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.

Pink skies at night: Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light

One of the classic books on the Cape Cod shelf of my over-stuffed bookshelf is a gorgeous collection by Joel MeyerowitzCape Light

“…an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in over 350 exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world. He was born in New York in 1938. He began photographing in 1962. He is a “street photographer” in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, although he now works exclusively in color. As an early advocate of color photography (mid-60’s), Meyerowitz was instrumental in changing the attitude toward the use of color photography from one of resistance to nearly universal acceptance. His first book, Cape Light, is considered a classic work of color photography and has sold more than 150,000 copies during its 30-year life.”

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Cape Light is still in print and can be found on Amazon. If you are into gorgeous photography, I recommend it.

The photographs were shot with a large-format camera – using 8″x10″ film — and I recall from the preface that the camera was a gorgeous work of art in and of itself.

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Dairyland, Provincetown, Cape Cod, 1976 by Joel Meyerowitz

What is special about the book, especially while writing this on a grey day in mid-March when snow flurries are scudding across a bleak yard littered with broken sticks and honey locust pods, is that Meyerowitz managed to catch one of the most ineffable things about life on Cape Cod, that rosy, pink glow that tinges summer clouds in the evening with a lambent poetry I have never seen anywhere else in my travels. Cape Cod is an east-facing land — the Wampanoags were known to their fellow Algonquin tribes as the “People of the Dawn” and the peninsula is, as one of the easternmost promontories in America, a place to celebrate sunrises, not sunsets.

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But Provincetown and Truro, the upraised “fist” of the Cape where Meyerowitz set up his camera in the early 70s, is one of the few and only places where a decent sunset can be observed over a watery horizon in all of the eastern United States.

The pink that permeates so many of his shots — who knows why it occurs here especially. The reflection of the sea around the land? Some cloud chemistry having to do with summer humidity and the polluted air that washes over the Cape from New York City and New Jersey on the summer’s southwesterly prevailing winds?

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Whatever the cause, it comes in the spring and ends in the fall — the sunsets of November turning ominous like the eye of Sauron over Mordor as if to warn the Pilgrims to start gathering their corn and make ready for the harsh winter that follows. I haven’t seen that tell-tale glow yet this year, March continues to come in as a lion and I need to plant my St. Patrick’s Day peas today in the barren garden for my 4th of July salmon and peas supper, but it’s coming. The boats are ready. The crocuses and hyacinths are blooming and any day now the peep-peep cries of the ospreys will begin and the tinklepinks will sing in the bogs.

I have a strange affinity for photographs that show the horizon between sky and water. Andreas Gursky’s Rhien II was on display at Christie’s in New York City a few years ago, prior to its setting the auction record for a photograph, and I remember being captured by it and lusting for it for reasons I couldn’t explain. Enough so that it’s been the desktop background of my PC ever since.

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Another amazing artist of sky and horizons and the sea is Australian photographer Murray Fredericks. His video essay of his expedition to the salt lake of Australia’s Lake Eyre is hauntingly evocative of something vast and empty that gets me right here.

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I don’t know if it comes from sailing offshore out of the sight of land that makes seascapes and horizons such a big thing for me. My inept attempts at celestial navigation during my yacht delivery days gave me a technical appreciation of the horizon, of how it changes depending on the eye’s height from the water, how the sextant brings down the celestial body to kiss it in a swing of the split mirror, rocking it from side to side to find a good angle then calling out “mark!” to note the precise time. But it’s also the point of interface for the eye, the not knowing what lies over it in the distance, the inability to see the curve of the earth, the way a rising or setting sun or moon can be seen to move so subtly when they are close to the line.

 

 

Jumping the gun

The last two weekends of February were surprisingly warm on Cape Cod so what’s a person to but go clamming and paint boats? It was 60 and sunny when I decided to squeeze into a pair of uninsulated waders and scratch around for some quahogs off of Lowell Point. My lower extremities turned into popsicles but I wanted some chowder and would not be denied. A pair of beach walkers cocooned in their down coats took a seat on the stairs leading up to the old Lowell estate and watched me pull one clam after another out of the hard bottom.

A clam warden appeared out of nowhere. The relay off of the point is next to the town dock so it’s not hard for the department of natural resources staff to swing down in their truck and see if anyone is out there. A few years ago there was a lot of pissed off clammers after some local Wampanoags cleared out the beds under the cover of their native riparian rights so that stretch of beach tends to get a lot of scrutiny. The town with the help of the volunteers of the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishers “relays” clams from high up in the bays where the water is a little more stagnant and polluted down to the lower harbor and so-called relay bed where they can flush out in cleaner water until they’re safe to eat.

The warden called out to me, asked how I was doing, asked me to show him my basket and to give him my license number. I was too far out to feel sociable and it was too cold to wade back ashore and then out again, so we conversed through shouts for five minutes before he was satisfied I was legit and only grabbing three dozen quahogs for my dinner.

It was quite nice to stretch out on the back deck with a knife and open said clams and then turn them into a winter chowder. Something about the smell and taste of plain clam chowder makes me realize the “terroir” of Cotuit is the particular smell of its antidiluvian black mud which comes through its clams and chowder.

The following weekend was just as warm, and with temperatures in the mid-60s I turned on the outside faucets, dragged out the house, and set to work on the motorboat and the sloop. Nothing like the lung searing fumes of hull cleaner to get one awake, but in eight hours of non-stop work I was able to paint a total of 51-feet of bottom with antifouling paint, right down to a fresh boot-top of red on the motorboat.

I left the motorboat in the middle of the lawn, daring to think for a moment I might launch and be on the water in February when the usual first launch is in April. But no. Hubris is a bitch and now the boat still rests in the middle of the lawn covered with a half-foot of cold, cold now and another foot is predicted tonight and tomorrow. At least they’re painted and I can cross that off the list — the first time in my memory I’ve checked off antifouling paint day in February.

