Harbor Refuge

Fri, 03/27/2015 - 8:45am

It was snowing at the moment of the Equinox, soft flakes, but snow nonetheless, falling into the softest wind, but a wind nonetheless, floating between north and east. It continued through the night, never heavy but there, coloring the world with winter well into the morning. Then it stopped, the sun came out, the pavement cleared was suddenly steaming, like the streets after a summer rain. By night the air was filled with a very particular sound of surf, one that comes only in the early spring.

A day later it was raw and brown and cold, March reminding us she was not yet ready to depart, bound and determined to put a dark imprint on winter's passing. 

We will remember this winter not for its blessedly late arrival but for the snow that fell and lasted and lasted as the hours of daylight stretched until there was light on the snow at six, and the season was no longer dark and soul-crushing. It was then as beautiful and as heartbreaking as the earliest gilded days of spring, when we know we are in a world disappearing before we can grasp it, perfection that cannot be sustained, even more fleeting than summer love.

We will remember it also as the year the long east wall of the Old Harbor was rebuilt, with a wide range of heavy construction equipment working its way along the wall and the beach, through days of falling snow, into the spring. The constancy of it was stunning, these great yellow insects moving up and down the green jetty — still so called for the light that should sit at its end, throwing a steady beam, a shimmering emerald path on black water.

First, I wonder how they can be working, then think of enclosed, heated cabs that enable seemingly impossible work in such weather and finally remember the National Hotel, burned to the ground in July 1903, and re-built over the course of a single winter.

It has been a gift of this season of white, this always changing scene from the Neck Road and the Front Street, barges and tugs coming and going, a crane so high it is visible over dunes and even buildings, from places with no clear ocean view.

One day there was a great heap of darkness on the seaward side of the east wall. Old tires, chained together, a couple of men at the dock told me one afternoon, not — as I had hoped — some great mysterious treasure uncovered during construction. It was the “carpet” put down on the uneven rocks to assure the equipment passage out over them.

Great boulders sit on the beach, creating a safe path for smaller machines working along the side of the wall and last week a huge hill of granite rose from the north end of the wall, ready to be moved into place. It is, I hope, a project that will lead to the restoration of that green light. The closest to an assurance I have been able to extract is that there will be a platform for a beacon.

It is, everyone tells me, the responsibility of the Coast Guard but the work currently on-going is not under its jurisdiction.

There has been a little flotilla out near the end of the wall where all the granite remains to be restored, be it pulled from the ocean floor or imported on these numerous barges. It has been, I am amazed to realize, over two years since it was so badly battered, this wall that stops the raging sea and creates our Harbor of Refuge and, as important, the entrance to it.

It is easy to imagine the walls, both of the long granite arms that hold our harbor safe, being built in one great building spree. Their construction was more like that of the larger hotels, the grand Ocean View, and the elegant Hygeia that sat above the New Harbor, both gone, as well as the remaining Spring House, all of them growing as commerce increased.

The break walls were the same, well chronicled by the Army Corps in a report issued in the early 1990s. The most interesting — to me — detail was the end of the east jetty, the part where the work is now focused. There was a gap proposed in early years. When I first looked at the series of drawings I presumed it was the result of an additional — never built — segment that would have extended out to the north.

After Sandy, which ripped the end of the wall and dislodged the green light, there seemed from certain angles to be an area more damaged than the rest and I went back to those plans and realized that that extra piece had been built; later the date of the closing of the gap was noted. There may have been some inherent weakness finally uncovered by the relentless power of that raging ocean, a sea so strong it tore out theretofore untouched sections of the Neck Road.

It is being repaired by the big crane on its barge, anchored by two tall columns that look like pilings — things that I am sure have a name unfamiliar to me. They are accompanied by a wonderfully compact little tug, all black and white and looking for the world like a toy, or a harbor craft at best, not something made to transverse the open sea. Varying supply vessels come and go, all under an American flag that stands out straight on many days.

The project has given us a working harbor down to vessels lighted at night, moored out by the jetty's end. It has given us a steady life force, these mechanical yellow creatures crawling up and down the beach, reaching over and slowly rebuilding our battered wall, mindless of the weather. Every time I look out across the water and see activity I wish it could all last forever.