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When West Meets East, Part 1

The breeze was around 10 to 15 knots as I stared at the water from the ferry. There was a hint of whitecaps across water that had, to my eyes, an unusually deep and radiant quality of blue. Behind us, the coast had an unusually deep and radiant quality of green, with two mountains — the Camden Hills — pushing up from the omni-foliage. Everyone was quick to grouse that it had been an aggravatingly wet, cold spring, with the sole benefit being the exceptional greenness.

The ferry plowed across the breeze, taking the wind and a small, lazy swell on the beam; cars on deck floated up and down on their suspensions. We were headed toward dozens of small, flat, pine-capped islands.

Approaching Vinalhaven, Maine, in early June. A young couple from Massachusetts (center, in the Subaru with the canoe on top) jumped onto the ferry on a whim to go camping.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

The entire scene felt . . . what was it . . . exactly? Charming? Certainly. Bucolic? Yes, but I hate that word; it sounds like an unpleasant digestive condition. What it really felt like — taking the ferry from Rockland to Vinalhaven, Maine — was inviting. The sea, the coast, and the islands were begging to be sailed.

Latitude readers may or may not know that we, a venerable West Coast magazine, have deep East Coast roots, especially in Maine. But for me, Vinalhaven was new territory. Visiting family over the next few days, I would see a few sailboats heeled over on East Penobscot Bay, but wouldn’t do any sailing myself, though I felt that strange sense, again, that the East Coast is somehow set up for and caters to all things boats and sailing. As we continue to discuss the Bay Area’s evolving waterfront, we find ourselves constantly comparing and contrasting San Francisco’s boaty-ness to that of all other coasts. Even though it’s rapidly gentrifying and becoming more expensive, New England still seems to out-boaty everyone.

As we approached the first of Vinalhaven’s seemingly infinite splattering of islands, we motored in a long, sweeping arch through a roughly defined channel thick with lobster traps and their brightly painted buoys. When surfers look at empty waves reeling off in front of them, they call it ‘mind-surfing’; I found myself ‘mind-anchoring’ in all of the islands, some of them lined with white-sand beaches and (decidedly frigid) turquoise water.

The ferry to Vinalhaven — where everything looks like a postcard — pulls into Carvers Harbor. We saw an overwhelming number of commercial boats on moorings, but that said, the pace of the island certainly did not feel like “work work work work work,” but rather, as chill as any place in the Caribbean we’ve been.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

When writing about Maine last year, I cited a 1983 article in the New York Times titled Sailing the Coast of Maine. A 36-year-old article might seem a bit dusty on the subject, but perhaps it’s fitting — Maine has a frozen-in-time quality. Times writer Susan Butler described passages between Isle au Haut to Stonington on Deer Isle, both of which lie to the east of Vinalhaven. “There are so many islands — over 20 — so close together that it is a little bit like threading your way through a maze. [The islands] offer good anchorages, occasionally granite ledges, occasionally sandy beaches (Maine version — small pebbles) and spruce-ringed coves. The musseling is excellent.”

The ferry made a final turn into Carvers Harbor, which was swollen with lobster boats on moorings. It was a perfect introduction to the island. The vibe on Vinalhaven, I would find, was not unlike that of other islands I’d visited in the world, where things move a bit slower, everyone waves and says hello, and the main attraction is the place itself and its perch in the sea. I’m not sure how locals would take to having Vinalhaven described as “moving slow,” as the vibe was also working class. There was some tourism here and there, sure, with the occasional shop selling all manner of lobster-themed and patterned kitsch (it was still early in the season, before the masses truly descended). But these were the exception, and not the rule as in Southern Maine, where tourism and tourists reign supreme.

Browns Head Light Station on the west coast of Vinalhaven, looking toward Rockland and the Camden Hills — with a lovely little sailboat sporting tanbark sails to properly frame the scene. Seriously, though, everything on this trip looked like a postcard.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

I would quickly find that my favorite thing about even the idea of cruising in Maine was its countless islands and their proximity to each other. This idea of tiny-island-hopping channeled some childhood, Adventures of Tom Sawyer urge.

My family, who had been living on Vinalhaven for a few years, bought a converted lobster boat last year for cruising. Why not a sailboat? My cousin and her partner are a cook and carpenter respectively, and said they simply don’t have the time to go slowly from place to place — especially in the summer, when opportunities to make money are at their peak.

There were no sailboats in Carvers Harbor. They were spread out to other parts of the island, especially between Vinalhaven and North Haven, another inkblot of an island immediately to the north and separated by the Fox Island Thorofare, which was just a few hundred yards of water separating rock and tree from rock and tree. A friend and I took ‘the ferry’ over — just a 14-ft Boston Whaler.

The Maine montage. Clockwise from top left: Returning to Vinalhaven from North Haven; a boat sits ready for summer action; a shop full of all things sailboats; somebody works on a ramp in North Haven.
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

To pay our $7-a-person round-trip fare, we wove our way through Brown’s Boatyard and into the chandlery, an old building with uneven floors that smelled of sawdust and maritime goodness. I felt that strange thing again, like I’d stumbled into a boaty paradise where everyone was a sailor. I’m not sure my observations were rooted in anything more than the relative awe of being in a new place (and on vacation!), but I suspended my critical thinking and soaked in the maritime-ness on tap.

I’m not sure if I screwed up this picture and Foy Brown has his eyes closed here, or if he’s just one of those rugged, salty dudes who’s always squinting. We’re motoring away from North Haven’s Brown’s Boatyard, which was started by Foy’s grandfather. The small houseboat in the background (third house from the right, next to the boatyard’s big red barn), is somewhat famous in Maine circles. “Foy and Louisa Brown’s floating hand-built cottage stirred a wake of envy when its photo appeared online,” Maine Home+Design wrote. “The cottage was supposed to be a getaway for other people, a rental to net extra funds. ‘But we realized that if you rent it to someone who gets snot-flying drunk,’ says Foy, ‘you’re screwed no matter how much insurance you have.'”
© 2019 Latitude 38 Media LLC / Tim

Are you a West Coaster who’s spent some time on the East Side (or vice versa)? Do you find the “boaty-ness” of each coast to be dramatically different, or relatively the same, in terms of places to cruise and anchor, infrastructure for cruisers, etc?

Please comment below, or write us here.


  1. Paolo Sheaffer 5 years ago

    Growing up in Carpinteria, most of my early sailing was in Santa Barbara. Presently cruising up to Bras d’Or Lakes in Nova Scotia via Blue Hill, ME.
    I would say Santa Barbara is rather boaty,. Tiburon is boaty. Other sprawling marinas maybe less so, be they in East Bay or SoCal. Texas is boaty, but on a less traditional level, save for small pockets with strong New England influences. To sum up, respect for tradition is stronger in some areas, but enthusiasm is universal. Do we invent our own boaty culture, or import from afar?

  2. Rick Sylvester 5 years ago

    I just wanted to say, awesome writing.

    As a child who grew up with a mother who minored in English I couldn’t get through dinner without having my grammar analyzed (I exaggerate, but not much.) In this day and age of awful syntax and rampant misspellings your article is refreshing. I’ve never been to Maine but you certainly took me there.

  3. Ernie Landes 5 years ago

    My wife and I had our first Maine experience when we sailed aboard the schooner Heritage out of Camden for a week. It reminded us of our favorite cruising grounds of British Columbia. So a few years later we bought Encore in Miami and wandered up the Intracoastal to Maine, where we spent 6 weeks in all those wonderful places you mentioned. Pulpit Harbor was our favorite anchorage. A truly wonderful place to cruise.

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