Saturday, September 12, 2020

Bangor bust

We are underway downbound on the Penobscot River, after a somewhat surprising five full days in Bangor, Maine, which was not a bust at all (I could not resist the play on words, which also serves as a reminder of how to pronounce "Bangor"). The river is like glass, and I have a knot of current behind me. Right now it's a perfect day, in the low 60s, although it was 46° when we awoke this morning.

This mural is along the main crossroad to Brewer. The rooms above appear to be a flophouse; Bangor has a large homeless population.

We had a lovely night at Swans Island after my last post. As I was looking at the chart for the morning route, I realized we'd been to Swans before, except we were on the opposite, south end of the island, in Burnt Coat Harbor, where we met up with friends. Before we weighed anchor I did a quick inspection with the underwater camera from the tender; it appears we still have a line caught in our port fin, with a small pot float attached. I can't reach it without diving.

Castine, Maine, home of the Maine Maritime Academy. Ship at left is their training vessel, State of Maine.

We got under way on a fair tide and worked our way around a number of small islands on our way to Eggemoggin Reach. Here we retraced our steps from five years ago, passing under the Deer Isle Bridge and out into Penobscot Bay. We then turned north into new territory for us, rounding Cape Rosier and continuing upriver to Nautilus Island and Castine, where we dropped the hook in a small cove near Henry Island, behind a barge mooring (map).

We were a little apprehensive about arriving to a coastal town in the middle of a holiday weekend, especially since Castine, at least among boaters, is overhyped. As it turned out, the place was dead. It's a quaint town and we strolled around, but the lone restaurant with outside seating was dark for Sunday, even on the holiday weekend. The waterfront place never opened this season, the hotel's restaurant is closed for the pandemic, and the only going concern right on the corner was indoor-only. Moreover, it was not properly spaced and folks were not being careful.

Sunset from our anchorage in Castine, over sandwiches. Barge in foreground is a notch barge hailing from Oyster Bay, NY. It looks to have been there a long time.

Right near the town dock is a small grocery (more like a c-store) with a service deli. We picked up a couple of home-made sandwiches and brought them back to the boat for dinner. The sandwiches were actually pretty good, including my homemade meatball sandwich. It was a pretty stop, but we have no need to repeat it on the downbound leg.

Penobscot Narrows Bridge, and beyond, the town of Bucksport.

Monday morning we weighed anchor with the flood and continued north through the upper reaches of Penobscot Bay. Rounding the first corner at Dice Head, coming out of Castine, the chart had me swing wide to keep clear of the security zone around a "wind turbine," but we saw no such turbine in the water. It turns out to have been an experimental floating system run by the university that is now long gone, but the security zone and its marker buoys remain.

A few miles later, the bay narrows down to the Penobscot River, right around the tip of Verona Island. The river is narrow, deep, and scenic, and we had a lovely cruise. Eventually we came to the Penobscot Narrows, just downriver of Bucksport, and under the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. We crossed this bridge in Odyssey a decade ago, when it was relatively new, and I lamented that we did not know the observatory at the top of the west tower was open. I was surprised to see it open and full of tourists as we passed beneath it in Vector.

Fort Knox, guarding the narrows. Not the one with the gold.

One of our options was to stop for the night in Bucksport after passing the narrows. As we approached, we could see Bucksport was very busy, a fact we attributed simply to Labor Day. The town was full of cruiser motorcycles, and there was a lot of activity on the water, with myriad small boats packing the docks, most sporting Trump campaign flags. We decided it would be a safer and more pleasant visit on the downbound leg, and, with plenty of fair tide left, we opted to continue all the way to Bangor, the head of navigation.

Vector at anchor in the Penobscot at Bangor, as seen from Brewer. Hollywood Casino in background.

From Bucksport to Bangor, an easy and scenic cruise, we passed four more small-boat marinas, and all seemed unusually busy, with yet more Trump flags. I became concerned we'd arrive to find a zoo in Bangor, with no place to dock or anchor. Going ashore in safety was less of a concern, as we knew we could just wait until the holiday weekend was over. When we passed a public greenspace filling up with lawn chairs facing the river and yet more Trump flags, I finally connected the dots and realized it was a boat parade.

Fortunately, we arrived in Bangor ahead of any happenings. The city transient docks were empty, and the river was devoid of boats, anchored or otherwise. We dropped the hook across from the city docks, on the Brewer side of the river, in a spot marked on our charts. The flood was still running, and the wind was blowing upriver at 25-30 as I spun the boat around and we lowered the anchor.

Bangor (and Brewer, right) at night from our quiet anchorage.

I'm not sure what sort of boat anyone was in when they marked this spot as a viable anchorage; probably nothing larger than a center console. But we found the bottom to be scoured down to rock, and after dragging the bottom for 50' in two different spots, we instead headed back downriver to another marked spot near the amphitheater, indicated as "good for concerts." We found the same bottom conditions here and once again had to regroup.

Lots of streets have these colorful barricades to make more outdoor dining.

We gave it one more try a bit further downriver, across from the casino, before we'd give up and just tie to the dock at $70 per night. The third time's the charm, as they say, and after dragging for 20' or so, the anchor grabbed in what we assume to be some gravel (map). We were holding fast, so we put out a bit more scope and the snubber and called it good enough until we could see what would happen when the tide changed.

Thus we were relaxing in the saloon, glad to be inside and out of the 30kt wind, when the aforementioned Trump boat parade arrived. It turns out that it was both a boat and a motorcycle event, and the bikers had arrived in town ahead of the boats and were lining the city waterfront and making quite the ruckus as the boats turned around to head back to Bucksport, the nominal starting point. It was a bit amusing to watch some struggle in the small-craft-advisory conditions, and we half expected a repeat of Austin, but it seems they all made it out. Of course, they did stir the river up, and waked us in both directions.

Trump boat parade between us and town. This picture does not capture the chaos.

By dinner time it was blissfully quiet, and, confident our anchor was holding in both directions, we splashed the tender and headed ashore. There's a brewpub right at the top of the dock with lots of nice patio seating, but we opted to walk the few blocks to downtown instead. We are glad we did.

West Market Square downtown, with several eateries. We ate at Blaze, right in the square.

Unlike tourism-driven coastal Maine, where the downtowns can often look like caricatures of themselves, Bangor has a practical yet eclectic downtown that has arisen organically over two centuries. The core is vibrant, at least given the circumstances, with a dozen or more eating and drinking establishments, a handful of shops, and the sort of infrastructure you'd expect to find in one of the state's largest cities. And they've gone the extra mile to block parking spaces and even whole streets or sidewalks to create more outdoor dining during the pandemic.

We opted for the roped-off sidewalk in front of Blaze, a tiny regional chain of wood-fired oven places (we had seen one in Bar Harbor). Several restaurants are right here in the market square, and on a pleasant, if windy, evening, all had outside patrons. The food was excellent and the staff friendly; we can recommend it, although we did not try the pizza on this visit.

This whimsical sign is on the Maine Discovery Museum.

Tuesday I returned ashore stag to do some exploring. Almost immediately I bumped into the enormous Shaw's grocery store, the nicest we've seen in quite some time. I loaded up on fresh produce and a number of other items on the provisioning list, which I then ended up hauling all over town. I scoped out a number of other dinner options, and enjoyed walking along the Kenduskeag Stream, once the center of commerce in Bangor.

Century-old courthouse.

A man-made island divides the stream into a pair of canals, and once held the Customs House, post office, and other important structures, all destroyed in the great fire of 1911. The island is now all parkland, and looking downstream it is easy to envision the schooners that used to land here at high tide. The railroad crosses the mouth of the stream on what use to be a swing span, now welded closed. Sadly, the historic and beautiful Bangor Union Station, serving the Bangor and Aroostok and the Maine Central railroads was demolished at the end of passenger service, to be replaced by an uninspiring strip mall.

Downtown Bangor is now the head of navigation on the Penobscot, although at one time, schooners could travel another mile or two by passing through the very narrow swing span of the Bangor-Brewer rail bridge. The bridge is still in service, running across granite abutments over a century old, but the swing span is now fixed. If we timed the tide, we could take Vector past both the highway and rail bridges and make it most of the way to the old (1875) Bangor Dam or even a bit beyond -- the dam collapsed from disrepair after Bangor realized they were drinking the effluent of upriver industry.

Rail bridge over the Penobscot. Very narrow spans at left were once the swing spans; the turntable pier is leaning a bit. Well upriver, center frame, are the remains of the water works and dam.

