They will come back

By Jack Farrell

The usual spring activity along our coast has been slow to develop this season due to the pandemic. But in early May, Maine Governor Janet Mills announced a phased re-opening plan for business in the state. In addition to some other enterprises, barbershops and marinas will be allowed to open almost immediately. That came as great news to me, being sorely in need of the services of both.

Recently, Star Island officially confirmed that it will not open for the 2020 season. The announcement had a ripple effect that echoed among the wider Isles of Shoals community. It highlighted the many ways in which the other islands depend on Star for security, transportation, drinking water, recreation, culture and amenities like coffee and ice cream. But for the entire 2020 season, Star Island will be on lockdown.

Among the many traditions developed over the century of conferences at Star Island is the custom of marking the arrival and departure of island guests and employees with a chant. After dropping lines, the boat pauses in the lee of the stone pier while the shore party celebrates the moment with a shouted farewell ending with a confident assertion: “You will come back, you will come back.” This custom is said to have evolved from the legend of the pirate Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard (for his trademark long and flowing black beard). Teach began his career as a privateer sanctioned by the British Admiralty during the war of Spanish Succession in the early 1700s. At the conclusion of hostilities, he turned to a particularly treacherous and lucrative form of piracy, ravaging the Atlantic Coast from the Caribbean to New England. The story goes that Blackbeard came to the Isles of Shoals sometime before his death in 1718 with much of his accumulated treasure, and his 15th wife. He soon sailed away, leaving both of them behind with a promise to return. But the pirate died a short time later. His treasure remains undiscovered. His wife, or so they say at least, wandered among the islands as if in a trance until her death, repeating to herself the words that were eventually modified to become the summer visitors’ farewell: “He will come back, he will come back.” Some say her ghost continues the practice to this day.

The island closure has opened up an opportunity for some additional maintenance on Utopia. She has been working hard since the refit in 2015 (ridden hard and put away wet, as the cowboys like to say), having made over 1,000 round-trips to the Shoals over the period. The inevitable wear and tear was beginning to show.

So in the midst of a tropical downpour last week we hauled her out of the water at Eliot’s Great Cove Boatyard. The yard’s manager, Butch Madden, was on the crew in 1973 at Bruno and Stillman that built the boat for legendary local high-liner Bob Cloutier. Bob operated his Utopia from the Gulf of Mexico to the Maritimes for more than 30 years. He is said to have “paved the road to Jeffrey’s Ledge” in pursuit of the giant bluefin. Also known as “Captain Clorox,” Bob was known to have kept the boat in top condition at all times. When I bought the boat, he proudly boasted of how easily she handled, describing the time he ran her from her berth in downtown Newburyport all the way past the jetties at the mouth of the Merrimack River, a distance of over three miles – in reverse. He cried in his driveway as Independent Boat Haulers took her away for the last time.

Sadly, Bob passed away a couple of years ago, but not until taking a last ride with me in his pride and joy. He admitted that we “did okay” with the refit and upgrade. “Take good care of my boat,” were his parting words to me after that last trip.

What’s the plan?

Butch Madden looked up from power-washing the slime from Utopia’s bottom. “What’s the plan?” he asked. I told him we were going to paint the topsides and freshen things up a little – repair the scratches and dings all those other captains had inflicted on her otherwise fair and shining hull.

“It’s always the other guys, isn’t it?” asked Butch with a conspiring smile. He was a young guy when the boat was built. Now looking face to face at the prospect of retirement, Butch has been a huge help to me over the past few years. I know he gets a kick out of being part of the effort to keep Utopia working hard and looking good.

We recently received word from the Army Corps of Engineers that the long-requested rebuild of the breakwaters out at the Shoals has been funded. Design and permitting work will take place in 2020, with the re-build scheduled for late 2021.

There are two primary breakwaters that together create the more or less sheltered waters of Gosport Harbor. Portions of this system date back to the 1800s. One section links Smuttynose Island with Cedar Island, both in the State of Maine. A second section bridges the state line from Cedar Island to Star. This piece was last rebuilt in the 1980s. Storm surges and the constant battering of the ocean have allowed breaches to form in this critical line of defense from the surging seas. It will be fascinating to watch the lifting, repositioning and reinforcing of the huge granite blocks. The list of permits and reviews required for the project is staggering. It’s safe to say that the Army Corps will leave no stone unturned in the process.

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, there is little more than the wind, the waves and the cries of the seabirds to break the uncustomary early summer silence. Except for a small caretaking crew, the island is closed to visitors and pirates alike until at least 2021. The sad news caused great distress to many of the thousands who come every summer to get their fix of the magic of the Isles of Shoals. For this year, at least, they will have only the slim solace of their memories, the old stories and the enduring refrain of the pirate’s wife. They will come back. They will come back.

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.