Winter on Nantucket | Nantucket | MA
Nantucket Essays

Nantucket Winters

•  by Robert P. Barsanti •

On Friday at four, A contractor and I stood on the rear deck of the Gray Lady Two as it popped into its high gear, sprouted a rooster tail, and zipped over the swells. The long swells marched slowly in from the northeast. We felt the boat roll on each wave. They were not remarkable yet; you can stand still and just shift your weight from one foot to the other. However, if you felt the need to walk down to the snack bar, or conversely, to the head, you touched the poles and the back of the chairs. He had a beer in his hand, Carharts on, and a Patriots cap. His beer sloshed out when we rolled over the back of a swell.

“Do you think I will get off tomorrow?”

“I don’t think you will get off until Tuesday morning.”

“I am going to have to go.”

“Good luck.” I said. He sat down and finished his beer as best he could.

Other places in New England descend into the Currier and Ives Calendar of snow, ice, and mittens. In Vermont, you stand in a copse of trees and the snow falls in a hush of fairy sized flakes. The trees fence you into a small square of wonder.

Nantucket winters come gently. The temperature dips below freezing occasionally and not for very long. The snow melts somewhere half way across the Sound and falls in a wet mist and sloppy spray. Snowflakes die in wet puddles on the windshield as you drive the kids to school. You can go through an entire winter on-island without mittens or, as many contractors do, without long pants.

The island got by for years with one fully functioning plow and a bare number of snow days at the school. The salt and sand pile at the DPW would last decades and the local golf courses will happily take your money deep into February. You can stand at the fifth tee at Sankaty, watch the sky turn purple and gold, then hit a drive that skips and hides in the brush with the rabbits and the beer cans. For weeks, the island moves to some blessed spot off the coast of Virginia where snow and cold come by way of the Weather Channel and leave during the advertisements. Winter seems manageable and within control, as if the entire season were a National Park or a Land Bank property. You come out and visit the fifty degree days, take a few pictures of the sunset and see whether there are any sweatshirts for sale downtown. Winter, if not something the caretaker sweeps up, is an exhibit at a museum. Ships sank in these waters. Trees were blown down over here. And let us show you some pictures of the year when the harbor iced up.

The island is, however, an island. And just as suddenly as Nantucket can drift down to Virginia, so it can it be blown up and off the coast of Maine. The storms build just outside the range of care for the Boston meteorologists. To them, the storm will drop some flurries in Reading, some wet flakes in Duxbury, and you may need your scraper, but the evening commute will be fine. As they go to their five-day forecasts, the line of clouds will start to swing up from the southwest, and the wind will build in from the northeast.

By morning, the whitecaps will appear in the harbor. The sky will descend and tumble overhead in a wind that will bend the trees, rattle the signs in gusts, and fling themselves at your windows. The drafts in your house will rattle the insulated plastic you spread over the windows. The door will fling itself open in your hand, then need to be shut.

By the middle of the day, the rain will fling itself at the doors and windows into gray, messy sheets. By some trick of weather, the rain will be a mix of sand, water, ice, and salt. The rain sprays itself through the alleyways and holes between the houses and trees. Then the boats stop. Then the planes stop.

To those who live on-island, a parked ferryboat is a curiosity, but not a tragedy. It rides high in the in-running tide, lit up, and sealed at the wharf. To those whose life is going ticking by off-island, the ferry is a frustration and a humiliation. No plane, no boat, no other modern conveyance will cross those 25 miles. You are stuck.

The rain will turn to snow, briefly, in the night and the wind will back to the northwest. The last high tide will flow up and into Easy Street and South Water Street, and then will seep back into the ocean. The wires will hum and sing in the high wind while the trees toss and heave, but by dawn the sunlight will filter through the clouds. And the wind will still blow, the boats will remain locked into the wharf and the sky will remain quiet.

After the rain had passed in the wind, I took the dog for a short walk at Tuppancy Links. In the intermittent sun, he sprinted and wheeled on the brown grass, then went tearing into the underbrush before returning just as fast. We eventually made it to the bluff and into the teeth of a driving Canadian wind. Across the sound, lines of white-capped waves drove to the island and crushed the empty northern beaches. We stood at the edge of a vast battle field, beset by innumerable battalions of winter.

Islands are naked. We stand before the weather without the blessings of hills, trees, and mountain ranges. The power of the storm rises unbated. You can imagine standing atop a mountain in Vermont and witness the power of the storm from the fortress of modern energy and power. But to stand on the bluffs of the island, to feel the lashings of the wind, and hear the battery of the waves, is to know the folly of men, of bulldozers, and of architects drawings. We stand here only on the basis of Good Luck.

Articles by Date from 2012