Shark Risks

The sad and violent death of a young surfer last weekend in Wellfleet was the first death by shark in Massachusetts since the 1930s and  has everyone I know here in Cotuit wondering about the risks of going into the water in the future. I can act the know-it-all and give them the usual reassuring statistical probabilities about lightning and air crashes being a more likely way to die, but there’s something so primally awful about the thought of being attacked by an unseen apex predator that I imagine the most improbable odds are enough to keep some people from taking the chance. Even the latest victim reportedly scoffed at his grandmother’s warning and told her he was “Superman.”

Would I have gone swimming this summer given the earlier, non-fatal attack of a New York neurologist in Truro, and the constant news reports of shark sightings and beach closings? Of course not. I won’t go swimming  anytime unless I’m thrown in the water by a capsize or pushed in by a jerky friend.  I just have a thing about other critters in the ocean, ranging from jellyfish to spider crabs, not to mention 20-foot long sharks.

Do I blame people for ignoring the warnings? Nope, because I live in the IdiocracyOw! My Balls! era of GoPro recorded self-injury and if people think jumping off cliffs wearing batsuits is entertaining, then people are going to go bodysurfing in the waves with sharks. I guarantee people are going to try to get selfies of themselves with sharks just for the likes and shares.

When I am in or on the water I don’t considered myself at any exceptional risk of a shark attack, but the thought has crossed my mind, especially in the early  70s when Jaws was  being filmed across the sound around Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t do the sort of things that get people eaten — kayaking in a boat shaped like a seal, boogie boarding, skinny dipping, abalone diving, etc. — but I have spent a lot of time wading in the water at night, especially twenty years ago when I was into surfcasting and taking stupid risks in the surf along the outer Cape from P-town to Monomoy. I gave that pastime up when the seals started to be a serious nuisance, stealing stripers off the line just because they could.  Nothing gets a heart rate up like getting one’s legs bumped by a playful seal in the surf off the beach at Chatham Light at 3 am. Now the seals are all over the place out there, massive shoals of the mermaids-for-dogs blanketing the beaches around Nauset and Monomoy Island. There’s so many of them — more than 50,000 according to the Boston Globe — that they can be seen from space.

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Monomoy  seals as seen on Google Earth

This past June I saw a seal pop up inside of the drawbridge in Osterville, right in the channel across from the gas docks. That’s a first — I’ve seen seals in the spring, swimming around the Wianno Cut and out in the Sound during squid season, popping up and looking like a curious scuba diver from a distance. But June? When the water quality isn’t very good and there isn’t a ton of food in the water like the April herring run or the late summer menhaden schools …. I guess the seals are heading into the estuaries and bays to avoid swimming in the open water where they can get picked off.

So the question to ponder is: what are the odds a great white shark has entered the bays around Cotuit looking for something to eat? Great whites are pelagic fish — open ocean creatures — who cover lots of miles in their migrations and range everywhere from Cape Cod to South Africa to Australia to the Farallon Islands off of San Francisco . It makes sense they would hang around inshore if their favorite food happens to be a big ball of seal blubber and that blubber is laying by the thousands on the sandy strand.

There was a big to-do in Hadley’s Harbor in 2004 when a big female great white swam around  in that little harbor for a couple of days. That sighting drew a lot of attention to the fact that  there were great whites swimming in Cape Cod water. Around the same time the seal population in Chatham went crazy, flourishing in the decades since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act which stopped the rumored practice of commercial fishermen and lobstermen to carry hunting rifles on their boats to keep the seals from raiding their traps.  These seals didn’t just appear from nowhere. Apparently they are part of a big herd from Canada’s Sable Island who decided to relocate to the Cape’s clement shores.

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The Hadley’s Harbor Great White of 2004

Seals equal  great whites. It’s just the way it is. No seals. No sharks. But no one is seriously considering getting rid of the seals, which means the sharks are here to stay, There were no seals around Cahoon Hollow Beach last weekend when the most recent attack occurred.

