The Hurricane, and what’s in a name

Interior work on the old Hurricane is moving well in spite of lingering cold, snow and high winds along our coast. While fresh beaded plywood panels were being installed to dress up the bulkheads and interior cabin sides last week, the 60-plus-mph blow along the Piscataqua River rivaled records for sustained wind speeds. Windows, only temporarily secured during the work, rattled free. Blowing snow sifted in through even the invisible gaps, and the boat surged and rolled alarmingly against her doubled lines. But inside, close to the oil-fired heater, the crew was warm and relatively confortable as they watched the portable toilet on the wharf lift skyward to land in the harbor and sail smartly across the river toward Maine on the flooding tide. (It was later retrieved from the Eliot shore and placed back into its humble service the next day. Installation of restraining chains is on the spring work list. In the meantime, a life jacket hangs on the inside of the door.)

When she worked for Outward Bound, Hurricane’s mission often required her to venture from her base off Vinalhaven for extended periods. Just aft of the wheelhouse there was a private cabin for the captain and mate. The rest of the crew and the expeditioning students slept below. The captain’s cabin has lately been removed to allow the installation of expanded seating for crew, guests and the frequently commuting island dogs. The new open layout also provides clear passenger views to the outside. Among the shortcomings of the vessel, her high center of gravity produces an uncomfortable roll, especially in the beam sea the route to the islands forces us to endure in even a mild blow from the northeast. The ability to focus one’s vision on the unmoving plane of the horizon is the simplest antidote to the effects of mal de mer – which on the worst days can set in at a point just beyond the lighthouse. With half-a-dozen miles still to go and a schedule to keep, the unfortunate few so afflicted are consigned to the leeward rail for the duration of the run. Knowing they will shortly recover, and likely with a story to tell, we rarely turn back for a queasy passenger or two. But experience has taught that when the conditions become bad enough to make even the dogs seasick, it’s time to turn around.

In a sign of the times representing the end of an era, Hurricane’s spacious navigation station was removed last week as part of the renovation. A relic from the days before GPS and cell phone navigation, this area and the full-sized government charts it accommodated are no longer a part of routine operation. Two brightly colored plotter screens and a back up of paper chart kits are easily referenced right at the helm station, instead. Parallel rules, dividers and pencils lie unused in the wheelhouse drawers. While the Coast Guard still requires an up-to-date NOAA chart for the boat’s typical operations area to be kept aboard, it is seldom unrolled.

But, in spite of the increase in convenience, and surely in safety, something has been lost in the rush to embrace technology. I still love to peruse the old charts. A chart of the western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean is tacked to the wall of our garage. It lifts my spirits with the promise of adventure every time I take out the trash. I keep crusty, decades-old charts from early cruises in my closet, and I go back to them from time to time to refresh the memories they represent. Some still show the lines of the courses we ran and the plotted positions and light penciled-in notations from notable cruises gone by.

For me, some of the most interesting aspects of studying the old charts are the stories behind the names of the islands, ledges, channels and other features. Star Island, named for what early settlers imagined as its shape if viewed from above, would have been called something else if named in the age of the airplane, as it takes considerable imagination to see a star in aerial photos of the place. Gunboat Shoal on the south side of the entrance to the Piscataqua River is so named for the British gunboat that moored there during the War of 1812, intimidatingly close to the harbor, but just out of reach of the American artillery. Lunging island, said to be a corruption of Londoner’s in the old Shoaler’s dialect, was the site of a trading post of the London Company. It is almost impossible to imagine such a tiny, shallow and exposed cove as a major trading hub of the developing New World. Appledore Island was originally named Hog Island, its shape from seaward said to suggest the profile of a hog’s back. Hog was changed to the more discrete Appledore (clearly a British affectation) by the entrepreneurial Laighton family during development of their hotel business there in the nineteenth century. Smuttynose Island was named for the bit of black rock on the otherwise light-colored ledges of its southerly tip – a trace of “smut” on its nose.

For some chart features, experience of the place tells the whole story. I’ll never forget passing the ledge named Roaring Bull with a big sea running and a darkening sky. Located in a lonely stretch of water off the beaten path seaward of Metinic Island, the ledge is aptly named. A safe mooring in Port Clyde was especially welcome a few hours later.

For other spots the stories – for now – remain a mystery, and the imagination is left to fill in the details as we sail by. Witch Creek, Mingo Rock, Pest Island, Anderson’s Ledge (with its ancient iron spar bent to the southwest by a century of pounding seas from the northeast), and Old Henry come to mind as local examples undoubtedly with stories of their own. Old Henry is a 30-foot spot surrounded by depths over a hundred feet. I imagine grey seas building under gathering clouds, and a lone fisherman bent over the rail of a weathered dory hauling in fat codfish long after the time he should have started scudding back toward the Gut and the safety of Gosport Harbor.

Meanwhile, back out at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, caretakers Alex and Brad report little storm damage as the winter draws to a close. Work resumed in mid-March on the reconstruction of the Brookfield/Rutledge Marine Lab building and the installation of the new wastewater treatment system. The seasonal boat schedule is being finalized, crew is being hired, and the last of the off-season maintenance will soon be wrapped up. I’m looking forward to testing out the new five-blade propeller soon to be installed on Utopia. The tasks for the spring are monumental, and hopes are high for good weather and a safe and productive open-up period. We hope you’ll stop by and see us this season if you’re in the neighborhood.

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.