ones you want to sail in — those breezy, crisp northwesterlies that will take you Down East or up west on a fast reach in flat seas.

But as we rolled out the jib to sail out of the harbor, it wasn’t with too much regret: In Maine, you’re never too far from another magical spot. The islands are better known for their gunkholing, but there are also forgotten spots on the mainland. Alongside regular charts, I like to use a road map: If no roads go into a likely looking harbor, it’s often a good one.

The Maine Island Trail Association (www.mita.org) is an excellent resource for finding good gunkholes. MITA has negotiated with private owners to use their lands, and while many of the sites are better visited by kayak than yacht, membership still opens up the Maine coast to deep keelers. “A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast” by Hank and Jan Taft and Curtis Rindlaub is invaluable (Diamond Pass Publishing, Peaks Island, Maine, www.coastguides.com).

Kate and Hamish Laird hope to stop at Otter Island this summer en route to Greenland in their expedition charter yacht Seal. Look them up at www.expeditionsail.com.

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Check out the other parts to our Gunkholing series:

Explore our picks for 10 great gunkhole getaways:

Learn The Art of Gunkholing

Or introduce yourself to "Mr. Gunkhole."