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When life revolves around windspeed

Mary Bergman

This time of year, the wind starts unraveling people. Especially if you are trying to leave the island for any reason, suddenly your entire life revolves around windspeeds. We are all amateur amenologists out here.

And as much as I don’t want to romanticize Nantucket’s past — the whaling industry especially — it is hard not to think of wooden whaleships, leaving the island’s port and heading for warmer climes. It must have been exhilarating to watch the island grow smaller and smaller, until it was just an arc of sand along the horizon.

I try to imagine what it would have been like to live in a town where many of the men had been around the world three or four times before they turned forty. If they were lucky enough to make it back. I think of them more on the days the ferry boats don’t run at all, and the furthest distance you can go is all the way out to one end of the island or the other — seven miles in either direction.

It is quieter this winter than last. My parents used to tell stories of Nantucket in the 1980s, when they were younger than I am now. Only a handful of restaurants stayed open, trading off on nights closed. There were only 3,000 people or so out here then. Now, we have at least three times that. As the pandemic barrels on — like the wind, another similarly destructive, virtually invisible thing — more places are shuttered, juggling the few available staff.

The Pacific National Bank, at the head of Main Street, has been temporarily closed for weeks. It belongs to a big national bank now, but retained its bizarre name. The original bank was founded with whaling money made in the Pacific. Sometimes, when the ATMs aren’t working, a glitching computerized message flashing across the screen invites you to visit the Edgartown branch.

It wasn’t that long ago that these places, surrounded by water, were better connected. I was in Provincetown right before the New Year with my parents and we ran into an old neighbor, a fisherman. He told stories of the Provincetown fleet pulling into Nantucket on days when weather was particularly bad, or if there was a basketball game between the Whalers and their longtime rivals, the Fishermen. He rattled off a whole list of Nantucketers who’d come over for his wedding in Provincetown’s West End. They were all connected by a shared profession — fishing — and their Portuguese heritage.

These days, if a fishing boat from New Bedford shelters from the wind in Nantucket Harbor, it is news. Pictures of the boat and crew make it into one of our many email newsletters that have proliferated in recent years. (Maybe they have not suffered the same staff shortages as other industries.) We learn the origin of the boat’s name, always somebody’s wife or daughter. Some people go down to look at the fishing vessel, the same way they might a stranded whale. Both relics from another, perhaps less isolating, time.