Repairing Cotuit’s Town Dock and Restoring Little River

An update on the status of the town dock which has been closed to vehicles since the fall of 2021.

Last fall the town banned vehicles from driving onto town dock — a traditional use for loading and unloading commercial fish catches, refueling the county dredge, and the rigging and unrigging of dozens of sailboats. Cars, pickup trucks, crane trucks — all have been a familiar sight on the century old pier since it was first built in the 1920s.

That dock has been rebuilt or repaired several times over the years, extended in the 1970s from its original square configuration to include the four dinghy floats and an L-shaped extension that extended it another 50 feet into Cotuit Bay. When a permit was requested to allow a fuel truck to refuel a vessel from the dock the Cotuit fire chief and harbormaster discovered the pier was rated with a carrying capacity of only 10,000 pounds, yet has been used by trucks weighing three times that amount.

So the dock was closed to vehicles — its entrance blocked off by a cube of concrete that has been replaced with a metal post that can be unlocked and folded flat — and remains closed. The impact will first be felt this spring when Murray Marine needs to swap the mooring field’s winter sticks with mooring balls and sailboat masts need to be stepped with a boom truck.

Last week the town released its FY2023 capital budget and FY2023-2027 capital improvement plan. It’s a big document with a list of all the projects pending in the town — from bathrooms in town’s offices to repaving beach parking lots.

There are a number of Cotuit projects of interest. Foremost being repairs to the town dock. For those too lazy to download the big PDF (here). I’ll summarize a few.

Cotuit Projects

Cotuit Town Down Design & Permitting: p. 217, MEA-23. Listed as the second priority in the Marine & Environmental Affairs list of 18 projects. The request is for $70,000 to design improvements to the existing dock and “evaluate it to confirm that a retrofit of the existing structure is feasible (i.e. increase pier cap sizings and decking. If the current dock structure cannot be retrofit to accommodate a load rating increase, then additional funding will be required for the design and permitting of a complete reconstruction of the dock.”

Repair work or reconstruction would happen in 2024, costs to be determined by the results of the survey and redesign work.

from the Barnstable FY2023-2027 Capital Improvement Plan

Evaluation of Little River Fish Passage Restoration

Little River connects Lovell’s Pond to Cotuit Bay, where it empties into the harbor at Handy Point. It is a major watershed for three Bays, one of three important freshwater contributors (along with the Mills River to the east and the Santuit River to the west). A historic herring run and important habitat for other anadromous species including the American Eel, Rainbow Smelt, winter flounder, and Sea Run Brown Trout, Little River has been severely compromised by various man-made obstacles along its short course from its headwaters at the southeast corner of Lovell’s Pond, under Route 28 near the offices of the Cotuit Water Company, and through the woods around Sampson Mill Road, south parallel to Putnam Avenue, emerging in a series of man made culverts and ponds created by a developer in the 1960s before flowing under Putnam Ave at the base of the old Green Acres curve at Bell Farm, and then through the woods of the glacial valley to the east of Mosswood Cemetery and under Old Post Road where it opens up to the saltmarsh that divides the Little River neighborhood and Handy point from the rest of Cotuit.

This project– MEA-23 — is ranked 7th in priority of the Marine and Environmental Affair’s list of 18 projects and requests $100,000 to perform:

“A comprehensive assessment of restoring fish passage in Little River. Little River was historically a vibrant herring run with fish traveling to spawn in Lovell’s Pond in Cotuit. However, current conditions prohibit the migration of fish into the herring run at multiple locations….”

