A History of the Osterville Cut

Earlier this January of 2019, as I walked the shore from Cotuit’s town dock to Handy’s Point, I heard the faint sound of the dredge trimming off the western point of Sampson’s Island. Because the project ends this month, I was motivated to research the history of the Wianno Cut, the man-made breach flanked by two stone jetties at the other end of the Dead Neck and where the sand from the dredging is being pumped to reinforce the eroded barrier beach behind the western jetty.

The dredge at Cotuit’s Town Dock, January 2019

The Cut is 120 years old now, but it had been proposed, debated and planned for decades before it was finally dug out, delayed by the strident opposition of some Cotuit residents led by some sea captains, my great-great grandfather Captain Thomas Chatfield among them. In what became portrayed as “Osterville vs. Cotuit” in the Barnstable Patriot, the Wianno Cut was built despite the opposition of those Cotuit residents who made their “remonstrances” against interfering with the natural order of the tides and beach geology. The problems predicted by those percipient Cotusions have come true, so for them, here is your posthumous “I -told-you-so.”

The proposal for the current dredging, made by the owners and stewards of the island — the Massachusetts Audubon Society and The Barnstable Clean Water Coalition — was met with opposition from a few Cotuit residents, some of them my good friends. The original plan, first submitted years ago by the BCWC’s predecessor, the Three Bays group, was scaled back and approved in phases to occur over several years by local and state officials. The opposition to the dredging happening now is proof history does repeat itself. Whether the need to dredge to open up the shoaling of Cotuit’s channel to Nantucket Sound, and the dire need to replenish the sand at the Osterville end of Dead Neck with sand from Cotuit is due to the Wianno Cut’s construction and subsequent impact on the dynamics of the sand spit is pure conjecture on my part. I do believe that dredging is a fact of coastal life, especially on a transient landscape like Cape Cod’s. I also believe the “armoring” of the coastline with jetties, groins, revetments and bulkheads that began in the late 19th century has had an impact on the natural order of the Cape’s beach sedimentation processes and has put us into a dilemma of how to undo the damage done as waterfront property owners watch their houses come closer and closer to falling into the sea with every gale.

Before I begin, I should state my personal option that the dredging now underway is necessary to stop the Cotuit channel from shoaling any further. The buildup of sand at the point of Sampson’s Island has reached the point where boat traffic is becoming dangerous on summer weekend’s and constricting the flow of fresh sea water into the bay, further degrading water quality high inside of the estuary in places like North Bay and Prince’s Cove. While this work won’t solve the water quality issue (only a comprehensive wastewater treatment plan can do that, but according to Barnstable’s town manager, this project is expected to improve water quality by 12 percent) and while it won’t address what I think are more pressing issues a dredge could address such as the shoaling channel from Cotuit out into the Sound (last dredged during World War II to support Camp Candoit) this current round of dredging will replenish (for a little while) the sand being starved from the Osterville end of Dead Neck, and provide better nesting grounds for terns and piping plovers while giving boaters some breathing room when they enter or exit Cotuit Bay.

Tale of Two Working Ports

The history of the Wianno Cut first begins after the Civil War. Cotuit was a moderately busy port before the war thanks to its advantageous position relative to the island of Nantucket, a bearing which made for an easy, one-tack passage for a packet or schooner carrying freight, food, wood or the mail to and from the bustling island. Because Nantucket Sound’s prevailing winds blow from the southwest in the summer and from the northeast in the winter; a schooner could sail from Cotuit to Nantucket on an easy reach without tacking once in a just a few hours and return again on the opposite tack at nearly same point of sail. A skipper could trim his sails after leaving the harbor and not touch then again until landfall. Coastal schooners would load up on cordwood logged from Osterville’s Grand Island and elsewhere around the village (see my paper on the Mashpee Wood Lot Rebellion). Wood was in high demand on Nantucket, which had been completely deforested years ago and depended on a reliable supply of cord wood for heating and cooking.

Nantucket’s whaling industry had been in decline long before the war, but the war sealed its end with the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, the shoaling of the entrance to its harbor in the 1840s, and the scuttling of dozens of whaling ships filled with stone in a failed attempt to blockade the Confederate port of Charleston, South Carolina. The island had long since been eclipsed by New Bedford. Cotuit’s maritime economy was smaller than New Bedford or Nantucket’s, but because of its location, it was more active than Osterville’s. The waters off Cotuit’s shores are too shallow and shifting to accommodate a 350-ton whaling ship, and only catboats, small skiffs, and coastal schooners with centerboards could pass into the bay from the Sound without running aground.

Sandbars notwithstanding, Cotuitport was a seafaring village, with most of the townsmen shipping out aboard Nantucket whalers as captains, mates or boat steerers right up to the outbreak of the Civil War. Shipping in Cotuit was limited by the shoals off its shores, but it was an active port nonetheless due to the oyster beds and the town’s cadre of Captains who owned and sailed coastal schooners along the New England coast after the war. Those shallow-draft centerboard “tern” schooners — such as my great-great-grandfather’s three-master, the Joseph Eaton Jr. — were the best and least expensive way to move freight between New England’s ports before railroads, steamships and eventually trucks took their place.  Before the construction of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914, all that shipping had to skirt the treacherous shores of the outer Cape, thread the shoals between Monomoy Island and Nantucket’s Great Point, then stay far away from the rips and bars of Nantucket and Vineyard Sound.  Many schooners making the passage would anchor to wait for a fair tide through the Sound in Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven), Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, or off of Cotuit, outside of the harbor in an anchorage known as Deep Hole.

