I found this brief profile of one of the state’s last shipwrights while researching the history of shipbuilding in Massachusetts. Harold Burnham’s ancestors started building boats in the 1600s in Essex on the North Shore. He’s still at it today, preserving a bit of history one tree at a time.
Last November, just as I started writing the first draft of The Wrecks and War of Bethuel Handy, I made a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport to spend some time aboard the last surviving whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan. I pestered the docent who was standing by the ship’s wheel with all sorts of questions about the restoration project that resulted in the Morgan making a cruise up the New England coast during the summer of 2014. I was in Provincetown when the ship came into the harbor under sail and was in awe of seeing such a mythical ship alive again.
I watched a few videos about the restoration and the cruise, and paid close attention to the words of the Morgan‘s captain, Kip Files, as he described the process of wearing ship, or tacking.
A few weeks ago I hunted him down on LinkedIn and asked him, as the only living captain of a whaling ship, what he thought of Bethuel Handy’s options as the Phoenix went ashore on Elbow Island in the Sea of Okhotsk during a mid-October blizzard. He kindly replied and asked for more information — which I pulled together from my research and sent to him last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bethuel’s options at 4 am on October 11, 1858 off the coast of Siberia:
“Interesting story. Very tuff situation. There is no true way to get off a lee shore. Every time would be different as the shore, waves, current and wind would hardly be the same. It is something an experienced captain would take all his years of knowledge of sailing and his particular vessel to give it a try. having only one anchor made his job more difficult. . There would be no helm ( steering by rudder) until the vessel had some way on. Even then in those seas it would be a miracle if it responded at all. you would need lots of movement by the rudder for it to respond.
Cutting away the mast. I do not think there would be time. Desperate move not knowing were they would fall. They are built to stay in place just cutting them might force them thru the deck. I have never known anyone to do this but it is possible. I am going to read this again. Hard to get what is going thru the captains mind. Logs don’t reflect it well as they show no emotion on purpose. Do you have the lat and long of were this happened? I might have a better feel for what was happening. I do know that the class of whaling ship are pretty handy. They sail a lot better than shore side experts give them credit.
I’m really looking forward to his reaction after he reads the sailing instructions for the Gulf of Uda and the Shantar Islands. It sounds like sailing in hell to me.
Here is the foreword to my book about Bethuel Gifford’s and Thomas Chatfield’s adventures. A download link for a PDF version of the first chapter — the wreck of the whaling ship Phoenix is at the bottom of this post. Enjoy. Comments and criticism most appreciated.
I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
They were the sort of men who clubbed baby seals, tattooed their faces during drunken benders, spread syphilis throughout Polynesia, and carved pornography into the teeth of dead sperm whales. They were fugitive alcoholics shaking in their bunks with delirium tremens, greenhorn farm boys keen for an adventure, negroes and Wampanoags and descendants of Hessian mercenaries stranded by the defeated British Army. They were controlled by acerbic mates from bleak Cape Cod villages who kept to themselves, mostly brothers and cousins, nephews and uncles, and were fast with their fists to keep the scum from rising up from the mephitic stench of the forecastle to mutiny on the high seas.
The first thing that happened to them when the pilot was sent ashore and the ship cleared Gay Head was the collection of their knives so the captain could snap off their points in a seam of the deck, blunting them to reduce the number of stabbings. They were divided into watches and picked by the mates in a quick draft to sit in one of the five whaleboats. The Captain had one, the chief or first mate another, and so on down to the fourth mate. Each whaleboat carried six men. The mates and captain steered. The other five pulled an oar. The harpooner pulled the bow oar because he did his work from the prow of the light boat, bracing his knee in a semicircle cut into the thwart, reaching behind to his right to lift a harpoon from its split oak crutch.
Once a whale was struck, the harpooner and the mate swapped ends, rushing to pass the other and take their place while the whale ran, sounding deep and taking fathoms of line with it. Then the harpooner took the tiller and became the boatsteerer and the mate lifted a long lance and prepared to kill the leviathan by stabbing it in the heart and lungs until it expelled a geyser of dark red blood through its spout.
They were butchers who could cut up a whale and convert it into oil. They worked in gore, slipped on decks marinated in fat and blood, and lost their sense of smell as the fishy stench of whale shit and blood festered out of the woodgrain in the tropical heat. If they fell from the rigging, dislocated a shoulder, or sliced themselves open flensing blubber from a whale they had to heal on their own. If their muscles ached and their teeth became loose then they were scorbutic and began to die in the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, barely subsisting on a diet of salted meat and dry crackers.
