They say if you don’t like the weather in Maine, you just have to wait five minutes. But when I board the ferry in Rockland, the fog is as thick as a cotton batting and stays that way for the hourlong trip across Penobscot Bay.
As we approach Vinalhaven the fog finally begins to thin a bit. I can see the lobster fleet across Carvers Harbor, but there’s still no sign of the sun.
Mark Jackson is waiting for me by the landing. He leads me down to the floating dock and his 2000 Pulsifer Hampton. The owner of Vinalhaven by Boat, he uses the boat to show tourists around the area. He acquired her five years ago after retiring from teaching vocational skills at the Vinalhaven School. “I get paid to boat,” he says, “and it pays for the boat.”
Hamptons have a long history in Midcoast Maine. The design is based on the Casco Bay Hampton, a wooden lobster boat built by Charlie Gomes of Harpswell between 1902 and the 1950s. The Hampton was designed as a durable workboat, primarily used for inshore lobstering along the rugged coastline.
Its namesake, the Pulsifer Hampton, was built in Brunswick, Maine, by Dick Pulsifer. Between 1973 and 2018 he produced 113 of the strip-planked, pine-over-oak beauties. Pulsifer would build the boat in any color and length you wanted, as long as it was white and 22 feet long. Now retired, Pulsifer’s longtime assistant, John Lentz, continues to build Hamptons in Topsham. Lentz has loosened the reins a bit. He will give it to you in a different color and with a bigger engine. A new Lentz-built Pulsifer Hampton goes for $59,000. That’s not bad for a new, beautifully hand-crafted 22-foot dayboat.
Jackson’s Hampton is the 76th one built by Pulsifer. He bought it used from Vinalhaven resident Ruth Sayward after her husband, Gary Torborg, passed away. She is all original, except for a sturdy wooden mooring bit added by Richard “Gweeka” Williams, a local lobsterman and boatbuilder. “He was a hell-raising speed junkie in the lobster boat races,” Jackson says of Williams. “He’s also a boatbuilding legend.”
Pulsifer is a legend too, and his boats hold their value. It’s tough to find a nice used one for under $20,000. Jackson’s came with just 200 engine hours, but over the past four seasons he’s added another thousand hours. I ask him what he paid for it. “Less than what she’s worth,” he says with a slyish smile. “It’s why I named her Ruth.”
He pulls out a chart and asks me where I want to go. I’ve never been to the Fox Islands, so I tell him I’ll go wherever he thinks we ought to go. Jackson suggests a tour of the outer islands to the west. I step aboard and find two wooden-pine-on-oak collapsible chairs forward. They’re of an ingenious design where the back and seat sections intersect without using hardware. I could sit in one of them, but I plant myself on the engine box forward of the helm instead.
After casting off, Jackson tells me he takes as many as six people on tours, but usually takes three or four at a time. The Pulsifer provides a dry ride, but Jackson says going into a big chop he’ll have his passengers move aft. There they can sit on the stern cushion to take in the scenery.
We exit the harbor, cross The Reach—the path the ferry uses to get in and out of Vinalhaven’s harbor—and circle below Greens Island. It’s named for Joseph Green, an early settler who got into a scrap with the Native Americans who then killed Green’s uncle. Jackson is intimately familiar with the island. He lived there for nearly three decades.
Originally from Kansas—or “from away,” as Mainers call anyone not born in their state—Jackson, 67, knew he liked the ocean from an early age. After attending college, he roamed the country and decided Maine was for him. He taught sailing at a summer camp on Walker’s Pond in Brooksville and worked for Joel White at Brooklin Boat Yard. He also met Scott and Helen Nearing, early proponents of the back-to-the-land movement. Jackson became intrigued by homesteading after reading one of their books. In 1985 he bought eight acres on Greens Island and four years later moved there with his first wife and four young children, for a long time living without running water. He built a cabin and then a home, which he finished four years ago. By then the kids had gone and he and his wife had divorced. “We parted on amicable terms,” Jackson says. “We quit after we got the best out of each other.” His wife moved back to the mainland and Jackson remarried and now lives on Vinalhaven. He still maintains the property on Greens Island where he keeps some of his 13 boats, including a few he built himself.
We motor below the island’s Heron Neck Lighthouse where a lone lobsterboat passes behind us. Jackson gives the lobsterman a wave and gets the typical Maine greeting, a barely perceptible raising of the thumb and forefinger. It’s neither exuberant, nor unfriendly. Mainers are not showy.
The 27-horsepower diesel thrums below my seat. The Yanmar’s three cylinders are euphonious. It’s neither quiet nor loud. Hamptons have long, relatively narrow hulls and sip fuel—about a half a gallon per hour while cruising at about 9 knots. With a 12-gallon fuel tank, Ruth can literally go all day.
The fog thickens again, but Jackson is unperturbed. It’s a part of life here, and the locals just cope with it. The night before our ride I had texted Jackson about the foggy forecast. “It lends itself to a more authentic Maine experience,” he texted back, and it turns out to be true. The mist is like a comfortable blanket, insulating us from the rest of the world. As the Hampton slices through the water the small circle of visibility forces us to focus on the few things we can see.
