A reunion with Aloft, and scanning for sharks

By Jack Farrell

The author at the helm of Aloft. After years in which she was on the hard, ship and master are reunited and cruising again. Photo by Julie Farrell

I’m sitting in the deep cockpit of our sailboat Aloft on a mooring off Peaks Island, Maine, in the shadow of the landing craft Lionel Plante that plays such a big role in construction at the Isles of Shoals. I’m fortunate to have friends on the coast like Capt. Coley who set me up with a nice mooring here for the night. A parade of ferries, schooners, runabouts and yachts sweeps by in the sparkling light of a summer Sunday afternoon. Being at Peaks always reminds me of a ballad by the late New England folk poet, Bill Morrissey. He wrote of Ellis Roberts, an island fisherman. Desperate for money with winter coming on, he succumbs to the temptation to haul his neighbor’s traps and is consigned to pay the consequences:

“It was over on Peaks Island, in sight of Portland town. Ellis worked his lobster traps until his luck backed around. With his lobster traps again half full one drunk November day, Ellis made his fatal move for which he’ll have to pay.” Bill’s songs, which range from dark to ironic to hilarious, are worth a little research if you’re not already familiar with his work.

But on this fine summer afternoon, good luck seems to be the order of the day at Peaks Island, and even with the days growing noticeably shorter, winter still feels a long way off.

Aloft is concluding her first real cruise after a long layup. Spending some quality time on the boat is like becoming reacquainted with an old friend. I love the way she moves in the seas, leans into her rig, and surges ahead in the puffs. I’m rediscovering old sailing skills, and all the nooks and crannies aboard where goodies and gear are stored. I’m making yet another list of the many little things that are still to be repaired or improved. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that refrigeration, lighting and propane systems are still all working well. The experimental composting toilet is a grand success – as close as I can get to L. Francis Herreshoff’s cedar bucket. As I cruise in comfort in my safe little ship through familiar waters – in the company of loons, whales, dolphins, and seals – I can’t help but feel grateful for my own good fortune.

Not so for the poor soul who will forever be remembered as the first person in 400 years on the Maine coast to be killed by a great white shark. The attack took place not far from here. I passed right by the area this morning. It is prime seal habitat: ledges for drying out in close proximity to good fishing. Seals were everywhere today. And where there are seals, there are sharks.

Many years ago, before we were married, my wife and I stayed with a friend on Chappaquiddick off Martha’s Vineyard during the filming of “Jaws.” Our friend had secured a part in the film that did so much to stoke the irrational fear of this long-evolved and finely tuned predator. That fear is now raging again along our coast. But what happened in July is a true anomaly, unlikely to be repeated soon. Sharks are ambush predators, highly efficient animals that only attack when success seems like a sure thing. Sharks do not target people as a food source.

From what I have read of the recent attack, this shark saw what looked like a medium-sized seal (the victim was wearing a dark-colored wetsuit) in relatively deep water where seals are abundant.

Consider the slow and relatively awkward movements of a human swimmer, kicking and groping through a foreign environment. Compare that to the graceful and seemingly effortless motion of seal. From the depths, the shark would have seen what looked like a right-sized seal in some form of distress, and considering it a worthy mark – at least until it got a taste of the neoprene suit. The attack was a tragic accident, but it terrifies me just the same.

We met my brother and his family on the dock in the village of Port Clyde next to the iconic island ferry Laura B (one of my favorite boats of all time) on a perfect afternoon. The blue water sparkled, the warm breeze was fragrant with spruce and fir, and the harbor was alive with activity. It was the kind of day Catboat Bob would call a “buy-a- house-in-Maine day.” We spent three lovely days there with them on the water near Mosquito Harbor with a fine view of Mosquito Island and lonely Metinic Island in the distance, sailing and exploring.

The area is on the edge of the zone where fishermen add toggles to their buoy lines to take up the low tide slack of the higher tidal range. The loop between the main buoy and the toggle so rigged is like a snare set out for visiting sailboats, and we caught one returning from Tenants Harbor in a fresh breeze. Most of it came free when the engine was started and reversed, but some remained wrapped around the shaft, causing an unwelcome vibration. I had to go down and cut it off.

In spite of the statistics, I looked over the surrounding water before diving down with a sharp knife to free the propeller. As I stood on deck wearing my mask and flippers, with news of the Casco Bay attack still fresh in my mind, every peaked wavelet looked like a dorsal fin. Three anxious dives later, the line was off.

We left Aloft on a mooring off Port Clyde, and I returned a few days later via train to Brunswick and a very long Uber ride to the village. As the car crested the last hill and the view of the harbor opened below, I could see our sloop tugging eagerly at the big rental mooring. I grabbed some bagels and sardines at the store, a Laura B T-shirt for me and one for my grandson, and we were soon underway, heading west.

My passage through the harbor kindled memories, some going back more than 50 years. As I dropped the lines I looked back at the cove between Raspberry Island and Johnny’s Wharf where I learned to row a skiff. We soon passed the shingled house on Hupper Island where a bare-chested lady once waved to a boatload of sailor boys returning from a regatta, as she casually painted the trim on her porch.

The sight of Teel Island beyond Hupper’s brought back hazy images of landing at a stone breakwater in the dark, a fire on the shore, and a night under the exposed beams in the garret of the old cottage. Two boys and a girl, all under the age of 10, listened to a pink transistor radio with the volume down low so the grownups wouldn’t hear. There was something very special about the skinny girl, but the boys were too young to know what it was. A salty breeze held the lace curtains against the bare pine trim. Paul McCartney sang: “Bright are the stars that shine, dark is the sky . . . .”

Meanwhile, back at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, work is about to begin on a new leach- field for the winter caretaker cottage. The last of the scaffolding that had supported the chapel renovation was removed on the Hurricane last week. Volunteer crews are doing some siding and carpentry projects. Final touches on the wastewater system will resume soon. The Army Corps is surveying the harbor in preparation for rebuilding the breakwaters next year. And Capt. Coley will be by next week in the Lionel Plante with cement trucks – always an exciting event.

I steered Aloft around Boon Island and swung through the gut between Smuttynose and Appledore before heading up the Piscataqua for home and the end of the cruise. The tune from Bill Morrissey’s mythical “Peaks Island” was stuck in my head, as elder Wesley Young shows Ellis Roberts the way home. “Let no one speak a word to him, for the punishment is harsh. Let him spend his days repenting in the icy winter marsh. Let no one give aid to him, but let no one hunt him down. When his debt is finally paid, he’ll come back into town. A man judges himself the hardest when he’s got a debt to pay. He must settle with himself before the debt is wiped away.”

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.