During the course of our week I went ashore a couple more times, wandering a bit further around town and also crossing the river to Brewer. There are actually two nice waterfront restaurants in Brewer, including a brewpub close to where we anchored, but Brewer has not seen fit to provide any access for boats. Tying up to the shoreline is out of the question with a 12' tide swing, so the only way to get there is a very long walk over the bridge.

Yesterday we passed this 9/11 memorial at the firehouse. One of thousands nationwide.

Well, really what I mean is the only safe way, for us, during the pandemic. Bangor/Brewer does have a transit system, and I saw numerous buses throughout the area on my walks. In normal times, I would gladly have hopped on a bus to go out and see the Cole Transportation Museum, or the Paul Bunyan Statue -- Bangor is the historic capital of the Maine lumber industry. But neither of us is comfortable using public transit right now, and we only have one bicycle between us. None of these opportunities warranted tying up to the dock long enough to offload scooters.

It was refreshing to be off the tourist trail for a bit and in a real city that felt safe and comfortable to us. That's why we lingered as long as we did, and, honestly we could easily have stayed another week. However, it is getting late in the season, the clock is ticking on our Maine visit (we are allowed 60 days), and we have some more cruising we'd like to do before leaving the state.

New latch to keep the freezer closed. Needs a bit of finish, including replacing the tape at left, which keeps the bolt from scratching in the open position

No stay of several days would be complete without a passel of maintenance projects, and this was no exception. Starting with the camera system, which was inaccessible from the Internet when I checked before our first visit ashore. I like to be able to check in on the boat if we're away during an early tide change to make sure we're not dragging. That turned out to just be a bad Ethernet cable, the replacement of which involved spelunking under the helm to its very far reaches -- a tight squeeze.

Innards of an automotive cube relay "welded closed."

Early in our stay the master head macerator pump made a very loud noise and jammed, the second time this has happened in the last few months. I'm suspecting some part of the innards has worked loose and jammed in the pump. Trying to unjam it electrically just caused yet another relay to weld its contacts closed, and so I now must bit the bullet and take the thing apart, a dirty job. I've ordered a replacement pump, just in case; I don't want to get it all apart and find I can't fix the one that's in there without the spare on hand. In the meantime, we're using the forward head.

I also pulled the refrigerator out of the cabinet for the first time since the cat passed away. It's been drawing more power, and I wanted to clean the coils and see what else I could do. Previously that was difficult to do on account of the automatic litter box which lived next to it in the same cabinet. While I had it out, I fabricated a latch to keep the freezer door tightly closed at all times; it has a habit of popping open a very small amount when the fridge door is closed. Also while I was back there I added a much needed power outlet under the flybridge stairs.

The line at Bagel Central this morning. Good, but we're a long way from New York.

In addition to the aforementioned Blaze, we also had nice meals at Portland Pie (a pizza joint), Seadog Brewing right by the dock, and Evenrood's, whose logo is a dragonfly like the character from The Rescuers. We ate at home last night since the temperature, which had been lovely all week, plummeted into the 50s.

This morning we weighed anchor and brought Vector to the dock to top up our water tank. While we were filling I ran downtown and grabbed a couple of breakfast bagel sandwiches from Bagel Central, which was packed on a Saturday morning. As was the coffeehouse just down the block.

The view from our anchorage this afternoon. Narrows bridge and Fort Knox. Bucksport is off-frame to the right.

Update: We are anchored in the Eastern Channel of the Penobscot, near the Verona Bridge in Bucksport (map). Bucksport looks not nearly as busy as last weekend, even though it is Saturday. We'll go ashore this afternoon in the warmest part of the day. We had a lovely cruise back downriver; some of the trees are just starting to turn. I expect we will have some spectacular fall color before we are finished in Maine.


  1. Hello,

    Thank you so much for visiting our city! You said so many beautiful things and really captured the spirit of Bangor. Safe and happy travels to your next adventure.

    1. Thanks for reading. We really enjoyed Bangor.

  2. Sounds like a truly lovely stay in Bangor! It makes perfect sense there would be a Trump boat parade during a small craft advisory. We tried to text you that we heard it was coming, but the message didn't go through.

    1. It was lovely. I can recommend it to you for your next boating season. You can probably tie right to the dock.


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