Curing cabin fever with a frozen beachwalk

 

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I lost my mind around 3 pm on the first Sunday afternoon of the New Year. I woke up to negative 2 degree temperatures and spent the rest of the day lolling on the couch binge watching until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to get some fresh air. So I bundled up and gingerly slipped and slid and down Old Shore Road to the harbor for a quick walk to Handy’s Point then home again via the town dock. I surprised a gaggle of Canada Geese riding out the deep freeze in the marsh at Little River, shuffled my feet over piled up ice cakes, and eventually made it home before the sun went down for a well deserved scotch by the fire with the dog.

The Capture of the Circassian

Not being an especially wealthy man, I’ve always wondered about my lack of ancestral fortunes. Ask my late father how much money he made and he always replied, “A dollar ninety-eight.” His father was alleged to have passed on partnering with Howard Johnson and the guy who invented the reclining arm chair.  There have always been many “woulda-coulda-shoulda”  regrets expressed during cocktail hour on the back porch.

But Captain Thomas Chatfield, my great-great grandfather, did pretty well by the standards of 19th century Cape Cod by doing his part to make the Right Whale a very endangered species and by assisting in the capture of a British prize ship during the Civil War.. All of which combined managed to afford a really nice old house in the center of the village.

Chatfield couldn’t have made too much money from his whaling years because he was captain for only one voyage of the whaling ship Massachusetts, the same ship he went to the Pacific three times before in his teens and early twenties. In 1858, when he was 27 years old, he was given command of the ship on the recommendation of his wife’s grandfather, Seth Nickerson.  Chatfield sailed from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to the northern Pacific for his one and only voyage as captain, his last aboard the Massachusetts.

I couldn’t figure out how he managed to support himself into his 90s from a single voyage that took place in his late 20s. Whaling captains were very well paid on a share system that saw them get the biggest portion of the profit after the owners, with the remainder divided among the officers, boatsteerers (harpooners) and the ordinary seamen. So there was upside to be earned, but a whaler’s wages never seemed to me to be the kind of pay day that would keep the wolf from the door for six more decades.

Chatfield lived  12 years in row aboard the Massachusetts beginning when he was 17 and first shipped out as a cabin boy.  In 1859, after rescuing his brother-in-law Bethuel Handy from a shipwreck in the ice of the Okhotsk Sea, Chatfield docked the Massachusetts in San Francisco,  shipped her cargo of oil and bone east on a clipper ship, then sold the old Mattapoissett whaler to a local San Francisco merchant, put Bethuel in command and because he missed his wife and daughters, he shipped himself back to Cape Cod via the Panama isthmus.

When the Civil War broke out Chatfield immediately volunteered and was commissioned an “acting volunteer lieutenant” in the U.S. Navy. A lot of whaling captains shipped out on Union war ships, handling the navigation and seamanship while the career officers and Naval Academy graduates managed the gunnery, tactics, and other war stuff. Chatfield received orders to report to the New York Navy Yard where he was given his commission signed by the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, as well as a uniform, saber, and orders to sail to report aboard a freshly built Staten Island steam ferry, the U.S.S. Somerset.

Chatfield described the Somerset in his Reminiscences:

“The Somerset was simply a Ferry boat of the size of those plying in Boston Harbor. She had been bought by the government while on the stocks, had been strengthened to enable her to support a battery, and was designed for service on the blockade, and for river work. Her battery consisted of two nine-inch smooth bore Dahlgren guns placed on pivot carriages, one on each end, and four long thirty-two pounders in broadside: a very effective fighting craft in smooth water, but next to worthless in a sea. Her crew consisted of one naval lieutenant, commanding, four acting masters, and four acting master’s mates – these of the line. Her staff officers were one acting first assistant (chief), and three second assistant engineers, paymaster and surgeon, with enlisted men sufficient to number one hundred and thirty, of all ranks: and she had no spars, simply two flag-staffs.”

