The in-between season

Aloft’s wooden shellback tender, Afloat. The author figured out a way to — working alone — fasten teak rub strips to her. Photo by Jack Farrell

March/April 2021

By Jack Farrell

At the end of a long flight home from a week’s visit with the grandchildren out west on the last night of February, it was immediately evident that winter was losing its hold on our coast. The landing lights switched on as we descended along the sands of Revere Beach toward the runway at Logan to reveal a light rain dripping off the wings. When we left a week before, the deep snow sparkled and the morning lows flirted with 0°F. But as we drove north in the midnight mist, the temperature was above 40°F and the grainy banks lining the interstate were in full retreat, just one day after the full Snow Moon.

It had been too cold through February before the trip to spend much time in the boat shed, despite all the work I have planned for our sailboat before launch day. So I worked off some of my pent-up energy in the shop, sanding the shellback tender and finally installing some teak rub strips along the bottom of the sheer strake — after a dozen or more years of procrastination.

I’d rediscovered the milled-out parts and the jar of shiny bronze screws for the project during our recent move. But I kept telling myself that I needed another pair of hands to hold the rails in place while I (hopefully) drove the screws from the inside of the planks to land somewhere in the middle of the new rails. It turned out to be easier than I thought to do it alone, with one end of a rail screwed to a mark at the bow, and the other supported by a variety of blocks stacked on a sawhorse, and adjusted up and down as I moved aft, forcing the rail against the plank with one hip while reaching inside to drive the screws with two free hands.

When I woke up the morning after we arrived back home, the temperature was on a steady rise, and I could see through a snow-eating fog that our neighbor had already hung his sap buckets on our maples along the lane. As I walked over to the barn to shake off the jet lag and take stock of things, I could practically feel the frost letting go beneath my rubber boots in the softening gravel of the drive.

Among the remaining furniture and household items still seeking a home after our move lay an assortment of boat items waiting out the last of the winter: bags of sails, a boathook, coils of sheets, fenders, spare fuel filters, a spinnaker pole, a storm anchor, dock lines, spreaders, a radar dome, halyards, and so on. One of these evenings I’ll go through it all and see what needs attention. I know that this in-between season will pass quickly, accelerated by the occasional ski day and another snowstorm or two. Soon we’ll be sailing and running back and forth to the Islands again.

The new normal

Later that afternoon I went down to the Burge Dock in Portsmouth to check on Utopia. The snow had melted off the deck, and her flags snapped gaily in the clearing westerly breeze. The bilges were clean and dry. It was warm inside the closed up wheelhouse under the strengthening sun, and it felt good to sit at the quiet helm for a while to observe the waterfront.

The full Snow Moon had spawned a big King Tide that was rolling up the deep Piscataqua channel, up and over its normal banks. Water lapped at the pier’s main beams mere inches below the deck boards, threatening to flood the electric feeds. The gangway sloped upward from the pier to the floating dock. I had seen this happen before, and it struck me once again that these big tides are occurring more frequently every year.

I checked the data when I got home. The average sea level is rising worldwide and rising faster in New England than in other coastal zones. Since 1960, the ocean in New England has risen over six inches, but the current rate of sea level rise is approaching one inch per year. Scientists believe that the melting of Greenland glaciers due to climate warming from the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause. With over 360 square miles of coastal New England within four feet of sea level, the prospects are dire if we are unable to reverse this spiral.

Fossil fuels represent about 80% of total energy consumption today. Clean energy alternatives are on the rise, but will still be only 16% of total energy consumption by 2050, if current trends continue. But there is lately some room for optimism as the energy tide may be finally turning in favor of efficiency and renewables. The solar energy market is expanding rapidly, and ocean wind energy projects are again in the news. Recent reports indicate that most major auto manufacturers intend to phase out internal combustion engines over the next 10 to 15 years. And recent evidence suggests that climate warming may be more easily reversed than was previously believed.

There are encouraging developments in marine design as well. A new efficient catamaran ferry is planned for service to Isleboro, a town on one of Maine’s offshore islands, and hydrogen-powered ferries are being introduced in Europe and Japan. Ironically, I’m about to build a new diesel-powered boat that will burn over 4,000 gallons per year. Regrettably, large commercial vessels will be among the last to convert to fossil-free propulsion, but perhaps the second power plant in this boat — 10 years or more in the future — can be part of the solution, too.

Boat-building woes

The new boat project is stalled deep in the bureaucracy of the Coast Guard. I’ve given up trying to map out a schedule for the build, and the cost is rising with each response from the Marine Safety Center. The engineers in blue are combing through the various subchapters, parts, and subparts of the 567 pages of the Code of Federal Regulations, Chapter 46, Parts 166 to 199, Shipping — seeking to confirm that a widely-admired and proven offshore design (more than a dozen examples of which are in daily service up and down the coast in the lobster and tuna fisheries) is safe enough to carry passengers and supplies on a seven mile run out to the Isles of Shoals. I think it’s probably best that I don’t say any more on that right now. I’m hopeful we’ll have it all sorted out soon.

The Isles of Shoals

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving along on the breakwater re-build project, with plans to start in early 2022 on this essential work to protect Gosport Harbor from the relentless assault of the waves. The snow is all but gone, and the ragged shore lies quietly bleak in shades of brown and gray. The return of warm sunny days and sparkling blue water is close at hand now, but we remain mired in the same uncertainty that surrounded the upcoming season a year ago. Progress against the virus is being made, but we still don’t know if it will be fast enough to allow even a semi-normal season to happen at the Oceanic Hotel. Either way, there are the usual plans for building maintenance that will keep us busy, and the reduced schedule will allow more time for completion of the new boat. I have a feeling I’m going to need it.

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.