The most spectacular island in Maine

In mid-August, we set out from Portland late on a breezy Saturday afternoon, bound for the beautiful and fabled Roque Island. All week the forecast had predicted a strong southwest wind, pushing 20 knots. While we had hoped to make good use of these conditions, and scoot towards our downeast destination in good time, the forecast changed at the last minute. We were treated, instead, with a paltry 5 knots of breeze, not even enough to keep the sails filled as we rolled along in the gentle 8ft swells from the South.

It didn’t much matter though because we were headed downeast, or in layman’s terms, northeast along the Maine coast. The term is derived from the age of sailing when ships would sail downwind along the eastward trending shore. Nowadays the term fills the mind with nostalgia for the way the rest of the state used to be; remote, rugged, wild, independent. The real downeast doesn’t start until you’ve left the tourists behind, entered the thick fog, and gone for days without seeing another pleasure boat. In fact, during our 32-hour passage along the coast, we only saw one other boat.

A year after our previous summer cruise, which was full of mechanical challenges, we worked diligently to make the boat ready for cruising again. Rather than slowly work our way up the coast, we opted to dive in head first and set a course for our furthest destination. This way we could use the remainder of our summer vacation to slowly work our way back down the coast, never having to stress about destinations or deadlines. This was undoubtedly a great choice, and probably the way we will explore the coast from now on.

On our first night out of Portland we each attempted to settle into a watch routine. With lifetimes of watches under our belts, this was nothing new. Nonetheless, it’s hard to settle into night watches for short 2-day trips, so we maintained a fluid rotation, relieving each other as needed. The largest challenge was the lobster gear. At night there is only a brief window of time to react after seeing a buoy before it is running under the hull endangering your propeller. Staring into the black night, filled with stars but no moon, we strained to pick up the earliest reflections of a buoy, easing the boat through the minefields.

Lacking any real breeze we resorted to motor-sailing the majority of the 135 nautical mile passage, burning through more fuel than we had hoped or anticipated. But the goal, the remote and unsullied paradise of Roque Island, was well worth the effort, the hours, and the fuel required.

We arrived shortly before midnight, feeling our way into the anchorage amongst the toggled lobster pots, cross-referencing radar with charts, flipping through our cruising guide to review the area. We nosed in towards the beach, watching the bottom rise on the depth sounder and eventually dropping our anchor in 20 feet of water a hundred yards from the beach. We couldn’t see anything other than the anchor light of another boat, and a few headlamps surrounding a campsite ashore. Tired, accomplished, and excited, we tucked in below for a restful night.

The following morning we were treated to a sight we had read about, dreamed of, and longed for. The long curling white sand beach wrapped around the boat as the clear blue water rippled at the shoreline. The air, crisp and clean, smelled strongly of pine, reminiscent of a remote northern lake. There was only one other boat in the anchorage, and nobody ashore.

It was almost low tide by the time we pulled ourselves together and dinghied to the island. The beach was surprisingly steep, impeccably clean, and whiter than any other beach I’ve seen in Maine. This was real sand. Not small rocks, or crushed shells, but real fine sand. We stuck to the beach as requested by the generous owners of the private island and enjoyed a small picnic. The brilliant sun was at times partially shaded, not by clouds, but by the solar eclipse. With a noticeable drop in temperature as the sun was partially shrouded, Skye noted that of all the times for us to lay out on a beach, we chose the day of a solar eclipse.

I combed the beach for beautifully rounded granite stones, photographic opportunities, and the occasional piece of sea glass, while Skye enjoyed a podcast and soaked up the (partially hidden) sun. Most importantly, Skye squeezed herself under our dinghy to painstakingly scrape off the accumulation of barnacles and plant life after several months afloat. The improvement in dinghy performance was profound, and her effort was greatly appreciated.

It is rare that a destination fulfills your expectations, dreamt up and exaggerated over months of planning. Roque Island delivered on all it’s promises, meeting or exceeding all my hopes for what it would be. It is an unusually special place, and a reward for those that journey to experience it. Though this was only the first stop on our 11 day Maine cruise, it was immediately apparent this would be a highlight of our travels. If you ever have the good fortune to visit this pristine island, please respect it, and the owner’s wishes, so that it will remain in all it’s perfect beauty for those that come after us.

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.