The Morbid Equinox — The Hurricane of 1938

Tomorrow, September 21, marks the Fall Equinox. Sixty-nine years ago to the day my grandparents and my father rode out the greatest storm to ever strike New England, while to the west 600 people perished. It was a disaster my grandparents never forgot, something they didn’t talk about much, but with a tinge of fear, making it the ghost story of my childhood, a scary story reinforced by scrapbooks of photographs of storm damage and commemorative editions of the New Bedford Standard Times that detailed the destruction through photographs of wrecked beach cottages, submerged autos, and yachts cast incongruously across highways and train tracks. I pored over those photographs, and asked out loud when something as dramatic might happen again. I was shushed. It’s bad luck to whistle up a storm.
I am reading a good book, A Wind to Shake the World, by Everett S. Allen, the late journalist and Martha’s Vineyard native who spent his career at the Standard-Times, starting as a cub reporter on the day the hurricane struck. The fact this was a hurricane with no name (it occurred before the days when the National Weather Service dubbed them names such as Katrina and Andrew) may account for a lot of the mystery surrounding it. It was the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the eastern seaboard north of North Carolina. It happened unexpectedly, there were no forecasts and it literally caught people unaware, on the beach, closing their summer cottages at the end of the season. People in New York and Boston were unaware of what was happening to their south and east. It was days before the news became known and relief could arrive. It was the storm that punctuated the misery of the Depression, the storm which ended any semblance of colonial bucolic New England that remained, that the Currier & Ives version of New England that existed before the Interstate, an isolated corner of working farms, scrub forests, rich men’s mansions, and remote beaches. It was simply the Storm of ’38.

Driving home to Cape Cod last night from New York City (my flight to Hyannis was cancelled due to fog), was an eerie experience, especially once I passed New Haven and began to flick past the towns which had been devastated by the storm 69 years ago, a landscape tortured and which I read about that morning on the flight to LaGuardia.

Long Island was hit first, around three in the afternoon. New York City saw some strong winds and flooding, but the damage got worse to the east. Fire Island. Point of Woods — the barrier island that runs like a tenuous finger between the Atlantic and the bay behind it was flooded by a tidal wave 35-feet tall, wiping cottages and their occupants off of the sand dunes, blowing them north to the mainland. The Hamptons were hard hit, but Montauk, the commercial fishing haven at the very terminus of Long Island was ruined. Bodies were blown across Block Island Sound to Rhode Island. After the storm, police sent messages downwind to Montauk, seeking identification of victims such as this:

“The little boy found was between 36 and 37 inches tall, weighing forty pounds and was between two and three years old. His hair was medium brown, inclined to be wavy…He wore a dark blue suit with white pearl buttons … the message was addressed to [Montauk] because it was to windward, in terms of the hurricane.”

Across Long Island Sound, in Connecticut, where I drove through the early morning hours, New Haven, the Elm City, lost 42 percent of its trees, losing a beauty it was renowned for. Crossing the bridge in Old Saybrook, over the Connecticut River, I thought of Nils Ek, the captain of the 48-foot cruiser Marpo, who perished while trying to save another man’s yacht.

“After striking the bulkhead two or three times, the craft disappeared, and no trace of her was found after the storm. She is presumed to have slid off into deep water and probably was carried far downstream underwater. Whether Captain Ek fell overboard or had gone below to determine what was wrong with his engine will never be known.”

In New London, the destruction was absolute, sealed by a fire which carried away the commercial center of downtown during the worst of the 120 mph winds. In Mystic, the next town, fish were found in kitchen drawers of flooded houses. A Boston bound train was washed off its tracks outside of Stonington but no passengers were lost and the passengers — mainly prep school students — found refuge in the village. Rhode Island was hit the hardest.

Over 100 perished in Westerly where the high school was turned into a morgue, the shorefront at the Charlestown Breach and Point Judith seemed to take the brunt of the blow. The day after, Allen described the scene:

“Along the shore road back to Misquamicut, the remains of houses are scattered deep on the shore of Brightman’s Pond. Gangs of men comb the coves and fields for bodies; hundreds more are expected to join the search tomorrow, for nearly thirty dead are still missing …”

The story was the same to the east: Narragansett, Wickford, Newport.

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “So it goes.”

Downtown Providence was flooded to the second floors of the downtown office buildings. Looters rampaged after the waters receded. People died in Westport, at Horseneck Beach. Padanarum, the yachting center west of New Bedford, was the scene of much maritime mayhem, as the most beautiful yachts ever imagined were dashed against the bridge and causeway at the head of the harbor.

