17 January 2014 (Friday)*
The crew meets at Davis garage at 0630 to load the truck. Tom Fernald and Barbara Beblowski assist us in the morning to load and drive us to Northeast Harbor so our vehicles can stay in Bar Harbor. We make quick work of loading and arrive at NE Harbor at 0730. The truck and car get unloaded at the top of the pier and we start carrying items down to the dock. I can only imagine what the fisherman think of our operation. Chris arrives at 8 and moves the ‘Georgia Madison’ closer in for loading. With both crews working we load the boat quickly. I set the replacement outboard, which I also just picked up from the repair shop, on ‘Ego’ and take her for a test run – all seems well. We are ready to go. We bid farewell to Babs and Tom and make for the Rock. Chris sets ‘Ego’ off the stern on a long tether for towing. Even so the tender rides rough, and worsens as we get around Little Duck and Great Duck island. The weather is not quite as light as we had hoped, the SE wind picked up early, but we forge on. There is still a significant Southerly swell – not problematic for the big boat, but ‘Ego’ is not riding kindly and we slow to 11 kts cruising speed so as to not lose her. After 1.5 hrs we arrive at MDR, but we cannot see the island due to thick fog, though we note the fog horn is working fine. Home sweet home! We nudge in slowly to view the ramp. Slowly the dark outlines of the island emerge. As we near to the ramp I see that the conditions are not pretty. There is major swell running up the ramp and from multiple directions. My immediate reaction is “no way.” But it’s been several months since my last MDR visit and, as always, I need to acclimate.
I hop into the small boat to take a closer look. The two-stroke engine, which is fifteen years old, fires right up, which gives me some confidence. I make my way in to just behind the break – the last spot where I can sit comfortably and watch the wave action
without being thrown up onto the rocks myself – and take it in. I still think “no way”. But I hang out for five minutes trying to consider the options. Being all the way out here, after all the preparation, and travel, and having a boat waiting with full of supplies, it is almost impossible to convince yourself to turn around make for home. Especially with such little weather window opportunities in the winter. But out here things can go wrong in an instant, and safety is the utmost concern, especially in winter. But it is unseasonably warm, 40 degrees, which is a huge plus. I still did not know what to do when I returned to the ‘Georgia Madison’.
We make a decision to try a landing with the ramp crew – his deckhands Mike and Matt (the boys) and Tanya. It is a long wait for a calm moment between sets, but we land easily and pull the boat up. That was OK, but it did take me ten minutes to land, and we have a lot of gear. I’m seriously considering calling it when I return to the boat, but before I can get a word in Chris is handing me the first round of gear. I guess we’re going for it. We prioritize general supplies – water, fuel, propane, food – but some personal gear gets mixed in. At some point Matt goes up to use the bathroom and finds the seasons first gray seal pup. After three or four trips things have gone reasonably well considering the conditions. Then it all goes wrong.
I take the last two propane bottles – 100 lbs each – some personal gear, a cooler. The landing was fine, the boys have a hold of the boat, but almost immediately I’m in the water. A very large swell came up right after landing and pushed the boat off the east side of the ramp. The movement caused the boys to slip, they both fell down onto the ramp. I had a hold of the bow line, and Matt had a hold of as well, and so he is basically my lifeline to the island. He pulls me up and we try and get the boat back up the ramp, but this set of swells is very large, each bigger than the last, and we cannot secure ‘Ego’. As it gets dragged down I see another five foot swell coming in and decide we need to all get out of the way – safety first. The boat goes off to the west of the ramp this time around and pushed onto the rocks bow first. We no longer have control. She comes beam to the ramp as the next swell comes in and gets spun around on the other direction. The next wave is the nail in the coffin as the boat gets driven stern to into the rocks west of the ramp. The outboard splits at the motor mount and hangs into the ocean on a thread. I’ve ruined two outboards in two days getting to this island. Gear is now washing around the cove. I see a bag of Cheerios, new socks, and plastic bins floating by. As I am waiting at the water line for any opportunity to grab ahold of the boat Tanya’s brand new North Face duffel bag, containing all of her clothes for the month, pops up out of nowhere at my feet. It had been sucked under the ramp for several minutes. I grabbed ahold of it with a very minor sense of relief that all was not lost. ‘Ego’ makes her way out of the cove towards the ‘Georgia Madison’ and I know there’s nothing else that can be done.
I decide I should get a radio and raise the ‘Georgia Madison’. I can only imagine what Chris is thinking. His two deckhands are now stuck at Mount Desert Rock, the CRREL researchers are not yet on the island, and weather is getting worse. I have no drill to get the boards off the doors to enter the house. Matt, with a sense of urgency, says “if we need to get somewhere, we’ll get there”, and he rips the board off the north porch window. Got to love that. The window was not bolted so I jumped inside. Grabbing a flashlight I made my way to the radio room, fired up the inverter and called Chris on the VHF. He has retrieved ‘Ego’ and is working to pull the mangled outboard off of the transom. I ask if he thinks it can be rowed ashore and he tells me one of the pontoons is deflated. I’m not surprised but it means we may be really stuck with no way on and off the island. I consider my other options. I have a small soft-bottom inflatable boat on MDR but it is only 6′ and leaks water and air. We also have no oars. I tell the boys and they immediately start making plans to use it to get off the island. I want to let the boat drift off the island while holding it ashore with a line, then allowing Chris to pick it up, tie his own line to it, and start a clothesline operation to move people and gear. When the boat is pumped up the boys take it to the west side of the island. I give them some 2x6s for makeshift oars in case they need them. I tell them I will be be there momentarily and to wait. Tanya and I are busy moving all of the gear into the house in case we need to leave the island and it is taking a while.
