Written by Joe Guglielmetti
TRIP LENGTH: 4 Nautical Miles
HIGHLIGHTS: Experiencing the bold coast of Cape Elizabeth
DEPART FROM: Fort Point (Kettle Cove)
WATCH OUT FOR: Breaking waves at McKenney Point, Watts Ledge, and Seal Rocks, swell/waves reflecting off of cliffs, exposure to the open ocean, busy lobster fishing boats, jumping fish, dangerous quantities of ice cream nearby
THE BEAUTY OF A BOLD COAST
Paddling in Maine often involves following sections of “bold” coastline. That word describes areas where the shore is rocky, steep, and exposed. These areas provide a unique connection to the sea, shore, and wildlife.
Although most of Maine’s bold coastline runs north of Portland, there are a few sections to the south that are relatively easy to access and explore. These long veins of granite are some of the oldest rocks on Earth, originally forged in the mid-Atlantic rift and then transported 1,500 miles through tectonic plate movements. The last ice age chopped and compressed them, and then thousands of years of waves and polished them.
Richmond Island is an impressive slab of land creating the southernmost point of Cape Elizabeth. It’s connected to the mainland at low tide by a crude breakwater. The island was the site of the first European settlement in the Greater Portland area; a trading post founded in 1628.
Richmond Island’s coastline includes bright white sands, round stone beaches, and towering granite cliffs. Inured pines rise over part of the island. Otherwise, it’s rolling fields spotted with sheep and goats. The Sprague family owns and maintains the island and Ram Island Farm, which it connects to on the other side of the breakwater. But the family is very open to the community enjoying the space, provided we treat it respectfully. Overnight use is possible if arranged with the Spragues (phone: 207-799-0011).
Paddling around Richmond Island is interesting and rewarding for a person of any skill level. Even in calm weather, there’s destined to be some degree of technical challenge, and the natural beauty of this expedition never fails to overtake the most seasoned visitor. If it doesn’t impress you, you might be a robot.
PARKING, LAUNCHING AND OTHER LOGISTICS
The most convenient launch area is Fort Point, at the end of Ocean House Road, about a half mile from route 77. Although just one of the pocket beaches in this area is named Kettle Cove, most locals refer to the whole area with that name. Yes, you will want to stop for ice cream at Kettle Cove Creamery, which you pass by on your way in. But wait until after you paddle!
Once you find a good parking spot and unload your gear, the tide level will help you determine the exact location to place your boat in the water, but observe any posted regulations because you’re a good citizen. During the launch process, be extra courteous toward the busy local fishermen and women. They have a commercial launch right in the middle of the recreational area, and need their space. Remember, they always carry knives.
When determining which way to circumnavigate the island, important factors to consider are tide and wind. At mid-tide or lower, you probably can’t safely paddle over the breakwater. A portage either on Richmond Island or the mainland will be necessary. If a strong north, or northwest wind blows, do what my kayak instructor says and “forget paddling and go get a cup of coffee”.
In a typical summer southwesterly breeze, it’s generally advisable to navigate the island clockwise, or into the wind while at sea, and then downwind through Seal Cove. If the wind blows out of the east or southeast, which is more common in foul weather or outside of summer, you’re probably better off moving counter clockwise around the island.
For this trip description, we will navigate the island clockwise from Fort Point.
The crossing from Fort Point to the East Point on Richmond Island begins in a mooring field of lobster fishing boats. In addition to the fishing boats, around here you’ll often find a variety of paddle boarders. They’re great because they’re the only vessel on the sea that makes the kayak seem fast.
When embarking on the initial crossing, either head directly toward East Point on Richmond Island, or hug the mainland to McKenney Point, and then cross.
Even on a relatively calm day, swell breaks along Seal Rocks, and the ledge running out from McKenney Point. Be extra cautious of the ledge at McKenney Point, because it tightly refracts waves that can easily trap you in a dubious rocky area. Once you’re inside this break zone, it can be really tough to punch back out. One local paddler described going into the surf here as a “rock mission”. I’ve been stuck in there before, and am still not sure how I got out. It was a blur of foam and bracing.
While crossing from either Fort Point, or McKenney Point, to East Point on Richmond Island, pay attention to the influence of tidal currents and wind. It’s important to maintain some sort of range in addition to a compass bearing, to monitor your lateral movement. While the crossing appears short, it’s deceptively long (1 nm), and you should be well aware of which direction(s) you’re moving in.
Pretty soon after leaving the mainland, you’ll feel the open ocean air, and see the western edge of Two Lights State Park to the east, which is the beginning of about a mile of beautiful bold coastline that you can explore another time (and you should!).
ROUNDING THE ISLAND
The east coast of Richmond Island is jagged, and replete with shallow ledges, including Watts Ledge. Swell rolling in from the deep sea breaks here, often sharply and with tremendous force. Once in this area, you should make a solid assessment of the conditions, because from here until West Ledge on the opposite side of the island, about one nautical mile away, there are no safe shorelines to retreat toward in heavy seas. If at this point you don’t feel comfortable heading out and around Richmond Island, you can follow the north shore of the island past Little Cove to the beach at the breakwater, and then make an inner loop of Seal Cove following Crescent Beach.
