An October Blow

I read a depressing story in the New York Times yesterday about the sick trees of Massachusetts, beset with borers, weevils and fungi, getting hammered as the climate changes and local nurseries have started to offer species from the mid-Atlantic region instead of the native hardwoods and pines that have been here for 10,000 years.

The late Paul Noonan told me the old timers in Cotuit said summer always ended in October with a big blow from the southwest. I guess that happened yesterday. The morning was calm enough to make me guilty about not going for a row and one of the Ospreys was still complaining atop the tall pine tree in the woods behind the shop, and once again I fretted a bit that the birds usually decamp for South America the third week of September and have shown no signs of migrating like the rest of the flock. I knew it was going to get windy, with gusts forecasted to reach 50 mph, and that’s exactly how it blew all day, just like it does every October when the humidity suddenly vanishes and the cricket in the shop starts to chirp slower and slower with the coming cold.

I don’t imagine the ospreys picked the day of gale to fly straight into the face of the cold front coming at us from where they are going, and I wasn’t surprised the morning after the gale when I went outside to discover them still in residence, after a long stormy night when I pictured them gritting their big beaks, menhaden-ripping talons locked around a tossing branch, facing into the tempest like pirates pissing to windward after the sun went down and the winds built up to their grand finale.

The gusts had been building every minute or so, holding their breath at the peak then subsiding and letting the shaken trees compose themselves before the next one built up and swept over the yard. Around dinnertime one gust kept building and building and went from a Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale to a Force 11 on the Nigel Tufnel scale, shaking the old house, its window frames and iron sash slugs clattering and bonging in the walls, the flimsy, sill-rotted frame of the sail loft and boat shop creaking like the end was near.

Then a big bang as a huge limb of honey locust, tree turds and all came down in the back garden, just missing the roof of the loft and the double doors at the end of the shop. My neighbor Phil’s cars weren’t so lucky and this morning we agreed it’s time for the old tree to be cut down. Honey Locusts only live 120 years or so, and this one is massive and has been shedding limbs the past few seasons. Even though the last arborist to work on the tree rigged some steel cables, the one that suspended last night’s victim got unhooked and the result is a mess of seed pods, broken branches and leaves.

Drive-in Dead

In which I go to a “Dead” concert at a Cape Cod drive in

The last time I saw the Grateful Dead play was sometime in the early 90, shortly before Jerry Garcia’s death. Since then I’ve never been bothered to go to any of the post-Dead bands’ concerts by the likes of Dead & Co, Further, Phil Lesh and Friends, Bobby and the Midnights … I never was a fan of tribute bands and getting me to pull out my wallet to pay current ticket prices only happens if the band is sort of still together and I’m buying the tickets as a present for my wife who is far more of a true fan of the music than I am.

Early last week I caught the news that the Dark Star Orchestra would be playing two shows on Friday and Saturday nights at the old Yarmouth Drive-In on Route 28 here on Cape Cod. $150 bought me the right to show up in a vehicle with up to four people, so I bought the tickets and told my wife and son we were going. Was it a responsible thing to do with Covid cases on the rise here in Massachusetts? Would it be fun or a pain in the ass? Would the band be any good?

Who cares. It was the first weekend of the fall, the weather was great, and seriously, it’s not like the social calendar is crowded with other competition for my leisure time.

Got to love a faux lighthouse

The band was great. The facility was well run and we were directed at our “suite” staked out by wooden posts and ropes in the fourth row and slightly to the right. The crowd was in the spirit, tons of tie-dye shirts, battery powered blinking lights, glow sticks and clouds of marijuana everywhere.

We backed in, opened the rear lid of the SUV, and hung out in the back of the car or on the bumper. Two sets and three hours later, I predicted two out of the last three songs — Stella Blue, Sugar Magnolia, and an encore of US Blues. Son and wife looked at me like a wizard when I announced “we are outta here” and loaded up the car for an early exit before the usual traffic jam. We listened to US Blues on the radio (Your Car is the PA!) as we cruised down a deserted Route 28 under a rising moon, past the t-shirt shops and mini-golf courses towards home.

I’d do it again — the drive-in concert experience that is. When the band said these were their first concerts since February I was sad for all those musicians who are grounded by the quarantine. Hats off to the promoter who figured out the drive-in solution, but still it felt sad to consider that the Yarmouth Drive-In claims to be the biggest live music venue in New England this summer.

Circumnavigating Grand Island

In the mid 1990s I purchased a single scull to row around Cotuit Bay. I built a rack for it on the back fence and painted the blades of the two oars with the same green-yellow-white palette used by my grandmother to help my color-blind grandfather pick out my father’s skiff from the rest of the fleet. Every weekend morning when I was home from NYC I would wake up at dawn, put on a pair of rowing shorts that were more likely than not still wet from the last row, slip on some rubber clogs and slip out the back door to lift the boat from its rack and swing it up and onto my head for the walk down Main Street and Old Shore Road to the harbor.

