Launch-day hijinks, and savoring the moments

The author’s wooden sloop Aloft, underway. This year she’s back in the water after a nearly three-year absence. Photo by Wendy Harris

It was another early-morning island supply run in mid-summer. Utopia slipped easily through the glassy swells for the seven-mile trip to the Isles of Shoals in the company of numerous grey seals and a single minke whale. The fish finder emitted a constant stream of beeps, echoes of the broad schools passing below the hull as we cruised by. The seals and the whale were feasting. The weather report promised thunder and rain before dark, and a handful of cruising sailboats could be seen getting an early start on the day’s travel before the weather turned. It was another lovely morning on the water, and all in a day’s work.

A public radio story this morning reported that micro-plastics are being detected in our coastal waters at increasing levels. There is evidence that the gills of some young lobsters are becoming clogged. In addition to a variety of viruses and the impacts of rapidly warming water due to climate change, this new threat adds additional uncertainty to the viability of this iconic fishery.

Just after the plastics story concluded I noticed some trash floating on the water a short distance ahead. I cut the engine and glided to a near stop to retrieve a string of deflated Mylar party balloons connected by a soggy blue ribbon. We see these things almost every day. But I’d like to think we could find a better way to celebrate.

After leaving the crew and their gear at the island dock, I motored out to the edge of Gosport Harbor where the Department of Environmental Services has left bait bags full of mussels hanging on one of our moorings. The waters of an offshore harbor, it seems, can be a bellwhether for harmful organisms that may later appear inshore. We bring some of the mussels into town periodically to be tested for the presence of red tide and other pathogens. I unclipped two bags of the barnacle-encrusted bivalves from the mooring line, replacing them with two new sample bags. The mussels were in the state lab within an hour and a half, along with a five-gallon sample of the 68-degree harbor water. We like to help where we can, and it makes the trips even more interesting.

A few days earlier, Independent Boat Haulers launched our wooden sailboat, Aloft into the churning Piscataqua tide. The rigging and launch took place at a landing on the Eliot, Maine shore known as Dead Duck. Maybe it was simply the name of this place with its unforgiving currents, or maybe it was the worry about a wooden hull that had been away from the water for almost three years, or maybe it was all the new systems (the boat has a brand new engine, upgraded bilge pump and alarm system, new through-hulls for depth and speed transducers, and a big scarfed patch on the hull as part of the conversion to a composting toilet) all about to be put to their first big test, but I had an uneasy feeling that something was about to go wrong.

In spite of my concern, the sleek and shiny old hull met the water with an acceptable level of initial leakage from the usual spots. The engine started on the first crank. The pumps came on right on cue as the water rose in the bilge and cycled out reassuringly. The new through-hulls didn’t leak at all. We sat on the trailer for a few minutes checking all the nooks and crannies of the bilges as the cooling water flowed nicely from the exhaust. The fresh paint gleamed in the sunshine and the pumps were off more than they were on. And so it was time to cut the cord and back out into the river.

I shifted into reverse, and the boat moved ahead against the trailer. The gearshift was connected backwards. No big deal, I thought. Just need to remember until it can be swapped over. Shifting the other way, she backed out clear of the pads and we headed into the stream as the trailer was hauled back onto the hitch. The truck began to pull away from the ramp. There would be no turning back now.

For a few hundred yards all was well as we bucked a brisk, but fading, tide heading downriver to Kittery Point. I throttled up to cruising range and the engine was humming nicely. But when I checked the engine panel, the temperature gauge looked alarmingly high. Without my glasses I couldn’t make out the actual number, so I ducked my head down for a closer look. As I did, I noticed steam rising from the companionway. The gauge registered 220 and was rising fast. I had a little situation on my hands, after all.

Scanning the water ahead, I noticed a mooring ball straining in the current just off to port. Slowing to an idle just as the ball came alongside, I grabbed the boat hook and ran forward to snag the line. Before the slack came out of the pennant, the loop was on the cleat and I was racing back to shut the engine down.

A cell phone conversation ensued with the mechanic, who is also a valued friend. (He would have been aboard for the first sea trial but for his concern that he may have been infected with COVID-19!) It was quickly determined that the coolant level was very low. During initial commissioning an airlock must have prevented it from being fully filled, and it wasn’t until a full load was placed on the engine that it made any difference. I motored slowly to a nearby dock, added a gallon or so of fresh water, and all was well. In 45 minutes we were safely back on the mooring at Kittery Point. After a week of letting the hull swell, tuning the rig and loading of sailing gear, we’ll be finally windborne once again. If that’s the toughest launch day I’ll ever have, I’ll take it.

Meanwhile, back at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the strange and quiet summer continues. Important projects are being completed on budget. Without guests or deadlines, as the song goes, the livin’ is easy. More than ever, this feels like a place lost in time.

The wind vane was placed back on the chapel spire last week. In this digital age the cardinal points on the ancient vane were aligned with the help of the compass of a cell phone. The spire and belfry sport a bright coat of white on their new siding, and the little hip roofs around the top have new shingles of thick cedar capped with carefully fitted lead – ready for decades of assault from the wind and weather.

As I surveyed the finished work from high up on the scaffolding I thought of how long it might be before someone else has a chance to sit quietly up there at the highest point of this remote and beautiful place, surrounded by history and the endless horizon.

Life gives us a steady stream of such privileged moments, if we can only remember to take the time to savor them as they flow by.

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.