The gift of unexpected moments

As I write this I’m on an airplane returning from a trip to the high and dry western desert to meet our first grandchild. The plane banks abruptly, descending through rain-swept clouds into Boston — revealing a long view of the coast to the north and east. I can just make out the Isles, isolated this stormy morning by seven windswept sea miles, too rough to comfortably cross today.

A prolonged stretch of wind and rain has curtailed operations at Star Island, providing a welcome chance to unwind from the trip, and reflect on this new presence in our lives and what the future might hold for our new grandson. As Cape Ann disappears below the starboard wing, I’m looking down on the same waters I sailed with his brand new father less than a year ago, and that I’ll hopefully sail with both of them someday very soon.

Cider, the dog Jack adopted about 18 months ago, warily inspects a crate of “bugs.” Photo by Jack Farrell

When our new grandson sails with me, he will learn early what many out here never seem to absorb — that the traditions of good seamanship are worth knowing. That they are more than mere style or preference, and serve to promote safety, efficiency and courtesy in a challenging environment. He will never, I hope, moor by the stern, leave the boat unattended on a stranger’s mooring, or plow through an anchorage at high speed unaware of the consequence of his wake — to cite a few recently observed bad examples.

It’s funny to think, but in spite of all the time I spend there, I would never in a million years be a guest at a place like Star Island. I don’t like staying in one place that long, and there are way too many people crowded onto those rocky 40 acres for me. It was the boats and the water that first attracted me (and that keep me coming back), and even more, the gifts of amazing and unexpected moments that are regularly bestowed in remote places like these. I’m thinking, for example, of the humpback whale that spouted yards away last week and then broke the surface repeatedly just in front of the boat as we headed out on a food run. I can still see its tail slipping beneath the water as it sounded.

I took a lot of walks this past summer on the island. The boat schedule included an early morning departure each Tuesday, so we spent Monday nights out there. The crew found lodging in the Oceanic Hotel and I slept on the boat, along with my dog, Cider. Since we adopted her from a shelter in Arkansas a year and a half ago, Cider has been a near-constant companion. She is not so fond of the boat trips (although after more than 200 of them she is starting to relax), but she simply loves the island. She’s a mix of hound and retriever with a genetic need to chase and swim. In spring and fall, she and the rest of a small island pack have the run of the place. But during the guest season, dogs are supposed to be kept out of sight.

But Cider needs to run, so after the sun went down on Monday nights we would slip quietly along the pier, beneath the shadows of the hotel porch, around behind the power house and onto the perimeter road leading to the wild leafy trails of the island’s southeast side. After a few weeks, Cider understood the summer routine. She would walk along with me patiently until I could unleash her at the turnstile that marks the edge of what was once a rough pasture. Now overgrown with tall grasses, Rosa rugosa, sumac and poison ivy, in the not-so-distant past it provided what was surely meager sustenance for milk cows, sheep and the occasional horse.

Once freed from her leash, Cider loped happily in the dark along the rough path, circling back every few minutes to make sure I was still with her. The only sounds we’d hear would be those of our own soft steps, the waves meeting the outer ledges, and the intermittent wail of the fog signal a mile away on White.

Cider would wake me before dawn on the following mornings to retrace our night-time circuit, under a slowly brightening sky. As we turned eastward along the path one particularly calm and clear morning, I was fairly startled by the sunrise. Without a warning, the bright orange ball rose up out of the water as though being born of the ocean. It moved visibly against the clear reference line of the horizon, allowing brief witness to the passage of time itself, until, once a fully exposed sphere, it began its long unmarked drift across the wide summer sky. Cider returned from chasing gulls and looked up at my silent observation of this wonder, uncharacteristically still for just a moment, as though she understood it, too.

The close-up season is in full swing now. Construction projects include the rebuilding of an assembly hall, the marine lab and the wastewater system. Hurricane and westerly wind threats persist, as landing craft, construction workers, concrete trucks and the last of the seasonal staff come and go across the pier and the adjacent shingle beach. The days are remarkably shorter, and the winter caretakers will soon assume their seasonal reign. Their long solitary stay is full of its own wonders and material scarcities, but much easier and safer than in the years before cell phones and the internet. Old Shoaler Mark Adams tells a story of an early-winter stay not so many years ago when the weather was too rough to cross for weeks. The day before Christmas, alone but for the island cat, he left the winter house to check the generator. The food supply was running low, and a meatloaf made from the last of his ground beef was cooling on the stove. He returned from the power house ready for a feast only to find an empty pan and a satisfied cat snoozing by the fire nearby. He lived on stale crackers and canned fruit cocktail for the next two weeks until a boat could make it out again to retrieve him.

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.

Comments are closed.