As the season ends, memories proliferate

We hauled Star Island’s harbor launch for the season this November morning, in a gray mist. I’m always just a little anxious at haul-outs, especially when the season is late and the river is mostly deserted. It doesn’t help that the landing is called “Dead Duck” (the public landing ramp on the Piscataqua River, in Eliot, Maine).

The operation went off without a hitch and the launch is tucked away in the yard waiting for another season. And that makes 25 percent of the fleet that I don’t need to worry about for a while. But the other boats are still in the water, with the temperatures dropping off at night and the winds of November throttling up every few days as the cold fronts sweep by.

When the big windstorm came through last week at our house, 10 miles from the harbor, I was awakened by the noise of it well before dawn. It left me sleepless in the darkness, wondering what more I might have done to secure things the afternoon before. Out at the Shoals, the peak gust hit 78 knots early that morning.

We went out the next day, when the seas came back down, to check things out. Remarkably, there was very little out of place: a few shingles on the lawn, some siding from a patch on a fourth floor wall that was already pretty rough before the blow, and one old sewer outfall pipe torn from its anchor to rise and fall on the leftover swells. I guess in a place that sees high winds so often, there isn’t much left that can still blow away.

At this time of year, the island is shuttered up and pretty quiet. It’s a good time to take a deep breath and take stock of the season. Since late May, visitors went to sleep on Star Island over 20,000 times (we measure our success in total “bed nights,” and this year broke records). The kitchen produced over 100,000 meals. The wastewater plant purified almost a million gallons of wastewater. The generators burned over 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and the solar panels produced more than 100,000 kilowatt-hours of renewable power.

A review of the boats’ log books reveals that we made 247 round trips from Portsmouth to the Shoals this season, safely transporting somewhere around 6,000 souls on one leg or the other over the 10 miles of swirling river and open ocean. We also moved enough building materials to completely rebuild one cottage, a large gazebo and a bathroom – as well as yards and yards of paving gravel in one-ton sacks.

We loaded, shuttled and off-loaded literally tons of personal luggage and gear, plus all of the aforementioned food and diesel fuel. No wonder we all feel a little tired about now.

You might think the same trip would get a little boring after the first hundred runs or so. But the truth is, it almost never feels that way, and I look forward to almost every chance to go again. I’ve made trips at all times of the day, in all seasons, and in sunshine, rain, fog and snow – in flat-calm dawns, in screaming winds, and under double rainbows. The combination of light and clouds and water is different every time, and always beautiful.

The islands attract an array of interesting people who make the boat rides even better. Some of them make me laugh. Some teach me something new (like the evolutionary basis for seasickness, or how to butcher a chicken). Some, like the two old friends from Australia who rode out in July, transport me to the other side of the world.

On spring and fall trips, we are often accompanied by ornithologist Eric Masterson. Eric, a transplanted Irishman, literally wrote the book on bird watching in New Hampshire. He leads weekend birding events on the island during the seasonal migrations, and he rides out with us as much as possible to scope things out.

Eric says our islands are among the best places he knows to see a variety of birds. What he really likes are the hawks. A few weeks ago, he told me that he is learning to hang glide so he can fully understand what it feels like to be a migrating hawk. When the thermals are right, he says, the hawks will let you soar right alongside them.

An unfortunate few of the travelers are fearful and prone to seasickness. I have a theory that the two conditions are linked, and I would prefer to have fewer of those who are so afflicted. Better to have aboard when the conditions are challenging are the confident souls who love the adventure of it.

I remember a night in August when the fog had been lingering for days. I was making the third trip of the day in the late evening. After sunset, the view from the wheelhouse was mostly darkness and gloom. The soft glow of the chart plotter, and the reflection of the running lights on the closest waves, were the only exceptions. Piloting that night required intense focus, and the concentration was making me tired. About half way out, I decided I would cancel the return trip and sleep on the boat.

When finally at the dock, a cheerful woman greeted me as I tied up and shut the engine down. She had her bag and her raincoat, and she was all set to ride back into town on the scheduled return leg. I did my best to talk her out of it, but she said that a nighttime run in the fog sounded like fun. She hopped aboard and we had a fine chat all the way back, through the blackness into town.

Last month we hosted an onboard memorial service in the lee of White Island for the family of a woman who, they said, was conceived in the keeper’s cottage in the 1920s. Wilbur Brewster was lightkeeper in those days, and his daughter, Virginia Lois Brewster, then spent the first eight years of her life at the Shoals. Her brother, daughter and niece led a short and simple service as the boat tossed about in the chop, as close as I dared go to the rocky shore where Virginia was born in 1928 – a truly moving voyage on which to end the season.

The first really cold days are just around the corner now. I love the winter, in spite of its challenges. So instead of worrying about slippery decks, cold engines, and failed bilge pumps, I’m going to focus on how sweet the boats will look once they are covered in a nice blanket of fresh snow.

Jack is a USCG 100-ton master and the facilities director at Star Island at the Isles of Shoals, where Aloft 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.

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