At high tide in calm seas, you can pass between Watts Ledge and Watts Point without any hassle. At low tide, or in seas greater than 2.5 feet, passing between the ledge and island requires a discerning eye, and familiarity paddling in surf. If in doubt, a wise paddler will navigate around the ledge on the seaward side, and give a wide berth to the rocks. But note that this route will put you farther out onto the ocean.
Once beyond Watts Ledge, the coastline of Richmond Island grows in height and stature. This is a true bold cost, and it will likely make you feel small, but that is the beautiful feeling you’ve been searching for! Swell and wind waves reflect off the cliffs, often creating an irregular sea rhythm, and assuring that some waves will grow twice the height of the average seas. As with other bold coastlines, sometimes moving farther out to sea is the best option if you struggle with the confusing pattern of reflecting waves. But if you move farther to sea, remember, Richmond Island is the last point of land before, well, Nova Scotia, Cape Cod, or West Africa, depending on your bearing!
There are almost always interesting seabirds near the south side of Richmond Island. Loons, eider ducks, and plovers are just a few examples. Marine mammals swim about as well; harbor porpoises, seals, and even Minke wales are commonly sited here.
Clam Cove is inviting, and in calm seas is an excellent place to stop and enjoy the seclusion and beauty of Richmond Island. This is a great spot to have a packed lunch. You’ll probably find some cool lobster buoys washed up in the corners of the cove. There are trails that lead into the island from Clam Cove, but if you plan to spend a significant amount of time exploring, you’re better off landing at one of the beaches in Little Cove on the other side of the island, because should the weather or sea conditions change, from the north side you’ll be able to paddle back to the mainland in the protection of Seal Cove. As with most stone filled beaches in Maine, the rocks in Clam Cove are very slippery, so be extra careful when landing and launching.
Mussel Cove separates Western Head from Richmond Island, and you can pass through in calm conditions at mid-tide or higher. Western Head is an impressive hunk of granite, beaten by the sea for ten thousand years. But a little tuft of vegetation still clings its summit. From Western Head to West Ledge is a continuous bold coastline that is quite staggering in beauty, capped with tall trees.
Looking out to the southwest, you’ll see Saco Bay, and the long line of sand creating Old Orchard Beach, with Wood Island Lighthouse flashing at the southern point. Striped bass and bluefish live off the west end of Richmond Island, and often jump clear out of the water, bend their shining skin, and plunging back through the waves. Sometimes they thoroughly frighten a paddler! From here to Wood Island at the other end of Saco Bay is one of the most popular sport-fishing areas in the Northeast.
West Ledge is steep and uncomplicated, and navigating around it is more straightforward than the other ledges of Seal Cove. You must turn more than 90 degrees, so whatever wind, swell, and currents you’re accustomed to at this point in the journey will affect you quite differently once you change course.
A more protected stretch of water connects West Ledge to the breakwater. Here, the shoreline of Richmond Island lowers, carpeted with grazing fields. You may see sheep and goats here mowing the grass to a neat height. A vivid white sand beach appears to the east. On a summer day with blue sky reflecting from the sea, it looks like a corner of the Caribbean. This is an excellent break spot, especially for swimming. But unlike the other beaches of Richmond Island, it’s often busy with visitors, because it’s much more assessable. It’s easy to portage across this beach if the breakwater is too exposed to cross over.
FINISHING THE LOOP
To complete a proper circumnavigation, continue along the north coastline of Richmond Island up to East Point, and then cross back to Fort Point. Little Cove provides a couple of pocket beaches that you can land at, but be mindful of how slippery the seaweed is at lower tides. A few prominent paths lead into the island from the upper areas of these beaches, and you can follow them if you would like to explore the island on foot.
During the crossing from East Point to Fort Point, pay close attention to the location of Seal Rocks, and the ledge at McKenney Point. As with your crossing on the way out, take a bearing and maintain a range to ensure you stay on course. Heading in this direction, there’s a prominent Swiss style house right atop McKenney Point that makes an excellent target for a bearing.
Another option for crossing back to Fort Point from Richmond Island is to paddle from Little Cove to Crescent Beach, pass on the west side of Seal Rocks, and then follow Crescent Beach. There are rarely large waves breaking along Crescent Beach because it’s so well protected by Richmond Island and Seal Rocks. If paddling along the beach, be mindful of swimmers, and respect that the beach is part of a Crescent Beach State Park, which has an entry fee.
Once your gear is loaded, go get some ice cream!
A NOTE ABOUT SAFETY: Sea kayaking responsibly on Maine's coastal waters requires preparation, skills and knowledge. Casco Bay and the coastal waters nearby present a potentially dangerous environment due to very cold waters, busy boat traffic and exposure to the conditions of the Atlantic Ocean (including sudden fog and strong winds). This is why we encourage inexperienced paddlers to take our lessons or join our guided trips before venturing out on their own. One fundamental skill that is essential for sea kayaking is the ability to rescue someone (including yourself) from a capsize. It can be extremely difficult to re-enter a kayak in cold and turbulent water. Anyone who paddles in the exposed waters of Casco Bay without this knowledge (or someone else who has that knowledge) is taking an extremely high risk. Sign up for our "Rescue Clinic" to learn these rescue skills.
Richmond Island information: http://www.ramislandfarm.com/richmond-island
Local marine conditions: http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=44007
Local NOAA Chart (online viewing only): http://www.charts.noaa.gov/OnLineViewer/13290.shtml