These notes begin aboard the ferry bound for Matinicus. I sit in the cab of my 36-foot U-Haul; in front of me, a fisherman’s ton truck laden with a couple of frighteningly unsecured bait boxes, large, gurry-spattered plastic cubes rockin’ and rollin’ like Chuck Berry on a hot Saturday night, and nobody in the cab.
As we leave the inshore waters and pass abeam Two Bush Light in the distance, where my great-grandfather once worked, my MP3 player set on “random” offers me “Boats of Stone” and “Mull of Kintyre” and “Harbo and Samuelson” who rowed across the Atlantic, and, pretty reliably, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
I am reading Charlie Connelly’s 2004 book Attention All Shipping as we chug along in the swells left over from the previous day’s gale. This book is one of my new favorites although sadly it seems to be out of print, so you’ll have to get it used, which action I would definitely recommend.
The premise is a trip, somehow, to every section of the iconic British Shipping Forecast (you don’t need BBC radio anymore, although people who grew up hearing the Shipping Forecast broadcast over the airwaves, with its Beaufort Scale “force” warnings and quirky place names, may assure us that it isn’t the same just reading it for yourself).
Life on Matinicus involves an obsessive, full-time preoccupation with weather reports and forecasts — marine, aviation and folkloric — so I have a soft spot for this bit of saltwater meteorology which has become part of a national identity. What’s fun about the BBC Shipping Forecast is the names of the various regions around the British Isles (Forties and Forth and Fastnet, Dogger and Viking and Rockall, and German Bight which used to be Heligoland and always will be to us who learned it first from the Brit-coms).
Around here, we attend to the forecast from “Stonington to Port Clyde,” we have zones by number, we have Terminal Area Forecasts designated by airport identifier like BGR and RKD, we have National Weather Service recreational “spot forecasts” (my computer defaults to Lake Champlain for some reason) and we used to worry mostly about the seas “25 miles to the Hague Line” — but we don’t have the cool names of areas like they do on the Shipping Forecast.
Maybe we could work on that.
Much like getting around Penobscot Bay, some of Connelly’s explorations took him over water by boat, others by air. In one chapter, Connelly describes the excursion from Land’s End to the Isles of Scilly, which, he admonishes us, are not to be referred to as the Scilly Isles or the Scillies in the presence of an island resident because “the Scillonians hate it.”
Scillonians? That’s marvelous. What do you call somebody from Matinicus? I have no idea.
“Checking in (at Land’s End Aerodrome) has great humiliation potential: once you’ve handed over your bag they make you stand on the scale with your hand luggage.”
I am reminded of Cape Air trips to Boston out of Knox County Regional in Owls Head, and witnessing first-time passengers’ reaction to being asked outright how much they weigh. That doesn’t happen at JFK.
“The disadvantage of my seat was that I could see the pilot’s dashboard instruments. Now I’m not a nervous flyer by any means, but this was far too much detail for my liking. I prefer just to hear the reassuring voice of the captain over the intercom while I peruse the in-flight magazine over a plastic glass of red wine. Observing the cockpit instruments I consider to be a step too far and every time a light flashed or a needle fluctuated in front of me I was tempted to tug the pilot’s sleeve and ask, ‘Er, should it really be doing that?’”
“Barely had we left the ground than we were swooping in low over coastal rocks and touching down at St. Mary’s Airport. I was then that I began to regret slightly opting to fly. The short hop from Land’s End, all of fifteen minutes, had given me practically no sense of how remote these islands are; sailing on the Scillonian III takes up to three hours from Penzance depending on the weather. At least that way you know you’ve travelled.”
Yeah, people say that all the time about Matinicus, too. Well, summer people do.
“Oh, I always come to Matinicus by boat because if you take the airplane it doesn’t feel like you’re really going to an island. You have to arrive by sea.”
Try staring down that 1,600 feet of gravel in a good stiff winter crosswind. It’s an island. If that doesn’t do it for you, have Roger take you to Criehaven. The sight picture as you land, with water on both ends, makes the first-timer wonder why they don’t have arresting gear over there, tail-hooks and cables like on an aircraft carrier.
Relating a tale of an excited Scilly news-agent’s glee over the highly unusual prospect that the Sunday paper could actually be available on Sunday that week, because of a one-off excursion trip that day in addition to the regular schedule, Connelly assures his readers that, “On the Isles of Scilly and their ilk, the products and services we take for granted are so variable that reading the Sunday papers on Sunday is a rare pleasure to be savored.”