U.S.S. Somerset

The Somerset was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Earl English, a 33-year old graduate of the Naval Academy who had been severely wounded only a few years before in the assault on the Barrier Forts at Canton during the Opium Wars of 1856. He had started his career in 1840 as a midshipman aboard the U.S. frigate Constellation, then was assigned to Annapolis, graduating in ‘46 and then assigned to the frigate Independence on the California coast during the Mexican War. Chatfield’s peer in age, but superior by far in naval credentials, English was highly respected by Thomas is his letters home to his wife in Cotuit and later in his reminiscences.

The orders to take a double-ended, flat-bottomed Staten Island ferry out of New York Harbor and into the open Atlantic was cause for concern as the Somerset received orders directly from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to sail to Key West and join the East Gulf Squadron and its blockade of the Florida coastline. The fact that the ferry was steam powered and could out-maneuver any sailing vessel would have made it an invaluable vessel. On April 13, 1862, the Somerset and her sister-ship the U.S.S. Fort Henry sailed south in company, only to have to put in at Hampton Roads, Virginia when the Henry’s machinery made it impossible to go in reverse. There Chatfield was able to tour the ironclad Monitor, fresh from its battle with the Merrimac.

Thos. Chatfield

After an uneventful voyage from the Chesapeake to Key West, the Somerset refueled and reprovisioned, let its boilers cool down, and was then ordered to patrol the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. That same spring of ‘62, Admiral David Farragut and the West Gulf Squadron had successfully attacked and captured New Orleans. Welles ordered English and the crew of the Somerset to keep a keen eye for any Confederate blockade runners trying to rush cotton to England’s mills as the ports of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were closed by the Union Navy.

On her maiden patrol in the Straits of Florida, the Somerset steamed within sight of the coast of Cuba west of Havana. What ensued that Sunday, May 4, 1862 wouldn’t conclude until a Supreme Court decision three years later.

Chatfield writes:

“I think it was the fourth day out: the weather was a beautiful morning, wind light, sea smooth: and being Sunday the crew were dressed in white. I had charge of the deck from eight to twelve. At nine o’clock we sighted a large, square rigged steamer coming from the eastward. We were then some half way between Havana and Matanzas, and some six miles off shore. I headed the Somerset for the steamer, shaping her course so as to intercept her, and notified Capt. English: and very soon everyone was one deck, all agog for what might turn up. We passed within easy hail. We were turning the helm astarboard to fall quickly in her wake. Capt. English hailed “What ship is that?” The answer came: “The British ship Circassian.” Then from our Captain: “This is the U.S. Str. Somerset. Hove too, I’ll send a boat aboard of you.” The answer came quick “Havn’t got time.”

“This conversation lasted say thirty seconds. Immediately the order “Beat to Quarters” was given, and the drummer was ready with his drum, and within not more than two minutes a blank cartridge (a peremptory order to hove to) loomed from gun No. 1. No notice was taken of that. Next came the order: “Solid shot across her quarter point blank. Don’t hit her,” and a minute after the shot plunged up the water a short distance of her starboard quarter. No notice was taken of that either. Next the order came “Load pivot with five-second shell: elevate seventeen hundred yards. Fire to hit.” Now that order might seem inconsistent. The five-second shell would explode at thirteen hundred yards: four hundred yards short, had the ship been distant seventeen hundred yards. But Captain English did not wish to injure the ships hull, but to explode the shell over her. The aim was true, and the distance well estimated: the shell cut one gang of her forerigging off just under the top, and exploded over her forecastle, scattering the pieces about her deck. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her engines stopped immediately, and she came too with helm aport, and lay until we came up to her.”

The Circassian

The Somersets boarding party examined the ship’s papers, learned she was British owned and sailing under British flag and therefore ostensibly a neutral ship. But finding irregularities with the Circassian’s lack of a destination, Commander English declared the ship was a blockade runners and seized her and her cargo as a prizes of war. The British captain argued that the ship was very neutral despite having sailed from New Orleans before Farragut captured it, and now that he had captured it, the blockade of the port was no longer in effect because Farragut lifted it when he occupied the city and took it for the Union. Doubtlessly perturbed by the Captain’s convoluted interpretation of admiralty law, English ignored the protests and had the Circassian taken under tow by the Somerset because his own engineers didn’t know how to start the captured ship’s boilers and her own black gang refused to cooperate.

