Gift from a stranger

Henry’s new skiff on a calm day. Photo courtesy Jack Farrell

July 2021

By Jack Farrell

One day last week I was called up to the front porch of the Oceanic Hotel to greet some visitors. Everett Hall and his son-in-law from nearby Cedar Island were there to talk about their float docks. Since Star Island has the help and heavy equipment to handle them, we take care of storage of the docks from Lunging Island and Cedar over the winter. Everett was hoping to get his two docks back in the water and towed over to Cedar. He had a certain way he wanted the gangway set on the inner float. I told him we could do it in a day or two, and he said he would make a nice donation to the island for the trouble. Neighborliness out here is essential, and we all help each other when we can.

Cedar is connected to Star by the Gosport Harbor breakwater. It is the southernmost point of land in Maine, and it couldn’t be more different from Star. While Star has broad lawns, more than thirty structures, and the infrastructure to support upwards of five hundred people, Cedar has three small cottages, no water supply, a few low bushes, and little else. The island has passed through many generations of fishermen, and its ownership and control are said to rely as much on tradition and understanding as on a solid chain of legal title. The two landing spots on the harbor side are adequate in all bar strong westerlies, but the back side takes the brunt of the ocean’s assault almost daily. Everett showed me some photos of winter waves breaking on the eastern shore, their crests higher than the cottage rooftops.

More than anything, ownership of the island secures family rights to the rich lobstering ground on the Maine side of the line. Cedar fishermen live in town now and come out almost daily to fish their family territory in big powerful boats. Back in the early part of the 20th century, they fished from Cedar in skiffs and dories, and often lived on the island year-round. Everett told me how they would cross the breakwater to Star to get milk from the island cow.

Among the benefits of life on the islands is the chance to meet interesting people. I met one, who has asked to remain anonymous, about a month ago at their place in the middle of a fine old New England town some thirty miles from the sea. I had received an email from a boat broker, a longtime friend of the islands, with a listing for a lobster boat that was being considered for donation to a suitable non-profit. I had been nearly losing sleep with worry over how I would deal with a mechanical breakdown in utopia during the summer season. The service needs a back-up boat, and with the sale of the old Hurricane, I didn’t have one.

The boat in the listing looked to be a perfect fit for island work: a stout Downeast hull, enclosed cabin with heat, relatively new engine, simple and clean. I was more than ready to see if this could happen, and soon. I replied to the broker that we were very interested and could look at the boat right away.

But the potential donor was considering another organization and was not to be rushed. He replied to the broker: “If that guy shows up here this weekend, his group can forget about any donation.”

“The guy is kind of a character,” the broker told me. “I’ve told him all about you folks, but we’ll just have to wait until he’s ready to talk.”

A week or so later the broker called to arrange a visit. We finally had an audition. I followed the GPS off the highway and along narrow old roads lined with riding stables, working farms, fine old colonial houses and massive new estates, until I came to a narrow gravel drive along the edge of a hayfield. At the end was a rambling open shed, clad mostly in weathered pine boards. The boat was in the back, along with an assortment of small boats, lines and nautical gear piled up and hanging from the rafters.

The potential donor, whom I’ll call Henry, was talking with the broker when I pulled up. Henry looked at my license plate as I approached the shed. “You from Maine?” he asked. I told him I had moved there only recently.

In person, Henry’s prickly email personality was replaced by a warm smile and a calm, measured demeanor. He was clearly a boat guy. We hit it off right away. His handsome boat had been custom built for him in Maine, for day use on a family place that had since been sold and had sat in the shed unused for four seasons. In spite of the accumulated dust, Henry’s consistent care and attention to detail were apparent everywhere aboard her. Interior details of cedar were added personally in this shed. After a thorough review of the layout and well-conceived systems, we settled back into a longer conversation about boats, the island operation, and his desire to find the right home for his craft. Henry was ready to move on. He’d focus on smaller boats now.

I asked him what he did when he wasn’t messing around with his boats. “I’m a laborer,” he said plainly. “I work on farms, do some carpentry, take care of people’s places.” He had the ruddy good looks of an old Yankee, with bright discerning eyes. His family had lived in the old town for generations, but the suburbs were closing in, and the community was changing. He disapproved of the values of the newcomers and their flashy big homes. Standing there in the shadow of his boat, in his work clothes, with his strong principled opinions, he could have been a 21st century Henry David Thoreau. “I probably should move to Maine too,” he mused. By that point he had already decided to give us the boat. “I don’t want any recognition for this at all. Nobody needs to know who I am.”

The generous broker agreed to waive his commission to seal the deal, and the papers were signed a week or so later. I asked Henry to meet me down at the dock after the signing. Just back from the island, I had a nice little lapstrake rowing skiff aboard. Planked in cedar, the skiff had been built at the WoodenBoat School. Someone on the island decided to put a big outboard on it which predictably snapped the raked transom in half. It had since been repaired but was too nice a boat to risk further abuse. I gave the skiff to Henry to add to his fleet. I am certain it will be better off in his care, and he was delighted. We launched Henry’s beautiful lobster boat into the churning Piscataqua a few days later. I am sleeping much better now, and I gained a new friend in the process.

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.