The question about shark attack risk is as much historical as it is about probabilities. The last victim, 16 year old Joseph Troy Jr. of Dorchester*, got picked off by a great white while swimming off the beach north of Mattapoissett on Buzzard’s Bay in the summer of 1936,  why weren’t there other attacks reported from that time, before that time, or in the 82 years that followed?  Where were the seals hanging out in 1936? Why were there very few seals in the late 1980s and 90s and suddenly a bazillion at the turn of the century? Did they vanish because of some cyclical trend or were they being hunted to the point they weren’t a feature of the local fauna?

Spring Gathering Of Seals On Cape Cod

Let some marine mammal expert answer that question, but the prevailing local wisdom is either kill  all the seals and repeal at the Marine Mammal Protection Act (the fisherman’s solution) or let Mister  and Missus Jaws do their thing and let nature sort it out. Something tells me we’re closer to the historical balance in the food chain now than we were at any point in the last 50 years.

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Shark about to take out a mermaid-for-dogs

But in the aftermath of the fatal attack the press is now talking about solutions. I think the local officials on the outer Cape are biting their knuckles and acting like Mayor Larry in Jaws, worried about tourist season and summer dollars if beaches get closed and no one can go for a dip. My favorite elected wingnut, a Barnstable county commissioner, wanted to adopt the solution used in South Africa — a thing called a drum line which is essentially a set of baited hooks that intercept the sharks before they find someone’s leg.

Shark nets are used in Australia — I saw one next to the ferry terminal at Manly Beach on Sydney Harbor — but I can’t see how they would last very long in the pounding surf of the Atlantic. Maybe around Cotuit and the more protected waters, but even then I bet the expense is crazy and the effectiveness is limited. All it takes is one unlucky paddleboarder to fall off outside of the net and there goes that false sense of security. There are ankle bracelets one can wear which emit some electronic repellent that keeps sharks away, but if you’re wearing electronics to ward of man-eaters then you need to reassess your choice of pastimes.

As I tell my worried friends — the Mattapoissett attack happened a little more than 15 miles away from Cotuit. Hadley’s Harbor, where the 2004 sighting took place is 14 miles away. And Monomoy Island, where the seals are, is 23 miles from Cotuit. So do the math. Are great whites swimming around Cotuit? Probably not on a daily basis — it’s shallow, kind of murky and nasty in the summer, and not stocked with a huge number of seals — but I wouldn’t declare the place shark free by a long shot.

 

*: the definitive account of the 1936 Mattapoissett attack was published in 1950. Online version at Jstor (registration required) https://www.jstor.org/stable/2421830?loggedin=true&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

See, Gudger, E. W. “A Boy Attacked by a Shark, July 25, 1936 in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts with Notes on Attacks by Another Shark Along the New Jersey Coast in 1916.” The American Midland Naturalist 44, no. 3 (1950): 714-19. doi:10.2307/2421830.

 

 

 

True Rowing – the “Peloton of Ergs”

Rowing machines have been around for a while, but most people are familiar with the Concept 2 made in Morrisville, Vermont and used in the annual C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints — the putative world indoor rowing championship. In the last decade the ergometer has broken out of the boathouses and basements where they were alternatively ,loathed and loved by their users, largely due to CrossFit’s embrace of the machine for its high intensity interval workouts.

Since first appearing in the late 1970s as the Model A, the Concept 2 has become the standard rowing machine used by rowing teams to train and score rowers. There’s also a big following amongst non- and former-rowers, who used Concept2’s online logbook to log their workouts and compare themselves to other rowers around the world. Every winter — usually smack in the middle of the worst of the ice and slush — indoor rowing races like the Cranberry Crunch held here on Cape Cod give people like me a chance to compete against other people and not go slowly crazy cranking away listening to the same heavy-metal playlist I’ve been listening to since 1995 when I bought my Model C.

All those satellite indoor rowing regattas culminate with the C.R.A.S.H.-B’ Sprints in late February — a couple hundred ergometers on the floor of the Boston University hockey rink — with a digital leaderboard and an announcer and all the trappings of an actual sport. Those sprints are 2,000 meters and can take an Olympic gold medalist as little as five-and-a-half minutes to complete, to somewhere north of eight minutes for less endowed mortals. It’s an ugly experience marked by anguished expressions on red faces followed by involuntary vomiting int a trash can. The sound of the flywheels and the fan blades is Pavlovian for anyone who has logged a lot of time on an erg. My buddy Charlie who has a silver medal, used an erg on the balcony of his apartment in Arizona while he studied for his MBA and got in shape for the ’84 LA Olympics. He says the sound makes his stomach churn. yet he still climbs onto the machine every so often.

