Part II: A village allergic to docks

The Sobin Pier and other dock fights of the 70s

This is the second in a three-part series on the fractious topic of piers in Cotuit. Previously I detailed the story of the Harbor View pier dispute that took place in the 1960s. This chapter is about a perhaps even more divisive struggle between a waterfront landowner and the anti-pier forces of the village that raged in the late 1970s: the Sobin Pier.

Background

1978 marked the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Harbor View Club’s 250-foot pier. Watching its dismantling may have felt like victory for the preservationists in the village who wanted to preserve the non-commercial and quaint character of the place.  Morton Clark, the Rhode Island businessman who owned the club, died in 1968, the year before the state’s Supreme Court ordered the pier removed. His heirs held on for a few years longer before selling their interest in the holding company to a new set of Boston investors who tried to make a go of the business without a marina. In 1980 Harbor View Realty Inc. was dissolved and the big mansion on the bluff reverted to a residence which it has ever since.

The anti-dock forces didn’t have long to savor their victory in that five-year fight against off-Cape developers. The early sixties turned the world’s attention turn to Cape Cod during the Kennedy Camelot-era, and the opening of a four-lane highway f(Route 3) rom Boston to the Cape had cut the drive time to Cotuit from several hours to 90 minutes. Cotuit was one of the first summer resorts on the Cape and had seen a huge change as it evolved from a commercial port of whalers , schooner captains, and oystermen to its new identity as the “Summer Harvard.” Since professors, like their students, enjoyed an uninterrupted summer vacation, the difficulty of getting to the village from Boston in the late 19th century was part of the place’s allure.

Large scale development began in the mid-1960s, especially impacting Mashpee which had remained undeveloped because of its tenuous identity as a the tribal lands of the Wampanoags. Mashpee landowners succeeded in breaking the colonial covenants put in place by the town’s benefactor, Richard Bourne, who forbade the sale of any of the Plantation of Marshpee’s lands outside of the tribe. By the mid-1960s a large luxury development known as New Seabory sprang up along Cotuit’s southern borders along Popponesset Bay to Waquoit Bay to the west.

The 1970s were the decade of what the Cape’s early preservationists called the “Rape of the Cape.” Preservationists warned town selectmen and planning boards of the impact that unchecked real estate development would have on the fresh water acquifer beneath the Cape’s sands, and tje water quality of the bays and harbors. As they pushed back against that development the early signs of deterioration were showing up in the harbors, and by the early 70s Cotuit Bay was no longer a pristine place prized for its oysters but one threatened by every new shoreside mansion and subdivision cut out of the old forests.

Environmentalism was gaining momentum in Washington. The passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts of 1972 marked a sudden change in attitudes about unbridled development, but on the Cape, the land grab was underway, and off-Cape developers jammed the agendas of planning boards with applications for subdivisions and demolition permits.

The veterans of the Harbor View fight didn’t let their guard down. Cotuit preservationists were on guard, scrutinizing the legal notices placed in the local papers for real estate transactions and applications for new piers, using the same organizing methods they developed in the 1960s to keep summer residents informed of hearings and meetings scheduled in the dark of winter when developers and their lawyers knew opposition would be elsewhere, encouraging letter writing from those who couldn’t attend those hearings and filling the town hall hearing rooms with those who could.

Five years after the end of the Harbor View’s bid to become a commercial marina, the anti-dock forces found themselves facing another application for a permanent pier application, this one only a few hundred yards down the beach for the scene of the first fight.

Bluff Point: “One of the finest resort estates in New England

Bluff Point is home to Cotuit’s third summer home (the first was the Samuel Hooper’s house on the corner of Putnam Ave. and Old Shore Road, the second was Thorndike house on Old Shore Road). It was built after the Civil War by Colonel Charles Russell Codman, an officer in Union Army in command of the 45th Massachusetts Infantry. Codman was heir to the Sturgis China trade fortune. He commissioned the design and construction of an imposing three story home on a 14-acre lot on Bluff Point (soon to be referred to in the village as “Codman’s Point.”} It was the biggest house in Cotuit, commanding a spectacular view over Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck, and unlike many early summer mansions, it still stands today.

The Codman “Cottage”

Colonel Codman’s son, Russell Codman, sold Bluff Point to Francis Alsop in 1919. Alsop  left the Codman mansion untouched for the most part, and in 1934 the property was purchased from him by Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Kirkman, president of the Kirkman Soap Company in Brooklyn.

The Kirkman’s were smitten by Cotuit and became generous benefactors to the Cotuit Library and Mosswood Cemetery. At the time of their deaths (within ten months of each other) in 1953 and 1954, the Kirkman’s had no children or other heirs, and to the surprise of many in town, bequeathed their home and Bluff Point property, as well as their Manhattan residence and more than $1 million in public utility bonds to pay for the upkeep and improvements to Mosswood Cemetery as well as a significant part of the Cotuit Library’s operating budget. It was, at the time, the largest such gift the Town of Barnstable had ever received and the selectmen sent one of their own to New York City to meet with the Kirkman’s lawyers as if in disbelief of their good fortune. The value of the estate was so big that some Cotuisions joked later that it could have paid for the construction of a dome over the graveyard.

The Kirkman gift included their Bluff Point property and the Codman house. But the property was rejected by the town, who preferred the executors of the Kirkman estate sell the real estate to private owners and include the cash in the bequest along with the bonds and other securities. Apparently the will was somewhat vague and the selectmen took advantage of its ambiguity to persuade the probate court to expand its intent to include all of the town’s cemeteries and libraries, not just Cotuit’s. Some villagers were not pleased by the move.

Sidney Kirkman, posed on the lawn of his beloved Bliff Point with Sampson’s Island behind him.

As it turned out, it wasn’t the rapacious raid of the Kirkman Trust by the board of selectmen that should have upset Cotuit, but the lost opportunity to obtain one of the best beaches for the public’s use.

