Taking stock of the fleet

While the Hurricane is ideal for moving stuff, her high center of gravity, bluff bow and round bilges make her uncomfortable in head and beam seas. Photo by Jack Farrell

Midwinter 2021

By Jack Farrell

I’ve owned and been the steward of many boats over the course of my 65 years. I know as well as most that all boats need a little care, and that some need quite a lot of it. Boats also need a clear purpose (work or play), and the better they meet their purpose, the more likely they are to get the care they require. At its recent height, my personal portfolio included a total of nine boats, more than I can reasonably care for, and it was clear that some realignment was in order.

The seven-foot plywood yard sale pram, glassed over and painted up, is in the lineup as my all-purpose dinghy. In the dark recesses of the boat shed is the Ned McIntosh fabric-on-frame peapod I built many years ago, but now in need of new sheer framing and probably even a whole new skin. My Joel White Shellback, a perennial favorite, has been moved to a place of honor in the workshop, restored to glory but for my lack of energy and time. I built it. I love it. I’ll get around to bringing it back soon, and the yard sale pram will be in trouble.

Our 16-foot Old Town ABS (plastic) canoe rests seldom used in the brush, tethered by a tattered bowline to a big red maple near the edge of Cox’s Pond at the foot of our Fairy Hill. The bright spruce paddles are stowed carefully inside her overturned hull. We pass the canoe daily when walking the dog, but my wife is not interested in flat-water paddling and the dog has a hard time sitting quietly for very long in a small boat. Single-handed paddling feels to me like an awkward way to go even a short distance. So we don’t take her out. But since we live on the pond, the canoe will stay there by the big tree, awaiting further inspiration. Plastic abides.

There was an eight-foot fiberglass pram I bought for $50 down at the Cove some years ago. The foam core was waterlogged, but it came with a set of hardwood oars well worth the price of the whole boat. I kept that boat around for a while, inflicting superficial repairs and hoping the core would someday dry out, until an unfortunate incident in a crowded garage involving a medium-sized tractor set the project back even further. Soon after that, I staged the boat near the main road and offered it up for free. Within hours my neighbor had dragged it 50 feet across the line to his yard where it now sits bottom up in the tall grass in plain sight. Gone but not forgotten, and I still have those oars.

About 25 years ago I built a lapstrake dory skiff, the dimensions of which I stole from another boat from somewhere down by the Merrimack River. This boat, designed to row off a beach in the surf, had a cross-planked bottom and a tombstone transom that was only nine inches wide at the base. Narrow and heavy, the boat was a joy to handle with one person aboard, carrying its way nicely between strokes. It became the tender to our sailboat for a few years, but was much too tender for most passengers, and was retired before there was an unfortunate incident. I found lots of interest on Craigslist a few months ago for this traditional skiff, and finally let her go to a friendly dragger fisherman from Portland. He plans to give the boat to an older friend as a project to help get his mind off the loss of his beloved ketch in the hurricane that recently ravaged the Bahamas. I feel pretty good about that one.

Our 48’ wooden sloop Aloft is resting comfortably in her new shed. I am passing some of these winter evenings sanding her bottom and topsides, trying to get a jump on the spring commissioning season that is already closer than we think.

The 42’ lobster boat Utopia is in commission down on the Piscataqua and ready to make a run out to the Islands when the need arises. By April she’ll be back on a regular schedule of daily trips.

Boat number nine, the 51’ expedition supply vessel Hurricane, is a venerable Maine-built wooden trawler that served two stations of the Outward Bound School, the University of Massachusetts marine research program, and Star Island Conference Center at the Isles of Shoals since her launch in 1967 at Southwest Harbor. I loved piloting this boat down the river and out to the Shoals from her comfortable wheelhouse high above the water. I enjoyed a series of adventures and misadventures with the boat, many of which have been recounted in these pages. The Hurricane had a huge afterdeck and a cavernous cabin, well suited to her mission of transporting freight and luggage. But her high center of gravity, bluff bow and round bilges made her uncomfortable in head and beam seas. I was never sure how much of a pounding she could really take, and there were many days when I was reluctant to take her out.

A yachtsman whose family had some history with the boat and who possessed both the funds and the courage to take on her care approached me last summer about his interest in acquiring the boat. After considerable discussions and sea trials, we came to an agreement to transfer the vessel. He is now in the thick of a conversion from workboat to live-aboard. She’s looking pretty sharp already, and I know he will choose only the best days to take her to sea.

That sale reduced my total boats to six, and my footage from 195 to 124, give or take. I’m calling this progress. But from his misty aerie high in the mountains of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Catboat Bob, upon hearing the news of the sale, expressed concern that without the Hurricane adventures I could well run out of yarns to spin. Fear not, old friend, for we are not even close to where the stories will end.

The Maine lobster boat is the best type I know of for work across the broadest range of conditions. But our Utopia is more than a bit too small for the freight and passenger loads that the island work requires. I’ve looked around for a larger lobster boat with a Coast Guard inspection, but can’t seem to find one to meet the needs. So my new plan is to build the perfect island supply boat, to be named Shining Star. I’ve chosen the 46-foot Mussel Ridge design, with hull and house to be built by Albert Hutchinson in Friendship, Maine. She’ll be powered by a 575 HP John Deere and will cruise at 14 knots with reasonable fuel economy. She will seat 25 in the enclosed cabin and carry a total of 53 passengers and crew. We’ll finish the boat closer to home in South Berwick. Marshall Frye of Seacoast Marine Systems will manage the project, including installation of systems and running gear. Boat builder Jonathan Van Campen will supervise carpentry and glass work, assisted by the crew from Stellar Boatworks and other local artisans. All of this will commence once the Coast Guard has completed its review of the plans. As Catboat Bob might well wonder, what could go wrong now?

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the pandemic has kept the caretakers in total isolation. With no visitors or re-supply trips since early November, they bake their own bread and are otherwise sustained by a good supply of canned vegetables, grains and dry beans. But rumor has it that the inventory of spirits ran out weeks ago, and a re-supply trip is now in the planning stages. I’ll be happy to run out there again whenever they need it because, as I may have said before, it’s (almost) always a good day for a boat ride.

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.