A few minutes later I check on the boys and see that they have not waited and are rowing frantically through the surf towards the ‘Georgia Madison’. A second later and a fairly big, curling swell tosses them back toward shore and up on the rocks. I see Mike
yelling and hitting the pontoon in frustration. I admire their tenacity but there’s no way they were going to row against that energy, in that boat, and win. I realize then that the only option is to get another boat here to make the transfer. The boys, drenched and defeated, make their way back to the house. Chris asks if I have heat on the island, I tell him yes, and he tells me to get the boys warm and we will touch base in a bit. Tanya and I gather up wreckage from the attempted escape and start making our way back up. My little boat seems to have survived the ordeal okay. As we are walking back Chris radios that Kerry, one of the CRREL
researchers, is planning on rowing the broken ‘Ego’ to shore. At this point I know we are crossing the line – Kerry has never been here
I make my way inside the house and let the boys know what the plan is. They immediately start speculating on what time he will be back. They are not interested in being here one bit. I get the stove and big Rinnai heater hooked up with propane, but cannot get the heater to fire. I move onto our small heater in the living room. After some fuss I get it going and the boys start drying themselves out. We keep offering dry clothes but they are not interested. Tanya starts to cook some food. I am constantly making my way around the house trying to straighten up. I pull some boards off of windows and doors to let in some light. I start up the small generator to give the battery pack some life. The boys don’t move from in front of the heater. Eventually Matt accepts some of my Carhartt pants. We have a few teaspoons of instant coffee that I turn into three cups of coffee. Matt has never had instant and is not a fan. At this point we are in a conundrum. If Chris returns tonight to retrieve the boys it will be a quick shot. I need to decide if we should go with them. I am not sure if the CRREL researchers will be aboard ‘Georgia Madison’ again. If not, I should go back to coordinate the next trip with them. That means that I need to bring their gear with me so they have it on shore. I set their stuff aside and Tanya and I make a small cache of our own gear to take if necessary. We eat Tanya’s dinner of pasta with chicken in a pink sauce, which was excellent. Even the boys liked dinner. Then we worked on staying warm until Chris called us back.before, I have no idea what his capabilities are, and this would be a very risky maneuver. I let him know I think that is a bad idea. Chris agrees and says he will go in and get another boat. I give him the contact information for Tom and Dan and hope for the best as he steams away.
‘Georgia Madison’ arrived at about 1700 and it was already dark. He was slowed up by some seasickness on the way out. He had found Dan and Tom, they had rallied to get another boat and outboard over to NE Harbor, and they were all back on board ready to try and land. The problem was that a) it was dark, b) it was more rough than it was earlier, and c) it was low tide. The boys, Tanya, and I walked the island with flashlights looking for a spot to land, but the pickings were slim. The wind was steady 20-25 kts from the southwest meaning the western cove was not an option. The north side on the ramp was just a white wash of surf and impossible. As the boys made their way over to the east Mike almost stepped on an adult gray seal that was lurking in the dark. It growled and sent him into a full sprint, which I witnessed as his flashlight took off across the island. Matt was laughing, I was too. Tanya and I made our way over to them and we all watched as a huge, towering swell crashed along the eastern shore, and we all new it was over. Chris had come around to the northeast of the island try and find some lee in order to set up the inflatable. After a good search I let him know that I thought the only option would be to wait two hours for the tide to come back up on the ramp, and even then it was going to be very questionable. With worsening weather, a sick crew, and no light it was obvious that this opportunity was not going to happen. We called it off and made plans for the morning. Chris made arrangements with the boys to contact anyone important. Mike was certain he was in the dog house with someone I assumed to be his girlfriend. The boys set up shop in front of the heater again. Tanya found some beer upstairs which was initially met with excitement, but it turns out the boys really don’t like Sam Adams. In fact Matt had never had it before. Mike drank the islands only Milwaukee’s Best, and between them they finished a 12 pack of Hannaford Cola. The boys did their best to make it to 8 pm. Mike was in a sleeping bag before that, and Tanya had to move off the couch at 8:20 so Matt could crash. We looked forward to morning.
* Note: Landing operations at Mount Desert Rock are not trivial. Many factors are taken into account when deciding whether to proceed with an attempt or not. The most important factor is the experience of the personnel and crew. During the summer we are typically landing students at the island. If students were involved in this operation we would not have proceeded. However in this case the crew was made up of only veteran crew and highly seasoned field scientists. Our careers are intertwined with the inherent risks of field work. We choose to take on these missions in the spirit of scientific endeavor and because it inspires us. Those traits are important, and we work to pass them down to upcoming students using Mount Desert Rock as a platform, but rest assure we do so in a safe and responsible manner.