Cruising Destination: Downeast Maine

Experience Some of the Best Sailing in the World

Roque Island

For many sailors who cruise the American Northeast, Downeast Maine is the ultimate cruising destination. And for those sailing all the way past Bar Harbor and the tourist coast of Maine, Roque Island is the penultimate harbor. While it takes some effort and time to get there, every sailor who has made the voyage agrees it's worth it. Most of the true Downeast coast, past Frenchman's Bay and Mt. Desert, with a thousand miles of shore and many hundreds of islands, is almost as pristine as when John Smith sailed there almost four centuries ago.

You'll see almost no boats except lobster boats, but you'll encounter stunning pink granite islands covered with spruce, soaring bald eagles and ospreys diving for fish, thousands of seals, and often minke whales and puffins - among hundreds of other species. You'll find undisturbed anchorages and uninhabited islands to stroll and consider your own. What you won't find is waterside hotels, marinas, jet skis, or a lot of people. You'll be on your own with little to do except enjoy the environment and sailing - which is the point for sailors who are drawn here.

You'll also find huge tides, cold water, tricky currents, and lots - and lots - of fog. But these serve to keep the less hardy away and to heighten your sense of accomplishment, when you arrive somewhere like Roque Island, and the sun warms beach sand whiter and finer than you'd ever imagine in such a rocky world.

While Roque Island Harbor has room for a hundred boats but usually fewer than a dozen most of the summer, you may also have it completely to yourself.

September is the best time, with less fog and even fewer cruisers around. It's heaven - but just remember you're really on your own out there.

Getting There

Roque Island is about 44 nautical miles east of Northeast Harbor on Mt. Desert Island, a good jumping off point for cruising Downeast. Be sure to fill your water and fuel tanks, as you'll find almost no services for recreational boats for a long way.

Proceeding east in the Gulf of Maine, you'll begin experiencing the great tides of the Bay of Fundy and strong tidal currents flooding northeast and ebbing southwest. With good cruising speed and a favorable tide (6 hours with you - but don't try to make it the whole way against 6 hours of ebb!), you can reach Roque Island in a day from the Mt. Desert/Frenchman's Bay area.

While there are no marinas between Northeast and Roque, there are a number of beautiful, safe anchorages in settled weather. Winter Harbor on the east side of Frenchman's Bay is close and has good protection and some shore amenities. Further east, past Schoodic Point and Petit Manan, about halfway, there is a good anchorage to the west of Bois Bubert Island in Pigeon Hill Bay, or a little farther to the north side of Trafton Island in Narraguagus Bay. From there, the next delightful anchorages are almost to Roque, off Eastern Bay just east of Great Wass Island (see later description).

Harbor-hopping down the coast ("down" meaning headed northeast - so called because historical sailing ships headed downwind that direction in the prevailing southwesterlies), you can stay in deep water a mile or two off the islands all the way, or turn north to take the inside route through Moosabec Reach past Jonesport.

The inside route is possible only for boats with a mast lower than 39 feet because of the fixed bridge. The inside route also takes you through minefields of lobster pots. In Downeast Maine, most pots have "toggles," or small floats, connected on lines to the main pots, and these lines horizontal under the water are easily caught by exposed props or rudders. Be sure you know how to clear your prop if you catch one.

The final approach up and into Roque Harbor from the offshore route is clear on the chart and easy enough if you're watchful. From the inside route, boats reach Roque through the Thorofare, a tight and twisty channel through the little islands just west of Roque. This route can be motored in clear weather - you don't really need local knowledge as some will say - but watch the chart very carefully and pay attention.

Anchorages

The most delightful anchorage in Roque Island Harbor is just off the mile-long crescent beach. The bottom is sand and holds an anchor well, and you can get as close to the beach as your boat, skill, and the weather allow. There's plenty of swinging room between boats, and it's a short dinghy ride to the beach. On windy nights, however, this anchorage can be quite rolly because the swells coming up into the harbor are often at odds with the wind direction. Some cruisers prefer to anchor for the day off the beach and then move to Lakeman Harbor or the Thorofare for the night.

