The end of a long voyage: the Aubreyad

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.

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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.

tinkerbelle_by_robert_manrySo 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.

 

Petaluma – an open wherry

I have been looking for a small boat project to cut my teeth on. The need is for a light, easily car-topped rowing scull that can handle a slight chop and be used for river, creek, and harbor rowing. It has to have a sliding seat and riggers like a true scull and be rugged enough to put up with saltwater and some general neglect. In other words I don’t want a racing shell or anything at the level of a Carl Douglas or a Graeme King single, and I already have a tired composite trainer, an Empacher single I bought in the late 90s with some dot.com cash which is woefully tired and due for a refresh.

I have no idea how to build a shell, but I assume it’s a real test of woodworking and boatbuilding skills. Both Douglas and King are essentially luthiers who command high prices and lots of patience on long waiting lists for their gem-like boats I want something relatively simple to build and more on the lines of a wherry than a racing shell.

So I started researching and came upon two designs worth consideration, both featured by Woodenboat Magazine. The first is the Kingfisher, a design by Graeme King that has been around for a few decades and is closer to the design of a true racing boat. With a V-bottom, the Kingfisher would appear to be a simpler design to build than a classic shaped-hull scull which is made by forming a thin skin of cedar over ribs. Because I am a “clydesdale” sized rower, I need something a little more capacious (sculls are sold in various sizes according to the weight of the person who will be rowing it and I am definitely at the XXXXL end of the scale).

I decided on the Petaluma, an 20-foot open wherry with no deck. This design was discovered in a garage in Petaluma, California and reproduced by a local boat builder, Gregg Sabourin. The original boat may date back to the 1920s — builder unknown — the only marking on the boat being the initials “CRC” which may stand for the “California Rowing Club.” The boat was probably rowed on the Petaluma River in Sonoma County which empties into San Pablo Bay at the northwestern head of San Francisco Bay.

According to Simon Watts, the California woodworker who sells the plans and building instructions, the original boat was planked in red cedar and fastened with copper clench nails.

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So I ordered a set of plans and now am looking for a local woodworker who can help me make the molds and has the tools needed to make the necessary cuts. Who knows? I may actually build a boat one of these days.

 

Coquina

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.

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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.

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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.0914brainiac-sailing6

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.

 

 

Category 5 Hurricanes and the Florida Keys

Like the rest of the nation I’m watching Hurricane Irma chew its way through the Caribbean on its way to a forecasted landfall somewhere on Southern Florida Saturday morning. A few years ago, while bonefishing out of Islamorada, I spotted a memorial off of US Route 1 at mile marker 81.5. I pulled over, my rental car smelling like a fisherman’s underwear thanks to the box of shrimp I forgot in the trunk the night before, and took a closer look.

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It was a simple memorial to those who died in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The plaque read:

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Being a hurricane nerd I went digging and found this essay by Ernest Hemingway, who was fond of the Keys and had a home in Key West at the end of the archipelago. He had traveled to the Keys after the storm on assignment from a magazine, and filed an indignant report because of what had happened to a crew of workers — mostly World War One veterans — who hadn’t been able to escape the storm’s fury. I cite this only because it gives a sense of how exposed the Keys are to a direct hit, and how devastated the islands were on September 3, 1935, when the islands were submerged in a maelstrom and people were forced into the trees to tie themselves down. Hemingway wrote:

“Whom did they annoy and to whom was their possible presence a political danger?’

“Who sent them down to the Florida Keys and left them there in hurricane months?

“Who is responsible for their deaths?

“The writer of this article lives a long way from Washington and would not know the answers to those questions. But he does know that wealthy people, yachtsmen, fishermen such as President Hoover and President Roosevelt, do not come to the Florida Keys in hurricane months. Hurricane months are August, September and October, and in those months you see no yachts along the Keys. You do not see them because yacht owners know there would be great danger, unescapable danger, to their property if a storm should come. For the same reason, you cannot interest any very wealthy people in fishing of the coast of Cuba in the summer when the biggest fish are there. There is a known danger to property. But veterans, especially the bonus-marching variety of veterans, are not property. They are only human beings; unsuccessful human beings, and all they have to lose is their lives. They are doing coolie labor for a top wage of $45 a month and they have been put down on the Florida Keys where they can’t make trouble. It is hurricane months, sure, but if anything comes up, you can always evacuate them, can’t you?

“…It is not necessary to go into the deaths of the civilians and their families since they were on the Keys of their own free will; they made their living there, had property and knew the hazards involved. But the veterans had been sent there; they had no opportunity to leave, nor any protection against hurricanes; and they never had a chance for their lives.

“Who sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them close to the border of pathological cases, to live in frame shacks on the Florida Keys in hurricane months?

“Why were the men not evacuated on Sunday, or, at latest, Monday morning, when it was known there was a possibility of a hurricane striking the Keys and evacuation was their only possible protection? Who advised against sending the train from Miami to evacuate the veterans until four-thirty o’clock on Monday so that it was blown off the tracks before it ever reached the lower camps?”

The hurricane was the first of three Category 5 storms to hit Florida (the other two being Camille in 1969 and Andrew in 1992). A cat 5 storm has sustained winds over 157 mph and obliterates everything it hits. When the 1935 storm hit the Keys it pushed a storm surge 20 feet high over some of the upper Keys, completely submerging them. Although a train was sent down the Keys to evacuate the veterans working on a highway project, it came too late and was overwhelmed by the waters.

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About 500 people died on the Keys because of that Labor Day storm, but others estimate the death toll was higher, just as other speculated the death toll from Andrew in 1992 was much higher than officially reported because of the presence of undocumented migrant laborers who were killed and blown into the Everglades. Whatever the toll, the devastation was complete and the aftermath very macabre, with mass cremations of the death occurring in the days that followed.

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Godspeed to Florida this weekend.

 

 

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.

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.

 

Marguerite and the Isle of Demons

In 1999 I bought some screenwriting software and messed around with the format and structure of writing a scvript. I actually wrote a full screenplay based on the story of Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who was mauled by a bear and left to die in the wilderness in the 1800s. Yes, I felt a twinge of woulda-coulda-shoulda when The Revenant told that tale 15 years later and won an Oscar, but being a procrastinator, I thought I’d share another amazing story from history which I’ll predict someone will actually make into a flick one day.

On my current literary bender of devouring Samuel Eliot Morison’s works, I have been reading his magnum opus, The European Discoverers of America. In his accounts of the French voyages of discovery of Canada he dropped in the tale — perhaps apocryphally — of Marguerite de la Rocque and her romantic ordeal on the Ile de Demons in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1542.

First a little back story. The French, envious of Spanish wealth from Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and aware the English were exploring the coasts of Newfoundland, financed the voyages of Jacques Cartier who over the course of three voyages, discovered the Gulf of St. Lawrence and explored it deep to the west as far as the modern city of Quebec in the search of the elusive northwest passage to the Indies. Cartier returned to Versailles with captured Iroquois natives and tales of gold to be found in the mythical  “Kingdom of Saguenay.” While his samples of ore were merely Fools Gold, or iron pyrite, and his Iroquois novelties all too willing to bullshit the court on his behalf, Cartier’s tall tales of Canada’s bounty inspired a mad rush among the French aristocracy to fit out their own ships and sail west to stake their claims in the New World.

One of those fortune-seekers was Jean-Francois Roberval, a French nobleman and favorite of the King of France, who set sail for Canada in 1542 with a crew that included a young woman, Marguerite de la Roque, and her lady’s maid, Damienne. It’s unclear what exactly the relationship was between Roberval and Marguerite. Some historians speculate they were uncle and niece. Others speculate they were brother and sister. But it appears they had a shared interest in a great deal of land in Perigord and Languedoc and she was “co-seigeurness” of Pairpont with him. Whatever the relationship, it was personal and perhaps even financial and tied to some big land holdings which were the basis of noble wealth in those days.

Why a young woman would get on a ship with her maid and sail to a savage shore is remarkable to speculate about, but according to Morison, Cartier did a masterful job in whipping up Canada-fever among the aristocracy and for a woman to embark on such a voyage is probably tantamount to being the first female astronaut to walk on the moon.