The storm hit on a school day, and in Bristol, Rhode Island, a school bus was flooded. Eight children died. And so it went.

Town after town ravaged by a storm which in the course of three hours — coinciding with high tide — pushed a 35-foot tall water of water before it, drowning those unfortunate enough to be trapped in their collapsing homes, killing fishermen caught unaware at sea, and gruesomely gashing and impaling those caught outdoors with flying debris. A women securing her window bled to death when the glass shattered and cut her jugular vein.

The saddest story related by Allen and the hardest for me to bear as I drove home, occurred beneath the Bourne Bridge, the southernmost span over the Cape Cod Canal. There a house which had washed off its foundation a couple miles to the south, fetched up. When rescuers cut a hole in the roof they discovered four elderly women and an 11-year old boy, drowned in the attic. With them was a local man, about my age . He had been visiting elderly people in his neighborhood, helping them secure their homes and tying up their skiffs. His name was Hayward Wilson.

“At midnight, they found five bodies on the second floor; all had drowned. A bloody bruise was on Wilson’s forehead and his hands were badly bruised and lacerated; he had made a last desperate effort to break through the roof to get the women and little boy out of their water-filled prison.”

He was posthumously awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism , the reverse side of which reads: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

That bridge was the hardest to cross. With every highway sign, another one of Allen’s anecdotes of tragedy and death, heroism and survival came back to me. I’ll never be able to look at the southern New England shore the same way again.

These pictures say it all. Napatree Point, Rhode Island before the storm.

And after (note the wooden groins, or planks in both pictures for reference.

(photos by the late Leonard R. Greene)

So ends another sailing season

I pulled #19 out of the water on Sunday’s hightide. It was sad. Now my Friday afternoon hooky excuse is on a trailer, awaiting three other stout backs to lift her off and onto some sawhorses. I think I’ll do some woodwork on her this fall before tucking her away for the winter on the dirt floor boat shed (never store a wooden boat over a concrete floor, all the moisture in the wood desiccates and a dry boat will rot).

Chowder races

The yacht club pulled its dock and racing buoys out of the water on Labor Day weekend, but a good fleet of skiffs remains in the cove, ready to sail if the urge hits on an Indian Summer day. We raced Saturday and Sunday morning( and will try to do it again next weekend) very informal affairs with my son running the motorboat, Chris Jackson whistling the starting times, and  moorings and channel cans standing in as turning marks.

Saturday was very windy, so we reefed — or shortened sail — and I had my step-sister from Beijing crewing for me. We finished in the middle of the ten boat fleet in the first race, and came in fat last in the second race because she urged me too close to the line and so I was over early and fouled another boat in the process, forcing me to perform the dreaded 720 maneuver (two consecutive circles) which is very, very hard and dangerous on a windy day.

Photo by Charles Lowell
Afterwards we met for chowder and beer on the bluff with agreement to return again on Sunday for another two races.

Once again Fisher was the race committee, but the wind was much lighter and everyone sailed without crew, expanding the fleet to 13 boats which was just enough to make it competitive and interesting.

In the first race I nailed the start and sailed to the left of the course, catching a very nice breeze, enough to round the first windward mark in first place, and again around the second reaching mark a comfortable six boat lengths ahead of the fleet. Alas, fat man and light wind conspired to throw the anchor over the stern and I finished that race in the middle of the fleet in sixth place.

The second race … let’s not go there. The abbreviation on the results sheet says it all: DFL. Dead Fat Last.

We’ll try again next weekend, and perhaps the weekend after that. Life is quiet here now, no one is around, Main Street goes minutes without a passing car, and everything from the flower gardens to the crickets seem to know fall is coming. I need to go dig up a perennial bed and level some footings for the chicken coop. Whereabouts this week:

Cotuit – 9.10

Cotuit-North Carolina – 9.11 (this is a bad day for me, for everyone for that matter, but I will try to not think about it as I fly out of Boston)
North Carolina – 9.11 to 9.14

Cotuit 9.15-16

Buttons and collars — marlinespike seamanship

I returned from Virginia to find a long box on the dining room table with a pair of new spruce Shaw & Tenney oars to replace the faithful, but fast fading crap basswood oars that have served me for the last six or so years.

Shaw & Tenney is an ancient company in Orono, Maine that makes very nice (and expensive) oars and paddles. I ordered my pair back in June, and finally, with summer on the wane, they arrived. After placing dead fat last in the morning skiff race, I opted out of the second punishment, came home, and sat down on the back deck with my ditty bag to get some leather onto my new blades.

