Navigating the Down East Loop has been on our radar screen since we completed the year-long Great Loop in 2015. The time has finally arrived!
The Down East Loop is an interesting, exciting, and challenging boat trip which circumnavigates New England and part of northeast Canada via inland rivers, the St. Lawrence, and the North Atlantic. Starting from Boston, we go through the Cape Cod Canal and Long Island Sound to New York City; north up the Hudson River, the Champlain Canal, Lake Champlain, the Chambly Canal, and the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence; out the St. Lawrence into the North Atlantic; south to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia; across the Bay of Fundy to Lubec, Maine; then south along the coast of Maine and New Hampshire back to Boston. We expect to be back in Boston in early to mid October. A map of the route helps to visualize it:
Our boat is a power catamaran with twin 75 HP diesel engines. We chose this boat nearly 10 years ago to navigate the Great Loop due to its shallow draft (only 2 1/2 feet), wide platform (17′ beam, which creates more comfortable living space below), and its fuel efficiency. The boat sleeps 6 in separate berths, although we’ve had as many as 8 on board overnight for short periods. But everything with a boat is a trade-off: the downside of a catamaran is that’s it doesn’t handle waves over moderate-size very well, especially if they’re on the bow or on the beam – so careful boat-handling is required in those conditions.
The crew for the entire trip consists of Paul Coates, Jim Small, and me. The three of us go way back, starting as skiing buddies back in the 70’s and sharing many skiing, sailing, and boating adventures over the years. Our wives/significant other will be joining us for certain parts of the trip, but they’ve opted out from being on board a small boat with the three of us for over 4 months (who can blame them??).
We left our berth on the Charles River in Cambridge at 9:00 Monday morning (5/23), with our destination being a marina just inside the east end of the Cape Cod Canal in Sandwich. The first major landmark on our way out of Boston Harbor was Boston Light, off the coast of Hull.
Located on Little Brewster Island, Boston Light has an interesting history. The original lighthouse was built in 1716, and it was the first lighthouse to be built in what is now the United States. A tonnage tax of one penny per ton was assessed on vessels docking in Boston Harbor to pay for maintaining the lighthouse. After the first keeper and his wife and daughter drowned in a storm returning to the island from the mainland, a young Benjamin Franklin wrote a ballad about the incident entitled “Lighthouse Tragedy” and sold it on the streets of Boston.
The British took over the lighthouse in 1774 when they occupied Boston, so a small raiding party of American troops burned parts of the lighthouse in 1775 to make it more difficult for arriving British ships. When the British tried to repair it, General Washington sent a detachment of 300 men in whaleboats who defeated the British guard and destroyed the repair work. A counterattack by the British killed just one American soldier while the British suffered much heavier losses.
When the British were driven from Boston in 1776, they in turn blew up the lighthouse as they departed. It wasn’t until 1783 that construction of the current masonry structure began – it was built with rubble stone and brick with 7 1/2′ thick walls at the base, tapering to 2 1/2′ at the top. Originally 75′ high, it was raised to 98′ in 1856. Today, Boston Light shines 27 miles out to sea; it is the second oldest working lighthouse in the US (after Sandy Hook, NJ), and it is the only lighthouse that is still actively staffed by the US Coast Guard. However, since the light was fully automated in 1998, the keeper primarily acts as a tour guide.
So we arrived in Sandwich just inside the Cape Cod Canal late Monday afternoon. We had our first dinner on board, courtesy of Chef Jim Small:
Transiting the Cape Cod Canal in a small boat can be a wonderful experience under the right conditions, but can be downright dangerous when the current is running hard, especially when the wind is against the current. Years ago, I was aboard a sailboat that motored into 6′ high standing waves in the canal, taking a foot of solid water over the entire length of the deck (fortunately, the hatches were closed!). For that reason, we scheduled to transit the canal at slack current, at the start of ebb tide so we would have a mild current in our favor as we traveled the 7 mile canal. Unfortunately, that occurred at 5:00 AM on Tuesday morning, necessitating setting our alarms for 4:30 AM. But as a result, we had a calm and pleasant transit with wind on our stern.
Surprisingly, construction of a canal to connect Cape Cod Bay with Buzzards Bay was first considered by Myles Standish in 1623. Planning and surveys were begun by George Washington in 1776, but the first actual excavation didn’t begin until 1880 when the Cape Cod Ship Canal Company hired 400 Italian immigrants to begin digging with shovels and wheelbarrows. That effort quickly ran out of money, to be resurrected in 1909 by the Cape Cod & New York Canal Company. Progress was slowed when they encountered huge underground boulders left by retreating glaciers; divers were hired to set underwater explosives to blow them up. The canal was finally opened in 1914, with a width of just 100′ and a depth of 25′. The federal government purchased the canal in 1928 from the private company for $11.4 million, eliminating the tolls. In the late 1930’s, it was widened to 480′ and deepened to 32′, as it stands today. Approximately 14,000 vessels of varying sizes transit the canal every year, cutting 135 miles off a trip around Cape Cod.
After transiting the canal, we had a pleasant run through Buzzards Bay thanks to wind on our stern.
We went up the Mystic River and stayed in the lovely tourist town of Mystic, Connecticut, enjoying our first ice cream cone of the trip (with many more planned!).
On Wednesday, we motored to Port Jefferson, NY, on the north shore of Long Island – we chose to cross to the Long Island side of the Sound because the wind was forecast to be from the south, so we would then be in the lee of Long Island with less fetch for the waves to build. Motoring out of the Mystic River, we passed a small house on a solid rock island:
Port Jefferson is a busy and interesting tourist town and is the terminus of ferry service between there and Bridgeport, Ct. A walk through the town was highlighted by live music from a band in the town square and an obligatory ice cream cone.
The next morning brought our first setback of the trip. Every morning before we get underway, I routinely check the oil, coolant, fuel filter, raw water separator, and bilge in both engines. This is what I found under the starboard engine:
Those red spots are coolant which leaked from the cooling system during our previous day’s run. There was more coolant further back under the engine. Not a pleasant discovery! Fortunately, I was able to find a diesel mechanic who agreed to interrupt his loaded work schedule to help us out. Thankfully, the leak came from an errant hose clamp and was fixed painlessly. Instead of our usual morning start around 8:00 or so, we were on our way by around 11:30.
A pleasant run with light winds, now shifted to our beam, brought us to City Island, NY, where we are now. We arrived a day earlier than planned since unsettled weather was forecast for today, but now isn’t expected to materialize until late this afternoon or evening and into tomorrow. We plan to make the epic run through the East River, Hell’s Gate, and around the Battery into New York Harbor on Sunday. More on that in the next post!
I would love to hear from you if you have any comments, questions, etc. as you read these posts! Feel free to post your comment or question online, or to email me separately.
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