Click Here To Learn More About John McDonald
Some say it has to do with the way our barometric pressure changes so fast in summer, others claim it has to do with our being at the 45th parallel. Whatever it is, the waters off Down East Maine in summer offer sailors some of the finest sailing conditions anywhere.
But in addition to the fine sailing, Down East in summer also can produce some of the thickest fog ever seen on the planet. A thick wall of fog can change everything, not only sailing trips but lawn parties, garden weddings and, gasp, yard sales. Fortunately, fog has no effect on the region's clamming and worm digging activities.
Although other places in the world may have more fog than Down East, no other place on earth makes thicker. They tell stories down there of fog so thick you could walk on it if you could find a way to climb on top of it. Roofers are always telling tales of laying down shingles in a thick Down East fog and without knowing it, they’d nail rows of shingles right out across the fog bank. They didn’t realize it until the fog lifted and the shingles came crashing to the ground.
It’s been said that stonecutters from island quarries would take their stonecutting equipment and drill through the fog, cut it into blocks and stack it off to the side just to get it out of the way. I know it sounds like foolishness but down there they claim it’s all true – and as a storyteller I believe every word of it.
I remember one time as a kid, my grandfather and I went sailing in a homemade gaff-rigged catboat off South Addison. It was a bright, beautiful, sunny, dry, ideal August. We were heading toward Beal’s Island with the idea of going into Jonesport when a bank of fog came rolling toward us like an ugly, gray avalanche. In less than a minute we were in the middle of it – a fog so think we couldn’t see the bow.
My grandfather, an experienced sailor, was ashamed to admit that he didn’t have a compass aboard, and he had no idea where we were heading.
Grandpa said there was only one thing he could think of doing to help get us out of this mess and back to shore.
"What’s that, Grandpa?" I asked.
"We’ll have to navigate by potatoes" he said, like it was the most natural thing I’d ever heard of.
I’d heard of navigating by the stars, navigating by lighthouses, navigating by bell buoys, even navigating by the smoke stacks at the Dragon Cement plant in Thomaston. But I’d never ever heard of navigating by potatoes.
"How do you navigate by potatoes,” I asked. “And where will we get potatoes to navigate by?"
"John," Grandpa said, "You call yourself a Maine sailor and you’ve never heard of navigating by potatoes?
He shook his head disappointedly and then told me to reach down under my seat. Sure enough, I found a 25-pound bag of beautiful Kennebec russets. I pulled them out and put them on the seat next to me.
Grandpa then told me to take the potatoes and sit in the bow – one leg to a side. Once I got settled, he told me he’d continue sailing along and as he did, he wanted me to throw a potato one to each side every minute or two.
"What good will that do, Grandpa?" I asked.
"Well, I’ll listen to the potatoes hitting the water and when I don’t hear a splash I’ll turn.”
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
Would you like to read past issues of Numb As A Pounded Thumb?
Click Here