Sailing Casco Bay: Vision Quest 2010

I’m finally back from Germany and ready to jump back into action! A week before going to Germany, I went up to Maine and went for a sailing and camping and Vision-Questing trip on the islands of Casco Bay. Being September, most of the tourists and many of the summer residents had already moved on and our trip promised to be a fantastic getaway from everything where we could enjoy ourselves and do some deep pondering about the course of our lives.

We began our trip on a Sunday, just about an hour before sundown. The wind was blowing a gale through Portland Harbor, as usual, and upon launching the boat, we ricocheted off of a channel marker and tore a small hole in the sail. My bad. Not to worry though, we were fighting the wind now and needed to focus on exiting the harbor and heading into Casco Bay. Because of time limitations, we modified our original plans and decided to camp at Little Chebeague Island on the first night. Unfortunately, just as the sun was setting, we got our first look at Little Chebeague and saw that the campsites looked full. Executive decision was made to sail on, even under cover of darkness, and make way for Bangs Island, northern-most site. That’s when Christophe tacked sharp-right and cut off the Casco Bay ferry!

As Christophe’s boat didn’t have lights, and as there was no moonlight, Christophe found his headlamp, just in case, and I pulled my safety beacon out of my jacket. We didn’t want to use them as we preferred to let our night-vision do the job, but we wanted them on-hand should the authorities stumble upon our adventure party. With no traffic on the water and incredibly calm winds, the boat glided along quietly and peacefully. As dusk faded to pitch-black night, it was shocking to be reminded of all the stars one can see in Maine. There were problematic obstacles to watch out for, as Christophe could recall major rocks as well as a mussel-farm he had seen while sailing in the same area on a previous day, but the view from the the rail was clear and the gentle movement of the boat was only apparent from the occasional splashing sounds of waves against the hull. Though it was nearly pitch-black out, and though the water reflected and somehow intensified that black, the experience in those moments was pure serenity.

And that’s when Christophe noticed the light! At first we weren’t certain if the light in the water was simply some physical anomaly whereby starlight was being reflected or refracted or something by our boat’s disturbance. We watched behind the boat as it sliced through, creating ripples and churning the water and we watched over the side where the chines and hull created a slight disturbance. It was bioluminescence! I had always heard of the phenomenon happening in the tropics, but in Maine? We were still enjoying watching and studying the spectacle when we rounded the corner and saw the soft glow of a campfire that alerted us that our campsite on Bangs was occupied! We were starting to get a little impatient at this point, and although the sailing was awesome and peaceful, and although watching the phosphorescence was really cool, we were night-sailing without really knowing the area and we knew it was probably time to land somewhere.

Christophe knew of another campsite on Bangs, though, one at the joint of the figure-eight-shaped island. He knew the site would be somewhat hard to find, and it was somewhere between the rocky coast, enormous boulders, the mussel-farm, and who knows what else, but it was a small out-of-the-way site and chances were really slim that it would be occupied on Sunday night of a rainy Labor Day weekend. We turned the boat around, I took my seat on the starboard rail, and we crept back up the coast, all eyes ahead into the darkness, looking for any sign of a wave splashing over a rock, the metallic shine of a mussel cage, the silhouette of trees standing too near the water… Turned around, we were now facing into the slight breeze, and so the waves were just ever so slightly larger and the phosphorescent show ever the more exciting. We studied the water ever more closely and wondered about the micro-organisms that we were disturbing with our boat and wondering why they might be emitting light.


That is quite literally the sound our boat made when the bow rode up on a rock and the collision of daggerboard and stone instantly stopped the forward progress of the vessel. Sitting up on the starboard rail, I was already in a good position to brace myself and keep from completely falling over, but Christophe, who had been standing, was thrown across the center bench and port rail. He flew through my peripheral vision so quickly that I was under the impression that his headlamp must have flashed on, momentarily, just long enough for the image of his crumpled body strewn across the floor. In the next moment, and without visual cues to alert me to our attitude, I could sense the boat listing increasingly to port so I threw myself down onto the floor in an attempt to lower our center of gravity and stabilize the boat. Simultaneously, Christophe lifted himself off of the rail and attempted to set his foot down on the rock, found that there was only a steep drop-off, and the combination of our movements caused an over-correction that brought the boat back to level and then hard to starboard. A small wave came over the rail and into the boat while boat of us, yet again, attempted to correct our position and, thankfully, the boat stopped rolling and came to rest on top of the rock. Lights came on and we quickly scanned the boat and ourselves to determine what, if anything, was damaged. There was no visible water leaking into the boat, the daggerboard and rudder were still in their places, and neither of us were bleeding or too damaged (although Christophe took one in the ribs). We quickly dropped and secured the sail, took out the oars, and as gently as possible left the rocks and began rowing.