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By the CRASH-B’s

There have always been other rowing machines to pick from. A college teammate, John Duke, designed and marketed the Water Rower — which uses a clear plastic tank filled with water instead of the Concept2’s use of air pressure  and a damper to simulate  the drag of an oar through the water on the internal flywheels. Kevin Spacey rowed a Water Rower in House of Cards. I’ve never tried one.

Then there are the horrors that hotel chains used to buy and stick in their fitness centers. Those things were bad and led to Concept2 offering an “Erg Locator” on its website so addicts could book themselves into hotels with the real McCoy when they traveled on business. Those knockoffs weren’t nearly as bad as the “rowing machines” sold for $29.95 that used two screendoor pistons, and a squeaky seat on wheels to give grandma something to ride while she watched General Hospital.

There have been some software programs that have tried to enhance the monotony of indoor rowing.  Because the Concept2 display has an ethernet port, I could plug it into my laptop, set that on a chair next to the machine, and row against virtual conpetitors or a computer-generated paceboat. Those programs would upload workout results to the Concept2 Online Rankings, and had options to show one’s power profile, and other super geeky statistical functions that did nothing to improve on the bleak truth that rowing is about as dynamic an activity as being a human metronome approaching cardiac arrest.

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590 Hours on the Erg and nearly 10 Million Meters Later and I’m still fat

Stationary bicycles, treadmills, stairmasters — all of them are boring because they don’t move. The view never changes, there’s no wind rushing, no splashing, no risk of capsizing or getting taken out by a Cape Cod nailbanger in a Ford F-250 with a bag full of Fireball nips. Peloton is viewed as the digital exercise company that cracked the boredom issue by networking high quality stationary bicycles with online classes. I tried to ride one in LA last spring, but I was too tired to figure it out and missed the full Peloton experience.

Now a Cambridge company, True Rowing, is about to introduce a new indoor rower, the “Crew”  with a 22″ flatpanel display and the promise of real time rowing workouts broadcast from the Thames, the Charles, the Schuykill ….. There will be instructors, and from what I can read from the press release and early coverage, an opportunity to row in synch with the rower (s) on screen.  That’s a big deal because a lot of the trick in rowing is learning how to perfectly coordinate oneself with seven other people in a round-bottomed, 60-foot long boat that’s a little bit wider than your butt in lumpy water and waves.

The Crew is a good looking machine – a little too “Jetson” for my tastes — and has all the expected pieces such as an oar handle, a place for the feet, and a rolling seat for the butt. Resistance comes from magnets.  I’ve towerd on ergs that used a basket of weights (the Gamut circa 1976), water, air, and even magnets to put some resistance behind the flywheel. Magnets were the worst and the method favored by one of the early makers of health club and hotel rowing machines. But no judging until I actually get on a Crew and pull a few strokes.

Crew

The obvious difference with the Crew is the monitor. Concept2 uses a display that gives the most basic feedback — split times, elapsed time, strokes per minute, calories, watts , etc, — so the rower can stare at a little square of grey LCD numbers and do constant arithmetic, calculating how many more strokes will be needed before the agony will end.

I wish True Rowing the best, and I signed up for a first look. At $2,000 for the machine and $40 monthly subscription, the machine is priced exactly the same as a Peloton bicycle. That prices the Crew at twice the cost of a Concept 2, signalling that True doesn’t have delusions of eating into Concept2’s base in the rowing and CrossFit markets, but is going after the rich guy with the same pitch the Water Rower used — rowing machines should be beautiful and capable of hanging out in the living room.

Dick Cashin is one of the investors in True Rowing, and that more than anything is the best endorsement for the Crew as he is a rowing legend who rowed in the USA eight in the 76′ Olympics, won the Worlds,  a medal in the Pan American Games, and consistently wins his age group in the C.R.A.S.H.-B’s. I interviewed him for a story I wrote about indoor rowing for Forbes in the early 90s and he’s still active competing on and off the water. If Dick thinks its a machine worth investing in, then it’s a machine worth checking out when it starts shipping next year.

