Hurricane Dorian and the “dream wedding”

All’s well that ends well: The bride dreamed of an island wedding in inclement weather, and she got her wish. Photo courtesy Jack Farrell

By Jack Farrell
For Points East

As Hurricane Dorian stalled over the Bahamas, wreaking unspeakable devastation, here at the Isles of Shoals we began to consider how it might impact us. The last big weekend of the year promised a full house at the Oceanic Hotel. A two-day island wedding extravaganza was also on the schedule. What can we tell the guests? Would the boats be able to run? Should we board the place up and evacuate? On the islands all things begin and end with the boats, and captains are expected to have answers. “Hard to tell at this point,” was my response on Tuesday.

The bride-to-be called me on Wednesday. Being married in the beautiful stone chapel on Star Island was a dream come true for her, she said. I expected the same anxious questions about the weather. Instead, she told me that she had dreamed the night before about being married on an island in a hurricane. She couldn’t believe how lucky she was. She begged me not to cancel her island dream wedding. The pressure was on. “We’ll just keep watching the forecast,” I told her, “and talk again tomorrow.”

On Thursday morning the wedding planner called to say that the vendors were getting nervous about the trip. “The vendors?” I asked.

“Yes, the vendors. You know. Hair, makeup, music, photo, video, catering. They’ve all been calling. Some of them don’t want to go out there in a hurricane. How bad do you think it will get? Can you still do it?”

“Hard to tell at this point,” I replied. “But I think you should work on a plan B.”

The original itinerary called for two runs out on Friday afternoon with the advance team coming first, followed by the bride and groom. The vendors and the guests would come out on Saturday morning. By Thursday night forecasters were pretty confident that the big storm would pass well to our east. What remained unclear was the extent to which its outer bands would affect us. There was a potential for winds out of the northeast gusting to over 40 knots starting late Friday night. That said, things looked windy, but manageable, through the day on Friday. The worst potential for high wind and seas was on Saturday, and all regular trips for that day had already been canceled.

Later on Thursday the groom called. I told him that Saturday trips were off the table. I suggested a more modest event at the island on Friday, with a hard departure time that would get us ashore before dark.

“That’s going to be a hard sell. Let’s look at it again tomorrow,” he said.

I told him that I had an early morning freight run on the schedule. Conditions at that point, along with the updated NOAA forecast, would tell us what was reasonable.

Early the next morning we loaded food, luggage and a pile of freight on the Hurricane. The wind was clearly rising from the east, holding the old wooden hull hard against the float dock. We stopped for lobster on the Kittery side and headed out under the Memorial Bridge. Almost as soon as we passed the Navy Yard, I noticed some weird fluctuations on the chart plotter screens. It was soon apparent that we had an electrical problem. A lot was riding on this day, and it hadn’t started out well.

Outside, the seas were up from the northeast, a bit higher than the forecast had indicated. Hurricane rolled and wallowed, slapping down hard on a few of the steepest waves. I hoped that none of the passengers picked up the grimaces on my face that followed the worst of them. By the time we reached the Shoals, the batteries on the house circuit were dead, leaving us without electronics or bilge pumps. As the island crew unloaded the boat, we connected a borrowed tractor battery to get the pumps going long enough for the trip back to the mainland.

After landing back in town, I called the groom. “I think we might be able do this in Utopia, but I can’t promise it. She can carry up to 28 people, but 20 would be better. We are going back to the island shortly and I’ll make a decision after that and call you back when I get there.” Utopia is the smaller of our two “big boats,” but she’s more seaworthy and, besides, her electronics still worked.

We dropped the last of the day’s load of luggage at the island just after 3 p.m., and made for Rye Harbor where the wedding party was to assemble. The seas were still rising, but the route to Rye put them on the stern. I wondered about the conditions at the Rye jetty where the waves could pile up in the shallows, potentially making it difficult to enter the harbor. But things went surprisingly smooth, and we slid right in. We picked up the happy and much-reduced wedding party of 18, and headed back out toward the island. The passage out was exhilarating with a dramatic, but easy, motion and spray flying grandly all around. The guests’ original anxiety faded away quickly as Utopia handled the conditions like a good lobster boat will.

At the island dock we were met by the usual shore watch, mainly comprised of the more mature members of the staff. We all worked together to collect clothes, flowers, cameras, libations and other wedding gear and get it all up to the hotel. Everyone agreed that we had to leave by 6:30 p.m. As the crowd made its way to the hotel I related the story of the bride’s dream of an island wedding in a hurricane to the island’s engineer. “Did you ask her how the dream ended?” he asked. The wind still seemed to be rising from the east.

Victoria, the feisty young wedding planner, and I made our way to the chapel while the rest of the party changed into their wedding outfits. We worked our way up the chapel path to the sounds of chamber music resonating from inside the two-foot-thick stone walls. Victoria stood less than five feet tall in spite of her heels. She burst into the ancient building to the great dismay of the chamber ensemble, which had also been promised the space for the evening to rehearse. Victoria quickly turned the tables on the disgruntled musicians. “We need this place cleared out in 10 minutes for a wedding.”

The scaled-down ceremony went off without a hitch, and the group re-assembled at the boat at 6:30 p.m. as promised with the help of the shore watch and a rusty old Ford van to collect the gear. The clouds parted to the west long enough to allow sunset shots as the happy party returned to Rye Harbor. The big following seas reared up astern as the boat surfed its way into the sunset. We made the crowded harbor as the last of the light receded from the western sky.

We had pulled it off after all, and the bride was ecstatic. The party quickly offloaded and headed for a nearby restaurant to resume the celebration. The mate and I turned around to face the wind and six- to eight-foot waves in the near-total darkness for the run back to Portsmouth. It had been a long and trying day, and this last part was our reward. “This is awesome,” she said, as the engine hummed and the bow sliced through another big one.

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.