by Tom Lochhaas
10-day cruise to New Brunswick from Downeast Maine, July 2001
aboard Allegro, our 27-foot Albin Vega, with friends....
Starting in medias res... 7/21/01. High drama today. We left North Head, Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, at 8 this morning, headed for Passamaquoddy Bay and the port town of St. Andrews. When we realized we had to reach the Lubec Narrows between Campobello Island and Lubec, Maine, at slack high water, we developed some sense of urgency. Both the Maine and Canadian Cruising Guides succeeded in scaring the beejeebers out of us about attempting to get through the Narrows at any other time. Eddies, whirlpools, and enormous currents otherwise make it impossible. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we thought, and fortified our thinking with our respect for Westerbeke, the iron man on the crew with his 13 horses (i.e., the 13 HP diesel engine). We had just one minor concern: the Canadian guide says the current starts ebbing out the Narrows 1.5 hours before high tide, while the Maine Cruising Guide made no mention of this anomaly. It was a fine sunny day as we motorsailed the 15 miles across Grand Manan Channel in order to make it on time.
Flush with confidence that we reached the outer channel a full 30 minutes ahead of high tide (we called Fundy Traffic and the Grand Manan Coast Guard to confirm the time of high tide—with 25-foot tides in this area you don't mess around with them!), we were sure we could make it. After all, how bad could it get?
With the wind at our back and the mainsail raised to steady us and add a boost, we shot up the narrowing channel, which was looking increasingly like a river squeezed between two enormous land masses, at 5.5 knots at 2000 RPM, our usual cruising engine speed. Almost imperceptibly the current rose (not yet high tide but already ebbing!) and slowed us down: 4.5 knots as we approached, then 4.0, then 3.5 and still not to the Narrows. Fortunately GPS, reading his satellites, continued to tell us we were moving well over the bottom regardless of how much current had built against us. Our confidence remained. How bad could it get?
Slower, with more and more eddies starting to buffet the boat, down to 3.0 to 2.5 knots and then, as we came up on the Narrows, we slowed to 2.0. (For landlubbers, that's about as slow as a cinema ticket lines moves on opening night of a new Spielberg movie). We could see the bridge over the Narrows ahead now, the water rushing off the bridge pillars, totally confused and wild, getting ever nastier as we approached. It was like white water rafting in reverse—we were headed upstream. But hey, we were still moving, and how bad could it get?
It was sheer horror, however, that we came up on the bridge arching high over us. The water rushing through the main span was going wild in all directions, tumbling, cascading, falling drunkenly all over itself in its haste to get to sea Good sturdy Allegro pitched, yawed, rolled, sideslipped, spun, and cavorted beneath my white knuckles on the tiller. As we approached the span, our speed dropped to 1.5 knots. I bumped Westerbeke to 2500 RPM—no difference except he complained more loudly. A moment later, I pushed him to 3000, and GPS informed us we were making all of 1 knot forward (somewhat slower than a baby crawls over uneven ground), but we looked and felt frozen in place. Time stopped as Allegro was thrown side to side on the rips, and every moment we expected to be slammed into the bridge. “Not moving!” cried Kate at the bow, and my eyes and brain agreed, though GPS kept muttering we were still going 1 knot over the bottom, although the water rushed past the hull.
Over the bottom? But there seemed no bottom to this maelstrom, and surely an event such as this had the power to alter the space-time continuum and warp the signals from the GPS satellites? “Not moving!!” screamed every cell in my hand wrapped around the tiller—but my eyes looked to GPS, who nodded and calmly and continually said we were still making 1 knot over the ground through a current that must've been running at least 6 knots against us. And the tide hadn't even turned yet! Every minute during our crawling approach the current would increase, gathering its energies to hurl us backward. On shore we saw a line of people gathering to watch us. Would they clap and cheer if we made it—or if we didn't?
But hey, how bad, really, could it get?
We kept up a nervous chatter in the cockpit: what should we do, would we make it, how fast is the current increasing, were we pushing Westerbeke too hard and would he explode—and are we about to die?
An infinity later, we were under the bridge, still apparently not moving, still being thrown side to side by the eddying current. I glanced at the bridge column only a few feet away and was horrified to notice that the water at one edge was a full foot higher than at the other edge only 10 feet away. We were literally trying to sail up a waterfall!
Finally, we were through. But of course it wasn't over—the tide was still falling, the current building, and at any moment we could be thrown backward down the current and back into the bridge. I knew this—but at least I didn't have to see the horror of the bridge pillars right next to me. GPS kept up his friendly chatter that we were moving forward. Hey, how bad could it get, he said, as if he'd been reading my mind all along.
