Crunch time in the islands

The 42-foot Utopia, which, design-wise, is essentially a big lobster boat, fares much better than the Hurricane in inclement weather. Points East file photo by Jack Farrell

Dawn broke late on this stormy morning in early April. Yesterday was sunny and warm, but today it was winter on the water again. A cold rain was falling, verging on sleet. The biting wind drove a familiar salty tang. Seas were from the northeast at five to nine feet, and wind gusts cleared 35 knots. Many among the boatload of souls heading out to work with us this morning were feeling apprehensive and uncomfortable as we rounded the lighthouse and pointed the heaving bow toward the Isles of Shoals.

Star Island projects have been in full swing for four weeks now. Mud, rocks, piles of lumber, steel beams and the noise of heavy equipment are the rule this month as construction workers more accustomed to life ashore try to squeeze the work of six months into three, 10 miles from the dock.

There’s a lot of pressure to meet the deadlines, and the constant concern over the schedules, the weather and the seas is beginning to wear on me. We can’t afford to miss a day, but bad weather is a constant threat. On the way down to the dock each morning I check the plumes of steam and exhaust that rise from the various industrial plants along the Piscataqua, gauging wind direction and intensity. Straight rising columns of white forecast an easy trip and calm seas. When the vapors run sideways away from the coast, the first part of the run will be easy, but the harbor at the islands will be full of chop, landing will be a challenge, and the boat will require extra lines at the pier. When they run in toward the southwest, there will be big seas all the way out, mostly on the beam. Big loads on the Hurricane can’t go out on days like this. Such was the case this morning, as I crossed the Scammell Bridge at Little Bay and the tall stacks came into view across the spit of Dover Point. Last week we had two days of near gales from the west. One evening was so windy that my wife called on her way home offering to check the lines. This cold Monday it’s just as bad from the opposite direction. Here we go again.

And it’s not just the wind and the waves. With the boats mostly idle for months, unseen gremlins have had plenty of time to corrode wires, and fester in tanks and filters. Essential nuts and bolts can turn up mysteriously loosened. Unprotected metal is steadily eroding all winter. Mechanical failures tend to manifest themselves after periods of little use and/or in rough weather – just like today. A breakdown that would be unremarkable in summer, and easily remedied by a quick repair or a tow from a passing friend, would be another matter in the lonesome gray 40-degree world of this morning’s riled up Gulf of Maine.

In my mind on days like these I run a constant loop of what could fail and how I might fix it, always aware that I surely missed something. Fluid levels, electrical connections, belts, steering-gear fittings, and fuel, fuel, fuel. Rough seas can loosen settled deposits in lines and tanks that could quickly clog a filter that would be very tough to change in the dark, rolling bilge. On some days it’s even hard to imagine going forward to get the anchor over. It’s always a relief to throttle back down at the dock, tie up carefully and head back home for the night.

On the other hand, the trip home this afternoon was nothing short of thrilling. The buoy off York reported a consistent 10-foot swell. A few miles away the 42-foot Utopia rode mostly with ease, the occasional wave breaking close enough to make a big impression on the four of us inside, wiping the fog from the windshield with a rubber squeegee and watching the radar. Utopia surfed nicely down the faces and settled in the troughs without slamming or snapping. I’ll choose a big lobster boat on days like this every time.

When I was a boy, this time of year was full of anticipation. My father would take us on Sunday drives to still-shuttered harbors and misty gray beaches. The damp air offered the same salty tang I smelled this morning. We’d lunch on chowder in shingled shore-side diners while cold gray waves crashed against the rocks and sand outside. I longed for summer and couldn’t get back on the water fast enough. But these early season days are times of worry as much as wonder. I long for summer now in a different way.

Last Saturday was a beautiful early spring day, and some of the construction crew opted to head out to work pouring concrete at the new waste treatment plant. While they were down in the hole mixing and pouring, the boat headed back in. One anxious worker was quite concerned when he emerged to see an empty dock, fearing he might have been stranded out there for the night. I’ve seen that reaction before. The possibility of being stuck on a remote island can be very disconcerting.

For others, the chance to spend solo time out there is met with great enthusiasm. While tens of thousands make a visit every year, few people have overnighted alone. Meeting the boat this morning was a young worker who had spent the past two nights by himself, becoming one of a privileged few to do so. His only regret about the weekend was an advancing case of poison ivy.

And speaking of solo time on the island, check out the new music by winter caretaker Alex de Steiguer titled “Island Sublime.” It features her musical perspective from over 20 years of island winters, and was recorded at Star Island last winter.

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.