|Names, Islands, and the
Names of Islands
by Tom Lochhaas
published in Maine Boats and Harbors magazine, May 2000
I must have avoided this island for years, I know now. Such is the power of a name to tame the lure of pink granite and blue spruce. Not since I was the age my daughter is now have I gone by that name myself, and it would feel somehow silly now to be attracted to an island of that name.
But my young daughter was aboard our sailboat, along with wife and friends, and we were on a picnic sail to an island, and wind and tide had brought us this way. We’d had to weigh anchor once already when a veering wind on the flood tide swept us too close to a ledge, and so we’d given up our first choice of an anchorage at Flint Island. “Alright,” I said, “We’ll try a different island in a minute,” but secretly I still wanted the picnic on rugged Flint Island, with its tough and, well, flinty name. That was a man’s island, alright, a place a father might explore with his daughter and talk of pirates and buried treasure and how hard the fishing life used to be. On such an island, hard as flint, are found more robust truths.
Less than a mile away waited a diminutive island I’d always sailed past before. On the chart it was perfect: small enough to walk completely around after a picnic, a shallower area off the northeast side where the boat could swing a full circle in the day’s flukey winds, and uninhabited. It met all the criteria for adventure but for its name: Tommy Island.
I remember that day at age ten when I insisted my friends and family stop calling me Tommy. It embarrassed me then and something of that lurks now. Who would call an island Tommy, anyway? Thomas Island, or perhaps Grand Thomas Island, has a pretension about it also unsuited to Downeast Maine, the same pretension I’d had for a year or two in college–and the same embarrassment now. Why not Tom’s Island, then? Simple and natural and perhaps even a rugged sound to some women, and short enough for an island you could circumambulate in less than an hour. What pleasure to rise on a fogless morning and announce we were sailing to Tom’s Island! What joy to overhear my daughter tell her friend we’d be sailing to her Dad’s island.
With a robust island name like that, she wouldn’t say “Daddy.”
“We’ll anchor at Tommy Island,” I announced, and the kids cheered.
It was as inviting up close as it was on the chart although less, well, rugged and flinty than Flint Island. It looked like quintessential Downeast, rimmed nicely in sculpted pink granite and crowned with spruce. It looked, indeed, like a picture of quintessential Maine you’d see in a magazine that used words like quintessential and sculpted and crowned. It did not look like an island where pirates would bury treasure or fathers could convince their daughters of the rugged dangers of shipboard life and teach them words like fo’c’sle and scurvy and death. Today it was sunny and calm in the lee of Tommy, and it seemed the kind of island where a boy of nine might sail his small blue boat and safely explore ashore while miles away at the family camp his mother stands on a rocky beach calling, “Tommy!”
My wife lowered the anchor and rattled down the chain, and soon I was rowing the kids ashore. By the time I rowed back with the grownups and food they’d found a natural fire pit in the granite and had already salvaged up two old lobster buoys, their paint completely worn off by the smooth rock.
Tommy Island was beautiful and very comfortable, we all agreed, and safe enough to let the girls go off exploring on their own. We heard the surf booming in thunderholes just around the corner to the west, and we drank wine and lay back against sun-warmed rock and watched a bald eagle over a neighboring island. Off in several distances pleasantly thrummed several lobster boats. After a while the girls returned with a dozen salvaged buoys, a sure sign the island seldom saw tourists, and then they took to rolling around in the little undertow on the pebbly beach where we’d landed the dink. The sun was warm and gentle.
We’ll save robust truths for another day, another island, I thought finally. That will come. One day we will be ashore on Flint Island, my daughter Cassandra and I, when a gale blows in and the anchor drags and our sailboat yearns alone toward the ledge. “I told you we’d drag, Dad!” will shriek Cassandra, whom I had not believed, rugged teenager she’ll then be, and we’ll all dash down the rock, falling and tearing flesh, trying to reach the boat in time to save her.
But today on Tommy Island I’ll laze in the sun and watch my daughter Cassie playing in the undertow and remember what it was like to be nine and not yet Tom and not yet thinking about things like scurvy and death.
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