In the spring of 1954 the Barnstable Patriot wrote two editorials which confirm that Cotuit came very close to obtaining a significant new public beach for free.  In the first editorial, the writer stated: “The Patriot correspondent in Cotuit informs us that many residents there have expressed the hope that it may not be necessary for the town to sell the Bluff Point property. She writes that “the scarcity of beaches for swimming is so acute in Cotuit that the town has spent and probably will go on spending thousands of dollars on a mud hole like Hooper’s Landing. No matter how much sand is dumped in it, the mud manages to seep back in a year or so. If we can possible keep a decent stretch of sand for the use of Cotuit residents and their guests, why shouldn’t we have it?”

The second editorial endorsed those sentiments:

A Fitting Memorial to the Kirkmans

“The report given by selectmen after their New York conference with executors of the Kirkman estate indicates that it is almost certain the  terms of the will may be broadened and the Bluff Point property in Cotuit, with its beautiful beach, will become a memorial park for the use of all townspeople.

That this use of the property would be very satisfactory to the residents of Cotuit was suggested in this column several weeks ago by the Patriot correspondent in the village. It should seem that the plan should meet the approval of residents of other villages.

Apparently the Cotuit property will be probated in the Barnstable Court, the remainder of the property probated, in New York, then sold.

Then the question of acceptance of the fine bequest from the Kirkmans will be presented to voters at a special town meeting.

The town passed on Bluff Point and never looked back. Attitudes back then regarded open space or public lands to be land taken off the tax rolls and waterfront property is assessed many times the value of landlocked parcels. The story of the Kirkman Fund is a fascinating tale of litigation, town politics and the perils of leaving behind bad wills . It deserves its own telling, but for the purposes of this story the Kirkman Estate  — and the lost public beach —  sets the stage for subsequent events which would see the property once  “regarded as one of the finest resort estates in New England” broken up and subdivided into fourteen new house lots.

Billy Sullivan comes to town

The executors of the Kirkman Estate sold the property  to Albert Gustin of Kansas City in 1955.  Albert and his wife Hester owned the estate until May 1973, when their estate sold the property to  an entity called the ”Cotuit Trust” and its  trustee, attorney Thomas Wooters of the Boston law firm of Sullivan & Worcester. Real estate trusts and limited liability corporations (LLCs) are common legal dodges used by lawyers and estate planners to minimize estate taxes and conceal the identities of wealthy clients shy about disclosing their holdings to the public. The mysterious  Cotuit Trust hired surveyors and in September of 1973 i Town Moderator and Osterville attorney John Alger fiiled plans for a 14-lot subdivision with the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds following the plan’s review and approval by the Barnstable Planning Board.

The Bluff Point Subdivision Plan of 1973

The identity of the new owners became public when Cotuit Trust sold parcels of the new subdivision in January 1975 to William H. “Billy” Sullivan, Jr,, heating oil tycoon and owner of the Boston/New England Patriots football team from the team’s inception in 1960. The price Billy paid the Trust for the parcel where the Codman mansion stands, was a sure indication of his involvment in the subdivison: $1 for the parcel where the Codman mansion stands as well as an adjacent lot fpr  Sullivan’s son and daughter-in-law, Charles “Chuck” and Barbara Sullivan.

Cathy Hayden of Cotuit wrote a poignant  essay entitled “Bluff Point” that appeared in the April 3, 1974 edition of  the Barnstable Patriot:

Most of us traversing this most lovely stretch of Cotuit road viewed the homes and property with a vague, occasional thought of apprehension, seemingly groundless. Nothing ever seemed to change; development was not a viable thought in too many minds. Like the winds and the weather, all things change…

“Two weeks ago. the March winds dropped to a quiet ruffle of the harbor’s waters, allowing sound to be carried for great distances. No matter where you were in the village that day, the sound of the bulldozers at work was carried to you. Viewed close up, the brilliant yellow machine was busy at a very early hour of the morning, performing its unique gyrations, removing permanently many of the old cedars and deciduous trees that lined the drive to the main house at Codman’s Point. This marked the beginning of the development of a 14-lot subdivision.”

Cathy Hayden, “Bluff Point”, Barnstable Patriot April 3, 1974

Mister Sobin Tries to Build His Dream Dock

Billy Sullivan was far from the first boldface name to take a shine to Cotuit. Larry O’Brien, JFK’s chief of staff and then commissioner of the National Basketball Association, lived on the bluff overlooking Loop Beach and Sampson’s Island. H. Gates Lloyd Jr., deputy director of the CIA under Allen Dulles, lived at the southern most extreme of the village. On Oyster Harbors lived Mellons and DuPonts. Even in the earliest days of Cotuit’s summer community the literati and intellectuals of 19th century Boston, from Henry Adams to William James, George Santayana to Mark Howe has been guests at the Codman mansion.

Now Billy Sullivan was the host at the Codman mansion, and with his son Chuck living next door, the Cotuit Trust’s remaining parcels were sold off and the driveway was expanded into a road, Bluff Point Drive.

Appearing before the town’s Planning Board in1973 to present the subdivision plan, the Cotuit Trust’s local lawyer said, in essence, things could be worse, for while the “14-lot subdivision could quality under old half-acre zoning and therefore be twice as large, all lots are one acre or better.”

Billy Sullivan

In 1976 the Cotuit Trust sold  two lots  on Bluff Point to Julian and Leila Sobin of Boston.  The property, referred to as  “Lot 8” on the 1973 subdivision plan, was the prime piece of property on the north side of the point, across the road from the Codman house, with a view across  Cotuit Bay from Handys Point to Dead Neck.  The Sobin’s paid $247,500 for the land and started construction on a modern, seven-level main house and guest house  with balconies and decks tucked into the pine trees on the bluff.

Julian M. Sobin was not a “boldface” name like his neighbor, but evidently he was a very successful businessman and consultant. As senior vice president of the International Minerals and Chemical Corporation. Sobin was one of the first American businessmen to transact business in Red China following the Nixon-Mao visits of 1972. He became so deeply involved in the early opening of US-Sino trade relations and accumulated so much valuable information about the formerly closed country that he co-authored the Encyclopedia of China Today, a book which was nominated for a National Book award.  The Gerald Ford Presidential Library has archived transcripts of interview conducted by Sobin with other American businessmen who pioneered trade with China in the early 70s.


