Fun dinner with the crew in Woods Hole.
“The older we get the faster we were.” – anon.
Books, boats, history and the itch to write about those things
Stuff I couldn’t live without ….
Fun dinner with the crew in Woods Hole.
“The older we get the faster we were.” – anon.
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.
Thirty-five year ago this amazing woman, Daphne Mallan Fullerton, married me in Cotuit at the Federated Church. We were 24 years old, the first of our friends to get hitched. We embarked on a life together that has made me rich with a loving family, a happy home, and a deep abiding friendship that has endured everything that came our way.
In which I go back to the past and get myself a buckling spring keyboard.
I am typing this on a Unicomp EnduroPro keyboard. PC users of a certain age who used the original IBM PC in the early 1980s will remember the massive keyboards that came with the first machines. Heavy, beefy, noisy monsters that weighed enough to break a big toe should one drop it.
These keyboards are a far cry from the plastic contemporaries turned out by Logitech and Microsoft. There are no special shortcut keys, no split layouts that purport to be more ergonomic. Just big raised keys that make a strangely satisfying click as their “buckling spring” mechanism kicks in and lets you know that you are actually typing and getting stuff done.
I have the version with an integrated TrackPoint pointing device — complete with the familiar red cap found on Lenovo’s ThinkPads. I’m a big fan of the pointing stick because it means I don’t need to take my right hand off of the keys to find a mouse and click on something. Alas, the Unicomp driver doesn’t let one adjust the sensitivity of the pointer, and on my Windows machine the thing is way too twitchy to get much done.
But typing is another thing all together. The tactile and auditory feedback is very satisfying, especially if you type with only index fingers and thumbs like I do. This is a keyboard that brings me back to the days of actual mechanical typewriters and now that I hear and feel things the way I used to when I write I actually feel invigorated by the experience.
Rudyard Kipling wrote an essay about his desk which can be found in John Hersey’s excellent compendium of writers writing about writing, The Writer’s Craft. Kipling described how everything had to be arranged just so in order for the muse to inspire him, describing how every detail of the desk in front of his eyes had to be perfect in order for the mystical experience of creativity to flourish. Other writers have mused about the impact of their tools on their craft. William F. Buckley’s mused about the impact of the first word processors and XyWriute on his writing. David McCullough continues to bang out his work on a manual typewriter. Jack Kerouac fed a continuous roll of butcher paper into his typewriter so as not to interrupt his steam of consciousness when he wrote On the Road.
I won’t get into the fundamental truth that writing on any device connected to the internet is a recipe for distraction and procrastination. But for now, this $105, seven-pound revival of the original PC keyboard is making me very happy.
Spotify Playlist Link (if you can’t get to the link, my spotify user name is “davidchurbuck”)
In the spirit of former Wall Street Journal and Forbes Editor Norman Pearlstine’s quest to build the ultimate 90-minute rock & roll mix tape: which songs should go on the ultimate playlist of Boston-oriented rock and roll? Candidate songs should be by Boston-area bands or mention Boston in either title or lyrics. Here, with the assistance of my musical colleagues at Acquia (Chris Rogers and his wife Courtney Rau, DC Denison, David Butler, David Pierce, and others Massholes), is the work in progress.
Siege, Drop Dead
The Joe Perry Project
Sleepy LaBeef: Raynham resident, long time house band at Alan’s Truck Stop in Amesbury
Seth Putnam and any of his unspeakable bands
Tavares (Providence, RI but ended up in New Bej)
Ray LaMontagne – Nashua by birth, Massachusetts by residence now (I thought so)
Next steps: put this list in the right sequence per the advice given by John Cusack in High Fidelity about how the order of songs on a mix tape is as important as their selection.
“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules. “
Feel free to collaborate in the comment with suggestions or questions.
I’m a dog person who started life as a cat person. I grew up with a pair of yowling Siamese cats acquired in Houston in the early 60s, but will always remember my first dog, a mutt named Sam Houston who rubbed his butt on the floor to my immense amusement. Sam Houston vanished to the “farm” one day and I had to be content with the two cats until the arrival of a black labrador retriever named Mildred Midnight (Churbuck dogs were generally female and named after deceased great aunts or former girlfriends).