I’d pretend to laugh if someone I knew drove up the hill and rolled down their window to say “Nice hat!”

If I was lucky the tide would be high, otherwise I’d have to kick off the clogs and squish through the primordial clam mud, 40-lbs. and 29-feet of racing shell held high overhead with locked arms, grimacing as I stepped on broken clam shells and the black goo squirted between my toes before I could reach enough water to roll the hull out and down with a splash. The ladies of the Cotuit Rowing Club would wave as they rigged their oars in a four. Fishermen would look at me suspiciously as they backed their trailers down the ramp and checked out the fat guy with the too-tight shorts about to climb onto an impossibly skinny boat.

I’d set off on flat calm waters as the sun topped the pine trees on Grand Island, heading across Cotuit Bay, picking my way carefully out of the anchorage and down the fairway to open water where I’d turn the bow to point down the long straightaway into North Bay, lining up the narrow stern with the steeple of the Masonic Temple next door to Freedom Hall.

Ten strokes, starting with short quarter, half, then three-quarter length slides up and down the tracks on the rolling seat to get the boat moving, settling down to full strokes and lengthening every catch and drive as I started to sweat in the morning humidity. Turn around on the tenth stroke, take a quick snapshot over my shoulder for any obstacles like moorings, channel markers, fishermen cruising out to the Sound without any navigation lights, or other rowers, kayakers or paddleboarders who might not see me paddling away. Then counting off ten more stokes, looking backwards and upsetting the boat a bit, readjusting the course by pressing down on one foot more than the other.

Having plowed a borrowed Alden Ocean Shell double into a moored Boston Whaler, and rowing borrowed Grahame King double head oninto another boat at a regatta on the Charles River, my paranoia of rowing backwards without the guidance of a front-facing coxswain is deep and abiding.

The first leg from the cove at Ropes Beach through Inner Harbor to the Narrows is about 1000 meters. On the ergometer each stroke is typically counted as ten meters, so ten strokes can cover 100 meters. a distance long enough that a backwards glance is only enough to see if the next ten strokes can be hard ones, or if the bow is pointed at a dock and needs to start curving to port on the third stroke to thread the gap between the red channel can and the float at the end of the pier. I stay out of the channel at all times, preferring to hug the shore and find the gap there between any anchored boats and the beach. That way, if I flip the boat I wind up in waist deep water, a good thing if the water temperature is under 50 degrees and hypothermia becomes a fear.

10,000 meters of some of the best rowing water there is.

Then the transit of North Bay, the designated water skiing area, where everyone pushes the throttles down to the deck and relieves the boredom of the 6 mph speed limits in effect everywhere else in the Three Bay estuary. Fast motorboats can generate huge tsunami wakes that come at a rower from the side, lifting you three feet up, oars wildly swinging in the air, rolling you into the trough where the next wave washes over the boat and soaks one’s lower body in green water. Some motorboaters get enraged when a sculler paralleling the channel passes them on the right and pulls away. Once they hit North Bay they want to get away from me like an old lady passing a hedge fund princeling riding his $20,000 Colnago down the middle of Main Street, and take off with a roar and a big fart of two-stroke outboard exhaust for me to inhale on the next stroke.

Still, I catch up to them again within a mile when they leave the bay and hit the channel into Osterville and the boat yards. That’s where careful navigation is needed, threading through moorings off of the fourth hole of the Wianno Club golf course before sliding down the main channel between the boat yards and gas docks. The drawbridge is always tricky because the current accelerates under the span and its best to stay out of the center and take the shoreside arch in case another boat is coming around the corner from the Wianno Yacht Club.

Yesterday, as I rowed into West Bay, I realized the winds had shifted and started to swing back towards the usual southwest direction it blows from most of the summer. The gusts left over from Hurricane Teddy (which passed well to the east of Chatham the day before on its way to Canada) were shrieking in the late afternoon sunshine, kicking up a jagged chop as I popped out from under the draw bridge. Fetch and shadow is the trick to open water rowing. Fetch being the amount of open water that the wind has to work with to churn up any waves. The more fetch there is, the higher the waves. The wind shadow is the calm area in the lee, or downwind side of any land mass, usually extending out five to ten times the height of the land and trees. When transiting West Bay, a shallow body of water bisected by a busy channel, sometimes the trick isn’t to take the shortest line to the head of the bay, but to tough out a few minutes of taking the waves on the beam, the boat rolling a lot in the chop, just to gain the strip of calm water beneath the verdant mansions on Oyster Harbor’s eastern shore.

I was pooped by the time I sculled up to the entrance of the Osterville Cut, the man-made ditch flanked by stone jetties that divides the barrier beach of Dead Neck from the Osterville mainland. A big swell was infiltrating the bay through the channel out into Nantucket Sound, putting the wherry to its first big test since I launched it in mid-August, rolling me around enough to make me a bit queasy as I crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the Seapuit River, a shallow area the colonists called the “Wading Place” because they could drive their cattle across at low tide to graze on the island’s salt hay.