When Julian and Leila Sobin purchased the 5.75 acres on Bluff Point they already owned a summer home in New Seabury, then still a relatively new development built in the 1960s  along the coast of Mashpee between Popponesset and Waquoit Bays. At their New Seabury property (near the summer home of current Patriot’s owner Robert Kraft), the Sobin’s had a dock for their motorboat.  So why not build one in Cotuit?

One suspects Julian Sobin wasn’t versed in the details of the Harbor View pier fight. Even if he had, his attorney John Alger would have assured him that a pier was his right under some of the oldest laws in the state.

The Sobin’s wanted to build a 144-foot permanent pile pier and to dredge the harbor around the end of the structure to allow them to moor their boat there, claiming the length was needed to minimize the amount of dredging needed to allow them to get their boat on and off the pier. With Alger handling the filings with the town and state, few if anyone in Cotuit was aware of what was coming.

Then, on February 2, 1978, the lead story on the front page of the Barnstable Patriot sounded the alarm. Cotuit was getting a new dock.

Bluff Point pier: controversy in Cotuit” – was the first published news that the Sobin pier, like the Harbor View’s a decade before, would be opposed. Just four months previously,  in October of 1977 (and unbeknown to most Cotuit residents because the only abutters Sobin had to notify were Billy Sullivan and the Cotuit Trust), the pier had been reviewed and approved by the town’s conservation commission.  The harbormaster and assistant harbor master Richard Sturges and Chester A. Crosby, Jr.  were in favor of the pier and “Crosby considered the facility would be a help to harbormasters” according to the Patriot. Alger already had the approval of the state’s Division of Waterways of the Department of Environmental Quality Engineering in hand. It was when the Sobin pier was submitted to the federal Army Corps of Engineers for its blessing  that the anti-dock forces in Cotuit sat up and took notice.

Anna Murray, a long-time Cotuit skiff sailor and one of the founding spirits of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, took the lead for the opposition. She was a formidable , salty-voiced figure who would stand at meetings of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht club (the oldest junior yacht club in the country), to chastise parents for trying to vote on the club’s business when only members under the age of 25 (and who were unmarried) were eligible to vote. A veteran of the Harbor View fight, and with a photographic memory of anything to do with Cotuit’s shoreline, she was ready to go toe to toe against another pier.

Anna Murray told the Patriot: “I think Mr. Sobin should have his pier, yes. But he doesn’t need one 144 feet long for one motorboat. If all the piers in the harbor were like the one he wants, we’d be in a helluva mess.”

Mrs. Murray “…said she told a Sobin representative that if Sobin ‘took off the L, took 70 feet off the pier and did no dredging, we would go along with the pier.”

The length of the proposed pier was necessary to minimize the amount of dredging required for the Sobin’s boat according to Attorney Alger, who also pointed out the pier it would be located at the site of a former dock owned by the Kirkman’s that was located on the same spot. Murray retorted that the Kirkman pier was seasonal – being erected only over the late spring and early fall and then dismantled for the winter, whereas the Sobin plan was to construct a permanent structure.

Of particular interest in that first story in the Patriot about the Sobin pier is the  description of the pressure that rapid real estate development in Mashpee on Popponesset Bay was having on Cotuit due to Mashpee boaters mooring their boats in Cotuit Bay.

 Henry Walcott told the paper, “There’s increasing traffic in Cotuit. A number of boats have moved her from Popponesset Island and New Seabury. The reason? A sandspit extending from the Mashpee side has been steadily extending across the entrance of Popponesset Bay. Shoaling has reduced the narrowed entrance to a very shallow depth. You can get a canoe through at low tide, and not much more. Sometimes boats can’t get in at all.”

Unbeknownst to most people in Cotuit at a time before the town of Barnstable began managing moorings with its program of annual inspections and renewals, a time when the was still plenty of open water for moorings in Cotuit, was the legal fact that no town could reserve its coastal waters for the exclusive use of its residents, and that the water — not the land surrounding it — was the domain of the Federal government under the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Screaming Banshees for Peace and Quiet

A week after the Sobin Pier made the front page of the local weekly newspaper in the spring of ’78, it was front page news again in the next issue. The second story described the balancing act  of neutrality performed by the officers of the Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association as they prepared to mail a newsletter to its membership notifying them of the pier application but not taking an official position either for or against it.  CSCA president Thomas W. Aselton “said he wanted to make it clear that the general membership of the association is not opposed to the plan, although he modified that statement later to say they are not opposed to or in favor it.”

Aselton described the pier as a “very emotional issue.” That would prove to be an understatement. Aselton’s caution in keeping the civic association neutral was doubtlessly influenced  by the group’s previous internal disagreements in the 1960s when its membership voted to  contribute funds drawn from the CSCA treasury to help pay the legal fees of the Harborview’s opponents. Unanimity is rare in any group of citizens, but the actions of the civic association in the Harbor View affair had apparently alienated enough members to make its board of directors very nervous about being the standard bearer for people opposed to piers. The civic association had also just opposed a previous  pier application made by Thomas Eisenstadt, but by the time the Sobin pier came along, it was struggling to present a neutral opinion. Aselton told the Patriot that members of the CSCA and himself  “are concerned about the great amount of out-of-town boats mooring in the harbor.”

But he initially told the Army Corps of Engineers that the civic association was opposed to the pier, then retracted that statement and told the Engineers the CSCA would be taking a neutral position. When the monthly newsletter went out that spring, some were surprised to see the board of the association endorse the pier by stating they felt “…there is no infringement on the right to enjoy the harbor.”

Aselton was not the only civic leader to vacillate and try to stay neutral. Geoffrey Jackson, president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club also wrote a letter in opposition to the Sobin pier, only to change his mind after being contacted by the Sobin’s lawyer. Even with more than $20,000 still remaining in the ACMYC’s old “Watch and Ward Fund” raised to fight the Harbor View, the ACMYC decided to sit on the sidelines of the debate and let its individual members make their opposition known themselves.

