30 days, 50 islands

Riding shotgun — and eating seaweed — with Operation Landfall
By PHILIP EIL  |  July 11, 2013

ADVENTURERS Wolfskehl and Gracer. [Photos by Natalja Kent]

“Welcome to Walker,” Trip Wolfskehl says.

It’s a bright, hot, sunny, fluffy-clouded July day and our dinghy has just scraped ashore on a chunk of land 100 yards from Bristol’s shore. Walker Island — two acres’ worth of boulders, swaying grass, broken clamshells, and mud flats — is undeveloped and uninhabited. But it’s hardly unoccupied. Two swans stand at attention on the beach. Fiddler crabs skitter out of holes in the ground to race toward one of the island’s rippling tide pools. Gulls swoop and caw overheard.

After dropping me on the beach, Wolfskehl pushes off with the dinghy and rows back to a 19-foot sloop anchored a short ways off shore — the Dawn Treader. He returns a few minutes later with his pal Dave Gracer and they begin to ramble across the island’s surface with their eyes scanning the ground.

They make their way along the rocky beaches, picking up a golf ball, a muddy glove, a crunched-up metal can, and other trash to haul away in the dinghy. But it’s not just junk they’re looking for. Gracer wades into the shallow water, grabbing various periwinkles and crabs, sometimes yelping when they nip at his forearms.

“We could get a meal for tonight,” Wolfskehl shouts, eying the small, dark, Asian shore crabs that scurry out from various rocks. “I would eat these guys. These guys are yummy.”

And so they start collecting the critters, tossing them into an improvised bucket made from a sawed-off plastic bottle they’ve brought with them. Into the bucket go crabs and handfuls of a long, thin, crunchy, green sea vegetable called samphire. Later, it’ll all be fried up and wrapped in burritos.

>> SLIDE SHOW: Sailing with Operation Landfall <<

Before hopping back into the dinghy and rowing away, the men have a quick meeting.

“Is it 12?” Wolfskehl says.

Gracer counts out loud. “Prudence…nine, 10, 11, 12 . . . .”

He starts over. “Spar was six, Seal was seven . . . Shell was nine.”

They eventually arrive at a number: ten. Walker is the tenth island they’ve hit since they pushing off under grey skies from Third Beach in Middletown one week earlier on July 1.

“Which means we’re at a perfect 20 percent,” Gracer says.

The afternoon’s ritual — the exploring, trash gathering, samphire picking, tallying of islands — may seem strange to the uninformed observer. But to the hundreds of Gracer and Wolfskehl’s Facebook followers; to the folks tossing $10, $50, $100, and $200 donations their way on FundRazr (as of press time, they’ve amassed $2326 to donate to Save the Bay’s educational programming), the trip to Walker Island is part of one of the most captivating adventures in Rhode Island this summer.

It’s called Operation Landfall, and before the month ends, Gracer and Wolfskehl plan to hit all of Rhode Island’s fifty islands, as counted using National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration charts.

“The fact is that it’s an adventure,” Gracer says. “Even though we’re not quite Lewis and Clark, we’re gonna do something that’s probably going to suck some of the time and we are ready for the discomfort.” Every time he mentions the trip to people, though, he says, “They’re charged up.”

“I go over the [Newport] bridge at 70 miles an hour almost every day and yet I’m completely disassociated from the bay, like most Rhode Islanders,” Wolfskehl adds. “We’re hopefully leading a spiritual awakening for the bay.”

A crazy idea realized

The idea for Operation Landfall hit Gracer, who currently teaches expository writing at CCRI and the ACI, shortly after he moved to Rhode Island in the mid-1990s, he says. But at the time, he didn’t know much about Rhode Island’s islands and he certainly didn’t have the sailing know-how to make such a trip happen. Then he met Trip Wolfskehl.

IT'S WHAT'S FOR DINNER A handful of freshly picked samphire.

The two men struck up a friendship at the Providence chapter of the public speaking and leadership-training organization, Toastmasters. Wolfskehl, who boasts a US Coast Guard-approved 100-ton captain’s license and who has logged more than 25,000 sailing miles, was exactly the island-hopping companion Gracer was looking for.

Years went by, though, and the trip never happened. Both men got married and started families. Then news of the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December hit, and Wolfskehl, who now has a kindergarten-aged son, wanted to act.

“After something like that happened, it makes you ask, well, ‘What can I do?’” he says.

And so he and his buddy Dave devised a plan: with the goal of raising $10,000 for Save the Bay programs to help local kids experience the bay first-hand, they would to spend a month island-hopping and documenting their experiences online.

Skimming along the surface of the bay in the Dawn Treader, the two men make something of an odd couple, as even they admit.

 Wolfskehl, 40, is a proud Christian, an accomplished sailor (he’s sailed across the Atlantic and raced to Bermuda), and the owner of a small business called Screencraft, which sells stone tiles printed with nautical charts, among other items. Gracer, 48, is a self-professed “skeptic” whose sailing experience amounts to being “cargo” on only a handful of boat rides. Aside from teaching, he also runs a side business “in the promotion and development of edible insects as a resource to feed humanity” called SmallStock Food Strategies.

(This bug-business could — and has been, for the New York Times Magazine — the subject of its own article. We’ll simply point you to an online video of Gracer’s 2008 visit to Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. “People always say that insects are high in protein,” he says, sitting across the desk from the host, Stephen Colbert. “The fact is they’re high in protein and vitamins and minerals and amino acids.” Then he pops a dry-roasted cicada in his mouth as the studio audience howls.)

Somehow, though, when Gracer and Wolfskehl are crammed onto a small boat packed tight with snacks, maps, bottles of water, ropes, anchors, and other equipment, their partnership clicks. Wolfskehl is undoubtedly the captain, calling out commands from the tiller about jibs and ropes and cleats to his partner who scrambles around the vessel. Gracer is a bit more pensive, quick to start a philosophical conversation or to share an anecdote (he has led walking tours of Providence and taught workshops in basic clown skills).

The guys are prone to finishing each other’s stories.

“It was really gnarly getting there; you had the danger of flipping the dinghy over in the surf,” Wolfskehl says, describing their trips to two islands at the mouth of the Sakonnet River, named East and West Island, on Day 1 of their journey.

“You don’t really want to just like break out your bathing towel and just hang out for an hour,” he says. “It’s windswept. There’s birds that are really pissed that you’re there. There’s waves crashing.”

“It reminded me of the footage I’ve seen of the landing at Normandy,” Gracer says.

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