 

The case of the vanishing shirt pocket

The summer Brooks Brothers sales has come and gone but I picked up four classic cotton button-down shirts to get me through another year. I’ve worn the things since the mid-70s when I attended a prep school with a coat-and-tie dress code, always a 36″ sleeve, 17 1/2″ neck, collar with buttons, regular cuffs.  There have been a few years of J.Press but their signature “button” flap front pocket was a pain in the ass when I was looking for a place to stash my glasses, pens, tickets, etc..

EBay introduced me to the wonders of used clothing — aka “Deadman’s Duds” — and for a while I was buying used Turnbull and Asser shirts for $25 a piece  and realized the quantum leap in quality that comes with a $300 English shirt, versus a $125 Broooks Bros. shirt sewn in some Far East sweatshop. But elegant and detailed as the Turnbull and Asser shirts are, they aren’t button downs and require those pernicious little plastic collar stays to keep the collars from curling up like some Peter Pan affair. And most brutally, they utterly omit the breast pocket, a sin for me because I depend on a leather index card jotter to track my schedule and to-do list, store parking tickets, receipts, business cards, etc..

Now Brooks Brothers has done away with the breast pocket too and I’m pissed. At least twice a day I try to stick something into a pocket that isn’t there any more and curse the fool who decided to do away with it either out of thrift or some belief that pockets ruin the “flow” or whatever of a garment (like famous Lost Generation bon vivant Gerald Murphy who wore pants and suits without pockets because they ruined the “lines” of his clothes).

 

Birds, time, options and smart people calling each other names

I’m in Los Angeles this week, and not having posted anything in a long time, noted a couple things to share this morning:

  1. Plovers return to Santa Monica beach after 70 years: (my hotel room is sur la plage and has killer sunset views) Here’s a piece in Longreads about how fencing off a section of sand the size of a soccer field and planting some beach plants like rosa rugosa led to the return of the first plover within four months. Turns out people like their beaches clean and groomed, but clean beaches don’t stack up enough seaweed for sand fleas and flies to thrive, and without the bugs, no birds.
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There are plovers down there somewhere.

2. Om Malik has some thoughts on watches and the changing nature of time  in the era of the Apple Watch (which I do not own being of the Android persuasion). Great quote of Lewis Mumford to the effect that the signature machine of the industrialized modern age was the clock.

3. The Bullshit WebNick Heer at Pixel Envy writes about the clutter and crap that drives sensible people to install adblockers. I picked this up from the always excellent Project VRM mailing list.

“The combination of huge images that serve little additional purpose than decoration, several scripts that track how far you scroll on a page, and dozens of scripts that are advertising related means that text-based webpages are now obese and torpid and excreting a casual contempt for visitors.”

4.  Alfred Lee and Corey Weinberg write in The Information about slowly changing policies by startups to extend the window of time beyond 90 days for edeparting employees to exercise stock options by departing. The piece hit a nerve as I just let a bunch of options go unexercised, seeing no sensible reason to go deeply out of pocket and then wrestle with the tax consequences for some future hope they’d actually be worth more than they cost. It would have been far better if I could have dawdled on the decision, but in the heat of starting a new gig there was no way. Moral of the story — unless you’re in the founding class,  options remain a chimera for most employees for private tech companies.

5. Best of Enemies – downloaded this great documentary off of Netflix for the flight to the west coast. William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal were invited to debate during the 1968 conventions and the sparks flew. A harbinger for the current shouting head phenomena that is the basis of modern political debate.  After watching that I headed to Esquire’s “Classic” archives to read Buckley’s 12,500 word essay about his famous meltdown. Next on the reading list is Vidal’s version of events, which spawned one of the ugliest lawsuits and literary feuds in history.  Vidal calls Buckley a “Crypto-Nazi.” Buckley calls him a “queer” and threatens to sock him in the nose. All hell breaks loose.