Once we moved to Cotuit in 1991 my wife Daphne decided country sea-side life required a sea-side dog. She did her research and found a breeder of Skye Terriers in Western Massachusetts. She had always been a terrier person, growing up around Yorkshire Terriers and had always admired the Skye breed from her childhood in Paris. She came home with a little puppy whom I named “Harry” because he was hairy.
Skye terriers were once one of the most popular breeds in England due to Queen Victoria’s love of them and the legend of Greyfriar’s Bobby — a story that became the subject of a book by the same name which was filmed by Disney. Bobby was a Skye terrier puppy abandoned in 19th century Edinburgh by his owner, a night watchman named John Gray who passed away in a rooming house near Greyfriar’s Kirk, or churchyard. After Gray was buried in the Greyfriar cemetery Bobby guarded the grave for 14 years and became a sensation in the Scottish city, with patrons of a local pub keeping the dog fed and comfortable through its heroic vigil. After Bobby died in 1872 a statue was erected in his honor.
Today the breed “one of the most endangered native dog breeds in the United Kingdom” according the the UK’s Kennel Club. When my wife acquired Harry the breed was ranked absolutely last on the American Kennel Club’s list of the most popular breeds.
Skyes are considered the oldest of the terrier breed and are speculated to have come to Britain from the wreck of a Spanish galleon during the disastrous rout of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in a storm which blew the Spanish fleet across the Irish Sea and beyond. Their name comes from the Isle of Skye on the northwestern coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides archipelago (home to one of my favorite single malt scotches: Talisker.) The dogs were prized for their long coats and low, extended bodies. Think of a full sized dog with tiny legs that looks like a hair covered caterpillar. That hair hangs over their face like a sheepdog’s, giving them face-first protection when they chase a fox or otter into a rocky crevice or hole.
According to Wikipedia:
“Skye Terriers were first described in the sixteenth century,when it was already noteworthy for its long coat. Some confusion exists in tracing its history because, for a certain time, several different breeds had the same name “Skye Terrier”. The loyal dog, present under the petticoat of Mary, Queen of Scots at her execution, has been ascribed as a Skye Terrier. In 1840, Queen Victoria made the breed fancy, keeping both drop-(floppy) and prick-(upwards) eared dogs.
This greatly increased its popularity and the Skye Terrier came to America due to this. The AKCr ecognized the breed in 1887, and it quickly appeared on the show scene. Its popularity has significantly dropped and now it is one of the least known terriers. There is little awareness of its former popularity.”
Harry and I had a special relationship reflected in his insistence on being near me at all times, and my giving him multiple names ranging from the “Scottish Shit Pig” to “Kenneth Branagh.” He had an immense jaw and a rack of teeth that would make a Rotweiler jealous. I think we waited a bit too long to neuter him as he was oversexed his entire life and was fond of dragging the children’s stuffed animals onto the lawn and raping them while the summer walkers on Main Street marveled at his rutting diligence. His coat was a wiry misery of mats, burrs, sticks and leaves. He was remarkably fast for a dog with nearly no legs, and a great game that amused the children was called “Where’s Daddy?” in which I would hide somewhere in the house while Harry searched for me.
His bad behavior led to enrollment in obedience school. I was elected by my wife to be Harry’s handler and went with him to group lessons at a trainer’s house near the Marston’s Mills airport. Harry did not appreciate his leash and refused to learn his lessons like the other dogs, leading the trainer, a nice young man named Derek, to take him from me to teach him a lesson. That lesson deteriorated into a snarling attack and Derek having to swing the dog in the air with centrifugal force to keep from being bitten. Other than his hatred for the leash and a taste for biting the children if they messed with him, Harry was a very smart animal and went on to impress Derek and the other owners at the obedience school with his very percipient ability to obey and perform various tasks.