Deferred Marine & Environmental Affairs General Fund Projects, 2023 CIP p 223
From p.224 of the Town of Barnstable FY2023-2027 Capital Improvement Plan

Other projects of interest (to me at least) include:

West Bay Breakwater improvements to put new boulders on the Wianno Cut jetties and repair the navigation light at the end of the eastern jetty. That project carries a $5.150 million price tag

Channel Dredging: Cotuit Bay is listed in 2024 for a “Cotuit Bay Embayment Channel 7′ section ($75,000). The entrance to Osterville at West Bay and the Seapuit River is scheduled for a big dredging in 2027: “West Bay Outer Entrance $150,000), West Bay Inner Entrance Channel – Lower Reach ($1,000,000), Seapuit River Channel ($360,000), project management contingency ($100,000)

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: https://wordpress.com/page/churbuck.com/26309

Review: This is how they tell me the world ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race

Nicole Perlroth has spent more than a decade covering the cybersecurity beat for the New York Times. She followed John Markoff, a contemporary of mine who broke the story of the first Internet worm when Robert Tappan Morris sent a string of code out into the unmapped network to map its nodes and byways.

In her reporting she’s covered some legendary hacks, attacks, and feats of digital espionage that, when viewed across a timeline of escalating threats and exploits against the world’s new central nervous system, portray a world being eaten by software. The cybersecurity beat is, in my opinion as someone who covered computer crime in the 80s and 90s, the most frustrating and opaque of any in journalism. An editor at Forbes challenged me to find out what secret supercomputers or massively parallel Thinking Machines the National Security Agency had inside of its impenetrable glass cubes at Fort Meade and after months of fruitless phone calls chasing unsubstantiated rumors of incredible feats of American hacking and cracking with not a single source willing to go on the record I realized I wasn’t up to the challenge.

Perlroth’s new book This Is How They Tell Me World Ends, is the first thing I’ve read about cyberwarfare that made me seriously consider turning into a full fledged prepper to get ready for China and Russia to turn off the grid, open the floodgates, and knock the world back to the 1850s. The book is a modern history of how the world’s spies and criminals have amassed an arsenal of “exploits” that can turn an iPhone into a tracking device, lock nuclear power plant technicians out of a reactor’s control systems, infest the firmware and programmable logic controllers that spin Iranian centrifuges, open and close American hydroelectric dams, sneak backdoors into popular apps and nearly drain the national reserves of Bangladesh by hacking into the SWIFT financial network.

I read the book in the week leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country Perlroth portrays as a sandbox for Russia’s state sponsored hackers’ to test out new DDOS attacks and malware, where the wiping of entire networks has been going on for years. The book is a grim lesson in how cyberwar is waged and underlined by long-held belief that privacy and the concept of secrecy is a fiction, that anything can be hacked, and unless software developers stop “moving fast and breaking things” and figure out how to ship unhackable code, the best a person can do it turn on two-factor authentication and start changing their passwords from the minimum requirements to scrambled sentences of nonsense.

I don’t ordinarily recommend a lot of books on this blog or post review on Goodreads or Amazon, but I think this book is important as it reveals the secret, sordid history of cyberweapons, the irony of how those weapons were developed in some cases by the American intelligence community only to be hacked and unleashed on the world for any repressive regime to use. The story of former American intelligence community hackers becoming hired guns and hacking the First Lady’s phone and email for a Middle-East regime, of the impact of Snowden, of the software industry prosecuting hackers who brought bugs and flaws to their attention to now paying them bounties for testing and probing and finding exploits that, on the black market, could sell for well over $250,000 and wind up in the hands of anyone with the money and ambition to stock their own arsenal with weapons that have already been used to extort, defraud, and destroy with incredible speed and ferocity.

Up until this book, the hidden market for zero day exploits has been covered in bits and pieces, but it’s Perlroth’s dogged reporting that breaks through the code of lies and silence and clearly lays out for the layperson the extent of the threat, the misadventures and ignorance that got us to where we are today, and unfortunately little in the way of speculation of what we’re supposed to do if the lights go out and the data is lost and the supply chains and the grids and their fundamentals of civilization get knocked off line and stay off line.

Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Chris Locke died on the winter solstice. Facebook posts by Doc Searls and J.P. Rangaswami broke the sad news that the man the world knew at the dawn of the World Wide Web as Rageboy was gone, done in by too many ciggies and a long struggle with COPD.

Chris came into my world in the mid-80s when I was a reporter at PC Week and rang him up after seeing him quoted somewhere talking about artificial intelligence. He was a great source who had a wild mind that would veer from outrage to hysteria,  riffing about whatever came to mind with great clarity and emotion. Chris was the most “un-IBMer” I knew at IBM.

In the early 90s at Forbes I moved away from covering the PC industry which had sunk into a boring spell of interactive CD-ROMs and the rise of chief information officers who were supposed to be the original digital transformation prophets at the old, hidebound companies Chris would mock in The Cluetrain Manifesto, the book he co-authored with Doc, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine in 1999 just in time for the first collapse in the dot.com mania that had been building ever since the introduction of the Web in 1994. When I went deep into document processing and hypertext technologies in 1992 Chris introduced me to the father of the granddaddy of all page description languages, SGML (Structured Generalized Mark-up Language, Stanley Goldfarb.   Stanley tried to persuade me to help him write a book about SGML, but the technical level of the material was way beyond my comprehension and, as Chris would say, “MEGO” (My Eyes Glazed Over) set in, so I begged off and instead started digging into the simpler world of HTML – a descendent of SGML known as the HyperText Markup Language.

Steve Larsen: “There are whistles and cheers in the crowd. People are standing. One guy is on his table. Paper airplanes and erasers are filling the air.”

Doc Searls: The Cluetrain Manifesto had four authors but one voice, and that was Chris Locke‘s.”

Other tributes to Chris

Chris introduced me to Yuri Rubinsky, CEO of HotMetal Pro, one of the first HTML authoring tools. Before long I was building very crude websites, relying on Chris for introductions to people like John Patrick at IBM, who built the first IBM.com and ran it on a ThinkPad under his desk  (when he closed the laptop at the end of the day to go home IBM.com went dark until Patrick could get back online. ) In 1995 Chris hired me to contribute a series of essays on digital journalism for a project called NetEditors that was sponsored by InternetMCI.  Those six essays gave me the space, with Chris’ expertise as an editor, to speculate about a lot of things that were going to change in media — especially newspapers and magazines — when the Internet grew up and took over because of the inevitable power of open technology standards to overcome the proprietary. When the means of production moved from tanker cars full of ink and monster rolls of newsprint to the infinitude of limitless page space filled with free publishing tools, opening the door to the long tail publishing model that would permit special interest online publishers to further distill themselves into niches driven by a community as opposed to content alone. I borrowed the insights of Bill Ziff into the unique function a magazine like Modern Bride, Skiing, Popular Mechanics, or PC Week played for people who were really into stereo gear or ski bindings. Advertisers paid a premium for the focus of each magazine’s circulation list or “audience” who in turn regarded the advertising as relevant to their interests but also a valuable source of new information that was of equal value to the stories and photographs published by the magazine’s writers and editors. With Chris’ egging me on , I wrote about the business model for fictional “hyper-niche” website for people who knit with pet hair, not knowing there are actually people who do just that and who even wear the resulting sweaters, mittens and hats .

Little did I know that this in fact is a real thing,nor that a Forbes colleague had written a book on the subject. Not wanting to base my speculations on cat sweaters instead I continues the NetEditors series with speculations about a hyper-focused, hyper-local online publication for anglers who fished in saltwater, with fly rods, with sub-editions for different regions of the world. That led me to collaborate with an actual fishing buddy to start a company to build just a site and others in the outdoor sports space. We launched Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing in 1995.

That project gave me the courage to build the first Forbes.com prototype which I showed to the Forbes brothers who put me in charge of activating the publishing deals they had signed with CompuServe and Prodigy. Once those were figured out we were able to launch the Forbs Digital Tool at Forbes.com

Around that time I invited to participate in an invite-only “retreat” hosted at a conference center somewhere around Philadelphia by Jerry Michalski, the editor of Esther Dyson’s tech newsletter, Release 1.0. There Esther dubbed Chris with the “Rageboy” tag that became his alter-ego to the end of his days. As fifty or so smart people talked about then-hot topics like community and micropayments, Chris took to the microphone and delivered a long, escalating rant that combined the acerbic wit of H.L. Mencken with the gonzo excesses of Hunter S. Thompson.

By the end of the 1990s, as normalcy started to spin out of  control and strange stuff like WorldCom and Enron were at their fraudulent peaks, when dot.com mania was peaking, Chris and his co—authors issued the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. When those declarations were turned into a book, Chris Locke wrote the first chapter. You can read Internet Apocalypso here. It’s a very good measure of the way the man thought and wrote.  Churned by a number of projects ranging from InternetMCI to Mecklerweb, Chris wound up at IBM as Big Blue’s Internet evangelist, where the cultural mismatch was breathtaking to behold even given the extremes of the rest of Chris Locke’s exceptionally eccentric career. In “Internet Apocalypso” he wrote:

“In 1995, I ended up in IBM’s Internet division. A ranking PR guy from corporate headquarters ran into me one day and said he’d heard I had a lot of contacts in the financial press. He suggested we get together for lunch and talk about it. I took this as a good sign, maybe an opening to do what I liked best. But when we met several weeks later he said something like, “All those journalists you know? Never talk to them again.

“He said I should refer all such conversations to him instead. That way, he said, the company’s messaging would be consistent. Or words to that effect. But I knew they wouldn’t be real conversations — they would be “key message” pitches, and I wasn’t about to subject people I knew and liked to that sort of targeting. I kept my contacts to myself.

“I was devastated. It was bad enough that I’d been explicitly forbidden to speak with journalists, many of whom had become good friends, but where was I going to write? If I published anything, I’d get busted for not asking permission — there was that word again — and if I wrote sleazy PR for IBM, I’d have to kill myself to blot out the karmic stain. “

Internet Apocalypso, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chris Locke

Instead, Chris  launched his own blog, Entropy Gradient Reversals, quit IBM, and found his voice of indignant amazement at the general cluelessness of the dinosaurs about to get wiped off the face of the economy by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter.

I’m going to miss him as a friend and force for good in my life. It has been years since we last spoke and I know his recent years were tough financially and medically. Sadly he’s gone to join  other friends of mine from that first wave of Internet prophets – John Perry Barlow, Tom Mandel at SRI,   Jimmy Guterman come to mind – all of them people who died too soon who never cashed out, who never faked it until they made it, who saw the future and worked to make it right.

 As I pulled together my thoughts for this post after another sleepless night, I tried to find some evidence of those early Chris Locke collaborations from 1995. Alas, as pointed out earlier this year in The Atlantic by Harvard Law prof Jonathan Zittrain – link rot has erased all signs of that work, with even the Internet Archive missing those longwinded speculations about what might be wrought on civilization by the commercialization of a network where nobody was in charge. Chris hated authority and would probably approve of the gradual vanishing of those old early essays. This was a man who took offense at a Burger King website that invited customers to contribute – but warned them in the legal fine print that anything submitted to Burger King automatically became the property of Burger King.

“Our own contribution to the furtherance of responsible Copyright Protection consisted in feeding the entire collected corpora of Project Gutenberg through the Burger King form, thus ending Literature As We Know It.”

Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Vincent Scully on winter rowing

Vincent Scully was an architectural historian who lectured at Yale. His class was one of the can’t-miss hits on the college curriculum in the 70s and 80s . From the jammed lecture hall came stories of Professor Scully breaking down in tears at the lectern while grieving the demolition of great works such as New York City’s Penn Station, presenting his slide show of architecture’s greatest hits and misses with great duende.

Vincent Scully: Credit

Scully was profiled by The New Yorker in February 1980. James Stevenson concluded by quoting Scully explaining his love of rowing on Long Island Sound in the winter. In 1974 the professor acquired a Gloucester Gull dory — a light, cut-down dory for one rower on a fixed thwart or seat. It’a design meant for very raucous open water rowing.

