MY MARBLEHEAD FIRST TIME: The sea witches of Marblehead

Court Merrigan
+ posts

Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column “My Marblehead First Time” appears regularly in the Current.

If you were to go to Torrington, Wyoming, you would observe a small town of about 6,000 souls, a dot on the high plains. Scan the map south to Texas and north to Canada, and you’ll find very little to halt the wind – few towns and fewer trees. Torrington is smack in the middle of all that open country, where you can see the weather coming from 50 miles away and can’t do a thing about it. 

When I decided to move to the environs of big city Boston, I more or less assumed that the weather would decline in personal significance. Traffic jams and cultural events would make the household blotter, not hail storms and drought. So imagine my surprise to find myself devoting 66% of the early My Marblehead First Time columns to the weather. Turns out the weather colors my experience here, too. To wit: the other day it sank to minus 3 here in Marblehead, and this brought out the sea witches.

Knowing I’m on constant lookout for unique Marblehead experiences, a colleague told me the day before that cold snap hit that the sea witches would be making an appearance. Sea witches? Sure, she said, just go down to the water. You’ll see. 

I’ve since heard the phenomenon referred to as “sea smoke,” or just plain old mist. My informant wondered if maybe it was just her family that called it “sea witches?” I get it. Growing up my family always referred to the ditches alongside gravel roads as “borrow pits” – much to the confusion of many of our neighbors, who knew this feature by the vastly more homely moniker “ditches.” But based on what I saw that frigid morning, “sea witches” is the poetic and apt descriptor.

My partner and I arose early that cold Saturday morning for a look. Would’ve been easier to hunker down in a warm house but that’s never been my style. I grew up on a farm and there’s no shying away from the weather there. The work has to get done regardless of how you or Mother Nature feel about it. And so very fortunately for me, I’ve found a partner who sees life the same way. When I told her the sea witches were coming, she was in. 

We bundled up and jaunted down to the seaside. The howling wind riffled the surface of the water and sent the sea witches skating across the foam-green sea. Sea witches are formed in temporarily extreme conditions, as happened recently when the water temperature became much higher than the surrounding air. These conditions cause wisps of steam to rise. And when the wind is up, these magical wisps dance like covens of witches taking flight. Like the ever-changing sea is itself putting on a whole new visage. 

Perhaps I am attracted to such moments of change because I am myself in the midst of one. I sought out a new life and new opportunities with a new love here in Marblehead. I sure didn’t have to. Things were going my way back in Wyoming. The kids were cruising along with friends they’d known since preschool and I was coaching baseball. I had a good career, a freezer full of beef and a 50-mile view of the horizon from my living room window. Perhaps a situation from which it is unorthodox to walk away, but I did it anyway.  

When I lived in Japan I took the opportunity to study Zen Buddhism at the feet of genuine masters. One once encouraged me to hold water in one hand. Go ahead and try. You simply cannot do it. Thus, he said, goes our lives. Best not to hold on to what cannot be held. Best to appreciate the moment as it comes, and let it go when it’s gone. 

I thought of this often in the months as we pondered a move to Marblehead. It’s easier to stay put and stay satisfied, just like it’s easier to stay inside on a frigid day. But then you miss the sea witches. So my partner and I stood out there, together, in a windchill of 29 below zero as long as we could stand it.

In the spirit of my colleague, who first told me about the sea witches, if you’ve got an idea for something I should try out for My Marblehead First Time, please write me at, or chime in on the Current Facebook page. Meanwhile, I’ll be back soon with another edition of “My Marblehead First Time.”

Wyoming transplant Court Merrigan is a new Marblehead resident. His column, “My Marblehead First Time,” appears regularly in the Current. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: