If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute

An early season heat wave hit the Isles of Shoals this week, and with it came the first big wave of visiting yachts and boats. The most notable among them was Paul Rollins’ lovely schooner Heart’s Desire.

It felt like the middle of July in Texas this afternoon, as we unloaded rolls of carpet, seemingly unending stacks of lumber, cartons of wilting vegetables, and the luggage of some 95 young workers arriving for their summer work at the Oceanic Hotel. The lives of these people are about to be changed forever. The Star Island summer began today.

But less than a week ago, the waterfront resembled early April, with cold driving rain and nine-foot swells that kept all but the hardiest in port. My grandmother Rose used to say that if you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a minute. This year fits that pattern better than most.

On Star Island we have contended for the past few months with an unremitting onslaught of rain and high seas as we worked on our long-term plan to rebuild and repair the 35-or-so aging and somewhat neglected buildings seven miles at sea – an environment that can be as harsh as the high summits of the White Mountains.

In eight seasons of running out to the Shoals on this business, I have only decided to abort a trip and turn back on two occasions. The first time was on the approach of an October hurricane passing just offshore a few years back. The second time was in late May this year. We had dropped 10 contractors on the island in the morning to work on roofs, wiring and fire alarms, and returned to Portsmouth to pick up a load of food and building materials in the able Utopia. By mid-afternoon, the wind was gusting to 40 at the very exposed, nearby White Island. The extra high tide was swirling out madly against the well-built fetch of the northeast swell.

At the spot where trillions of outrunning gallons of the drowned saltwater valley of the Piscataqua River confront the Atlantic, the result is often the mile-long parade of vertical walls of angry, cold ocean into which we were then headed. The locals know this phenomenon well. It can be scary, and one usually gets through it without incident.

But out by the “2KR” buoy it got truly terrifying. One big and especially steep swell lifted us up and dropped all 17 tons abruptly into a deep trough with a keel-wrenching slam. Packages, carefully stacked and braced for a rough trip, went suddenly airborne. The drive shaft shuddered with the flexing of the hull, but Utopia rose up defiantly to the next wave – as she has for over 40 years, from Jeffreys Ledge to the Gulf of Mexico.

I began to wonder about the real need for this particular run, one among over 200 hundred trips of the long season. But the contractors were expecting to go home in a few hours. It is hard enough to get people to work out there without stranding them out there on a stormy night. So we kept pounding southeast, hoping that deeper water ahead would smooth things out a little.

Two waves later, the bow went straight up and the whole hull slid off sharply to starboard as the wave passed quickly below the keel in a swirling froth. The prop and rudder remained waterborne, but this was one was really steep. The unseemly motion of the boat suggested – for the first instance in my time with her that – she could actually lose stability and roll over.

I was remembering the story of the experienced local fisherman, whose big lobsterboat hit a similar steep-breaking swell off Duck Island a few years back and turned turtle, trapping him in the overturned hull. The fact is, the worst can and does happen, even close to shore when all the wrong conditions align.

I’m not one who scares easily on the water, but it became an easy decision that afternoon to turn back. The marooned contractors would survive an unexpected night on the island, and the experience would serve to winnow out the keepers. The hard part was finding a suitable gap in which to spin around and begin a retreat to the west. A little burst of power when a lull finally appeared sufficed to hasten the turn, and we were soon surfing back toward the dock.

A few days before the big blow, over Memorial Day weekend, the Shoals were graced by the visit of the Oliver Hazard Perry, the newest and among the largest full-rigged ship on our coast. The sight of a real sailing ship at the Star Island pier is a rare treat, a view that spans the centuries. We generally get a few each season. I’m afraid the OHP’s visit may have been her last, as she unfortunately grounded out on the extremely low tide that weekend, requiring a visit by the Coast Guard and what is sure to become a lot of paperwork.

As I write this dispatch, it is my (our) 35th wedding anniversary. My often flexible, and always wonderful wife and I spent a celebratory night in Boston on Saturday to mark the occasion. My only regret is that I am way behind on preparations for the long-delayed launch of my sloop Aloft. All that stands between the indignity of the solar-heated shed and the cool waters of her mooring are a new battery and a couple of coats of shiny white polyurethane. With everything else that is going on, it’s hard finding the time. But I still have 17 days.

And speaking of Paul Rollins, we cruise past his beautiful yawl Mickey Finn, on a mooring off Peirce Island, almost daily. I am reminded of an October night a while back as we sailed her across the moonlit Massachusetts Bay on a beam reach. With her long waterline and deep keel, she charged powerfully through the night around Cape Ann and home to Maine. The crew slept in the cockpit so as not to miss a turn at the wheel.

My old friend Ethan Cook, former owner of Rumery’s Boatyard and builder of the original Rumery’s Torpedo 38, tells a good story from many years ago about the York, Maine, boatbuilder. Two men, one old and one young, were standing under the spruce trees at the Luke yard in East Boothbay watching a fine little cutter sail up to her mooring. An aging Paul Luke, legendary builder of some of the finest yachts in America, came up behind them. “Nice little boat,” said Mr. Luke.

“I built that boat,” replied the boyish Paul Rollins.

“Let me see your hands,” challenged an unaccepting Luke.

Rollins held out his hands, palms up, while Luke continued his survey of the handsome little vessel, now resting quietly on the mooring. Finally shifting his gaze back to Rollins callused workingman’s hands, he replied with only the hint of a smile: “Maybe.”
Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft 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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