Our postmaster hands us an armload of Bangor Dailies once or twice a week, generally.
A few pages later, we read an inspiring mention of the sort of people who inhabit such a place.
“At the southern end of St. Agnes is a tiny church. Inside there is a real sense of calm, which must be very welcome when the wind and rain hurtle in off the Atlantic. Indeed, the perilous location of the island is illustrated by the inscription on the stained-glass window above the altar, which reads ‘To those who sailed from St Agnes to save those in peril at sea.’”
Not to some beneficent saint or savior, and not words to honor only those who lost their lives at sea, but to the lifesaving crews in general. “So treacherous are these waters that there has been a lighthouse on St Agnes since 1680, one of the first in Britain.”
Islanders as rescuers; yeah, that. Every mariner is, I would argue, potentially a lifeboat crew.
As people do with remote islands, Connelly fell in love with the Isles of Scilly, but offers a reality check we in Maine can relate to. “In the direction I was looking the next natural landmass would be South America, or even possibly Antarctica. It was warm, it was peaceful, the Scillonians are tremendous. Sitting there on that rock, on that little island with the immaculate white lighthouse at its centre; its tiny seafarer’s church and its frankly marvelous pub, I could have stayed. I could have gone home, sold the house, bought a place here and decamped for the rest of my natural.”
“Many people love Scilly … Many return again and again. …The trouble is, some people fall in love with Scilly so deeply they decide to buy a house there. A few move permanently, but most buy up properties as second homes, which pushes up house prices to astronomical levels, creates a shortage of housing for Scillonians and leaves properties unoccupied save for a few weeks every year.”
“To call it an island idyll would be wrong…and contemporary Scilly still has its social issues like anywhere else. But,” our author ruminates, “I know where I’d rather be.”
On the other hand, “If I’d regretted flying to Scilly rather than going by sea, the reverse was certainly true when I visited Lundy.” That island maintained a “long history as a base for pirates and smugglers; the island’s remoteness and steep cliffs make it an ideal centre for wrongdoing and general piratical royster-doystering. In fact, for a seemingly insignificant lump of granite in the Bristol Channel, Lundy has an extraordinary history of international piracy, pillage, shipwrecks, attempted royal assassinations, crashing aircraft, ill-considered card games and ancient burial grounds.”
“The name Lundy comes from the Norse word for puffin.” This is all sounding rather close to home.
Connelly’s trip to Lundy did read a bit like the account of a bad day on the old Mary and Donna. Assembled passengers waiting for the boat were told that “The captain has still not made a final decision as to whether we will be sailing today.” That happened to us on the Maine State ferry a month or so back; we didn’t get the go/no go decision from the captain until pretty close to departure time, so we stood around in the ferry terminal parking lot all morning and told each other stories about bad trips of the past.
The Lundy travelers were given fair warning. “As we queued on board, the purser passed along the line announcing that the crossing today would be very rough and that anyone who didn’t fancy it and didn’t have a strong stomach would be given a full refund. Pschaw, I thought, cocky as hell for no good reason, I’d survived (several Norwegian crossings)…I was now the saltiest of sea dogs…
“’The rougher the better,’ I found myself saying out loud, ‘bring it on!’”
After detailed description of his unfortunate decision to eat a bacon sandwich, Connelly paints the picture of how the boat “continued to corkscrew through giant waves, the prow thumping down into water combined with a constant swaying side to side. This was the roughest crossing I’d ever known, and judging by the glances the crew were throwing at each other, it was the roughest they’d know for a while too.”
“I spent the remaining hour of the voyage with my head on the table and my arms crossed over it. The ship was filled with the sounds of retching.” At least he wasn’t trapped in a pickup truck between a lumberyard truck piled high with two-by-fours and the Old Man of the Sea splashing over the side rail salting the windshield until opaque as a Sheetrock wall.
Years ago, when our kids were small, we used to joke about this place being “the other Silly Isle.” Some days it feels more like historic Lundy in the days of cutlass diplomacy. In any case we know that our daily grind on Matinicus is not, as tourists and visiting journalists often proclaim, a “unique lifestyle.”
