Spent a great week revisiting some of the highlight reel scenes of the season with my good buddy John Renna who just left for the airport and a return trip to Albuquerque. From Jewell Island, we mostly motored to Seal Cove on the Damariscotta River (saw seals), then Boothbay Harbor (dinner with Smokey and Kayli), out to Monhegan (priceless hiking and beer), and finally a 40-nautical-mile wing-on-wing run to Casco Bay. Jocelyn returned from caring for her dad in San Francisco and we moved up to South Freeport to prepare Windleblo for hibernation.
So how does the Gulf of Maine rate as a cruising ground? This is the question we ponder as the season draws to a close.
At the beginning of our voyaging in 2009, we said we would take ten years to sail season by season from Sweden to Alaska. Once there, we would look back over all the places we had been and select the favorite to become our home waters.
So far, we have accumulated subjective impressions of all the cruising grounds we have sailed through. Never have we tried to put a rating on each so that selection of the favorite would have some sort of basis beyond scattered recollections. Now is the time, overdue perhaps, to put a rating scheme together.
I’ll rate each cruising ground on four categories:
Climate – The overall appeal of the weather and seasonal changes. The consistency and quality of wind and waves.
Natural beauty – The awesomeness of the coast, islands, and harbors and on shore natural features.
Cultural attractions – The feel and fabric of the cities, towns, and natives; on shore attractions; food; friends &/or family nearby.
Boat amenities – The ease of keeping the boat both while cruising and over the winter.
We’ll save reviewing past cruising grounds for later, looking first at the season now ending. Ratings will be mostly qualitative, but we’ll assign a numeric value between one and five for each category, five being highest or best and one being lowest or worst.
Just a technicality, for this rating I am considering the Gulf of Maine to extend from Cape Cod to the Bay of Fundy.
So here goes.
Overall rating is a Three.
Pros – It helps that this summer was particularly dry and relatively warm in Maine compared to average years. We enjoyed very few days of high heat and/or humidity and can count on the fingers of one hand how many rainy days we experienced. Mostly, it was pleasantly cool and dry. Both of us prefer temperate climates and would rather tolerate a cool morning now and again if that’s the price to pay to avoid suffering through high heat.
Cons – The water is very cold, which is good in that it moderates the air temperature during hot spells but bad because swimming is non-existent for Jocelyn and less of a joy for me. OK, you can take a dip if it’s really hot, but without a wet suit you don’t stay in very long. Another Con is the fog. I got my first extensive taste of sailing in fog this season and all I can say is thank God for the Furuno. And the final Con that really brings the rating down is the damn lobstah pots. They annoy to distraction and make cruising here a chore. The only positive about them is they force you to stay very focused on your helming.
I’d consider the tides and currents a neutral factor. Yes, they can complicate cruising plans but that keeps things interesting. On balance, the winds were also a neutral factor. We motored more here than elsewhere (60 percent of our miles were made under engine power), which reflects the absence of wind. But we enjoyed many terrific sailing days and were never confronted with winds too strong to manage.
Overall rating is a Five.
Pros – Growing up on the rocky New England coast, sailing the Gulf of Maine was a much anticipated homecoming and my heart soared at returning aboard here Windleblo. The many islands of Maine provide a cruising ground with seemingly endless choices for exploration. Everywhere in Maine, whether on a remote island or even near the towns, nature is close at hand, with ready access to mossy footpaths through sublime forests and hills. The rugged rocky coast offers the cruising sailor a steady source of photogenic views. Nowhere did we encounter anything remotely resembling an industrial area or pollution. Even South Portland with its many large storage tanks did not feel overbearing.
Cons – None.
Overall rating is a Three.
Pros – Having my brother and all my Maine Colby buddies nearby certainly raises the rating. And when the cousins are factored in, this season tops all in terms of having friends and family nearby to make shore leave special.
It’s hard to compete with Europe; none-the-less, New England rates high for historical interest. Every city and town we visited offered stories about its role in the Revolution or early settling of the New World. The quaint design of New England towns, complete with white steepled churches and town commons, has a distinctive appeal. When Boston is included, the region jumps up the rating scale.
Cons – Offsetting the quaintness of the cities and towns, though, is the lack of diversity. Wiscasset claims to be the prettiest town in Maine. Well, I’d be hard pressed to differentiate its general character from any of the other small New England towns we visited. The natives also lack diversity, being mostly white and skewed older.
And for us, a big Con is the absence of other cruisers. Sure, there are a lot of boats out there. But they are all day sailors or people out for a weekend or week-long tour close to home. The Gulf of Maine is pretty far off the beaten path for live-aboard cruisers and we didn’t come across many. Consequently, the camaraderie you experience when inevitably engaging other cruisers is missing. Perhaps most telling is the local label for people like us. Here, as elsewhere in the East Coast, we’re known as transients, not cruisers. Somehow, being a “transient” doesn’t feel as cool as being a “cruiser,” and being called a transient by the locals seems less welcoming.
Food is a neutral factor. Certainly, provisioning was easy. Grocery stores are plentiful, even in the small towns. Food quality is generally acceptable, though gourmet ingredients can be hard to come by. As for regional fare, there are only so many ways you can prepare lobster, and surprisingly we rarely found fresh seafood at the source. I did not buy a fishing license so don’t have a feel for that.
Overall rating is a Three.
Pros – The Yard we selected for winter layup is first class. At this point, I am confident that Windleblo will rest easy over the off season. As for amenities while on the water, the best thing I can say is that in these waters there are many natural harbors with a lot of Good Mud for setting your anchor. Another positive is that unlike the Caribbean or the Med, here you never feel like you have to lock up your dinghy. Also, the sea water here is wonderfully clean, even in harbor, providing good supply for the water maker. When needed, fresh water is readily available from the dock for free.
Happily, we did not need to make any repairs this season. That said, I never felt like we were ever far from a source of yacht services. Our BoatUS towing coverage extends to these waters, charts are reliable, and the U.S. Coast Guard is on the job, providing a cruiser with a sense of security should the worst happen. These facts elevate the rating.
Cons – The entire season, we did not tie up to a dock and connect to shore power. This reflects two realities: 1.) there are not many marinas here and 2.) the Captain is too cheap to pay the high dock fees the few marinas extort for transient slips. Often, when we called to inquire about availability of a slip, we were told that the charge would be $3 or $4 per foot — $120 per $160 per night for our boat. Slips were much less than half that in some of the other places we cruised. Rather than take a slip, we anchored or tied up to a mooring all season, requiring use of the dinghy to get to shore. Once you’re used to it, launching the dinghy upon arrival becomes routine, and sleeping while swinging at anchor in Good Mud is one of the most enjoyable experiences life has to offer. So the lack of slips was no hardship. That said, from time to time taking a slip is a nice break from anchoring, and the lack of marinas and high price of slip rental removed that option from the mix this season.
Overall, the Gulf of Maine receives a rating of Three Plus – a bit better than average and certainly a contender for Home Waters but not the front runner at this point.