Lakeman is a small harbor just east of the big open harbor. There is room for a few boats, and it is generally more protected, although some cruisers have reported dragging anchor in a blow.

Your cruising guide may recommend a couple tiny but very well protected anchorages off the Thorofare, but these are truly for those with local knowledge. You might have to tie off to rocks or trees to prevent the boat swinging into the rocky shore if the wind changes.

If a rare southeast wind is expected to last, making the Roque Island Harbor beach a lee shore, you might want to go around to anchor in Shorey Cove on the north side of the island.

For more detail on these and other nearby anchorages, read what other cruisers say in the ActiveCaptain Interactive Cruising Guidebook.

Go on to the next page for attractions onshore, nearby facilities, other Downeast harbors, and continuing farther downeast.

Attractions Onshore

Roque Island is privately owned, but the owners allow cruising visitors on the main beach. Stay within the area indicated by signs. I once walked up to a tall pine just as an eagle landed above, which sat there fearlessly looking at me. You can sit and warm in the sun on the sand and watch nature. There is nothing at all else to do onshore, which in large part accounts for Roque's popularity.

For other interesting and fun things to do ashore in Downeast Maine, see the Maine Travel Guide.

Nearby Facilities

As mentioned above, there are very few recreational boat facilities past Frenchman's Bay. Plan ahead and take everything you need. Fill up at the fuel dock in Northeast Harbor or Southwest Harbor, and carry extra in jerrycans if you think you'll need more. There are rental moorings in Sawyer Cove in Jonesport, and in Cutler Harbor farther east, and in a pinch you could dinghy in and carry a gas can or water jug for a fill-up, or you might be able to use one of the lobster boat wharves - but remember these are not marinas and would just be doing you a favor.

Other Downeast Harbors

Just southwest of Roque Island, the Cows Yard anchorage is picturesque, has good holding, and is protected. Take great care with your chart and depthfinder coming up Head Harbor.

Similarly, Mistake Island Harbor in the same area is well protected except in a northerly, a good anchorage easily entered up Main Channel Way.

Northeast Harbor on Mt. Desert Island is a personal favorite that never ceases to delight. The town marina has rental slips and moorings, and there's a fuel dock on the way in. On shore is a pleasant walking town of large summer homes, with a main street with good restaurants, a nearby chandlery and hardware, and other amenities.

The nearby Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Garden are beautiful spots to spend some time ashore.

Continuing Downeast

With time and inclination enough, the Downeast Coast just gets wilder and more isolated the farther you go. The next good stopping place east of Roque is Cutler Harbor, where you can anchor outside the lobster boat fleet (and maybe get fuel at the lobster boat dock if you ask nicely). Cutler is a friendly, unpretentious town with a small store and a working fishing harbor.

Cutler is a good jumping-off point for truly adventurous cruisers headed for Grand Manan Island, a large Canadian island in the middle of the Bay of Fundy - a truly remarkable and charming place. Head for the main harbor south of North Head on the east side. Again, don't expect a full-service marina, but give the wharfinger (Canadian for harbormaster) a call on the radio and you might be directed to an unused mooring. Or a friendly fisherman may offer to let you tie up to their boats along one of the working wharves. If so, prepare to get up early and cast off out of their way when the engines rumble to life at dawn.

And once you've cleared customs into Canada (usually with an easy cell phone call in Grand Manan), why not stay a while and head next to Head Harbor on the north end of Campobello Island, only about 15 nautical miles from Grand Manan.

In this tiny isolated, beautiful harbor with barely any room to anchor, you can tie up at a floating pile-driver platform.

From here, you can head all the way up the Bay of Fundy to St. John and experience the famous reversing falls of the St. John River, or turn west around Campobello into Passamaquoddy Bay and the quiet harbor of St. Andrews, a lovely resort town where again you will have returned to civilization, fine food, and shopping - Canadian style.