Chafing is the enemy of the sailor, and a lot of seamanship is devoted to cutting down on friction. A frayed line, a chafed sail, or a worn spar can mean disaster at the wrong time and in the wrong conditions, so one does what they can to keep a boat from rubbing itself apart. Leather is a staple of any ditty bag, generally high quality tanned stuff for applying to spars where they rub against other spars. Boom crutches and gaff jaws are two places where some well applied leather will protect the brightwork (varnish), but nowhere is it more useful (and good looking) than on the looms of a nice pair of oars.

I have collars and buttons on my old oars, but I tacked the leather in place with bronze brads — a bad but quick way to get the leather on and the method preferred by my grandfather on his ash oars. Bronze looks good when it corrodes green with verdigris, but one is putting two rows of small holes into the oar which will eventually let water in and cause the oar to swell, split, and fail. So I decided to put my collars and buttons on the old school way — with needle and thread, and for an hour today put my ditty bag to good work. Paul Gartside, a boat builder in British Columbia, has excellent instructions on how to do this.
First, I took a leather collar kit and marked the leather around the shaft, centering the leather about 24 inches from the end of the grips. Shaw & Tenney recommends 20 inches, but I like to have my oar handles close together, so I move the collars out.

I marked the circumference of the oars on the rough side of the leather and cut it with a single-edged razor blade using a steel ruler as a straight edge. Then, with the ruler as a quide, I marked twenty points 3/8ths of a inch apart on each edge, and popped them through with a hammer and nail over a piece of scrap wood (an awl also works well). The holes don’t need to be particularly large, just punctures to guide the needle.

I lace with a six-foot piece of dacron sail thread thoroughly waxed with beeswax. I use two egg-eye needles — stout and blunt tipped on each end of the thread. Some experts call for shorter thread for ease of use, but I go with a long piece so I can have one continuous piece. I laced these leathers on by putting the oar across my lap, and had my sailor’s palm on my right hand to help drive the needles through. The stitch is easy — essentially the same pattern as a shoelace.

I start with a few passes on the top edge, pulling the dacron very tight to bring the two edges of the leather together. I cut the leather about 3/16ths short in the expectation that the lacing will bring it together super-tight around the loom of the oar.

I run the thread up and back, and wind up with this:

I finish it off with a Turk’s head over the button, and with some care, these oars should last at least ten years.

Tying the Turk’s Head

In marlinspike seamanship there are practical and decorative arts. Practical work is the province of the rigger, serving and parceling, baggywrinkle and splices, the rope and cable work necessary to step spars, rig them, and get a boat in order for the sea. The decorative arts were born probably out of boredom in the forecastle of many a vessel, and I’ve read of captains who felt it important to lay in a store of “small stuff” before casting off — thin line and twine — so their crews could keep their hands occupied and their minds off of wormy hardtack and tyrannical mates.

I’ve always been a fan of the Turk’s Head, a relatively ancient knot that is best described as a circular braid tied around tillers and railings, and people’s wrists and ankles — hence its other name, the Sailor’s Bracelet. They aren’t the easiest thing to learn how to tie, but once you do a few it becomes pretty simple and takes only ten minutes to knock off a simple bracelet for a nephew or a niece. These are popular emblems of the summer for kids around Cotuit, and I can recall wearing mine back to school and leaving it on well into the fall term until it became too dirty and smelly to ignore anymore and had to be cut off.

Turk’s Heads can be fantastically complex affairs that are much broader than a bracelet and can cover fairly wide expanses. The old village doctor, Dr. Donald Higgins, was a prodigious knot tier and the tiller of his catboat always sported a beautiful example of one of the more complex knots.

Jack Gartside Boats
Uncle Fester — who knows my mathematical limits — would laugh his butt off if he saw me try to pass the following statement off without attribution, so of course I will credit the Wikipedia. Let’s just say there are some very interesting patterns possible … and rendered impossible, but the math behind the knot is what makes Turk’s Heads an interesting diversion on a rainy day:

“Mathematically, the number of strands is the greatest common divisor of the number of leads and the number of bends; the knot may be tied with a single strand if and only if the two numbers are coprime.For example, 3 lead x 5 bight (3×5), or 5 lead x 7 bight (5×7).”

I won’t give instructions, but there are some good resources. I do not suggest learning how to tie the knot following Clifford Ashley’s The Ashley Book of Knots. And Tom Hall’s Introduction to Turk’s-Head Knots, is good, but also a bit dense. My daughter got the knack from following a simple single-sheet at Jan Brett’s site.

Now my next project it to make a fancy lanyard as strap for my new sunglasses.