The coasters wisely stayed ashore in the winter. Shipping all but ceased when New England’s harbors were icebound, and a fleet of as many as two dozen schooners would spend the winter inside of Cotuit Bay awaiting the spring thaw. Smaller schooners, two-masters, would come into Cotuit Bay and tie up at the coal depot that used to be located where today’s Town Dock is, or at Hooper’s Landing, where a series of finger piers jutted out into the cove where the water was deep enough to dock a schooner for loading or unloading.

In the first half of the 19th century Osterville didn’t have nearly as much of a maritime industry as Cotuit had. That village, though fronting the water in East, West and North Bays and along the shores of Wianno Beach, was all but land-locked and only had indirect and difficult access to Nantucket Sound which forcedits sailors to endure a four-mile sail through North Bay and the Narrows in order to enter Nantucket Sound through Cotuit’s channel. Like Cotuit, Osterville had its own oyster beds, and the Crosby family was making a name for themselves building the famous Cape Cod cat boat. Osterville was tantalizingly close to Nantucket Sound — only a thin strip of sand stood between Eel River and West Bay and the open ocean.

Then the summer people came.

Summer People, Some Are Not

After the war the two villages slowly gained well-deserved reputations as summer resorts. Cotuit was nicknamed the “Summer Harvard”because it was popular with the Brahmin intelligentsia and professors of that university who wanted a quiet place to work on their books and papers without the distractions of a formal summer social calendar such as Newport’s. Osterville was also popular with summer visitors, and a summer colony of its own began to emerge along its southern shore in Wianno and on Grand Island which was renamed “Oyster Harbors” by its developers.

By the late 1870s the population of both villages would swell in the summer, enriched by an influx of summer residents from Boston and New York City. Before long the pine barrens along the shores of the three bays were ringing with the sounds of hammers and saws wielded by local men looking for work now that whaling and shipping were on the decline. The first cottages and mansions were built on the bluffs overlooking the water front, land scorned by the old sailors who avoided the water when they didn’t need to be on it. Acres of pine woods, useless for farming, were sold for a song. Cape Cod was joining the Gilded Age.

In Cotuit, one of the first summer homes was Colonel Charles Codman’s home, built on Bluff Point in 1870 in the Queen Anne/Single style from a design by the Boston architect John Sturgis. The Hotel Pines, which was located next to Codman’s estate on Bluff Point, did a busy business in the summer, offering its guests a number of cottages along Oceanview Avenue, and clambakes and sailing excursions in the bay aboard catboats sailed by one or another of the old whaling captains glad to regale them with tales of greasy luck and a dead whale or a stove boat.

The Santuit Hotel was one of the first summer resorts in Cotuit, overlooking the cove at Hooper’s Landing.

In Osterville,  Grand Island, formerly an uninhabited wood lot, was purchased with the intention of turning it into an enclave of summer homes. A Boston developer named Day bought up the land around Wianno and started building homes for Osterville’s first summer residents. By the end of the 19th century most of the south shore of Cape Cod had been transformed from an isolated, insular, almost inbred place described by Henry David Thoreau in his Cape Cod, to a thriving and world famous summer resort. The new owners of the shoreside lots, even if they were only in residence for three or four months out the year, wanted services and amenities like golf courses, yachts and yacht clubs. And what good is a yacht if you can’t sail it in Nantucket Sound? The new summer people had the money, the influence, and the lawyers to get the things they wanted, and the local politicians and merchants who depended on their business were eager to help them.

A little geography

The barrier cutting off Osterville from the sea was called Dead Neck. Behind it was what was then called “South Bay” (today’s West Bay), a shallow body of water that was refreshed by the tidal currents flowing through the Seapuit River.

A “neck” is a colloquial term used on Cape Cod to describe a narrow or elongated strip of sand or land. The Cape has many Necks. Catumet has Scraggy Neck.  Mashpee has its own Dead Neck at the eastern side of the entrance to Waquoit Bay. Wing’s Neck sticks out from Pocasset into Buzzards Bay.

Until 1899 Osterville’s Dead Neck was a long strip of sand and grass extending west from Wianno, guarding Grand Island with the Seapuit River behind it, blocking West Bay from the Sound with only 50 yards of sand and beach grass. The Seapuit flowed into Cotuit Bay and out into the Sound through a narrow, shallow channel that divided the Cotuit end of Dead Neck from Sampson’s Island, a free-standing island that had stood at the head Cotuit Bay for as long as cartographers had drawn charts of the local waters,

Osterville petitions the General Court

Decades of frustration in Osterville, and a general fondness for big civil works projects — it was the era of the Panama, Suez and Cape Cod Canals — came to a head in the 1870s when a petition “for authority to construct a…cut through the beach “between the necks” was made to the Legislature by Orville D. Lovell of Osterville and 113 others” in 1876. No previous mention of a proposed project can be found in the archives of the Barnstable Patriot, which is not to say the notion of cutting a shortcut into the sea hadn’t been thought of or discussed prior to Lovell’s petition.