Chatfield writes:

“We took the big brute in tow, first transferring her crew, with the exception of her officers, steward and two of her engineers, to the Somerset, placing them under guard: and in that shape started for Key West: and with the help of the Gulf Stream were off Sand Key (entrance of Key West Harbor) early the next forenoon: and a novel sight it must have been to onlookers. That ferry boat, looking more like a big sea turtle than a war ship, creeping into the harbor with that big square rigged ocean steamer in tow..”

A fan of of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubreyad gets the concept of naval prizes. Basically it was a very legal and enriching form of commercialized sailing with large amounts of gunpowder involved. It was the basis of some big British admiralty fortunes and was still in effect during the Civil War for officers and crews in both the Union and Confederate fleets, not to be discontinued for another couple decades.

If an enemy vessel — naval or merchant — was captured, it was then auctioned off by a Naval Prize Court who dispersed the proceeds on a formula not too different from the share system used on New England whalers. The Admiral overseeing the operation, even if not aboard the victorious ship, got a percentage. The commander of the ship got a big share, and then every other officer and sailor got a piece of the action. If the ship was full of gold, then an ordinary seaman could receive as much as five years pay from a single prize. Often the capture got tied up in the courts, which was the story of the Circassian in the decade following the end of the Civil War. If you want to read the Supreme Court opinion, click here. The opinion was penned by Justice Salmon Chase and gives all the details a lawyer or admiralty law geek could ask for. The New York Times published an editorial  on the matter which basically said “huzzah” to the court and sneered “…we think that foreign Governments will hesitate before they treat the judgments of that tribunal as so wanting in equity as to justify reprisals.”

While the cargo was disposed of and the Circassian’s owners lawyered up, the Somerset went on to have an illustrious series of actions along the western coast of Florida, freeing slaves, busting up saltworks and maintaining the blockade. A great and very detailed history (sourced in part from Chatfield’s war letters and accounts) of the ship’s subsequent actions can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.

The New York Times  reported on the sale of the Circassian’s cargo. It was a very rich prize:

“A portion of the cargo of the prize steamer Circassian, was sold yesterday at No. 18 Murray-street, by Mr. JONES, auctioneer, by order of JAMES C. CLAPP, Esq., United States Marshal for the District of Florida. There was a large attendance of buyers, and the bidding was very spirited, as the articles offered were, in the main, of a superior description.

The sale opened with a case of porcelain articles embracing vases, fruit dishes, wine coolers, and mantel ornaments, 30 pieces, which were purchased at $140. One case of hardware containing one dozen carpenter’s pencils, one dozen tower nippers, quarter dozen coach wrenches, four dozen C.S. gimlets, assorted: two dozen boxwood rules, half dozen Kent hammers, half dozen saddler’s hammers, half dozen bright garden hammers, half dozen hatchets, half dozen claw hatchets, hail dozen turn-screws, London, was sold at $295.

A case containing miscellaneous articles of French manufacture, glass tubes, leather spectacle cases, and fancy articles in general, was bought by Mr. S. HOUSEMAN at $1,200. There were 107 lots offered in all, which brought prices varying from $25 to $1,200. The proceeds of the sale will amount to about $100,000.

In August last, the first part of the cargo of this steamer was sold for $125,000. The vessel has since been appraised and taken by the Government at $107,000. The brandies she had on board will be sold on Tuesday next, by Mr. HEWLETT SCUDDER, at the store in Park-place, and it is expected they will realize $100,000.”

By war’s end the Circassian stood as one of its richest prizes with a gross value of $352,313.