Into the breach stepped Anna Murray and Barbara H. Sullivan. They founded
“STOPP” — Sensitive Thinkers Opposed to Permanent Piers — and began to organize a blitz of letters from Cotuit residents opposed to the pier to be sent to the Army Corps of Engineers. In all, more than 150 letters were mailed to the Army Corps regional office in Waltham where they became part of the public record.

The names of some of the opponents included:

  • John C. Linehan, waterways committee chairman of the Osterville Village Association
  • Mrs. Marcus Bryan of Cotuit wrote: “We are all concerned about this. We have lived here for over 30 years. We are no natives; we chose Cotuit because it is peaceful, quiet and beautiful. It is a paradox that people have to become screaming banshees to keep it quiet and beautiful.”
  • Marston and Louise Boden
  • Professor James and Anne Gould
  • Dr. Helen Taussig
  • Harriet Ropes Cabot
  • Geoffrey Jackson, president of the parents Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club
  • Mrs. Jacques Barzun
  • John Reardon
  • John Pickering
  • Stanley McElroy
  • Charles B. Swartwood III
  • Henry Walcott
  • Pemberton Whitcomb
  • and many more…..

Asked by a reporter how he felt about Cotuit’s “welcoming committee,” Julian Sobins said:
I am trying to be a good neighbor. I love Cotuit. It’s a lovely town. I’ve tried to be so careful with the property and restore it to its position of beauty.”

He added that he was “terribly discouraged” about the opposition.

STOPP and the  War of the Letters

Opinion was divided in the village. The old distinction between summer people (and some are not) and year round residents was blurring. The older year rounders came from a tradition of making a living from the water. Docks were needed to offload oysters, boat yards needed marine railways and lifts to launch and haul boats. Even the bottom of the harbor was staked out and owned by the Cotuit Oyster Company. More docks meant more construction jobs. More boats to build and sell and paint and maintain. That faction remembered a far more commercial village than the newer arrivals did, when “downtown” Cotuit had a row of stores and shops on Main Street and the corner of School Street.

The anti-development faction were, for the most part, comprised of summer and year-round residents who had been summer residents in the past. With the long tradition of racing Cotuit Skiffs — one of the oldest continuously sailed one-design classes of sailboats in the world — those sailors preferred sailboats to motorboats, and were accustomed to racing those boats across the entire expanse of Cotuit Bay. Just as the Harbor View pier engendered hard feelings between neighbors and dominated the debate between members of the civic association and the yacht club in the 1960s, the Sobin pier seemed to kick the level of the vitriol within the village up a notch.

Confronted by over a hundred letters opposed to his client’s pier plan, Sobin’s lawyer wrote letters and enclosed a six-page memo with plans and drawings to all objectors on file with the Army Corps of Engineers. It some respects it was a brilliant move by John Alger. Rather than try to sway opinion in a raucous public hearing, he went direct to every individual opponent with his best argument for why their new neighbor should have a big pier. And to some extent Alger’s letters and memo worked. He was able to persuade four opponents to withdraw their objections and two others to reverse themselves and publicly support the pier. If receiving a letter and six-page document from a local attorney was perceived as some sort of legal intimidation is not known.. But Alger’s gambit paid off and soon some opponents were changing their minds and joining the minority of supporters who had sent their letters off to the Engineers.

Some of the supporters of the Sobin pier included:

  • Patriot’s owner William H. “Billy” Sullivan Jr (the Sobin’s neighbor,) who wrote, “I am writing because I was distressed at some objections and unfortunate stories that were being circulated.”
  •  Robert F. Hayden, long-time civic figure, mover of buildings and owner of the Treasure Highland, a salvage company formerly located on the site of the present Stop & Shop and plaza on Route 28 in Marstons Mills,  wrote: “This facility would not interfere, thwart or obstruct competitive or instructional navigation executed by competent participant therein…It would be extremely narrow to militate against a shoreowner’s desire to enjoy the same love as I do for the harbor.”
  • Harbormasters Richard Sturges and Chester Crosby Jr. (who also owned the marine construction company which performed the dredging around the proposed pier)
  • William Todd, the former caretaker of Bluff Point
  • Richard Pierce, Cotuit boat builder

Withdrawing their initial objections were:

  • Geoffrey G. Jackson, president of the ACMYC
  • Elizabeth Almy
  • J.E. Kelley
  • Malcome and Katherine Ryder
  • Sydnor Dever
  • Harriet Ropes Cabot

In his six-page memo sent to the objections, Alger characterized their “general objections as navigational hazards, including children and mosquito fleet youngsters, pollution, aesthetics, precedent-setting and ‘resentment of newcomers’ – ‘New Seabury and Prudential Center’ types. “

By claiming “resentment of newscomers” Alger blew a dog whistle that inflamed Anna Murray. Alger had been berating the Barnstable Patriot reporter — Fred Bodensiek — for including in his stories the fact of the Sobin’s off-season residence in an apartment adjacent to Boston’s Prudential Center on Boylston Street and their ownership of a summer home in New Seabury.

Bodensiek wrote, “Alger in phone conversations has objected to the Patriot’s mentioning of these places where the Sobins have homes, and its last three stories on the pier, the paper has omitted that data.”

Alger took off the gloves and pushed a hot button that had been pushed a decade before during the Harbor View controversy by the Harbor View’s sailing instructor in a letter to the editor of the Patriot in 1969. James Ryan then claimed Cotuit’s opposition was driven by anti-Semitism. Alger didn’t go that far, but he made it clear in his statements to the press that Cotuit didn’t like newcomers.

Alger was quoted in the March 30, 1978 Patriot story headlined “Paper pier war goes on and on”

“Probably to the petitioners the most serious opposition that has been raised, and the one most difficult to rebut, is the position raised by a small minority of the objectors that the petitioners are ‘Prudential Center’ or ‘New Seabury’ types who don’t belong in Cotuit. This is most distressing to the Sobin’s, who truly want to be accepted and to be part of the community. The size of their investment alone is some indication of their knowledge and appreciation of the charm and special qualities of the village.

“The mere fact that they have tried so hard makes the criticism even more hurtful. One of the attributes of Cotuit, which I early recognized and have always appreciated, was its willingness to judge its neighbors, both year round and seasonal, not by who they are but what they are. I feel certain that this criticism is totally irrelevant and needs no rebuttal.”

