Up Perry Creek Without a Starter

September 1, 2021

For the past week, we’ve been up Perry Creek without a starter. The good news is that we could have been up shit’s creek without a paddle. Instead, we’ve spent a delightful six days in a lovely cove only one mile from J. O. Brown boat yard where we’ve had two mobile mechanics and a neighborhood full of friendly, generous people who’ve helped us beyond measure. And the reason we’re here without a starter, instead of Matinicus, a lonely outpost in the Gulf of Maine, is due to a mistake.


Our “plan” is to provision, fill up our water tank, and top off our diesel before heading out to the barren Brimstone island off Vinalhaven and then on to Matinicus, a remote island 15 miles out to sea. Arriving in the early evening, we tie up to the town dock and get a ride from the owner of the store to the well-stocked Island Grocer. Because it’s nearly dark, we motor one mile to Perry Creek for an overnight—right next to our favorite floating tiny house—with plans to motor to J.O. Brown in the morning. Our fuel was only down a quarter tank, but our water was virtually empty. We’d called earlier about fuel availability only to learn that they were out. “It should be arriving tomorrow by boat on the next high tide,” Linda, the office manager said. Good, that will give us some time in Perry Creek, which we’d missed last time.


By mid-afternoon, it was approaching high tide, so before motoring across, Will decides to check the oil, which we’d been tracking all summer and chooses to fill it. With confidence, he opens the cap on top of the engine block, which looks like every other radiator cap he’d ever seen but mistakes it for an oil fill and starts pouring. After a few seconds he remarks, “That’s weird. It’s already overflowing.” I know right away something isn’t right, so I ask, “Which cap did you use, because there are two.” Indeed, he had put the oil into the radiator cap instead of the oil fill! My stomach does that somersault it does when something I imagine to be disastrous happens. I say nothing and take the news with great equanimity.

Will immediately acknowledges his mistake and starts sopping up oil with paper towels. He gets on the phone with Alec, the wonderful mobile mechanic who came on board in Belfast to replace our solenoid. He suggests using an oil absorbent pad as the oil should be floating on top of the coolant. He says that he could come out on Tuesday to drain the coolant but meanwhile, if we could remove most of it, we’d probably be fine to motor over to J. O. Brown and have them replace it. We call the boat yard and tell them our problem, and wouldn’t you know, a couple hours later, a guy shows up from the yard to have a look. He says the same thing and tells us Foy Brown would be around tomorrow to help us out. Good, not a disaster and we have a “plan.”

Meanwhile our water supply is now super low, and we are washing dishes in salt water, so I suggest rowing over to our neighbor boat and asking if they might spare some water for our tanks. They are more than happy to accommodate, bringing us two deliveries of five gallons each, along with an extra oil absorbent pad. Rick and Valerie couldn’t be nicer, confessing that he too had done something similar in years past. With some water and a plan, there’s nothing else to do until the next day. To Will, it’s a defining moment when Tasha, instead of slouching into moroseness suggests that we smoke some pot and go for a hike

* * *

The beautiful, rooted staircases and pine needle gravel-filled paths that perfectly match the contours make every step sublime. Encyclopedia Brown and Harriet the Spy have their moment in the sun at the overlook, first wondering if the buttoned-up dandelions had yet to deliver their wispy seeds to the wind or not. Given the season and the barren granite, where would they alight? Picking one apart, we witness them getting swept off rock faces to bumble along. The inch-long wisps culminate in a seed—a kernel (that is, “a kernel of truth”)—quintessential–as in the found example where every single corn-silk wisp manages to break away with the tiniest sliver of seed at the end. Did the DNA replicate so well that the barest paint-thin shaving is enough?

And on to the pinecone, hypnotizing when viewed from the top. Does Fibonacci matter? Sure, there are natural growths that display a perfect Fibonacci ratio, the nautilus shell, for instance, as it grows at every single tangent of its spinning out. But what about less-rigorous pronouncements, the plant parts or patterns that aren’t exactly 1.382 times the previous one? Here we recognize the power of an “idea” that we then want to “see,” regardless of the proof to the contrary. For me (Will), it is enough that Fibonacci works even once; it’s not necessary to do more. The other innumerable growth patterns may one day get their day in the sun—or maybe we will “get over” ourselves and quit trying to “classify” and reduceor try to anywaynature to something it really isn’t.

*    *    *

On the last leg of the hike, inspired by all the fairy houses we’d seen on the way in, I exclaim, “I want to build a fairy house!” A hollowed out birch bark cylinder appears tucked between two trees. The question is whether to leave it where it is where it probably wouldn’t be seen or move it closer to the trail. After some inner debate, I decide to move it and then set to decorating the top with moss-covered bark and laying sticks along one side to form an outdoor porch. In front of the opening is a bright red mushroom, and I place a yellow fungus-covered stick in front as the other portal. Will suggests putting a large rock inside, which I do and then switch into engineer mode wondering if I need to make it more structurally sound. “Build from your eight-year-old self,” he suggests, and I switch back to that mode finishing off the house with a minimum of adornments. We riff on the architectural elements of two other fairy houses we see in a clearing, wondering whether adult or child was at play when building them.

Yes, it is quite an outing! Needless to say, we’re no longer worried about the oil issue.


With most of the oil removed, we get an early start to motor over to J. O. Brown. I push the start button, once and get a little cranking, twice, a little less, and a third time, nothing. We check the batteries which are relatively low without much solar giving them a charge so early in the morning, so we run the generator for half an hour and try again. This time, we get absolutely nothing pushing the starter button.

Rick on the neighboring boat notices our troubles and hails us asking if he can help, so I row over and tell him of our plight. Fifteen minutes later he arrives, tool bag in hand, ready to help, along with yet another five gallons of water. Knowing more about these things than we do, he climbs down into the lazarette and tests the power to the solenoid, which is fine. He then takes a large screwdriver and holds it between the two terminals on the solenoid, bypassing it to send power directly to the starter. Nothing. We also notice two lose wires which he tries connecting. Nothing. Then he tries attaching one end of a small jumper cable to the starter and the other end to the engine block. Will questions it in his mind as he does it. Poof! Smoke comes pouring out as the wire melts, at which point he says, “Well, I’ve reached the end of my knowledge.”

Before departing he asks, “I don’t suppose you have Nigel Calder’s Mechanical and Electrical book on board?” “We sure do!” I say and tell him he’s a friend. We then spend another half hour pouring over his troubleshooting section and learning the steps to debug the system, most of which we’ve done. The net result is even though it’s rarely the starter, in our case, that’s what it points to. We called J. O. Brown once more to tell them of our new, more pressing issue. Linda says she’ll pass it along to Foy.

Meanwhile, Bunny rows by and we chat her up about living aboard, which she and her husband Bill have been doing since 1994, mostly in the waters around Turkey and Greece. She too offers to bring us some water, which we graciously accept. “Do you need anything else? Food? Wine?” she asks. Will says, “We could always use bacon. Just kidding.” Next thing you know, there’s Bunny, water and bacon in hand! Nothing more to do but go for another hike, this time to the summit, where we have a magnificent view over East Penobscot Bay to the Camden Hills. A bit of exercise does us a lot of good after all this waiting around.


We wait on board to hear from Foy, hoping his schedule isn’t too full to get to us. Evan, the tile guy from Vinalhaven comes by in his Boston Whaler wanting to chat. He often comes to Perry Creek on the weekends to see where all the boats are from and get to know people. He too asks if we need anything, and we say, “Well, since we’re probably going to be here for another couple of days, we’d gladly accept some more water.” He says he’ll bring some out tomorrow.

We meet another lovely couple on a wooden boat he’d built himself and whom we’d met on Swan’s Island at the music festival. We chat people up as they come in and the harbor fills up with a dozen boats. Late in the afternoon, Foy shows up to have a look. He performs the same tests Rick did only in about ten minutes with the same results. He then removes the starter to have a look and learns that it’s only spinning in one direction instead of both. “It’s toast,” he declares. OK then! “I can probably order one for you on Monday, get here on Tuesday.” Alright then! We have more of a plan. We continue to wait.


In the afternoon, Bunny stops by with yet another gallon of water. Happy to engage with “someone other than my husband,” she stays a while to chat when Evan comes back with three five-gallon containers full of water, and we invite him aboard as well. A super friendly gadfly, Evan tells us about the various social circles on Vinalhaven and how he’s managed to touch most but stay outside of all of them. “It’s better that way,” he says. He also commented, “Fishermen are always crying crocodile tears. The gold in the pot in front of them is never shiny enough for them.” He’s seen a construction boom on Vinalhaven from people “from away” and has no lack of business as the lone tile guy on the island. “And they spare no expense,” he said. “I’ve put in tile that costs $50 per square foot!” When I learn he’s single, I play matchmaker and try fixing him up with a friend.

Bunny invites us over for cocktails on their Norsman 447 with the couple on the wooden boat, and we see what a $200k cruising boat feels like, complete with enclosed cockpit to keep out the elements. I bring a fresh batch of garlicy hummus that I’d just made in the food processor, and we sit around the cockpit table laden with hors d’oeuvres as Bill, 82, holds forth with sailing stories and Bunny passes around the popcorn.

Back on NIRVANA, Will says, “Any who is sealing out that much nature shouldn’t be on a sailboat!”