They were men who voyaged into the void of the ocean for three years at a time, self-contained in their 100-foot ships, self-sufficient with enough rations and water to keep them alive for months without going ashore. They sailed into the blank spaces on the charts, to places no hydrographer had surveyed, coming upon indigenous people who gawked at the tall ships cruising into idyllic atolls and Arctic straits, corrupting them with bottles of rum and firearms, then inevitably fighting them and leaving them to die with some new pestilence.
They sailed to the antipodes where they could be beastly men far from the judgment of those they left behind.
They were whalers and they were fortune seekers a hot for a dollar as any prospector or ambitious American. They were the operators of the most complicated and highly engineered machines in existence: tall ships built to survive the caprices of the sea. In those ships they prospered, and many died. In those ships they explored lands as alien as the planets they navigated by.
They were equivalent to astronauts as they explored the blank spaces around the edges of the known world. Their space capsule was made of oak and pine; tar, hemp and canvas; 100-foot, three-masted abattoirs that announced themselves by their stench wafting on the wind long before the emerged over the horizon.
They guessed where they were all the time, sailing with only a rough idea of where they were and where they were going, but never exactly sure until they sighted a known landmark. They existed as lost men lost in the void of the true blue sea.
They lived with doubt whenever they sailed. They rarely stopped, only going ashore and anchoring in ports where water and food could be found or bought, and oil and bone could be sold. If they stopped then some would run away, undone by the constant anxiety of the endless blue water passages through doldrums and cyclones. They fled and hid until the ship sailed away, emerging from their hiding places to stand on the beach, new men becoming shuffling, sun-burned beachcombers and Crusoe’s beneaped and stranded far from home.
The ones who stayed aboard placed their trust and lives in the abilities of the aloof figure who stood alone and unapproachable at the windward shrouds by the wheel. He was the only man aboard other than the mate, who had the knowledge and the tools to find and measure the angles of the sun and the moon and the stars. He was the only man who could calculate and note in the ship’s log, with the shaky confidence of a scientist who doubts his tools — his hand wound chronometer gimballed in a box, the fogged, cracked glass of the eyepiece of his spray warped wood and ivory quadrant – the daily position of the ship. That made him the Master of the ship, the diviner of the celestial mysteries, the holder of the knowledge that made him king of the floating kingdom and kept his three dozen illiterate subjects obedient and at bay in their miserable lair under the deck of the ship’s bluff bow.
They were fugitives from justice, raging alcoholics, Wampanoag Indians in debt to English merchants, runaway slaves, green farm boys, and romantic dandies flunked out of college. They lived like scorbutic troglodytes in narrow bunks, the walls of the ship oozing green mold in the tropics, stinking up the fug filled stagnant air with their coughs and their flatulence. They never bathed. Knowing how to swim only prolonged their agony should they fall overboard because the ship never stopped, and even if they were lucky enough to grab a line trailing astern, there was no way they could pull themselves back aboard. They deserted the first chance they could; preferring to take their chances ashore with cannibals than remain aboard another day. They fled the ships if their captain was foolish enough to come into a port and give them an option to run away but most captains were too short-handed to offer them that temptation. So they stayed at sea for months at a time, never sure of where they were, depending on the captain’s incantations and formulas to There were no drugs to soothe the constant anxiety of life aboard a wooden sailing ship with no EPIRB beacons, no radios, no GPS plotters, not even charts of the oceans because in some cases they were the first men to visit the strange islands of the South Pacific or the desolate barren coasts of the arctic.
They drank out of desperation to numb themselves long enough to endure. They persevered if they didn’t desert and rode out the will of the sea and the temper of the captain until their ordeal was finally over and they were lucky to walk away with a sliver sized share of the profits, barely enough to pay off their debts to the ship and to pay for a bender in a New Bedford brothel. They found themselves aboard again the following fall for lack of any other place to go in the society of the land.
These were the sort of men that Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr. — 29 years-old and the eldest son of the Handy-Nickerson clans of Cotuit Port — was in command of in the spring of 1858, on the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix, as she tacked back and forth off the shores of Honolulu, her first captain going ashore all worn out and ill and incapable of command. Handy had shipped out two years before as the first mate of the Phoenix. Now, on only his second whaling voyage, he was in command of 36 men desperate to follow their former captain ashore and be free from the fear of the summer ahead in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the worst waters on the planet, a sea covered by ice three-quarters of the year and fog the rest. A bitterly cold stark place with rough shores with no ports, no charts, no brothels, nothing but sullen natives, deranged Russians on the edge of civilization, and vast herds of right whales congregating in the kitchen of the Pacific to feast on tons of microscopic plankton. They wouldn’t be alone. There would be hundreds of other ships, identical to their own, all of them three-masted, tall ships painted black with sheer sides and blunt bows, floating factory ships designed to hunt, chase, kill and butcher the largest animals on the planet.
One man’s adventures from the Gold Rush through a Siberian shipwreck to the Battle of New Orleans
Bethuel Handy was my great-great-grandmother Florentine’s big brother. He was born in Cotuit on Cape Cod in 1829 and was 74 years old when he died in 1904. I knew very little about him when I was growing up save for two detailed mentions in my great-great grandfather’s reminscences.
The first event occurred in October 1858 in the Sea of Okhotsk amongst the Shantar Islands, a wild archipelago that teems with bowhead whales, pilot whales,* beluga whales, killer whales, sea lions, Siberian tigers and Kamchatka brown bears. Bethuel was 29 years old and had been the captain of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix for all of six months after the ship’s original master, Joseph Hinckley of Centerville, fell ill just before she sailed from Hawaii to the frozen Russian sea in April of that year. It was his first command. He had been on only one other whaling voyage and now was captain of his second. The first was on his Uncle Horace Nickerson’s ship, the Massachusetts, and that is the second mention of Bethuel made by his brother-in-law, Thomas Chatfield.
Chatfield wrote an account of his life’s adventures for his four daughters in 1905. Bethuel’s death may have caused the women to press their father to write down his sea stories before he too slipped his hawser. So he wrote his autobiography and Bethuel did not, which meant all the family legend and lore of the Gold Rush, about whaling in the Pacific, capturing Confederate blockade runners off the Florida Keys were but one man’s version of events which only hinted at what Bethuel experienced in those same tumultous times.
For some reason no one in the family thought it worth disclosing that Bethuel married Thomas’s sister Mary. I didn’t fully grasp the strangeness of that double-brother-in-law relationship until I subscribed to Ancestry.com and started building the family tree. Thomas married Florentine Handy first, and then a few years later, Bethuel Handy married Mary Chatfield, the only girl in a family of ten btothers. So I started musing about that kind of family dynamic and how uncommon it is, and how perhaps the isolation of Cotuit Port in the mid-19th century and biological urges to mate with a new member of the gene pool from outside of the community, as well as the expediency of available eligible spouses at a time when a whaling voyage lasted three or more years, and well……it just seemed really weird to me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.
So I decided to learn more about Bethuel Handy. For the past five years I’ve been digging through the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the California Daily Alta, and talking to Handy’s descendants to find out what documents he may have left behind. The result was startling. Among the things I learned after a lifetime of hearing one version of events, were some startling truths that my family didn’t know. To wit:
Chatfield ran away from his home in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson in 1847 when he was sixteen years old. He had been working at a textile mill on Moodna Creek since the age of 12, forced into child labor by his father Nicholas, a destitute tanner with 11 children who had been expelled from England for refusing to pay a tax to the Church of England. When he met two brothers on a schooner from Cotuit at the quay of Albany he lied and told them his name was “John Thomas” and that he was recently arrived from England in search of his family, whom he had been told were somewhere along the Hudson, but now were apparently in Boston.
Chatfield maintained that alias and fictional story for years in Cotuit after he was taken in the Nickerson clan — Bethuel’s mother’s side of the family. Bethuel learned the truth about his future brother-in-law in San Francisco during the Gold Rush when he happened to meet some sailors from the Massachusetts who knew Chatfield’s true identity. He confronted Chatfield about this fact back in Cotuit in the spring of 1853, and forbid the young man from marrying his sister Florentine until he returned to Cornwall to prove that he wasn’t a fugitive from justice.
Bethuel told the full story of his wreck in the Sea of Okhotsk to a reporter at the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta, in 1859
Bethuel’s experiences at a Russian fort over the winter of 1858-59 were shared by a young deserter from another ship, Daniel Weston Hall, who published an account of that winter in Siberia in a book Arctic Rovings
Bethuel’s experience as a volunteer office in the Union Navy during the Civil War was very different from Chatfield’s. Bethuel was assigned to a gunboat that was part of Admiral David Farragut’s assault and capture of New Orleans and siege of Vicksburg.
Bethuel was so unsettled by his wartime experience on the Mississippi River that he had a religious experience involving a promise to God to get baptized at the earliest opportunity should he survive the carnage aboard the gunship USS Wissahickon. When the ship was pulled out of the battleline by Farragut and sent to Philadelphia for repairs, Bethuel missed orders assigning him to a new ship. His excuse? He was getting baptized. He was demoted as a result, and in a fit of anger resigned, leaving the service in 1862.