The Lovell Petitioners (many Lovells were residents of Osterville and Cotuit) claimed such a cut “would greatly advance their business and convenience, and that this strip of beach was gradually washing away, and would within a few years leave such a passage by the natural action of the waves.”

Almost immediately after the Lovell Petition was made public, a second petition was filed by Thomas Chatfield,  and 43 other Cotuit residents who, according to the surveyor who 21 years later reported in his survey of Dead Neck that the opposition in 1876…

“…remonstrat[ed] against the petition by Mr. Lovell, stating that in their opinion the cutting of such a channel would prove an injury to the harbor of Cotuit; that it would lessen the current on the ebb tide; by which the Cotuit channel was kept open over the bar; and that it would make an island of Dead Neck, so called, and destroy the means of getting teams onto Grand Island, so called, which had lately been purchased by New York parties, who intended to erect buildings for summer residences there. The petition also stated that between twenty-five and thirty vessels winter at Cotuit annually, and required all the water then on the bar at average tides to pass in and out.”

The Massachusetts Senate referred the Lovell petition to the Commonwealth’s Commission of Harbors. The first hearings were conducted that winter of 1876 at the Statehouse. The Barnstable Patriot reported on the commission’s initial hearing  of February 22, 1876:

“The same committee heard the petition of O.D. Lovell and 113 others for permission to cut a channel between South Bay and Barnstable and Vineyard Sound. Representative Samuel Snow, gave some objections to the proposed legislation, as it would doubtless have considerable effect upon Osterville harbor by affording a new outlet to the waters of South Bay, and these results might be more injurious than beneficial. The channel would also require quite a bridge over it. There are several parties owning property on Osterville Island who might object to such an action, and to allow all parties full hearing the case was postponed until March 7. The length of the channel would be only about ten rods. The harbor commissioners will make a survey of the location before the next hearing.”

Nearly a year later, on February 6, 1877, the Patriot reported:

“The harbor commissioners have submitted their annual report to the Legislature. The inspection instituted by the Board seems to warrant the conclusion that the proposed cut through the narrow beach that separates the South Bay of the Cotuit Lagoons from Nantucket Sound at Osterville, if successfully made and maintained would reduce the depth to something like the same proportion; but that no essential change in the currents along the outside coast would occur.”

In 1877, after hearing arguments for and against the Cut, the Harbor Commissioners summarized the situation in their annual report of 1876, and carefully avoided taking a stand for or against, kicking the proverbial can down the road for further study:

Proposed Inlet at Osterville. A short time before the harbor committee of the Legislature of last year closed its hearings, the Board was requested to examine the project for an opening through the narrow beach that separates the South Bay of the Cotuit lagoons from Nantucket Sound. The parties petitioning for the privilege of making this cut, proposed to do the work at their own expense, and no objection would probably have been made by the committee had there been no remonstrants. These remonstrants represented that the entrance to Cotuit Port would probably be injured by the creation of a new outlet, not only because the flow of the tide through the present entrance would thus be reduced, but also because the currents along the outside beach and bar of Cotuit would be changed. An inspection instituted by the Board, seemed to warrant the conclusion that the cut, if successfully made and maintained, would reduce the flowage over Cotuit Bar, and tend to reduce the depth in something like the same proportion, but that no essential change in the currents along the outside coast would occur. Without a regular gauging of the tides in the lagoons, the amount of injury to the present entrance, which the creation of another opening would cause, cannot be estimated closely.”

The end of the Lovell Petition and the Case of the Cuckold’s Letters

Then, for some mysterious reason, the project vanishes from public view and isn’t covered by the Barnstable Patriot. Perhaps Chatfield and the good Republicans of Cotuit had enough influence on Beacon Hill to get the Lovell Petition tabled.  Orville Lovell, who’s name led the initial petition, may have lost his zeal for the project because of the lawsuit he filed against his former good friend, Howard Marston.

According to the Barnstable Patriot, Lovell’s libel lawsuit was the talk of the town:

The Lovell Libel suit was the talk of the town

“It was rather a peculiar case, and for some time has been the social sensation of Barnstable. It seems Lovell and Marston — both married and middle-aged — were friends who took much pleasure in each other’s society, enjoying frequent yachting trips together. Some time ago Mr. Marston was greatly annoyed and perplexed at the frequent writing of anonymous letters to his wife. Mr. Marston made every effort to discover the author of these letters, but without success. He finally accused his friend Lovell with writing them, and wrote a note in which this charge was set forth. Lovell was very indignant at this accusation, and other means failing to give him satisfaction, he resorted to the courts and brought a suit for libel to recover $10,000 damages.”

Lovell’s victory against Marston’s cuckoldish libel  turned pyhrric when the jury returned a verdict in his favor but only awarded him $300 instead of the $10,000 in damages he requested. Because the court costs were $500, Lovell had to pay the court $200 out of his own pocket. The Barnstable Patriot wrote: “The plaintiff’s character is vindicated, but who wrote those anonymous letters becomes more mysterious than ever.”

A Second Petition and passage of Chapter 483 of the Acts of 1897

The Lovell Petition may have fizzled out, but the appetite for the Cut stayed strong. Proponents renewed their efforts to dig through Dead Neck and in 1897 a new petition was filed with the legislature by Capt. Nathan E. West of Osterville and others. West was a local through and through, he was born and raised in Mashpee and had been a sailor his entire life. His petition led to the quick passage of Chapter 483 of the Acts of 1897 which authorized a survey to determine the feasibility and impacts of a cut to connect Osterville with the sea.

