Darkness and low clouds cloaked Portsmouth Harbor, with sunrise still more than an hour away. The boat’s searchlight struggled to pry open the gloom. At the helm, the chart plotter’s screen revealed what the crew couldn’t see: Fishing Island, a 1-acre ledge that rises up near the Kittery shoreline.

The idea was basic but complicated. Nose the boat up to the island on a falling tide without becoming stuck, step onto seaweed-slick ledge, reverse course without striking rocks and motor into the open Atlantic. Then go fast enough in a dark, choppy sea to arrive in Kennebunkport, 26 miles away, within 49 minutes.

Why the rush?

Ford Reiche, the boat’s owner and captain, estimated that if he left Kittery on the New Hampshire border at 4:30 a.m. and maintained an average speed of 30 mph, he could stop at 30 Maine islands and reach the Canadian border town of Lubec by 8:21 p.m, a half-hour past sunset. It would be historic. A passage like this, a 300-mile dash along the entire Maine coast in a day, had never been done before.

Why attempt this?

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Maine Island Trail Association is encouraging members to explore the 375-mile water trail this summer by creating the 30-in-30 Challenge. The goal is to set foot on at least 30 of the trail’s 226 wild islands and mainland sites before Oct. 8.

The Maine Island Trail is considered America’s first recreational water trail. It winds along the coast from Kittery to Lubec. By paddle, motor or sail, most MITA members traverse the trail in segments, or just visit local favorites. Some dream of traveling end to end, as do hikers on the Appalachian Trail.

With Mark Fasold and Doug Welch on the bow, Ford Reiche’s boat approaches the seaweed-covered ledges of Rodgers Island in Lubec. Rodgers is the eastern-most stop on the Maine Island Trail. Staff photo by Tux Turkel

No one, however, had tried to complete the entire island trail journey is less than 24 hours. And the idea of stopping to touch 30 MITA islands while racing end-to-end, that wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen.

A MITA trustee and longtime adventurer, Reiche thought it was possible to do both.

On Aug. 13, Reiche and a crew made up of two other MITA leaders, Doug Welch, the executive director, and Mark Fasold, the treasurer, completed a voyage that was both longer and faster than anticipated. And it hit more islands than planned.

Reiche’s boat traveled 310 miles along the entire Maine coast in 13 hours, stopping at 36 islands, setting a record.

It began with an idle thought. At a MITA trustee meeting last May about the 30-in-30 concept, Reiche slipped Welch a note that read: “How about 30 in 24?”

Thirty islands in 24 hours seemed doable to Welch. He knew Reiche, who bought and renovated Halfway Rock Lighthouse in Casco Bay, as an able mariner who once did a record-breaking, 408-mile speedboat trip from Portland to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

After the meeting, Reiche upped the ante. How about starting in Kittery and ending in Lubec, the trail’s new terminus?

Welch didn’t blink. He knew Reiche owned a 25-foot SAFE Boats International Defender-class, military-grade response boat, bought at a Coast Guard auction. Its aluminum hull can run up on rocks. Its rigid-foam collar doesn’t mind kissing a ledge. Twin 250-horsepower Yamaha outboards can catapult the boat onto plane in 4 seconds and a night-vision thermal camera allows navigation in the dark and fog.

“If I hadn’t known about his boat, I might have thought he was just talking smoke,” Welch said. “But I knew he had a boat that might be able to accomplish this.”

Welch, who traveled the trail from Portland to Cutler in his 17-foot Boston Whaler in 2015, said he hopes news of the epic one-day trip will inspire more residents to discover the beauty of Maine’s coast and its wild islands.

“Almost no one can do it all in a day,” he said. “But I did it over two weeks in a Whaler on a shoestring budget, and it was a life-changing trip for me. There’s room for different approaches to explore this extraordinary recreational resource.”

One boating expert, though, had mixed feelings about MITA’s 30-in-24 accomplishment.

“It’s antithetical to the trail itself,” said Bob Muggleston, editor of Points East Magazine, which covers recreational boating in New England. “I think the whole idea is to slow down. Take your time. Spend a night or two on an island. That’s what’s so great about the island trail. You feel like you’re in a different world.”

