The cold, wet reality of it

Off-season at the Isles of Shoals is a time of construction projects, and ferrying various contractors and their materials to and from the islands. Photo by Jack Farrell

Our rough and exposed stretch of Bigelow Bight between Portsmouth and the Isles of Shoals has been characteristically challenging since my daily crossings resumed in early March. While only two days so far have been rough enough to actually cancel a trip, most of the other ones have been wet, windy and choppy. As the season entered early May we began to see glimpses of the warm and calm conditions that prevail in summer. Faces among the island crew began to brighten, and the overall mood of the place was much improved. The cold and the near-constant wind of early spring take a toll on even the toughest of islanders. The return of good weather reminds us all why we like to be out here in the first place. With a warm Friday morning and a happy ride out over a gentle glassy sea, it’s easy to forget the strains of the previous eight weeks. Contractors who had lately been wondering out loud who among them had signed them up for this crazy island duty began to ask about the projects planned for next year.

In the first days of the season we are a small group of serious working types who love being on the water. Employees and commuting contractors alike step up to assist with line handling and cargo. As the season goes along we begin to have more and more passengers who need to be tended to and kept comfortable – people who love the islands, but who often are anxious and even afraid on the crossings. The importance of good, dedicated crew moves to the forefront of my operation. I’m lucky for the return of a solid experienced deckhand who knows the boats and loves being on them.

Some of us out here began our nautical lives as sailors, admiring the passing coast over pleasant short summers from open cockpits, where the biggest risks to a perfect trip are sunburn or the lack of wind. As we rode in one rough day a week-or-so ago, in cold rain and a five- to seven-foot chop, we felt safe and comfortable inside the heated cabin. We braced against the bulkhead and watched the swells rear up to starboard, snarl at us briefly, and pass away harmlessly under the keel. We celebrated the virtues of a good lobster boat and a weather-tight cabin, as we observed how different a trip it would have been in a sailboat.

But the next morning we returned to the island harbor to find a little 20-foot sloop lying to a mooring close to the pier. The first sailboat of the year to visit, she was a fiberglass faux-lapstrake affair with a hastily furled tanbark mainsail drooping down along the boom. She was visibly down by the bow, presumably due to the weight of her sleeping crew, recovering below from what must have been a tough, wet trip out there from somewhere. By noon she was off again, the little red sail fading gradually out of sight to the southwest, in an easy broad reach with a steady 15 knots from the north. There are boats for all seasons and all reasons, and that’s part of what makes this all so interesting out here for me. As the new season matures, we will be treated to an expanding parade of yachts and boats intended for both work and play passing through our little harbor, some local and some from oceans away.

While the romance of the sea is much celebrated, experience regularly shows that the cold, wet reality of it is not for everyone. I overheard my wife on the telephone the other day in a conversation with her cousin’s wife. The cousin, it seems, has come into some money upon the sale of his business, and in his free time he has caught the sailing bug. He has been taking lessons and crewing on some evening race boats, and he is now considering buying his own big sailboat and moving the family aboard to sail off into the Pacific sunset. His wife noted that she was doing her best with the idea, observing gamely that it was really his thing, but that she was trying hard to catch up. The whole idea of it raised a smile. Haven’t we heard this story before? I wish them luck, but my advice would be to not sell the homestead right away.

My own dear, faithful wife has made it very clear that she will happily tolerate my boat lust, and is glad to meet me in remote harbors for a casual afternoon cruise and a night or two on a mooring. She appreciates a beautiful boat and knows quite a lot about being helpful aboard. Just don’t ask her to go along on any offshore deliveries or extended trips out of sight of land.

I know I’m at least partly to blame for this. I asked too much of her when she was the reluctant first mate in my early self-taught crash course in cruising. I still remember how she’d often ask why every other boat seemed to be retuning to the harbor when we were heading out to sea. In spite of her own mother’s advice, she brought her babies aboard to sail with us. She kept her cool when I jumped out of the boat in an unannounced man overboard drill, leaving her to maneuver back alone to pick me up. And she nearly quit sailing with me for good after the night we spent anchored (lost, she still insists) just beyond the breakers near Boar’s Head off Hampton Beach in both fog and thunder. When a Coast Guard patrol boat came alongside just before dawn, it was all I could do to keep her from asking to be rescued. “Rescued from what?” I wondered aloud. I was having a grand time. She thought I had lost my mind. By now I have accepted that she is way too sensible to be a real sailor, and that’s going to have to be all right for us. As for her late-50’s cousins and their newfound passion – time will tell, I guess.

Meanwhile, back at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the Coast Guard stopped by the other day for an ice cream break at the snack bar. The float docks are in, and the ferries are bringing out the year’s first tourists. Groups of school kids come out for field trips this time of year, many of them experiencing the ocean and the islands beyond the coast road for the first time. A few of them will be forever smitten by the twinkle of the sun-dappled waves, the salt-sweet smell of the water, the distant sound of waves colliding with the breakwater, the rising calls of the circling gulls, the stunning views of the far-off mainland, and the wide horizon – the same as I was almost 60 years ago now. And they’ll be drawn back out over the decades of ensuing summers to experience the magic of it all again and again, as if they had no minds of their own.

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. Formerly island manager, Jack now focuses on running freight boats and tours during the summer season and managing the waterfront.