Counting my blessings

The author’s grandson in the cabin of Shining Star. Photo by Jack Farrell

December 2023

By Jack Farrell

It’s early November and I’m still making regular trips from Portsmouth to the Isles of Shoals in the Shining Star. While Star Island is nearly shuttered for the winter, a few projects continue – especially the ongoing re-build of the Gosport Harbor breakwaters. Great barge loads of stone continue to arrive, and there is a seemingly unquenchable demand for diesel fuel to fire the big excavators. Equipment operators, mechanics, surveyors and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspectors ride in and out, along with spare parts for the equipment – which seems to be broken down as much as it is operational from the effects of the salt water and the wear and tear of working with and among the huge stones. Working below the tide line arranging 10-ton boulders to the close tolerances set by the Army Corps design may be the toughest job I’ve seen yet out there. One operator who ventured too low on the rocks with an easterly swell running was treated to a roguish wave landing inside the million-dollar machine’s cab, which shut the whole thing down until it could be hastily jury-rigged to a re-start, just before the tide came back in. As we already know, everything is more difficult on the islands. At least the weather so far this season has been mostly delightful.

This morning I made a run out alone to deliver two small, but apparently essential, hydraulic hoses to the breakwater crew. I arrived at the Shoals in time to watch the last stones being placed on the Star Island to Cedar Island breakwater which is now complete, subject to final inspection by the Corps sometime next week. This major milestone means the whole operation will now be moved by barge across the harbor to the Cedar Island to Smuttynose structure, where two loads of big stones have already been stockpiled. The crew is becoming concerned about meeting the project completion date of August 2024, and hopes to remain at work as late into this season as possible. We’ll see how they feel when it finally starts to get cold and windy.

Lately I’ve been balancing the demands of boat captain and grandfather, happily aware of how blessed life can be. Last week I had both grandsons on the boat for an afternoon trip to the islands. At almost three and just over five years old, the boys are amazingly easy to manage on board. They seem to love to go out, and as an added benefit, the motion of the boat makes them sleepy. They were both napping on the cabin floor by the time we arrived at the island last Thursday, before waking to spend an hour with me in the playground. Yesterday, there was a glitch with child care, and the younger one and I made the trip out together to pick up the contractors in the afternoon: “Pops, that’s a green buoy with a seagull on top . . . Pops, there’s a lighthouse . . . Pops, see that lobster boat?” The run this morning was not nearly as much fun without them. I hope that by next season I can take our granddaughter, too.

And speaking of blessings, I had a fuel system issue which caused the Shining Star to lose power on the river just inside the lighthouse one recent lovely afternoon. A leaky fitting had allowed a tiny but constant bit of air to be sucked into the supply side of the diesel line, just upstream of the filter. Over time, the filter canister filled with air and shut off the fuel supply to the engine. As luck would have it, at this same moment the boat ran over a submerged lobster buoy. The engine stalled and failed to restart. My initial thought was that the propeller had wrapped the line enough to jam the shaft. But in similar past incidents, trap lines had been easily chopped by the boat’s awesome power. Anxious and a little confused, I verified that we had sea room, and began to check the boat’s vital signs. The temperature gauge read over 200 degrees, instead of its typical 178. I assumed that the computerized engine may have shut itself down automatically. I opened the radiator with a rubber glove and a rag protecting my hand, only to find that there was plenty of coolant.

Just then, a family came by in a large center console. They quickly offered to tow me to a mooring in nearby Pepperrell Cove. On arrival at the cove, I thanked them and offered to pay for their help, but they waved it off with smiles all around. I collected on the sailboat rescue I had made the month before at the Shoals, and told them they now had one in the bank.

A cell call to my genius engine technician identified the failure as a fuel problem. (“It’s almost always a fuel problem.”) On his advice, I checked and filled the empty fuel filter with diesel, cranked the starter a few seconds, and the engine roared back to life as though nothing had happened. Meanwhile a local diver friend dove down to confirm that the propeller was clear, and two separate fishermen passing by called on the VHF to see if I needed any help. The blessing was the reminder that people readily help each other on the water, and that I have so many capable friends around to get me out of the inevitable jam. After the problem was resolved, I offered to take the handful of guests aboard back to the dock, but they insisted that we continue with the cruise.

I had been fretting for some time about my old friend, Aloft. For the past two summers, the sailboat that helped me start this latest chapter in my life has been in the barn waiting out an overdue varnish job and a new centerboard cable. In late August I bit the bullet and sent her to the yacht yard. I’ve spent a lot of time in yacht yards since I was a boy, but only rarely as a customer. I have made emergency stops at some of the best Maine yards: Billings Diesel, Rockport Marine, Paul E. Luke’s, and Brooklin Boat Yard. As a boy summering in Marblehead, I explored the great yards there with the local kids at Little Harbor and Graves, crawling among the keels and cradles of the likes of Nefertiti and Ticonderoga until the staff chased us out. But I’ve never been a regular customer of any such places.

Mostly all of the work on my boats over the years has been done by independent shops located away from the shore where the overhead was lower and owners were allowed to participate. It seems like the generation of artisans who ran these shops is aging out of the work now, and so am I. When asked what to do about Aloft, one of them recently said it right out loud. “Maybe you’ll have to finally take her to a yacht yard.”

And so, I did. The pain didn’t last as long as it might have, and Aloft is back in the barn, looking pretty good and ready to go for 2024 – as soon as I sand and paint the deck, topsides and bottom, that is.

Meanwhile, out at Star island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the caretaker is settling in for her 28th (or is it ninth?) season. Fully stocked with water, wood pellets for the heater, and enough dried food to get her through until April, she can’t wait for the breakwater men to finish up their noisy work and leave her to a winter of cherished solitude in the cold and wind. My hunch is that day will come a little sooner than the boys think.

Jack was the manager at Star Island for many years. He currently manages major construction and utility projects there and provides all-season boat service to the island (average 250 trips per year) for luggage, food, employees, supplies and guests. He also runs Seacoast Maritime Charters, LLC providing year-round private charter boat service and marine logistics to the general public, now in the Shining Star. He still enjoys cruising in his classic Ted Hood sloop, Aloft, and teaching skiing at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine.