It'll Never Sink!

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 3:00pm

A few years back, in the course of a conversation about the general state of the water carriers (a Public Utilities Commission term for the boat) we had known, I realized “my” old, small boat was the Sprigg Carroll while everyone else had in their minds the Manitou, in my mind forever the “new” stern loader.

The Sprigg was battle-worn by the winter of 1964-65. That year, a large section of the low grassy dunes that lined the shore between the red jetty — so-called by the light at its end — to the sandstone wall of the inner harbor had been leveled for a parking lot and the Interstate wharf was under construction. It would be a boost to commerce, the summer boat from Galilee that had been landing at Payne’s would be coming in the Old Harbor. It was also the beginning of a progression that would lead to the stern loaders that would change the face of the island. It was into that shifting world that David Hawkins, a young teacher just out of college, stepped. He brought a camera and took photographs, which would prove more of a record than likely was realized at the time. All these years later, he has made them accessible to the Historical Society and among them are several of our then-sole winter water carrier, including the image reproduced with this column.

The Sprigg Carroll was the boat of our childhood, our winter boat. She landed in the Old Harbor’s inner basin, resting against the south dock, accessed by heavy gangplanks that had to be manually hauled from the ramp on which they rested when not in use. A side loader, she carried a few cars and all the freight. Every trip was a labor-intensive operation, the deck hands were the only ones who could maneuver vehicles into the small enclosed deck space. Each piece of material, every grocery and sack of mail brought over had to be delivered to the dock in Galilee and unloaded before being loaded onto the little vessel for the trip across the water. Here, the exercise was reversed, everything transported from the dark hold, generally with handcarts, to be loaded onto whatever vehicle would transport goods to their ultimate destination.

Even the deer, terrified creatures shut in wooden boxes, were thus transported on the Sprigg Carroll.

There was no building boom to feed and there were no big lumber trucks driving onto the boat, piled high with building supplies, ready to roll off and go straight to a job site. Fuel came on the Mobile Islander, a small tanker that plied coastal waters; there was a burn-it-and-push-it-back-into-the-swamp dump, and no packed trash to be transferred.

The Sprigg was a sturdy little sailor. We thought nothing, then, of sitting on the top deck in winter, in all but the worst weather. The cabin was close to the water, in the stern, and had a sort of worn elegance to it, a horseshoe of cushioned seats ringing the outer wall below evenly spaced windows. Unfortunately, beneath it were the shafts connecting the propellers to the engines and the room tended to vibrate from the radiator in its center out. It was generally believed that the problem stemmed largely from the conversion from steam to diesel engines; that adequate adjustments for the differential between the speeds of both were never made. It did not impair function and that was all that mattered.

Our school trips were on the Sprigg. Anyone who was there surely remembers the “Jamestown ride” when we were returning from a basketball game on that other island. It was for many the first — and last — experience with sea sickness. One classmate stood in the door to the little deck encircling the cabin and held our coats as we leaned over the rail, close to the churning water. There were restrooms, or I presume there were behind doors so marked, but they were never considered an option. How we were not soaked to the skin I will never understand.

An hour out and not half way home we got word that the captain would be swinging the boat around and heading back to port. We watched with a sort of morbid fascination, feeling the shift in the weather as we turned in water that was all peaks and canyons. Once about, the ride was smoother and faster, returning us to the dock in a fraction of the time it had taken go the same distance out.

No one had cars in Narragansett and whatever transport had brought us from Jamestown was long gone. We sat in the one open restaurant, picking at vanilla ice cream and similar bland fare while the grown-ups decided what they were going to do with us.

It wasn’t until many years later that I thought about those poor chaperones, probably not feeling well themselves, with all these kids, most of whom had never been seasick, with nowhere to go. Finally, someone arranged a ride to Westerly, near the airport from which planes would fly the next day. They put us up in the Hotel Savoy, a story for another day.

The Sprigg Carroll, running rust and vibrating to beat the band, was a part of our lives, and there was an inexplicable but real sense of loss when the Manitou sailed into the harbor, the first of two vessels with molded plastic seats in passenger cabins too far forward and too high, a whole level above the more stable freight deck.

Whatever became of the Sprigg is unclear. She went south as old boats often do and rumors abound, but the last I heard of her being documented, she was flying a Panamanian flag in 1986, which seems a very long time ago. Still, as someone with less fond memories than those of us for whom she was an integral part of childhood once remarked, “That cork? It’ll never sink!”