I waited for a couple of motorboats to make their intentions known, then zipped across the Seapuit to Dead Neck, beached the bow and hopped out, ancient bones and sore muscles making me hobble around on the beach while I drank some water and pulled out the pump to empty the wherry (which still leaks a bit, but had been taking an occasional wave over the side as I crossed the bay and took the wind broadside).

The Seapuit River is my favorite stretch in the entire 10,000 meter row. The sand dunes of Dead Neck block the worst of the wind, the river is too narrow for any chop to build up, and this time of year, when the water begins to clear, it’s a pleasure to skim over the shallows near the beach grass and get a clear stretch of water for some hard speed work.

My buddy Steve and I agree the worst part of the row is the end of the river where it enters Cotuit Bay near Cupid’s Cove, the ancient harbor entrance that silted over after the Osterville Cut was built in the early 1900s. On a southwest wind there’s a lot of fetch across lower Cotuit Bay and white caps build up over the shallows before crashing into the shoreline of Oyster Harbors where they bounce back into the next set of waves, creating a vicious chop that has to be transited broadside. I’ve had some dicey moments in my Empacher over the years, filling the cockpit with water and rolling so hard my knuckles would get smashed on the gunwales, but in the wherry the ride was bearable, I just had to grit my teeth and “sky” my blades high in the air during the recovery to keep them from spanking the tops of the waves.

And then, with the end in sight, it was a matter of getting through the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant, covered with little black buoys, across the main channel, and back into the mooring field off of Ropes Beach.

I pulled ashore next to the boat ramp, pumped out the boat to lighten the load, picked up the stern and set the green hull into the trolley I made out of PVC pipe and wheelbarrow tires. I had circumnavigated the Three Bays estuary for the first time in who-knows-how-long, something I hadn’t realized I missed until I finished it. Ten years ago, when I was competing as a “senior master” in fall regattas from the Green Mountain Head (my favorite) to the Head of the Charles (the most prestigious), I was rowing around the island five or six times a week, timing myself from the drawbridge to home because that’s roughly the same distance as the Head of the Charles course. In those days I could make the entire 9,250 meter row in 40 minutes. It took me over an hour this week. As Charlie Clapp says, “The older we get, the faster we were.”

As I strap the boat into the trolley and make it ready to be dragged up the hill to the house, every time without fail, someone stops their car, gets out and walks down the boat ramp to admire the boat and ask me if I built it, an indication I suppose of the boat’s unfinished condition and people’s fascination with home built boats in this era of plastic kayaks. I haven’t cleaned up the wooden frame since assembling the boat, so bits of dried epoxy and smears of paint need to be chipped and scraped off before I can consider varnishing the red cedar. Right now the wood is protected with a coat of teak oil, but I think later this fall I’ll put some time into finishing the boat properly before suspending her from the rafters of the garage in a kayak/canoe sling I purchased on Amazon.

Every row in the boat is an opportunity to tune the rig a little bit to make it row easier and smoother. I’ve had two Olympic rowers — Charlie Clapp and John Bigelow — take a look at the setup of the riggers, slide, foot stretchers and oarlocks. Both agree I needed to get my weight lower and the oarlocks higher. Once all the adjustments are made and I know I won’t be trimming any wood to get thing exactly right, then I can declare the boat finished and spend some time with a can of varnish to make her gleam.

An expert opinion on cutting away the masts during a shipwreck

Last November, just as I started writing the first draft of The Wrecks and War of Bethuel Handy, I made a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport to spend some time aboard the last surviving whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan.  I pestered the docent who was standing by the ship’s wheel with all sorts of questions about the restoration project that resulted in the Morgan making a cruise up the New England coast  during the summer of 2014. I was in Provincetown  when the ship came into the harbor under sail and was in awe of seeing such a mythical ship alive again.

I watched a few videos about the restoration and the cruise, and paid close attention to the words of the Morgan‘s captain, Kip Files, as he described the process of wearing ship, or tacking.

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Captain Kip Files and the Charles W. Morgan, via Mystic Seaport

A few weeks ago I hunted him down on LinkedIn and asked him, as the only living captain of a whaling ship, what he thought of Bethuel Handy’s options as the Phoenix went ashore on Elbow Island in the Sea of Okhotsk during a mid-October blizzard. He kindly replied and asked for more information — which I pulled together from my research and sent to him last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bethuel’s options at 4 am on October 11, 1858 off the coast of Siberia:

“Interesting story. Very tuff situation.  There is no true way to get off a lee shore. Every time would be different as the shore, waves, current and wind would hardly be the same. It is something an experienced captain would take all his years of knowledge of sailing and his particular vessel to give it a try. having only one anchor made his job more difficult. . There would be no helm ( steering by rudder) until the vessel had some way on. Even then in those seas it would be a miracle if it responded at all. you would need lots of movement by the rudder for it to respond.

