Bring us a banana . . . it’s an emergency!

Islanders know better than most the importance of critical resources and services. The most critical of all on the islands is arguably clean water. What is worth mere pennies a gallon to most city dwellers accustomed to a seemingly endless flow out of household taps becomes a matter of inestimable value. How much would a thirsty islander pay for a gallon of fresh, cool water when the supply has run out?

On Star Island we come by our water in a variety of ways. There is an ancient stone-lined well that’s at least 18 feet deep. But its water has begun to turn discouragingly salty over the last few years. Well water is now reserved for flushing and washing. Freshwater is harvested during rain showers through an elaborate system of connected drains and roof gutters that fill a 19th century brick cistern under the main hotel that can store up to 80,000 gallons. Much of this water is reserved for fire fighting, but the excess can be filtered and chlorinated into drinking water (the only rainwater reclamation system permitted in the state of New Hampshire for potable water). Drinking water also arrives a few times a week from Portsmouth as ballast in the ferry, delivering up to 2,500 gallons each trip. But the majority of our drinking water is made right on the island through reverse osmosis. The two machines can each process 5,000 gallons per day, powered entirely by the sun.

On nearby Smuttynose Island there is no reliable well. The revolving weekly volunteer caretakers, called Smuttynose Stewards, get their weekly supply from Star – a process that can take hours to complete. Smuttynose Stewards also stop at Star Island for fresh coffee, ice cream and necessities. Sometimes they even sneak in a hot shower.

Smuttynose Island was once home to a rope works and a brewery, two other items of critical importance to island life. It is tough to overstate the importance of rope out here for mooring, fishing, drying clothes, securing cargo, and in general just keeping things from blowing away. Ray Randall came over from Lunging Island last week with a fish tote full of nearly new 3/4” nylon three-strand rope. Ray was in a mood to trade, and he had his eye on another precious commodity. Ray offered the full tote of good line for an equal amount of rich black Star Island loam in which he might grow some tomatoes. Ray was happy to part with a hundred dollars worth of rope for a small pile of dirt. Out here it seemed like a fair trade. We were happy to get the rope.

Star Island is very much the center of these islands, providing essential commodities, emergency supplies, fuel, rations and comfort to her less developed neighbors, and to the transient sailors overnighting in Gosport Harbor. It has been this way for over a 100 years. Even emergency medical care is available at Star’s well-stocked infirmary, where volunteer medical professionals are in residence from May to September.

And that reminds me of a July story from a few summers back. Our deckhand that year was a young man named Keith. (Keith is now working as a mate on Maine’s famed windjammer, the Victory Chimes. I remember first seeing this majestic vessel as a child in 1963 as she emerged from the fog rounding Marshall Point while making for Port Clyde – an image that has stuck with me to this day).

Keith had a knack for rope work. One warm evening he and I were sitting on the deck of Aloft, tied up to the Star Island float. Keith was carefully whipping the bitter end of a jib sheet with twine and a sail maker’s needle. From time to time he would hold the needle in his teeth while working the twine around the line. At one point he lost track of the needle. After searching the deck and his clothes without success, he became concerned.

“I think I just swallowed it,” he said.

“Swallowed what?” I asked him.

“The needle. I had it in my teeth and now I can’t find it. I think I swallowed it.” He attempted to clear his throat and began to cough.

“Well, you either swallowed it or you didn’t,” I replied. The coughing grew louder. “OK, Keith, let’s get up to the first aid station.”

Up at first aid, Nurse Practitioner Pat Ford and Dr. Bert Dibble were just closing up shop after evening sick call when Keith and I blasted in through the screen door. As Keith continued to cough, I explained how he had somehow swallowed the two-inch needle while holding it between his teeth.

No one seemed to know what to do. Pat sat Keith down in the exam room and began to take his blood pressure while I explained what had happened to the puzzled Dr. Dibble. The doctor’s friend, an attorney visiting from nearby Rye Harbor, having overheard, was already searching medical sites on her computer in the adjoining room. Just then, Joe Watts, the island manager, having heard the emergency call on the radio, arrived at the station to take command of the situation.

Mae burst into the exam room with a plan. “He needs a banana. He has to swallow a banana as soon as possible.”

“Are you a medical professional?” asked Manager Watts.

“No, but I’m really good at Google. It says a banana will protect him from the needle.”

Joe picked up his radio, and called the kitchen in his most official island manager voice. “This is the first aid station calling. Bring us a banana as soon as possible. This is an emergency!”

“Standby,” came the response from the confused cook. And then, “We are all out of bananas. We have more coming on tomorrow’s boat.”

Mae grabbed Joe’s radio and responded. “Find some other kind of fruit as soon as you can and get it over here.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Dibble had made his own decision, having called the Portsmouth Fire Dept. medical personnel who were already on their way out prepared for an emergency evacuation. Keith was wheeled carefully down to the pier so as not to inflict further internal damage (by now the needle was assumed to be approaching his stomach). While we waited, the kitchen staff delivered a plate of carefully sliced apples and a bunch of grapes. Mae searched Google on her iPad in search of information on appropriate alternatives to bananas.

The jet-powered fireboat arrived at about this time, and whisked Keith westward across Bigelow Bight. The bright red boat, with emergency lights rotating smartly from atop the cabin, was followed by an urgent plume of spray and foaming wake from the jet drive. It all seemed well-suited to the emergency at hand.

The midnight X-ray at Portsmouth Hospital revealed no trace of a needle. As the coughing had long since subsided, Keith took the freight boat back to the island the next morning – along with the overdue banana shipment. We found the offending needle on the cockpit sole of the sailboat later that afternoon.

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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