Optimism, Catboat Bob, and Mrs. Crabby

The first big food order goes out to the islands on the Hurricane. It’s on such trips that the author sees his personal universe, both past and present. Photo by Jack Farrell

By Jack Farrell
Points East

We’re five miles out of Portsmouth on an early summer freight run to Star Island. The fine bow of my Royall Lowell-designed Utopia slices through the two-foot chop with grace and power. Ten feet back at the helm, bits of cool spray hit my face, blown back by the southerly head wind. The bow wave curls up and away, sounding an irregular hollow slap as the bulk of it falls back on the smooth water, and a rolling swish as the spilling foam recedes toward the stern.

Now well into her second life at age 45, Utopia carries hundreds of people and countless tons of freight annually, and generally without complaint. The engine rumbles happily away this fine morning, and we’re making an easy 11 knots – much smoother and faster now with the newly installed five-blade propeller. Or maybe it just seems faster under the very recent memory of the new propeller’s cost. (Such thinking is the mark of a true optimist.) Then again, it might be the clean bottom and fresh coat of paint making her run so well.

From this spot I can see most of my personal universe, past and present. To the right are the beaches in whose surf and dunes I spent my earliest summers. Off the starboard bow is northern Essex County where I grew up and went to school. Further ahead, the hills of Cape Ann run from Annisquam to Halibut Point, site of many adventures ashore and aboard. Astern is New Hampshire and Great Bay on whose shores we’ve lived for 40 years. Over my left shoulder are the hills of South Berwick to which we’ll soon be moving; and Mt. Agamenticus, trailing away to Second and Third Hills. My grandfather took his daughters up those stony slopes to pick blueberries in the 1930s. To port is the coast of Downeast Maine where I first learned the ways of boats, and over that horizon lie our mountains. On the clearest days we can see Mount Washington from here.

I was looking through the marine classifieds the other day. It seems that there are lots of good buys out there on classic older boats, especially sailboats. I came across an ad for our old Hinckley Pilot, Hopestill. The boat was listed for the same price at which we sold her 25 years ago. The ad highlighted her Volvo diesel: “runs strong, very low hours.” I remember cashing in a $6,000 IRA account in 1994 to buy that engine (yet another in a long line of bad financial moves driven by boat lust). At an annual average stock market return of nine percent, that IRA would be worth almost twice the amount of the present day asking price for the boat. Warren Buffet, I’m not, but I bet we’ve had more fun than he has.

Speaking of boat lust, I had to stop in at Great Bay Marine the other day after learning that two interesting wooden work boats, both the subject of earlier flirtations, were hauled out over there and rumored to be very available. Both boats were built at Maine yards. Sea Fever is the Aage Nielsen-designed 50-foot lobster boat that started the offshore lobster fishery. Sea Horse is an Acadia-built party boat with a valid passenger license. I was thinking that maybe one big lobster boat could do the job of both of my current boats and simplify my life a little – not that I need another project. I climbed aboard Sea Fever first, and imagined what it would take to clean her up and get a passenger license. The juices were flowing pretty well until I peered into the engine compartment and saw that rusty old Detroit sitting in the greasy bilge surrounded by dangling wires and corroded pipes. Reason overtook me for once and I drove back home with renewed enthusiasm for the current fleet.

I was talking with Catboat Bob the other day. He’s got a new Marshall catboat and is now sailing the shores of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom in sight of Quebec. He and his partner, Mrs. Crabby, removed from the coast last year, chased away by traffic jams, and in pursuit of out-of-bounds powder skiing and mountain biking. (Mrs. Crabby, by the way, is actually one of the nicest, most patient people you’d ever meet, an excellent cook, and a very good hand on the genoa sheets.)

Bob is one of my oldest friends, and we’ve had some great sailing adventures together. I remember the first big cruise to Maine in our 26-foot cutter we called Finner. We had some charts, a compass and maybe a radio. We sailed generally northeast for a day or so in dense fog until we decided we’d gone far enough to take a left and see where we actually were. It turned out to be Muscongus Bay. We spent the night in my favorite harbor, Port Clyde, and went out to Monhegan and beyond the next day.

Bob went on to live the cruising life aboard the wooden catboat Hannah Screacham; named, I recall, for one of the pirate Blackbeard’s wives. He sailed her as far as the Chesapeake and wintered over, huddled around the coal stove in York Harbor. This is until he met Mrs. Crabby who felt pity on him sleeping down there in the cold, and took him home. They’ve been together ever since.

Bob was working a construction job inland and commuting back and forth to the boat on his motorcycle, showering every few days at the home of friends. His regular commute took him past the Danish Health Club at the Rte. 1 Bypass in Kittery. One afternoon, he decided to “shoot the lock off his wallet” and sign up at the club so as to have a convenient place to shower, seeing how his welcome with his friends might be soon wearing out. Upon entering the club he was a little surprised that the clerk was clad in nothing but a terry cloth bathrobe. “How much is it for a month?” he inquired of the young woman.

“A month?” she replied with a smile. “It’s $150 an hour, buddy.”

Bob was momentarily taken aback by such an exorbitant rate, until reality caught up to him. “Oh, I get it,” he said with a knowing wink. “It’s that kind of health club . . . .” He saved the fee and continued to shower with friends. The authorities closed the club a few months later.

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, we finished the new wastewater plant ahead of schedule and are almost done with the new education and welcome center. The new plant will be the first in the State of New Hampshire to recycle wastewater to be re-used on the island for toilet flushing, irrigation and maybe more – as the island continues to fund ways to turn waste products back into resources.

It’s been a long, cold, wet spring but summer has arrived. Maybe it’s finally time to go sailing.

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.