 Cutting away the mast. I do not think there would be time. Desperate move not knowing were they would fall. They are built to stay in place just cutting them might force them thru the deck. I have never known anyone to do this but it is possible. I am going to read this again. Hard to get what is going thru the captains mind. Logs don’t reflect it well as they show no emotion on purpose.  Do you have the lat and long of were this happened? I might have a better feel for what was happening.  I do know that the class of whaling ship are pretty handy. They sail a lot better than shore side experts give them credit. 

Kip

I’m really looking forward to his reaction after he reads the sailing instructions for the Gulf of Uda and the Shantar Islands.  It sounds like sailing in hell to me.

Foreword to The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy

Here is the foreword to my book about Bethuel Gifford’s and Thomas Chatfield’s adventures. A download link for a PDF version of the first chapter — the wreck of the whaling ship Phoenix is at the bottom of this post. Enjoy. Comments and criticism most appreciated.

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The shoreline of an island in the Shantar Archipelago

Foreword

I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.                                                            Herman Melville, Moby Dick

 

They were the sort of  men who clubbed baby seals, tattooed their faces during drunken benders, spread syphilis throughout Polynesia, and carved pornography into the teeth of dead sperm whales. They were fugitive alcoholics shaking in their bunks with delirium tremens,  greenhorn farm boys keen for an adventure, negroes and Wampanoags and descendants of Hessian mercenaries stranded by the defeated British Army.  They were controlled by acerbic mates from bleak Cape Cod villages who kept to themselves, mostly brothers and cousins, nephews and uncles, and were fast with their fists to keep the scum from rising up from the mephitic stench of the forecastle to mutiny on the high seas.

The first thing that happened to them when the pilot was sent ashore and the ship cleared Gay Head was the collection of their knives so the captain could snap off their points in a seam of the deck, blunting them to reduce the number of stabbings. They were divided into watches and picked by the mates in a quick draft to sit in one of the five whaleboats. The Captain had one, the chief or first mate another, and so on down to the fourth mate. Each whaleboat carried six men. The mates and captain steered. The other five pulled an oar. The harpooner pulled the bow oar because he did his work from the prow of the light boat, bracing his knee in a semicircle cut into the thwart, reaching behind to his right to lift a harpoon from its split oak crutch.

Once a whale was struck, the harpooner and the mate swapped ends, rushing to pass the other and take their place while the whale ran, sounding deep and taking fathoms of line with it. Then the harpooner took the tiller and became the boatsteerer and the mate lifted a long lance and prepared to kill the leviathan by stabbing it in the heart and lungs until it expelled a geyser of dark red blood through its spout.

They were butchers who could cut up a whale and convert it into oil. They worked in gore, slipped on decks marinated in fat and blood, and lost their sense of smell  as the fishy stench of whale shit and blood festered out of the woodgrain in the tropical heat. If they fell from the rigging, dislocated a shoulder, or sliced themselves open flensing blubber from a whale they had to heal on their own. If their muscles ached and their teeth became loose then they were scorbutic and began to die in the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, barely subsisting on a diet of salted meat and dry crackers.

They were men who voyaged into the void of the ocean for three years at a time, self-contained in their 100-foot ships, self-sufficient with enough rations and water to keep them alive for months without going ashore. They sailed into the blank spaces on the charts, to places no hydrographer had surveyed, coming upon indigenous people who gawked at the tall ships cruising into idyllic atolls and Arctic straits, corrupting them with bottles of rum and firearms, then inevitably fighting them and leaving them to die with some new pestilence.

They sailed  to the antipodes where they could be beastly men far from the judgment of those they left behind.

They were whalers and they were fortune seekers a hot for a dollar as any prospector or ambitious American. They were the operators of the most complicated and highly engineered machines in existence: tall ships built to survive the caprices of the sea.  In those ships they prospered, and many died. In those ships they explored lands as alien as the planets they navigated by.

They were equivalent to  astronauts as they explored the blank spaces around the edges of the known world. Their space capsule was made of oak and pine; tar,  hemp and canvas; 100-foot, three-masted abattoirs that announced themselves by their stench wafting on the wind long before the emerged over the horizon.

They guessed where they were all the time, sailing with only a rough  idea of where they were and where they were going, but never exactly  sure until they sighted a known landmark. They existed as lost men lost in the void of the true blue sea.

They lived with doubt whenever they sailed. They rarely stopped, only going ashore and anchoring in ports where water and food could be found or bought,  and oil and bone could be sold. If they stopped then some would run away, undone by the constant anxiety of the endless blue water passages through doldrums and cyclones. They fled and hid until the ship sailed away, emerging from their hiding places to stand on the beach, new men becoming shuffling, sun-burned beachcombers and Crusoe’s beneaped and stranded  far from home.