Cotuit’s opposition to the plan was rekindled, led once again by the doughty Captain Chatfield, who with his good friend and former shipmate Captain Carlton B. Nickerson, made several trips to Boston to testify at the Commissioner’s hearings, always warning that messing with the beach would have dire consequences in the future if the hydrodynamics of the estuary were changed by the cutting of a breach through the sands of Dead Neck.

The gist of Cotuit’s opposition to the Cut  was fear the the diversion of the tidal flow from West Bay directly into Nantucket Sound would upset the balance nature had settled upon, and reduce the velocity of the currents entering and leaving Cotuit Bay, leading to a gradual shoaling in of the port’s channel.  But the Harbor Commission needed facts, not theories, so an engineer was hired and a full survey of the three Bays was conducted over the summer of 1897.

At the end of the summer the Commission held two separate hearings on the Cape: one in Cotuit on September 9, 1897, and a second a day later in Osterville. The Cotuit hearing was attended by 59 people including some summer residents. Osterville had a turn out of 66 people.

At the Cotuit hearing, held at Freedom Hall, the Commission learned “the average amount of business of Cotuit from oysters, quahaugs and cord word was about $22,000, to which must be added the proceeds of the sale of about 425 tons of coal and 150,000 feet of lumber.”

In it’s annual report, the Commission of Harbors said that at the Cotuit hearing:

“No voice was heard to express a desire for the proposed channel, if it were likely to result in shoaling Cotuit bar off the entrance to the harbor. The proposed channel would be used largely by fishing boats and pleasure yachts from Osterville, which are now obliged to sail down through North Bay, the Narrows and Cotuit Bay, a distance of 4 ½ miles, before entering the Sound.”

Osterville vs. Cotuit

Emotions ran high at the two hearings. That is no surprise to anyone who has attended a recent planning board meeting, or tried to stop some Master of the Hedge Fund Universe from building yet another pier over the public’s clam beds. Emotions at the hearings ran so high the Barnstable Patriot headlined its story about the project: “Osterville vs. Cotuit,” a sentiment I still hear today from some Cotusions who feel strongly that Cotuit’s sand is being dredged and pumped east to build up the Osterville’s beaches.

The Barnstable Patriot, March 22, 1897

After the “Osterville vs. Cotuit” column, the next issue of the Patriot (March 29, 1897) published a letter from an anonymous writer and supporter of Osterville’s petition who took exception to the “Osterville vs. Cotuit” headline :

Frank W. Hodgdon, an engineer, conducted the study over the summer of 1897. He established tide gauges at various locations, took bearings, made measurements and soundings and calculated gallons per second. He submitted his final report  to the Board of the Harbor and Land Commissioners on November 13.. Hodgdon’s report makes for interesting reading as it provides a wealth of data about the condition of the coast and harbors in Cotuit and Osterville, and presages the demands made  by waterfront property owners to armor their beaches against storm erosion with rock revetments, groins and jetties. I’ve uploaded a PDF of his report which can be downloaded here.

The Commission’s annual report summed up Cotuit’s concerns as follows: “There can be no doubt that the channels at the entrance of Cotuit harbor, such as they are, owe their preservation to the rapid current during the last half of ebb tide. If it shall be ascertained that the volume and velocity of the ebb tide will be unaffected by digging a cut of given dimensions from South Bay to the Sound, there will be safe reason to believe that such a cut can in no way do an injury to Cotuit harbor.”

Flow and Drift

While Cotuit’s opposition was mainly formed around the belief that cutting a new opening into West Bay would diminish the scouring effects of the currents in Cotuit Bay, there seems to be very little understanding of the concept of littoral drift, the beach sedimentation process where the action of wind, waves and current combine to move particles of sand not only in and out of a beach, but along its length, moving sand from one spot on the beach to another depending on the prevailing patterns.  Littoral drift, when unimpeded by jetties or stone groins, leads to the shifting sands we see today on Chatham’s Monomoy Island. But build a perpendicular barrier like a groin to trap sand for your beach, and you’re going to starve your neighbor downstream.

Groins along Seaview Avenue in Wianno, Osterville.

The same holds for jetties. Constructed out of massive boulders, jetties are used to keep inlets and channels open and guard against the sedimentation processes that could fill them in. Jetties block littoral drift, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Look at some aerial photographs of inlets or beaches with jetties or groins, and it’s easy to see that such structures starve the adjacent beaches. In short, my theory, based on simply looking at what’s happening at each end of the island, is that Cotuit is gaining Osterville’s sand over time at the expense of Dead Neck. The sand causing the Cotuit channel to fill in has to come from somewhere, and my theory is that it’s moving west and being taken from the Osterville end of Dead Neck which is incapable of being replenished by the drift of sand coming from the east, because of the man-made barriers presented by the twin jetties.

But a stone jetty wasn’t part of the original plan in 1897 for Osterville. Initially the plan was to just buttress the sides of the new channel with wooden planks, and the surveyor, Mr. Hodgdon,  warned in his report that unless steps were taken to protect the new cut, it would fill back in over time. He recommended that to keep it open would require two, 500-foot stone jetties.

Hodgdon considered two locations for the proposed cut. One was to the east of the present cut, where Eel River comes close to the Sound and is only cut off by a thin strip of land at the end of the River where present-day Sea View Avenue crosses it.  The second is at the root of Dead Neck where it joins the Wianno Beach at the current site of the cut. Hodgdon wrote in his final report that he believed that while the amount of sand that needed to be excavated were the same at the two locations, the superior choice was Dead Neck because it would be far easier for sailboats to pass through West Bay on their way to the Sound than it would for them to navigate the narrow, twisty snake of the appropriately named Eel River.

Hodgdon provided the Commission with two options — a 100-foot and a 175-foot wide channel — and they selected the less expensive, 100-foot version.

The Cut is opened

Eventually the project was approved and construction commenced under contract with George H. Cavanaugh. The Barnstable Patriot reported on February 5, 1900:

“Work under the contract with George H. Cavanaugh has been prosecuted steadily, with the exception of a short time when the Bay was frozen over. The timber jetties were completed in August, and the excavation of the channel had progressed to such an extent that it was used for the passage of boats during the summer season. At present time the larger part of the channel has been excavated, and there is now nearly as great a depth of water through this channel as there is over the bar at the entrance to Cotuit harbor. Owing to the necessity for making some changes in the dredging plant, work has been discontinued until next spring,but it is expected that the channel will be navigable to its full width before the yachting season opens.

It was deemed advisable to strengthen the outer end of the jetties with some riprap, and this was done during November. Three hundred and twenty-three tons of stone were deposited at a total cost of $969.

Careful watch must be kept of the action of worms on the timber work, and the jetties should be reinforced with stone before the timber is so weakened as to be liable to destruction from heavy waves.”

The timber “jetties” first installed for the Osterville Cut, Source: E.M. Crosby Boatworks


Osterville finally gained its own front door to the ocean. Within a few years the village’s yachting scene was flourishing. The Wianno Yacht Club was founded in 1901, and in 1913 the yachtsmen of Osterville asked H. Manley Crosby, owner of Crosby Yacht Building & Storage Company, to design a 25’ one-design sloop — the Wianno Senior — that they could race outside in Nantucket Sound.  Cotuit’s sailors were content to sail inside the bays in their skiffs, and when they founded their yacht club in 1904 they went out of their way to make it an informal, youth-run club with no clubhouse or fancy trappings.

The first signs that the Cut and its jetties would upset nature’s balance began to be realized almost immediately. Marine charts from 1901 don’t show the new cut and Sampson’s Island and the channel between it and Dead Neck (site of today’s Cupid’s/Pirate’s Coves) were still open as it had been for the previous 60 years (at least). The first time the Cut appears on an official chart is the 1914 edition.  The water from West Bay that had once flowed in and out through the Seapuit River at Cotuit Bay now had a direct path to Nantucket Sound. Within ten years, Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck merged and the channel that separated them since at least 1850 closed for good, never to open again. The Popponesset Spit, jutting north from Mashpee to Rushy Marsh in Cotuit began to recede. A second island that had stood south of Sampson’s Island, Skiff Island, vanished. Sampson’s Island morphed and shrank and began to move towards Cotuit exposing the glacial boulder known as Submarine Rock. Were the changes all due to the Cut? Of course not, every hurricane and gale had its impact, and besides the jetties at the Cut more and more stone was being dropped on nearly every beach facing Nantucket Sound as property owners tried to capture sand for themselves and protect their bluffs from eroding further.

The future

There’s no turning back time on the changes that have shaped the shorelines of the two villages. Laws have been passed to deter further “armoring” of the shoreline, much to the displeasure of waterfront home owners who have to watch the ocean eat away at their expensive real estate until their starter castles and McMansions topple into the waves. Any dredging project is subject to as much, if not more scrutiny, than it did in the late 19th century, but now there’s more science and a better understanding of beach dynamics and the concept of littoral drift. Storms will come and beaches will be shaped and molded and changed again and again. Geology takes eons to make itself known and any causative effects I may ascribe to the Wianno Cut to the dredging at Cotuit in 2019 has to be taken as pure amateur speculation.

In all probability Osterville, particular the people living on Oyster Harbors along the Seapuit River, is going to have to confront the reality that the barrier beach now running between them and the ocean is a delicate strand that will demand to be fed if it’s to continue sheltering the inshore estuary. So that means more dredging, ideally sand pulled from the Cotuit  channels that is in need of it, where a deep keeled sailboat nearly always bumps the bottom entering or leaving Cotuit Bay. The “Island” — as the combination of the married Sampson’s and Dead Neck are now known — is first and foremost a bird sanctuary set aside for the benefit of two threatened species, the Arctic Tern and the Piping Plover. I have no sympathy for the beach goers who regard the Island as a public beach. The Island is, and always has been, private property and the public’s right to it is the same as any other stretch of private waterfront. I would not be opposed to a total closing of the beaches of the island during the summer months when the birds are nesting, anything to keep the bozos from bringing their dogs to freak out the nesting birds. (“But he’s a member of the family, said one jerk to my wife last summer as his mutt stuck its nose in my crotch while I was sunning myself on the outer beach).