Harry also was a roamer and despite investing in an “invisible” electric fence and a shock collar, was able to break free and roam the village like some nocturnal assassin. Where other dogs in my life had been too stupid to avoid the skunks living under the boat shop, Harry managed to kill them without getting skunked, leaving multiple skunk corpses in the flower garden for me to dispose of. During the Labor Day meeting of the yacht club my wife and I watched with horror as Harry lifted his leg and peed all over the back of a nice lady wearing a white Irish fisherman’s sweater.
I loved that dog and still rue the day when he was hit by a van on Main Street in 2000, ending ten years of delightful companionship. He was followed by another Skye Terrier, a rescue I found in Nashville, Tenn. named “Ned” who was perhaps the sweetest, stupidest dog I’ve owned. I’d get another Skye in an instant.
Earlier this week I received a ThinkPad T25, the 25th anniversary edition of the Lenovo ThinkPad, teased a couple years ago by Lenovo’s lead designer and my former colleague and good friend, David Hill.
I’ve been without a ThinkPad for the past four years. In a fit of madness I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 in 2014 before joining Acquia. While my new employer had once supported a few ThinkPads for its more discerning engineers, the standard issue laptop was a Mac Air, an odious little device that somehow brought to mind Christopher Buckley’s observation that a man driving a minivan is half a man. The former CEO of Acquia, hated seeing me with the Surface just because. I said, like a smarty-pants, that the corporate HR culture wbpage said “Mac or PC? Yes!” He said “Not anymore” and thenceforth I was relegated to forevermore lugging around the Mac to meetings while keeping the Surface docked and hidden at my desk for serious work.
There was something very unsettling and traitorous about going to a competitor’s laptop after five years spent at the dawn of Lenovo marketing the iconic ThinkPad. I felt like I was missing a phantom limb. The Mac was an act of treachery, a true tergiversation. My allergy to Apple products goes back to when I was a reporter for PC Week (“The IBM-standard News Weekly of Corporate Computing) and competed with another Ziff-Davis publication, MacWeek. I never met Steve Jobs, thought John Scully was meh, and for the life of me could never figure out the weird propeller key on the Mac’s keyboard. “It just works!” the Mac addicts would tell me, but Apple has always rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it comes down to the lack of a right mouse button, a sense of the void when it comes to file structure, and a general feeling the things are smug and “twee.”
The ThinkPad however….where to begin in my reverence for those black rubberized rectangles with the red mouse pointer embedded in the middle of the keyboard? Is it just that their keyboards are so sublime, so tactile, so responsive that it’s no wonder the ThinkPad became the standard tool for professional writers just as the Leica M was de rigeur for war photographers? Is it the meaty heft of the total package? A feeling of invulnerability that with it’s magnesium roll cage and hard edges that it would be the weapon of choice if one had to charge the cockpit against a mob of hijackers?
In the documentary “Page One,” the late (and sorely missed) New York Times media critic David Carr interviewed the founders of Vice. He whacks away at his ThinkPad during the interview, taking notes directly into the machine (the same way I used to when I was a reporter), keys clacking away as he is shown a video produced by Vice about Liberia to make the point the upstart media company was the future of journalism in the digital age and the Times was a dinosaur. When Shane Smith, one of the founders of Vice dissed the Times, Carr interrupted him, looked up from the ThinkPad and said:
“Time out. Before you ever went there, we’ve had reporters there covering genocide after genocide. And Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do. So continue.”
When I starting working for Lenovo I quickly forged a bond with David Hill, the vice president of design who was the guardian of the ThinkPad’s flame. David came to Lenovo from IBM’s PC group and had been the steward of the ThinkPad’s design since 1995. The first CMO of Lenovo, Deepak Advani (also a former IBM executive) hired me to establish the new brand online, via Lenovo.com, digital advertising, social media, etc.. While poking around for a theme to hang the first corporate blog on, I rejected the easy path of a ghostwritten, bland affair by our CEO, Bill Amelio and instead homed in on David because of his demeanor and slightly demented passion. I proposed he become the leading voice of the brand with a new blog called “Design Matters” and offered to help with the writing and production because he was such a busy guy. It hindsight, he was the right person to kick off Lenovo’s first blog, touching an audience who was very skeptical about the future of the ThinkPad as IBM divested itself from the commodity world of PCs and handed over the design to a Chinese company, a company only known for contract-assembling PCs for western brands and inventing a graphics card that displayed the Chinese character set on the screens of IBM compatible clones (which a pretty big deal if consider how enormous the China market for PCs has become).
