The Holy Waters Of Casco Bay

By Bernadette Bernon
August 18, 2000
Tenants Harbor, Maine

Photo of Bernadette Bernon at Five Islands Bernadette at Five Islands.

Maine from the water is a much different place from Maine on the land, the latter being the only way I've known the state until now. From the land it's an acquaintance with a coast of lovely drives and walks, pretty towns, nice people. But from the water, the drama is breathtaking and intimate. You sail along a granite shoreline dotted with lighthouses. You poke into back coves, rivers and protected archipelagos you otherwise might never know existed. You have reason to meet the locals who work the waterfront — the lobstermen, the dock-masters, the bridge-tenders, and the other sailors — all a colorful lot.

I'm doing a good deal of gushing, I know, but forgive me, please. I'm new to Maine, and these naïve first impressions have come from stunning Casco Bay, not that far really, yet a world away, from Ithaka's home waters in Newport. Between fear of fog and the extra distance, the idea of sailing up here with our last boat, Ruby, a 24-foot Quickstep without much in the way of electronics, had always intimidated us, so we never attempted it, satisfying ourselves with gunkholing around lovely Narragansett Bay and the Elizabeth Islands. But now that we're here on Ithaka, we realize that Ruby and we easily could have handled it, with just the addition of a simple radar.

This week, we first spent a few days in beautiful Portland, around the head of Cape Elizabeth, it's a cosmopolitan little city of brick buildings, great restaurants, and lots of friendly people who've transplanted themselves from other parts of the country. We could see why. The city's cultural life is thriving with galleries, museums and performing arts; the architecture presents a pleasing face; the city is alive with energy and clearly on the grow.

We moored Ithaka at Portland Yacht Services, which we selected (even though it's a bit rolly) because the owners, Phineus and Joanna Sprague, have a nice reputation, it's within walking distance of town, and because it's next to a huge marine supply store called Hamilton's where we hoped to order the new Autohelm wheel attachment to replace the one we'd broken on the way up here. We also wanted to visit some old friends, Daniel Zilkha and Bentley and Brenda Collins at Sabre Yachts, and we wanted to get together with Dan Piltch, of Marine Computer Systems. Dan is the computer and electronics consultant from whom we'd bought our Inmarsat C communications system. We wanted his advice on weather software.

Hamilton's was a destination unto itself, and we wasted a merry hour there strolling the aisles the way sailors do when they're confronted with such a fine array of gear and supplies. An entire aisle was devoted to marine heaters, a reminder that it does get cold in this neck of the woods, despite the glorious sunshine of August. Even the customers help each other out and seemed to think nothing of commenting on the quality of different products you've already put in your basket. This happened to me three times. One sailor who saw me eyeballing the sandpaper selection ended up spending half an hour explaining exactly how to get the best results when I varnish our hatches, a job I'm starting to think about attacking within the next month. He said he'd spent a few years "working yachts" and he knew all the tricks. The next day, as Douglas and I lugged our sacks of laundry up the hill to the laundromat, we ran into the fellow again on the street as he darted into a coffee shop. He'd just jumped out of his Mercedes coupe, dressed to the nines. "Oh, I'm a stockbroker now," he laughed, when I noted that he'd cleaned up considerably since the afternoon before.

Photo of Bentley Collins and Daniel Zilkha Bentley Collins and Daniel Zilkha.

Next, we spent a great day with Daniel and Bentley at Sabre Yachts. It was fun for me to watch Douglas's fascination as Bentley walked him through the factory, explaining the different stages and processes of building a high-quality performance cruising boat. The two shared their love of fine woodwork, and Bentley talked of matching the "cathedrals" and the "flames" in the grain of some of the woods. For me, the day brought back fond memories of one aspect of my job at Cruising World that I'd really enjoyed, getting inside different marine production facilities and learning how things are made from those who know it best.