The dredging will need to continue. Cotuit’s opponents to further dredging haven’t much of an argument on if they want to argue that the island needs to be left in its “natural state.” It isn’t in its natural state now and hasn’t been since 1898. No one is going to dismantle the jetties and plug the Wianno Cut back up. A study of the old charts shows the entrance to Cotuit Bay was historically much wider that it is now, almost to the point of exposing the inner harbor directly to the Sound. This current cycle of sedimentation is causing the shoreline to be starved of sand in some places (like Riley’s Beach) and pushing it into places where it wasn’t before (the delta of Little River at Handy’s Point for example). And the point of the island is sprouting strange appendages and revealing banks of thick mud have emerged to the total mystication of the old timers.

Fighting the sea with dredges and jetties is sort of like the ethical dilemma of forest management in the West. Do you let a forest burn when lightning sparks a fire, or do you spend a lot of money on airplanes filled with fire retardant and risk the lives of smoke jumpers to put it out? If you put it out are you okay with the piles of deadwood and brush that accumulate and give the next fire that much more fuel? I’m no tree hugger, but the present situation could have been avoided if someone had listened to my great grand grandfather (goddamnit) and the people of Cotuit in 1876 and come to the sober, rational conclusion that one messes with Mother Nature at one’s own risk and they should have left it alone and stopped trying to play God with the sands to increase the value of some Osterville real estate developer’s land holdings.. Then again, I can’t imagine it was easy for anyone — even crusty old whaling captains — to tell a bunch of Gilded Age Summer Capitalists who made their fortunes representing robber barons that they can’t have a shortcut for sailing their yachts.

The real problem facing both villages isn’t sand but water. Our harbors are oxygen-starved toxic messes where the only life is spider crabs and mats of slime — a far cry from the gin-clear waters and submerged meadows of eel grass filled with scallops and puffer fish and shoals of gleaming scup that I saw the last of in the early 1960s. Once we tackle all the nitrogen seeping  out of our septic pits into the water table, then we might have a fighting chance of restoring this place to its former glories.

Sampson’s Island/Dead Neck Dredging Update

Thanks to the “Drone guy” on YouTube, three drone videos of the dredging project  now underway in Cotuit.

From Capecod.com “The Department of Public Works, in collaboration with Three Bays Preservation, Massachusetts Audubon, and Barnstable County, began operations for dredging the Cotuit Bay Entrance Channel and the western tip of Sampson’s Island this week.
This phase of the project will widen the existing channel by approximately 130’ and the dredged material will be utilized for beach nourishment purposes on the southern side of the eastern end of the island at Dead Neck Beach and for a habitat enhancement area.
Weather pending, dredging operations will be on-going, Monday through Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. until completion of this phase of the project. Dredging operations are expected to be completed by January 15, 2019.”

Part 1 – November 23, 2018

Part 2 – December 29, 2018

Part 3 – January 1, 2019

A couple observations.

First and most noticable is the creation of a new area for nesting habitat to the east of the point. I assume this big “plain” of sand is intended to entice nesting terns to make their nests on a dune-like section of habitat.

Second is how little material seems to have been removed from the point of the island itself. The “new” point to the south of the original end of the island still is in place. This is near the area where some strange clay-like mud emerged a few years ago and apparently was dumped there by a past dredging project.

The fascinating thing to watch is in the third video where the drone flies all the way down the Seapuit River to show where the sand is being pumped to build up the eroded beach behind the jetty at the Wianno Cut. This is the section of the barrier beach with the most erosion standing as it does in the “lee” of the shorter rock jetty. Were there no cut and no jetties, Dead Neck would still be a “neck” attached to the mainland at Osterville. Since there is a cut (circa 1900), the jetties are blocking the natural littoral drift of the sand causing an imbalance that will always starve the eastern end of the island of sand.

Edmund Tarbell “My Family at Cotuit” 1898

Prof. Jim Gould shared this discovery by Paul Rifkin of a painting by Edmund Tarbell of a mother and her children sitting on the bluff of Lowell’s Point looking south over Codman’s (Bluff) Point and Sampson’s Island in Cotuit. This was the home of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, my great-great grandfather’s friend who encouraged him to write his reminiscences.

Tarbell was a noted American painter. Here is his Wikipedia entry.

Sampson’s Island Dredging Begins

The big dig begins. Early this week a tug and barge dropped off the heavy equipment.

Today before pulling the Tashmoo for the winter I took a ride out to Sampson’s Island to check out the Dredging project. Two backhoes and a porta- potty are parked by the dune left over from the spoil pile deposited in the late 60s.

I don’t think this round of dredging will be that extensive, a pole in the shallows near a small excavator looks like the line — maybe 100 feet or so from the inner point.

So far the excavator has started chewing up the beach grass near the very end. I guess the idea is to get to bare sand before sending in the dredge and setting up the pipeline to pump the sand east towards the Wianno Cut where it’s needed to build up the eroding beach.

This has taken a few years, delayed by some opposition here in town, but supported enough to finally get the blessing from the state for work to commence. I agree with those who argued a win-win solution would have been a dredging of the Cotuit channel which is need of it, and could have supplied a lot of clean sand for the beach nourishment. But I also support cutting the point of Sampson’s way back towards the east the way it was in the 50s and 60s. Navigation is getting tough in the gut between Riley’s beach and the point, the short distance is all too inviting to people who think it is cool to swim across, and any widening that improves the tidal flow should do something to improve the quality of the water inside the harbor.

