Careful what you wish for

The maintenance of wooden vessels like Utopia, one of the Islands’ supply boats, is never-ending. Photo courtesy Jack Farrell

By Jack Farrell
For Points East

I’ve come to realize lately that I have a personality that is prone to obsession. While that may sound at first like a confession delivered in the first meeting of a 12-step program, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing, especially if the objects of such infatuations are wholesome and worthy. While many definitions of the word have negative implications and include terms like “unhealthy” and “irrational,” I choose to believe that my obsessions are more in line with the fourth option from Webster’s Dictionary, “Any driving motive or compelling goal.”

Leading my list these days is my strong desire to spend time with our grandson and his parents as they work their way through the first years of parenting – a time which can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. I just can’t get my mind off that amazing child – and why should I? I’ve always been obsessed with the well-being of our sons, and with a desire to share what I have learned to know and love in life with them. Extending these feelings out to a whole new generation is inescapable.

I continue to be obsessed with the whole enterprise of skiing on snow, and with all of the ancillary benefits it affords – with mountains, remote locations, people who share the same passion, tracking the vagaries of the weather, and the unlimited incarnations of frozen water upon which we attempt to gracefully slide. As with the pursuit of seagoing competence, it is a life’s quest without an endpoint – and so much fun.

Before I became a year-round island man and charter boat captain, I was also obsessed with getting one wooden yacht or another into launchable shape as early as possible in the spring so as to renew my connection with the ocean – another of my primary life-long obsessions. I struggled under two self-imposed goals: I must deliver the boat back to the water freshly painted in shimmering high-gloss and varnish, and I must do it before the end of May so as not to miss a day of summer.

The pull of the sparkling water drove me to scrape, sand, repair, paint and varnish – forsaking most other responsibilities – until I could deliver a sharp and ready vessel to her mooring on the outside of the cove, marking my annual reconnection to the realm of the sea. There were many Memorial Days that brought near despair as the weather turned muggy with the boat still in a dark and dusty shed, while I struggled with the second or third coat of something or other. But every year, eventually, it all worked out. By early June I could at last put the boat on the mooring and row back to the dock while admiring the crisp lines, shimmering topsides and smooth green bottom of my little ship. She would once again ride calmly to the swell in her appointed place just inside the nun buoy, with the bilge pumps running only once in a steadily decreasing while.

But now, with over 70 gross tons and 133 feet of mostly wooden vessel in my collective fleet – careful what you wish for – obsession is replaced with practicality. In addition to Aloft (41’ wooden sailboat built in 1962), Hurricane (51’ wooden expedition supply vessel built in 1967) and Utopia (42’ lobster/island supply vessel built in 1974), I am also entrusted with the care of the 21’ Star Island launch, Tom Dudley, and a fleet of island-based small craft.

The pursuit of perfection has of necessity been replaced with more prosaic concerns like fuel systems, oil changes, looming island projects and schedules. There is no time now for re-sanding for a third coat of two-part gloss enamel simply because the second coat sagged a bit (back by the transom on the starboard side). But I am, after all, on the water now year-round. Both lives have their struggles as well as their rewards, I guess.

Utopia was last painted in 2015, and since then her finish has dulled a bit. There are more than a few scratches and scrapes, some of which were even my fault. I had planned to haul her out in February for a full cosmetic going over, but the winter got ahead of me. Now she’ll have to settle for oil changes and some new v-belts before we start the full schedule out to the islands in the second week of April. Sometime in June she’ll come out for a few frantic days of bottom paint, zincs and a new through-hull. Utopia is a very busy girl.

The old Hurricane comes out in May for bottom paint and a once-over by the Coast Guard. She’ll also get a couple of coats of semi-gloss on the topsides, a careful inspection of planks and fastenings, and whatever else we can find time for before she starts out again moving the weekly luggage for 300 guests at Star Island and the roughly 18,000 pounds of food every week to supply the kitchen at the Oceanic Hotel. Planned upgrades to the wheelhouse and the foredeck might come together in the fall. The old boat reeks of character, and she has a lot of potential.

I am committed to launching our lovely sloop Aloft so as not to miss a third season in a row with her. She needs her bottom sanded, a coat or two of paint on the topsides and some varnish touch-ups, at a minimum. Her structure and systems are already in better shape than ever. Cosmetic perfection will have to be next year’s goal. But that boat is such a joy to sail, it might not even matter.

The best part of all this is that, even without the obsessive care I wish I could provide, the boats look pretty darn good dancing on the water on a sunny summer day just as they are, especially from more than 50 feet away.

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, we have planned a relatively lazy pre-season – a break from recent years of ambitious projects. In addition to the usual spring work of fixing the winter’s damage, starting up all the systems, opening up the buildings and setting up the waterfront, we have just a few small projects. We will complete details of last season’s rebuild of a 4,000-square foot educational building, replace the renovated wind vane on the chapel and repair/repaint siding and trim on the 50-foot high belfry, modify the new waste-treatment plant with lessons learned after the first year’s shakedown, put new roof shingles on four buildings and re-build the composting facility. It will be a quiet spring at the Isles of Shoals. But we’ll be open and ready for guests by the middle of June, so come on out and have a visit. And please try not to judge the shape of the boats too harshly. They will all look really good, especially if observed from 50 feet 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.