In search of a little salvation

We enter ancient Gosport Harbor late in the afternoon to be treated to the sight of a magnificent Alden schooner yacht riding at anchor. Photo by Jack Farrell

October/November 2022

By Jack Farrell

As I prepared for an afternoon run out to the Shoals one day last week, I noticed a car illegally parked at the State Pier. It was left at a strange angle, blocking the entrance to our dock shed. A note on the dashboard read “Star Island Speaker.” There was no surprise in that. Island guests often have a tough time with the parking scheme despite repeated instructions. It’s a running joke among the staff.

On the bench at the head of the pier sat a man in his early sixties whom I did not recognize. He was short in stature but rangy and thin with sparkling bright blue eyes. His hair hung nearly to his shoulders in a color that was not original. And his teeth were too white and too straight to be his own. “Are you the island speaker?” I asked, preparing to ask him to move his car to a legal spot.

“Nope. I’m just a nobody from Hampton Beach. I’m working the end of the season at Star Island, and I took the afternoon off. Needed a little break.” He spoke with a whistle through his dentures in a distinctly local accent, as in “Stah Risland.”

“Great. Grab your gear and come on down to the boat,” I said, forgetting about the speaker’s parking problem and intrigued by this sad introduction.

We got the man’s stuff stowed below and waited for the rest of the passengers to arrive. It didn’t take long to realize that he had been drinking. He asked a lot of questions about the boat that revealed he knew something about the subject. I asked him if he was a sailor.

“I live in Hampton now, but my people are all Brookers,” he said in a voice raspy from an afternoon of smoking and drinking in town. “We’ve been on the water forever. My niece has her own boat. She’s going to be on “Wicked Tuna” next season.”

“Brookers,” I repeated. “Seabrookers?”

“Yeah. Brookers. That’s why I like it out at the Isles of Shoals so much. Shoalers and Brookers, we’re all from the same tribe.”

When I was very young, my grandparents would take a summer rental at Seabrook Beach on the New Hampshire coast. The houses were jammed closely together along the water, and there was an edge to the place. But the beach itself was magnificent with its beautiful white sand, clear blue water and rolling surf. My cousins and I would spend all day in the ocean.

We stayed right around the cottage most of the time and were expressly not allowed beyond route 1A, only a few blocks away. The state road was too busy to cross, and beyond the highway, along mud-bottomed tidal streams bordered by miles of tall waving marsh grass full of ravenous greenhead flies, was the vast wild, uncivilized region where only the Seabrookers lived. Or so we were told. We never saw any of these people, or at least we never knew it if we did. But we heard the stories from my Uncle John. They were out there, in the marshes, living on clams and eels and muskrats. They had their own language or dialect, at least. Regular people found them difficult to understand. They lived by their own rules. Their children evaded the truant officers. Even the police left them to themselves.

Each season we would go with my Dad down to Seabrook Harbor, across the highway, to the wharves of the Eastman and Littlefield charter boats. In those days, the boats were wooden and, to my young sensibility, very beautiful. I loved watching the captains slide into a slip against the hard-running tide and nestle them softly against the float with a quick kick of the reverse gear. The midsummer sun beat down, and the blue harbor sparkled. Just beyond the Littlefield’s ticket shack, the paved road turned to sand, bending around the end of the shallow harbor until it was lost in the ever-swaying yellow-green marsh grass: the gateway to the realm of the Brookers.

Brookers and Shoalers did have a lot in common, and it would make sense that when Seabrook fishermen ventured out to sea, they would feel at home among the Shoalers. Making their hard-won livelihoods from the sea and surviving in remote and isolated communities, these little societies developed their own customs and ways of speaking, which might well have overlapped. Established, and so-called proper communities shunned and even feared them. From civilized Newburyport, the Society for Propagating the Gospel among Indians and others in North America sent missionaries to the Shoals to bring social order and religion to the islanders. I wouldn’t be surprised if they also sent help to the marshlands of the untutored Brookers, which began along the northern edge of the Merrimack in adjacent Salisbury.

And now, more than sixty years later, I meet my first actual Brooker. He’s not dangerous in the least, but he sure is a little odd. We enter ancient Gosport Harbor late in the afternoon to be treated to the sight of a magnificent Alden schooner yacht riding at anchor. Painted black, with matching black tender and dating to the 1930’s, she represents the pinnacle of old-school New England yachting. She was likely commissioned and even still owned by an established old Yankee family of notable pedigree. The unadorned schooner appeared strong and capable. She was subtly, modestly, appropriately gorgeous.

My new Brooker friend saw it, too. Across the generations and the chasms of class, there is a common language among those that know the sea. We drifted a moment and took it in quietly before swinging over to the pier.

And at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, only a few pilgrims remained as the days got shorter and the season slipped dreamily away. September is the best time to be out there.

As we pulled away from the pier headed for the mainland, the low evening sun danced across the waves. In the southwest distance, the Seabrook nuclear power plant rose abruptly from the marshes above the low-lying shore. I never did learn what the day’s speaker had to say, but I’ll bet it had something to do with a search for meaning in a confusing and troubled world. As with the guests, the seasonal help, and the privileged yachtsmen on the black schooner, few come way out here by accident. Some come to escape, but most are united in the common hope of finding insight, inspiration and even a little salvation. I watched my Brooker friend make his irrepressible way up the gravel road toward the community of the staff dining hall, seeking his own.

Jack was the manager at Star Island for many years. He currently manages major construction and utility projects there and provides all-season boat service to the island (average 250 trips per year) for luggage, food, employees, supplies and guests. He also runs Seacoast Maritime Charters, LLC providing year-round private charter boat service and marine logistics to the general public, now in the Shining Star. He still enjoys cruising in his classic Ted Hood sloop, Aloft, and teaching skiing at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine.