With nearly 3500 miles of coastline, rocky headlands, misty bays, and countless coves and islands, Maine offers some of the best and most varied cruising grounds anywhere in the world.
Generations of sailors, artists, writers, and rusticators have all been drawn to the rugged beauty of the Maine coast, and one of the most popular areas is Penobscot Bay. You could spend a lifetime of summers here and never be at a loss for harbors to discover – and many are within a daysail or two of each other.
The sailing season runs from July to September with foggy conditions a regular occurrence. But weather conditions can be highly localized, and fog off one island does not preclude clear sailing nearby. If you are lucky enough to sail here in September, you can count on clear bright warm days and cool nights with a hint of wood smoke in the air.
Penobscot Bay is the perfect place for any type of charter. Its three mainland harbors (Rockland, Rockport, and Camden) are home to a number of charter companies that offer crewed, bareboat, sail, and power of just about any size vessel, from runabout to superyacht.
Many of Maine’s boatyards and talented builders also offer select boats for charter. Some may be brokerage boats whose owners who are pleased to have them working while waiting for a sale. Quite often these are classic Maine-built boats that have been meticulously yard maintained.
Charters are usually contracted on a weekly basis, but some operators may consider less. One operator in Rockland will even rent by the day and has a sailing school with courses that include a basic bareboat chartering certification.
Rockland, Rockport, or Camden are all easily accessible by car, bus, or plane. Additionally, Rockland is home to the Maine State Ferry Service, which provides a regular connection to three important Bay islands - Vinalhaven, North Haven, and Matinicus. North of Camden, the Lincolnville ferry can also get you to Islesboro.
Rockland, Rockport, and Camden offer restaurants, provisioning, water, fuel, and all sorts of marine services. The towns themselves are also important cultural and recreational centers of mid-coast Maine. Rockland is home to the Farnsworth Museum and its permanent collection of work by the Wyeths, headquarters the Island Institute, and is near to the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum. Rockport is home to Maine Media Workshops and several galleries.
Camden features a wide variety of music and art events, as well as the newly established Penobscot Bay Rendezvous for both sail and power, which takes place in August. There is also plenty of hiking and biking just a short walk from the harbor, at nearby Mount Battie State Park. And Lake Megunticook has canoeing, swimming, and rowing.
Regardless of where you choose to begin a charter, the real adventure begins on the bay. Here are three not-to-miss destinations:
Pulpit Harbor on North Haven Island
An easy sail from the Rockland breakwater, this is a well-protected harbor with a straightforward approach.
Carver’s Harbor, North Haven
This is the island’s main port on its western shore. For more than a century granite quarrying was the dominant industry here; some of the stone cut here went to build the Brooklyn Bridge and other notable structures. The last quarries were closed in 1939, but ghosts of the industry are everywhere you look. Many of the abandoned quarries are now swimming holes with granite tailings scattered about.
Today the ferry stops here and fishing dominates the harbor. As a result moorings are limited. But there are shops, a fully stocked market, and several restaurants to choose from.
About twelve nautical miles south of Carvers Harbor, Matinicus is Maine’s outermost island with a year-round population. Its remoteness is its charm.
Regardless of where you choose to explore, Penobscot Bay will not disappoint. You’ll surely enjoy your chance to get to know the Bay, its islands, and its people.
Occasionally the latter part of June is mild and dry, but July and August offer more consistently mild weather with highs in the 70s F and low 80s. Lows vary from the high 60s to low 70s.
Unfortunately July and August are also when fog is a common occurrence, due to the cooler sea temperatures and the southwest wind coming off the mainland. It can come in very quickly and is often accompanied by strong gusty winds. It can also be highly localized and burn off as quickly as it came—or sock in an entire portion of the bay for several days.
Navigation can become a serious challenge in the fog, and it is not the time to succumb to “get home- itis”. Patience is truly a virtue among sailors.
By late August or early September, fog becomes less of an issue as winds turn northerly and the air temperature begins to drop. These clear, cool late summer days can be the finest sailing days of all, with sparkling seas and cobalt skies.
All summer long the prevailing winds are southwesterly, building to 15 - 20 kts in the afternoon. Mornings are usually calm. Like most places in the northeast, winds from the northwest will mean a cool gusty breeze; easterlies are a sure call for some fog, drizzle, and generally unpleasant weather. Sea conditions depend on the wind, but be aware that steep swells can develop in any conditions the farther you venture offshore.
Although moderate gales do occur, hurricanes are rare because of the cool water temperature. Gales can occasionally accompany the southwesterlies, but expect only a handful of these during the course of the season.
As any prudent mariner knows, weather forecasts are never cast in stone. Conditions on the bay can be highly localized. Take advantage of whatever local knowledge is available (lobstermen are a great resource), especially when seeking the shelter of a good harbor or hurricane hole. Also, keep in mind that storm surges and tidal variations are serious concerns when anchoring, so always put out more scope than you think you need.
Once an important port for exports, shipbuilding, and fishing, Rockland is now a draw for tourists with its ever-growing number of art galleries, unique shops, museums, and restaurants. It is also a working harbor that is service-oriented and yacht friendly, and a terrific place to begin your charter.
Crew logistics are a breeze with Rockland’s Knox County Regional Airport just a stone’s throw away. The Portland International Jetport is an hour and a half to the south, and there is regular van shuttle service to and from the entire midcoast region from the Jetport. There is also regular bus service from Boston.
The Maine State Ferry is the mainland’s connection to the islands and is good for crew changes and mid-charter provisioning. Many of Rockland’s businesses work closely with the ferry to transport groceries, parts, etc. The local supermarket as well as some of the small groceries and specialty food stores all offer delivery service to the ferry terminal and the marinas.
If needed, shore side lodging can be found at several motels within walking distance of the harbor.
Rockland also has several full service marinas, in addition to the municipal dock which has showers, laundry facilities, pump out, and Wi-Fi service. Long and short term parking can be arranged with the harbormaster, as well as mail, FedEx, and UPS deliveries. Moorings are also readily available to accommodate just about any size vessel.
Hamilton Marine is the primary chandlery in town. There is also Lew Grant & Associates for marine electronics, and three sailmaker/canvas shops - Hallet Sails, Gemini Canvas, and Pope Sailmakers. The Journey’s End Marina is your best bet for major repairs, hauling, and mechanical issues.
For emergency medical care and out patient services the Penobscot Medical Center is just up the road.
For those with an artistic bent, Rockland is home to the Farnsworth Museum and its collection of work by the Wyeths, Fitz Hugh Lane, Rockwell Kent, and other American masters. There are also a number of private galleries along Main Street, including Archipelago, the Island Institute’s shop featuring unique work from Maine’s island artists.
Other museums include the Maine Lighthouse Museum near the town wharf; and the Owls Head Transportation Museum at the airport, with its collection of antique airplanes, cars, carriages, and engines.
Those interested in traditional boatbuilding should make it a point to visit the Apprenticeshop at the north end of town. Here apprentice boatbuilders learn traditional skills and build a variety of small boats, gigs, dories, etc., which the school then sells. Wooden boat enthusiasts should also check out the North End Shipyard next to the ferry terminal - a working shipyard the serves most of the windjammer fleet.
For foodies, Rockland shines when it comes to dining. For breakfast Rock City Cafe can’t be beat for great coffee and breakfast fare. There is even a bookstore attached to the cafe with an eclectic collection of new and used books.
For dinner, choices range from Primo (about a mile south of town) for French/Italian dishes, to Amalfi which is mostly Mediterranean, to sushi and lobster in the raw on the wharf.
Like Rockland, Camden buzzes all summer. At times it can be a bit overwhelming, but you will never be at a loss for things to eat, see, or do.
Camden is another excellent harbor from which to begin your charter, but with many less service options. It is also a bit more expensive than Rockland when it come to provisioning, supplies, and lodging. Mooring and dockage are limited by the size of the harbor and there is only one full service marina (albeit an excellent one).
That said, it is Camden is a wonderful place to visit and a must for any Penobscot Bay cruise. The Camden Yacht Club maintains reciprocity with most major yacht clubs and has always been helpful and welcome to visiting yachts. The town has a public dinghy dock, with heads and showers nearby.
For casual dining, Cappy’s Chowder House is a great place for chowder and beer. For more upscale dining choose The Waterfront or Peter Ott’s. The Camden Deli is great for lunch or breakfast, as is Boynton & McKay.
There is always a mix of music and theater at the amphitheater at the head of the harbor, below the beautiful Camden Public Library. The lawn slopes toward the harbor and is a wonderful place just to relax and gaze out toward the bay and islands. It’s also a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
If you need a workout, try the Camden YMCA. And nearby Camden Hills State Park with its spectacular views from atop Mount Battie has miles of trails for hiking and biking.
Sleepy by comparison to Rockland and Camden, Rockport has a unique personality. It is not a typical tourist town and lacks all the shops and eateries that go along with that. It is however the home of high culture: Bay Chamber Concerts at the Rockport Opera House; the Center for Maine Contemporary Art; and the Maine Media Workshops (formerly the Maine Photographic Workshops), where working and aspiring photographers and film makers come to hone their skills.
For dining, enjoy great seafood and sweeping views of Rockport Harbor at the Sail Loft Restaurant.
Rockport is a lovely harbor but offers little in the way of facilities and services. Provisioning and other supplies will have to come from either Rockland or Camden. Fuel and temporary dockage can be found at Rockport Marine, one of Maine’s premier wooden boatbuilders, but moorings are limited.
The town landing has a public dinghy dock, head, and showers. There is public parking, but be sure to check with the harbormaster if it will be a long term stay.