How to sail to Maine and back this summer (published June 2012)
Maine is one of America’s fabled cruising destinations, yet few East Coast and Caribbean sailors actually make it all the way Down East for a summer cruise. Time is always an issue, as is the likelihood of having to make a few overnight passages along the way. But the wonders of the Maine coast are definitely worth the effort of getting there. Here are a few tactics for sailors based north of Cape Hatteras that will meet your sailing style.
WHEN TO GO
Fog is usually the issue when contemplating a summer cruise to Maine and back. The “humditty” is worse in the spring and early summer, so try to plan your cruise for the last weeks of July, August and the first weeks of September. Aim to catch westerlies on the way east and then, in late summer, hope for a clearing northerly to blow you homeward.
THE STRAIGHT SHOT
For those of you who are comfortable and well prepared for long-haul sailing, making a straight shot from your homeport to Maine is the fastest (and often easiest) way to make the trip. From Norfolk, the passage around Nantucket and Cape Cod to Portland is about 500 miles, or you can knock off about 50 miles by choosing to sail through the Cape Cod Canal. From New York, the canal route is the best option and the distance is only about 300 miles—two easy days of sailing.
The outside route will take you through busy fishing grounds, so you have to be on the lookout for fishing boats dragging nets or pulling and placing pots. Also, the outside route bucks the Labrador Current, so you are more apt to find fog than you will inshore. The canal route involves a lot of coastal navigation and will take you through busy shipping lanes, so you have to be alert; and, you have to motor through the canal so your engine has to be working properly.
If you have plenty of time, make landfall in Portland and then slowly work your way east; if you are on a tight schedule, head straight for the best cruising area in Penobscot Bay and eastward. Camden is a good place to start.
The passage home presents upwind sailing, so it makes sense to try to time your trip with the passing of a front that will give you a day or two of northerlies.
For those who are not keen on longer offshore runs, shorter hops can break up the trip and will permit you to visit some harbors along the way. Coming from the Chesapeake, you can day hop to Cape May and sail overnight up the Jersey Shore to Sandy Hook or the 79th Street marina in Manhattan. After sweeping through Hell Gate with the tide, you can hop overnight up the coast to Block Island or Newport.
From Newport, it is a long daysail with the tide to Provincetown, a good harbor from which to sail overnight to Maine. Don’t miss the whale watching on Stellwagen Bank just north of P’Town. You can make it from Cape May to Camden in five days in short hops if you push it. Otherwise, allow a week.
DAY HOPPING ALL THE WAY
For those who don’t sail through the night or have the time or inclination to day hop along the coast, you can certainly make it to Maine by taking it one day at a time. From Cape May, count on at least 10 days—two weeks is probably more like it.
Great stops along the way include Atlantic City, New York City, Mystic Seaport, Block Island, Newport, Cuttyhunk Island, Marion, Provincetown, Marblehead, Gloucester and the Annisquam Canal, the Isle of Shoals, Kennebunkport and Portland. From Casco Bay, the Maine coast stretches eastward and unfolds like an adventure story full of enchanting harbors, deep rivers, pine-topped islands, colorful characters and coastal villages.