MONHEGAN ISLAND


43° 45.87’N 069° 19.35’W
Charts: 13301, 13288
Chart Kit: 18 (inset), 19
Harbor chart
Midcoast Maine overview chart




PLACES that are hard to get to are often the best. Certainly visit Monhegan if you can. Unspoiled and beautiful, 1.4 miles long and .7 miles wide, it stands majestically alone, 10 miles out to sea, with its own personality and a wonderful sense of remoteness.

Monhegan was important in the early history of Maine, and to this day it remains as independent in spirit and fact as it is possible to be in these United States. As one islander put it, “What makes Monhegan different is that it’s hard to get to and hard to live on, and anything that makes it easier is a step in the wrong direction.”

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The first European to pass this way was Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524, while searching for a passage to China. Other early explorers associated with Monhegan include Estevan Gomez in 1525, who was also searching for Cathay on behalf of Spain. Then came Martin Pring for the English in 1603, soon followed by Samuel de Champlain for the French.
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George Waymouth was probably the first to document the island, in 1605. James Rosier’s contemporaneous narrative of this voyage says, “It appeared a meane high land, as we after found it, being but an Iland of some six miles in compass, but I hope the most fortunate yet discovered.”
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When Captain John Smith sailed north from the Virginia colony with two ships in 1614, he was looking for gold and copper. Arriving at Monhegan, however, he soon discovered the island’s true wealth—“the strangest fish-pond I ever saw.”
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Smith was a wonderful publicist, and his enthusiastic accounts led to early attempts at colonization of these northern regions. “During the 16th and 17th centuries,” as a placard at Monhegan’s little museum explains, “Monhegan steadily gained a reputation among European traders and explorers as the richest fishing area in the New World. It became the landfall for European mariners westward-bound.”
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Today there is still a marvelously old-world feeling in the small town, where dusty footpaths cut between rambling inns and cottages. The remaining two-thirds of Monhegan is protected woodlands, and the hiking is unsurpassed. So is the birding. Monhegan is on the flyway for spring and fall migrations of hundreds of species of land and sea birds, and the woods are alive with their sounds. The cliffs tower 160 feet above the sea like an enormous beacon, the highest on America’s east coast. Today the island marks the first landfall for sailors coming from the south, just as it did for explorers crossing the Atlantic more than 400 years ago.
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About 12 active lobstermen fish out of Monhegan. In the 1940s, Monhegan’s lobstermen voluntarily elected to limit their lobstering to a unique, six-month fishing season to conserve the fishery. Lobstering starts on “Trap Day” on January 1 and ends on June 25th, just when the season is beginning for most Maine lobstermen. Ending the season in June might conserve something else, too. “After that,” says Sherm Stanley, “we begin to catch shedders with soft shells, and the prices go down anyway.”
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Little Manana Island forms the western part of Monhegan Harbor, and tiny Smuttynose protects the north end. The harbor, though, is wide open to the southwest, and the bottom is foul. It is never easy to spend the night with your boat here in this difficult and exposed anchorage. If the weather is bad or threatening, you should not be here at all.
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Getting There. The most direct way to get to Monhegan, of course, is to sail there in your own boat, either on your way Down East or from a mainland base such as Tenants Harbor or Port Clyde. But since the anchorage is difficult, you may want to spend time here without worrying about your boat. There is no airport on Monhegan, so the only alternatives are by water.
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The easiest way is to take the mailboats Laura B. or Elizabeth Ann. The trip departs from Port Clyde two or three times daily and takes about an hour in good weather. Reservations are required (372-8848).
