A happy little ship, and staying busy

Hurricane is more or less trouble-free these days, sans ice in her bilge, and still ferrying supplies out to the Isles of Shoals. Photo by Jack Farrell

As I write this dispatch we are in the deep dark weeks of full winter. The days have just now begun to lengthen, although so far it’s pretty hard to tell. The record early cold and snows of November were happily followed by seasonable temperatures, and just a flurry now and again. The big snows have been falling only in the mountains, and I’ve yet to shovel either decks or dock. Both Hurricane and Utopia are in the water at their berths on the Piscataqua, and both bilges are thankfully free of ice. This is a great relief after the sustained bitter cold of last season, when, in spite of layers of quilts and tarps, the engine room bilge in the Hurricane held a foot thick block of solid ice for more than a month.

At Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, late season work on major projects continued through early January. The old Hurricane has made three winter trips so far ferrying a total of six, 8 x 13 foot fiberglass tanks for the new wastewater treatment system. With a little pre-heat to the engine block for a few hours, she starts right up on the coldest mornings. In spite of the subfreezing conditions in the wheelhouse, if you pick your days carefully, the wintertime trips can be awfully nice.

As regular readers of this column may remember, my relationship with the Hurricane has had its ups and downs since I took her over almost two years ago. The old girl’s behavior this past season, however, has lifted her back into my good graces – allowing the romantic (quixotic?) notion of keeping her working through her sixth decade to flower once again. Her Cummins diesel has always been strong, but she was laid up for most of the past 12 years, and that’s never a good thing for the reliability or longevity of an old boat. It does finally seem as though the worst of her worn-out peripherals (hoses, pumps, shut-off solenoid, hydraulic steering cylinder, reduction gear seal, battery charger and more) have failed and been replaced for now. The best part is that the leaks in her cedar-planked hull that plagued me during her first year have all but stopped, thanks to a full refastening, a few new planks, and perhaps most importantly, to keeping her in the water the whole year round. She’s a happy little ship for the moment, and it’s great fun to watch the shore slide by from her salty old-school wheelhouse with a full load of important stuff on her cargo deck. Call me smitten once again.

The winter projects for the Hurricane include shortening the 30’ steel mast so that we can fit under the Memorial Bridge at all tides without a lift, and a remodel of the wheelhouse begun last summer that will provide better passenger seating and gear stowage, and some updated finishes. We’re hoping Warren Pond’s Bob Eger will stay out of retirement long enough to make that happen. He’s among the last of a breed of wooden-boat specialists, and we should all be wondering who will care for these old boats when the likes of Bob are done for good.

The other big winter project is a new workshop and barn, which includes a long-awaited shed for our wooden sailboat, Aloft. The new shed is 16’ wide by 48’ long, and about 20’ high in the middle. It is built of native Maine pine, sheathed in a combination of board and batten, and corrugated metal. The floor is bank-run gravel surfaced with crushed stone to keep the mud and dust at bay and out of the boat. The groundwater is not far below the surface on our site, and the shed is on the dark north side of the new barn up against some woods. This should provide the best possible conditions to prevent the hull from drying out over the winter and into the spring before each season’s launch.

Many years ago, when we owned our first wooden sloop, a Hinckley Pilot we called Hopestill, we had such a shed near our house. This allowed me to lavish attention on the boat whenever a free moment presented itself. It takes the right environment and lots and lots of time to keep a wooden boat looking good, and for a while we had it. But we had to sell that property when the bottom fell out of the local economy over 30 years ago, and I’ve been trying to find a way to get this new shed built ever since. In the meantime we have kept our boats at a variety of boatyards that allow owners to do their own maintenance, but that’s neither as convenient nor as satisfying as having the boat tucked away in a snug shed right at home.

Years ago there was a fellow named Fritz in Stratham, N.H., who had a real nice boat shed behind his house, a half-mile from the shores of the Great Bay estuary. Compromise, as the boat was fittingly called, was an older wooden motor sailer designed by John Alden. (Compromise was later sold to Texas author Joe Coomer, who renamed the boat Yonder, and chronicled his misadventures learning the ways of the boat and the coast in his book “Sailing in a Spoonful of Water”). Compromise had a cozy saloon with an iron woodstove around which Fritz and his buddies would congregate in the evening for drinks, meals, cards and cigars on summer cruises at the Shoals and Downeast. When the boat was hauled into the shed in the fall, Fritz simply connected the stove pipe to a metal chimney extension through his shed’s roof, and the boys carried on through the long winter nights in the warm cabin as though they were still at anchor in a foggy cove somewhere far from home.

Our new boat shed will have ample space to sand and paint the hull, sort the gear and stash a few dinghies. In the adjacent shop we’ll have the tools and supplies to make improvements and repairs, and to keep her looking her best for years to come. The roofers are scheduled to start tomorrow, and we hope to finish the project in early March, just in time for Independent Boat Haulers to bring Aloft home for a good spring paint job – before work begins again in earnest at the Isles of Shoals.

A few years back my mother asked my brother what he thought I might do when I retire. My brother, a very hard-working and successful big city corporate attorney, has always been a little skeptical about my unconventional life. After some thought, he replied in his customarily ironic and lawyerly manner: “Mother, when he retires, how will we be able to tell?” I guess you could read that answer a number of ways. But, between all these boats, the barn and the Star Island projects, it seems as though I’m busy enough for now.

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.

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