Following in the footsteps of giants

Utopia at the dock with gear for a cruise awaiting loading. Photo by Jack Farrell

October 2021

By Jack Farrell

An icon of our coast passed away at his home of nearly 105 years early in September. Ned McIntosh was an inspired boatbuilder, blue water sailor and motor boat captain on the Isles of Shoals route. Most of all, Ned was a kind and happy gentleman, an everyman artisan and a champion of sensible Yankee values. Men the likes of Ned are becoming more scarce and more precious all the time, ironically so, in times when we need them more than ever. While many who read this column knew him well, I was at least privileged to enjoy a handful of encounters with “Mac,” some of which have been previously recounted here. You will, I trust, forgive me any repetitions in favor of the celebration of such a life.

I first met Mac on the float at Adams Point in Durham, N.H. as he was rowing in from his beloved Atkin cutter, Starcrest (salvaged treasure from a beach in Rye, N.H., following a 1954 hurricane – rebuilt, and subsequently sailed around New England and the world). I had built a counterfeit version of his fabric-covered peapod, and was raising it out of the water and over my head when a man rowing an identical boat slid in alongside. Realizing it was the designer himself, I took his painter while mumbling an apology for stealing his design. He would have none of it, insisting that he was happy someone had found it worthwhile enough to build and enjoy. (I still have the boat, although it’s long past time for a refit.)

Not long after that, I happened by Ned’s house near the Turnpike in Dover where a fine old wooden launch that “needed a bit of work” was offered for sale in the driveway. I was soon welcomed inside for a visit and a drink or two, where the discussion in the study ranged first along our coast and eventually around the world. The visit stretched to hours, and included a tour of his workshop and small boat collection. He showed me his beloved navigation tools – sextant and taffrail log. I was just a greenhorn amateur who had yet to venture very far offshore, but Ned could see that I had the fever. I’ll never forget his kindness for the privilege of that visit.

Some years later, my old friend and oftentimes sailing buddy (who is much better than I at seeing to the needs of others) learned that Ned was hoping to launch Starcrest one more time, but lacked the energy to prepare and paint the bottom. My old pal, Edso, volunteered our services, and soon we were crouching under Starcrest while being treated to a trip across the world’s oceans, plank-by-plank. As we scraped and sanded our way around the old wooden hull, Ned shared past adventures: “This is the plank we fashioned from driftwood to repair the damage when a sperm whale rammed us off the Galapagos.” Edso always reminds me of the little sign that hung by the companionway right next to the copper coils of the homemade refrigeration unit: “We like it messy.” I’m happy we could help to afford such a prince of a man one more sailing season.

Traffic jam on the bay

Last weekend we took a charter group on Utopia up the Piscataqua River to Little Bay, not far from Ned’s camp on the Footman Islands. The Air Force was putting on a big flashy show at Pease Air Base, just beyond the tall pines on the Newington shore. I had not been up in the Bay for years, and remembered a lonesome stretch of shallow brackish water where we could tong up a bushel of oysters in less than half an hour. Catboat Bob and I once took his old Hannah Screacham all the way to Newmarket, and hardly saw another boat the whole way. But this time the Bay was crowded with what must have been hundreds of boats anchored from Durham Point to the Furber Strait as the Thunderbird fighter jets screamed by just overhead. The show finished promptly at 4 p.m., whereupon the entire assembled fleet fired up and headed almost at once through the narrow, twisting channel toward the General Sullivan Bridge. The churning of those hundreds of propellers against the roiling tide, and the steep and colliding wakes of all those husky powerboats – swerving too close to each other and not quite on plane – created a frightening mess of angry water that challenged the skills of all concerned. As far as I know, there were no serious accidents. I wonder what Mac would have thought about such an unruly fracas in his bay.

That unpleasant piloting challenge felt truly dangerous, and was in stark contrast to another the night before, when we took a big group to Wood Island off Kittery Point. The swell and rip tide from Hurricane Larry, even though hundreds of miles away, turned what would have been an easy landing at the long float to an adventure – with twenty-five apprehensive would-be donors aboard to witness it. But with the right mix of engine bursts and good planning, a skilled deckhand, and an able man on the dock, we got them on and off without incident, and made some new believers in our little operation at the same time.

 

Wood Island restoration

Sam Reid is in the midst of a regional miracle in his restoration of the old lifesaving station at Wood Island. For forty years the station and its crew served as the last resort for shipwrecked sailors from York to Hampton to the Isles of Shoals. Most rescues were from ships that had sought refuge from winter gales under the shelter of Kittery Point – only to be swept onto the unforgiving granite of the lee shore at Newcastle, N.H. Snatched from the wrecking ball at the last possible minute, Sam and his not-for-profit team are well on their way to completing restoration of this 1908 station as a museum to the service, and a community treasure. If you are passing through the area, make sure you stop and have a look.

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, on that same evening, the heaving ground swell from Hurricane Larry kept the big steel ferry from landing at the stone pier – in spite of five or six attempts. Most of the good weather is behind us now for sure. The guest launch and the crew’s little sailboat have been hauled out, and the last of the summer guests are lately packing their bags. The crew has finally accepted the fact that it’s too late now to finish all the projects we had on our lists.

But we still have a month or more of regular runs to the island before the caretakers take over. I am always grateful for the chance to get in the boat and head out there, but I especially look forward to this time of year: The shortening days, the cool mornings and nights, the challenging weather. It’s a time that invites reflection, and the turn of the season is a sobering reminder that nothing is forever, that the clock is always running for all of us. For many years Ned McIntosh made this same run to the Shoals from this very same dock in Portsmouth. I’m proud to be following in such a hallowed wake. And I think I had better get started fixing up that peapod, too.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Islands at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft, his Ted Hood-designed wooden sloop, lives most of the summer.