The Working Waterfront

Living aboard: Damariscove Harbor was a family’s home for 16 years

Steve Cartwright
Posted 2022-04-26
Last Modified 2022-04-26

This story first appeared in The Working Waterfront in 2003.

John and Robin Hammond lived aboard their wooden 1936 Casey Cutter, at Damariscove Island for 16 years. There, beside a barren island known for centuries to fishermen, they raised their son, Tomas.

They fished, tended a hidden garden, and got by using their wits. When they finally moved ashore last year, nobody wanted to buy their floating home – still sound, spars and rigging stored on the mainland. So they simply traded their boat for a sewing machine.

The island is visited by local fishermen and yachtsmen from all over, in season, and year-round by gulls, eiders, muskrat, seals – it can be abuzz with boats in August, a place of intense solitude in January.

Local tribes probably were the first to visit Damariscove to pick berries and to fish. Europeans landed there at least 400 years ago, long before any settlement at Boothbay Harbor, five miles away. Captain John Smith called it Demerill’s Isle, perhaps after an early English settler in the area. For a time there was a small, busy settlement: a school, a working farm. The last house has collapsed, but the stone foundations remain.

The Hammonds were the last year-rounders. They made infrequent trips to the mainland for boat maintenance, visiting family and stocking up on supplies. As Tomas, now 15, grew more independent, he fixed up a fisherman’s shack on Damari-scove’s tiny harbor and moved off the boat.

Eventually, it seemed time to leave Damariscove. Tomas was growing up; new lobstering regulations changed the fishery in ways John didn’t like.

Now, snug in their snug Den-nysville home, 200 miles downeast from Damariscove, Robin and John get a faraway look as they recall their island and what it meant to them. John wanted to bring along OTOK, their old wooden sloop, when they moved, and literally build her into their cabin. But the plan got too expensive.

When they first bought OTOK she had been out of the water for years. They paid $8,000 for her, and then put a lot of hard work into the rotten hull at the former Goudy & Stevens boat yard in East Boothbay. They replaced the keelson and garboards, learning on the job; they sanded 18 layers of paint off the deck. Robin put bungs in the deck while eight months’ pregnant. They lived aboard, the cat running in and out through holes in the hull.

Leaving Damariscove wasn’t easy. John still wishes he had hung onto one thing, the little Shipmate stove that heated them in the cold and on which they brewed the coffee and cooked so many meals.

Damariscove was inhabited as far back as the mid 1700s, and there are accounts of drying cod on the island in the 1600s, including fish that helped save the Plymouth Colony after a hard winter in 1622.

In 1671, Massachusetts Bay Colony officials claimed Damar-iscove, and the next year inhabitants were numerous enough to petition for some form of local government. In 1673, a constable was appointed, and a license for a pub serving “beere, wyne and liquors.” Islanders began paying taxes; five pounds in 1674.

Two years later, a desperate uprising by Native people in Massachusetts – King Philip’s War – led to an attack on Damariscove. There were more attacks, but settlers stayed on the island. One of the ghostly stories – at least some of it true – involved Damariscove’s owner, Richard Pattishall, killed by Indians at Pemaquid. He was supposedly beheaded, and his corpse washed ashore at Damariscove. His headless ghost and his dog supposedly still walk the island.

Damariscove settlers took up farming in the 1700s, and by 1800 there were 40 people living on the island. In the late 1800s, a working dairy farm delivered milk and cream to the summer colony at Squirrel Island and to adjacent Boothbay Harbor. Some local fishermen still remember a herd of sheep on the island.

The Nature Conservancy acquired all of Damariscove except the former Coast Guard station in 1966. The conservancy puts seasonal volunteer stewards on the island.

The tiny, narrow cove that is Damariscove’s only safe anchorage could be called a hurricane hole, safe in a big storm. But in winter, said Robin, the harbor’s rocky entrance can be “like the bars of Alcatraz. Nobody can get in and we couldn’t get out.”

“Our first winter there, we were not on a mooring, we were on an anchor, and we had a storm – a northeaster came – remember? you had the flu,” she said to John. “Tomas was just a baby.” Robin and John ran lines to rings on shore, and kept OTOK from grounding out. We got tugged wicked. We got tossed around like a boat in a tub.” The anchor dragged and their boat hung up on a rock. Weak from being sick, John tried to start the inboard engine with Robin’s help, but it would only sputter and stop. So they kedged OTOK away from the rock, tossing the anchor and inching the boat along – a long night.

Quieter memories of life at Damariscove include their two shipboard cats, who were clever enough to open a porthole at night and go on deck, but they didn’t close the port, letting mosquitoes into the cabin.

OTOK is Inuit for a seal caught with someone between him and his hole in the ice, and John thought the name fit the boat when surrouonded by visiting yachts at Damariscove on a summer Sunday.

Tomas played during the warmer months with the children of the family that owns the old lifesaving station. He read books and acquired a huge vocabulary. “People would come and say, you’re keeping him away from other children, you’re keeping him captive. We’d say, he’s our son, and this our life, and this is how we want to bring him up,” Robin said.

John grew up fishing from Boothbay all his life.

Robin grew up sailing in Massachusetts, racing widgeons and 110s. Their paths first crossed at an AA meeting, after both of them stopped drinking.

Robin and John can disregard others’ drinking, but not if it endangers life. Once, a drunken skipper on a cabin cruiser flew into a rage when John told him that what appeared to be a mooring was actually a chain securing OTOK. John saw young children on the cruiser, and he was worried for them. So, when the skipper called authorities to complain about John, it was the skipper himself who got bagged in Boothbay Harbor, for operating a vessel while intoxicated.

One day, a few years ago, a dismasted sloop appeared off the island, and Robin thought, “There’s somebody in trouble, we better call the Coast Guard. And all of a sudden around the corner comes the inflatable.” It was the start of a long shoot for the movie, “Message in a Bottle,” and the capsize scene was shot – over and over – right beside Damariscove. A duplicate sloop was rigged with hydraulics and ballast so it could capsize on command. Tomas became fast friends with the film crew. The family loved the completed movie, picking out many familiar sights.

The Nature Conservancy recently completed a deal to turn Damariscove over to the Boothbay Region Land Trust, in a move that will free The Conservancy to pursue other projects.

John, Robin and Tomas weren’t the first to live on a boat at Damariscove. When John was a kid, he remembers, Jimmy Holmes and his family of seven children lived aboard a 39-foot trawler, splitting the year between the island and a dock in Boothbay Harbor. It’s not all bad, John said. “You pay $65 to register your boat, no real estate taxes, and you have 72 feet of waterfront.”