Equipped with a beat-up old sloop and a boatload of literary inspiration, a Mainer-turned-city-slicker sets sail on an epic 2,000-mile journey to rediscover the coast of his youth.
Two silhouettes stood at the end of the town pier. An orange streetlight burned behind them. The light reflected off of a silver sedan, the gray siding of Frisbee’s Market, the smooth, black water of the Piscataqua River.
There were boats on the river, their bows turned into the ebbing tide. The current submerged lobster pots and tipped the red signal buoy off Seavey’s Island at forty-five degrees. In 1820 you could walk across the Piscataqua on the schooners, sloops, barks and brigs moored there. On this night, there wasn’t a soul on the water.
The silhouettes moved over the weathered planking. One was wearing a basketball jersey and shorts that reached his shins. The other had auburn hair and soft brown eyes. She opened a folding chair and sat beside a cooler. The boy set the fishing rods down and peered over the railing at a disassembled boat, bobbing in the river twenty feet below.
“What the hell’s that?” he asked.
“Sailboat,” I answered.
“Where’re you taking it?”
“Up the coast.”
“All the way.”
The kid grabbed one of the rods and walked away. The boat was crisscrossed with guidelines and dock lines, a futile effort to keep the hull from bashing into the pilings every time a wave rolled by. Tools, sails and broken hardware lay scattered across the deck. The boat was old, but it was new to me. My father had built it in 1978 and I discovered it thirty years later. It looked tiny alongside the pier — a twenty-foot sloop with a cabin so small you couldn’t stand up in it. It took two weeks to prep and repair the thing. Even with the mast and boom on, though, it hardly looked ready for the powerful currents and storms in the Gulf of Maine.
The list of broken parts when I started refitting it was inconceivable: two outboard motors, bilge pump, navigation lights, battery, engine mount, furling mechanism, gas tanks, mainsheet, inflatable dinghy, blocks, pulleys, water tank, water pump, three handheld GPS units.
God is in these waters, I wrote in my journal after a half-gallon of motor oil leaked into the storage lockers, bilge and drinking water tank. He is here and He is unkind.
That morning when the Kittery harbormaster told me that I couldn’t launch at the town boat ramp, I almost gave up. Some things aren’t meant to be.
But then some are, and you have even less control over them. So I sat in the parking lot until midnight, when the harbormaster’s truck was gone and the tide was high again. Then I pitched the boat into the dark water, paddled it to the town pier, topped the tank with town water, plugged the battery charger into the town outlet and used the town crane to step the mast.
It was one in the morning. The kid baited his hooks while I stabilized the mast with four more stays and trued it as best I could. Then I crammed the sails and tools into the cabin. The boat had three bunks, a sink, icebox, water tank and portable head. There were two portholes on either side of the cabin to let in some light and storage space beneath each bunk. That morning I’d added a bungee-corded library over the port quarter berth, including Dorothy Simpson’s The Maine Islands, E.B. White’s book of essays One Man’s Meat; Blaise Cendrars’s The Prose of the Trans-Siberian, and The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron. It was a strange collection. Part-fantasy, part-adventure. But that’s what this trip was — a journey back in time along the coast I grew up on.
Looking back is always different than being there, but I had some gaps to fill in from my childhood. Like why my parents dropped everything in winter of 1975 and moved our family from New York to an island off the northern coast of Maine. Or how my father reinvented himself from a corporate executive into a boat builder. I had questions about the seductive power of boats and the ocean, how they sucked my family in and commanded our lives for three decades. Most of all, I wanted to know how and why all of that fell apart in my father’s middle age, ending in his death at the relatively young age of sixty-two.
My supplies for the trip — a heap of my camping gear, the inflatable dinghy and more broken parts — obscured most of the town dock. Beyond the pile and the ghost boats pulling at their moorings, an invisible line drawn 250 years ago runs down the middle of the river. South of the divide, the New Hampshire coastline wraps around New Castle Island, Little Harbor and Odiornes Point, then drops in a near-plumb line to Massachusetts, Connecticut and the eastern seaboard of the United States. To the north, the frayed edge of Maine wends around Badgers and Seavey islands, in and out of Spruce and Chauncey creeks and up, over and sideways through a maze of rock ledges near Hicks Rocks and Fishing Island before turning north to the craggy shores of Kittery Point and Brave Boat Harbor.
The boundary marks the southern edge of the state of Maine. To me, it was also a starting line. Some seven thousand miles north at the Canadian border, around the capes, headlands, narrows and necks of the longest coastline in America, I hoped to find the end.