Lab Rats

I’m finishing Lab Rats by Dan Lyons and feeling thoroughly depressed but laughing about it. The feeling is like a go-to-bed-pull-the-shades-suck-my-thumb level of depressed while watching the Three Stooges. I was laughing before I finished the foreword.


Lab Rats follows Lyons’ 2017 best-selling Disrupted, and as a bit of a sequel, it takes a horrifying look at the peculiar culture of contemporary companies which he experienced first hand at Hubspot, a successful Cambridge, MA marketing software company. Disrupted landed with a bang in 2017, largely because a few executives got fired or censured by Hubspot’s board of directors for some weirdness involving the FBI and an investigation by the company’s law firm amidst rumors of extortion against the publisher, Harper-Collins.* It also is a very accurate and very funny account of what it feels like to be a fifty-something disrupted by transformation and reduced to going to work at a modern company that fires people and says they were “graduated,” invites a teddy bear to attend meetings to represent the customer, and substitutes wages for benefits such as a beer garden, candy wall, ping pong tables and bean bag chairs.

Dan, who was a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley for two seasons following his misadventure at Hubspot, is a great humorist, but also a great reporter, and his experience at Hubspot hit a chord with readers who flooded his inbox with confessions of their own workplace despair inflicted on them by incompetent managers, unscrupulous venture capitalists, and bullshit management theories that combines to make their office feel more like the Stanford prison experiment and less like the world-changing adventures the corporate mission statements, principles, values, DNA wall plaques and culture codes proclaimed they were.

So in the aftermath of Disrupted Dan went on the road and headed back to Silicon Valley, which he’s covered since the early 80s for PC Week, Forbes, Newsweek, the New York Times, Wired and GQ (and lampooned for two gloriously funny years when he anonymously gave the world The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.)

He opens with a lunch meeting somewhere in Menlo Park. He’s seated with a woman who uses Legos to train employees to reveal their secrets and fears and gel together as a “team.” After trying to hypnotize him, the Lego Lady asks him to make a duck out of the pieces. He hands her a single piece and declares that’s his duck.

From the sweatshop conditions imposed by power-crazed venture capitalists who commit smash-and-grab public offerings by taking unprofitable startups public on the strength of a business model that essentially comes down to selling dollar bills for $0.75 cents, to Orwellian companies that plant moles amongst their employees and encourage snitching while reading those employees emails and instant messages, Lab Rats is about the perversion of modern work into a series of two-year tours of duty where the rank and file are subjected to a barrage of bizarre management theories ranging from Agile and Lean Startup, to Legos and the Holacracy.

Having ended my own 3.5 year tour of duty in a software startup last March, I guess the book is picking off some scabs that I had left unscratched for the past few months while I recovered from the trauma of the open office, buzzword bingo, constant Slack interruptions, fights with the CEO over “purpose statements” and bullshit marketinglessness words like “Digital Experience.” The insanity of the modern startup, with its founders’ lemming-like drive to hustle their way to riches like their heroes Gary V., Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Eric Ries; the infliction of new “productivity apps” that aren’t productive at all; the constant surveys from the HR department to gauge morale; the team-building exercises, the meetings about meetings …..Dan writes in a target-rich environment tailor made for his are-you-shitting-me? sense of humor.

Goodbye to all that. All I can say in my old age is thank God I’m not 23 and saddled with a lot of college loans and dragging my butt into an office that looks like a day care center where nothing gets accomplished and the only certainty is getting fired.

I now work at a place with no instant messaging, no interruptions, no quarterly morale surveys, no ping pong, no bullshit and everyone has the sanctuary of their own office. I’ve never been happier. There are no meetings to plan meetings, no cheery emails declaring some co-worker is a “Super Star,” no reboots of the corporate strategy every quarter when the next management fad comes along to hypnotize the boss.

I’ve never been happier, but I’ll also never forget the utter despair of modern digital marketing in an industry where “culture” comes down to reducing people to disposable beings who are measured, monitored, and berated into suicidal despair.

Dan doesn’t dwell on the outrageous excesses of corporate culture emanating from the Valley. He shows some companies that actually subscribe to the old theory that “contented cows give more milk” and that employee happiness — starting with their compensation — actually makes for a better company, a true culture, and ultimately better products.

* All’s well that ends well for those Hubspot execs — the stock went public at $30 and now trades around $130 — and one wound up as CEO of another hot company.

**Dan and I were colleagues at publications ranging from our high school newspaper through The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, PC Week, and Forbes.

Building a boat

I want to build a boat as an antidote to the pernicious effects of digital devices on my soul. I live in a house with a boat shop attached to the back of it, a place where my grandfather turned out a dozen Cotuit Skiffs in the late 40s, the lofting plans carefully scribed and painted on the floor by my grandmother who went to art school.


This is an old urge, a genetic thing, a type of compulsion I can’t and won’t resist but still try to conceal from my wife Daphne who regards the shop as a place to hang raincoats and store rarely used kitchen appliances like rice cookers and deep-fat fryers.  She came back home after two weeks of travel to find I had proudly built four old-school saw horses. “What are those?” she asked. Knowing exactly what they are. “You aren’t going to build a boat,” she commanded, but there’s no way to hide the fact that over the past few months I’ve been cleaning the place out, purging it of a lot of accumulated crap and spider webs, poring over WoodenBoat magazine’s forums for advice on what tools to buy, to get ready for my first project.


