East vs. West: It’s all about the boats

Now this is a nice-looking boat: The Corwith Cramer, a brigantine sailed out of Woods Hole, Mass. Photo courtesy Jack Farrell

The sign hanging over the front counter of the Islander Grocery at Lummi Island in Puget Sound reads “Keep Lummi Weird.” Nearly three thousand miles from my familiar islands back home in Maine and New Hampshire, this sign captures the essence of a common island spirit that makes these places so compelling, no matter which broad ocean meets their ragged shores.

Puget Sound links the State of Washington with the Province of British Columbia in much the same way as the Gulf of Maine bridges the same international border between Maine and the Maritimes. Lummi Island is at the eastern edge of the San Juan chain, described to me recently as “Maine on steroids.” The rocky shores are likewise covered in evergreens with a few struggling windblown hardwoods. The water runs just as cold, and the economy is similarly dominated by fishing, lumber and tourism. Locals tolerate the tourists, and fulltime newcomers struggle to become as quirky as the natives as soon as possible. The water is a little deeper, the conifers are older and taller, and the hills are more like real mountains. But the neighbors look after each other even when they disagree, and people still wave to passing strangers waiting for the ferry. If you squint your eyes just a little bit on Lummi Island, you can imagine yourself at the edge of a bay in Maine.

Lummi features the same old cars, the lack of emergency and other services, the rusting tractors, and old lumber and fishing gear strewn across unmowed fields adjacent to the vacation homes of well-to-do rusticators. There are the same hardscrabble efforts at agriculture; the nearly tame deer browsing in neglected orchards, the artists and the general feeling of unplugged detachment and freedom that we love on the islands back home. Lummi has benefited from the conservation of much of its land, and is home to a fish co-op dedicated to the sustainable and humane harvest of wild salmon that has been recognized nationally for its leadership in fisheries management and the quality of its product. It also boasts the Willows Inn, with a two-week reservation requirement and a reputation as one of the hottest gourmet restaurants in the country. Just like back home, these coastal islands successfully blend traditional occupations with recreational pursuits. They require that we give up some measure of comfort and convenience in exchange for a deeper experience of life and community. They give us inspiration and hands-on opportunities for innovation, hard work, good citizenship and environmental responsibility. If that’s all weird, then I agree. Let’s keep it that way.

But with all the similarities, one great difference stood out to me between this western coast and our own. It’s about the boats. Please forgive the following unrepentant provincialism, but during our recent (and admittedly very short) visit to Puget Sound, I encountered only one boat that I would call truly beautiful, and it turns out that she was designed on the East Coast and built at Hodgdon Brothers in East Boothbay, Maine. The 127-foot schooner Zodiac is now a national landmark gracing the harbor at Bellingham, Washington, from a tight berth next to the ferry to Alaska. Built in the 1920s as a private yacht for the Johnson & Johnson heirs, she later moved to San Francisco where her speed and grace made her a successful base for the bar pilots at the Golden Gate. Today she lies restored and ready for a sea voyage – a platform for education and recreation in an increasingly harried world, and a striking example of what can happen when form and function are successfully merged on a grand scale.

I know I am culturally and historically biased when it comes to boats. Like a language transplanted from its country of origin that ceases to evolve, my aesthetic for boats was frozen somewhere around 1965. I prefer wooden boats (and fiberglass boats designed in the wooden-boat era). I like long overhangs, sweeping sheer lines and tucked-in transoms on my sailboats. If you would understand my vision of a perfect powerboat, think of Port Clyde’s Laura B.

The Puget Sound Region is said to have the highest number of boat owners per capita in the country. The regional differences in function and design are fascinating, if not always inspiring. It seems as though a much higher percentage of large boats are kept ashore on trailers. With cooler summers and warmer winters than in New England, the season is year-round for many. Thus, there are fewer open cockpits and center consoles in favor of motorsailers and enclosed-cabin layouts for even modest outboard boats. That makes sense for the place. But many of the workboats seem roughly built and blunt-ended. The yachts too often appear clumsy, cliché (think pirate ships) and even a bit neglected, with fraying lines and fenders perennially a-dangle. Generalizations are dangerous and often unfair, but the boats look better back home.

In spite of all this prejudice I actually pretty-much like all boats in the long run, especially when they are well suited to their purpose and particularly when their owners keep up with the maintenance. And just as I would soon grow to love an ugly puppy, I’d probably warm to the boats of the Northwest with a little more time.

Meanwhile, back home at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, we have been visited a couple of times by Capt. Bailey and the revived wooden schooner Harvey Gamage. The steel topsail schooner Corwith Cramer was over at the Appledore Island anchorage a few weeks ago with a group of students from the Sea Education Association. The hot weather was oppressive for a few days there, and the crew allowed the kids to dive from the bowsprit to cool off. The sight of their silhouetted shapes launching off the footropes with a backdrop of the setting sun was a joy. All kids should be so fortunate. Tall ships bring a great measure of depth to the already timeless look and feel of the islands, and we are always happy to host them.

We have been sharing some truly amazing sunsets over the peak of the summer with our onboard guests, and the grey seals over at Duck Island have not disappointed us yet. As we tumble toward the September equinox, the shortening of the days is already evident. The dawn comes well after 5 a.m. now, and the departure time for the sunset cruises is earlier every week. The summer traffic on the river will dramatically disappear right after Labor Day. Not long after that, the last guest ferry will load up the luggage and pull away from the pier with a whistle and a goodbye chant. The short sweet summer will yield to cold nights, and westerlies will once again fetch up hard against the stone pier. Word of a brewing coastal storm on the NOAA channel will alter the schedule. We will have the islands back for ourselves and the handful of regular fishermen – just as it was when the season began in the snow and winds of early March – and we’ll end another successful year of helping to keep the Isles of Shoals weird.

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.