Friday, August 28, 2020

Calais indifference

We are underway downbound on the St. Croix, headed back to Passamaquoddy Bay and thence Eastport. We're on the American side this time, running just behind St. Croix Island as I begin typing. We had a very pleasant two night stay on the river, and a mostly successful visit ashore.

The wind never let up Wednesday, and we bashed our way all the way upriver to Whitlocks Mill and through the St. Croix narrows. The Coast Pilot had suggested there was an anchorage with 14' depths just upriver of the Whitlocks Mill light, and my own research involving a Google Earth image of the river at low tide also revealed a possible spot. When we arrived, however, we could not find enough swing room in either place.

Whitlocks Mill Light, the northernmost lighthouse in Maine. The keepers house is now a private residence (including the old oil house and the pyramidal bell house), though the USCG retained the light tower itself. It's a flashing green at night. We could see this from our anchorage.

The Coast Pilot also said that navigating the river above Whitlocks Mill without local knowledge was not advised. So we turned around and pushed back through 2+ knots in the narrows and found a spot in deeper water near Marks Point. We dropped the hook mid-river (map), just on the US side of the border. For two days we spent the flood in Canada and the ebb in Maine.

In addition to my redneck anchor light (it's been too windy to climb the mast to install the replacement, which came in the mail we picked up in Lubec), we also left the flybridge deck lights on overnight as a precaution, since we were sitting mid-river. That was wholly unnecessary, as we saw not one single other boat the entire two days; no one comes up here. Usually in places like this we at least see a fisherman or two who've put in at a boat ramp someplace.

This aerial view of Calais is deceiving; the river is wide and deep, and it looks like plenty of room to anchor, not far from the town dock ...

This might be a good place to say a word or two about the challenges of anchoring in a place like this. Anchors only work when there is enough chain to ensure the anchor shank mostly lies on the bottom, rather than being pulled upward toward the surface. For our heavy chain, that's a minimum of three times the depth of the water in very light conditions, to as much as seven or more times the depth of the water in storm conditions or high current.

In good holding in a two-knot reversing current, we need a minimum of 4:1. With a 25' tide swing, at 4:1 our circle has to be 200' greater in diameter than what we would need at low tide. If we were in a place where the bottom was flat, our minimum safe anchoring depth of eight feet, plus the tide swing, would dictate 132' of chain. With the 52' length of Vector from bow to skeg, that's a circle with a minimum diameter of 368'.

This earlier image, taken closer to low tide, tells a different story. The channel, dredged when it was important for commerce, is narrow and shallow, just 4' deep in spots. The ruins of many century-old commercial wharves can be seen on the river bottom.

All well and good, except river bottoms are not flat; they are deeper in the middle. So now we are looking for a place where there is no spot shallower than 8' at low tide anywhere in our circle, which means dropping in deeper water near the center. We found a spot where the water was just 19' deep at the lowest tide we'd see, but 40' at the highest. We put out 160' of chain, for a circle some 424' in diameter, a good two thirds of the navigable river in that spot. That said, the entire circle is navigable at all tides by boats of our draft, and at any given moment we are taking up at most 55' of it -- plenty of room to go around us.

Our original plan had been to splash the tender and head ashore in search of dinner, but it was past cocktail hour by the time we finally had the anchor set, and the current would reverse while we were away. It's our practice in swift-moving rivers, especially reversing ones, to tend the anchor for at least a couple of hours after setting, to make sure we're not moving at all.

Flux at the town dock at low tide. Ramp is steep and long. International bridge in background.

On top of that, we were down to literally our last gallon, or maybe a little less, of dinghy fuel, and we were now anchored more than three miles from the town dock. We were counting on fueling up at one of the gas stations in town, but our memories of this part of Maine are that many stations close fairly early in the evening. We did not want to chance it.

We had a nice dinner aboard instead, in quite lovely surroundings. The decision proved fortuitous when I discovered ashore the next day that, while there are a half dozen restaurants in town that are open, only one has any outside seating, and just three tables at that.

International border, as seen from the Valero station. Normally this would be a steady stream of cars and pedestrians in both directions; now, mostly unused. (Car in photo is CBP.)

Yesterday morning, having been through two changes of tide, we were quite comfortable with our set and I was ready to go ashore. The river was ebbing all morning, however, and with the freshet on top of that, I did not want to risk pushing against that much current with the dinghy low on fuel. Instead I made productive use of the morning by fashioning a basket for the e-bike's tail rack from parts on hand, knowing I'd be making a prodigious haul at Walmart.

After lunch, when the current had slackened considerably, I made the run to town. It was still blowing 20-30 all day yesterday, and I bounced over medium chop the whole way. At dead low tide, navigating the last three quarters of a mile was an exercise in reading the water, but when I got to the town float I found ten feet alongside (at a low of 3'). We could have brought Vector all the way to town and tied her up. The dock sported a pumpout, and there was some power and fresh water ashore at the top of the ramp.

Looking downriver from the top of the dock ramp. You can see some of the ruins on the muddy bottom.