The revelations of this research convinced me it was worthy of a book. For the longest time I struggled to find the best way to tell Bethuel’s story. Was it fodder for a novel? How could I fully explore the fascinating relationship between him and Chatfield on the basis of a few scanty newspaper clippings and ship logs? In the end I decided to first write the story as a diligently researched and attributed work of history, inserting my novelistic projections of the emotional lives of the two brothers-in-law where appropriate, but hewing closely to the factual footnoting and sourcing on the first draft.
I began writing in November of 2019 and finished the first draft in 100 days. Now, during the social distancing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m revising the manuscript, taking a machete to the text and removing the redundancies, re-ordering the chapter structure, and inserting — where it feels honestly appropriate — my own speculations into the untold story of these two men and their wives during a period of incredible change in society. These men were born at a time when they weren’t expected to live past 50 years. They were the last master mariners in the age of sail and experienced warfare aboard steam powered ships in a brutal war that introduced machines to warfare for the first time. They were true 49’ers — experiencing the phenomenon of the California Gold Rush first hand as young men. They were whalers at the peak of the golden age of that messy, profitable industry, capable of sailing tens of thousands of miles to the antipodes to hunt and massacre the biggest animals on the planet. They lived dangerous lives, lives of uncertainty and fear with none of the conveniences we know today. No charts. No GPS. No engines. No communications. They lived most of their marriages apart from their wives, coming home long enough to impregnate those poor women with another baby, a child that would be born while they were at sea. They were the generation that had to adapt to huge change — born in a world of candle light and wooden ships, dying in a world of telephones, electric light, automobiles and flight. They had no safety net. No social security. No medicine. Nothing but themselves and their knowledge of the sea and the stars.
And as I, along with the rest of the world, found myself contemplating my mortality as the killer virus threatened my ability to have a dinner out with my wife, I began to project myself into the minds of two very different men who lived parallel lives bound together by more than friendship and I wondered why one, the native son of Cotuit, Bethuel Handy, vanished from the village after the Civil War; and why the other, Chatfield, a fugitive who arrived in Cotuit a stranger under an alias, transformed himself from a brawling runaway into the cliche of the old salt, celebrated for his civic commitments, his Masonry, and his life simply because he wrote it down.
Anyway, as usual I digress. I thought I’d publish some of the first draft here in installments over the coming weeks. I don’t know what will happen to this work, eventually I’ll ask an agent to give it a look and seek out a publisher. But I know it is far from done, and won’t be done in my mind until I get myself to the Shantar Islands to see, with my own eyes, the place where two young men made their fortune and misfortune so far from home. I feel it’s time that Bethuel Handy get credit for an act of heroism on a level with Ernest Shackleton’s.
Not being an especially wealthy man, I’ve always wondered about my lack of ancestral fortunes. Ask my late father how much money he made and he always replied, “A dollar ninety-eight.” His father was alleged to have passed on partnering with Howard Johnson and the guy who invented the reclining arm chair. There have always been many “woulda-coulda-shoulda” regrets expressed during cocktail hour on the back porch.
But Captain Thomas Chatfield, my great-great grandfather, did pretty well by the standards of 19th century Cape Cod by doing his part to make the Right Whale a very endangered species and by assisting in the capture of a British prize ship during the Civil War.. All of which combined managed to afford a really nice old house in the center of the village.
Chatfield couldn’t have made too much money from his whaling years because he was captain for only one voyage of the whaling ship Massachusetts, the same ship he went to the Pacific three times before in his teens and early twenties. In 1858, when he was 27 years old, he was given command of the ship on the recommendation of his wife’s grandfather, Seth Nickerson. Chatfield sailed from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to the northern Pacific for his one and only voyage as captain, his last aboard the Massachusetts.
I couldn’t figure out how he managed to support himself into his 90s from a single voyage that took place in his late 20s. Whaling captains were very well paid on a share system that saw them get the biggest portion of the profit after the owners, with the remainder divided among the officers, boatsteerers (harpooners) and the ordinary seamen. So there was upside to be earned, but a whaler’s wages never seemed to me to be the kind of pay day that would keep the wolf from the door for six more decades.
Chatfield lived 12 years in row aboard the Massachusetts beginning when he was 17 and first shipped out as a cabin boy. In 1859, after rescuing his brother-in-law Bethuel Handy from a shipwreck in the ice of the Okhotsk Sea, Chatfield docked the Massachusetts in San Francisco, shipped her cargo of oil and bone east on a clipper ship, then sold the old Mattapoissett whaler to a local San Francisco merchant, put Bethuel in command and because he missed his wife and daughters, he shipped himself back to Cape Cod via the Panama isthmus.
