A brief break from winter and a not-so-mild boat ride

Star Island’s West Bay 34 Almeda at the dock. She did well in a rough passage.

March/April 2022

By Jack Farrell

During a short break from winter’s grip in late February, the temperature along the coast rose briefly into the high 60s. At Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the care-takers had been out of fruit and vegetables for weeks. We took advantage of the break in the weather to make a run to the islands in the Almeda, Star Island’s trim and snug West Bay 34.

A noon departure had given time for the strengthening sun and southerly breeze to create balmy conditions we may not see again for a few months. With windows open and smiles all around, we headed out with a full load of groceries and a big sack of mail. In addition to island staff on a pre-season reconnaissance trip, we also had on board a scientist from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services on a water quality sampling mission. It felt good to get out again.

The ride out was lively, as the last of the incoming tide against the strong southerly had built the usual steep Piscataqua chop which required throttling down a bit. We still made it out in about an hour. Brad and Alex greeted us at the dock, a little more talkative than usual – likely due to the fact that they had been out there alone for about six weeks by that time, and we had the vegetables and frozen pizza. Brad hauled the groceries up over the granite pier in a canvas sack suspended from a salvaged length of pot warp, and we headed ashore to look at recent storm damage and to take some measurements for spring projects.

An hour later it was time to head back. Winter’s brief reprieve had abruptly ended with a wind shift to the west and fresh gusts into the 20s. Waves in the harbor were already building when we rounded up near the breakwater for the first water sample. The crew donned flotation gear and went outside to collect water in a fire bucket. I did my best to keep the bow in the wind as they struggled to fill the sample bottles while the little boat pitched and rolled in the harbor shallows.

When we emerged from the island cove’s modest protection, we were pounding into four footers, nearly on the nose. The boat performed well and felt comfortable in spite of the thrashing, except that her especially shallow draft (a modification by the builder for her former life in summer amid the bars and banks south of Cape Cod) allowed the propeller to rise almost completely out of the water from time to time. This caused the engine to struggle noticeably, which did little to inspire passenger confidence.

When we arrived at the coordinates for the second water sample, a mile or so from the mouth of the Piscataqua, the waves were about six feet high and very steep. It took what seemed like a very long time to collect the samples. In spite of my efforts to keep the bow into it, the wind kept blowing us off, causing the boat to roll sideways in the troughs. After a few minutes of this, our intrepid veteran island engineer went below without saying a word. I was about to advise him against lingering very long down there when I looked forward to see him curled up, head in hands on the vee berth, his body loosely wrapped in a damp tarp. On the dock back in town, as the gusts blew sand and salt across the parking lot, he joked that he thought I had been trying to kill him out there. After a few minutes ashore with his composure regained, he admitted that it had really only been a six out of ten on the scale of terrible trips. Don has been on some bad ones, I remember. I think he was about right.

Progress on Shining Star

The last six weeks or so have seen a whirlwind of progress on the new boat, our Mussel Ridge 46, the Shining Star. The original optimistic budget has been blown for some time, but we have a great crew and the work is beautiful. The engine is now installed, the house top and foredeck sections are attached to the hull, intermediate hull framing (required by passenger vessel safety standards) is in place. The main deck is being laid, and work is progressing in the cabin.

While I have owned a lot of boats in my life, this is the first time I have been involved from the beginning in the design and building process. The choices to be made are endless: mooring hardware and location, window and door layout, deck seating and access, main cabin and forecastle planning, safety gear and placement, electronics, plumbing, pumps, tanks, etc., etc. All of the choices are expensive, and any one of them could be later rejected by the Coast Guard on final inspection (their rulebook is about two inches thick, and they are not afraid to use it). Plans and equipment may be Coast Guard-approved, but federal jurisdiction includes just about everything on a passenger boat, and with thousands of components and design choices involved, there is a lot of room for interpretation. A constant refrain around the shop these days is, “Sounds good, but what will the Coast Guard say?”

The project is right on schedule (if not on budget), and I am still hopeful for a late May launch celebration. We had some good news the other day from a local fisherman who has a sister ship with the same engine. He says his fuel consumption is much lower than what I was estimating – down around seven gallons an hour instead of twelve – at reasonable speeds. I was thinking the other day about how this boat is likely to outlive me, and it occurred to me that this could be the only diesel engine the boat ever sees. When the inevitable replacement time comes around, options might well include hybrid, electric and even hydrogen. We live in extraordinary times.

Speaking of which, most of my everyday concerns and worries seem embarrassingly trivial in light of the destruction and suffering now being needlessly inflicted on the people of Ukraine. The situation reminds me that there are real heroes and real villains at large in this world. This new war in Europe, as distant as it may seem from the tranquility of our favorite places like the Isles of Shoals, reveals that our lives of security and prosperity are terribly fragile, dependent upon a functioning democracy, a peaceful world; and on the intelligence, goodwill and integrity of those in positions of power.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Islands at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.