Our afternoon with Dan Piltch had many unexpected benefits. In addition to giving us a terrific personal tutorial session with the Weather Station 2000 software, we learned that Dan is a devoted cruising sailor who loves to explore Maine on his 33-footer, Kristina, a mahogany-over-oak sloop on which he had lived year-round for several years in New York City. Dan spent a long lunch with us, sharing his favorite hideaway harbors and detours that proved to be as he described them: quiet and stunning. After Portland, that's just what we were looking for. We set out the next morning, the delights of Casco Bay laid out before us.

Looking back on it, now that we've reluctantly left the Bay for the enticements drawing us farther Down East, my favorite of all Dan's Casco Bay suggestions was Harmon Harbor, near Five Islands. Many cruisers flock to the pretty Five Islands Harbor, surrounded by the granite islands that shelter the little anchorage of cruising and fishing boats. But Harmon, a couple of miles to seaward of Five Islands, is a secluded bowl surrounded by firs, its narrow entrance protected by a pair of angry-looking ledges that probably discourage most sailors from entering. It certainly would have daunted us without Dan's encouragement and a fog-free afternoon. Ithaka was the only sailboat in Harmon for the two days we lingered there, tethered to a mooring given to us by a man named John Darling who, when he saw us ghosting in, came out from his house and called to us, insisting we use it.

Photo of sailboat sailing around Harmon In Harmon, early in the morning, this pretty boat and its crew of teenagers ghosted around Ithaka and sailed out the mouth of the harbor.

I'm thrilled to be discovering the magic of Maine as an adult, instead of having it be a part of the fabric of my life from childhood. But I was fortunate; I had my own Maine growing up, in County Kerry on the rocky southwest coast of Ireland, where I spent summers living in my grandmother's three-room cottage — no heat, no running water, no toilet, and just a wood fire. My parents, with me and my little brother Mark, would come over from America, to be joined by my Aunty Eileen and her two children, Patrick and Christine, over from England. We'd all pile in with my Granny, and my long-suffering Uncle John was made by my grandmother to give up his bed and sleep outside in a small barn for the summer, to accommodate the volume of family in the house.

The tall fir forests Douglas and I hiked through ashore at Harmon Harbor brought me back to those childhood summers, and as we walked through the shady paths, I told him stories of Christine's and my exploits in the same kind of dark forests that stretched for miles around my grandmother's house and down to the sea. We played, we hid, we explored, always on the lookout for a place in the forest called "The Holy Spring."

Legend had it, my Uncle John had told us, that the spring had never dried up, even during the great droughts, and that the water was so holy that it wouldn't boil. That none of the old people could remember anymore how to find the spring was all Christine and I needed to hear. From that day forward, we'd searched for the spring relentlessly, summer after summer, until one day, deep in the forest, we heard it, and then we found it, hidden by undergrowth. We gasped at our discovery. There it was, a small mossy grotto surrounded by little offerings and relics, broken statues of the Virgin Mary, old Irish coins, rosary beads half eaten away by time and looking as though they were from a hundred years ago. For a long time we stared in silence and took in the solemnity, imagining what had happened there. We each took turns cupping our hands and drinking from the grotto — a moment of communion I'll remember forever. Then we raced home with a sample in a soda bottle.

I remember being excited and at the same time frightened at the prospect of putting the water in a kettle to boil it on the fire. I was uneasy about testing the faith that had been hammered into me at my Catholic primary school back home in America, but I was hungry to know the truth just the same. Hearing the commotion, my uncle ambled into the kitchen and asked "what in the hell is going on with the two of you?" Breathless, we told him we'd finally found the Holy Spring, and that we were trying to see if we could make the water boil. He contemplated us and the kettle for a long while. "No, yer not," he said. He pulled the kettle off the fire and threw the water outside the front door of the house. "Don't be doubting the qualities of that spring."

We never did find out if the Holy Water would boil or not, although we easily could have repeated the exercise while my Uncle John was at work at the post office. He probably couldn't bear to see the disappointment we'd have had if it had boiled. Or maybe, if it had, he just couldn't bear the disappointment himself.

Walking through the shady forest around Harmon Harbor this week with Douglas, breathing deeply the fecund smells of the thick evergreens, this old memory came flooding back to me like a long-lost treasure, and I shared it with my husband. I have Maine to thank for that.