How much of that went into the ancestral pocket will never be known. Chatfield was a frugal guy who supported a big family of daughters and son-in-laws as well as his own siblings and parents back in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson. How he managed to finish his whaling career at the age of 33, spend three years in the Navy, then return home to Cotuit and prosper is probably due in part to some of the Circassian prize money. That windfall and his own thriftiness probably allowed him to own the Joseph Eaton, a coastal schooner he captained until his 50s hauling granite from Maine to Albany for the construction of the State Capitol. He also managed to own two Greek Revival houses across the street from each other in Cotuit’s center, using one for sleeping the other for eating, with a Wampanoag woman cooking in a shed called “Little Mashpee”, and daughters, son-in-laws and grandchildren scattered between two other cottages. In his reminiscences he mentions the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that sparked a two-decade “Long Depression.” He never was wealthy, but by Cape Cod standards any whaling captain was the 19th century equivalent of a hedge fund cowboy. It has been said that Nantucket and New Bedford were the wealthiest cities in the world per capita at the zenith of the whale oil market in the 1820s and some substantial Quaker fortunes live on to this day such as the Howland’s (Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street”). At least one of Chatfield’s daughters married a wealthy man, Freeman Hodges, an Osterville native who worked for Henry Flagler as his real estate “front man” — buying up the land that would be the right-of-way for Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that ultimately would terminate in Key West.

In his retirement Chatfield made and mended sails in the sail loft at 854 Main Street, the same loft where he held the first meeting of Cotuit’s Masonic Mariner’s Lodge. His sailmaker’s bench, his leather sailmaker’s palm, massive fids for splicing hawsers, blocks and sheaves: all still hang from the rafters.

The sad end to this story is the wreck of the ill-fated Circassian in the late fall of 1876 on the southern shore of Long Island near Shinnecock Inlet. Despite several very heroic small boat rescues and weatherong two gales and multiple attempts to float her steel hull ship off the beach, the Circassian went down with a skeleton crew of Shinnecock Indians put aboard to salvage her, but who were trapped by a third fatal storm that killed all but four survivors.

A great story published by TheHamptons.com describes the end of the Circassian:

“Every home on the Reservation had been affected because so many of their lost men belonged to the same families and so many of the families were interrelated. The two Walkers were brothers; the three Bunns cousins. The Cuffees too were of the same family, two brothers and a cousin. Andrew Kellis had left work on the Circassian a week before to start on a whaling voyage; now another Kellis brother was out on the beaches looking for Oliver. Every house was in mourning. All three of the tribe s Trustees were dead, and all of the men lost were married with the exception of William Cuffee. In one house a woman lost a husband and a brother; in another a husband and a brother-in-law. Her daughter, with several young children, was also made a widow. In all, nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children were left behind. Long Island history has never seen any shipwreck so devastating to so many closely related families. Brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins were all lost. “

Restoring a hand-carved sign

A long time ago my father’s oldest boyhood friend, Reid Higgins, presented him with a hand-carved wooden sign painted green with gilded letters in beveled quarterboard  font that said “C H U R B U C K” surmounted by a rampant, gilded eagle facing “dexter” (or to the right.) For as long as I can remember it has been screwed into the southern side of the house’s front porch. It used to be a fall ritual during Columbus Day weekend to unscrew the eagle and sign and store it indoors for the winter. Since 1991, when I’ve lived in the house year round, the sign has stayed outdoors year round too. And lately it’s been showing a lot of wear and tear.

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This is how it looked after I went at it with a wire brush

It has been cleaned up, re-gilded and re-painted, at least two times I know of, in the past forty or fifty years. My grandmother asked a local woman who restored picture frames to do it once, and Reid himself took it back to spruce it up a long time ago. A few weeks ago, on an impulse, I took it down and into the shop. It was much worse than I thought it would be. Other than a few shreds, almost all of the gilt had flaked off. The name board had barely any paint left on it with white primer dominating what was left of the weatherbeaten green.

This is how I brought it back to life for whomever gets to do it next time. It was a lot of fun, I learned something new and cool, and it kept me from going crazy over the frozen holidays.