Attorney John Alger

Cotuit resident Anne Gould wrote a letter to the editor in rebuttal to Alger’s claims:

“I personally find your contention that opposition to the Sobin’s pier could stem from resentment of newcomers very disturbing. As one who was a newcomer not too many years ago, I have never felt there was this kind of attitude in Cotuit. However we may be a community prejudiced against piers.”

Anne Gould, one of the founder of the Mary Barton Land Trust and Barnstable Land Trust

Anna Murray combed through the letters on file with the Army Corps of Engineers looking for any impolitic statements or allusions to “New Seabury” and “Prudential Center” types of people. Finding none, she wrote Alger demanding an apology for his inflammatory claims that Cotuit was prejudiced against newcomers.

“After reading these letters carefully three times, I find no one writer using the words ‘Prudential Center’ or ‘New Seabury types who don’t belong in Cotuit,” wrote Murray. “You say this criticism is irrelevant. As there is no such criticism, I ask that you publicly, and by letter, apologize to each person written to.”

Bodensiek also looked into Alger’s claims that some opponents were prejudiced in their letters, and like Anna Murray, found no evidence to support Alger’s claim. He wrote that, “In perusal of copies of the approximately 100 letters to the Engineers, secured by Mrs. Murray, this writer could find no statements indicating resentment of newcomers.”

Geoffrey Jackson, president of the ACMYC, explained his withdrawal of his objections, writing that Alger’s “fair summarization of the objections was illuminating…I too am particularly distressed at objections based on ‘resentment of newcomers’….the CMYC and the related association of the CMYC, has maintained since inception totally non-restrictive policy with regard to membership and will undoubtedly continue to do so. The concern expressed in my Jan. 31, 1978 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers …is, in my view, resolved by your communication.”

Lawyers living in Cotuit and writing on their own behalf  rebutted Alger’s claims on behalf of the Sobins. Charles B. Swartwood wrote, “When Mr. and Mrs. Sobin purchased their house, they were obviously aware of the depth of the water adjacent to their property and the difficulty of constructing a pier in deep water. In fact, I believe the town pier is only a few feet longer than the Sobins’ proposed pier, and I question whether their needs are equal to that of the whole village of Cotuit.”:

Attorney John H. Galloway III wrote, “If all the property owners along the west side of Cotuit Bay were permitted to construct such piers and perform such dredging, Cotuit Bay would become nothing more than one large marina.”

Attorney Frank Opie wrote the pier “would, for all practical purposes, destroy the harbor for small-boat sailing…I can assure you that any permit to build such a pier will result in litigation involving both the Sobins and the U.S. Government.”

Other opponents wrote:

  • “There is no question that if you allow this to be built that a precedent will be set, and anyone else in the small harbor can do the same thing. It won’t take too long before the entire small-boat sailing space will be taken up by the piers and it’s goodbye Cotuit Harbor….we certainly don’t want a mini-Atlantic City shorefront in Cotuit Harbor.” Donald C. Kneale of Cotuit.
  • “Some years ago, a similar request to install a large pier in Cotuit Harbor aroused a substantial group of opponents, and the matter was resolved only after much hard feeling and expensive litigation. Hard feelings continue.”  Bruce and Kathryn P. Eaken, Cleveland, Ohio.
  • “If the Sobins are granted this permit, would we be allowed a similar one? And would not the two practically box in this corner of the harbor, leaving only room for powerboats to maneuver with any degree of safety?” Olivia Brane, Cotuit.
  • “We do not want to exclude people but we do want to invite them into a quiet, clean Cotuit Harbor that is safe for children in small boats.” – Sarah Schear, Belmont.

The inimitable Anna Murray had the last word in the Patriot’s story of March 30, 1978:

“If the petitioners [the Sobins] are upset, think what we are. We stopped the Eisenstadt pier, the Harborview Pier and the 160-foot Blakely pier. I will fight any permanent pier over 75 feet5 with every breath in my body until  I’m pushing up daisies.”

Anna Murray, founder of STOPP

Proliferating Piers

Murray’s reference to the “Eisenstadt” and “Blakely” piers, were in reference to two prevopis battles over applications to build permanent piers on Cotuit’s shores.

In 1974, surveyor and engineer Charles Savery was denied his bid to build a 163-foot pier near the bottom of Cross Street near Riley’s Beach across from the point of Sampson’s Island. Savery claimed the  property had historic approval for a 232-foot pier there which dated back to 1898 and he also “pointed to the many private piers in the area” in his unsuccessful arguments before the Barnstable Appeals Board.”

The 1970s saw a large number of new piers constructed throughout the Three Bays. Nine were constructed in the Three Bays region in 1979 alone. John Alger argued they should be encouraged and expected.

“They should be allowed as a matter of course. There is absolutely nothing in the town zoning by-laws or the town by-laws to forbid this, providing they are approved by the conservation commission and the owner is entitled to them. The people in many cases are assessed for $100,000 per acre, or 80 or 60, depending on the area. The reason is that these lands cost that much to buy. And the reason they are so expensive is that they are there to enjoy the waterfront and one of the rights of shorefront property owners since time immemorial is to enjoy their boats and their own waterfront as long as they do not substantially impinge on the public’s right…With the prices land is going for, they almost have to have piers on them.”

Attorney John Alger

Alger, who was also Town Moderator of Banstable’s town meeting, represented seven of those nine waterfront property owners who received docks in 1979. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 76, a formidable opponent to any one who dared speak against one of his clients in a public meeting.

At the conclusion of the Patriot’s extensive story about the burgeoning pier problem, Bodensiek wrote:

“A string of piers at every property on the outer and inner rims of the great bays is not an impossibility. The crowding of the harbors by boats on moorings is another factor. Summer and off-season boat traffic, in the ring created by the Three Bays and the Seapuit River is increasing. And the ecological damage? The day when small Mosquito Yacht Club boats held sole sway is undoubtedly long gone. The overcrowding of one of the town of Barnstable’s great seashore assets may not be long off.”

