Close Encounters With the Old Sow

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

2000 Old Sow Publishing

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."

 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.

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.

Only close-up observation—of its fountaining boils, whirlpools of all sizes and the marine birds and mammals that dwell in this monstrous tidal pandemonium—can provide a truly satisfactory viewing experience of Old Sow. Just be sure to use good sense, go with an experienced captain, wear a life preserver, and keep me posted, too, on your visit into the sty.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.