When the Civil War broke out Chatfield immediately volunteered and was commissioned an “acting volunteer lieutenant” in the U.S. Navy. A lot of whaling captains shipped out on Union war ships, handling the navigation and seamanship while the career officers and Naval Academy graduates managed the gunnery, tactics, and other war stuff. Chatfield received orders to report to the New York Navy Yard where he was given his commission signed by the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, as well as a uniform, saber, and orders to sail to report aboard a freshly built Staten Island steam ferry, the U.S.S. Somerset.
Chatfield described the Somerset in his Reminiscences:
“The Somerset was simply a Ferry boat of the size of those plying in Boston Harbor. She had been bought by the government while on the stocks, had been strengthened to enable her to support a battery, and was designed for service on the blockade, and for river work. Her battery consisted of two nine-inch smooth bore Dahlgren guns placed on pivot carriages, one on each end, and four long thirty-two pounders in broadside: a very effective fighting craft in smooth water, but next to worthless in a sea. Her crew consisted of one naval lieutenant, commanding, four acting masters, and four acting master’s mates – these of the line. Her staff officers were one acting first assistant (chief), and three second assistant engineers, paymaster and surgeon, with enlisted men sufficient to number one hundred and thirty, of all ranks: and she had no spars, simply two flag-staffs.”
The Somerset was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Earl English, a 33-year old graduate of the Naval Academy who had been severely wounded only a few years before in the assault on the Barrier Forts at Canton during the Opium Wars of 1856. He had started his career in 1840 as a midshipman aboard the U.S. frigate Constellation, then was assigned to Annapolis, graduating in ‘46 and then assigned to the frigate Independence on the California coast during the Mexican War. Chatfield’s peer in age, but superior by far in naval credentials, English was highly respected by Thomas is his letters home to his wife in Cotuit and later in his reminiscences.
The orders to take a double-ended, flat-bottomed Staten Island ferry out of New York Harbor and into the open Atlantic was cause for concern as the Somerset received orders directly from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to sail to Key West and join the East Gulf Squadron and its blockade of the Florida coastline. The fact that the ferry was steam powered and could out-maneuver any sailing vessel would have made it an invaluable vessel. On April 13, 1862, the Somerset and her sister-ship the U.S.S. Fort Henry sailed south in company, only to have to put in at Hampton Roads, Virginia when the Henry’s machinery made it impossible to go in reverse. There Chatfield was able to tour the ironclad Monitor, fresh from its battle with the Merrimac.
After an uneventful voyage from the Chesapeake to Key West, the Somerset refueled and reprovisioned, let its boilers cool down, and was then ordered to patrol the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. That same spring of ‘62, Admiral David Farragut and the West Gulf Squadron had successfully attacked and captured New Orleans. Welles ordered English and the crew of the Somerset to keep a keen eye for any Confederate blockade runners trying to rush cotton to England’s mills as the ports of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were closed by the Union Navy.
On her maiden patrol in the Straits of Florida, the Somerset steamed within sight of the coast of Cuba west of Havana. What ensued that Sunday, May 4, 1862 wouldn’t conclude until a Supreme Court decision three years later.
“I think it was the fourth day out: the weather was a beautiful morning, wind light, sea smooth: and being Sunday the crew were dressed in white. I had charge of the deck from eight to twelve. At nine o’clock we sighted a large, square rigged steamer coming from the eastward. We were then some half way between Havana and Matanzas, and some six miles off shore. I headed the Somerset for the steamer, shaping her course so as to intercept her, and notified Capt. English: and very soon everyone was one deck, all agog for what might turn up. We passed within easy hail. We were turning the helm astarboard to fall quickly in her wake. Capt. English hailed “What ship is that?” The answer came: “The British ship Circassian.” Then from our Captain: “This is the U.S. Str. Somerset. Hove too, I’ll send a boat aboard of you.” The answer came quick “Havn’t got time.”
“This conversation lasted say thirty seconds. Immediately the order “Beat to Quarters” was given, and the drummer was ready with his drum, and within not more than two minutes a blank cartridge (a peremptory order to hove to) loomed from gun No. 1. No notice was taken of that. Next came the order: “Solid shot across her quarter point blank. Don’t hit her,” and a minute after the shot plunged up the water a short distance of her starboard quarter. No notice was taken of that either. Next the order came “Load pivot with five-second shell: elevate seventeen hundred yards. Fire to hit.” Now that order might seem inconsistent. The five-second shell would explode at thirteen hundred yards: four hundred yards short, had the ship been distant seventeen hundred yards. But Captain English did not wish to injure the ships hull, but to explode the shell over her. The aim was true, and the distance well estimated: the shell cut one gang of her forerigging off just under the top, and exploded over her forecastle, scattering the pieces about her deck. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her engines stopped immediately, and she came too with helm aport, and lay until we came up to her.”