A few minutes later, our of the Narrows, the water widened and the current dropped and we almost abruptly shot up to 5 knots of forward motion. Jonathan gently pried my fingers off the tiller, and Kate and Eliza returned to the cockpit from the bow, where they had heroically gone forward thinking they would simply push us off the bridge pillars if we slammed into them. (Yeah, right—bones would have crunched and splintered under those forces....)
We were all thinking, somewhat desperately, that we should have a drink to celebrate survival—life—the beauty of existence! Allegro not merely endured, she prevailed!
But the sun was still a long way from being over the yardarm, it was only noon and we had many nautical miles to go before we sleep, and already Jonathan was reading aloud from the Cruising Guide about what lurked ahead just off Eastport, Maine: the world's biggest whirlpool, the Old Sow (for that is its name). It lay in wait for us only a few miles north, and if the Narrows didn't get us, it vowed it would.
Hours later, having motorsailed up the Western Passage without a sign of the Old Sow—just saw some of her piglets—we let Westerbeke have a deserved break and had a lovely sail up the Passamaquoddy Bay to St. Andrews, New Brunswick. The Wharfinger (Canadian for Harbormaster) led us to a mooring after we had tied up to a harbor float (which our outdated Cruising Guide led us to believe was the Yacht Club float for visitors—which in fact no longer existed), and, the sun now being well over the yardarm, we dinghied ashore to track down the elusive good wine.
7/22/01. Sitting on the mooring in St. Andrews Harbor, thinking to bring the log up to date for the cruise so far....
On Day 1 we sailed in rain and fog from our mooring near Milbridge, Maine, to Roque Island further downeast, with the best sand beach in Maine. We had a quiet night in Lakeman Harbor after a couple drinks aboard the only other boat there, a 40-something-foot cruising trawler operated by a nice couple in their late 60s. On Day 2 we sailed up (downeast) to Cutler Harbor. A light fog came on and off, but sailing was simple and sweet among and past unihabited pink granite islands, and in the late afternoon lull we motored into Cutler Harbor and dropped the hook. There were few facilities ashore, but we were well stocked with food and wine. In fact, we had so much wine aboard, as our friends were paranoid they would not be able to find the good stuff ashore in our off-the-beaten-track harbors (they were right), that we were afraid that Canadian Customs and Immigration might think we were bootleggers and seize some. The couple in the cruising trawler warned us about the personal limit on alcohol, which we seemed to have exceeded by at least a case, so on this, our last night in the U.S., we did our best to diminish the amount of cargo in the hold.
Day 3 brought almost no wind and thin fog, and we had to motor almost all the way (25 n.m.?) to Grand Manan Island. We saw many Atlantic dolphins and a couple minke whales and no other boats all day. Offshore in the fog our Collision Avoidance Radar Detector (CARD system) warned us of a couple fishing boats in the area, but we never saw them. We rounded the north end of the island and came into North Head harbor to clear customs, with our Canadian guest burgee and yellow quarantine flag proudly flying.
At the floats on the town wharf we inquired about a mooring and were told by fishermen on a boat to raft up next to them, which we happily did. It ended up that we were the only sailboat on the floats, tied up among a fleet of fishermen who all came and went very early in the morning except for the ones we tied up to, which were being repaired. It was boisterous on the docks, nonetheless, but it was pleasant to spend some time ashore and not have to try to locate the boat at night out in the harbor by dinghy.
Day 4 we stayed in Grand Manan, visiting different harbors and eating dulce picked from the ocean floor at Dark Harbour. Dark Harbour is on the island's west side, the only harbor below the high cliffs. A small colony of rustic sorts stay in weathered shacks along the shore when they pick the dulce, and the area is so tideswept that even the outhouses along the stony beach are weighted down with big rocks to keep them from floating off when storm waters rise higher than usual.
Day 5 was the long sail from Grand Manan through Lubec Narrows and up Passamaquoddy Bay to St. Andrews, described earlier. This is a lovely little resort town with lots of shops and good restaurants. We splurged and ate ashore at the Algonquin Hotel, a grand hotel in the European style where everyone but us dressed up for brunch. The staff were friendly and allowed us to stay, even though we probably smelled strongly of the sea....
Day 7, we sailed back down Passamaquoddy almost to Eastport before cutting northeast along the inside of Campobello Island and up to the northern end. A fast sail in relatively protected waters. We met many eddies and cross-currents south of Deer Island north of Eastport, but still we saw no sign of the Old Sow. We were too close to high slack water both times we passed, apparently. The Old Sow is said to roar and suck down passing small craft only at half tide.
