MY MARBLEHEAD FIRST TIME: From dusty farm fields to the wild blue sea

It will not be news to the seafaring folk of Marblehead that in order to get out to a boat in Marblehead Harbor, you have to get into another boat. I have observed this from the safe shore of Crocker Park many times. Recently, a kind neighbor invited my partner and I out onto his boat over Labor Day. And so as we stood on the dock at the Boston Yacht Club waiting for a ride, what caught my attention was the youth of the taxi pilot: a young man, barely out of his teens if he’d made it there at all.

Back home, I was literally raised on a tractor seat. That photo is me on my dad’s lap at bean harvest, circa 1979. The open-cab combine had manual steering and whirring blades of death a few feet below my perch. A scene so commonplace on the farm back then that my mom thought nothing of snapping this picture.

The author riding a tractor in his dad’s lap in 1970. COURTESY PHOTO

Today it remains quite common to see teenagers and even younger kids piloting heavy equipment back home. I myself ran a tractor before I hit double digits. At that time, this meant an open cab with gears you had to yank into place by main force, a throttle that sent clouds of black smoke into your face and a jouncing seat perched a few feet above several tons of soil-piercing farm equipment. The only power steering was whatever power you had in your arms and you’d best know your way around banks of knobs, instrument panels, gears and hydraulics. Certainly, there was no thought of seat belts or protection from the elements: this was a farm, and the field lay before you. Hop to it, son, my dad would say. Come home when it’s dinnertime or you’re done.

I have found the experience to be invaluable later in life. Even piloting the most twisty of Boston streets is no biggie compared to steering a single-front 1956 Allis-Chalmers across a fresh- plowed field in the full knowledge that Dad will be along later to check whether you kept your lines straight.

What does all this have to do with a pleasure ride around Marblehead Harbor? Because the easy-going competence of that young water taxi pilot impressed me. Working out in the sun and the sea, and a gentleman to boot, as he held out a hand to help my partner aboard. I foresee good things in that hard-working young man’s future.

It was a short jaunt from out to our gracious host’s vessel, Colours, a Wasque 30 designed and built at CW Hood Yachts in Marblehead. I was assigned a job, releasing the mooring line from the cleat. This involved a tightrope walk along the edge of the hull out to the bow. Easy enough on a calm day, but I imagine a much harder task when the seas are up.

We made a circuit of the harbor. Now the easy skill of our captain impressed me as he steered amongst the maze of moored vessels while pointing out all the sights and even offering me a beer. I can report two things: first, I was never offered a beer while anywhere near a tractor back home. Two, Marblehead floats like a lovely storybook postcard from the water.

Outside Marblehead Harbor

We then made north for Manchester Harbor, passing Salem, Beverly, Children’s Island, Misery Island (looked pleasant enough to me!) and Baker’s Island. This latter is peopled by what must be a hearty group of folks, who commute to the mainland by boat and clearly enjoy isolation.

I also took note of the old buoy our captain noted outside Marblehead Harbor. It still has bells for foggy days to warn a ship’s captain operating with no visibility. At least, that’s how it would have been back before GPS, the same sorts of days as when I was piloting an old Case 1070 tractor by sight across a dusty field. I tried to imagine what it must have been like, trying to get back to a safe harbor in fog and rough seas on a ship crewed by men likely not much older than that water taxi pilot. Not an easy thing to picture on a beautiful, modern boat with a seasoned captain and a beer in your hand.

I felt that strange, hollowing singing of which Hemingway wrote as we rounded Fort Sewall for home. I’m as novice a seafarer as they come, but I was ready for my second tightrope walk of the day and ready, already, to head back out again.

As always, if you’ve got an idea upon which I can embark for a Marblehead First Time, drop me a line at

Court Merrigan
+ posts

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

Leave a Reply