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Cruising Maine’s inland waters

Cruising Maine’s inland waters

One of the worst-kept secrets about boating in Maine is the labyrinth of navigable waterways that winds its way up, down and across the coastal area between Cape Small and Pemaquid Point on what Mainers call the Midcoast. If you enter at the mouth of the Kennebec River you can look forward —

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depending on how many “back” rivers you navigate and how many gunkholes you explore — to more than 100 miles of beautifully scenic cruising on waters that are largely calm, protected and usually fog-free, regardless of offshore conditions.

As a bonus, much of the route is relatively free of “crayola,” the local term for the masses of colorful lobster trap buoys that can bedevil boaters in some areas of Maine. Lobsters prefer the protection offered by the nooks and crannies of a rocky bottom, so traps are rarely set where it is sandy or muddy.

Transient dockage, moorings, anchorages, restaurants, fuel docks, shoreside accommodations, historic sites, museums and scenic attractions are abundant. There are so many peaceful coves and sheltered areas to drop anchor that you may find yourself and a few striped bass to be the only occupants on occasion.

The historic sites at each end of this inland waterway are only one part of what is typical of coastal Maine. It is difficult to drive around a curve or navigate a bend in a river without coming upon another delight for the eyes. The existence of these beautiful sights and peaceful inland waters was the primary reason my wife, Pat, and I chose to move here. And as she has said at the end of many of our excursions, “You could cruise here for the rest of your life and still not see it all.”

The inland waterways mainly comprise the Kennebec and Sheepscot rivers — and the Sasanoa River, which connects them — Montsweag and Hockomock bays, and the Townsend Gut, which connects the Sheepscot to Boothbay Harbor and Linekin Bay. If you are willing to navigate the somewhat protected, 2-mile trip around Linekin Point at the entrance to Boothbay, you can add the Damariscotta and Johns rivers and all of their coves, plus the South Bristol Gut and historic Pemaquid Harbor, to the itinerary. You could traverse the entire main route in less than two days on a fast boat or putt and peer for more than a week and still not see everything of interest. It’s a perfect place for small-boat cruising.

The Kennebec and Bath

The waterway’s southwestern terminus is Pond Island, at the mouth of the Kennebec River. Its lighthouse is one of 10 you could encounter along the way. The quaint hillside village at Bay Point will be to starboard and historic Fort Popham to port as you navigate up the river. The route north will take you past Squirrel Point Light and the picturesque village of Phippsburg on opposite sides of the river and eventually to Bath, the shipbuilding center of the Northeast.

Bath is home to the Maine Maritime Museum, located on the site of the historic Percy and Small shipyard on the west bank. Some of the largest wooden vessels ever built were constructed there, including the six-masted schooner Wyoming in 1909. The museum offers complete and reasonably priced transient facilities, and the dockage or mooring fee includes museum admission for all on board. A prime attraction is the Sherman Zwicker, a 134-foot wooden Grand Banks schooner that is docked there and is open for tours in-season. It is the only operational and seaworthy example of the breed still in existence.

Downtown Bath and its shops and restaurants are just a short walk away. The Kennebec Tavern & Marina, which offers good food, fuel and easy docking, is just beyond the Route 1 bridge. Transient facilities also are available next door at the town dock. Reservations are managed by the police department.

Just upriver from the museum is Bath Iron Works, which builds the Aegis Class guided-missile warships and is home to the largest crane in the Western Hemisphere. Several ships in various states of completion are usually visible, but be sure to stay outside of the buoys that mark the no-entry zone around the facility. Armed patrol boats are on duty 24/7 to enforce it, and they mean business.

The Kennebec continues north into Merrymeeting Bay, where it is joined by the Androscoggin River, and it is navigable for another 30 miles or so. But the bay is shallow, and there are practically no boating facilities beyond Bath and little to see but the river itself.

The Sasanoa and inland bays

Most boaters head for the western entrance to the Sasanoa River, just before the Route 1 bridge. After going under a second bridge, the narrow navigation channel follows a serpentine but well-marked course through a broad expanse of shallow water before narrowing to flow through Upper Hell Gate, so named (by sailors, no doubt) for the currents that rip through the narrow opening. Although it looks and sounds threatening, the channel there, and for the rest of this short section of the river, is safe for small powerboats and sufficient for the 80-foot tour boat out of Boothbay that plies it regularly.

Exiting the upper part of the river, the channel once again is sublimated by a broad, shallow expanse of water, this time in Hockomock Bay. Stay in the channel by following the buoys in a broad arc, rather than trying to go straight from one to the next. Keep a chart handy for reference.

From Hockomock Bay you could head north through Montsweag Bay and the Back River to get to Wiscasset. However, Montsweag is the stereotypical “mile-wide and inch-deep” body of water, with a very twisty channel that is only marked in-season and then by privately maintained buoys. A better course is to pick up the Sasanoa again as it heads south through Lower Hell Gate toward Nubble Bay. Lower Hell Gate is less forbidding than Upper, but it involves a bend around a red buoy that should be transited with caution. Water depth here is not an issue.

Nubble Bay separates Westport and Georgetown islands and is home to Robinhood Marina, a full-service facility that offers fuel, repairs, transient dockage and moorings, as well as The Osprey, one of the best seafood restaurants around. Directly south is Robinhood Cove, which nearly bisects Georgetown Island. It is one of the prettiest, most protected anchorages you will ever encounter.

From Robinhood Cove, the course takes you east through Goose Rocks channel to the Sheepscot River. In the passage from Nubble Bay into Goose Rocks, you will encounter another area of current-induced turbulence, but again, in deep water and manageable circumstances for even a small powerboat. A southward detour on the Sheepscot will reward you with an opportunity to see the seal herd that populates Middle Mark Island at half-tide or lower and the pretty Five Islands harbor.The much-photographed Hendricks Head Light occupies a promontory on Southport Island, which forms the eastern shore of Sheepscot Bay.

Following the river north is a pleasant 12-mile trip that will take you to the village of Wiscasset, which advertises itself as the “prettiest village in Maine.” Facilities there are sparse, but the yacht club or the harbormaster may be able to find overnight accommodations for you. Two restaurants — one casual, the other not so — are within walking distance of the town dock, as is the famous Red’s Eats take-out stand, where being photographed while waiting in line seems to be a popular pastime with the tourists who clog Route 1 to get there. The Sheepscot is not navigable beyond Wiscasset.

Townsend Gut and Boothbay Harbor

The next passage east is back down the Sheepscot, through Ebenecook Harbor and into the Townsend Gut on the way to Boothbay Harbor. There are several passages into Ebenecook, but the one south of Green Island is the safest for visitors.

Southern Ebenecook Harbor is the home of the Boothbay Region Boatyard, a full-service facility that offers fuel, some transient dockage and moorings. It is a short walk from there to the Southport General Store, where provisions and beer and wine are available. Spectacle Island at the north end of Ebenecook is a favorite picnic spot, but you’ll have to dinghy ashore to use the picnic tables, as there is no dock.

“The Gut,” after a tricky and constricted entry, passes under the Southport Bridge. This has to be the busiest swing bridge on the East Coast, but the bridge-tending Lewis brothers, Duane and Dwight, will be happy to open on request for traffic that needs vertical clearance. The Gut, which narrows in places, can suffer from a glut of lobster buoys late in the season, but the traffic is such that particularly poorly placed buoys already will have been eliminated — one way or another — by the time you get there.

Boothbay Harbor is the boating and tourist center of the area, but success hasn’t spoiled it. Its islands and the many “cottages” that line its shores make for very interesting harbor tours, whether on your own boat or one of the many excursions that leave from the waterfront. Don’t miss the guided tours of Burnt Island and its restored lighthouse.