More Industrial Arts
Looking back over years of island Thanksgiving
Maine, where it's perfectly normal to be self-employed
A home for the teacher, a wringer washer, a sea turtle...How to get a teacher to an island
Cardinals, cows, and computers – A few things have changed in 30 years
A great place for honeybees
• Apple blossom time (June 7, 2017)
• Old fogeys, twitchers and stowaways: a birder's evolution (May 22, 2017)
• LifeFlight visits Matinicus Island for community training (March 20, 2017)
• At what risk? (Feb. 7, 2017)
• Using it twice (Jan. 25, 2017)
• Christmas on Matinicus, back a ways and these days (Dec. 19, 2016)
• Remember civilian heroes – A Christmas tree, two guys named Coleman, and a lot of other people (Dec. 19, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Haul away, haul away, boys... (Nov. 23, 2016)
• Politics, the middle ground, and a few probably unwelcome observations (Nov. 5, 2016)
• Islander (Oct. 20, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Brier, Muck and Igiugig (Sept. 28, 2016)
• Doctor Lightning (June 27, 2016)
• Search and Rescue (May 27, 2016)
• It's about the water (May 11, 2016)
• Eva Murray: In defiance of mud season - tips for the inspired homeowner
• Plesiosynchronicity, and a snowy day
• A day of planning and practicing in preparation for major storms (posted March 10, 2016)
• Time to take down the (island) Christmas tree (posted March 3, 2016)
• Snow Day on Matinicus (posted Feb. 14, 2016)
• Going to Rockland for pie (and beer and art glass and ukuleles...) (posted Feb. 3, 2016)
• Eva Murray: Pencil to paper (posted Jan. 21, 2016)
• A new year, a new winter (posted Dec. 31, 2015)
• ‘A tiny, happy place’ (posted Dec. 14, 2015)
• Metal artist Blair Clement brings wave-washed junk to life (posted Sept. 20, 2015)
• Maine veterans and a most sentimental biker (posted June 1, 2015)
• Wild Island Child (posted April 8, 2015)
• Last holdouts of offshore outpost finally accept reality (posted April 1, 2015)
• Truck on boat (posted March 16, 2015)
• Public works (posted Feb. 25, 2015)
• A constant struggle (posted Feb. 14, 2015)
• Pie Hero, Pie Villain (posted Jan. 29, 2015)
• Safely out to sea (posted Jan. 27, 2015)
• Je suis (posted Jan. 13, 2015)
• Making merry on Matinicus, with only a few (posted Dec. 25, 2014)
• The smallest emergency medical service around (posted Sept. 29, 2014)
• Islanders host 'Man Overboard!' discussion, rescue demonstrations (posted Sept. 8, 2014)
• Logistics (posted July 31, 2014)
• Black Hawks over Criehaven (posted July 16, 2014)
• On a sunny Saturday, when the steel band came to Matinicus (posted June 6, 2014)
• The last day of winter (posted April 16, 2014)
• Puppies, basketball champs not injured by explosive five-bulldozer wreck, dump fire, and zoning board (posted March 13, 2014)
• In a good old hardware store (in memory of Everett Crabtree) (posted Feb. 28, 2014)
• What is it like to be one of Maine's Search and Rescue volunteers? (posted Feb. 9, 2014)
• Arts and hobbies (posted Jan. 31, 2014)
• Santa Claus and the yard sales - why I own more monkey wrenches than you do (posted Jan. 15, 2014)
• Quiet on this last day of the year (Dec. 31, 2013)
• A one-room school Christmas (posted Dec. 21, 2013)
• Here's wishing us all a little rebellion in this happy season (posted Dec. 12, 2013)
• Roadside assistance (posted Nov. 27, 2013)
• On the many kinds of emergency responders (posted Nov. 18, 2013)
• (In defense of...) Breakfast for supper (posted Oct. 22, 2013)
• Fish Factory (posted Sept. 9, 2013)
• 350 dot Rockland... and many ruminations on small efforts (posted Aug. 30, 2013)
• Trains and planes and heroes (posted July 15, 2013)
• Joining the community of artists (posted July 4, 2013)
• Worth every penny (posted July 27, 2013)
• It's about showing up. Some thoughts on EMS Week (posted May 27, 2013)
• Ethanol, gasoline, and public safety (posted April 17, 2013)
• A system that makes it hard on people who want to do the right thing (part 2) (posted March 29, 2013)
• A system that makes it hard on people who want to do the right thing (part 1) (posted March 21, 2013)
• 'It's important' (posted Jan. 18, 2013)
• Tree crew (posted Dec. 28, 2012)
• Light the candles (posted Dec. 13, 2012)
• Firewood (posted Dec. 2, 2012)
• Missing man formation (posted Oct. 18, 2012)
• In the middle of the bay (posted Oct. 3, 2012)