The ones who stayed aboard placed their trust and lives in the abilities of the aloof figure who stood alone and unapproachable at the windward shrouds by the wheel. He was the only man aboard other than the mate, who had  the knowledge and the tools to find and measure the angles of the  sun and the moon and the stars. He was the only man who could calculate and note  in the ship’s log, with the shaky confidence of a scientist who doubts his tools — his hand wound chronometer gimballed in a box, the fogged, cracked glass of the  eyepiece of his spray warped    wood and ivory quadrant – the daily position of the ship. That made him the Master of the ship, the diviner of the celestial mysteries, the holder of the knowledge that made him king of the floating kingdom and kept his three dozen illiterate subjects obedient and at bay in their miserable lair under the deck of the ship’s bluff bow.

They were fugitives from justice, raging alcoholics, Wampanoag Indians in debt to English merchants, runaway slaves, green farm boys, and romantic dandies flunked out of college. They lived like scorbutic  troglodytes in narrow bunks, the walls of the ship oozing green mold in the tropics, stinking up the fug filled stagnant air with their coughs and their flatulence. They never bathed. Knowing how to swim only prolonged their agony should they fall overboard because the ship never stopped, and even if they were lucky enough to grab a line trailing astern, there was no way they could pull themselves back aboard. They deserted the first chance they could;  preferring to take their chances ashore with cannibals than remain aboard another day. They fled the ships  if their captain was foolish enough to come into a port and give them an option to run away but  most captains were too short-handed to offer them that temptation. So they stayed at sea for months at a time, never sure of where they were, depending on the captain’s incantations and formulas to There were no drugs to soothe the constant anxiety of life aboard a wooden sailing ship with no EPIRB beacons, no radios, no GPS plotters, not even charts of the oceans because in some cases they were the first men to visit the strange islands of the South Pacific or the desolate barren coasts of the arctic.

They drank out of desperation to numb themselves long enough to endure. They persevered if they didn’t desert and rode out the will of the sea and the temper of the captain until their ordeal was finally over and they were lucky to walk away with a sliver sized  share of the profits, barely enough to pay off their debts to the ship and to pay for a bender in a New Bedford brothel. They found themselves aboard again the following fall for lack of any other place to go in the society of the land.

These were the sort of  men that  Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr. — 29 years-old and the eldest son of the Handy-Nickerson clans of Cotuit Port —  was in command of in the spring of 1858, on the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix, as she tacked back and forth off the shores of Honolulu, her first captain going ashore all worn out and ill and incapable of command. Handy had shipped out two years before as the first mate of the Phoenix.  Now, on only his second whaling voyage, he was in command of 36 men desperate to follow their former captain ashore and be free from the fear of the summer ahead in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the worst waters on the planet, a sea covered by ice three-quarters of the year and fog the rest. A  bitterly cold stark place with rough shores with no ports, no charts, no brothels, nothing but sullen natives, deranged Russians on the edge of civilization, and vast herds of right whales congregating in the kitchen of the Pacific to feast on tons of microscopic plankton. They wouldn’t be alone. There would be hundreds of other ships, identical to their own, all of them  three-masted, tall ships painted black with sheer sides and blunt bows, floating factory ships designed to hunt, chase, kill and butcher the largest animals on the planet.

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Download link for Chapter One:

Chapter One The Wreck and War of Bethuel Gifford: The Wreck

The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy

One man’s adventures from the Gold Rush through a Siberian shipwreck to the Battle of New Orleans

Bethuel Handy was my great-great-grandmother Florentine’s big brother. He was born in Cotuit on Cape Cod in 1829 and was 74 years old when he died in 1904. I knew very little about him when I was growing up save for two detailed mentions in my great-great grandfather’s reminscences.

The first event occurred in October 1858 in the Sea of Okhotsk amongst the Shantar Islands, a wild archipelago that teems with bowhead whales, pilot whales,* beluga whales, killer whales, sea lions, Siberian tigers and Kamchatka brown bears. Bethuel was 29 years old and had been the captain of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix for all of six months after the ship’s original master, Joseph Hinckley of Centerville, fell ill just before she sailed from Hawaii to the frozen Russian sea in April of that year. It was his first command. He had been on only one other whaling voyage and now was captain of his second. The first was on his Uncle Horace Nickerson’s ship, the Massachusetts, and that is the second mention of Bethuel made by his brother-in-law, Thomas Chatfield.

Chatfield wrote an account of his life’s adventures for his four daughters in 1905.   Bethuel’s death may have caused the women to press their father to write down his sea stories  before he too slipped his hawser. So he wrote his autobiography and Bethuel did not, which meant all the family legend and lore of the Gold Rush, about whaling in the Pacific, capturing Confederate blockade runners off the Florida Keys were but one man’s version of events which only hinted at what Bethuel experienced in those same tumultous times.

