14 Jan 2014

Two Pennies Overboard on Nantucket

In his 2005 bestseller, “Through Painted Deserts,” a road-trip memoir about three months spent crossing the country in a Volkswagen camping van, Donald Miller concludes that “everybody has to leave their home and come back so they can love it again for all new reasons.” I am constantly amazed at how many “new reasons” I find to love Nantucket after returning from some time away. Every time…every single time…the ferry enters the channel bringing the harbor and downtown into full view, it takes my breath away and reminds me why it’s always hard to leave.

There is a time honored Nantucket tradition of tossing a couple of coins off the side of the ferry as it pulls around Brant Point and departs for the mainland. Island lore has it that doing so helps ensure one’s safe return to the island. “Two Pennies Overboard” is a beloved phrase that’s seen on paintings, house quarter-boards, boat hulls, book titles and inscribed on various keepsakes throughout Nantucket. It reminds us to preserve the tradition and keep plenty of pennies on hand for those trips off-island.

In many places, this type of local folklore is just propaganda for the tourists. Not on Nantucket! The locals here take their age-old customs very seriously. On any given departing Steamship or Hyline Ferry, you’re likely to find as many locals as visitors gathered on the outer deck to ceremoniously toss their coins together. Some ascribe to the “two penny” custom (like my daughter whose two pennies can be seen airborne in the photo above). Others (like my husband who does nothing in moderation), believe it’s best to leave nothing to chance and fling in all the coins in their pockets.

I am not certain when or how this tradition was born, but for me it’s less about wanting to ensure I return and more about staying connected with the place I love as I bid farewell. There is comfort in knowing that no matter where we’re headed or how long we plan to be away, when we board the boat for our journey back across the water, the island will be here waiting to welcome us home.

Whether you are leaving the island this winter and have the thrill of returning to a white blanketed wonderland (like I did last week!) or you departed this summer with no plans to return until the island is in full bloom again, you can be sure that the two pennies you tossed over as you pulled away were well spent. Upon your arrival on Nantucket, spend some time re-visiting all your favorite places, then go exploring to uncover any hidden secrets the island revealed in your absence and raise a glass at days-end to toast the Grey Lady and give thanks for your safe return.

Go overboard.

Shellie Dunlap

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