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The Islander

Copyright William S. Schaill


"We sure got ahead of ourselves this year," shouted Maggie into the cold, wet wind.


With my left hand resting on the twitching anchor rode I looked aft into a darkness illuminated only by the feeble glow of the spreader lights. My wife of over twenty years was still draped over the boom, pounding and lashing the mainsail into a presentable furl as Errant Spirit, our classic, wooden 41 foot yawl, skittered in the hard, easterly gusts.


"I'm afraid you're right," I shouted back, wondering when and if the damn anchor, the biggest we had aboard, would dig in. "I got a little too itchy ..."


"Exactly," she sniffed, a note of mischief replacing the edge I thought I'd detected in her voice a moment before. "I'm the one who's supposed to get you itchy."


How absolutely true! I thought. Even after two decades and two children she was still the one for me. And she was right about the sailing, too. We had started our trek north from Florida a little early, not that it made much of a difference until Cape May, New Jersey. Now in the lee of
Sheffield Island, the westernmost of Connecticut's Norwalk Islands, we were at last free of the sleet and hail. But the wind remained. Cold and wet and dark.


The deck beneath my knees heaved slightly and shuddered as the boat's head was dragged into the wind. I concentrated on the anchor rode and felt it stretch and strain under suddenly constant pressure. I waited, my hand resting gently on the stiffened nylon line. Had the anchor finally caught? The boat continued to pound slightly in the chop and her stern still jumped from side to side with every powerful wind shift but the bow now seemed locked in place.


"Finally!" I shouted over my shoulder. "It's holding." Getting no reply but the shrieking of the wind in the rigging I turned. Maggie was nowhere in sight! I grabbed the forestay with my left hand and pulled myself erect, my back and knees protesting painfully. My God! Had she slipped overboard? Why hadn't I heard her shout? Just then a light in the forward cabin snapped on. Of course! I thought, embarrassed at the relief I felt. She'd finished the sail and gone below. Whatever had made me think that something else might have happened?


The wind howled, the halyards banged and groaned and the black waves, dirty pewter in the feeble glow of the spreader lights, slapped viciously against the hull. To the north and west the lights of Norwalk were faintly visible through the murk. To the southeast lay the islands, a chain of sand piles left by the last glacier to pass through the area. Uninhabited and totally dark at this time of year, they were undeniably there yet visible only to the mind's eye. Nowhere was there any sign of another boat. We had the night all to ourselves.


I decided it was the night itself that'd made me feel something was wrong. I was tired and it was just that sort of night.


* * *


I awoke at about two. Maggie was still beside me, asleep, with her arm thrown across my chest. What, I wondered, had awakened me? I sat up, listening, feeling, alert for the out-of-place.


Calm silence. The wind's howl was gone, as was the boat's motion. It was as if we were floating in a sea of hardened concrete. The cabin was filled with the cool silver of a full moon.


The weather had changed dramatically but that wasn't what had caught the attention of my subconscious. I listened intently and finally isolated the cause of my unease. It was the sound of somebody shouting, almost bellowing, in the distance. Then there was wild laughter. "Do you hear that?" asked Maggie, now sitting up beside me. "Somebody's having an argument ... or calling for help."


"I'm going on deck to look around," I mumbled as I crawled out of the warm bunk and slipped on my trousers.


When I climbed out into the cockpit it was as if I were emerging into full daylight. The clouds were gone. The wind, although still from the east, had dropped to a zephyr, and the moon was burning with such rare grandeur that it obscured the stars. To the north, the lights of the Connecticut shore sparkled. To the south and east, the islands slumbered; rich, ebony masses crowned by the silver tracery of their thick but now leaf-less undergrowth. It was the sort of night for romance, if only it were thirty or forty degrees warmer.I reached down the companionway for my binoculars just as the loud but incomprehensible shouting again erupted. As before, it was followed by an explosion of deep laughter.


Maggie appeared at the head of the companionway. "Whoever he is, he must be drunk," she remarked as I scanned Sheffield's glittering shore.


"Either that or mad," I replied, tacitly agreeing that there was only one person doing both the arguing and the laughing. Should we investigate further? That was the question we were each asking ourselves.

"I thought all the houses on these islands are seasonal," said Maggie, her silvery breath clearly visible in the moonlight.


"That's what I thought," I replied. "Except one or two close in to the mainland. But I'm sure the owners come out on and off all year long."


"But this is the wildlife refuge," she said, pointing at Sheffield.


"So some guy drank too much and decided to go for a ride."


During the ensuing silence I struggled to analyze the situation. So long as the drunk, or whatever he was, stayed on the island he was no threat to us. And even if he did come visiting I had trouble imagining anything more than severe embarrassment resulting. Logically, we should go back to bed.


But what if he was seriously, violently mad? In that case, a visit might not be so pleasant. Maybe we should move. Then again, mad or drunk, he might be injured and this night of crystalline cold was not the sort to be lying injured on a deserted island. Fifteen minutes later we were sputtering across the silver waters in the inflatable.


Steering more or less east, into the faint wind, we passed along the island's shore and into Ram Island Bay without seeing anything but the silvery undergrowth of the sleeping refuge. Every now and then a bird squawked, its sleep disturbed by something. Probably us. And, of course, the shouting and laughing continued from time to time.


"Could he be there?" asked Maggie, pointing ahead at L Hammock, a seawall-buttressed sand pile in the middle of the bay.


I studied the island and its three clearly visible houses, each of which seemed to be bigger than the island itself. "No," I finally replied. "I don't think he's there. The sound seems to be coming from a little farther to the right."


It was only then that I spotted the skiff.