Lenovo was a complete unknown when it was formed in 2005. Today it is number one in the market, ahead of Dell and HP. The name “Lenovo” was coined by an expensive brand consultant and always evoked an image of a French anti-cellulite lotion in my word-warped mind. The company was a partially state-owned enterprise that dominated the Chinese market for computers but was utterly unknown in the rest of the world. Lenovo launched in the hope of becoming one of China’s first true global brands and do for the country’s reputation what Sony and Toyota had done for Japan in the late 1960s, and Samsung, LG and Hyundai had done for South Korea in the 1980s — become a premier status brand associated with innovation and high-concept design and dispel the image of China being a low-cost, low-quality producer of dreck.
The negative sentiment expressed by the ThinkPad faithful towards Lenovo was intense, verging on racism. As I read the comments on the gadget blogs like Gizmodo and the independent ThinkPad forums, I discovered a cult of over-weening, obsessive, compulsive and paranoid cultists who knew down to the penny the precise bill of materials that comprised a ThinkPad almost as well as David’s own staff. Each and every new ThinkPad released by Lenovo in 2006 was scrutinized by the horde for signs of cost-cutting or diminished quality. The rubber feet under the case. The feel of the rubberized paint on the lid. The fit and finish. The decals….The faithful were skeptical and on high alert.
One day while scanning social media chatter for annoyed customers I found a complaint by a writer named James Fallows beefing that the paint on the keys of his new ThinkPad was wearing off under his fingertips. I brought this to the attention of the product managers who sort of shrugged it off until I told them Fallows was the preeminent China correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, (and the co-author of a piece I had written with him in the 1990s for PC Computing on the myth of the garage and innovation in Silicon Valley). We contacted Fallows, swapped his fading machine for a new one, brought the defective one back in, and realized that indeed the paint had been changed and was prone to defects.
David’s writing on Design Matters attracted more comments than any blog I have ever seen or been involved with. A carefully thoughtout disquisition by David into hinges, a behind-the-scenes look into the design lab in Japan run by Arimasa Naitoh, a reminiscence about the ThinkPad’s original designer Richard Sapper… all of them evoked responses in the hundreds from commentators that confirmed to me the heart and soul of Lenovo wasn’t Lenovo per se, but a simple black laptop that had been sent into space by NASA, which sat on the desk in the Oval Office, was toted into battle by war correspondents and was the only computer any self-respecting Master of Universe would crack open in a board room before announcing a hostile takeover. It had to be defended against the bean counters.
David retired from Lenovo this past summer but is still consulting to the company. When I unboxed my new ThinkPad I thought of it, wistfully, as Lenovo’s retirement gift to David in lieu of the proverbial gold watch. I watched him defend the essence of the ThinkPad during my five years at Lenovo; fighting to keep it pure and free from the bling that our competitors drecked their machines up with. Blue lights. Chrome accents. David would howl at the lengths the competition would go to ruin their machines and was deeply offended when his arch nemesis, Apple, introduced a black MacBook.
I shared his frustration when some of his team’s greatest concepts were shot down by the product marketing teams when costs needed to be cut to keep the machine competitive. I suffered the failure of the leather-bound special edition ThinkPad, the Scout, in ‘07 with him. And I watched him light up when he was able to invite Richard Sapper back to design the Skylight in ‘09.
David and I shared great barbecue in Raleigh, laughed at the existential insanity of Lenovo’s Chinese-IBM culture, and hatched numerous schemes and plots to do the right thing by a machine that was inspired by a lacquered Japanese lunch box, the bento box.
