LAKELAND BOATING: JUNE 2011
“A FERRYMAN AT DEATH’S DOOR”
“At the very end of the Door Peninsula… there was that strait folks talked about… printed on maps as Porte Des Mortes. A watery graveyard of old sailing vessels. Memories of Indians, canoes, the French, schooners, white sails, storms, drowned sailors, lighthouses… foghorns singing mournfully over the depths.
“A stretch of water the island ferry continues to cross every day, every season, in all kinds of weather.
“Who is the ferryman in the wheelhouse? What must his life be like?
“What’s over there, anyway?”
— Richard Purinton, “Words on Water”
It’s impossible to avoid those questions when you see the Washington Island ferry preparing to depart its Northport pier. The Death’s Door Passage fascinates us. Island life itself fascinates us. Crossing a legendary body of water to explore a geographically isolated community remains a compelling modern-day adventure.
Washington Island Ferry Line President Richard “Dick” Purinton, a longtime island resident, knows this quite well. So, a few years ago, he decided to provide a gateway so outsiders could experience the daily life of a ferry captain as well as the rich, complex, intimately woven tapestry that is the Washington Island community. He wrote a book.
Released in 2009, “Words on Water” is essentially Purinton’s journal. Woven throughout are the author’s reflections on the area’s history, environment, personal connections and colorful happenings. His thoughtful insights and detailed observations allow the reader to become a vicarious island resident and honorary member of the crew.
Although Purinton was born in Door County, his family came from Kansas. In the 1930s, his father, Harry Purinton, bicycled (yes, bicycled) to New York City, where the art student met renowned naval architect R. A. Stearn.
“Stearn was taking a job with the Leathem Smith shipyard, and he was afraid there wouldn’t be any draftsmen in Wisconsin!” Purinton said with a laugh. “So he invited Harry.”
Harry Purinton became a draftsman for R. A. Stearn Inc. (now Bay Engineering). And his son Dick grew up on boats, from teaching sailing at the Sturgeon Bay Yacht Club to racing aboard Palmer Johnson owner Pat Haggerty’s boat in the Southern Ocean Racing Conference (SORC).
A 1965 graduate of Sturgeon Bay High School, Purinton earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, completed a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy and fell in love with childhood acquaintance Mary Jo Richter, the daughter of Washington Island Ferry Line founder Arni Richter. Instead of remaining in San Diego, where Purinton was based, the young couple opted to make their home on Washington Island. There, Purinton began work as a deckhand and pursued a career with the ferry line.
As it turned out, writing ran in his blood as easily as water. He began penning some ad copy, and later, a few articles for various publications. Then along came Norbert Blei, an accomplished writer and artist who operates the independent, Door County-based Cross+Roads Press.
“Norb came to the island in August 2006 to find information about a book that was out of print,” Purinton recalled. “‘You keep a journal don’t you?’ he asked me. ‘No? Well, you should!’”
Blei sent Purinton a notebook. And from January 2 to December 31, 2007, the ferry captain put his daily musings on paper.
“It was a great challenge as well as an opportunity,” he recalled. “I tried to find a voice that wasn’t stilted or awkward. I thought a journalistic approach was best, and then it got more free as time went on. You can go in any direction with this form.”
Purinton’s interest in history served him well. He noted, however, that his “digressions” into the community’s background also created some pressure.
“I had a feeling of great responsibility,” he explained. “But it was an enjoyable process.”
Purinton spent much of 2008 reflecting on his work, editing it for publication and choosing black-and-white photography to complement the text. He acknowledged that he was unsure of how “Words on Water” would be received.
“I didn’t know whether it would have any interest or validity for other people,” he commented. “Norb was confident, though. He doesn’t think of bestsellers. He thinks of respectable literary works that have a longer shelf life, books that hopefully can be enjoyed 10 or 20 years from now.”
It’s looking good so far. Cross+Roads Press reprinted the book less than two months after its initial run, and interest quickly spread beyond northeast Wisconsin.
“I had a guy come up to me and say he heard me on public radio while he was on his farm tractor in Verona (in south-central Wisconsin)!” Purinton marveled. “He bought the book.”
After a brief pause, he added, “ It seems to come across to people. That’s been one of the greatest rewards in doing this.”
Indeed, there’s something timeless and almost universally appealing about small-town life, particularly when it’s captured with such humor, grace and honest affection. And Purinton’s comfortable, evocative writing style invites readers to savor the book rather than charge through it. This is where text becomes art.
The ferry captain remains a prolific writer, contributing regular blog entries to the Washington Island Ferry Line’s website and recently publishing a second book, “Bridges Are Still News,” that incorporates island essays, poems and photos.
And new projects are on the horizon. Purinton hinted at a possible history of Rock Island, home to the beloved state park, 1836 Pottawatomie Lighthouse and former estate of Iceland-born inventor Chester Thordarson.
Purinton’s books can be found in Sturgeon Bay at the Door County Maritime Museum gift shop and Book World; in Egg Harbor at Main Street Market; in Baileys Harbor at Novel Ideas; in Sister Bay at Passtimes Books and Al Johnson’s Butik; in Ellison Bay at the Pioneer Store; and at the Washington Island Ferry terminal on the island. You also may call (920) 847-2546 or visit www.wisferry.com.
Photo courtesy of Richard Purinton.