As reference to the appropriate chart will confirm, the south and eastern sides of Ram Island Bay are formed by a long, low strip of sand which curves from the easterly tip of Sheffield to the southern tip of Shea Island. I understand that the locals refer to this strip as "The Plains." There, drawn up at the water's edge on The Plains, was a large, white skiff. And just beyond, I could clearly see the shape of a man. He was standing on the strip's low crest, looking up at the moon and shouting something still incomprehensible. All the while he held his hands out to the side, as if asking a question. After a pause he burst into a deep laugh, one filled with head-to-toe delight.


Maggie and I looked at each other as we sputtered past L Hammock to within ten or fifteen yards of the skiff. "I'm not sure we should intrude," I finally said. "He certainly doesn't seem to be in pain." In the background, the lights of Long Island were as clearly visible as those of Connecticut.


"Not yet, maybe, but listen to him! There is something wrong with him!"


The man must have heard us for he turned and walked down toward the water. "Hello there," he shouted. "Come on ashore. Don't be afraid, I'm not dangerous." And even if he were, I thought as the inflatable grounded next to the white skiff, it's too late now.


"I'm glad you came," he said as we stepped ashore. "I don't get to see people as often as I'd like to these days." He appeared to be of average height, although very strongly built, with close-cut gray-looking hair on a round head and was dressed in a wool shirt and sweater and baggy pants tucked into some sort of sea boots. Having greeted us he turned and started to walk back to the crest with us following.


"I'm sorry to appear nosy but would you mind telling us what you're doing?" asked Maggie with that directness of hers which I find both endearing and, at times, very discomforting.


"Not at all. I'm having a little discussion with my friend the moon. Usually I shout at the wind - I've been doing that all my life - but as you can see there isn't much wind to shout at tonight. Don't you agree that there must be a day and a night? A day filled with light, a time for action, for seeing and being seen. And a night filled with darkness, a time for rest and contemplation and that which is best left unseen?"


"Yes, I suppose so ..." replied Maggie carefully.


"Now look around you! Where's the darkness?" He paused and shouted at the moon again, then continued, "The moon is playing a little trick on us tonight. Amusing herself at our expense. She's stripped away the dark leaving us with nowhere to hide." Then he burst into laughter again at the hilarity of his shameless friend's prank. I can't forget thinking at the time that no matter what this fellow's true station in life, he was certainly enjoying the process of living.


"Who are you?" demanded Maggie, charging forward as always. "Where do you live?"


"I'm an oysterman," he replied. "Retired now. I know how to read and I live over there." As he spoke he waved off toward the north, in the direction of the Manrisa power plant.


"In Norwalk?" I asked. "Along the shore?"


"Not on the shore," he replied. "There!" Again he waved to the north and I had no choice but to assume he meant the western tip of Shea Island.


"Isn't that part of the wildlife refuge? Are you a ranger of some sort?"


"No. Not everything belongs to the park."


"You say that as if you don't like the park," said Maggie.


The man laughed again, although a look of great sadness filled his face. "They're turning that into a museum," he finally said as he pointed at the silvery shadow that was the old Sheffield Island lighthouse. "And they're talking about putting me in it. But everything in a museum is dead. Everybody knows that."


"This conversation is ridiculous," said Maggie, whose inability to suffer fools is well
known. "Just as ridiculous as the ones you have with the wind and the moon!"


"I should be getting home now," replied the man, glancing at the moon which was now low in the sky, "but I've enjoyed talking to you. I don't get to talk with many people these days."


We walked back down the beach with him. Despite the rapidly ebbing tide, both his skiff and our inflatable remained only lightly grounded, just at the water's edge. Just as we'd left them when we first came ashore.


"You two enjoy yourselves," he said as he stepped into the skiff and pushed off with an oar. "The weather's going to be fine tomorrow."


"And best of luck to you, sir," I responded. We stood, side by side, and watched him pull purposefully northwards, in the direction of the power plant. "Weren't you a little hard on him?" I asked quietly when I hoped he was out of earshot, although still clearly in sight.


"I guess so. He frightened me."


"You still think he's crazy?"


"No. No more than any of us. That's what frightened me." As she spoke she took hold of my arm.


"There's something strange about his boat," I thought aloud.




"He isn't using oarlocks. The boat has tholepins instead, pins sticking up out of the gunnel. You almost never see them these days."


"You're not making me feel any better."


Although the moon was now low in the sky it was still brilliant, showering us with more than enough light to see the white skiff. We continued to watch, able even to see the oar blades' watery glint as they lifted at the end of each stroke. Finally, as it reached the northern edge of the bay – right over the shoal that once was Dog Island - the skiff passed from sight. Actually, it seemed to just disappear. It was there and then it wasn't!


"We'd better get going," I said as the moon started to set.


Maggie nodded in agreement.


Only much later did we learn that Dog Island, while now barely awash at high tide, was once a substantial island, complete with an old oysterman's shack on it. They say the last inhabitant died over ninety years ago.


"What was he babbling about they're going to put him in a museum?" demanded Maggie suddenly as we pushed the inflatable off the beach.


I glanced out at Errant Spirit, still lying motionless in the crystalline night, and felt something clutch at my heart. Her hull was mahogany over oak; her spars Sitka spruce and her sails of the finest cotton canvas. Not an ounce of fiberglass or Dacron or aluminum anywhere. She was the work of a very famous, and long dead, designer and a revered, and equally dead, builder and several of her surviving sisters can be seen in various maritime museums. It was all-too-easy, I thought, to view a wooden sailboat as a relic.


And what of us? Was it possible that we'd chosen to live too far in the past? Had Maggie and I arrived at the museum even before the oysterman?