The house has no basement to speak of, so the shop has served as a  lazy storage area ever since we moved here in 1991. In the early 1960s, when I first came on the scene and my grandfather Henry was still alive, the shop was a boat shop, with drawers filled with templates and cast bronze boat fittings. There was a lathe, an oak  Gerstner machinist’s tool-and-die set, huge wood vises, and tidy little wooden drawers filled with silicon bronze screws. The tools were still all there then: an electric Miller’s Falls drill, a razor-sharp spokeshave, a collection of handmade wooden block planes, whet stones to sharpen them, boat maker’s bevels, wooden folding rulers, jars of boiled linseed oils and cans of Woolsey marine paint. The smell was of marline, that sailor’s twine that reeks of Swedish pine tar and Lapsang Souchong tea.


A pot belly cast iron stove stood in a wooden box filled with sand, the chimney pipe curved into a brick chimney that exited the roof of the sail loft on the second floor. Working out there in the winter must have been cold, but in the age before temperature sensitive two-part epoxies were a necessity they just slipped on a faded denim shop coat, stoked the fire, and went to work.


The ceiling was filled with scrap lumber in racks except for one big section where the trap door to the sail loft is located. My great-great grandfather, the whaling captain, after retiring from the sea,  made and mended sails up there, plying his trade on a sailmaker’s bench with a leather sailor’s palm, linen thread waxed with beeswax, three sided sail needles, big wooden fids for splicing ropes and hawsers, and all sorts of grommets and gasket. Heavy blocks with lignum vitae sheaves — blocks being the nautical term for “pulleys” — hung from the rafters, and above them, in the warmest, driest part of the room are still four immense rough sawn baulks of white Atlantic cedar, just waiting for me to take them down and turn them into a boat.


Over the years the shop lost a third of its floor plan as we renovated that end of the house and turned a section into an  entry-way, or mudroom. Now, as I contemplate building an 18-foot long rowing wherry on a 20-foot long frame. I am reaching the limit of how big a boat I can build indoors.

What remains is the big double shop doors, the main workbench overlooking the flower garden through ten big glass windows speckled with fly poop and saw dust suspended in the spider webs, the paint rack with all the scrapers and mineral spirits, turpentine and cans of boat paint, the ceiling racks for battens and scrap wood, and a lot of antique tools that call back to the time, not so very long ago, when everything was done by hand. Holes were drilled with a bit-and-brace. Screws driven with wooden handled screw drivers.

Lots of the tools are gone, lost by me and my brother as plundered the shop after my grandfather’s death in the mid-60s to repair our boats, build fences, or fashion bongs out of whatever bong-like material we could filch — like the long bamboo pole used to roll up the porch rug every fall and which we sawed into three-foot lengths and drilled out to make devices to smoke the evil “love weed” as our zero-tolerance father called it. The lathe went to Bob Boden, because he’s a salty guy and a distant relative. The hand saws, the planes, the wooden handled chisels and block planes, the band saw, the screw drivers — all were lost or wrecked over the years.

But now I’m replacing that stuff one tool at a time. One favorite new tool is a Lie-Nielsen block plane. Planing wood with one of these tools is an immensely rewarding experience as the thing is so sharp, so perfectly engineered, that wielding it gives me a feeling of being one with the wood, understanding the first time the true spirit of wood grain and a deft touch.


Now I’m getting ready to order the lumber and the various fasteners and adhesives needed to build the Petaluma wherry — an open boat with a sliding seat,foot stretchers, and stainless steel riggers I plan on rowing around the three bays next spring. But first I’m practicing not cutting off my fingers with my new Makita skilsaw, and not ruining a couple hundred dollars worth of Sitka spruce by building things like saw horses. I’ve also become addicted to a few wooden boat building channels on YouTube, especially Tips from a Shipwright by Wickford, Rhode Island skiff builder Louis Sauzedde; Acorn to Arabella, in which two young men in western Massachusetts are building a 38′ wooden ketch designed by William Atkin in the style of Colin Archer; and Sampson Boat Company’s restoration of the 107-year old Albert Strange English racing yacht, Tally Ho.

The Petaluma wherry: project #1

All of this reading, watching and practicing is giving me enough confidence to be dangerous, but until I actually drive up to Boulter Plywood and start ordering pounds of copper nails from Jamestown Distributors, it’s all just an excuse to perform a kind of nautical puttering.

After the storm

Three of us walked Sampson’s Island with a garbage bag on Sunday afternoon. The storm the day before blew from the southeast so the berm of island was chiseled down flat, the wet sand black with old wood ash from some ancient fire that cut a thin black line across the face of the base of the dunes.

We stuffed the heavy duty bag with Dunkin’s cups, mylar birthday balloons, Fireball nips and lost lobster buoys then drove it over to Crosby’s where the accomodating barman at the Chart Room let us sling the bag into his dumpster.

A cup of chowder, a beer or two, and back to Cotuit at full speed into the honking breeze with the trees in their glory and the clouds scudding out to sea.