Fred Bodensiek, writing in the Barnstable Patriot

The tide turns against piers

The Army Comes to Cotuit

The Army Corps of Engineers took heed of the 150 letters that eventually arrived at its Waltham offices and at the request of STOPP, the Corps convened a public hearing in Cotuit at Freedom Hall on June 29, 1978. According to published accounts, the hearing was packed with 250 people. The Corp arrived with a preliminary assessment of the project and stated out of the gate it saw no significant environmental impacts and pointed out that “Piers are considered to be an accessory use of waterfront property throughout the area. Cotuit Harbor is heavily used for recreational boating, and the proposal pier construction and dredging are consistent with those areas.”

The Cotuit hearing underscored some serious deficiencies in the review process for piers. At that time the only town board with any jurisdiction over  a pier application was the conservation commission. The town waterways committee reviewed pier applications but had no authority to deny or approve them, only to give its opinion of their impact on navigation. That committee is chaired by the harbormaster and has been traditionally comprised of members drawn largely from commercial backgrounds such as assistant harbormaster and marine construction company owner Chester Crosby Jr., had reviewed the  pier and saw “nothing detrimental navigation-wise with the pier plan.”  

Chester also dredged the harbor around the Sobin pier.

When the Freedom Hall hearing was called to order equal numbers of the public took to the microphones to speak for and against the pier. A petition to approve the pier was presented to the Corps by Alger bearing the signatures of 123 names a move by the pro-pier forces that caught STOPP and its letter writers by surprise. Still, faced with a divided hall, the opponents tried to make their case:

“The question before us tonight is quite simply the freedom of a small community to have a decisive voice in controlling their own surroundings. When a conflict arises between the interest of an individual and those of a community such as ours, the interest of the community must take precedence. For many years we have successfully fought the building of large piers. The proposed pier is only the latest attempt to encroach upon the amenities of our shoreline.”

Robert Hewick speaking to the Army Corps of Engineers at Freedom Hall

Robert Hayden said both local and state agencies had approved the pier and he urged the Corps to abide by those decisions. Ralph  Baker stated the Kirkman’s had a pier on that beach in the 1940s and saw no reason why the Sobin’s would be any different.

Barbara Sullivan of STOPP, daughter-in-law of Billy Sullivan and also a resident of Bluff Point, stated the neighbors in the Bluff Point subdivision “feel the pier will cut out their vested right to traverse the beach around the point.”

]Her fellow Bluff Point neighbor, Anthony Franchi said the pier would hurt property values, and according to the Patriot, said if the pier was approved then he would apply for one for his two boats.  Another Bluff Point neighbor, Frank Sweet, said he was neither for, nor against the pier, but “If he [Sobin] wants a dock, I can’t argue with him.”

The Sobin’s were present at the hearing at Freedom Hall but did not speak.

The Silence of the Sobin’s

It’s difficult to guess what went through Julian Sobin’s mind as he built a new home  and waited for his pier to be approved while some of his new neighbors rose up against him. Few in town knew the Sobins, but in the spring of 1978 his neighbor, Barbara Sullivan sat down with Julian Sobin and urged him to abandon his pier and put his energies into commissioning a comprehensive study of Cotuit Bay and its boating facilities in order to better utilize the town’s facilities and discourage future private docks. Sobin listened but refused her request to drop the pier. According to the Patriot’s account of the meeting, Sobin said he thought such a study would be a good idea. “As a citizen of Cotuit, and as a resident, which I hope to be, it sounded to me like a sound, intelligent suggestion, if a reasonable study were made of the total situation.”

Barbara Sullivan asked Julian Sobin to split the cost of her proposed study. According to her he rejected the idea.

Appeal

After the Cotuit hearing in June, 1978,  the Army Corps of Engineers retreated to its office outside of Boston to review the public comment it received from the village’s residents and come to its decision. Months went by. Then the new year arrived and with it the Corps’ decision.

The Corps approved the pier with no conditions.

After news of the approval was known, in late February of that year, Sobin’s neighbor-once-removed  on Bluff Point, Anthony Franchi, wrote the Sobin’s “asking them to reconsider constructing the 144-foot pier sticking out into Cotuit Harbor.”

Asked if he were suggesting the possibility the Sobins might consider not building the pier, Franchi told the Patriot:

“That’s my hope. That they will reconsider constructing it. It’s just a matter of trying, hopefully, to resolve the differences in the dispute. We want to be as peaceful as we can with our neighbors. I am of course disappointed the Corps has given the permit because we would like to keep the beaches and the area as they are. I certainly hope he will reconsider in favor of what we believe is best for the beach, the town, and the area. Before I do anything, or plan to do anything, I would like the opportunity to talk to the Sobins.”

Anthony Franchi

Little could be done to thwart the Sobin’s from moving ahead unless an abutter objected. That abutter was Anthony Franchi, who like the Sobin’s had purchased a parcel of Bluff Point from the Cotuit Trust and built a home there. Franchi’s objections were based on a reading of the rules of the  Bluff Point homeowners association rules requiring that all residents have free passage across the beach around the point of sand. Franchi filed a lawsuit against Sobin in May of 1979 and successfully obtained a temporary restraining order to block construction.

 Temporary is far from permanent and the clock ran out for the pier’s opponents in May of 1980 when the Massachusetts State Land Court ruled in favor of the Sobin’s pier. In his ruling, Associate Justice John E. Fenton Jr. approved the 144-foot pier with the stipulation that the pier not interfere with any neighbor’s right of passage along the beach of Bluff Point, thus conceding to Franchi his claim the pier would interfere with his right of passage a. Judge Fenton ordered the Sobin’s to build a passageway under the pier so walkers could pass through unobstructed.

And in the end…..

The pier was built in the late spring of 1980. It  still stands today.  A boat was tied to it for a while throughout that decade, but little was seen or heard of Julian Sobin after the dock went up. Aside from filing various plans with the concom to build a hot tub and some stairs to his dock, and going on record with country registry of deeds for waiving the right of first refusal to buy any other properties within the Bluff Point neighborhood (as is the right of any property owner under the rules of the Bluff Point Association), the Sobin’s seemed to simply fade from the headlines as they settled into their new home. Julian Sobin never backed down, offered no concessions or room for compromise, and doubtlessly his legal costs were considerable. But Julian Sobin got his pier.