I pushed the bike up the steep ramp and immediately headed for the nearest gas stations, at the foot of the international bridge. I filled a 2-gallon can as well as the 1-gallon we keep in the tender as a reserve and headed right back to the dock. Where I discovered that the collar on the 2-gallon can that holds the spout on was cracked, and there was no way to pour the gas into the tender without spilling it everywhere. While I could have used the 1-gallon can to fuel the dinghy, the 2-gallon was going to spill a lot of gas on the way home with no working cap.

I had spotted a Dollar Tree right by the gas stations, and right back I went. There were no funnels in the automotive aisle, but I found a set of three kitchen funnels where the largest size would work. That let me fuel the dinghy up, reserve can still intact, and be ready for the three mile bash back home later.

Broken retaining collar. This gas can is now garbage, since the spouts and collars are not sold separately.

That critical errand accomplished, I set out to explore the town. It's a quaint but dying historic downtown, with a handful of restaurants and shops. No one had outside tables downtown, a bit surprising to me, even though I could see some across the river in St. Stephens, NB. Clearly businesses on both sides of the river, Walmart included, are hurting from the border closure.

En route to Walmart I made stops at the post office to drop off a package, O'Reillys for some motor oil, Dunkin' Donuts for a couple of bagels for the morning, and two hardware stores in search of replacement bolts for the anchor roller (no luck). I opted to skip the nice-looking tribal museum and visitor center, which was open, as I did not feel it justified the risk of being indoors or interacting with anyone.

Looking across the river wistfully at St. Stephens, NB. This is at mid-tide and rising.

On my way back to the tender along a different route I passed the Calais Motor Inn and its on-site restaurant, Caesar's Pub, which did have a few tables on an uninspiring deck, the only ones in town other than Tim Horton's. They were not yet open, so I could not inquire about reservations, but I noted the number so I could call. By the time I made it back to the dock, the angle was less severe and I rode all the way to the float. It took a good five minutes to transfer everything, e-bike included, into the tender.

I made it home just in time for beer o'clock. I called Caesar's after we got all the provisions loaded and decontaminated, and they allowed that their outside seating was already full for the evening. Oh well. Since I had seen zero outside dining before hitting Walmart, I had picked up a package of brats for grilling, just in case, so that we would not have to thaw anything. Other than the wind it was perfect grilling weather, and we again had a nice dinner on board in spectacular surroundings.

My steed fully loaded at Walmart. New basket is piled high, with the help of a bungee net. Heaviest stuff is in the backpack. Oil (half what O'Reilly's wanted) was slung from handlebar post, straddling frame.

Louise never made it ashore in Calais, but after listening to the description and looking at the photos, she decided she had no need. We did briefly contemplate breakfast at Tim Horton's this morning, especially since there was no wind and it would have been a smooth ride, unlike yesterday's excursion. But six miles over a half hour in the tender for chain-restaurant breakfast, even a well-loved Canadian chain, was a bit much, and we decided to just weigh anchor and get moving.

If these calm conditions will persist over night, our plan is to anchor off the docks at Eastport this afternoon, and tender ashore. There is no room for us at the town dock, which is $2.50 a foot anyway and provides no water or power without ridiculously long hoses and cords. We'll be anchoring in 70'. Tomorrow we need to return to Lubec to get the rest of our mail.

The lone dinner patio in town. Not very appealing, located in the parking lot of a motor inn.

We are anchored just off Buckman Head on Moose Island, around the corner from Eastport, in a small indentation where we could find some gravel (map). We tried to drop the hook closer to town, where my chart indicated the bottom might be "pebbles," but it was rock and we could not get a set. This spot is fine in light wind, and we're just a 3/4 mile dingy ride to the Eastport town dock.


  1. When I lived in Bayside, by St. Croix Island, there were three regular ships, a small cruise ship weekly, a Cuban freighter 90 times a year, and cargo ships coming to get gravel.
    Calais has been in this state of decline for over 20 years, just sort of in limbo. When I was 19, over 50 years ago, and border restrictions were different, it was normal for border guards to just wave at you as you got to the border. We used to go to the US to buy beer before going to dances. At 19, I was legal to buy booze in the US, later, when the age in Maine was raised to 21 and lowered to 19 in Canada, the tables turned.
    I worked for a company in Canada that owned numerous salmon farming operations in the US, and I spent 3-5 days a week there between Eastport and Machias. Eastport was starting to attract tourists, but has probably faded in the 20 years since I was there. It was known for producing mustard, mainly for the sardine industry, and the last time I was there, still sold a stone-ground (as all of it was) mustard that would certainly open your sinuses.
    Enjoy your time in the area.

    1. Thanks for your comments. We very much enjoyed the whole area, and I even bought a jar of mustard in Eastport. Sad the way the border has become.

  2. Sean, not sure if you have seen or heard from anyone about this, but there is a Craigslist post about someone selling Odyssey. It provides links to your blog and travels in the bus. I saw this post on the IRV2 Forum.

    Thought you would like to know...

    1. Thanks for passing it along. Yes, I had seen it. It's a great deal for the right person, even with those issues.

  3. Why "O'Reillys for some motor oil". Walmart doesn't carry what you want?

    1. They do, and ultimately that's where I bought it (for half of O'Reilly's price). I was unsure, at the time, that I'd be able to get it back from Walmart, which was much further away.


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