The Mind of John McPhee https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/magazine/the-mind-of-john-mcphee.html
Books, boats, history and the itch to write about those things
The Mind of John McPhee https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/magazine/the-mind-of-john-mcphee.html
In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists, I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but my reading tastes were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.
Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester, Melville’s Moby Dick and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.
So last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.
By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.
For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).
Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.
Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go, fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.
Watching Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Katia From 22,000 Miles Above Earth https://nyti.ms/2xWvV9V
I find the time-lapse hypnotic. The new GOES 16 satellite has something like 4x the resolution of the older satellites and makes a beautiful but frightening point in this time lapse video
I have been looking for a small boat project to cut my teeth on. The need is for a light, easily car-topped rowing scull that can handle a slight chop and be used for river, creek, and harbor rowing. It has to have a sliding seat and riggers like a true scull and be rugged enough to put up with saltwater and some general neglect. In other words I don’t want a racing shell or anything at the level of a Carl Douglas or a Graeme King single, and I already have a tired composite trainer, an Empacher single I bought in the late 90s with some dot.com cash which is woefully tired and due for a refresh.
I have no idea how to build a shell, but I assume it’s a real test of woodworking and boatbuilding skills. Both Douglas and King are essentially luthiers who command high prices and lots of patience on long waiting lists for their gem-like boats I want something relatively simple to build and more on the lines of a wherry than a racing shell.
So I started researching and came upon two designs worth consideration, both featured by Woodenboat Magazine. The first is the Kingfisher, a design by Graeme King that has been around for a few decades and is closer to the design of a true racing boat. With a V-bottom, the Kingfisher would appear to be a simpler design to build than a classic shaped-hull scull which is made by forming a thin skin of cedar over ribs. Because I am a “clydesdale” sized rower, I need something a little more capacious (sculls are sold in various sizes according to the weight of the person who will be rowing it and I am definitely at the XXXXL end of the scale).
I decided on the Petaluma, an 20-foot open wherry with no deck. This design was discovered in a garage in Petaluma, California and reproduced by a local boat builder, Gregg Sabourin. The original boat may date back to the 1920s — builder unknown — the only marking on the boat being the initials “CRC” which may stand for the “California Rowing Club.” The boat was probably rowed on the Petaluma River in Sonoma County which empties into San Pablo Bay at the northwestern head of San Francisco Bay.
According to Simon Watts, the California woodworker who sells the plans and building instructions, the original boat was planked in red cedar and fastened with copper clench nails.
So I ordered a set of plans and now am looking for a local woodworker who can help me make the molds and has the tools needed to make the necessary cuts. Who knows? I may actually build a boat one of these days.
I finally got a chance to tour the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island a few weeks ago and came away inspired to get myself back into a wooden boat.
Just past the gift shop and ticket desk at the museum is a reproduction of Nathanael Herreshoff’s personal boat –the Coquina — a clinker-built catboat yawl that is a true gem.
Designed by the “Wizard of Bristol” for his own use on the waters of Narragansett Bay in the winter of 1889, ; the Coquina is 16′ 8″ long and constructed with white Atlantic cedar over oak frames. Herreshoff sailed the boat his entire life and it outlived him past his death in 19TK when it was lost during the Hurricane of 1938. Not a bad endorsement for the boat’s sailing qualities given that Herreshoff was the designer and builder of some of the most remarkable America’s Cup yachts as well as some icons in American yacht design.
Coquina is reminiscent of a sailing canoe called the Rob Roy that was popular in the late 19th century thanks to the writings of the Scottish adventurer John McGregor who toured Europe and the Middle East in a doubled-ended, clinker-built (overlapping hull planks or strakes) canoe. Small boat yachting came into its own in the last three decades of the 1800s as a prosperous middle-class, recovering from the Civil War and the financial shocks that followed it, took to the waters with great zeal.
The plans for the Coquina are maintained by MIT, Herreshoff’s alma mater, and are available for purchase with construction instructions from D.N. Hyland & Associates in Brooklin, Maine.
What’s appealing about the Coquina to me is her lines — there’s something very graceful and neat about the hull that pleases my aesthetic — but also the rig. I grew up in a cat boat rig aboard a Cotuit Skiff and the notion of adding a mizzen sail astern of the helm is intriguing. Would I ever build one? Doubtful, life has other priorities ahead, but it sure is nice to dream of skipping along close-hauled in one on a sultry summer’s day.
Like the rest of the nation I’m watching Hurricane Irma chew its way through the Caribbean on its way to a forecasted landfall somewhere on Southern Florida Saturday morning. A few years ago, while bonefishing out of Islamorada, I spotted a memorial off of US Route 1 at mile marker 81.5. I pulled over, my rental car smelling like a fisherman’s underwear thanks to the box of shrimp I forgot in the trunk the night before, and took a closer look.
It was a simple memorial to those who died in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The plaque read:
Being a hurricane nerd I went digging and found this essay by Ernest Hemingway, who was fond of the Keys and had a home in Key West at the end of the archipelago. He had traveled to the Keys after the storm on assignment from a magazine, and filed an indignant report because of what had happened to a crew of workers — mostly World War One veterans — who hadn’t been able to escape the storm’s fury. I cite this only because it gives a sense of how exposed the Keys are to a direct hit, and how devastated the islands were on September 3, 1935, when the islands were submerged in a maelstrom and people were forced into the trees to tie themselves down. Hemingway wrote:
“Whom did they annoy and to whom was their possible presence a political danger?’
“Who sent them down to the Florida Keys and left them there in hurricane months?
“Who is responsible for their deaths?
“The writer of this article lives a long way from Washington and would not know the answers to those questions. But he does know that wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen such as President Hoover and President Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months. Hurricane months are August, September and October, and in those months you see no yachts along the Keys. You do not see them because yacht owners know there would be great danger, unescapable danger, to their property if a storm should come. For the same reason, you cannot interest any very wealthy people in fishing of the coast of Cuba in the summer when the biggest fish are there. There is a known danger to property. But veterans, especially the bonus-marching variety of veterans, are not property. They are only human beings; unsuccessful human beings, and all they have to lose is their lives. They are doing coolie labor for a top wage of $45 a month and they have been put down on the Florida Keys where they can’t make trouble. It is hurricane months, sure, but if anything comes up, you can always evacuate them, can’t you?
“…It is not necessary to go into the deaths of the civilians and their families since they were on the Keys of their own free will; they made their living there, had property and knew the hazards involved. But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives.
“Who sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them close to the border of pathological cases, to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months?
“Why were the men not evacuated on Sunday, or, at latest, Monday morning, when it was known there was a possibility of a hurricane striking the Keys and evacuation was their only possible protection? Who advised against sending the train from Miami to evacuate the veterans until four-thirty o’clock on Monday so that it was blown off the tracks before it ever reached the lower camps?”
The hurricane was the first of three Category 5 storms to hit Florida (the other two being Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992). A cat 5 storm has sustained winds over 157 mph and obliterates everything it hits. When the 1935 storm hit the Keys it pushed a storm surge 20 feet high over some of the upper Keys, completely submerging them. Although a train was sent down the Keys to evacuate the veterans working on a highway project, it came too late and was overwhelmed by the waters.
About 500 people died on the Keys because of that Labor Day storm, but others estimate the death toll was higher, just as other speculated the death toll from Andrew in 1992 was much higher than officially reported because of the presence of undocumented migrant laborers who were killed and blown into the Everglades. Whatever the toll, the devastation was complete and the aftermath very macabre, with mass cremations of the death occurring in the days that followed.
Godspeed to Florida this weekend.