A careening crisis narrowly averted

The Hurricane properly careened along the stone wharf in Pepperrell Cove in Portsmouth, N.H. Photo by Jack Farrell

In this column, I share stories from the Isles of Shoals and beyond. Some six miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Piscataqua River, this amazing place is host to a variety of interesting vessels, wildlife and people – a rest stop on the East Coast maritime highway.

August: the height of summer on the coast, even though the sunset comes earlier each day. Baitfish are everywhere around the islands and whale sightings are an almost daily occurrence on the morning freight run. Minkes have been seen in Gosport Harbor itself, and as far up into the Piscataqua River as the Coast Guard station. One day last week we almost ran one down with the Hurricane. The whale passed within a few feet of the starboard bow. Hurricane’s high foredeck rides about six feet above the bow wave, affording a terrific view well down into the water.

The hungry whale’s prey, fair-sized mackerel or pollock, could be seen swimming for their lives just a few feet ahead below the glassy swell’s surface.

Speaking of Hurricane, she’s been running strong this year. The old fuel from her long layup has finally been purged from her tanks. Last season’s emergency refastening, along with some new planks and caulking touch-ups this June, have stopped the leaks. A new steering piston promises to take the quirks out of her handling in close quarters. Plans are in the works for more cosmetic upgrades on deck and in the wheelhouse. It looks like she’ll be in the family for a while longer.

I still regularly question my sanity regarding the commitment to a 51-year-old, 51-foot wooden cargo boat, but she really is a proud old vessel, and a joy to run when things are going right. While the memories of last season’s struggles with the old girl are still fresh, the rawness of some untold stories has softened enough to share them.

There was the day last May when I took Hurricane out to the Shoals for the first time – with a load of gravel and some heavy fuel tanks. It was cool and rainy. The load settled her down a foot or so, but once it balanced out she ran fine all the way to within a mile or so of Lunging Island. The wind was blowing from the east and it was pretty cold out there. A whiff of hardwood smoke drifted into the wheelhouse as I passed alongside Ray Randall’s cottage. I figured Ray was warming himself up with a little fire until I realized that he wasn’t on the island that day. Alarmed, I opened the engine room hatch to find smoke coming from behind the engine where the shaft ran through a dry stuffing box at a bulkhead. A white oak shim behind the flange was smoldering seriously, but there was still no flame. I put the gear in neutral and doused the area with salt water from the fire bucket. This cooled things down long enough to reach the Star Island pier where manager Roger Trudeau met me. Roger and I slacked off the tension on the box and poured more cool water on the shaft.

The box, presumably the remains of an early attempt at a watertight engine room bulkhead, was situated in a way that it could not be cooled by seawater. The inevitable distortion of the old wooden hull caused by the big load had created a hard spot along the shaft’s otherwise straight line where it went through the box fitting at the unyielding bulkhead. The slightly increased friction on the shaft caused it to heat up, threatening to set the boat on fire. We offloaded the cargo as things cooled down, and the trip back to town was uneventful. A few days later I took a grinder to the troubling fitting, and the problem was solved.

A month or so later I dried the boat out at Pepperrell Cove on the inside of the big stone wharf. The critical part of this maneuver is to induce a positive list toward the wharf. I had done this successfully a few times before with Aloft using the main halyard to careen her in the right direction. As the tide ran out from under Hurricane, I secured as many lines as possible to the pilings alongside the granite, tensioning them as the water fell. She gradually leaned over nicely against the big timbers, allowing a few hours for hull inspection and re-caulking.

But even after this work, the leaks persisted. So I went back to the cove a week later to dry her out the same way and try again. But this time she was riding closer to the pilings as the tide went down, and her trim had shifted with differences in the fuel tank levels, all of which I had failed to consider. As the water level steadily dropped beneath her, I cinched up the lines – same as the week before – but was unable to induce the critical list. By the time I realized the full extent of the calamity I was in the process of creating, there was already too much weight on the keel to force her away from the pier. Since she was laying port-side to the wharf, I slid some portable tanks to the port rail and filled them with about 200 gallons of water. I doubled up all the lines to the pilings, and made them all as tight and evenly tensioned as I could. I got off the boat for a better look. As the tide continued to fall, the lines began to creak and groan under the increasing load of the 32-ton vessel, now leaning undeniably away from the wharf. I knew I was in serious trouble.

I needed help and fast, but my cell phone was in the wheelhouse and the boat was too precariously balanced to risk a trip back aboard. An incredulous bystander observed what seemed to be the inevitable: “That boat’s going over.”

“Not if I can help it,” I replied. “Can I borrow your cell phone?”

When in doubt in situations like this, I have a short list of people I can always count on. In this case Bob Eger from Warren Pond Boatworks, and my son Jake, formerly of Independent Boat Haulers – two of the most reliable and resourceful people I know – got the calls. Neither picked up, but I left messages to get over to the cove as fast as possible, and hopefully with jack stands.

The water had only fallen a foot or so beneath the grounded boat, but the lines continued to strain and creak. I imagined what the scene would look like on the evening news with the old girl rolled over on her side in the mud. In the best case the boys were at least a half hour away, and that was if they got my messages. So I looked around for some timbers to shore things up until they arrived.

Fortunately the nearby restaurant was getting a facelift, and there was a dumpster full of discarded lumber. I grabbed an armload of big stuff and set up a picket line along the hull by driving timbers into the mud and wedging them tightly against the big oak rub rail all along the starboard side. But still she seemed to move away from the pier, and the creaks and pops continued alarmingly from along the port side. Was it just the lines continuing to stretch, or were the cleats and bitts themselves giving up under the strain?

When all the right-sized lumber had been deployed, I ran up to the edge of the parking lot and grabbed a big wooden picnic table. Launching it into the falling tide with a great splash, I floated it alongside the boat to about amidships, where the water was still about three feet deep. I tipped one end up so as to slide the other as far as possible under the turn of the bilge. I braced myself in the mud and drove the table under the boat with all I had. About this time, she lurched one more time to starboard and seemed to settle against the line of shores and the wedged table.

Exhausted, and out of both lumber and good ideas, I stood knee deep in the water and wondered if my luck had finally run out.

And then Bob pulled up with four jack stands, followed shortly by Jake. With the fewest of words exchanged, the three of us and the four stands made short work of winding Hurricane back up on to an even keel and beyond. The timber shores fell away one by one as the boat leaned reassuringly back to port and against the wharf, but the picnic table stayed wedged beneath the planking.

The tide went all the way out, and Bob took another shot at finding the leaky seams. I tied lines to the tops of the jack stands and ran them back over the rail. When Hurricane finally floated again later that afternoon I pulled the jack stands over the rail so the boat could back away into the harbor. The undamaged and heroic picnic table floated up, now held by its own buoyancy beneath the bobbing hull. I had to wade back in up to my chest to haul it back to shore. Like the fabled mother who is able to lift a small car to save her child, once the crisis was over I found myself unable to lift more than one edge of the table off the ground.

That pesky leak? It continued unabated, until the boys at Warren Pond Boatworks performed the aforementioned emergency refastening.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.