A few weeks ago, we sailed out to Cuttyhunk to meet up with some cruising buddies. I have a lot of childhood memories from this outermost of the Elizabeth Islands, and we’ve often stopped overnight on more recent sails to Woods Hole, but I hadn’t actually stepped ashore for several years. Surprisingly, both pale macadam and dirt road felt instantly familiar underfoot, because they reminded me of a place where I’ve been spending a great deal of time: Cooperation Island. My overactive imagination must’ve quietly tucked away a long list of sensory details, just in case I ever needed to describe a New England island—and then delivered them up as if “new” and somewhat unformed, their origins forgotten.
- A clamshell driveway as crunchy white as the Brenton Bean’s parking area.
- The 360 degree view of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound from the top of the hill: just as unobstructedly beautiful I remembered. What I didn’t recall was a newer-looking building halfway down the southeast slope; it seemed a bit oversized for the island—and had exactly the same “witch-hat” dormers as the Skye View Inn. Hmm.
- Paddling out through the harbor entrance just after sunrise, I spotted a series of rocks that stepped out from the shoreline—each one topped by a cormorant drying its wings. Though I could easily see the buoy that marked deep water, I could almost smell Courtney’s fear when she first approached Brenton Harbor: “She’d just started to think she was home free when she spotted a string of rocks dribbling out into the channel, the outermost one topped by a cormorant with black wings spread like judge’s robes.”
Cooperation Island wasn’t consciously modeled on Cuttyhunk, and many of its location details were created just to suit the story. But on all of those previous visits, as I joyously ambled along pale macadam and darted down dirt roads, my novelist’s eye had obviously been toiling away in the background—where it does its best work. Filing away pesky details about how an island “should” look and feel, so that I could later describe to others what my imaginary island “actually” looks and feels like.
We only stayed for one night, but as I watched Cuttyhunk fade away astern, I realized how relaxing even such a short cruise had been. On a real island, there was no need to try to put everything I was seeing into just the right words—because everyone else could see it too. And even though not every detail was exactly the same as I remembered, it was all, somehow, just exactly right.