Close Encounters With the Old Sow

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

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Another Eastport resident, Skip, told of a time as a young man that he, his cousin, and his uncle were fishing in his open motorboat. As they neared Dog Island, just off the northeast end of Moose Island, Eastport, and a short distance from Deer Island Point, their forward progress unexpectedly slowed, even though they were sailing with the direction of the tide. Skip heard a loud noise astern, and when he glanced behind, there spun a large whirlpool, pulling the boat backward.

 Skip's cousin, filled with fear, attempted to jump overboard to swim to Dog Island, but the uncle grabbed him just in time, probably saving his life.

Skip recalled his father's advice: "If you ever get caught in Old Sow, don't fight it. Just keep control of the boat, prevent it from swamping, and you'll be thrown back out of it." Skip kept a cool head, followed the instructions, and sure enough, they were spun out of the vortex and survived to fish another day.

I know a freighter captain whose house overlooks the Old Sow. Just a few years ago, a windjammer from mid-coast Maine passed through the whirlpool during peak tidal activity. There were about 15 people on deck at the time. He stated, "The captain didn't know what he was doing! The ship made an abrupt 90-degree turn to starboard when it hit Old Sow, listed, and the mast swung around!" The crew and passengers on deck still may not know how lucky they were to have passed without anyone falling overboard, or worse.

During a recent summer, my friend Dave, a seasoned sailor and artist who lives on Deer Island, sailed with a buddy in his small motorless sailboat just south of Cherry Island, which is to the south of the major whirlpool activity. Suddenly—as if the ocean had fallen from beneath them—they dropped below the normal surface so far that they could only see the water walls of the hole they were in! A few seconds later, they popped back up, the sea returning to normal, as if nothing had occurred. Dave estimated the hole to be about 12 feet deep.

If you know Dave, you might doubt this account, especially since he also recalled that he had once been becalmed for ten days while sailing in Passamaquoddy Bay, unable to get to shore. "Luckily," he said, "I had enough beer to survive!"

When in a human-powered vessel, it pays to know when the Old Sow will awaken. Two summers ago, a couple of kayakers ventured too close to Old Sow. The man made it safely away, while his wife, spinning helplessly in the vortex, had to be rescued.

Last year, a local couple were powering their Boston Whaler through the Western Passage, the body of water between Maine and Deer Island. Suddenly they found themselves in a deep, long trench in the water. The trench was over a mile long—from just north of Dog Island, Eastport, to near Clam Cove, Deer Island.

Not too long ago, a body washed ashore at Carlow Island in Eastport. Was this the result of a fatal encounter with the Old Sow? No one will ever know.

Although the Old Sow has caused misery and hardship, it also offers worthwhile lessons in physics, biology and chaos. So if you're thinking about coming up here to Eastport or getting a glimpse of the activity from over on Deer Island, don't be too disappointed if you can't see much of it from the surrounding land. The surrounding terrain really isn't high enough to get a good view. From a distance, too, you can't fully appreciate the boils, trenches and currents.

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