Now that our night-vision was gone, it was headlamps all the way and Christophe maneuvered around the boulders while I kept a lookout and minded the rudder. We celebrated our arrival at camp with rum, KFC cake, and congratulations on handling a potential disaster quite well – indeed, the first thought through Christophe’s mind after hitting the floor was that our sailing trip was over. Thankfully his boat was well built and easily absorbed the impact with the rocks. Uncertain of the tidal range, we pulled the boat up past high-tide and unloaded camp.

Morning view of the rocks off Bangs - the rocks that nearly ended our adventure.
View of our camp as well as the neck of Bangs Island, taken from the western beach.
Christophe inspecting for damage to the boat
View from my tent of the fern hollow at the neck of Bangs
Detail of ferns
Bangs Island marker sign
Our camp and the mast of the boat from the high-point of Bangs
View of Chebeague Island from Bangs Is.
On the night of our arrival, we could see several sets of eyes in the darkness. We correctly assumed that they were racoons like this one.
Give a hoot, don't pollute
Inspection of the sail revealed some damage from our collision at Portland Harbor.
Close-up of the damage to the sail, as well as Christophe's fix: duct-tape.
She's ready to sail!
Christophe photographs his boat from the docks at Eagle Island

Eagle Island is where CDM and I encountered most of the people that we met on our trip. Several people approached to praise CDM’s piloting ability and to congratulate him on building a really sweet boat. One of those guys, it turns out, wrote a section of one of the better known books about small sailboats. Another guy told CDM that he assumed he must be a “geezer” from the skillful way he brought his boat in to Eagle.

“Most people look like Jerry’s kids out there” he said, but CDM showed incredible control of his vessel.

Almost everybody that we encountered came over to look at the boat though, just to see it up close and admire it. I guess CDM did a good job, although I personally wouldn’t know the difference – I’m still a little amazed that he built an entire boat at all.

The caretaker's house on Eagle... not too shabby.
Admiral Peary's house on Eagle Is.
Christophe in Peary's library, demonstrating the size of a Polar Bear - this one was shot by Peary at the North Pole! That's Peary's desk in the foreground, and the entire place was designed to look and feel like a ship. Even the windows were placed in such a way that Peary would only see water from his chair.
The Eastern wing of Peary's home was never completed
Christophe standing on the edge of Peary's walkway
An obelisk on nearby Little Mark Island where, sometime in the 1800s, a sailor was stranded for a month in February! The man survived and had the obelisk erected on the site as a monument to lost mariners. The base of the obelisk contains a small room in which food and water were stocked for future lost mariners that might come upon the island. On the September day of our visit, an intense wind was blowing off the ocean, and it was difficult to imagine being outside for any length of time on any of the islands, especially Little Mark with its barren rock. It must have been an awful month.
Christophe and Peary
Christophe and Peary
Herring Gull?!? Looks like a Northern Fulmar to me... Sadly, this is the closest I've come to seeing one.
View from Eagle Is. across Broken Cove and West Brown Cow and on to Jewell Island in the background.
Christophe walks in the Admirals footsteps

Peary's outhouse
Paths on Jewell Island - here I was struck by the resemblence in flora to the north country of New England.
CDM looks out at the boats anchored in Cocktail Cove
Several sailboats, including one from Germany, taking a break in the cove
The shallow end of Cocktail Cove
A bog on Jewell
Birches and ferns

CDM walking the old military road on Jewell Is.

The remains of a building, long since abandoned, from the military presence on Jewell.
The World War Two lookout tower on Jewell, making sure that our boys fighting in Europe wouldn't risk losing their supply of Lobster meat.

View from the lookout tower - those are Inner and Outer Green Islands off the southern end of Jewell.
Closer view of the Greens
Looking the other way to Cliff Island
And out to see Halfway Rock Light - which we had hoped to visit, but the winds... Halfway was automated in 1975.
That's Portland!
CDM at the foot of the tower
Military base leftovers

A Myers self-oiling pump of some sort
The last standing wall of a large military building - housing perhaps?

CDM taunting me from the World War One tower
View of the WWII tower from the WWI tower
Inside the WWI tower
The shower facility in the WWI tower - very spacious and comfortable!

And another dilapidated military building on Jewell.
Ventilation shafts? These lead into the backside of the battery gun facilities.
Asbestos ceilings
CDM searching for Edward and Bella
This is one of the two main bays of the battery
The cannons are long-gone
CDM at the south end of Jewell Is.
Me at the south end of Jewell
The southern tip of Jewell
CDM reading the Jewell Is. welcome sign
Random concrete pillar
Random and incredibly tall brick chimney
A fire hydrant

Some of the boglands on Jewell
This telephone pole, like many of the Jewell Island ruins, is now in the middle of a forest - it's hard to imagine what Jewell must have looked like 100 years ago.
This signed explained, in detail, the uses of the island during WWII. Because of Portland's proximity to the European theatre, Portland Harbor was seen as vitally in need of protection from small torpedo boats - that protection was the main purpose of Jewell Island.
When we left the boat, it was on dry gravel. Returning from our walking tour of the Island, the boat was floating quite high. With plenty of tide yet to come, CDM decided to reposition the anchor.
But first a sunset...
CDM retrieving the boat and anchor...
and climbing aboard...
I think he fell in on his ribs/knee
And here he is, rowing her into shelter for the night.

CDM, his boat, Halfway Rock Light, and the Flag
Our figurehead and mascot, the Horseshoe Crab, was destroyed in the operation to bring our boat in to safety.
A seal carcass on the beach where we spent the night - full of maggots and stink, we nearly took its skull as a new figurehead, but it as full of brains and, of course, stink.
Zinea at morning light

Please don't litter.
An unexpected visitor floating in to the beach
Not this one, this is a Semi-palmated Plover (he has slight webbing between his middle and outer toes). At first, I thought I might be able to make him into a Ringed Plover but alas...
Least Sandpiper
My Lifer Black Guillemot!

The Black Guillemot eventually drifted ashore down the beach; not a good sign.
In-hand for inspection I was able to determine that he had a substantial injury on his belly and had a torn foot. He was pretty weak at this point, but I didn't have the heart to return him to the place where he made landfall near a bunch of Gulls. Instead I moved him the thirty meters to the Punch Bowl where he would be sheltered from the wind and current and still probably die.
The famous Punchbowl, Maine's (and the eastern United States') largest tide pool
CDM coming up the ramp at Cliff Island
CDM setting up the anchor system in Cocktail Cove. Eventually, water will not only fill the cove, but also come over the top of the landbridge between Jewell Island and Little Jewell (not pictured, but to the right)

One of Jewell Islands natural springs that runs down into the sea
I thought these might be some sort of baby lobsters, but CDM informed me that these were something else (what?)
CDM, the boat, and the cliffs on which we camped on our final night

Behind the boat you can see Little Jewell Is. with its tiny private cottage
Sunset over Cocktail Cove

Little Jewell Island at sunset
A young Whitetail Deer crossing the landbridge from Jewell to Little Jewell just as the rising tide begins to come over the bridge... The next morning, CDM and I went for a walk and saw this same deer sprinting off Little Jewell when the water finally dropped. He still had his spots, and it must have been a cold, lonely, and hungry night to spend all alone on that little spit. He was so glad to get off the island, that he ran by us on the wide-open mudflats. Looking for mom?
The boat anchored at high tide
A huge ship leaving Portland Harbor
The boat loaded and ready to leave for home.

Among the lessons I learned on this Vision Quest, I can definitively say that I will have a waterproof camera housing of some sort for our next sail. None of my photos were able to catch the intense winds, the swells that looked like they would eat our boat, or the generally crazy seas that we sailed. What an awesome trip!

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