MARBLEHEAD — It could be heard well before it was seen or felt in this normally placid seaside town.
Like countless others living along the New England coastline, Marblehead residents awoke to the roar of crashing surf outside their windows, a not unfamiliar sound with a nor’easter approaching. Still, the winds remained calm and the skies snowless as people moved about the downtown, taking care of last-minute errands.
Joggers and dog-walkers ambled along the causeway leading to Marblehead Neck. Seagulls rode the breeze overhead. A trio of lobster boats bobbed on their moorings in an otherwise empty harbor. Mailmen, bundled against the chill, gamely made their appointed rounds.
That sense of life as normal would not last.
Shortly after noon, a light breeze turned into a flag-snapping gale, and gray skies turned crystalline white. Snowflakes began blowing horizontally outside the windows of The Barnacle, a waterside bar and restaurant with a 70-year history of attracting diehard storm-watchers. As the clam chowder and Bloody Marys flowed, so did the conversation about storms past: the merely memorable and truly historical. Which category this storm would fall into, nobody yet knew.
Waitress Bethany Cook, 51, a town native, was ready for whatever happened. The Barnacle’s unique history and location, she said, invited patrons to flock here during megastorms. Photos on the barroom walls show storm surf crashing over The Barnacle’s rear deck and roof.
Was no one concerned about safety, even when winds hit hurricane force?
“We’re pretty fearless,” a smiling Cook replied.
Jay Sahagian, a commercial lobsterman whose family has owned The Barnacle since the 1940s, said he had been asked all morning — at the bank, the grocery store — if he would be open during the storm. As long as he could, he told them.
Three sisters with Marblehead roots sat by the bar, taking in a scene they obviously relished. Joan Sulbergeit, 51, had driven from New York to experience the storm here. In 1978, she lived in Boston during the history-making February blizzard.
“I remember how fast everything happened,” she recalled, sipping a cocktail. “In an hour or two, everything shut down. But I doubt that will happen this time.”
Nancy Rooks, 63, Sulbergeit’s sister, planned to go home and watch television coverage of the storm through the afternoon and evening. Saturday morning, she said, she’d be snowshoeing over to Sulbergeit’s house, with a bottle of wine and more storm tales to share.
By 2 p.m., snowfall remained light. By now, though, the ocean’s roar could be heard over a howling, collar-turning northeast wind, the calm before the approaching storm palpably over.
Streets and sidewalks turned virtually barren. Those who had gone to work that morning were scurrying to get home while they safely could. Those venturing outside were drawn to the elemental drama of winter nor’easter meeting shoreline.
At the Castle Rock lookout, on the Atlantic-facing side of Marblehead Neck, high school freshman Hannah Davis snapped cellphone pictures of herself and the frothy waves crashing on the rocks below.
Davis stood on the slice of coastline immortalized in “The Perfect Storm.” In a brief scene from the movie about the October 1990 No-Name storm, television coverage shows breakers thundering into the Neck’s outer coastline.
Davis, 14, was too young to recall that storm, though many Marbleheaders vividly do. She had come here with her father, Paul, a Boston money manager, to feel nature’s fury firsthand. “We always like coming out in storms,” she explained. “A lot of my friends are staying inside watching movies.”
Would she be sharing her storm pictures? “Thank goodness for Facebook,” she laughed.
An hour later, even fewer hardy souls were venturing outside. The Starbucks had closed, as had almost all the shops, restaurants, and other downtown businesses. Snowplows were out in force.
At Seaside Park, a popular sledding spot, there was just enough snow by 4 p.m. to support a ragtag group of sledders. And wind enough to send inflatable snowtubes flying uphill like frosted Frisbees.
As daylight began to fade, Jason Uttam and his son, Miles, 6, flew down the hill on their tube. Uttam had taken the train home from Boston, after his office closed at 1 p.m., then walked to the park for some preblizzard fun.
“There’s a small amount of snow cover, which makes you go faster,” Uttam said. “We’ll see about tomorrow.”
He and everyone else in the path of a storm just getting started.