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The Balmy Days sails out of Boothbay Harbor to Monhegan during the summer (633-2284) and the Hardy III leaves from New Harbor (882-7909).
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Approaches. Harbor chart. From any direction, the high island of Monhegan is easy to find. Its light is visible for 20 miles, flashing white every 15 seconds. The foghorn and radio beacon are located on neighboring Manana Island. Two miles west is Manana Island lighted whistle buoy where pilots board ships bound up Penobscot Bay. Plan to avoid arriving at Monhegan late in the day, when there might not be time to retreat to the mainland before dark if the few available moorings are taken.
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From the south or west, find red lighted whistle buoy “14M.” From there you can sail directly into Monhegan Harbor from the south. Alternatively, you can approach Monhegan Island from the west, keeping can “7” and Manana Island to starboard and turning south into the harbor through Herring Gut, between Smuttynose and the town wharf.
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From the north or east, plot a course to gong “3” north of Eastern Duck Rock and then coast down the western side of Monhegan. Or find green bell “5” and pass to the west and south of Duck Rocks. Head into Monhegan Harbor through Herring Gut, between Smuttynose and the town wharf. There is 12 feet of water in Herring Gut, and it is wide enough to easily pass through even when a boat is lying alongside the wharf.
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Drunken Gut is the aptly named little passage between Smuttynose and Manana Island. It is very narrow and only has about 3 feet of water at low. Of the few who use it, even fewer are sober.
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Anchorages, Moorings. Do not anchor in Monhegan Harbor. It is crowded and exposed, and the bottom is fouled by 300 years of heavy use.
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There are no guest or rental moorings here, but a vacant fisherman's may be available. Try to find Sherm Stanley, the harbormaster, either at the town dock or aboard his boat Desperado, and ask. It is especially important in such a limited harbor not to leave your boat unattended on one of these moorings without permission.
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The harbor is exposed to the southwest and, to a lesser degree, to the northeast. Even in calm weather, the ocean swells funnel into the harbor and make it rolly. During a blow from the south, the swells are awesome, and it would be an extremely difficult and dangerous place to be.
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The lobsterboat moorings are great granite blocks, half the size of a house, and the boats have ridden out winds of 120 m.p.h.. In a blow, you might be safe enough on one of these moorings if one was available, but you wouldn't be comfortable.
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For comfort and safety, the best solution is to be on the mooring of either the Balmy Days or the Hardy III, just inside Inner Duck Rock (locally called Nigh Duck). These excursion boats arrive about 10 AM and leave about 3 PM, and they are extremely generous in accommodating yachtsmen who wish to hang on their moorings for the night. But you will need to be gone by 10 AM the next morning.
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A final possibility is to anchor inside Nigh Duck or toward Deadman Cove, where there is fair protection from southerly winds. Note, however, that the entire area from Manana to Nigh Duck to Monhegan's western shore, including Deadman Cove, is a cable area. The bottom is deep, and there is a lot of tidal current.
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It seems impossible to combine safety, comfort, and convenience on Monhegan. If you are uneasy, do not stay. The nearest alternatives are Burnt or Allen Island, Port Clyde, or Tenants Harbor.
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Getting Ashore. You can bring your boat up to the town wharf temporarily, but do not stay for long, especially if one of the passenger boats is due to arrive. Dinghy passengers can land at the ladders on either side of the town wharf anytime, but do not leave the dinghy there.
If you intend to spend some time ashore, land at one of the two tiny beaches south of the town wharf. The one closest to the wharf is Swim Beach; the one farther south is Fish Beach. Fish Beach has some broken glass and rusty iron, so Swim Beach is preferable.

