All’s well that ends well

The view from the helm. While the author has made hundreds of trips from Portsmouth Harbor to the Isles of Shoals, none ever scared him like this one. Photo courtesy Jack Farrell

By Jack Farrell
For Points East
While I have made many hundreds of trips from Portsmouth Harbor to the Isles of Shoals across the full range of weather and seasons (wind, rain, fog, snow and freezing spray) I had never been thoroughly scared until one afternoon a few weeks ago. Mark Nash and I had just picked up a load of wood chips destined for the Star Island compost pile at a wharf in Newington. The chips were loaded in eight sacks containing about one cubic yard each, and stacked loosely on the open deck aft on the lobster boat Utopia. The total weight of around 4,000 lbs. so far aft caused the stern to squat a bit and Utopia rode proudly down the river with her nose slightly in the air.

The weather that afternoon on the Piscataqua was pure Indian summer: sunny and warm with a moderate breeze from the south. It seemed like a very good day to take a big load to the island.

We stopped on the way out at our Portsmouth dock to pick up a food order. Marshall Frye and Doug MacMillan had just come in from working on the island, and were unloading tools from their 22’ foot aluminum workboat. They mentioned that conditions were pretty wild at the river mouth, so much so that a passenger who had come in with them had left the boat in a deep shade of green. He was visibly shaken by the experience, and they guessed it would be a long time before he ventured out there again. But after so many trips in such a capable boat, I took their advice in stride. Things would seem a lot worse in their small open boat than they would in the bigger, sturdier Utopia.

The southerly wind was blowing warm and hard as we headed under the bridge and out toward the lighthouses, swept along at over 12 knots by the strong ebb of an astronomically big tide. As we rounded the bend off Fort Point we got a full view of the river as it met the ocean. Lines of jagged whitecaps stretched across the full width of the river mouth in the near distance. Two large fishing boats were steaming in through the steep waves, their big bows driving deep into the troughs in the following seas. Utopia sped along past them in the fast current with relative ease, spray flying dramatically off her flaring bow as we passed the Wood Island Lifesaving Station. I had seen this happen many times before in this same place: wind against tide creating a mile or so of steep chop and moderately uncomfortable conditions. In a good boat and the bright sunshine, the scene was exhilarating and profoundly beautiful.

But off Whaleback Light, the waves got much bigger and very steep. Water was flying up and over the roof to cascade aft over the bagged woodchips. The bow was nearly burying itself in the oncoming rollers that were now breaking like combers on a beach. The breakers paraded toward us, resisted by the peak of the strong ebb, growing to near-vertical walls of water topped with rolling froth. When the first really big one reared up ahead, towering over what began to seem like a very small boat, I throttled back to ease the force of impact. But the bow continued deep down into the trough. I had never seen this happen before in six years with the boat. There was green water at the windshield. I powered up again quickly to lift it free of the sea as what must have been thousands of gallons ran over the roof and along the wash rails to douse the now-soggy bags of chips on the aft deck. The ship’s bell clanged erratically in the chaos, and the bronze cap of the anchor’s hawse pipe on the foredeck broke free and was swept aft along the rails, presumably to be lost overboard.

With a mile or more still to go before the influence of the river would subside enough to allow the waves to spread out, and with the two once-dry tons of wood chips getting heavier by the minute I searched my brain for a plan B. “I’ve never seen it this bad, Mark,” I said. “I’d like to turn around, but I think we might get rolled if we go broadside to one of these monsters.”

“It’s your call, “ he said, one hand on his dog. Despite being sprawled and clinging awkwardly to the cushion over the engine box, the dog seemed surprisingly unconcerned. Mark, on the other hand, looked as anxious as I felt.

But the boat was actually handling the conditions very well. All that weight aft was keeping the bow high to match the crests. Loose gear had long-since tumbled to the cabin sole. While the motion was sharp, there was a rhythm to it, and there was little pounding. With the increasing weight of the wood chips (some of which were piled high and likely to shift off-center in a roll) and the relentless succession of 10-foot walls of water towering over the bow, it seemed as though the only thing to do was to forge ahead.

By the time we were abeam of the sea buoy, the force of the ebb tide was losing its punch as the river mouth broadened to the open sea. The waves were spreading out a little, but the wind still gusted over 30. “I think it’s easing up,” I ventured hopefully. Mark broke out his phone and took a short, choppy video. Soon after that, the waves stopped breaking over the foredeck and we started to relax a little. To the west, a Moran tug blasted its way out to a waiting tanker, sending plumes of rising spray higher than its stack. The tanker swung broadside to the waves so the pilot could board out of the wind, and the big ship rolled from side to side as the waves slammed into her. The whole scene was nothing short of awesome.

In the lee of the southerly wind and out of the waves, it was relatively peaceful as we tied up at the island pier. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be here,” I said to Jamie, who took our lines at the float. He had no idea what I meant until he saw the video. While straightening up the gear I found the bronze anchor rode cap in a coil of line on the rail. All’s well that ends well, I guess.

We returned this placid afternoon from Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, with a last load of demolition debris from the season’s projects. The caretakers took up residence last week as the summer crew dispersed ashore.

Before leaving, we drained the plumbing of the last few buildings, commissioned the new winter septic system and forklifted the boathouse from the end of the pier to a safer place on the lawn. Soon we’ll haul the sailboat, tuck it into the shed and close the door on another wondrous season afloat. And, right on cue, snow is in the forecast.

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.