Five marinas and innumerable inns, hotels, shops and restaurants — many with their own docks — line both sides of Boothbay’s inner harbor. Dockage and moorings for vessels to 200 feet are available, but reservations — well in advance — are a good idea in July and August.

The Damariscotta and Johns rivers

The next short leg of the waterway course is the only one that is not “inland” and may not be as fog-free as the more protected parts. It requires you to leave Boothbay to round Linekin Point through the Fisherman Island Passage and up into the Damariscotta River. The passage is partially protected by the offshore islands and usually isn’t a problem unless there is a stiff onshore wind.

The Damariscotta River runs 12 miles north to its namesake town (where the second “a” isn’t pronounced), and although there are several short stretches of crayola, the river offers far too much to be left off the itinerary. Just a mile upriver is Rutherford Island’s Christmas Cove, a very popular and usually crowded inlet. Access is easy, but its many well-marked ledges deserve your careful attention. Coveside Restaurant & Marina offers gas, diesel and limited dockage for restaurant patrons. Moorings are available, but call ahead.

Farther upriver you will find East Boothbay Harbor, which is more of a bight than a harbor, but it is the site of Washburn & Doughty, a major builder of tugs and other commercial vessels, and Hodgdon Yachts, builders of spectacular sail and power yachts. East Boothbay also is the home of Ocean Point Marina, offering transient dockage, showers, moorings, fuel and repairs. And Lobsterman’s Wharf restaurant offers justifiably famous seafood delights and dockage for patrons who get there early.

Following the river north takes you to two beautiful and peaceful anchorages, Seal Cove on the Bristol side and Pleasant Cove on the other. Seal Cove is the smaller of the two, but both are well protected from all directions except north. About 10 miles up the river on the port side is Dodge Point, a state park with a dinghy dock and lots of walking trails. The river beyond Dodge Point becomes shallower and navigation channels more serpentine, but a prudent mariner can still get to Damariscotta without incident with careful attention to the charts. Larger boats may want to avoid the trip at dead low tide. There is a small town dock and a marina where you may be able to find temporary dockage while you visit the town, which offers several good restaurants and many fine shops along its main street.

Back down the river and just below East Boothbay is the entrance to Bristol Gut, which separates Rutherford Island from the Bristol peninsula. Bristol Gut is narrow and twisty, with a well-marked ledge just before you make the sharp turn to transit the swing bridge, but going through the Gut is almost a rite of passage for mariners and an experience you’ll not soon forget. Its eastern terminus is Johns River, which is more bay than river but opens up still more opportunities for scenic cruising. Poorhouse Cove is a favorite anchorage for both locals and transients.

Like Fort Popham at the entrance to the Kennebec, Pemaquid Harbor, on the eastern shore of the Johns River, is a site of much early Maine history. The original fort was built there in 1613 and alternately taken, demolished, retaken and rebuilt by successive waves of pirates, Indians, and English and French forces as they sought to enrich themselves or control the area. The fort is now a state park where you can see the unearthed remains of several of the fort’s incarnations and enjoy many interesting displays at the museum.

Pemaquid Harbor is well protected by crayola and has a narrow passage that merits your attention. It is between ledges just beyond the long pier on the southern shore, and although charts indicate that it is marked by red and green aids to navigation, I have never seen any there. The Pemaquid River beyond gets shallow in spots but provides good anchoring. There is a restaurant on the long pier, which has a float for customer tie-ups. The lobstermen’s co-op on the other shore operates an eat-in-the-rough restaurant on the hill behind its dock, where they may allow you to tie your dinghy. The fresh lobster rolls are well worth the walk up the hill.

Despite many artists’ perceptions, Maine’s 3,500-mile coast is much more than bold shores and crashing surf. Its sheltered bays and miles of protected inland waterways offer some of the most scenic and tranquil cruising imaginable. The first mate was right: You could cruise here for the rest of your life and still not see it all.

Freelance writer David Yetman and his wife, Pat, live on Hodgdon Island in Maine and cruise New England on Curmudgeon, their Albin 28 Tournament Express.