For some reason no one in the family thought it worth disclosing that Bethuel married Thomas’s sister Mary.  I didn’t fully grasp the strangeness of that double-brother-in-law relationship until I subscribed to Ancestry.com and started building the family tree.  Thomas married Florentine Handy first, and then a few years later, Bethuel Handy married Mary Chatfield, the only girl in a family of ten btothers.  So I started musing about that kind of family dynamic and how uncommon it is, and how perhaps the isolation of Cotuit Port in the mid-19th century and  biological urges to mate with a new member of the gene pool from outside of the community, as well as the expediency of available eligible spouses at a time when a whaling voyage lasted three or more years, and well……it just seemed really weird to me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.

So I decided to learn more about Bethuel Handy. For the past five years I’ve been digging through the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the California Daily Alta, and talking to Handy’s descendants to find out what documents he may have left behind. The result was startling. Among the things I learned after a lifetime of hearing one version of events, were some startling truths that my family didn’t know. To wit:

  • Chatfield ran away from his home in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson in 1847 when he was sixteen years old. He had been working at a textile mill on Moodna Creek since the age of 12, forced into child labor by his father Nicholas, a destitute tanner with 11 children who had been expelled from England for refusing to pay a tax to the Church of England. When he met two brothers on a schooner from Cotuit at the quay of Albany he lied and told them his name was “John Thomas” and that he was recently arrived from England in search of his family, whom he had been told were somewhere along the Hudson, but now were apparently in Boston.
  • Chatfield maintained that alias and fictional story for years in Cotuit after he was taken in the Nickerson clan — Bethuel’s mother’s side of the family.  Bethuel learned the truth about his future brother-in-law in San Francisco during the Gold Rush when he happened to meet some sailors from the Massachusetts who knew Chatfield’s true identity. He confronted Chatfield about this fact back in Cotuit in the spring of 1853, and forbid the young man from marrying his sister Florentine until he returned to Cornwall to prove that he wasn’t a fugitive from justice.
  • Bethuel told the full story of his wreck in the Sea of Okhotsk to a reporter at the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta, in 1859
  • Bethuel’s experiences at a Russian fort over the winter of 1858-59 were shared by a young deserter from another ship, Daniel Weston Hall, who published an account of that winter in Siberia in a book Arctic Rovings
  • Bethuel’s experience as a volunteer office in the Union Navy during the Civil War was very different from Chatfield’s. Bethuel was assigned to a gunboat that was part of Admiral David Farragut’s assault and capture of New Orleans and siege of Vicksburg.
  • Bethuel was so unsettled by his wartime experience on the Mississippi River that he had a religious experience involving a promise to God to get baptized at the earliest opportunity should he survive the carnage aboard the gunship USS Wissahickon. When the ship was pulled out of the battleline by Farragut and sent to Philadelphia for repairs, Bethuel missed orders assigning him to a new ship. His excuse?  He was getting baptized. He was demoted as a result, and in a fit of anger resigned, leaving the service in 1862.

The revelations of this research convinced me it was worthy of a book. For the longest time I struggled to find the best way to tell Bethuel’s story.  Was it fodder for a novel? How could I fully explore the fascinating relationship between him and Chatfield on the basis of a few scanty newspaper clippings and ship logs? In the end I decided to first write the story as a diligently researched and attributed work of history, inserting my novelistic projections of the emotional lives of the two brothers-in-law where appropriate, but hewing closely to the factual footnoting and sourcing on the first draft.

I began writing in November of 2019 and finished the first draft in 100 days. Now, during the social distancing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m revising the manuscript, taking a machete to the text and removing the redundancies, re-ordering the chapter structure, and inserting — where it feels honestly appropriate — my own speculations into the untold story of these two men and their wives during a period of incredible change in society. These men were born at a time when they weren’t expected to live past 50 years. They were the last master mariners in the age of sail and experienced warfare aboard steam powered ships in a brutal war that introduced machines to warfare for the first time. They were true 49’ers — experiencing the phenomenon of the California Gold Rush first hand as young men. They were whalers at the peak of the golden age of that messy, profitable industry, capable of sailing tens of thousands of miles to the antipodes to hunt and massacre the biggest animals on the planet.  They lived dangerous lives, lives of uncertainty and fear with none of the conveniences we know today. No charts. No GPS. No engines. No communications. They lived most of their marriages apart from their wives, coming home long enough to impregnate those poor women with another baby, a child that would be born while they were at sea.  They were the generation that had to adapt to huge change — born in a world of candle light and wooden ships, dying in a world of telephones, electric light, automobiles and flight. They had no safety net. No social security. No medicine. Nothing but themselves and their knowledge of the sea and the stars.