Jackson suspects there might be seals on Deadman’s Ledge. As the granite ledge comes into view and we reach the far side of the barren rocks, we find a couple dozen harbor seals. Their eyes are as big as silver dollars. It’s almost like you can see little gears churning inside their heads as they calculate whether they should seek the safety of the water or stay hauled out.
Jackson ends their predicament by pointing Ruth toward Hurricane Island. Its history could fill a book. Six hundred people lived there until its granite quarry was abandoned in 1914. For the next half century, it was uninhabited. Then Outward Bound used it as its headquarters for the next 40 years. When Outward Bound moved to the mainland in 2006, the local mink population moved into the two dozen abandoned buildings. They bred with abandon and destroyed the place, much to the consternation of the island’s owner, a New York surgeon who realized he needed a new tenant.
Today, the conifer-covered island serves as the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership and is home to marine researchers and aqua culture efforts. But as we slowly motor through the mooring field, the fog-shrouded retreat looks uninhabited. Jackson tells me it is. Covid-19 forced the cancellation of all the 2020 programs. The minks must be busy again.
While maneuvering through the soup, I ask Jackson if he’s relying on the compass to find his way. “Chartplotter,” he says as he points to the small GPS that I’d failed to spot buried in the console. Jackson laughs at the notion that he might have been navigating through the mist on sight alone. “You get on the bow and throw potatoes,” he laughs. “If we don’t hear a splash, we turn.”
We cross Hurricane Sound, and Jackson steers Ruth through the White Islands. The bottom here is covered in sea urchins and Jackson sometimes brings a diver out to gather up an allotted quota. Like a lot of islands on Maine’s coast, many are in the public trust, allowing visitors to hike their trails. One island is home to a blue heron rookery, and Jackson has seen bald eagles in the area, but not this time. It doesn’t matter. An osprey flies overhead with a branch in its talons.
Jackson motors us by Bald Island, which provided the granite for the Rockland breakwater, then Leadbetter Island, home to Vinalhaven’s first quarry. He points out the island Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown used as inspiration for her book The Little Island. Most of Brown’s books were written on Vinalhaven. After she died in Europe at age 42, her ashes were spread at her island home.
When we reach Vinalhaven’s defunct Wharff Quarry, the visibility has dramatically improved. Jackson asks me whether I’ve ever been to St. John the Divine in New York City, and I tell him I have. “This is where they cut the columns for the church,” he says. I tell Jackson that I heard the first columns were so heavy that they broke under their own weight. As I say it, he points to the shoreline where an enormous hunk of perfectly cylindrical granite rests at the water’s edge. It’s hard to believe it’s been lying there for more than 100 years.
We follow Vinalhaven’s shoreline back to Carvers Harbor. To port, the shore is dominated by long stretches of coniferous trees with the occasional cabin, house or dock. To starboard we see eiders, guillemots and cormorants—three of them drying their wings on a solitary rock.
I ask Jackson about the national headlines Vinalhaven’s been making recently. Months before, local citizens had cut down a tree to prevent three New Jersey contractors from leaving a house during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. “There are all kinds of experts on Vinalhaven who know what happened,” Jackson says. “Maybe the parties involved were not our model citizens,” he adds, “but the New Jersey guys were loudmouths refusing to quarantine.”
When we return to the harbor, Trump 2020 flags are prominently flying off four moored lobsterboats. One of them has a red hull with M.A.G.A. painted on its stern. I ask Jackson about the politics on the island and he tells me that people have always gotten along but that things tend to be more tense now.
He drops me off at the ferry landing and provides me with some lunch options, but because it’s a Monday warns me it may be slim pickings. I thank him for the lovely boat ride and start walking to the village.
Things look sleepy and a bit down at the heels, but authentic. A real estate office in an old cedar-shaked fish shack looks like it’s about to fall down. It doesn’t strike me as the best way to promote home sales, but this is not a rich island. The summer residents tend to be the ones with the disposable income. Tourist season should be ramping up, but the pandemic and Maine’s two-week quarantine rule have clearly put a crimp on business. The first food joint I find has a large cardboard sign. In huge letters it tells people to not enter if they haven’t been on the island for two weeks. I have no luck calling for curbside service on my phone, so I continue towards the village.
I walk by Vinalhaven’s Veterans Memorial. It’s impressive in its size and execution. Locally quarried granite panels display more than 400 names. Vinalhaven is not as populated as it used to be, but with only about 1,100 fulltime residents, it’s sent more than its fair share of citizens off to war. Between armed conflicts and the sea—which is always claiming lives—Vinalhaven has sacrificed a lot of its souls.
I find the local supermarket closed for stocking. After scouring the rest of Main Street, I abandon my quest for nourishment. I return to the ferry station where the friendly lady behind the ticket counter sells me a Hershey bar and some peanuts.
The ferry pulls in, I walk aboard, the cars and trucks are loaded, and the boat pulls away. As we exit Carvers Harbor, the sun is out. A dolphin surfaces for air, then dives beneath the boat. An hour later, we pass the Rockland breakwater under a clear blue sky as I ponder my short visit to the island.
Vinalhaven may have politics, Covid-19 fears and a meager Monday lunch menu, but I can’t wait to go back. I look astern to catch one more glimpse of the island, but a large fog bank has rolled in. She is back in the mist.
This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.