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2. Isles of Shoals
A cottony squall line appeared on the horizon as I sailed into my first port, Gosport Harbor in the Isles of Shoals. There were mare’s tails before the squall, hazy cirrostratus above it. Two-dozen other boats pointed into the coming gale. Eight ring-billed gulls hunkered down onshore. The Isles of Shoals aren’t exactly on my route, but the state line runs through them a few miles east of Portsmouth and I didn’t want to miss anything. Half the boats around me were in Maine, half in New Hampshire. I wasn’t sure which state I was in. I knew I was stuck there until the storm passed.
The computerized voice of NOAA crackled on the VHF radio. The coming storm front packed sixty-mile-per-hour winds and possibly a tornado. Sunrise: 6:35 a.m. Sunset: 7:13 p.m. I went below and closed the hatches. The first wind hit a few minutes later. Then the waves. Just before the rain and lightning, the sky glowed pink and the air turned sweet with the smell of lavender.
I ate tortillas and beans in the cabin while the rain came down. I didn’t have time to shop before pushing off and had food for only one night. Saucer-shaped clouds drifted overhead and waves crashed into a seawall built between Cedar and Smuttynose islands. The dark stone beaches of Star Island to the south and Appledore Island to the north complete the harbor and the major islands of the Shoals.
The group is named for shoals of cod, not the rocky shoals that encircle it. Seaweed-covered and blackened by the ocean, the islands rise up from the tidewater, meet a ring of woodbine and shadbush, then finally give way to windswept grassy fields and stands of spruce running east-west.
After the storm passed, I closed up the boat and motored the dinghy ashore to find food in the Star Island Inn. The two-hundred-room inn, built in 1873 as the Oceanic Hotel, was now owned by the Unitarian Church. The clergy bought the island, too, and held retreats and conventions there in the summer. A young churchgoer assigned to receive guests at the dock took the dinghy’s bowline and invited me ashore. She was wearing a bright-green bikini and pointed to the snack bar on the ground floor. If I wanted to see the Vaughn House, she said, I should hustle. It closed in fifteen minutes.
I didn’t know what the Vaughn House was, but the rule was to follow every twist and turn of the coast. So I walked a winding gravel path past the gift shop and over a small hill to a cedar-shingled shack. A sign on the door said it was closed for cleaning. Since no one was around, I walked in anyway.
The ephemera of nineteenth-century poet Celia Thaxter was preserved inside. Thaxter grew up on the Shoals, where her father was a lighthouse keeper on White Island, then the proprietor of the Appledore House on Appledore Island. She worked at the inn and entertained writers and artists vacationing there, like Childe Hassam, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In 1861 Thaxter’s first poem, “Landlocked,” was printed in The Atlantic Monthly. By the end of the century she’d published nine books of poetry and nonfiction and was one of the most popular writers in New England.
Items from her life sat in glass cases set around the single room: typewriter, pens, manuscripts, hand-painted china, a telescope she used to watched ladies walking the streets of Portsmouth. A writer’s tools are meant to be used, though, not looked at, and the display was not as interesting to me without words attached. I returned to the snack bar to buy food and pick up a copy of Thaxter’s memoir, Among the Isles of Shoals, then navigated a throng of eager churchgoers stepping off the ferry and motored back to the boat. An hour later, propped up on three cushions in the cockpit, I had to stop reading because both of my legs had fallen asleep.
The thing about going back is you never get it right. It is unreal now; it was unreal then. I could never find the words to explain the experience of growing up on an island. Maybe that’s because I left before they came. Thaxter left the Shoals only a few times and always came back. Her recollections run like a current through her memoir, never-ending descriptions layered on top of one another, one depiction spilling into the next. She writes of the people, the water, the old fishermen, the ships…
“…of the sky and sea, the flitting of the coasters to and fro, the visits of the sea-fowl, sunrise and sunset, the changing moon, the northern lights, the constellations that wheel in splendor through the winter night”; of seeds from her garden that come up a different color on the mainland; of brown and swarthy fishermen and the keen glance of seafarers; how “…all the pictures of which I dream were set in this framework of the sea.”
She recalls a storm that shattered the windows of the White Island lightkeeper’s house she grew up in and swept away the covered bridge connecting the house to the light tower; a night that “everything shook so violently from the concussion of the breakers, that dishes on the closet shelves fell to the floor.” She writes about Samuel Haley, who financed the Smuttynose-Cedar Island seawall with four bars of pirate silver he found under a rock; and the saltworks, windmills and orchards he created. She describes a string of frozen corpses reaching from Haley’s front door to the splintered Spanish schooner, Sagunto, one stormy January night — how she walked among the fourteen shallow graves Haley dug the next day. The first church on Star Island, she writes, was built from the timbers of wrecked Spanish ships.