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For the Boat. Come to Monhegan well prepared. In an emergency, diesel fuel is available at the town wharf by truck through the Monhegan Store, but not drinking water. There are no repair facilities. If you have engine troubles, ask for the island mechanic, and you will probably have more experts than you know what to do with.
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For the Crew. Fresh produce and limited groceries, wine, and beer are available at Carina, behind the Island Inn or at North End Market, farther to the south. The Barnacle Cafe by the wharf has baked goods and an ATM. The inns have payphones.
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Restaurants include the Island Inn, the Monhegan House Cafe, The Trailing Yew, and the Periwinkle. Make reservations early and expect to pay a premium to be eating food that has been brought out to the island for you.
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Years ago things were pretty Spartan on Monhegan, but nowadays most of the comforts of home are available, thanks not only to generators, but also to solar energy. Monhegan has in impressive amount of photovoltaic power, including the world’s first solar-powered post office.
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If your crew loves the island more than your boat, they could stay at any of the three inns—The Island Inn (596-0371), the Monhegan House (594-7983), or the Trailing Yew (596-0440).
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Things to Do. Watching the daily boats arrive at the wharf is probably the biggest entertainment on Monhegan. Don’t underestimate the show. Everyone crowds down to the dock to meet guests or send them on their way, or just to see the arriving passengers. Pickups are waiting to carry bags to the inns, and a torrent of propane bottles, lumber, and all the other fascinating miscellany needed for island life pours from the hold of the Laura B..
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Be sure to allow time to hike the beautiful trails that run across and around the island. The protected woodlands are controlled by Monhegan Associates, and this group of citizens has preserved an extraordinary private park for the public to enjoy. The family that established the present colony in 1784, Henry Trefethern and his two brothers-in-law, believed that “the rocks belong to everyone.” By the mid-20th century, however, summer people had arrived in force, and cottages were encroaching on the wild back side of the island. The formation of Monhegan Associates in 1954 halted this trend and even reversed it withthe removal of some existing buildings.
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The result today is a great expanse of beautiful land more or less in its virgin state, with 17 miles of rustic trails and breathtaking walks along the cliffs. There are forests and swamps, rocky headlands, and spectacular views to the distant mainland and islands. Trail maps are available at any of the inns or stores. Be aware that deer ticks carrying Lyme desease have been found on Monhegan, so consider wearing long pants, socks, and a good dose of insect repellant.
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A trek around half the island is more than enough for most people unless you are in great shape and want to be thoroughly tired. The maps include several warnings: “The trails are rough and wild, especially cliff trails. Walk with care.” No smoking is allowed ouside of the village, nor are any outdoor fires.
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One further warning: on the headland side of the island, the eastern shore, stay well above the tide line. If you were to fall in, the currents and undertows would make rescue difficult, if not impossible. The town library was founded in memory of two children who were swept out to sea by a huge wave.
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The great natural beauty of Monhegan has attracted artists to the island for more than a century. Today, there are 20 or more studios of working artists scattered around the town, some of which are open to the public at specified hours. A listing of these can be found on the maps posted on various bulletin boards all over the island. Among the familiar artisits who have been linked to Monhegan are George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, and Jamie Wyeth.
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The lighthouse, high on the hill above the town, is now automated and run from the Coast Guard station on Manana Island. The lightkeeper’s cottage is a wonderful little museum—one article described it as “a well-organized communal attic” —with an interesting collection of old photos, books, artifacts of the lobstering trade, and mementos of this extraordinary island and the hardships of living here.
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Recent donations have included works from some of Monhegan’s more illustrious summer residents, including a self-portrait by George Bellows and pencil sketches by Rockwell Kent. The late philanthropist Betty Noyce donated 20 more paintings and half the money to build a new gallery to display them. The new gallery is a replica of the assistant lightkeeper’s house, which was torn down long ago. Life, however, imitates art. The plans were drawn from Edward Hopper’s painting “Monhegan Lighthouse,” painted between 1916 and 1919.
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The Nigh Duck runs seal and whale-watching excursions or charters to Eastern Egg Rock, only forty minutes away, to see the puffins.
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Manana Island. Row your dinghy over to the Coast Guard ramp at Manana Island, at the northwest corner of the inner harbor. There is no float, so tie up to the railings and walk to the top of the hill for a magnificent view. The Coast Guard fog signal station is on the west side of the island.
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As you approach the coast guard station, look for a yellow "X" on the rocks across the gully to your right. This marks the "Norse runes" reportedly inscribed by Norse Explorers.
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For years, Manana was home to “The Hermit.” Ray Phillips was a food inspector in New York City during the 1920s. During the Depression, he came to Monhegan, bought one-sixth of Manana Island, and built a 12-by-15 driftwood shack. He lived there, unmarried, with his goats, his sheep, and his geese until he died in 1975 at age 83. His ashes are buried on the island. The ramshackle hut on the east side of the island is not his (his was raised because it was dangerous), but you can imagine him living there.

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From A Cruising Guide to the Maine Coast




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