Joy Filled Memories – Ocean Biology and a Bit of Astronomy

About six miles East of Rye Beach, New Hampshire lies the “Isles of Shoals”. A group of small islands any one of which can be walked end to end in a few minutes. The ground is mostly granite and if one looks closely they will see the age layers of the granite are vertical not horizontal. I was told this sideways “up-turning” was caused during an ice age. Also, I remember catching flounder out there so large it was scary. (I was young.) The main island has an old wooden hotel used as a retreat for a religious group. There was a very small church made of granite and very old.

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Above is a chart showing the coastline of Cape Ann Massachusetts and North to York Maine. About fifty miles top to bottom and almost my entire world during the summers of the 1950’s and 1960’s. All this was long before GPS navigation and modern e-charts. “Inland Navigation” was accomplished by knowing your starting point, your direction of travel, and speed. (“Dead Reckoning”) To this day I remember the 12 ton – 36 foot “Tinamalyn” traveled 8 knots (9.2 MPH) when the propeller was turning 2000 revolutions per minute. [Tinamalyn was the name of the boat – a composite of my mother’s name “Tina” and my sisters’ names – Mary and Carolyn. The “Dingy”, lifeboat, was “Capt. Bobby”.] Most weekends during the summer we spent in Rockport or York. During the week, the Tinamalyn was docked in the Merrimack River.

Today with the GPS on your cell phone, you can determine your location easily within a couple of feet. Way back in my youth, we had to take bearings of known objects on the shore and plot position on the chart. When lucky, the accuracy was about a half mile. If the shore was too far and out of sight, one might use a radio direction finder and still have the error factor of a half mile or more. Still better than the very old method of using a sextant. However, the sextant was fun as a hobby.

The “Power Squadron” (now called US Power and Sail Squadron) was a hobby club of volunteers that taught small boat handling, and navigation. My dad ended up teaching the more advanced classes that involved celestial navigation. Several times during each summer, he would take a half dozen or so students out on the boat (at night) and have them practice their astronomy skills (identifying planets and stars) and then measuring angle of celestial body to ocean’s horizon with their sextant – thus determining our position. (Not my pictures, but showing a bell buoy, whistle buoy, and sextant.)

bell-whistle-sextant

My job was to bring the boat about 5 miles off shore and only my dad and I knew this predetermined location. We would leave the Merrimack River and head East. Being extra dark nobody noticed my passing the bell buoy and about a mile later the whistler. Quiet waters meant the buoys were not making much sound. At the whistler I’d turn North for one mile – determined by dead reckoning and a quick bearing on a water tower I could ID from flashing red light. The students were on the back deck taking their sights and when satisfied they would come in cabin and give me their determined latitude and longitude position. Give or take three square miles was a success. As a boy, it was fun being considered a peer with the adults.

The trip from Newburyport Massachusetts to York Maine took us by the entrance to Portsmouth NH and the Portsmouth Naval Station. It was not unusual to see the large Navy ships coming and going. I remember very well watching one of the new nuclear submarines surfacing less than a half mile away. That was exciting. My only time feeling FEAR was on a day I was traveling along the “Catwalk” (about 9 inches wide) and looked down to see about nine sharks traveling alongside. That day I held the handrail extra tight.

The best times for this Newburyport to York cruise was at night. Simply majestic and a bit spiritual. Being several miles from land, the were no lights to blind us from the sky. Especially on the small moon nights it would be breathtaking to look up and see all the stars. To the port side we could see a little land and the lights were just barely visible. I remember especially one night at a time the lighthouse on the Isles of Shoals was off the starboard bow, I looked to the stern (rear of boat) and saw the wake all lit up as if filled with millions of fireflies. (Left = port = red running light. Right = starboard = green running light)

I had seen this before, but never when the sky was so dark, the water so calm and the feeling so peaceful. Over fifty years ago, and I was thinking: “This is a moment to remember”. With the exception of legally required running lights we would be in darkness. Turning on a cabin light would blind the person at the helm. That said, even in darkness, our eyes did adjust to see over the ocean pretty well…. unless someone turned on the dang cabin light. I placed a “Heart” on the red course line in the above chart. Judging by position of lighthouse and my memory this was our position when I had this beautiful moment. (Again…. not my picture but a fair representation of the view. The wake (waves) behind the Tinamalyn was much higher. Also, view of ocean was darker if I remember correctly.)

 phos-wake

OK, the ocean water in Maine is very cold, but York was a great place to be – especially if you were a kid. I’ll have to write about more happy memories of these times, and eventually mention why York was so special.