By David Abel | Globe Staff | January 17, 2012
A Blustery Cruise
By David Abel | Globe Staff | January 17, 2012
ABOARD THE VOYAGER III - There was nary a cloud in the sky, and the water was as smooth as glass, shimmering in the bright morning sun.
National Park Ranger Hugh Hawthorne scanned the clear horizon as a flock of cormorants glided into the azure.
``You really couldn't ask for a better day for a cruise - in January,'' he said.
In an effort to draw visitors to the Boston Harbor islands, which this time of year mainly appear to be barren, windswept spits of rock covered by bleached shrubs, state and federal officials have teamed up with the owner of a whale-watching boat to offer what many New Englanders might consider to be an oxymoron: a winter cruise.
But nearly 200 people yesterday thought this novel tourist attraction would be a good idea, even though it was 18 degrees when the catamaran left Long Wharf for a three-hour voyage to the Brewster Islands and beyond.
Like most who joined the tour, Marcus Hunt came prepared for the arctic gusts.
The 38-year-old software engineer from Brookline wore a bulky parka and covered his head with a coyote fur-lined hood. He wore thick mittens and mountain climbing pants.
When asked why he would pay to do something that others might consider a form of torture, Hunt said he couldn't be happier to be on the water, in the resplendent sunshine, even if his fingers would grow numb and his cheeks turn rouge.
``It's a kind of adventure, I guess,'' he said.
Hunt and others had come mainly to see the birds - red-throated loons, black-backed gulls, white-winged scoters, common goldeneyes, and more than a dozen others.
At one point, as the 95-foot Voyager III neared Graves Lighthouse, one of the birders announced he spotted a king eider, a large sea duck that looks a bit like a penguin.
It felt like the boat might lean precipitously as scores of passengers rushed to the rails, aiming binoculars and long camera lenses toward the dark water, where the bird bobbed in the surf until disappearing in the waves.
``This is a great time to be out here, because it's like we have the water to ourselves,'' said Sally Quinn, 58, of Winchester, who is such an avid birder that she was listening to the sounds of scoters and comparing images of them on her iPad. ``But I thought there would have been only 15 of us hardy enough to be out here.''
Jess Renehan, a ranger with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said she wasn't surprised by the large turnout.
``The islands are the best-kept secret in Boston, and this is one way we're helping people appreciate them,'' she said. ``We want people to appreciate them all year.''
The jaunt was the first of nine winter cruises this year organized by DCR, the National Park Service, and the Boston Harbor Alliance on a vessel provided by Boston's Best Cruises. This one didn't stop at any of the Harbor islands and turned back after cruising around Hingham Bay. Some of the others are scheduled to let passengers explore the islands.
Mike McGurl, an owner of the boat, said his company risked making little to no profit on the trip, in hopes of generating interest for cruises to the islands when the weather doesn't require thermal underwear.
``We make it feel like we are on an expedition,'' said McGurl, whose company charges $20 a ticket. ``I always use the analogy that the cabin is like the ski lodge, with all of the amenities to make you warm, comfortable, and happy after spending some time out on deck.''
Among those amenities is a flat-screen television showing the image of a fireplace, which is where Telma Silva and two friends kept warm after braving the cold for a few raw minutes.
The 22-year-old student from Cambridge would have preferred to spend the day under covers, but her science teacher in a high school equivalency program suggested she and two other students join him. She had little choice, she said, as her friends joked about seeing whales where there were only super tankers and birds that were barely visible without binoculars.
``We didn't want to disappoint him,'' she said. ``He's crazy enthusiastic about birds.''
To persuade her sister to join her, Laura Dill, 40, of Melrose, had to promise to help her make a cake.
As she sat in view of the fake fireplace, wearing two pairs of thick socks and hiking boots, she acknowledged the fleeting feeling in her toes. ``Unfortunately, it's not warming up my feet,'' she said of the flickering image on the television.
Her sister, Elizabeth Dill, wore what she described as her ``comforter coat.''
``I thought she was crazy to want to do this,'' she said. ``But I'm a good sister.''
While some slurped hot chocolate and spooned bowls of chili to stay warm, Nancy Santry said she couldn't think of a better way to spend a sunny day in January.
The retired 65-year-old from Quincy was with several friends from the South Shore Camera Club, each of whom looked impervious to the cold.
``In the summer, the skies are a lot hazier and you don't get to see the same species,'' she said. ``It's perfect out here in the winter, with crisp skies and next to no boats. It's also good to get out of the house this time of year.''
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@davabel.