The 25th Anniversary ThinkPad has some retro touches — the red, green and light blue ThinkPad logo cocked at its “seemingly arbitrary 37 degree angle” on the corner of the cover and the red-accented mouse buttons under the keyboard. And yes, the keyboard is back, a 7-row throwback to a time when the ThinkPad was the machine for making words happen, a pre-chiclet QWERTY monster that was tweaked and fitted into place with a reverence for the typist’s fingers like no other laptop keyboard before or since. Other than that, the T25 is just a laptop. It runs Windows 10, has an i7 processor, a half-a-terabyte SSD hard disk and a nice touch screen. It doesn’t convert into a tablet, fold back on itself, have a pen, or act like a Swiss army device. It doesn’t have some heart pounding audio system or special gamer capabilities. It’s just the essence of computing from a time when IBM was the greatest computer company in the world, when laptops were the height of technology. When we typed like real writers and didn’t talk to our smartphones as we walk blindly into traffic.
I have it because I need it to use my hour-long train ride into Boston productively writing one of the two books I now have under way. The old Surface Pro 2 has a magnetic clip-on keyboard covered in faux-felt with all the tactile pleasure of a cheap, ill-fitting suit. It’s time to write and I need the ultimate writing machine, one worthy of going into battle or space. This is probably going to be my last ThinkPad (and I have six of them in closets upstairs to remind me of that wild five-year ride marketing the damn things), and it’s a ThinkPad for the ages.
I look forward to opening it, to using it, to deleting the Lenovo bloatware and making it my own. I like the looks it gets in the office, a somewhat covetous look like the ones I get when I wear a good suit and a great pair of shoes. It’s an accessory and a companion that subtly cries out “classic” without shouting.
The machine came exquisitely boxed and packaged. The kind of packaging Apple is great at and David long dreamed of doing. It came with a small book written by David five years ago on the occasion of the ThinkPad’s 20th anniversary. He dedicated this edition “…to the memory and magic of Richard Sapper. He was a great mentor, friend and masterful designer. ThinkPad would not exist as we know it without his vision and determination.”
That may be true, Sapper was a genius, but to also quote the booklet: “David …conceived, along with longtime collaborator Richard Sapper, the evolution design strategy where the core DNA is passed along to each successive generation. David often compares this strategy to how Porsche manages the design of their forever classic 911. This approach is unheard of in a fast-paced high technology market where change dominates. Evolutionary design has created ThinkPad brand value and related design recognition at unprecedented levels within the industry. ThinkPad loyalists are cult-like in their affinity for this highly authentic design classic.”
In the 1990s, as the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian emerged from obscurity to the top of the bestseller lists, I took the advice of my good friend and neighbor Phil and invested in the first few volumes of the 20-volume epic. For some reason I never had the attention span to march through them all, as O’Brian was still living and writing new volumes at the rate of one per year up to his death in 2000. Maybe I was distracted by work or fatherhood, but my reading tastes were then focused on the history of the Byzantine empire and not the exploits of a Royal Navy Post Captain and his learned, naturalist-spy-surgeon during the first two decades of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars.
Maritime fiction and nonfiction has long been a personal favorite, beginning with the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester, Melville’s Moby Dick and Typee and Omoo, the accounts of the first solo circumnavigators like Joshua Slocum, Bernard Moitessier, Sir Francis Chichester; the Atlantic oarsmen, Blythe and Ridgway and Robert Manry’s account of crossing the Atlantic in the 13-foot Tinkerbelle. At the top of the maritime stack has always sat Joseph Conrad, maybe my favorite writer in the English language, particularly for Lord Jim and The Nigger of the Narcisssus. From my earliest introduction to the shelf of sailing yarns at the Cotuit Library in the 1960s by the patient Ida Anderson to my college major in American maritime history, I have always been a sucker for a good sea story.
