Small boats on cold water

I think of these stories from time to time as I make the crossing to the islands, especially in winter. The warmth and security felt in the cabin of a big, strong boat can hide the fact that less than an inch of fiberglass separates us from the deep cold water. Photo by Jack Farrell

June 2023

By Jack Farrell

The last days of April and the first days of May sent a progression of cold windy rainstorms up the Piscataqua River driven by strong winds from the northeast. Seas built up to 16 feet and rainfall was over three inches. The river ran the color of light coffee for days, with stormwater runoff from the rivers upstream moving tons of silt and topsoil toward the sea, as they have since the first European settlers cleared the forests and tilled the ground. Rivers like the Lamprey, Oyster, Cocheco and Salmon Falls, now shallow creeks heavily silted-in from centuries of such run-off, once ran deep and wide. Upriver towns like Exeter, Dover and South Berwick had enough deep water to support shipbuilding in earlier times. In spite of new awareness and attempts to mitigate it, the process continues with each big storm. Everything that we do in coastal communities seems to ultimately impact the ocean.

Even out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the usually crystal-clear water was cloudy and brown for days after the weather improved. The big rains quickly filled the cistern up to the 80,000-gallon mark, but left the hotel’s early open-up crew cranky and cold. The ocean temperature remained stubbornly in the mid-40s, and there was no escaping the chill. In between rains, the wind shifted to the northwest and blew with its usual springtime vigor. During one such blow in late April, reports came over the radio of a 17-foot center console overdue from a fishing trip to Jeffreys Ledge with four people aboard.

When I was a young man, I spent a summer working on an offshore oil rig in Kachemak Bay, Alaska. Stranded five miles off Homer Spit at the beginning of the Aleutian chain, the George F. Ferris had been trapped in early winter ice the year before and was under repair. The bay was surrounded by snow-capped peaks and glaciers. On my first day there, the safety officer warned of the dangers of the 40-degree water: The strongest man on the rig would not last five minutes in that water.

The day after the four fishermen were reported overdue, the VHF repeated the Coast Guard’s “Pan Pan” alert for them. But those of us on the water that day already knew the likely fate of the fishermen. In those conditions no one could last an hour in the water, let alone a whole day.

The Coast Guard mobilized a formidable search-and -rescue effort. Surface craft and helicopters could be seen from the islands all through the day. Eventually, three bodies were recovered, close to Cape Ann, and the search was called off for the fourth fisherman a few days later.

The event reminded me of an incident one January a while back, also overheard on the VHF from the Shoals. A frantic lobsterman near Boon Island reported that his stern man had gone over the side after becoming entangled in gear. Help was miles away at best. The Coast Guard advised that a boat would be on its way, but there was no response from the lobster boat for five minutes or more. While I contemplated a nine-mile run to Boon on that 15-degree morning, the radio crackled with good news: The lost man had been recovered and was still alive.

Some years ago in March, an experienced solo kayaker was overcome by waves and cold near Appledore Island. His body was not found for weeks until the owner of one of the islands returned to find his remains on the shore. This same islander was nearly lost one August when his 16-foot skiff sank on a crossing to the islands from Rye. He spent over three hours in the water and was running out of time when rescued by a passing vessel, alerted by debris in the water. He could just as easily have drowned before he was even reported overdue.

The proximity of the Coast Guard and its formidable assets is a reassuring – if sometimes insufficient – presence. When I was manager at Star Island, I had the occasion to call for assistance more than once. On one occasion I called to inform them that the beacon at nearby White Island was not functioning. Before the day was over, a helicopter landed a repair crew to set things right.

One evening I was out sailing with some staff members at sunset. As we ghosted along off the southeast tip of Star Island in the fading light, Aloft’s bow struck a soft object in the water. The mass of what appeared to be a body swept along the side of the hull to the wake at the stern. The boat’s stern light revealed what some saw as fragments of a flannel shirt. At the time there had been a report about a missing sailor in the area. What we saw could have easily been the remains of a seal after a shark attack, but the possibility that it was human remains caused us to break out the searchlight and circle the area for a better look. Unable to get another sighting, we returned to the island.

I called the local Coast Guard to report the sighting, while making our uncertainty of what we had seen very clear. Under the circumstances, a search was begun within the hour. It included patrol vessels and a helicopter traversing the waters and skies around the islands until well past midnight. The station later called to report that nothing had been found, and the search was suspended. But the response to my uncertain call was both prompt and impressive.

I think of these stories from time to time as I make the crossing to the islands, especially in winter. The warmth and security felt in the cabin of a big strong boat can hide the fact that less than an inch of fiberglass separates us from the deep cold water. We have a big, safe offshore boat equipped with three radios, GPS, two radars, EPIRB, 55 life jackets and an inflatable life raft with enough room for all 49 passengers. We always leave a voyage plan with a responsible party ashore. I reassure myself that we are well-prepared and that the Coast Guard is only minutes away. But how many minutes?

Most readers have already concluded that those lost fishermen from the 17-foot boat headed to Jeffreys Ledge in April had no business attempting such a trip, even in the best summer weather. The boat and gear they chose were sorely lacking, but the biggest deficit seems to have been one of judgment.

The last and coldest day of that stormy stretch featured a morning of icy driving rain. But in the afternoon, the sun came out at last and the winds abated and shifted west. The short seas from the northeast spread out into a big rolling swell as we headed in from Star Island. The contractors aboard were wet, tired and ready to be home. “How fast can this thing really go?” one of them asked, suggesting I pick up the pace a little. I throttled up to an uncharacteristic 18 knots, which cut 15 minutes off the trip. “Don’t get used to this,” I yelled back over the hum of the engine. The bow rose and fell in a smooth rhythm as it cut through the easy seas, still tinted brown from the rains.

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.