Close Encounters With the Old Sow

Local expert Robert Godfrey relates true life-and-death stories of people sucked into the Old Sow whirlpool.

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Here on the Maine-New Brunswick border, we've grown accustomed to seeing the occasional traveler take up position along the northeastern shore of Moose Island and stare out across the water. We know without asking that he's searching for the sinister maw of our whirlpool. But the Old Sow, as she's called, often disappoints. She's reluctant to disclose her mysteries from a distance. She'd rather catch the naive or careless unawares, and from up close, in a the "sty."

From This Story

 As the self-appointed President for Life of the Old Sow Whirlpool Survivors' Association, I make it my business to know who has met up with her, and how he or she has fared in her clutches. I can chuckle at the fisherman who once said, "I didn't mind so much gettin' caught in it. What I resented was havin' to row uphill to get out!" But the numerous accounts of tragic encounters give me and the folks around here a cautious respect for what we know to be the largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere, and the second largest in the world.

The reasons for the Old Sow are several. To begin with, some 40 billion cubic feet of water floods into Passamaquoddy Bay with each incoming tide and mixes with the countercurrents from the St. Croix River to the north of the bay. There's a 400-foot-deep trench to the southwest of New Brunswick's Deer Island Point that continues as a 327-foot trench to the northwest. Bisecting the trench is a 281-foot undersea mountain. All that water flooding into the bay has to negotiate a right-angle turn to get around Deer Island Point, and then it slams into that undersea mountain. When heavy winds coincide with especially high tides, it becomes liquid chaos and disaster for the unwitting seafarer.

Before the time of motorized vessels, the Old Sow regularly swallowed up boats unable to overpower its forces. Even recently, I've watched motor-powered sailboats straining for more than half an hour, barely making headway against the tremendous currents of the maw.

In one tragic event in 1835, a two-masted schooner from Deer Island set sail with two brothers aboard. She went down in the whirlpool while the poor boys' mother watched in horror from shore as the schooner sank helplessly. Those men were never seen again.

One fellow, along with his mate, ran into the Old Sow on a barge loaded with logs. The men, the logs and the barge simply vanished.

In the 1940s, a motorized freighter carrying sardines from Lubec, Maine, to St. Andrews, New Brunswick, passed over the Old Sow at precisely the wrong moment. A funnel opened beneath its bow, and the ship dropped precipitously forward into the hole. Its propeller popped out of the water. Steering her was futile, and the vessel slid slowly down the wall of the gyre. Finally, the propeller caught water again. With that and a prayer, the skipper was able to steer the freighter to safety.

I have a friend, Bill. He's a graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, and he once owned a tugboat service in Eastport, Maine. Bill was out with three passengers one day and found himself suddenly staring into a 12-foot hole in the water, at least 40 feet in diameter, he claims. His passengers, pale with fear, fiercely gripped the gunwales. Bill said it required all the power he could squeeze from his boat's motor to keep from slipping into the whirlpool.

Of course, Bill claims today that in the time-honored ship's captain fashion, and to keep up the confidence of his passengers, he displayed no outward signs of fear. Whenever he tells the story, however, he always says that the experience was one of the most horrifying events of his life.

Then there was a young man from Eastport who used to race motorboats. Ah, the invincibility of youth. Just to test the engine, he'd regularly run his boat through the Old Sow. Either the motors were very powerful or he was extremely lucky, as he survived those experiences and lived to an old age.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus