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.

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

Woodsman, Spare That Tree

Behind the boat shed, on the property line between my good neighbors Phil and Beth, looming over the roof of the sail loft and the far back corner of my property, stands a towering honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos). I’ve written about my love-hate affair with this same tree before ( when I ranted about the “tree turds” the old timer manages to produce and drop onto the back yard each and every fall.

Honey Locust seed pods. Take one of these and repeat several hundred times every windstorm and you learn to despise these tree turds.

I have no idea how old the tree is, but despite the mess it makes, I’ve always been fond of it, respecting its survival instincts when nearly every other tree on the property has succumbed to winter gales or late summer hurricanes at one time or another. I also suspect whomever planted it was a serious tree connoisseur, because elsewhere on the perimeter of the property once grew a majestic black cherry and an English chestnut. The cherry tree, which gave up the ghost on Christmas morning 2017 during a sudden whiteout snow squall, dropped black fruit over the yard every summer which managed to stain bare feet purple and induce shrieks of horror in my wife when she discovered someone’s purple footprints tracked all over the rugs. The chestnut drops spiked nuts all over the sidewalk, green caltrops that cause shrieks from the little kids walking barefoot to their sailing lessons.

According to Wikipedia a honey locust is:

  • a relatively short-lived tree with a life span of 120 years. That means this tree was probably planted around 1900 or later. I’m guessing by the same person who thought it wise to plant the cherry and the chestnut.
  • considered an invasive species — especially in Australia where everything not from Australia goes root and goes beserk
  • used in new developments and on compromised land without a steady water supply to provide fast shade.
  • normally is covered with wicked thorns that can be turned into primitive needles or fishing hooks.

My tree doesn’t have the thorns, but it does have the little leaves and the seed pods of the species. My good friend has a honey locus in his yard, just as big as mine, but his has a rope swing hanging from one branch, and the trunk is studded with the dreadful thorns like some psycho horror movie tree that can talk and impales misbehaved children who dare to ride its swing.

Shading the sail loft

After Phil and Beth moved in a couple years ago and finished restoring the houuse, the locust dropped a big branch onto their driveway, barely missing a parked car. Phil was astonished by the tree turds and how they seemed to keep dropping in an endless supply every time the wind blew hard or a storm swept through.

Last summer, after nearly decapitating myself taking a fallen Norway Maple off of the roof of my garage, I gave up any delusions of being a competent tree surgeon and called a professional, a local outfit called Treefrog. I asked them to get the maple off the garage, to finish removing the old cherry, another dead maple at the end of the driveway, and to please give the honey locus and the chestnut tree some love by cleaning out the deadwood and giving them a good going over.

The foreman on the job took me aside when his crew was finishing up and told me that the honey locust was the most beautiful specimen he had ever seen. I was glad he gave it a bill of good health.

Then one day this spring Phil and I conferred on matters related to our property line [insert the tired cliche of good fences make good neighbors here] and he floated the idea of cutting the honey locust down because of the risk it posed to his cars and the atrocious mess the tree turds caused.

Suddenly I got all sentimental about the tree. I told Phil what the expert told me, that the tree was healthy and an amazing specimen, but I had to put my usual reactionary aversion to change aside and agree with his reasons for cutting it down.

My “woodsman, spare that tree” lament went something like this: “That thing is twice as old as we are. It survived at least six hurricanes, including 1938 and 1944 when very few trees in Cotuit survived. Squirrels and chipmunks crave the seed pods and sit on the fence eating them like cobs of corn. It shades the site of the first Masonic temple in Cotuit — my great-great grandfather’s sail loft, and has shaded four generations of Chatfields and Churbucks during summer chowder parties and other celebrations. Now it’s going to die.”

I made the case for keeping the tree, but I was resigned to see it go. Look at the bright side I told myself. No more tree turds. No more worries about English Ivy choking the bark of the trunk. No crushed cars or pedestrians. More sun for the rose bushes, less of a threat to the dilapidated boat shop and sail loft.

But deep down inside I was getting more sad about the tree than I expected. I’ve never planted a tree. I’m not a big celebrator of Arbor Day and I am quick to pull out the chain saw to do away with a shitty tree like a pernicious maple trying to undermine the foundation of the house. But this tree had a hold on me. I stare at its branches through the skylight over the bed in the winter. In the summer, when its leaves finally fill in (later than other trees), the entire canopy makes a soothing susurration in the breeze. I started to mourn it, staring at it all this past spring like I was saying goodbye to it.

On Monday of this week Phil called to let me know the tree service was coming the next day to take out a shattered maple and take care of the honey locust. Yesterday their trucks backed down the driveway, a man in a hard hat ascended in a bucket truck, and by 10 am his chain saw was making short work of the maple.

I took a few farewell pictures of the tree, recalling John Cheever’s beautiful description in his novel Oh What a Paradise It Seems of Connecticut’s former elm trees before the Dutch blight killed them all off in the 1960s.:

“He was old enough to remember when the horizons of his country were dominated by the beautiful and lachrymose wine-glass elm tree and when most of the bathtubs one stepped into had lion’s claws. “

I was sad. “Woodsman spare that tree,” I muttered to myself as I went to work and avoided going outside the rest of the day to witness the felling of the tree. I wanted to put it out of my mind and vowed to plant another tree, maybe not a honey locust, but the same impulse that makes people rush out and buy a puppy after an old beloved dog passes away.

The end of the maple, the honey locust stand on death row to the left.

Late yesterday afternoon Phil called. His tree surgeon had said the same thing my guy said — the tree was special and shouldn’t be cut down. Beth agreed. Phil agreed, and with true tears in my eyes I stepped out of the boat shop and looked up at my old friend and smiled. It sports a few steel cables in its canopy and some deadwood is gone, but it still stands and hopefully will stand for a long time to come.

Still standing after all these years.

Presentation of my Sampson’s Island lecture

I delivered my lecture on the history of Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck, and the related history of the Osterville Cut last night to a standing room only crowd at the Cotuit Library.

The lecture was recorded and as soon as it’s posted on the website of the Historical Society of Santuit-Cotuit I’ll add a link. In the meantime, here’s a PDF of my slides and speaker notes.

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.

Nevil Shute’s Cotuit Connection

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 Captivity which 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.

shute3

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

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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?

Stay tuned.

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Nevil Shute, via Wikipedia

Update 2018.04.07: My neighbor Phil has joined the hunt. Evidently we aren’t the only ones with questions.

http://www.johnfowles.org.uk/nevilshute/capecodweekendreport.htm