The Somerset’s boarding party examined the ship’s papers, learned she was British owned and sailing under British flag and therefore ostensibly a neutral ship. But finding irregularities with the Circassian’s lack of a destination, Commander English declared the ship was a blockade runners and seized her and her cargo as a prizes of war. The British captain argued that the ship was very neutral despite having sailed from New Orleans before Farragut captured it, and now that he had captured it, the blockade of the port was no longer in effect because Farragut lifted it when he occupied the city and took it for the Union. Doubtlessly perturbed by the Captain’s convoluted interpretation of admiralty law, English ignored the protests and had the Circassian taken under tow by the Somerset because his own engineers didn’t know how to start the captured ship’s boilers and her own black gang refused to cooperate.
“We took the big brute in tow, first transferring her crew, with the exception of her officers, steward and two of her engineers, to the Somerset, placing them under guard: and in that shape started for Key West: and with the help of the Gulf Stream were off Sand Key (entrance of Key West Harbor) early the next forenoon: and a novel sight it must have been to onlookers. That ferry boat, looking more like a big sea turtle than a war ship, creeping into the harbor with that big square rigged ocean steamer in tow..”
A fan of of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubreyad gets the concept of naval prizes. Basically it was a very legal and enriching form of commercialized sailing with large amounts of gunpowder involved. It was the basis of some big British admiralty fortunes and was still in effect during the Civil War for officers and crews in both the Union and Confederate fleets, not to be discontinued for another couple decades.
If an enemy vessel — naval or merchant — was captured, it was then auctioned off by a Naval Prize Court who dispersed the proceeds on a formula not too different from the share system used on New England whalers. The Admiral overseeing the operation, even if not aboard the victorious ship, got a percentage. The commander of the ship got a big share, and then every other officer and sailor got a piece of the action. If the ship was full of gold, then an ordinary seaman could receive as much as five years pay from a single prize. Often the capture got tied up in the courts, which was the story of the Circassian in the decade following the end of the Civil War. If you want to read the Supreme Court opinion, click here. The opinion was penned by Justice Salmon Chase and gives all the details a lawyer or admiralty law geek could ask for. The New York Times published an editorial on the matter which basically said “huzzah” to the court and sneered “…we think that foreign Governments will hesitate before they treat the judgments of that tribunal as so wanting in equity as to justify reprisals.”
While the cargo was disposed of and the Circassian’s owners lawyered up, the Somerset went on to have an illustrious series of actions along the western coast of Florida, freeing slaves, busting up saltworks and maintaining the blockade. A great and very detailed history (sourced in part from Chatfield’s war letters and accounts) of the ship’s subsequent actions can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.
The New York Times reported on the sale of the Circassian’s cargo. It was a very rich prize:
“A portion of the cargo of the prize steamer Circassian, was sold yesterday at No. 18 Murray-street, by Mr. JONES, auctioneer, by order of JAMES C. CLAPP, Esq., United States Marshal for the District of Florida. There was a large attendance of buyers, and the bidding was very spirited, as the articles offered were, in the main, of a superior description.
The sale opened with a case of porcelain articles embracing vases, fruit dishes, wine coolers, and mantel ornaments, 30 pieces, which were purchased at $140. One case of hardware containing one dozen carpenter’s pencils, one dozen tower nippers, quarter dozen coach wrenches, four dozen C.S. gimlets, assorted: two dozen boxwood rules, half dozen Kent hammers, half dozen saddler’s hammers, half dozen bright garden hammers, half dozen hatchets, half dozen claw hatchets, hail dozen turn-screws, London, was sold at $295.
A case containing miscellaneous articles of French manufacture, glass tubes, leather spectacle cases, and fancy articles in general, was bought by Mr. S. HOUSEMAN at $1,200. There were 107 lots offered in all, which brought prices varying from $25 to $1,200. The proceeds of the sale will amount to about $100,000.
In August last, the first part of the cargo of this steamer was sold for $125,000. The vessel has since been appraised and taken by the Government at $107,000. The brandies she had on board will be sold on Tuesday next, by Mr. HEWLETT SCUDDER, at the store in Park-place, and it is expected they will realize $100,000.”