Billy Sullivan died in 1998. He sold the Patriots in the late 1980s when the team couldn’t meet its payroll due to the reported loss of $20 million by his son Charles (who had been the promoter of the late Michael Jackson’s Victory tour which apparently turned out to be a debacle for the Sullivan fortune).  After filing for bankruptcy, the team and its Foxborough stadium were sold. Today the Codman mansion is  owned by the Sullivan Trust, the trustee of which is Jeanne Sullivan McKeigue, former member of the New England Patriot’s board of directors.

In 1999 Julian and Leilla Sobin sold their Cotuit property at 124 Bluff Point Drive  to John F. Fitzgerald, trustee of Bluff Point 1999 Trust No. 2 for $2,155,860.00.    That trust still owns the property,  pier and the entire point of sand  to this day. The identity of the beneficiaries of the Bluff Point 1999 Trust is unknown.

Julian Sobin died in August of 2001. His widow, Leila, died ten years later in 2011. When Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was uncovered in 2008, among the list of names of the investors he defrauded was the name of Julian Sobin of Boston.

 Next up….

How Cotuit fought for, and won, a change to the town’s zoning bylaws to prohibit the construction of any new docks on the western shores of Cotuit Bay.

When a brand gets blamed

 It was just a normal event in the course of the modern world. Eight months later, that meeting had led to the infections of a quarter of a million people, give or take.

Reconstructing a Pandemic, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, The New Yorker 2020.12.15

I used to work in an office in the old Boston Exchange building across the street from the scene of the Boston Massacre — the old Statehouse. Once a day I would try to get my steps in and walk down to the harbor and around the New England Aquarium to check out the seals playing in their outdoor pool. The route took me down historic State Street and past the Boston Marriott Long Wharf. Early last March, while Bostonians fretted over the first reported cases of Covid 19, the news emerged that the first “super spreader event” had taken place inside that hotel at an internal sales conference hosted by Biogen, one of the biggest and oldest companies in a city known for its excellence in medicine and technology.

As the Boston Globe reported the story, it became evident that the Biogen conference had been a perfect storm of bad circumstances. Foreign employees coming into the country through Logan Airport, bringing with them the virus. Colleagues shaking hands, laughing and socializing. The irony that it happened because at an event hosted by a life sciences company only gave the story that man-bites-dog element reporters and editors love. When the Globe dug into the story it became apparent that Biogen’s meeting resulted in a lot of sick people and caused a flood of panicked Biogen employees to arrive at Massachusetts General Hospital seeking tests that simply weren’t available. All eyes were on the company.

Within days, though, the Biogen conference would be infamous, identified as an epicenter of the Massachusetts outbreak of Covid-19, with 70 of 92 coronavirus infections in the state linked to the conference as of Tuesday night, including employees and those who came into contact with them. 

How the Biogen leadership conference in Boston spread the coronavirus, The Boston Globe, 2020.03.10

The meeting was doubtlessly intended to be an important opportunity to get 175 senior leaders at the company company together in the same place to discuss the strategy and prospects for the coming year. There was no conspiracy, no sinister virus escaped from Biogen’s labs, just another meeting like most companies convene regularly, requiring their far-flung staff to get on planes and come together for a few days of speeches, workshops, buffet lunches and gala dinners.

Now Biogen is still in the news, as a cautionary tale, a true epidemiological detective story, a case study in what happens when humans get on airplanes, gather in rooms, breathe on one other and shake each other’s hands.

Every company I’ve worked at has done it, believing it was vital for morale and the corporate culture to get people off of conference calls and into the same room for a few days to build bonds and ensure everyone gets the same information, the same training, and some sort of team-building esprit de corps to break down internal barriers and make the senders of those emails, those voices on the conference call, tangible people and not just names and voices.

Thanks to Biogen, corporate events are dead for the time being. Replaced by the usually silly Zoom events where the participants do the Hollywood Squares thing and toast each other through the glass.

All the company could do was put a spokesman on the phone with the reporter to deny there had been internal discussions to cancel the conference the previous month, when Boston had its first case — a student from Wuhan — and “concerns about holding large gatherings were already circulating locally at least a week before the Biogen conference. The spokesman put on the record that Biogen, at the time of the meeting, had followed “national guidance on travel and in-person meetings.”

What has been the impact on the Biogen brand? A Boston Globe reader commented on the March 10 story about the impact of the conference:

“How about adding the greed and hubris of Biogen. February 26? An international conference in Boston? Have people lost their minds? And this was Biogen. Shouldn’t they know better? Testing is after the fact. Just imagine if this conference never took place like it should not have. How much safer we would be. Where was Mayor Greedy? Where was the Marriott? All counting their money while Biogen execs go conference hopping and infect the world.
They should be held criminally responsible. They are certainly morally so.
They have screwed us. Shame on them all. Such a greedy culture in Boston with this mayor.

Nine months later and Biogen continues to be blamed, most recently by a research paper published in Science, the paper which sparked The New Yorker’s story of December 15. From the abstract of that paper: “an international business conference, produced sustained community transmission and was exported, resulting in extensive regional, national, and international spread.

Now Biogen is on the hook for “hundreds of thousand of infections” according to The New Yorker. The result is a company that will long be associated with what happened at that harborside hotel in late February, and not for its research into finding a cure for Alzheimers.

Because patients rarely (if ever) ask their physician to prescribe them medicine from a specific pharmaceutical company, and because few physicians would avoid prescribing a drug because its manufacturer happened to host a meeting that spread a new virus, and because Biogen’s shareholders probably shrugged off the noise about that meeting and value the company on its financial fundamentals and the promise of its product pipeline, one can argue (from the point of view of crisis communications and brand reputation) that despite some negative associations between the name of the virus, the name of the company, and the name of the hotel, the best response the company could have made was no response other than an expression of concern for its employees’ health and to remind the press that at the time of the meeting there was no way the company could have foreseen that an ordinary meeting would be the source for an estimated 300,000 infections.