On the northeast tip of Campobello we went into Head Harbour, a truly wonderful old fishing harbor with zero facilities for transients. We were in fact the only sailboat in the whole harbor, the only cruisers at all until later a pair of cruising trawlers from southern Maine came rumbling in. We spoke to some fishermen on the wharf as we came in, who said we could tie up anywhere to anything—and so, following the advice of the Cruising Guide, we tied up to the wooden float of a pile driver just off the main wharf. It was delightful to have our own little floating island where we could hang up the sun shower and get washed up. We dinghied over to watch when a big fishing boat came in and started off-loading bins of fish to a truck waiting high overhead on the wharf. They were dogfish, a small shark about 3 feet long, bin after bin being hoisted up on the crane. It was a long-liner, using baited hooks on long lines connected to floats with radar reflectors on top (as in the book The Perfect Storm). They said they had 10,000 lbs of dogfish, and it looked like it. We asked them what the fish were used for (cut up for lobster bait? turned into fishmeal for pet food?), and the wry, crusty old man said “Nah, this shipment's going to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where they'll probably sell it to restaurants and call it swordfish or sea bass. What do the Americans know, eh?!” We had a wonderfully quiet evening in this beautiful harbor lined by rocks and trees and no other signs of civilization except the fishing boats tied up to the wharves.
Day 8, we made an early start because we had a long way to go to reach Cutler Harbor again, the best port south on the homeward cruise. Back out into the Grand Manan Channel (that runs up the Bay of Fundy's west side), fighting that immense Fundy current. The wind got up to 20-25 knots with near-gale warnings in the forecast, and the seas built to 6-8 feet, and later on to 8-10, and we reefed and furled and pounded and got drenched with spray all day long. Thin fog, no rain, but we all wore foul weather gear all day. In the gusts we heeled to 40 to 45 degrees and put the rail in the water, just tearing along tacking back and forth on the SW wind. Having a great time! The water spraying over us was very cold, even through the heavy gloves and boots—Fundy in July! (Later we learned Eliza was wearing 6 layers of clothing under her foul weather gear--it was indeed cold!.) The passage took 10 or 11 hours, and we finally made Cutler Harbor where we anchored as before, a little farther out because a big schooner, The American Eagle, had just come in from Camden with its big crowd of charterers. Like tourists, they all lined up on deck to see watch us "real sailors" drop the anchor and peel off our foul weather gear and hang it all over the boat to dry.
The wind stayed up all night in Cutler Harbor and we rolled, and rolled, and rolled....
But what a day of riotous good sailing it had been! The real ocean stuff, flying off wave tops and smashing along. How good the hot soup and cool wine were when the hook was set and we got warm again.
Day 9 dawned clear and sunny, a slow pleasant start to a short day of sailing, headed south for Jonesport and a waiting mooring. Today, however, we really learned the truth about the currents produced by Bay of Fundy tides. We sailed out of Cutler Harbor and turned due south along the Maine coast, about a mile offshore in the Grand Manan Channel. Winds were light, 5-8 knots through the morning, but we seemed OK and were headed 180 degrees magnetic. We knew the tide was flooding north, but Fundy is many dozens of miles wide, so how fast could all that water really be moving? There was thin fog, but we could monitor the coastline as we passed. We settled down in the cockpit for breakfast and conversation.
An hour or two later someone looked over at the lighthouse on shore and casually asked if that was the Cutler harbor light we'd passed a couple hours ago?
We checked the chart for other lighthouses farther down the coast. After all, you could look over the side and see we were making at least 3 knots on the light breeze, so we must've gone at least 3 to 5 miles by now?
Just to make sure we were in fact moving and not caught in a current, I turned on the GPS and saw, yes, we were making 3.5 knots over the bottom. We kept watching the lighthouse, which now—very oddly—seemed to be sliding away farther south. Huh? But we were headed south ourselves, so it should have been moving behind us to the north.
We were all confused. The GPS continued to confirm we were moving at 3 knots.
... until finally I punched a different button on the GPS and discovered that although our compass showed a heading of 180, the GPS showed a true heading of 360 degrees. We were sailing over the bottom, yes, not merely through the water—but directly north! We were caught in a current going about 6 knots the other way, so that our forward progress of 3 knots south only resulted in a 3-knot movement backwards.
So much for sailing leisurely against a heavy current! We turned on Mr. Westerbeke and gunned up to hull sped, which meant essentially that although we rushed through the water, we stayed in the same place over the bottom until the tide eased. Eventually we sailed on—and when the ride turned later and the current was with us, we shot like a cannonball down (up) the coast toward Jonesport. We took the scenic route into Roque Harbor and back out through The Thoroughfare, and then down Moosabec Reach and into Jonesport, where Jonesport Shipyard rented us a mooring.
Day 10 was a leisurely short trip back to our home mooring farther down (up) the coast.
In the end, we'd all learned something more about handling the boat, about handling tides and currents, about ourselves and each other. I've left out all the stories dealing with the handling of the two cases of wine and long evenings in the cabin and getting along as four adults in a small sailboat. Use your imagination to its best, and you'll have that part of the story!
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