The sun swung low over the harbor as I read about an elderly African woman who rowed ten miles to the Shoals in the middle of the night to look for buried treasure, her divining rod reflecting the starlight, garments fluttering in the midnight wind; a fifteen-ton boulder thrown onto the shore of White Island by the waves; layers of fish bones three feet deep on Star Island’s beaches; the “mosaic of stone and shell and sea-wrack” along the shoreline; scraps of boats and masts locals gathered for firewood; “drowned butterflies, beetles and birds; dead boughs of ragged fir trees completely draped with the long, shining ribbon grass that grows in the brackish water near the river mouths.”
The language of the sea comes in word combinations: salt gravel, traprock, song sparrow, skipjack and wolffish. For no reason, Thaxter writes, Shoalers formed their own vocabulary over the years. A swallow became a “swallick.” A sparrow was a “sparrick.” A minister and his congregation called his skinny wife “Laigs” her entire life. A Norwegian family was christened Carpenter, though they’d never lifted a hammer. Islanders’ nicknames were markers: Bunker, Shothead, Brag and Squint. Everything had its place on an island, I thought. That was a difference.
I found a tortilla in the cooler and wrapped it around a hunk of cheese that I bought at the snack bar. With the food in one hand, I tilted the book into the dying light with the other. There were boats on the page now, “obedient, graceful, perfectly beautiful, yielding to the breeze and to billow, yet swayed throughout by a stronger and more imperative law.” Thaxter writes of the Shoals’ tiny fleet running before a storm — after fishing Jeffrey’s Ledge forty-five miles out to sea — then taking shelter in the lee of Appledore Island. A half-mile away, in the warmth of the Appledore House, she watched their masts tip almost horizontal to the water until twilight came and they vanished in a purple haze.
The sun was almost gone. The other boaters had gone below to eat. The young poetess wrote of rowing with a group of friends at night and swinging her arms through the phosphorescence, “from the fingers playing beneath, fire seemed to stream, emerald sparks clung to the damp draperies.” Then this: “The eternal sound of the sea on every side has a tendency to wear away the edge of human thought and perception; sharp outlines become blurred and softened like a sketch in charcoal; nothing appeals to the mind with the same distinctness as on the mainland.”
There was fog in the harbor. The sky swirled silver and gray. I realized that some of my anxiety about taking this trip came from the fact that I’d moved away from Maine. And did that mean that I couldn’t write about it? Mainers are fiercely protective of their history and culture. They say it takes three generations born in-state to call yourself a native. We’d come from away. My mother had been a summer vacationer. My father pronounced himself a boat builder so quickly, that sometimes our whole presence in Maine seemed like a fantasy.
But Thaxter’s words brought me back. They conjured images of my own youth in Southwest Harbor — of fisherman’s kids smoking cigarettes outside the Pinball Palace when school let out. Of the smell of diesel and fish bait on Clark Point Road while weatherworn lobster boats unloaded their catch at the town dock. I recalled sitting on a ledge in the middle of the ocean before dawn with my father, waiting for flights of eider to glide down to our decoys. The island and my memory of it were my home more than anywhere else.
I turned on the VHF. There were more thunderstorms tracking across the mainland. It would blow tomorrow too, the voice said. A boat circled Gosport Harbor. I recognized its low-slung lines, the open cockpit, tan bimini collapsed on the bow. The cherry console and teak decking were familiar — auburn and gold. The boat was a Somes Sound 26, a replica of a Newport launch, twenty-six feet long with a 240 horsepower Chrysler inboard engine. My father built it. It was one of seven motorboats he ever built. The rest were all sailboats.
The timing, chance and message — if there was one — were overwhelming. The scene seemed staged, like it was lifted from one of my dreams. I sat motionless and watched the boat head west toward Portsmouth. It picked up speed and a thick, white wake rolled off the stern.
I opened Thaxter’s book again. The words were black splotches on the page. I couldn’t think of anything. I flipped to a dog-eared passage I’d read a half-dozen times.
Pleasanter still to think of some slender girl at twilight lingering with reluctant feet and wistful eyes that search the dusky sea for a returning sailor whose glimmer was sweeter than moonlight or starlight to her sight—lingering still, though her mother calls within and the dew falls with the falling night. She walked these shores most of her life, but especially in her young life. And it’s in your young life where the living begins and where it was strongest. And you will always go back to that until you were old and weak as a child and happy that you have no care in the world again.
* * *
Porter Fox is writing a book about his 2,000-mile journey along the Maine coast. He edits the literary travel writing journal, Nowhere, in Brooklyn, New York.