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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spoiler alert: if you are from Cotuit and want to read the book described below, stop now
Nevil Shute was an English author and aeronautical engineer best remembered for his post-nuclear apocalypse novel, On the Beach. I bumped into his writing as a kid reading a truncated version of his classic Trustee of the Toolroom that had been butchered and stuck in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.
Recently I downloaded a ton of classic lit from Project Gutenberg and epubbooks.com and came across a copy of Shute’s An Old Captivitywhich I loaded into my Kindle and started to read during my commute. It takes place in the 1930s and is about a young Scottish pilot named Donald Ross who scrounges around London for a flying job and is referred to an Oxford don, an archaeologist who is planning an expedition to Greenland to perform an aerial survey of an abandoned Viking settlement on the south coast.
After ordering a new seaplane from an American manufacturer, Ross, a former bush pilot who flew float planes in Labrador and up to Hudson Bay in Canada, fits it out for the long flight from Great Britain to Iceland and then eventually onwards across the Atlantic to Greenland.
During the layover in Reykjavik, Ross seeks out a druggist to get some pills to help him sleep due to the long hours and stress of overseeing the safety of the professor and his somewhat surly daughter. These pills evidently have the desired effect and Ross is able to catch up on his sleep before the long, grueling flight west to the ice-strewn coast of Greenland.
Ross likes these pills and begins to depend on them, but they seem to have the opposite effect and he gets unhinged and suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress and strain of flying over ice floes and perpetual fog banks. The professor and his daughter confiscate the drugs and Ross passes out for 36 hours into a coma-like sleep.
The novel shifts to an extended dream sequence in which Ross imagines himself to be a young slave owned by Leif Erikson, son of Eric the Red, founder of the first settlement on Greenland around 982 CA. The dream imagines Ross paired with another slave, a girl, and they are put aboard a Viking longboat (known as a knarr) after another expedition of discovery returns from a voyage to the west and reports the sighting of forested land but no landing due to the timidity of the Viking captain, one Bjarni. Erikson, infuriated, sets out to explore this land and Ross’s dream imagines the long sail to the coast of Newfoundland where the expedition party goes ashore and founds the settlement known today as L’Anse aux Meadows.
So I’m reading along, a little indifferent to the narrative because it’s a weird shift from the brutal realism and details of arctic aviation circa 1936 and because I know a little about Erikson’s purported expeditions to Canada and New England. There’s lots of local lore and conjecture about Viking settlements in New England, none with much conclusive evidence. There’s Dighton Rock
The runes carved onto Dighton Rock, from Wikipedia
in the Taunton River in Berkely, Massachusetts and also claims that the Viking land of “Vinland” was actually on Cape Cod near Bass River and a place called Follins Pond
“Holes drilled into rocks along water ways and former water routes have been classified as Norse “mooring holes” by some writers. Presumably, when landing in areas where a speedy departure might be necessary, the Norse drilled a hole in a suitable rock and inserted a mooring pin into it. The pin was attached by a line to the ship. When mooring, the Norse inserted the pin into the hole. For departing they simply tugged on the line, pulled out the mooring pin and stored it for use the next time they landed.
The holes are about 3 cm in diameter and about 12 to 15 cm deep, usually triangular in shape. Several series of holes have been identified as evidence of Norse landings. One was located on Bass River, the outlet for Follins Pond on Cape Cod. Two others were found on the shore of Follins Pond itself and the nearby Mill Pond, close to where Frederick Pohl had predicted they should be if the Norse had stayed there.”
Whatever the historical record and theories may hold, Shute continues the dream voyage from Newfoundland and I started to wonder if the shoreline was meant to be the beach of the outer Cape from Provincetown down to Monomoy Island. The Viking ship turns west at the end of the sandy strand and I started to wonder if Shute was implying Erikson had sailed along the southern coast of Cape Cod.
The knarr enters a bay in Ross’s dream and the slave and his girl companion are told to explore the forested shores and report back in a few days on their findings. I’m by this point trying to imagine if they are roaming around the upper Cape, but dismiss the hunch and keep reading as the two slaves run through the forest marveling at the landscape before returning to the bay where Erikson waits.
Before departing the two slaves — evidently Celtic prisoners captured in some coastal raid by the Vikings on Scotland or Ireland — carve their names into a stone using Norse runic characters, they set this stone on a hill overlooking the bay and sorrowfully leave aboard the boat to head back to Greenland.
Ross wakes up after his long nap and is very deranged by the dream and begins babbling about what he saw. The archaeologist encourages him to share every detail and confides to his daughter that Ross is eerily correct about certain details of the Leif Erikson saga he couldn’t have known but perhaps had come across in some prior reading.
The trio finish their aerial photography survey of the abandoned settlement (the archaeologist believe a Celtic church may be found by analyzing the photos and thus prove that Irish sailors like Saint Brendan had also made their way to Greenland) and pack up the plane to fly it to Canada where it will be sold and they will sail back to England on a Cunard liner.
Ross lands in Hallifax, Nova Scotia and they rest for a spell before pushing on to New York City where the plane’s buyer plans on meeting them. As they fly over the Gulf of Maine from Nova Scotia, Ross sights the curved hook of Provincetown and descends, excitedly proclaiming that the landscape and beach are exactly as he dreamt them. The professor and his daughter grow alarmed as the sea plane flies only a hundred feet above the beach. At Chatham they turn west and skirt the coast. Now here’s the payoff:
“He throttled back, and circled out to sea. The yellow seaplane sank towards the water; presently he opened up again and flew towards the harbour entrance about thirty feet above the water. “This is the place,” he said. They passed the sand spit and flew on above the placid inland water, with Osterville Grand Island on their right hand and Cotuit on the left. They passed on between the wooded shores into the Great Bay and turned to the north. A narrow, river–like stretch of water led inland with wooded country to the west and fairly open, parklike country to the east. They shot up this at ninety miles an hour; it opened out into a still, inland lagoon completely surrounded by the woods. The pilot took the seaplane up to about three hundred feet, and circled round.”
Okay, so my hunch was right. Shute imagined Erickson came into Cotuit Bay and dropped anchor up in North Bay or Prince’s Cove. Ross lands the plane in North Bay — where the gameshow host Gene Rayburn used to land his seaplane in the 1960s, and goes ashore with the professor’s daughter. At the top of a hill they see a stone buried in the dirt and unearth it. The professor confirms it is a geological “erratic” of the type of stone used by the Vikings for ballast. They clean it off and of course aren’t surprised to find the runic carvings of the slaves in the dream.
So that’s pretty cool, but here’s the mystery for me: did Nevil Shute spend time in Cotuit before World War II? If so who was his host? I know two summer families who’s patriarchs were flyers in the RAF. Could one of them be the connection? And what about that stone? Would Shute have thought it clever to carve one up and hide it somewhere on the bluff over looking North Bay, where it probably was destroyed by some new McMansion? And is it a coincidence that there is an actual Nevil Shute fan club on Cape Cod, organized by a married couple in Osterville? And that the world convention of Shute fans came to Cape Cod several years ago?
Nevil Shute, via Wikipedia
Update 2018.04.07: My neighbor Phil has joined the hunt. Evidently we aren’t the only ones with questions.
One unique aspect of a life lived on Cape Cod is the relative youth of the geology compared to the continent of America to the west. The iconic upraised arm of a sand spit was only formed 25,000 years ago at the end of the Laurentide Ice Age, a mere blink of an eye in terms of geological time spans. I know enough about coastal geology to be a dangerous tyro, having fulfilled my college science requirement with “Rocks for Jocks,” and from reading Robert N. Oldale’s classic book for the layperson: Cape Cod and the Islands – The Geologic Story (free to download from the USGS in pdf format). Bob Oldale was a good friend of my mom and dad, and he and his wife Gail carved an incredible eagle and quarterboards for my father’s Wianno Senior #140, the Snafu III.
It’s been said that there is a lake or pond on Cape Cod for every day of the year. I’ve fished some of them, but this is post isn’t about bodies of water, but deep, steep-walled holes in the terrain that were formed by melting blocks of ice embedded in the outwash plain of the melting glacier that flowed south from the Laurentian section of Canada, leaving behind a huge deposit of sand, boulders and artifacts that comprise Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Oldale describes how kettle holes were formed:
“Outwash deposits also form a highly irregular and unorganized morphology called kame and kettle terrain. A kame is a knoll or hill composed of outwash deposits, which originally filled a hole in the ice.ice. When ice melted away, the deposits collapsed to form a hill. A kettle is just the opposite of a kame. The outwash was deposited around and over an ice block. When the ice block melted away, the outwash collapsed to form a hole. Figure 9 shows the relationship between buried ice and collapse morphology in kettle holes and the ice-contact head of outwash.”
Some of these chunks of ice were very big and left behind the ponds and lakes that give rise to the adage that there is a different pond to fish in for every day of the year on the Cape. Kettle holes however, are mostly dry with boggy bottoms where they touch the lens of fresh water beneath that comprise the Cape’s single supply of water.
There are a cluster of these holes in the Santuit Village section between Cotuit and Mashpee south of Lovell’s and Santuit Ponds. On the eastern banks of the Santuit River, by the fabled Wampanoag Trout Mound, is a cranberry bog purported to the be the first commercial cranberry operation started by A.D. Makepeace, the entrepreneur who’s cultivation of cranberries led to the founding of the modern day Ocean Spray company. Further east, beside the Isiah Thomas Book Store on Route 28 and the colonial Crocker House (formerly the Regatta Restaurant, now known as Villagio’s) are two perfect kettle holes to the north and south of the highway, available for a quick glimpse as one drives to Falmouth or Hyannis.
These are very deep, crater-like formations with steep banks. Some are 50 feet deep by my estimate and seem to have their own unique ecosystem of cedars, red maples, and other swamp vegetation.
The recently opened network of trails in Mashpee’s Santuit Pond Preserve offer some good views of abandoned cranberry bogs as well as an exceptional kettle hole off of the trail that skirts the eastern bank of the Santuit River south of the new herring ladder (the trailhead and parking lot is on Route 130 to the southeast of the Access Auto Shell Station). It’s a great two hour hike through some of the most historical landscape on the Cape. The Wampanoag tribe’s traditional center is in the area, including the site of the original church built by Richard Bourne in the 1660s on Briant’s Neck, the Trout Mound, and the site of the Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1838.
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.