“When the river is frozen in the winter, I carry the boat until I find open water, and then I just launch it. It’s wonderful rowing through the ice floes. I go out in wild seas all winter. The wind comes from different directions, and the water is always alive, always different. I love to row through the big waves. Way out in the Sound, there’s a triple rock, sort of a monster, and I often row out to that. Sometimes I shout Greek: “Polyphloisboio thalasses!” It’s from the ‘Iliad,’ the best description of the sea: ‘the many-voiced roaring.’ And it’s exactly the sound that the big waves make: ‘polyphloisboi’ as they come tumbling toward the bow, and then the soft, sighing sound – ‘thalasses, thalasses’ – as they pass under the boat.”

Vincent Scully as told to James Stevenson, The New Yorker, Feb. 18, 1980 p. 69
Gloucester Gull – By WoodenBoat Magazine

Sculling in cold weather

With this portrait of a fingerless Blackburn in mind, I rowed for home, determined to get some gloves to avoid his fate.

I noted the arrival of “meteorological winter”   in my fingers on Saturday morning while sculling across North Bay on my way around Grand Island in my wherry the S.S. Cheesecloth.  While they grew numb and number  I thought of the indefatigable Howard Blackburn, the Gloucester fisherman who was separated from his schooner in 1889,  lost in the north Atlantic in a tiny dory with another fisherman. Blackburn lost all his fingers and most of his toes to frostbite while rowing himself and his shipmate ashore.  He lost his mittens while bailing the dory, and using his socks to try to save his fingers only meant the loss of his toes. So he let his numb fingers freeze around the wooden handles of the oars, knowing they were beyond salvage but were his only means of surviving the long winter ordeal.  The other fisherman froze to death but Howard survived and  went on to live a colorful life, sailing alone across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn to seek gold in the Yukon, before retiring from the sea to run a tavern in Gloucester until his death in the early 1930s.1

Howard Blackburn, portrait by Margaret Fitzhugh Browne, 1929

Any person who sets out in a rowboat, racing shell, kayak, or canoe in the winter months on Cape Cod takes a risk of not  returning home. Water temperatures around the Cape can plunge below freezing in January. Should a person find themselves in that water for any length of time (other than the crazy New Year’s polar bear swimmers who dash in and out of the water in a matter of screaming seconds) they have about two minutes before they lose dexterity, fifteen before they slip into unconsciousness, and death before 45 minutes. 

Hypothermia table from the University of Sea Kayaking

The perils of cold water rowing is why the four-oar rule went into effect in November at my rowing club (the Union Boat Club) on the Charles River in Boston.   That edict prohibits the launching of single sculls (one person pulling two oars) and pairs (two people pulling one oar each) .    The requirement for a minimum of four oars per boat  ensures rowers don’t go out alone.   A few years ago the Massachusetts legislature passed a law requiring paddlers to wear a lifejacket or approved “personal floatation device” while on the water between September and May 15.   The law was passed at the urging of the Commonwealth’s harbormasters following a few tragedies involving cold water kayakers who went missing off the shores of Cape Cod.

I built my wherry with winter rowing in mind.  I had never rowed in the winter months in fifty years of rowing, but one day, while walking along the beach of Bluff Point in Cotuit, one of the local scullers went sliding by in his racing shell, careful to keep close to the shore line as he paddled around the bay on a sunny, calm January afternoon.  I was impressed by his stoic example of damn the weather, full speed ahead, but started thinking about what my “plan” would be if I were to go rowing in the depths of winter on desolate waters with no other boaters around to witness and assist me in the event of a capsize or breakdown.