PREP

I took a light wire brush wheel and a cordless Dremel and got most of the flaking paint off without over scouring the mahogamy Reid used to carve the eagle. The detailed feathering and layering of his carving is exquisite and I didn’t want to sand it down or otherwise dull the sharp definition of the plumage. I went over it quickly with the Dremel, then fine steel, followed by a light layer of paste paint remover. The paint on the top edge of the eagle wings, the crown of its head, and top of its beak was long gone, and years of sun and water and snow had caused deep grooving to occur in those areas along the grain line. The sign that forms the base was in worse condition, with similar grooving on the top edges and deep splits forming in the end grain on the right and left ends of the Churbuck sign.

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I thought about sealing the cracks with the WEST System or Bondo ….

After getting off all of the paint remover and washing it all down with mineral spirits, I took a sponge and thinned down some boiled linseed oil with one part of mineral spirits to three parts linseed and swabbed that over the entire bird and base three times, letting each coat sink in and dry overnight for three days.

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The top grain of the sign was in sad shape

Then, with a sanding block and 220 grit sandpaper I smoothed everything down and got ready to prime.

PAINT

I used primer and paint sold by Fine Paints of Europe, the American distributor of Holland’s Hascolac line of paint. I’ve used a lot of this stuff — I painted the entire house myself one year using about $10,000 worth of Hascolac Oborex and knew from their brochure that someday I wanted to restore something with their Brilliant line of enamels. The stuff is not cheap. I spent about $150 on a quart of white primer, a quart of green enamel, and a tin full of Swedish Putty from a local hardware store that carries FPE.

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Primed twice and skim coated with Swedish Putty

After priming two coats of white, I sanded it and applied a very thin skim coat of Swedish Putty. This is some medieval substance essentially made out of finely ground glass (silica) and oil. It goes on with the blade of a clean putty knife and can be sanded to a glass smooth service with fine sandpaper after it dries. The warnings that came on the tin were of the skull and crossbones severity so I dutifully wore a mask when I sanded the putty smooth. Silicosis is basically “glass lung” and I like my lungs.

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Weirdest, coolest stuff — basically ground glass putty in oil

I used the putty as a filler to close up the open grain in the wood and repair the deep splits in the end grain. It can be applied to curved surfaces and trim with a sponge soaked in linseed oil, so I did the inside of the carved letters with that method.

I took a long time sanding the Swedish putty obsessively smooth, stepping down from 220 to 400 to 600 grit paper until the surface was immaculate. I hit it with an air gun, cleaned up the workarea to get rid of as much dust as possible and broke out a new Omega brush and the green Brilliant enamel.

The difference between Hascolac paints and other paints are apparent as soon as you dip the first brushload and start painting. I made all my brush strokes in one direction and put the paint on straight up, no thinning, but was very parsimonious about how loaded up I let the brush get with green paint. The coverage is surprising, but the beauty of the paint is how it self-levels and dries into a gleaming, candy apple kind of sheen.

I applied three coats of green, sanding between then with 400 grit paper. I was very happy with the final result and waited for the mails to deliver me my first booklet of 23 ⅓ karat gold leaf, coton gilder gloves and a German squirrel fur gilding brush.

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Like buttah — this paint is for sweet tooths

I’ve never gilded before so I wanted a couple gilding videos on YouTube made by custom sign makers. It looked pretty straightforward.

GILDING

The first thing is to paint everything that will be gilded a bright coat of yellow and tape off everything that won’t be gilded with blue painters tape, using an xActo knife to cut out the carved letters. I used a little bottle of yellow Testors paint and covered the bird and all the letters with a single coat. Why yellow? That coat, called the TK coat, acts as a radiant substrate for the gold which is microscopically thin to the point of translucence. It you want a dark, subdued shine, you gild over dark paint. If you want brilliance you first must put down some thing light and bright.

