The Cotuit-Nantucket Packet Tansy Bitters

Tansy Bitters

My friend and fellow Cotusion history nerd Phil sent me this photograph of the last of the Cotuit-Nantucket sailing packets, the two-masted schooner Tansy Bitters.

The picture is taken from the current site of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club’s pier — the forner Braddock Crocker pier — and is aimed WSW at Coleman’s Pier on Old Shore Road beside Ropes Beach at Hooper’s Landing. The chimney on the roof of Phil’s house beside Old Shore Road and Main Street can be seen just astern of the aft mast of the Tansy Bitters, the boat tied to the pier on the right. This is a reverse view of the shorefront that has long been the header image of this blog.

I’ve been picking away at the history of Cotuit packets and coastal schooners this winter while I carve a model of a bluewater schooner built at Essex Connecticut, something to do while I do more legwork in hopes of finding the lines for a shoal draft, centerboard “tern” schooner like the ones favored by Cotuit owners and captains during the last half of the 19th century. I’m working through the shipping news in the digitized archives of the Barnstable Patriot and Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror to get picture of how many packets carried passengers and freight twenty-eight miles across the Sound to serve Nantucket’s waning economic power.

The big stacks of cordwood along the lane were the only way to supply Nantucket with firewood; the first colonists totally deforested the already barren island to boil the blubber of washed-ashore whales, and boil the ocean for their salt. The whaling fleet shipped a lot of Cotuit and Osterville wood to the Pacific where it fueled the ships’ brick fireplaces, or tryworks, invented by Nantucket whalers in the late 18th century to turn their ships into fully self-contained processing plants that could catch, kill, butcher and render the leviathans into conveniently stowed barrels of whale oil while at sea.

A packet is defined as a merchant ship that sails on a schedule between two ports with mainly passengers and some freight as cargo. From the end of the War of 1812 to the appearance of the first railroad lines in the late 1830s and early 1840s — packets were the fastest and least expensive way to travel from city to city given the deplorable state of the young nation’s old paths and post roads.

The packets sailed from Coleman’s pier at the northern head of the harbor, clearing the bay at Sampson’s Island and setting a course of 140 magnetic to fetch Nantucket Harbor a few hours later on a beam reach on the prevailing southwest blowing from west to east across Vineyard Sound. With a favorable wind a packet could make a straight course across the Sound without tacking once.

As the center of gravity for the American whaling industry moved west fifty miles from Nantucket to New Bedford, a steam packet, one of the first on Nantucket Sound, joined the two whaling ports together with same day service beginning in the 1830s. There was at least one Cotuit-t0-New Bedford packet, and from my research as many as six packets serving Nantucket by the late 1840s.

The Coleman family ran a boarding house on the bluff behind the woodpiles, and advertised a coach service to bring packet passengers to their hotel, the Santuit House, which gave travelers a place to rest from their travels and a hot meal before heading off for the island. Packets carried everything and anything — some carrying up to 50 passengers and untold cords of wood stacked on their decks. Shoal draft, the packets were generally rigged as sloops — with a single mast and a hull design that had slowly evolved from Colonial times and had influenced the design of another coastal working sloop, the pilot boats that competed to meet arriving ships first so their pilot could get the job of brining the ship into Boston or New York Harbor.

The Tansy Bitters is a two-masted schooner, roughly sixty-feet in length, doubtlessly built to draw no more than three feet of water with a centerboard which could be dropped in deep water to slow the boat’s slip to leeward and speed its forward speed. The packets carried the mail, newspapers, freight, and spare spars and rigging for the whaling ships that still outfitted at Nantucket as its harbor shoaled over with a shifting sandbar that spelled its eventual eclipse by New Bedford.

With names like Forrester, Rail Road, Mary Ann and the Charles Everson, the first packet sloops were probably built at Job Handy’s shipyard at Little River. The Phinney family of Cotuit Port were the most active in the packet trade, with some unknown Phinney’s captaining both of the New Bedford-Nantucket steam packets in the earl7 1840s and two Phinney captains sailing packets during the same years.

Finding plans of a packet sloop is proving to be a challenge, but not that surprising one given most 19th century shipwrights to work from a carved half-model of the hull and the seat of their pants. Howard Chapelle, the maritime historian who did so much to preserve 19th century ship and boat design, draws a distinction between the trans-Atlantic packets that carried passengers between England and New England or New York, and the coastal packets that served routes such as Boston to New York or Cotuit to Nantucket. The trans-Atlantic packets were full-sized ships: often rigged as brigs, brigantines, hermaphrodites, or snows with a fore-and-aft rigged mizzen and a square rig forward. The coastal packets on Cape Cod were single-masted sloops. Chappelle writes in The History of American Sailing Ships:

“In addition to the sea-going sloops, built more or less on the sharp model, there were also a number of packet-sloops which ran along the coast, carrying passengers and light freight. These were often fast craft, built on a good model and heavily sparred…The introduction of the centerboard increased the usefulness and popularity of the shoal-draft sloop at a time when the sea-going and coasting sloops had lost favor…When the centerboard was introduced into these sloops they improved in weatherliness and speed.”

Howard Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships, p.299

Chapelle noted that the coastal sloop survived the longest on Cape Cod and the New England coast, “Here, also, the sea-going sloops used in off-shore fisheries existed the longest. The stone, ice, and cord-wood trades were, until a comparatively recent time*, carried on almost entirely in sloops, as was much of the shore-fisheries.”

From the Barnstable Patriot – 1837

*: Chapelle was writing in the early 1930s.

Cotuit Skiff plans and specifications

I noticed a bolus of traffic last week and traced the sudden interest in this blog to a thread on the WoodenBoat Magazine forum recommending an old post I wrote about my grandfather’s boat shop. I did a search on my last name and found a few threads where members of the forum were seeking a set of plans for a Cotuit Skiff — the 14-foot, gaff-rigged one-design flatiron skiff designed over 100 years ago by Cotuit boatbuilder Stanley Butler.

Having a digital copy of the Edwin Mairs plans — the set of offsets and lines created at the request of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club that was tired of having to calculate each boat’s handicap when determining the correct-time winner of its summer races.

The page with links to the plans and the official specifications from the Cotuit Skiff Class Association can be found here:

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