And as I, along with the rest of the world, found myself contemplating my mortality as the killer virus threatened my ability to have a dinner out with my wife, I began to project myself into the minds of two very different men who lived parallel lives bound together by more than friendship and I wondered why one, the native son of Cotuit, Bethuel Handy, vanished from the village after the Civil War; and why the other, Chatfield, a fugitive who arrived in Cotuit a stranger under an alias, transformed himself from a brawling runaway into the cliche of the old salt, celebrated for his civic commitments, his Masonry, and his life simply because he wrote it down.

Anyway, as usual I digress. I thought I’d publish some of the first draft here in installments over the coming weeks. I don’t know what will happen to this work, eventually I’ll ask an agent to give it a look and seek out a publisher. But I know it is far from done, and won’t be done in my mind until I get myself to the Shantar Islands to see, with my own eyes, the place where two young men made their fortune and misfortune so far from home. I feel it’s time that Bethuel Handy get credit for an act of heroism on a level with Ernest Shackleton’s.

What follows is an account of Bethuel Handy’s wreck: Continue reading “The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy”

Bait & Tackle

It’s the end of July and time to start obsessing about bonito on the fly rod. Why I chase these tiny tuna is beyond me, other than the thrill of occasionally hooking one and the feeling like I’ve dipped my arms in electricity as the fish takes off like a nuclear torpedo and the fact that the sushi grade meat makes for great spicy tuna hand rolls. Other than that it’s an exercise in madness as the crazed schools erupt exactly where I’m not, and the other deranged fishermen fire up their outboards and fruitlessly chase the fish where they were, not where they’re going.

Dave’s Bait & Tackle

I had to clean up my collection of fishing rods a few weeks ago to get them ready for the visit of my two sons and son-in-law. That triggered a bout of obsessive compulsive washing, waxing, greasing, and repairs that in turn led to a long overdue sorting of lures, weights, and flies. All the lures I have scavenged from the flotsam of Dead Neck during my annual fall clean up needed to be cleaned up and get equipped with new hooks. Wire leaders needed to be untangled, fluke rigs needed to be tied, and before I knew it my boat shop had been turned into a bait and tackle store cluttered with boxes of fresh treble hooks, new bucktail jigs, split ring pliers, nail knot tools, stacks of Plano plastic boxes, my old surf bag, crimps, swivels, snap hooks, hook sharpeners, spools of flourocarbon leader material, and some massive wooden plugs the size of my feet.

I’m a big believer in giving my fishing tackle business to local shops. I invested in a new ultra-light spinning rod in June from my friend Peter Jenkins, waiting patiently for exactly the right reel to come back in stock (a Van Staal VR-50) before driving to Newport, RI to pick it up and catch up with Peter who’s an old friend from way back in the early Reel-Time.com days, and who bore witness to my one and only catch of a Spanish mackerel on the fly. I could have saved myself the trip and ordered the thing online from Peter’s shop — The Saltwater Edge — but it was far more satisfying to drive there on a beautiful June Saturday and actually watch him spool it up with some braided line.

But when it comes to the little stuff that I need a lot of — hooks in all their various sizes and configurations, tools and the hardware that a good fishing rigger needs — I have no problems turning to Amazon and getting precisely what I need rather than compromising in the aisles of my local bait shop. Compounding the problem is the lack of a decent bait and tackle in my neck of the woods here on the Cape. SportsPort used to be my second home back when Karen ran it, but a trip to Hyannis in the summer is a terrible thing and there simply isn’t enough room in any store — save the big box fishing places like Cabela’s — to stock everything I need.

What’s old is new again

Over the course of the past two weeks I’ve been sitting in my great-great-grandfather’s old captain’s chair on the threshold of the boat shop, looking out at the garden while the local family of ospreys screech and the hummingbirds have territorial dog fights around the feeder, sitting there popping off old rusty tetanus hooks and splitting over tiny stainless steel split rings, trying my best after a couple IPAs not to hook myself as I revive about $1000 worth of plugs.

Deadly Dicks, Swedish Pimples (which live in a box labelled “Pimple Dicks”) Kast-Masters, Ballistic Missiles, Atom Poppers, bucktails, circle hooks, Yozuri minnows, Hopkins spoons, Rapalas, Rattle-Traps ….. it’s been said that most fishing lures are designed to hook the buyer before the fish, and given the extent of my collection I won’t be buying any new ones any time soon. Funny, but the most effective and versatile thing is the probably the most traditional: the bucktail jig, a lead head with a hook, wrapped with a skirt of deer hair. Everything eventually eats a bucktail.

After the re-hooking and restoration of the lures, I turned to the fly rods. Lines needed to be replaced or cleaned. A dozen boxes of flies for everything from offshore fishing to bonefish on the Bahamian flats needed to be sorted or cleaned to rid them of the stink of chipmunk pee. I shook one flyrod case and a family of mice dropped out. Next time I’m wearing a respirator to spare myself some toxic hantavirus.