Muggleston lives in Connecticut and visited a midcoast section of the trail two years ago, in a 14-foot daysailer. But he says he also can understand MITA’s motivation to test the limits of what’s possible.

“Anything from a promotional standpoint that sheds light on this amazing trail, I’m all for it,” he said.

THE COURSE, AND CORRECTIONS

Reiche and the MITA crew spent two months planning the trip. Weather, at first, threatened to cut it short.

Rough seas from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth made for a pounding ride and kept speed down. This cast doubt on whether the end-to-end journey could be done before nightfall.

But in both Casco and Muscongus bays, smooth water made it possible to quickly tag a dozen islands on the list. An added and unexpected break came when clearing skies and tame seas appeared along Maine’s Bold Coast. That remote, craggy stretch of eastern Washington County is known for fog and rough weather. It could have been a dangerous place after dark.

The course from Kittery to Lubec followed what mariners call a Rhumb line, an imaginary path on the Earth’s surface that cuts all meridians at the same angle. But Reiche’s boat is no seagoing Prius. Like a race car, it requires frequent pit stops, every 100 miles of so. That meant choosing islands not too far from gas docks at New Castle, New Hampshire; Peaks Island/Portland; Port Clyde; Northeast Harbor; Jonesboro; and Eastport.

The typical way to visit a remote island is to pull onto a beach or a shallow landing spot. Fasold brought a folding boarding ladder, to rig onto the boat’s pilot house. The initial thought was to climb over the gunwale into the sea.

But Reiche’s boat can’t go in shallow water; it’s too heavy to move with human power. So the priority shifted to finding deep water next to a rock face, where Reiche could ease in but remain afloat.

Fasold and Welch instantly recognized the problem, squinting through the darkness at 4:37 a.m. at Fishing Island. Neither wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

“What do you say we just touch this and forget the ladder?” Welch said, lifting his foot over the bow.

“Yeah,” Fasold replied.

“One out of 30,” Welch said, as Reiche threw the Yamahas into reverse.

Touching the islands, rather than getting onto them, cut in half the 10 minutes Reiche had allotted for each stop. By 8:25 a.m., the boat was refueled, clearing Casco Bay and rushing into open ocean off Harpswell, with 13 islands already checked off. For the first time, Fasold thought it might be possible to arrive at the Canadian border before dark.

“We’re 25 minutes ahead of schedule after leaving Eagle Island State Park,” he said.

Reiche turned from the helm and sounded a cautionary note, quoting from the classic song “Uncle John’s Band.”

“And in the words of the Grateful Dead, ‘When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.’ ”

‘GRAND AND BEAUTIFUL’

But danger stayed largely away. After dodging a billion or so lobster buoys, the propellers got tangled in pot warp only once, snagging a submerged trap line while backing up. At one island, Fasold got his foot caught between the boat and a ledge. He suffered only a bruised ankle.

“It’s 10:59,” Reiche announced, as the boat passed Thomaston. “Thirty-four knots. Passing Muscle Ridge Channel. Welcome to Penobscot Bay.”

Eighty minutes later, the vessel was off Stonington and threading its way through Merchant’s Row and its 65-island archipelago. Here, islands of pink-gray granite, rimmed with spruce, radiate out like stones skipped across the bay.

After a fuel stop in Northeast Harbor, the boat cleared Schoodic Point and was headed Down East. At 2:35, one aspect of the mission was accomplished: Island No. 30, Bois Bubert. Roughly 200 miles from the start point and 10 hours of travel time.

Ahead lay the Bold Coast, 20 miles of rockbound, open ocean between Cutler and Lubec. Because the shoreline is so exposed and remote, MITA refrained from including the Bold Coast on the trail until this year. On this day, though, the sea was calm. By 4:30 p.m, the iconic red-and-white tower of West Quoddy Head Light was in view and at 5:22 p.m., Welch and Fasold touched Rodgers Island in Lubec. Trail’s end. Island No. 36.

Regrets? It would have been nice to linger, to experience what’s special about each island. Instead, it was like visiting Paris to view art and sprinting through the Louvre.

But to see the entire Maine coast by water, close up, in a day: That was a trip of a lifetime.

“It was the totality of it,” Fasold said. “I knew it was grand and beautiful, but it was way past anything I had imagined.”

 

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