Boats are “rafted up” off Jewel Island in Casco Bay on Saturday, for a gathering that possibly violated the governor’s executive orders designed to limit COVID-19 transmission. Contributed photo

While some potential out-of-state visitors have likely been deterred by Maine’s two-week quarantine or negative testing requirements, one area hasn’t seen any slowdown: the open water.

Harbormasters, marine patrol officials and boat dealers all agree that 2020 has been the busiest season in recent memory in coves, bays, inlets and waters around coastal islands from Kittery to Bar Harbor and beyond.

“The amount of boating or water-related activity, as well as the boat market, is unprecedented,” said Sgt. Matt Sinclair with the Maine Marine Patrol.

Visitors and Maine residents alike no doubt view boating as a safe outdoor activity during a pandemic that has disrupted their lives in countless ways. Mark Latti, spokesman for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said the increased interest in boating mirrors an increase in other recreational activities, such as hunting, fishing and ATV-ing. Maine golf courses, too, are seeing record business in some cases.

But the swell of boat traffic has brought with it some challenges, including reports of large numbers of boats “rafting up,” and other gatherings at private islands or islands with public access – possibly in violation of the governor’s executive orders designed to limit COVID-19 transmission.

“There have definitely been some parties broken up,” Sinclair said. “And we spend a lot of time educating about these get-togethers. Guidelines don’t stop at the water’s edge.”

A harbor master boat pulls up near some boaters on Casco Bay on Tuesday afternoon. Harbormasters, marine patrol officials and boat dealers agree that 2020 has been the busiest boating season in recent memory. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Phillip LaFrance, who lives in the oceanside Hancock County community of Brooklin, was sailing past a private island in the bay last Friday and couldn’t believe his eyes. Eight boats had moored near shore and 40 or more people were on the beach gathered around a big campfire, not physically distanced.

“It was clear someone had planned this,” he said.

On Saturday in Casco Bay, a Massachusetts doctor, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution, was on the water near Jewell Island with his wife and adult daughter when they passed a cluster of eight boats – some filled past capacity – tied together in a line offshore. The doctor, who works in critical care, said he was horrified.

Kevin Battle, Portland’s Harbormaster, said rafting up is a normal part of boating that has been tested by the pandemic.

“I haven’t seen too many big groups, but we’re hearing that boats seem to be shifting out toward the outer islands, especially on the weekend,” he said. “If we pull up to a group and tell them to spread out, you might get an expletive. Then it becomes a question of, how hard do you push?”

Jeff Lowell, harbormaster in Boothbay Harbor, said he’s seen a big increase in boats coming in from out of state, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, even as far away as North Carolina.

“We have people that are coming up and working from their boats, just to get away from wherever they were coming from,” he said.

The biggest increase in boat traffic, Lowell said, has been from larger yachts, including the 270-foot behemoth Excellence, owned by New England car dealership magnate Herb Chambers.

A sailboat heads in between Little Diamond Island and Peaks Island on Tuesday, with the marina on Peaks seen in the foreground. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Lowell said he hasn’t seen any problems with gatherings or lack of social distancing in Boothbay Harbor.

“My position here is not to monitor and run around and ask everyone,” he said. “But most people I meet and have conversations with, they are paying attention and trying to do the right thing.”

Brian Allen at New Meadows Marina in Brunswick said he’s seen an increase in traffic and has heard boat dealers are doing exceptional business. Like Lowell, he hasn’t heard of many problems.

“If they’re out there doing stuff they’re not supposed to, they don’t come in and brag about,” he said, chuckling.

At South Port Marine in South Portland, sales manager Eric Fortier said he saw a handful of boat sales fall through in March because of the pandemic, but “since then, it’s come back tenfold. It’s the best we’ve ever seen.” South Port sells a wide range of boats and has run out of inventory for some lines.

“We’ve had growth over the last five years or so, but I think we’re just seeing a lot of pent-up demand now, people who always wanted a boat and figured this seemed like a good time,” Fortier said.

A lobster boat and a sailboat pass a large yacht docked at Fore Points Marina, seen from Fort Allen Park on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sinclair, with the Maine Marine Patrol, said he’s heard many boat dealers tell similar stories.

But LaFrance, who witnessed the beach cookout on a private island, said he’s concerned that the influx in boating activity could bring more headaches. He’s lived in coastal Hancock County for 30 years and worries that some boaters are deliberately flouting COVID-19 guidelines and regulations simply because they’re out on the open water where no one will see them.

He and his wife tried to engage with the group they witnessed on Opechee Island, off Naskeag Point in Brooklin, last Friday.

“They were mad at us for ruining their good time,” he said.

Sinclair, with Maine Marine Patrol, agreed that having more boats on the water has made his job more difficult.

“We have a big area that we cover and we can’t be everywhere at once,” he said, adding that some days, the region he oversees – Yarmouth to Kittery – might have only a couple officers patrolling. “Public safety is our biggest concern.”

The U.S. Coast Guard monitors Maine waters as well, but has no jurisdiction to enforce any COVID-19 restrictions, according to Petty Officer 2nd Class Amanda Wyrick, a regional spokeswoman.

Sinclair said he and his colleagues have worked closely with the Mills administration to educate boaters about current guidelines.

“We know social distancing on a boat can be a challenge, but we also know that some boats might be filled with family members who have all been quarantining together,” he said. “I think most people have figured out what works, but human nature being what it is, we’re still going to have some issues.”


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