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View towards Malibu from the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica

52 Churches: San Antonio de Pala Astencia

It’s been a long time since I stuck my nose inside of a church, mosque or temple to continue my chronicle of church tourism started on this blog a decade ago.  A recent visit to an old California mission (the first I’ve visited) with my good friend and guide, Jim Forbes, inspired this entry.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Spanish mission and estancia system stretched along the Californian coast as far north as Sonoma north of San Francisco. Spaced about a day’s journey apart, they were the first western/European centers of power along that wild coast, connected by a road known as El Camino Real. The first of the Alta California missions was founded in 1769 in San Diego.  The mission I visited, San Antonio de Pala Astencia, or “the Pala Mission” was founded by Franciscan friars in 1816 as an astencia or sub-mission of the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia closer to the coast downstream on the San Luis Rey River. The Pala Indian Reservation is home to the Pala  Band of Mission Indians, descendants of the Cupeno and Luiseno tribe native to the area.

One gets to Pala off of Route 15 after passing the Lawrence Welk Trailer Park and hillside avocado orchards and citrus groves. The landscape is rugged, rocky, and arid with lots of boulders and volatile brush that makes the Pala/Escondido area a very dangerous place to live when the brush fires light up the skies and 200 foot tall walls of flame appear over the ridges. Pala is a reservation for the descendants of the Indian tribes who were displaced by Spanish and American colonists from their traditional dwellings closer to the Pacific Ocean. As one arrives in Pala the first sight is a large, modern casino with an immense sign touting the upcoming visit of some musical act. But off the main road, in a neighborhood of modest homes, is the Mission of San Antonio de Pala.

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We got out of the car and walked through the Mission cemetery, our arrival noted by a pair of little boys who were surprised two gringos would walk through the hallowed burial ground checking out the tombstones. They clambered over the stairs leading up to the freestanding belfry, marked with a sign asking visitors to please not ring the bell as that was reserved for the call to worship and to mark the passing of a parishioner.

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Since it was a Sunday a service was underway in the long, single story chapel, and with an overflow crowd standing in the doorway, we didn’t enter, but listened for a minute as the priest read a series of community announcements.

We lingered in the shade in front of the church for a bit, then moved on in search of a farmstand where I bought some dried chilis.

 

 

 

Memorial Day in Mosswood Cemetary

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year—
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .

For the Union Dead, Robert Lowell

On Boston Common, following a decade-long Memorial Day tradition, volunteers from the Massachusetts Military Heroes Fund have set out more than 37,000 flags to mark the memory of all the Commonwealth’s soldiers who have died in battle defending the country since the Revolution.

Jim Gould, local historian and essayist, emailed me on Saturday the news that a flag had been placed on the grave in Cotuit’s Mosswood Cemetary of my great-great-grandfather, Capt. Thomas Chatfield, to honor his service in the Union Navy during the Civil War.

Capt. Thomas Chatfield, USN

Chatfield survived the Civil War unscathed. Across the street from where I sit, in the park in the village center, sit two hulking granite boulders with bronze plaques affixed to their faces. There are enscribed the names of Cotuit’s veterans of the two world wars.

I did not serve in the military but a few men in the family have. From my fifth great grandfather Job Handy serving in the Continental Army in the American Revolution to the present with my son serving in the U.S. Army, there’s somewhat of a military tradition to honor. My father was in the Army in the early 1950s, stationed in post-war Germany. My brother Tom served in the Army’s special forces for nearly 15 years. My nephew is presently a Navy Seal. My son is a private in the 25th Infantry.

Thomas Churbuck in Kurdistan c. 1991
Following the first Gulf War, Thomas Churbuck was assigned to a Kurdish refugee camp near the Iraq-Turkey border.
Pvt. Fisher M. Churbuck, graduating from basic training, Fort Benning 2018

I missed the draft for the Vietnam war by a few months in 1976, then came close to enlisting in the Navy after graduating from college four years later (a missed opportunity I’ve regretted ever since). I should have served but didn’t.

Here’s to those who did serve or are serving now:

Here’s to Jim Forbes who served in the USMC at Khesanh. To Rick Larcom the Green Beret who lost his leg in Vietnam. To Sam Berry who flew an Air Force tanker. To Ben Field who is a sonarman aboard a USN submarine. Here’s to all who serve in distant wars today, who have served in the past, and who one day will have their graves marked on some future Memorial Day by a flag they earned through their service.