At 9:00 AM, we’re awoken by a loud motor passing by us and then a sudden BANG against our hull. Will pops his head up through the hatch and hears, “Watch out for the sailboat!” and “Pull that boat in!” and then from the crew, “I can’t!” I jump out of bed, put on some clothes, and go up to the cockpit as I watch a large fishing boat steaming past us after cutting between us and the tiny house. “Sorry I clipped your kayak,” the captain yells to the boat astern of us. I wave my arms and yell, “Did you hit us?” but he’s moving too fast to hear and doesn’t turn around.

We are only slightly shaken and not too concerned until half an hour later we’re visited by a neighboring boat saying he had called the Marine Patrol and we’d probably get a visit soon. He saw the whole thing, including the skiff hitting our boat, and felt the captain was behaving recklessly. We check our boat and discover a few gouges left by the skiff’s outboard that was trailing behind on a long tether. Later, Brandon from Marine Patrol comes by in 20’ Whaler with a bad ass outboard in his grey uniform and badges. He inquires about what happened and asks us each for a written statement so he can report the incident. We also get a statement from the boat to our stern. At first he is all official and then lets down his guard as we start talking about fishing and the eel we’d seen earlier in the day. He later realizes it’s a matter for the Coast Guard since it involved a commercial vessel.

One by one, the boats in Perry Creek start leaving. We take another hike ashore, this time on the north side, all the way to the head of Perry Creek. This is when Will realizes there are no houses around the shore—such a pleasure. This has been our home for almost a week now. We’ve seen high drama, low drama, we’ve waited and walked, and we’ve experienced plenty of neighborly kindness.


By noon, all boats have left the harbor except John McCloud, the Scotsman from Vermont who lives aboard his Nordic trawler and is the de facto “mayor” of Perry Creek, having set half a dozen moorings for people to use and contributed significantly to the trails that line the creek.

It’s mid-afternoon and we decide to call to see if there’s any progress. Linda answers. “The UPS truck just arrived. I haven’t seen Foy since before lunch, but I’ll tell him you were asking.” Remember, we’re on an island, so we had to wait for the mail boat for the UPS truck. An hour later, we see a lone skiff motoring in. It’s Foy with our new starter, straight from China via Newburyport, MA. Apparently, he’d tried three other places before finding someone who had the type we needed. He climbs into the engine compartment and with Will’s help from the lazarette, and a couple of under-his-breath swears, attaches the motor. Will cranks it over and the engine hums like a baby! Rejoicing all around.

We allow as to how we—and everyone else—have been admiring his tiny house, which we’re moored right next to and we learned he built for his wife ten years ago. I boldly ask if we can see it and he says, “Sure! Hop on in!” He motors us over and gives us a tour. The thing is beautiful inside, complete with kitchen, sleeping loft, pickled diagonal siding, freshwater tank, composting toilette, beautiful rugs, furnishings, and artwork, and an outdoor shower with on-demand hot water. Such an inspiration for tiny house living! And he’s built several of them for some of his workers, which he keeps on trailers up the road from his shop.


We’re finally ready to leave our home for a week, and with a tinge of sadness we drop the mooring and head over to the yard to fuel and water up—our intention of a week ago—and pay our bill. With $550 for the starter plus UPS and 2.5 hours of labor at $60/hr, we’re glad to be back to square one. We take a self-guided tour of the numerous buildings at the large compound that is J. O. Brown. The place is chock full of all manner of stuff strewn about the shop in what can only be described as complete chaos. And yet, you can just tell that Foy Brown and his son and his nephew and his nieces, like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather before him are enjoying the hell out of working there. And his grandson Silas at age 13 whom we also met is as accomplished a boat builder as anyone there and has numerous boat models in various stages of completion. And the name of his lobster boat? Nirvana.

And as for oil in the coolant? “That shouldn’t harm you any. It might even oil up the water pump!” says Foy.

*     *     *

And so, because F. O. Brown was out of fuel on Wednesday, and because Will poured oil into the radiator on Thursday, and because our starter didn’t work on Friday, we were in Perry Creek when our starter died rather than Matinicus, which meant Foy Brown was able to travel a mere one mile from his top-notch boatyard to our boat to fix it. And as a result, we were able to meet some of the nicest, most generous people we’ve met all summer!

So once again, three times over, something that seemed bad at the time turned out to be good for us in the end. And who knows, maybe because we were hit by another boat, the insurance claim will exceed the cost of our new starter!

Tasha & Will

One thought on “Up Perry Creek Without a Starter

  1. Thanks for this. I really enjoyed reading it. Last night was our last night on Moon Eye for the year. We’ve been on her since March in Florida when we started the long journey back to Maine. Now it’s on to Idaho. Take care friends. We would like to follow your blog if that’s ok. Fair winds. Rick & Valerie


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