During the trans-Atlantic voyage Marguerite fell in love with a young man — not a member of the common crew, but some dashing adventurer who doubtlessly was high-borne and also keen on finding adventure and freedom from the tired restrictions of 15th century France. The two lovers were caught in flagrente delicto by the Calvinist Captain Roberval, who was enraged by her promiscuity, doubtlessly ashamed to have it openly known on the very close confines of a small ship in the middle of the Atlantic that his chaste “ward” had sinned under his very nose in some dark sail locker.

Roberval vowed to put Marguerite ashore at the first opportunity along with her maid Damienne, who in the words of Morison, played the classic role  all good lady’s maids are expected to play as she tried to conceal her mistresses’ amorous indiscretions. Eventually land was sighted, a desolate island at the northern tip of Newfoundland at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This island, the “Ile de Demons” is a bit mythical and appears and disappears on antique charts, but according to modern locations may be Quirpon Island near the site of L’Anse aux Meadows, where archaeologists found evidence of the first Viking settlements dating back to 1,000 CE.

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By Johann Ruysch († 1533), scanned by Kimon Berlin, user:Gribeco – scanned from Thomas Suárez, Shedding the Veil, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1301911

Now for the good stuff, paraphrasing Morison’s account, here goes:

Roberval the Calvinist prude, total tyrant of the ship (as all good captain’s are expected to be tyrants), anchors off the rocky shore of the Ile de Demons and puts Marguerite and Damienne ashore with a musket, some provisions, and his utter and complete scorn. Picture the scene of somber shame and terror as the two women are put into the boat and rowed ashore in the ship’s pinnace to a forbidding shore dense with pines and dark shadows.jean-franc3a7ois_de_la_roque_de_roberval Roberval doubtlessly pronounces some stern sentence on them from the poop deck as the women are banished to their fate, invoking his Huguenot God and making pious imprecations against fornicators and peccant girls of loose morals.

Some historians speculate Roberval was motivated by more than prudishness and a wounded ego when he sent Marguerite ashore, loyal lady’s maid by her side. Indeed he may have benefited from marooning the young noblewoman because he could have returned to France as the sole Lord of the lands he once shared title with the doomed girl. Whatever the motivation, Roberval was wiping his hands of her and with a curt command to weigh anchor and sail away, the two women were left alone on the wet shore looking out for the last time at their only connection to civilization and life.

Aha, but the young swain, hitherto concealed, his identity protected by his lover Marguerite, leaps on deck, muskets, ammunition, and food in a sack, and with a flourishing bow, gracefully swan dives off the taffrail into the cold, testicle-shrinking waters of the sea and swims ashore to share his fate in the arms of his abandoned lover.

Roberval flicks his teeth with some gallic display of disgusted indifference and with a fey motion with the back of his hand, commands the ship’s bosun to weigh anchor and leave the scandalous trio to their fate.

And then the ship is gone.

Let’s let Morison tell the rest of the story:

“Marguerite fared well enough for a time. Until winter set in, the lovers lived an idyllic life. The gentleman built a cabin for his mistress and her maid, chopped wood, caught fish, and shot wild fowl; but before winter ended, he died. Marguerite, unable to dig a grave in the frozen ground, guarded his body in the cabin until spring, to protect it from wild animals.

“In the ninth month of exile a child was born to her and promptly died. Another winter passed, and Damienne died, leaving Marguerite alone. The intrepid demoiselle gathered enough food to keep alive and defended herself not only against bears (she killed three, one “white as an egg”). but against spirits of another world. Demoniac voices shrieked about her cabin, howled the louder when she fired a gun, but were still when she read passages from a New Testament which she brought ashore.”

In  the early spring of 1544 the smoke from Marguerite’s fire was spotted by some passing French fisherman. They landed, found her emaciated and “in rags” according to Morison, and brought her back home to France where she became a celebrity sensation and the personal pet of the Queen of Navarre who made Marguerite a cause celebre and post child for piety. Roberval? Not a %&$* was given and met his maker during some Huguenot purge.

Maybe it’s me, but I’d see that movie.