So last winter, as I whittled away at a 1:16 scale model of a New Bedford whaling boat, I found myself in a maritime history kind of mood, feeling truly an armchair sailor, and without giving it much thought decided to pick up the first volume in O’Brian’s 20-volume, 6,900-page saga — Master and Commander —and read it during my morning and evening commutes across Boston harbor on a Kindle.
By the time I paid my book tax to Amazon for the third time I realized I was screwing myself with ebooks, as I would losing the opportunity to collect the full set to share with my sons and fill out yet another bookshelf in the home library. So I went on eBay, poked around, and found a complete set of paperbacks and hardcovers for $60. With Amazon gouging me over $10 per electronic edition, I was ahead as soon as I hit the buy button. A heavy box arrived a week later from some used book dealer and I’ve been buried in it ever since.
For the past nine months I’ve been savoring the series and using it as a springboard to dive deeper into the history of the Royal Navy, the War of 1812, the Enlightenment’s blossoming of the Royal Society as naturalists and scientists devoured their discoveries and explored the globe. Yes, like most I had associated a lot of the series with the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but the experience was much more than any two hour film could hope to deliver (and I liked the movie a lot).
Like the critics who embraced the novels, I consider it a masterpiece of not just maritime literature or historical fiction, but one of the most ambitious and finely realized epic masterpieces of the English language. The depth of the language, the nautical nomenclature, the interweaving of actual historical events with the fictional characters and their personal backstories is nothing short of a masterpiece. While I whipped through the first volumes, I found myself slowing down, savoring the experience as winter turned to spring, reading a few pages on the train every morning and evening, index card marked with obscure vocabulary and nautical terms to look up later and add to my running O’Brian lexicon list. Then, these past few weeks, as the stack of books dwindled, I started to feel sad that it was all coming to an end; and last night it did. The twentieth volume — Blue at the Mizzen — ending sweetly with a piquant closure that leads me to believe the two familiar men – Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin would evermore sail on.
Yes, there is a 21st book — it consists of the first 60 pages of the next book which O’Brian started at the age of 85 before his death in January 2017. I have it ready to go, fascinated by the prospect of reading a master novelist’s handwritten first draft and corrected typescript, just as I was when I once handled a page of Conrad’s palimpsest for the Narcissus and saw how the master struck out redundant words and experimented until he found the magical bon mot.
I finally got a chance to tour the Herreshoff Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island a few weeks ago and came away inspired to get myself back into a wooden boat.
Just past the gift shop and ticket desk at the museum is a reproduction of Nathanael Herreshoff’s personal boat –the Coquina — a clinker-built catboat yawl that is a true gem.
Designed by the “Wizard of Bristol” for his own use on the waters of Narragansett Bay in the winter of 1889, ; the Coquina is 16′ 8″ long and constructed with white Atlantic cedar over oak frames. Herreshoff sailed the boat his entire life and it outlived him past his death in 19TK when it was lost during the Hurricane of 1938. Not a bad endorsement for the boat’s sailing qualities given that Herreshoff was the designer and builder of some of the most remarkable America’s Cup yachts as well as some icons in American yacht design.
Coquina is reminiscent of a sailing canoe called the Rob Roy that was popular in the late 19th century thanks to the writings of the Scottish adventurer John McGregor who toured Europe and the Middle East in a doubled-ended, clinker-built (overlapping hull planks or strakes) canoe. Small boat yachting came into its own in the last three decades of the 1800s as a prosperous middle-class, recovering from the Civil War and the financial shocks that followed it, took to the waters with great zeal.
The plans for the Coquina are maintained by MIT, Herreshoff’s alma mater, and are available for purchase with construction instructions from D.N. Hyland & Associates in Brooklin, Maine.
What’s appealing about the Coquina to me is her lines — there’s something very graceful and neat about the hull that pleases my aesthetic — but also the rig. I grew up in a cat boat rig aboard a Cotuit Skiff and the notion of adding a mizzen sail astern of the helm is intriguing. Would I ever build one? Doubtful, life has other priorities ahead, but it sure is nice to dream of skipping along close-hauled in one on a sultry summer’s day.