Thoughts from a part-time curmudgeon

White Island, much like lonely Duck Island to the east, has limited protection from the swell and no good landing options. Photo by Jack Farrell

By Jack Farrell
For Points East Magazine

The regular visitor to this space may recall a story from a few years back when I was given permission by a wise octogenarian (and frequently cantankerous) Star Island guest to be a curmudgeon once in a while. He declared that those of us who have survived for six decades or more have earned the right to have strong opinions, and to express them now and then – without regard for the feelings of the audience. It has taken me a while to work into the role, but lately I am finding it easier to be righteously cranky from time to time. I am on the water nearly every day for most of the year, and I see and hear a lot. Much of it, especially in the summer, gets my proverbial goat. And so I am spending part of this season wrap-up edition to share my nautical pet peeves for 2020, in no particular order.

Slow down

I am first and foremost a sailor. When sailing Aloft, we get pretty excited when we maintain seven knots for more than a few minutes. I do appreciate a good powerboat, but I just don’t understand why people have to go so fast in them – especially in crowded channels and anchorages. Every year, it seems, the average amount of horsepower goes up. Twin outboards were once the top of the line for speed demons, but now we see three engines regularly, and sometimes even four. Forty knots is fine if you have to go out 20 miles to catch that elusive Tokyo bluefin, but otherwise I wish you’d slow down, save some fuel, and enjoy the view.

I think it is way too easy for people today to take control of a high-powered boat and head out. Given the risks and vagaries of the ocean environment, there should be stricter licensing and more required training, on safety and the Rules of the Road for example, and especially when people are going so fast.

Watch your wake

Related to the speed issue is wake awareness. No-wake zones are not generally enforced, even when marked by buoys or signs – but they should be. The weekend mariner in general does not seem to understand that wakes can be damaging, and that passage should be reduced to headway speed in restricted channels, around bridges, and in anchorage areas. This is a matter both of safety and common courtesy.

Radio etiquette

In the summer season the noise on the VHF radio increases dramatically, and that’s to be expected. But years ago the requirement that recreational boaters have an FCC license before using the marine radio was dropped. Increasingly now, we are hearing more transmissions on channel 16 that are unclear, inappropriate, extensive, rude and too often even vulgar. The emergency and hailing channel is a shared resource and a critical link for all of us. Licensed radio operators know to limit themselves to essential traffic, and to maintain decorum at all times. Radio checks are conducted on channel 9 or 27, and expressly not on channel 16. Even the Coast Guard could improve its use of the radio by eliminating jargon, speaking slowly, and identifying the location of vessels in trouble with place names in addition to coordinates.

Nautical competence

The waterfront old timers around whom I grew up could be strict and unforgiving (“is that what you call a bowline, son?”), but they took deserved pride in their skills on the water knowing they were essential to a safe and rewarding experience. They also understood that competence on the water is earned through practice and study. Today’s average recreational mariner would do well to use the coming off-season to read up a bit on things like docking, maneuvering and anchoring.

On the water, as in the rest of life, I admire competence and courtesy. The purpose of this little rant was to encourage more of both qualities in all of us. OK, that’s it for now on the subject.

Visit to White Island

We took a couple out to White Island at the Shoals last week in Utopia. White, home to a prominent lighthouse (said to have been commissioned by George Washington) is now owned by the State of New Hampshire. A stewardship program managed by Rye Harbor Capt. Sue Reynold’s Lighthouse Kids program sends volunteers out to the island from time to time for maintenance projects.

White, much like lonely Duck Island to the east, has limited protection from the swell and no good options for landing in anything but the best weather. I have a photo on my wall of a wave breaking over the top of the 80-foot tower. On a glorious September Saturday we picked up the State mooring just off the White Island ledges and prepared to land the couple and their gear on the rusty old boat ramp that leads down from the rock-strewn beach to the low tide line. The big swell lifted my little skiff a foot or three off the rusty ramp with each successive surge. We had to steady it, wading in waste deep water on the slippery bottom, but we had them all secure with their gear safely ashore in three trips.

The visit reminded me of a trip to White a few summers back with the tax assessors. This time the weather was mild and the two very serious middle-aged men in blue suits with their clipboards and cameras were able to get ashore with no more than wet feet. We ascended the old brick tower with its steep sweeping arc of a staircase. About half way up we encountered a five-year old girl and her babysitter. The precocious girl was the daughter of the two scientists running the tern habitat program on adjacent Seavey Island. She spent most of the summer on White and took a decidedly proprietary interest in the place. I could hear her talking about counting spiders in the tower as we approached. She moved aside as the assessors passed her on their way to the top of the light.

“Hey,” she said, looking up. “What are those guys doing in here?”

“They are from the spider inspection department,” I replied

“OK,” she said. “Then they can go up.”

At the top, the assessors summarily admired the breathtaking view, took a few photos, and began their descent in silence. I imagined them trying to figure out how they could possibly put an accurate monetary value on such a place. At the bottom we exited back into the bright sunshine as the little girl called down from her perch among the spider webs.

“Where are you guys going? You haven’t seen a single spider yet?”

On the row back out to Utopia with this year’s stewards, I asked the woman how her weekend had gone. “You know, I wasn’t so sure about coming out here the other day, but it turned out pretty well after all. Last night he proposed to me in the top of the tower at sunset.” Places like this can do that to people.

Meanwhile, over at Star Island, unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the weather is rapidly turning. An approaching cold front threatens frost, and the northwest gusts this afternoon are over 30 knots. The strange and lonely pandemic summer at the timeless Oceanic Hotel is over. The island operators managed to survive a season without income, but for so many reasons the future remains uncertain. Still, the chop builds up to four feet over the seven-mile fetch from the shore of a troubled America and sweeps by the end of the old granite pier as it always has in weather like this. A lone gull hovers motionless above, head to the wind, as the clouds stream by to the east – as though nothing has changed at all.

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.