‘Starkly, harshly, terrifyingly beautiful’

Returning home to a flash-frozen New England following a family Christmas in a much warmer place, I picked up a copy of “Whale Warriors” at the airport bookstore. No matter where you fall on the radical politics of the Sea Shepherd Society, this chronicle of a 2006 voyage to the Antarctic, in the self-acclaimed pirate ship Farley Mowat, is a great read for those who love maritime adventures.

It is the tale of a half-crazed captain and his pickup crew in a tired old North Sea trawler, traversing the polar coast with the goal of disrupting the grim work of the Japanese whaling fleet. It all seemed appealing from the warmth and relative comfort of my Jet Blue extra legroom recliner, and, in my own small way, I thought I could relate to running an old boat in winter conditions for what seemed like a noble cause.

But when I returned home to find a request from the Star Island caretaker for a supply run to the Shoals the next day, with temperatures heading below zero, I asked her to confirm that such a trip was critical to the mission. Surely we could wait for better weather, I suggested.

She was not easily dissuaded. Alex is a homesteader and former professional blue-water sailor turned artist. She is a very serious woman, in her 21st winter on the Island, and she informed me that food supplies were running a little low. She also said that a musician had carved out a window of time to help record songs she’d written over her years on the island for an upcoming CD. Not only that, Alex’s partner Brad needed to get back to town.

The marine forecast called for intense cold, but light winds, at least until noon. A trip was clearly possible. Not one to stand in the way of art, good meals or Alex’s determination, I reluctantly agreed to go out.

Griffin, my excellent first mate from last summer, had been looking after the boats during my absence. In the piercing cold of the early year-end twilight, I found them both secure – floating high, decks cleared of snow and batteries charging. With something less than my usual enthusiasm, I checked the bilges and turned on the block heater to warm Utopia’s engine in preparation for the next morning’s cold start.

By the next day, Dec. 29, the cold snap had fully taken hold. It was two degrees below zero when I checked the oil, opened the raw-water seacock, switched on the batteries, and cranked the old Caterpillar into life. The pre-heating had done its work, and the engine started without hesitation. With the initial smoke cleared from the exhaust, she was soon cackling and rumbling as if it were a summer morning.

But it was anything but a summer morning. For one thing, there was no one else around. Sea smoke rose eerily from the surface of the harbor in vertical plumes as the 45-degree water hit the sub-zero air. I checked the safety systems: life jackets in their places, EPIRB and pumps tested, electronics online, life floats free to deploy, a clear path to the foredeck, handholds free of snow, anchor and rode chipped of ice and ready to run. I opened the engine box and scanned for leaks or loose gear. It all checked out. Fuel filters and pressure gauges were all good. By now, the cabin blowers were even staring to put out some heat. The trip was on.

Sam the musician arrived shortly after that with a violin, bags of food, and other equipment for the recording session. After brief introductions, I got down to the facts: It was so cold that there was no room for any mistakes and no one around to help us. I watched the excitement slip from her face as I listed the worst of the risks.

Footing on deck was bad, and would get worse when we got past the lighthouse and into the swells. Spray would certainly freeze on the deck, hull and windshield when the waves kicked up. A breakdown would, in the best case, imply a long, cold wait for a tow. More than a few minutes in the water in these conditions would result in death.

I thought it was important to let her know what she signing up for, and I wanted to find out as quickly as possible what kind of a passenger she was going to be. I let it sink in for a moment as I watched for a reaction. “Still good to go?” I finally asked.

“Sure. I can help you with the lines,” she replied. “When the cabin gets a little warmer, I’ll play you some music. It’s beautiful out here this morning.” Sam was going to be fine.

I confirmed the forward- and reverse-gear operation, and it was time to untie. The lines had frozen to the cleats, and it took a while to work them loose. Sam helped stow the freed lines in the cabin to thaw. Finally, we backed out of the slip and the falling tide took hold. The mechanical steering fittings had stiffened in the cold, and it took two hands to swing out around the tug and barge moored close by our slip. But soon we were running out smoothly with the stream, past the shipyard, and out to sea alone.

Sam opened a case and took out a dulcimer-like wooden instrument in open-tuning that she could play with cold fingers. As the engine throbbed out a bass line, the distance to the Shoals diminished quickly.

And it was indeed starkly, harshly, almost terrifyingly beautiful that morning. We were witness to a magical picture of islands, sea and sky that few are privileged to see. Ice had built up on Star Island’s granite pier blocks, and the dock surface resembled a glacier, thick with layered crust and windblown snow. Navigational buoys struggled to remain upright under the build up of salt ice. The sea smoke shrouded the shore and buildings under a slowly swirling veil. After 248 trips, the last island run in 2017 turned out to be the most memorable.

On the second of January, the Full Wolf Moon rose out of the eastern sea as a glowing red ball. This particular “supermoon” came the closest to the earth since 1948, appearing significantly larger and brighter than any I had ever seen. The effect was so dramatic that someone miles away on the mainland called to let us know that the island was glowing red and might be on fire. A call to Alex confirmed that it was not.

Later that day, as media reports warned of the approach of a dangerous storm, Alex emailed in search of the key to the island museum, in whose heated vault she and Sam would find shelter if the windows were blown out of her cottage. But despite the highest tides in years (nearly 11 feet at Portsmouth) and wind gusts to 60 mph, Alex and Sam rode out winter storm Grayson in the cottage: “Fair size, but nothing unusual, and with surprisingly little damage,” Alex later reported.

They set up a makeshift studio in the east bedroom with a grand view over the breakwater and out to sea. They turned the noisy heater off to record, playing in fingerless gloves. The howl of the wind outside made its way onto the recording from time to time, and they think may just leave it in the final version.

I’m looking forward to hearing that music.

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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