The Block Island Times
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Big white boat

By Martha Ball | Nov 08, 2012

It is Wednesday and the sun is making slow progress pushing its way through the lingering masses of gray clouds. The Manitou made an early run, appearing at the dock like some dreadful ghost of bad crossings past, and left empty, cautiously making its way out the channel, past the green light that is tilted and broken by Hurricane Sandy’s waves.

The ocean looks calm, flat, but white water still flirts with the east wall of the Old Harbor, and the sturdy little vessel bucks and pitches as it clears the end of the jetty, riding the swell that lies beneath the deceptive surface. I am not surprised, either that the boat is running or that the energy of the storm remains unspent.

This time I decided to stay with the big black dog rather than take him home with me, and saw the storm from a different vantage point, the second floor of the old Adrian Hotel overlooking the harbor, the parsonage of the Harbor Church.

It was an extraordinary adventure, viewing the storm from this aerie above the town.

The projected path of the too-late-in-the-season storm never changed beyond a few degrees, but all other projections were all over the proverbial map, the red-lettered warnings of tropical storm or hurricane appearing and disappearing, shifting back and forth, as the reports changed from minute to minute.

On Sunday I watched the last boat come in, carefully maneuvering a building sea, following a careful course, slipping into the protection of the breakwaters, but still driven by the wind, the effort of its engines evident as smoke poured from the stacks. Hours later the harbor was empty, the fishing boats securely moored, and streets were shiny with rain, golden black when street lights shone upon the pavement.

Monday brought the storm, and the winds and a raging high tide. The water never seemed to get much lower than a few inches below the old wharf, but it was the surf beyond that captured my attention, the whole arm of Crescent Beach filled with roiling white and, nearer, waves crashing over the granite arms embracing the Old Harbor. They rolled in and hit the east wall, exploding high into the air, higher above the green light tower than I’d ever witnessed, by several feet; they rolled round it, crossing the channel and coming up against the north face of the red jetty below the Surf Hotel and splashing over into the basin.

The ocean was filled with wild white horses stampeding toward the shore, long manes whipping in the wind.

The only certainty of these storms is that they will pick up speed and be gone long before the earlier forecast predict; at one point it was to have lasted into Wednesday on the ever changing charts, but I had little doubt the boat would be running by then; what I had not considered was the damage to the channel that I watched through the day Monday.

We managed to get out, the dog and I, at the right times, between the showers. The wind was raging, tree branches groaning, the water in the Manisses fountain flying out across the already wet patio. It is very different being in town.

Reports started coming in and in this crazy time of immediate technology — as long as the power remains on — pictures, often dulled by salt spray in the air and on the camera lens, were quickly posted.

The wind blasted in the late afternoon then, impossibly, by dark, had let up as I heard more accounts of damage to roads and the harbor. I meant to go down and check the level of the water but was distracted by flashing lights and followed them down to the parking lot where the power company truck was out, bucket extended, men working, I learned, to shut off the power to Ballard’s, where the sea was pouring out the front door.

It was not until the next day, when the storm was over but for the calming but still high seas, that I went back and walked around to the seaward side of the restaurant on the water; the back reminded me of one of the series of small photographs issued sometime after the 1938 Hurricane when the main part of the building was pushed off its foundation — not to be confused with 1954 when the dining room slid into the basin. The place is a phoenix.

It was the end of October but the day was oddly tropical, like a day after a storm in high summer.

All those wild horses ravaged the beach, from the broken road and vanished dunes, to the feet of sand in the parking lots of the beaches, to the places ocean broke though the walls of sand.

The dunes are higher than they look, over the years sand has swept in and over them, and the plain between them and the Neck Road, all grass and bayberry and groundsill and roses and beach plum, has gradually filled and risen in elevation, and for the most part they held. All those years of chasing kids off them was finally proven worth it.

The tide was still high when I went to the Mansion and found ruins reminiscent of… nothing, the dunes sheered perpendicular on either side of the gap, north to Jerry’s and south, back to earth, as far as was visible in the mist filled air. I had guessed the beach would be down to its bones; it is worse, more battered than I have ever seen it.

Today the sun broke through the persistent gray clouds and shone brightly on the telephone poles along the Neck Road, and landed, as it manages to do this time of year, on the approaching big white boat, the one I, a few hours earlier, feared could not clear the channel bottom.

We lost some pieces of road, there were some power outages, but on the whole we were very, very lucky; sand filled the road from Scotch Beach the way it filled whole neighborhoods in other states.

There is a feeling in this part of the country that this is not a fluke, once-in-a-century storm, this is a trend. It is a sobering possibility.

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