We are the lucky ones

May 2021

By Jack Farrell

I stayed out of the dark and frozen boatshed during the coldest days of the winter except to grab some firewood piled under the sailboat before the snow fell. But during the unseasonably warm weather in late March I had no choice but to think about the sailboat again. I have a lot to do this season to make her really shine, and I had been avoiding that challenge altogether. But once the season starts to turn, it’s time to face the music.

I recall feeling this way before. This amazing boat is both a gift and a burden to me – depending on the time of year. I started easing myself back into the project by walking slowly all the way around the boat, adjusting tension on the stands as the frost came out of the ground below. I went aboard and checked the charge level on the batteries. I ran my hands along the topsides that I had faired out last December. I bent down for a good look at the bottom. I made a critical survey of the brightwork. Then I stood quietly in the cockpit with my hands on the wheel, evaluating the conditions on deck, and hoping for inspiration.

There was good news and bad news. The topside planking was smooth and tight, and could be painted with just a little more preparation. The bottom was pretty clean and would require only a light sanding before the anti-fouling coat. The new charger had kept the batteries topped up well through the cold nights. The cockpit would need just a little clean up and some teak oil. But the varnish on the rails, especially aft, needs to be stripped and re-coated. The house sides need the same treatment. It’s clearly time again to break out the knee pads and order up a few more tubes of elbow grease.

As I stood at the helm in the gloom at the far end of the shed, I tried to remember how good it feels when Aloft slides off the trailer and hits the water to come alive once more. There are days of work ahead of me before that can happen, but soon enough her sails will fill and she’ll lean into the summer breeze as she has for almost 60 years. At this point I have no choice but to get started.

As I was driving north for the season’s last ski day, I got two calls that served to further remind me that the season was changing fast. Corey from the fire alarm company wanted to know whether Star Island would need to activate the system this season. He seemed happy to learn that we planned to open and would need him to come out in May to chase two years of gremlins out of the wiring. A second call from Ray, our island neighbor on nearby Lunging Island, asked about the possibility of a ride out to the Shoals in late April. It was good to hear from both of them.

The new boat project remains on hold pending design approval from the Coast Guard. The delays have made it clear now that we will have to make things work this year with Utopia alone. Utopia is a boat that can go out in the worst weather, but she’s just a bit small for all the freight that a fully operational season requires. I’m going to need to make some adjustments to the schedule and to the boat to make it happen. Transporting the diesel tanks and the propane may require extra trips. The design process has been very frustrating so far, but we’ll get into the construction phase soon, and it all will be fun again. Look up the Mussel Ridge 46 for a preview.

Meanwhile, out at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals, the late winter gales have opened up some major cracks in the concrete surface of the pier. Two sections have been recently replaced, one in 2003 and one in 2016. The oldest middle section is more exposed, and this year’s strong winds drove water between the granite blocks, lifting the concrete cap from below. We’ll have to patch it for now, but it will need replacement soon.

We recently came across an old photograph from the grand hotel era showing a timbered roof covering the end of the stone pier. This must have been a very useful accommodation for landing visitors and supplies, but given the harsh conditions evidenced by this year’s damage, it’s hard to imagine how it could have lasted very long. The same photo shows a large shed set close to the northwestern shore, likely dating from the island’s heyday in the codfish trade.

We struggle to support a few-hundred island visitors in the best weather, even with all our technology. When I see these old pictures it makes me wonder what life on these islands would have been like when upwards of a 1,000 people lived and worked here the year round. How hard it must have been to stay supplied with fresh water, and fuel for heating and cooking – and how nearly impossible it would have been to secure a fleet of large vessels in those winds, especially before the breakwaters were built.

As I complain about the looming hard work of my vanity project (the sailboat), and as so many of us have lived in fear and isolation for over a year through this pandemic, I think it’s useful to reflect on the lives of these early islanders. Fishing and working those old vessels by hand was both punishing and dangerous. In those days relief from the mainland could be days away in bad weather. Clean water was a precious commodity. The long nights were cold and damp. They surely ate an awful lot of fish. And many died young.

Most of us take to the sea and the islands out of choice – and only when conditions are good. We sail in the shadows (myths, legends) of those who came before us. But, even in the midst of a pandemic, we are the lucky ones.

We have the Coast Guard and the Marine Patrol, and while we might be wet and cold for a few hours when luck turns against us, we’ll probably make it home.

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.