Staying close to the beach is obviously a good idea. My rowboat draw very little water and can be rowed over sandbars and shoals with only a foot of depth (the downside being a drastic reduction in speed as a boat slows down in shallow water due to the “squat effect” where a moving hull is sucked down towards the bottom.) In theory I could flip a shell a few yards from the beach, stand up and walk everything ashore. Drenched and shivering for sure, but at no risk of succumbing to hypothermia and drowning.  But what about those points where my route crosses a stretch of open water to wide to swim and too deep to wade? What would the best plan of action be if I were to flip over in the middle of the bay? Do I stay with the boat and try to climb back aboard?  Or is the move to abandon ship and strike out swimming for the nearest dry land? 

Scullers capsize all the time but I have never seen one wearing a lifejacket. The precarious, thin-skinned boats are twenty-four foot needle-like  hulls designed to go as fast as possible in a straight line over protected waters. They are incredibly tippy and can flip just a few feet away the dock if the rower doesn’t keep the oar blades flat and perpendicular to the boat like pontoons. Once the boat is moving it gains some stability like a rolling bicycle.  A motorboat’s wake, waves stacked up by the wind,  or a collision with a buoy can flip a sculler upside down in an instant. Most of my capsizes came as surprised. One moment I was focused on driving the shell through the water, heart pounding, lungs breathing hard, and the next instant I was upside down in a state of  submerged shock . 

Righting a capsized shell and getting back aboard is a trick novice scullers are taught near the dock during warm weather; some coaches even using a swimming pool to practice the difficult maneuver, much the way a novice kayaker is taught how to perform an “Eskimo roll.”  I used to flip my Empacher racing single at least once a summer, usually when I forgot to  turn around and look  where I was going and carelessly clipped a channel marker or mooring float. 

Once one finds themselves on the wrong side of the water and accepts the shocking surprise, the first order of business is to get some air. Feet strapped into shoes with their toes bolted to the boat must  be released and usually have some Velcro quick release for just such emergencies. Free from the boat, the rower then has to roll the boat right side up, sort out the crossed oats, then fetch any floating personal possessions such as a  water bottle and telephone sealed in dry bag. Then, with one hand holding the two oar handles together and the other holding onto the far side of the deck, the sculler must lunge up from the water and get themselves across the narrow shell without damaging anything. Here’s a video that shows the maneuver:

My experience in trying to climb back into a capsized shell in warm weather leads me to favor the abandon ship plan for surviving a winter capsize. I’ve broken the combing or splash board of a wooden shell trying to get back aboard, and it was like I sat on a Stradivarius judging from the repair bill. Although the Cheesecloth is much stabler than a racing shell and seems to be immune to flipping, the possibility of going into the water means I need to consider the risks and have a solid plan before finding myself in 30 degree water with about two minutes of time before the cold makes it impossible to do anything with my fingers and the chances of a heart attack increase.

Clothing choices for winter rowing are similar to what a cross-country skier wears: layers of tight, synthetic leggings and long-sleeved shirts with the addition of  a sleeveless “turtle” vest shell with a wind-breaker back panel, a hat, and neoprene dive boots. Rowing is strenuous and the body quickly warms up through the workout, making things miserable for the rower as they overheat and begin to sweat. But as soon as they stop that sweat  immediately starts to freeze, especially if wind is a factor.

After my first December row last weekend I put the boat away on its rack and headed for home, definitely a frightening sight in tights, a chartreuse Day-Glo safety vest, and my orange, red and black Karl’s Sausage Kitchen wool hat. I jumped into a hot shower and immediately started moaning as my blue fingers began to painfully thaw out.  Once I was out of the shower and dressed I went online and bought a set of “pogies” — strange mittens that slip over the oar handles to keep my hands warm without sacrificing the essential grip of bare skin on the rubber grips. I’ve never tried them before, but ordered a set from JL Racing to get me back on the water before the harbor freezes.  Smallboat Monthly published an article about pogies in 2017 (subscription required).

“Pogies” keep hands warm without sacrificing contact with the oars.

1 The Blackburn Challenge honors Howard’s desperate row with a 20-mile rowing race around Cape Ann. It takes place every July so no one loses any digits. 

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,864 other subscribers

Exit mobile version
%%footer%%