By war’s end the Circassian stood as one of its richest prizes with a gross value of $352,313.
How much of that went into the ancestral pocket will never be known. Chatfield was a frugal guy who supported a big family of daughters and son-in-laws as well as his own siblings and parents back in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson. How he managed to finish his whaling career at the age of 33, spend three years in the Navy, then return home to Cotuit and prosper is probably due in part to some of the Circassian prize money. That windfall and his own thriftiness probably allowed him to own the Joseph Eaton, a coastal schooner he captained until his 50s hauling granite from Maine to Albany for the construction of the State Capitol. He also managed to own two Greek Revival houses across the street from each other in Cotuit’s center, using one for sleeping the other for eating, with a Wampanoag woman cooking in a shed called “Little Mashpee”, and daughters, son-in-laws and grandchildren scattered between two other cottages. In his reminiscences he mentions the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that sparked a two-decade “Long Depression.” He never was wealthy, but by Cape Cod standards any whaling captain was the 19th century equivalent of a hedge fund cowboy. It has been said that Nantucket and New Bedford were the wealthiest cities in the world per capita at the zenith of the whale oil market in the 1820s and some substantial Quaker fortunes live on to this day such as the Howland’s (Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street”). At least one of Chatfield’s daughters married a wealthy man, Freeman Hodges, an Osterville native who worked for Henry Flagler as his real estate “front man” — buying up the land that would be the right-of-way for Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that ultimately would terminate in Key West.
In his retirement Chatfield made and mended sails in the sail loft at 854 Main Street, the same loft where he held the first meeting of Cotuit’s Masonic Mariner’s Lodge. His sailmaker’s bench, his leather sailmaker’s palm, massive fids for splicing hawsers, blocks and sheaves: all still hang from the rafters.
The sad end to this story is the wreck of the ill-fated Circassian in the late fall of 1876 on the southern shore of Long Island near Shinnecock Inlet. Despite several very heroic small boat rescues and weatherong two gales and multiple attempts to float her steel hull ship off the beach, the Circassian went down with a skeleton crew of Shinnecock Indians put aboard to salvage her, but who were trapped by a third fatal storm that killed all but four survivors.
“Every home on the Reservation had been affected because so many of their lost men belonged to the same families and so many of the families were interrelated. The two Walkers were brothers; the three Bunns cousins. The Cuffees too were of the same family, two brothers and a cousin. Andrew Kellis had left work on the Circassian a week before to start on a whaling voyage; now another Kellis brother was out on the beaches looking for Oliver. Every house was in mourning. All three of the tribe s Trustees were dead, and all of the men lost were married with the exception of William Cuffee. In one house a woman lost a husband and a brother; in another a husband and a brother-in-law. Her daughter, with several young children, was also made a widow. In all, nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children were left behind. Long Island history has never seen any shipwreck so devastating to so many closely related families. Brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins were all lost. “
A long time ago my father’s oldest boyhood friend, Reid Higgins, presented him with a hand-carved wooden sign painted green with gilded letters in beveled quarterboard font that said “C H U R B U C K” surmounted by a rampant, gilded eagle facing “dexter” (or to the right.) For as long as I can remember it has been screwed into the southern side of the house’s front porch. It used to be a fall ritual during Columbus Day weekend to unscrew the eagle and sign and store it indoors for the winter. Since 1991, when I’ve lived in the house year round, the sign has stayed outdoors year round too. And lately it’s been showing a lot of wear and tear.
It has been cleaned up, re-gilded and re-painted, at least two times I know of, in the past forty or fifty years. My grandmother asked a local woman who restored picture frames to do it once, and Reid himself took it back to spruce it up a long time ago. A few weeks ago, on an impulse, I took it down and into the shop. It was much worse than I thought it would be. Other than a few shreds, almost all of the gilt had flaked off. The name board had barely any paint left on it with white primer dominating what was left of the weatherbeaten green.
This is how I brought it back to life for whomever gets to do it next time. It was a lot of fun, I learned something new and cool, and it kept me from going crazy over the frozen holidays.
I took a light wire brush wheel and a cordless Dremel and got most of the flaking paint off without over scouring the mahogamy Reid used to carve the eagle. The detailed feathering and layering of his carving is exquisite and I didn’t want to sand it down or otherwise dull the sharp definition of the plumage. I went over it quickly with the Dremel, then fine steel, followed by a light layer of paste paint remover. The paint on the top edge of the eagle wings, the crown of its head, and top of its beak was long gone, and years of sun and water and snow had caused deep grooving to occur in those areas along the grain line. The sign that forms the base was in worse condition, with similar grooving on the top edges and deep splits forming in the end grain on the right and left ends of the Churbuck sign.
