Peaceful, calm and uncharacteristically quiet

The fishing vessel Rough Times. The boat’s owner, Chris, fishes for lobster, tuna and scallops, but lobster is his staple, and the market is way down. Photo by Jack Farrell

So far this year, summer weather has been trading places every few days with crisp sunny days more typical of October. The water temperature is still in the low 50’s and I am wearing a down jacket in the wheelhouse of the Hurricane most mornings. Recreational traffic has been very light around the Piscataqua basin through early June, but the anglers are coming out in increasing numbers as the word gets out about all the fish that have moved in. Some days the river seems to be full of them.

We are taking advantage of the slow season by catching up on boat maintenance. I finally found a chance to get Utopia painted. With projects on the Shoals going at the same time, it took longer than it should have, but she’s gleaming in the sunlight once again, and her topsides are blemish-free – at least for a while.

In the meantime, we have been running crew and supplies out to the Shoals in the Hurricane. While it’s been cold, it hasn’t been too rough. Hurricane prefers the offshore trips in calm weather. She does provide a terrific view with the helmsman’s eyes about 14 feet above the water – something I enjoy very much.

The other morning we passed the fishing vessel Rough Times moving some gear inshore. On many trips in the early season she’ll be the only boat out there. Captain Chris fishes for lobster, tuna and scallops, but lobster is his staple. With the restaurant market shut down and reduced lobster demand from China, Chris reports that he has to work harder than usual to sell his catch. The dealers aren’t buying much, so he and a few other local guys have been selling off the boat. Now that more of the seasonal guys are setting their gear, it will be that much harder. As the lobsters start moving around with the season and the catch increases, the price in an already flooded market will start to fall. Rough times, indeed.

We got a nice view of the bulk carrier Spar Gemini a few days ago as she waited outside the river mouth for her escort to the state pier. As the Moran tug Handy Four approached, the pilot came up on channel 13 to set up the rendezvous: “Spar Gemini, this is the Portsmouth pilot. We’ll be coming alongside at 1030 local time. We request a ladder on your starboard side at 2.5 meters above the water. Please have your anchor on board and be ready to get underway. Is everyone on board healthy?”

Spar Gemini confirmed the transfer details and responded that the crew was healthy. A big puff of black smoke rose from her stacks as she powered up for the run up the river. The big ships burn two types of fuel oil. One is much cleaner and is required when the vessel is close to shore. The cheaper, dirtier bunker fuel is burned only when on the high seas. I read somewhere that calculations of the carbon emissions from these dirty maritime fuels are largely unregulated and not included in most estimates of global climate impacts from use of fossil fuels. The pandemic has had a noticeably positive impact on carbon emissions and air quality worldwide. Many scientists were surprised to see how quickly the slowdown was reflected in the statistics. But ships and airplanes will be the last to convert to renewable fuels, I’m afraid, and the oceans will bear the brunt of it unmeasured.

Meanwhile, back at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, life is peaceful, calm and uncharacteristically quiet for early summer. Instead of a nightly population approaching 500 souls, there are fewer than a dozen people here these days – keeping the lawns mowed and working on a few building projects. There is no money coming in this year, and so it is one of the sad ironies of these times to have such an opportunity to get much-needed projects completed without the funding available to do them. After 10 years of hard-driving out here, I, for one, am grateful for the break, and enjoying the peace and quiet.

We are hoping to do a few things, though. Today I took a moment to climb up into the chapel’s belfry to consider one overdue project. Two years ago we removed the old wind vane. It had lost some parts over the years and was down to north, south and west by the time we got it down to the ground. It was sent ashore for refurbishment and now there are four points on the compass once again topped off by a fully formed corpulent codfish. The whole structure has a new veneer of solid gold. We had removed it from the spire atop the belfry in a very sketchy maneuver that no one is willing to repeat in reverse. So the plan is to erect steel scaffolding around the tower that rises nearly 50 feet off the ground at the island’s highest point to create a safe platform for the re-installation of the vane. On the way down we can take the opportunity to replace rot, as well as scrape and re-paint the spire and belfry below.

From high above I felt the fresh southwest wind sweep the island from the New Hampshire beaches seven miles away. The only sounds were of the gulls, the rustle of the tall grass bending to the breeze, and the incessant chop hitting the rocky shore far below. I could see three states, and the wide Atlantic stretching away undisturbed to the east, as I leaned on the giant cast-bronze chapel bell. An inscription on the bell, partially obscured under long-accumulated guano, read “From Meneely’s Foundry, West Troy, New York. 1850.”

This stone building, dating from 1800, is the third chapel to be built on the site, the first two having been lost to fire. From my perch in its belfry I could look down to the cove where an intruder had lately been intercepted shortly after dawn on a quiet Saturday. He had arrived alone, at the only suitable spot to land on the west side of the island, in a canoe. He claimed to have paddled over from Rye Beach, some six miles away. He was described as a bit odd, but respectful and not unfriendly. He was told that the island was under quarantine and closed to visitors. He accepted the news calmly, got back into his canoe and paddled away back toward the mainland.

We later learned that the man was seeking refuge from the authorities having earlier that morning set fire to a school in Portsmouth after a days-long spree of mayhem involving police pursuit from at least three towns. He was ultimately apprehended in Rye later that Saturday. He claimed that his trip to our island was made in search of a safe hiding place, and that he had no intention of further destruction out there. We’ll never know for sure. Strange times. Rough times.

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.