I tied my own leaders up by knotting together 30-lb, 20-lb, and 10-lb flourcarbon leaders. That forced me to relearn all the fishing knots I forget every year and so I sat with a YouTube demo running on my phone in my lap as my arthritic sausage fingers struggled with the nearly invisible pieces of expensive monofilament. Kreh’s Loop, Homer Rhodes, Palomar, Albright, improved cinch ….. rigging has always been my favorite job on a fishing expedition to the point where I rather be tying rigs and setting spreads than actually fishing. They say a good rigger is priceless in big game fishing tournaments, and I’ve watched some Florida pros rig live baits under kites and then threaten predacious seagulls with death-by-shotgun if they dare try to pick off a precious Goggle Eye.

It’s been said that most fish are caught the night before — meaning it pays to be prepared before actually wetting a line. Hooks have to be sharpened. Rigs specific to the fish one is likely to encounter need to be tied up with dropper loops for teasers, and bait hooks snelled onto hi-lo rigs. I guess that’s the part I like the most. The tying of flies, the inventory of materials, the boxes, the bins, the little tools and glues and tiny swivels……it’s all just a very OCD exercise that goes out the window when I actually get on the water make that first cast and holler “Fish On!” even when I’m fishing by myself.

So who knows what this coming late summer season will bring. I live on some of the best fishing water in the world, the northernmost point for tropical species like King Mackerel, Mahi-Mahi, Atlantic Bonito (and manatees), a peninsula named after the fish that made Massachusetts great once upon a time.

Planting Clams

While getting my first dinghy sticker at the Harbormaster’s office I bumped into my old friend and shipmate, Dan Horn, the harbormaster himself. I told him about a conversation I had the week before with two of his staff planting 25,000 baby oysters in Cotuit Bay.

A man and a woman wearing waders were working away in the mud, setting out dozens of bags of tiny oysters on racks designed to keep them off of the bottom. The man excitedly waved me over to look and told me what they were doing, setting out 25,000 oysters as part of the Department of Natural Resources’ aquaculture program and moving them out to deeper water at low tide where they would be submerged most of the time.

I asked him about the program and he and his colleague patiently talked about the town’s use of a FLUPSY (a floating upwelling system) to grow tiny seed oysters into full grown clams for the town’s recreational permit holders to harvest in the fall. She talked about the filtration effects of oysters on removing nitrogen from the water — basically a win-win for both the harbor and my belly. It looked like miserable work, humping bags of clams from their skiff to the racks, then moving the heavy “tables” back out to deeper water.

I asked them if they worked for the Harbormaster, and they laughed and said “He works for us.”

Whoever you work for, I said, they need to know you’re working overtime in the cold mud so some summer clammers like me can get a dozen Cotuit oysters for the table.

If I have to pay a new dinghy fee (subject of a future post) and my $25 can buy some more oysters to clean up the bay, then even that’s not enough. Lots of volunteers from the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishermen (like my step-father Warren Nickerson) wade into the mud alongside the staff and hump quahogs and oysters in relays from polluted waters to clean ones. Over and over and over.

Sampson’s Island/Dead Neck Dredging Update

Thanks to the “Drone guy” on YouTube, three drone videos of the dredging project  now underway in Cotuit.

From Capecod.com “The Department of Public Works, in collaboration with Three Bays Preservation, Massachusetts Audubon, and Barnstable County, began operations for dredging the Cotuit Bay Entrance Channel and the western tip of Sampson’s Island this week.
This phase of the project will widen the existing channel by approximately 130’ and the dredged material will be utilized for beach nourishment purposes on the southern side of the eastern end of the island at Dead Neck Beach and for a habitat enhancement area.
Weather pending, dredging operations will be on-going, Monday through Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. until completion of this phase of the project. Dredging operations are expected to be completed by January 15, 2019.”

Part 1 – November 23, 2018

Part 2 – December 29, 2018

Part 3 – January 1, 2019

A couple observations.

First and most noticable is the creation of a new area for nesting habitat to the east of the point. I assume this big “plain” of sand is intended to entice nesting terns to make their nests on a dune-like section of habitat.

Second is how little material seems to have been removed from the point of the island itself. The “new” point to the south of the original end of the island still is in place. This is near the area where some strange clay-like mud emerged a few years ago and apparently was dumped there by a past dredging project.

The fascinating thing to watch is in the third video where the drone flies all the way down the Seapuit River to show where the sand is being pumped to build up the eroded beach behind the jetty at the Wianno Cut. This is the section of the barrier beach with the most erosion standing as it does in the “lee” of the shorter rock jetty. Were there no cut and no jetties, Dead Neck would still be a “neck” attached to the mainland at Osterville. Since there is a cut (circa 1900), the jetties are blocking the natural littoral drift of the sand causing an imbalance that will always starve the eastern end of the island of sand.