After getting off all of the paint remover and washing it all down with mineral spirits, I took a sponge and thinned down some boiled linseed oil with one part of mineral spirits to three parts linseed and swabbed that over the entire bird and base three times, letting each coat sink in and dry overnight for three days.
Then, with a sanding block and 220 grit sandpaper I smoothed everything down and got ready to prime.
I used primer and paint sold by Fine Paints of Europe, the American distributor of Holland’s Hascolac line of paint. I’ve used a lot of this stuff — I painted the entire house myself one year using about $10,000 worth of Hascolac Oborex and knew from their brochure that someday I wanted to restore something with their Brilliant line of enamels. The stuff is not cheap. I spent about $150 on a quart of white primer, a quart of green enamel, and a tin full of Swedish Putty from a local hardware store that carries FPE.
After priming two coats of white, I sanded it and applied a very thin skim coat of Swedish Putty. This is some medieval substance essentially made out of finely ground glass (silica) and oil. It goes on with the blade of a clean putty knife and can be sanded to a glass smooth service with fine sandpaper after it dries. The warnings that came on the tin were of the skull and crossbones severity so I dutifully wore a mask when I sanded the putty smooth. Silicosis is basically “glass lung” and I like my lungs.
I used the putty as a filler to close up the open grain in the wood and repair the deep splits in the end grain. It can be applied to curved surfaces and trim with a sponge soaked in linseed oil, so I did the inside of the carved letters with that method.
I took a long time sanding the Swedish putty obsessively smooth, stepping down from 220 to 400 to 600 grit paper until the surface was immaculate. I hit it with an air gun, cleaned up the workarea to get rid of as much dust as possible and broke out a new Omega brush and the green Brilliant enamel.
The difference between Hascolac paints and other paints are apparent as soon as you dip the first brushload and start painting. I made all my brush strokes in one direction and put the paint on straight up, no thinning, but was very parsimonious about how loaded up I let the brush get with green paint. The coverage is surprising, but the beauty of the paint is how it self-levels and dries into a gleaming, candy apple kind of sheen.
I applied three coats of green, sanding between then with 400 grit paper. I was very happy with the final result and waited for the mails to deliver me my first booklet of 23 ⅓ karat gold leaf, coton gilder gloves and a German squirrel fur gilding brush.
I’ve never gilded before so I wanted a couple gilding videos on YouTube made by custom sign makers. It looked pretty straightforward.
The first thing is to paint everything that will be gilded a bright coat of yellow and tape off everything that won’t be gilded with blue painters tape, using an xActo knife to cut out the carved letters. I used a little bottle of yellow Testors paint and covered the bird and all the letters with a single coat. Why yellow? That coat, called the TK coat, acts as a radiant substrate for the gold which is microscopically thin to the point of translucence. It you want a dark, subdued shine, you gild over dark paint. If you want brilliance you first must put down some thing light and bright.
Gilding was pretty simple. First I painted some gilding glue over the surface to be gilded. The stuff goes on a little thick and viscous and is a light tinge of blue when applied. After 30 minutes the blue disappears and the gilding glue is tacky and ready for the gold leaf. Tug a wax paper page out of the little booklet of gold, flip it gold side down over the surface coated with gilding glue, and brush very gently with the squirrel brush. I found that a straight tapping of the brush worked best, pushing the leaf down to adhere to the glue and lifting it off the paper backing.
I didn’t want to mess up. Something told me that stripping a botched gilding job would simply suck so I was determined to do it right. Besides, I bought $50 worth of leaf — 40 3”x2” sheets f– and used about three quarters of it. After the gilding goes down, one just looks for the yellow under paint and dabs a little more gold leaf on it, until everything to be gilded is covered with a layer of gold and fuzzy with loose flakes. Flick it and smooth it with the gilding brush, burnish it with a finger tip in the white cotton gilding glove, and we’re talking a very expensive rainy day project for the kindergarten class.
I cleaned up the lettering with a very fine modeling brush and the green enamel. Then I coated all of the bird and the lettering with two thin coats of shellac to protect the gold from the elements.
And here is the final result.
In another post I’ll talk more about the man who carved the sign, Reid Higgins, and his amazing carvings of local shore birds.
I happened upon a great trove of old photos on Flickr posted by the Boston Public Library. Dozens of albums containing shots of historical Boston from its sports to its building to its maritime accidents. Being a shipwreck fan of course I was all over that album.
The pictures are not downloadable and covered by copyright, so the next image is scraped without the permission of the library:
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 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.
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.