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Gilding glue, a sheet of leaf, squirrel brush and yellow undercoat

Gilding was pretty simple. First I painted some gilding glue over the surface to be gilded. The stuff goes on a little thick and viscous and is a light tinge of blue when applied. After 30 minutes the blue disappears and the gilding glue is tacky and ready for the gold leaf. Tug a wax paper page out of the little booklet of gold, flip it gold side down over the surface coated with gilding glue, and brush very gently with the squirrel brush. I found that a straight tapping of the brush worked best, pushing the leaf down to adhere to the glue and lifting it off the paper backing.

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What a leaf of gold will get you in terms of coverage

I didn’t want to mess up. Something told me that stripping a botched gilding job would simply suck so I was determined to do it right. Besides, I bought $50 worth of leaf — 40 3”x2” sheets f– and used about three quarters of it. After the gilding goes down, one just looks for the yellow under paint and dabs a little more gold leaf on it, until everything to be gilded is covered with a layer of gold and fuzzy with loose flakes. Flick it and smooth it with the gilding brush, burnish it with a finger tip in the white cotton gilding glove, and we’re talking a very expensive rainy day project for the kindergarten class.

I cleaned up the lettering with a very fine modeling brush and the green enamel. Then I coated all of the bird and the lettering with two thin coats of shellac to protect the gold from the elements.

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Finis

And here is the final result.

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In another post I’ll talk more about the man who carved the sign, Reid Higgins, and his amazing carvings of local shore birds.

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Herring Gull by Reid Higgins

 

Thalassotherapy

I was going to take some time off this week to sort out my “damp, drizzly November soul” but work stuff popped up and I didn’t get a chance to go stand on a east facing beach and throw a black needlefish into the surge with my 11-foot surf rod and old-school Penn Squidder. I was hoping to land a laggard striper headed south for the winter, even the seals and white sharks made that a dim prospect. My boats are all pulled so my mind’s at ease for the first time since the beginning of the hurricane season. I still have some motors to winterize, then tulips to plant and gutters to clean, but the urge to trudge along the Atlantic shore from Wellfleet to Truro still tugs strongly.

Which of course got me to thinking about the palliative powers of saltwater and helped me remember this quote by Vincent J. Scully, Jr., the Sterling Professor Emeritus of the History of Art in Architecture at Yale that concluded a profile of him written by James Stephenson in the New Yorker in February, 1980:

“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: ‘Polyphloisboi 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: ‘polyphloisboio’ as they come tumbling toward the bow, and then the soft, sighing sound — ‘thalasses, thalasses’ — as they pass under the boat.”

The Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1833

I met someone yesterday who has a summer home on Briant’s Neck on Santuit Pond in Mashpee. Of course I got all professorial on them and started babbling about the Trout Mound and the old Wampanoag meeting house that used to stand on the neck until it was moved to its present location by oxen in 1717 ……

Anyway, I dug around on this blog to find my posts from 2013 when I presented a paper to the Cotuit Historical Society on the history of Mashpee and the “Woodlot Revolt of 1833 and realized I didn’t have the full paper on the site.

So here is the PDF. All 23 pages of it.

The Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1833

The Whaleboat Project

I don’t have a “hobby.” Not a hobby in the classic sense of collecting stamps, knitting sweaters out of dog hair or playing with model trains in my basement the way my grandfather did.  He didn’t have the opportunity to binge watch Breaking Bad with a bag of Cheetos like I do, so there’s no surprise he whiled away the long Cotuit winters in the 1940s and 50s making ship models and reading novels while listening to the same radio that brought him the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

He and my grandmother gave me a taste for model ship building, a pastime my grandmother let me assist her with when I was ten years old and she built a scale model of the Grand Banks schooner the Bluenose after being widowed and needing — I assume — something to get her mind on other things.

Cotuit in 1930s through the 1950s was doubtlessly a very quiet village in the wintertime, and other than playing bridge with friends, volunteering at the church, or attending the monthly meeting of the Masons at the Mariner’s Lodge, there wasn’t a lot to do in the evening other than listen to the radio and read. And read they did. Television wasn’t on the scene so books filled the hours. Books and making models.

My grandfather and father collaborated on a model of the launch of the Bounty, the open boat which Captain Bligh and his sympathizers were set adrift in by Fletcher Christian in 1789, and then, against all apparent odds, successfully sailed 3,500 nautical miles to the Dutch Indies with some loyal crew lost to attacks by hostile islanders along the way. That model was preserved in a glass case and hung on the walls of the living room next to the old Captain’s navy saber,  and I studied it for hours after reading Nordoff and Hall’s trilogy about the Mutiny in grade school.

My father built  model airplanes. I remember him building a seaplane when he was a student at Harvard Business School. Impulsive, he decided to test the engine at Loop Beach in Cotuit without installing the radios needed to fly it; he fueled it, fired it up, and for some strange reason set it free to take off and successfully fly off towards Portugal to the east, never to be seen again. So I’ve always been around xActo knives and T-pins and strips of basswood.

This past winter My youngest son expressed an interest in making a plastic model of an American battleship, the USS New Jersey. He’s still working on it, learning how to wield an airbrush and assemble the thing correctly and I have no doubts it will be a magnificent thing when he finishes it. But something nagged at me, something that wanted to work with wood, so I went online and searched for a modest project that I had some connection to; e.g. something to do with whaling because of my Great-great grandfather’s stint aboard the Edgartown whaling ship the Massachusetts from the 1850s until the Civil War.

There are two approaches to wooden ship models. One is to shape a miniature version of the original ship’s hull out of a roughly pre-formed piece of wood. The second, which I have never tried but seems to the most authentic and aligned to actual boat building is to build the hull over a frame with strips of wood like actual planking and ribs. I looked for a whaling ship model — the Massachusetts was built in Mattapoisset and rigged as a bark and the closest thing I could find was a model of the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining whaling ship which is maintained and berthed at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut.

I remember from watching my grandmother build the Bluenose that the real challenge in model shipbuilding lies in the rigging of the masts and spars, an utter rat’s nest of thread and tiny deadeyes that involves the patience of Buddha and fingers like a pickpocket’s, I knew if I went big I’d have a project languishing around for years, so I decided to focus on a smaller boat, one without a lot of sails like royal top gallants and spankers and studding staysails, but a simple small boat or sloop.

I picked a New Bedford whale boat, the iconic pulling boat used to hunt, harpoon and kill whales for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the most produced style of wooden boat in the world, with an estimated 60,000 built to supply the whaling fleets of New England, only a handful of original examples exist today, partially because they endured a lot of abuse and rough use and were to built be cheap and only survive the two- to three-year voyage to the Pacific. This Currier & Ives print sort of sums up the fate of a lot of these double-ended sail/row boats suffered.

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So I bought a kit on Amazon. It arrived in a box. A lot of wood, a little box of hardware and thread, and a roll of plans. I gathered all my grandparent’s boat building tools, cleared a space on the dining room table, and got to work.

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I was unaware the kit was rated an “advanced” project. I figured since it didn’t have a mast or any rigging it would be easy. Then I started planking the hull and became very pessimistic.

Anyway, after four or six hundred hours of carvings, gluing and sanding (sandpaper is the most used tool of all). It started to come together.

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I put in ribs, the cockpit ceiling, I made a centerboard trunk, and by March I had a hull. But I realized I had a serious amount of work left before I would end up with something that resembled the real thing like theseboats at Mystic Seaport:

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As spring arrived and the weather improved my motivation started to flag and the project went dormant. But I picked away at it over time. Fashioning harpoons, oars, barrels, buckets and tubs.

IMG_20170721_110955Then one day is was done. Or pretty much done. And my son said, “Hey, that would make an awesome wedding present for B (my daughter).”

I looked at the little bundle of glue and sticks and paint, sighed, and then smiled and said, “You know something? You’re right.”

So I put on a final sprint and by the eve of the wedding last weekend (July 22, 2017) it was ready to be given away.

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I guess I can always build another some day, it was a lot of fun….very meditative and satisfying. But it does make me glad to stick it on the mantle until the picture of the old Captain and my grandfather and realize it meant something after all.