With the crocuses buried and the tulips and daffodils utterly confused at this point, next up in the harbinger list are the arrival of the ospreys and the planting of my peas on St. Patrick’s day. With tomorrow’s yet-to-be named blizzard on its way, I doubt either will happen this week.

 

 

Boat pulling day

I’m pulling the big boat today, taking a personal day to get it done, and blogging in between the early morning mast-pulling and the actual haul-out later this afternoon.  I got over to the town dock by 8:30 this morning, shrouds all slack and ready to be detached from the chain-plates; mast wedges, tabernacle boot, boom and all the lines detached and coiled last Saturday. The harbor has really emptied out in the past week, as if a light switch was thrown after Columbus Day when the launch service stops running and the boat yards and mooring servicers swing into action putting things to bed.

The timing couldn’t be better as the cormorants have found the boat and started to turn it into their personal guano depository. The splatter effects are as bad as past years, but the power washer will be working overtime this weekend before I wrap everything up, run some antifreeze through the engine, change the oil and put her to sleep for the winter. I’ll leave the motorboat in until the middle of next month, but thanks to the new dinghy rules that force me to get my tender off the beach by the middle of November, that will get yanked in a month as well.

 

I hate taking days off from work to get this done, but when Peck’s calls, one answers. Now I can stop freaking out watching Matthew and Nicole and the freak storm waiting in the wings and sleep solidly not worrying about my poor boat getting pooped on in the harbor.

 

Sucker for an aerial photo

Cousin Tom from Maine was in Cotuit for Thanksgiving and brought over his quadcopter drone for a demo flight on Friday afternoon. After some calibration and set-up he lifted it off the ground and drove it around the neighborhood, using the onboard camera and a Nexus 7″ tablet to provide some thrills.  Here’s a shot of the Chatfield compound in the center of the village with the all-but-boatless harbor in the background, the barrier island of Dead Neck.Sampson’s and Nantucket Sound beyond (double-click the picture for a full view).

wpid-cotuitair.jpgHe has the DJI Phantom 2 drone with GPS and a first-person view camera mounted on under-belly gimbals  It’s good to an altitude of 5,000 feet and a range of 3/4 of a mile. The tablet view works best if you stand in the shade. This is his second rig in as many months, the first suffering a “sudden loss of altitude” and a splashdown in Damariscotta Bay. At $1,000 and change, that is an expensive rowboat anchor, and having myself once turned a huge radio-controlled, gas-powered Piper Cub with a seven-foot wingspan into an expensive lawn dart thanks to not remembering to fully extend the controller’s radio antenna, I know the anguish and expense of airborne disaster.

I want one. I really want one. Yet I also realize it would turn me into that guy: the paste-eating weenie freaking out the neighbors with his eye-in-the-sky. While an aerial movie of a Cotuit Skiff race would be very cool, I think the fun would wear off after the sixth flight or first disaster. Cousin Tom is a realtor, so he gets some benefits in displaying the houses he’s listing.

Here’s a shot of the Cotuit Kettleers’ home field, Lowell Park, taken by Tom on Thanksgiving with the leaves all blown down by the recent rain storms. All those woods from right field to the lower left corner of the picture are for sale and the Barnstable Land Trust needs to raise $560,000 in the next four weeks to save them from the invasion of the Starter Castles. Dig deep people. I’m going to give twice (and don’t forget to throw some $$$ at the Cotuit Athletic Association to keep the Kettleers and Lowell Park the best they can be.

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Dead Neck Dredging Update: ConCom approves reduced plan

The long standing proposal to cut off the western tip of Sampson’s Island and pipe the sand east to the Osterville end of the barrier beach moved forward last week (Oct. 30, 2014), when the Barnstable Conservation Commission approved the revised application by the owners of the island, Massachusetts Audubon and Three Bays Preservation. The approved plan reduces the amount of dredging from the original request to shave off 800 feet (or 233,000 cubic yards) from the Cotuit end of the spit, in half to 400 feet and 133,600 feet.

Lindsay Counsell, the executive director of Three Bays told the Cape Cod Times the reduction means another permit will need to be filed in six years in order to keep up with the constant drift of sand from the eastern, Wianno Cut end to the Cotuit end. The point of Sampson’s has changed dramatically in recent years, with shoaling reducing the width of the channel and forming a “bulb” on the Nantucket Sound side of the spit, revealing an interesting bank of clay-like material. Public opinion has been mixed — according to the Times article, the ConCom received an equal number of letters and statements for and against the proposal.

I’ve been for the plan from the beginning based on the historical configuration of the beach, the fact it was last cut back in the late 60s, and that the “natural” evolution of the spit is in fact man-made due to the decision to break Dead Neck in the early 1900s with the Wianno Cut — the breakwaters effectively blocking the natural littoral drift of the sand and forcing, a hundred years later, dredging to restore some semblance of equilibrium. A breach of Dead Neck would imperil navigation through the Seapuit River; the spoils will build up the beach and create more nesting habitat for piping plovers and terns; and widening the Cotuit entrance will dissuade fools from swimming the channel, ease navigation, and slightly improve tidal flushing.

I empathize with those who love to sit on the point of the island in the summer months, but trust they will still find a sandy stretch on the cut back island. I disagree with the environmental argument that this is messing with mother nature — historical charts indicate a far different configuration before man-made interference and man-made steps are required to get the place back to some semblance of its natural state. This is private property, a long standing bird refuge for endangered species, and not a public beach. The caretakers are within their rights to expect regulations will be followed.

I have no idea if this is the final step in the long process or even when if ever the dredge will arrive and begin work.

Cape Cod Times Article