Companies have gone so far as to change their names after scandals and disasters. When the Exxon Valdez went on the rocks I stopped buying Exxon for a few weeks until I realized I was just as complicit driving a car that burned fossil fuels and my indignation over the fate of the oil covered sea otters was not going to change one of the largest companies in the world. I didn’t stop flying on TWA after Flight 800 blew up off the shores of Long Island in the mid-1990s. Nor did I boycott United after a baggage handler broke a YouTuber’s guitar and the musician wrote a viral song about it. I do however, continue to steer clear of a well known Mexican fast-food chain after reading too many stories about noroviruses and other food poisoning incidents. I don’t feel any particular ill-will towards the New England Patriots because of Aaron Hernandez’s murder conviction or Robert Kraft’s visit to a Florida rub-and-tug.

Barbara Tuchman wrote famously that history is the unfolding of miscalculation. I’d amend that to say that the yin and the yang of good luck and bad luck is just the luck of the draw. Take two leading companies founded by very smart scientists (Biogen’s founders won Nobel Prizes for their work), put their headquarters in the same city (Cambridge), and expose them to the same virus and one comes out the goat, and the other the salvation of humanity. Thus in the same week that Science published a research paper blaming Biogen’s conference for sickening 300,000 people, the FDA approved Moderna’s vaccination.

Crisis communications and reputation repair work begins by planning responses to hypothetical risks. Some of those risks have higher probabilities than others. Some are unique to an industry. Others are too far fetched to even consider. Those responses aren’t the canned statements and carefully massaged expressions of regret the poor corporate spokesperson has to offer a reporter, but are the solutions the company puts into place to fix the problem. Focus on the fix. Plan for the tangible actions that can be taken to solve a potential crisis, then one can worry about how to phrase the press release or who in the company will be making public statements to the media.

Learn by observing those companies that emerge from a crisis and try to determine what worked and what failed. When BP’s CEO blurted out he wished he could get his life back after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, he was a goner. When Steve Jobs argued that one of the original iPhone models had no reception problems despite evidence to the contrary, his halo lost some shine. Crisis communications isn’t about apologies, deflections of blame, or stonewalling the press. It’s about changing popular opinion as quickly as possible with clear, forward-looking solutions to very public problems. If, as in the case of Biogen, the crisis was caused by external factors beyond the company’s control, the appropriate response isn’t always “sorry”, but it needs to be a response that anticipates a future when the company may have good news to share, when its halo is shining and all is well with the world. To treat good news and bad news differently; to gush about the good and try to bury the bad; is just hypocrisy the press will seize on.

Biogen’s leadership doubtlessly hoped the tale of its meeting and the people who were subsequently sickened by coming into contact with some infected attendees would just go away. Hope is not a strategy. I think the company played its response correctly by acknowledging the event and not denying it, but also by not indulging in some contrived act of public contrition like a donation to a non-profit or posting of a YouTube video of the CEO wringing his hands with remorse while looking gravely concerned about an incident more due to bad luck and happenstance than bad decision making.

You aren’t the boss of me: motorcycle helmets, seat belts and masks

Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing in today’s (Nov. 19, 2020) New York Times, interviews Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. She asked the nation’s top virus expert Do you think we need a national policy like a national mask mandate?”


Dr. Fauci replied: “The only reason that I shy away from making a strong recommendation in that regard is that things that come from the national level down generally engender a lot of pushback from an already reluctant populace that doesn’t like to be told what to do. So you might wind up having the counter-effect of people pushing back even more.”

When I was a reporter in the statehouse press gallery in the mid 80’s Governor Michael Dukakis pushed for a mandatory seat belt law that was compared by some people to mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists, and the warning labels that were beginning to festoon everything from step ladders to packs of cigarettes. Dukakis wasn’t a charismatic man of the people like Tip O’Neill. Dukakis was as charming as a book keeper at a funeral home, but he argued like a true technocrat that the cost to society of an unworn seat belt made it a matter for the commonwealth to step in and enact yet another law to relieve the rest of us from higher car insurance premiums and rising health care costs caused by some uninsured hog rider who wasn’t wearing his brain bucket when the back wheel of a semi rolled over his head.

I grew up riding in cars that didn’t have seat belts: big Plymouths and Buicks and Pontiacs from the late 1950s and a cute VW Beetle that appeared in the early 60s when Ralph Nader made his name with Unsafe At Any Speed. My father didn’t wear his seatbelt. Then again he also drank beer and smoked Salems when he was behind the wheel, eventually dying there one snowy March afternoon after running head on into a truck near the foot of the runway at Otis Air Force Base in Mashpee. In the 1970s new cars arrived equipped with seat belts and pressure switches and buzzers that nagged until the belts were secured. My father pulled out his wire cutters and starting ripping the devices out from underneath the front seat of his Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon where he stuffed his empty beer cans.

Back then motorcyclists were bitterly protesting the passage of mandatory helmet laws, holding loud rallies outside of statehouses and pushing the definition of “helmet” by wearing Prussian spiked pickelhaubes to freak out the citizenry as they bombed down the highway up to Laconia Bike Week for a weekend of rioting. Then life jackets became mandatory and I remember when a friend’s mother stood up at a meeting of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club and tried to propose a rule that all sailors and their crews be required to wear a life jacket at all times while racing. That fizzled when she was reminded that the only people who could propose a new rule and vote on it had to be single and under the age of 25.

Americans don’t like to be told what do by those faceless powers on high who know what’s best for them. They never have and never will. Most of us are descended from malcontents, scofflaws and miscreants who were either kicked out of their homeland for being contrarian dickheads or who fled capricious rules and taxes for the promised land of rugged individualism: America. In the earliest years of the new nation, tenuously glued together by a lofty Constitution but still figuring out specific laws, the notion of an omnipotent central authority — whether a king or a committee — made for a vigorous debate between those who demanded they hang onto their local authority and the priority of states’ rights over those of a central Federal overseer. That debate still rages, and has been a common thread of contention for most of American history, never more stark than the antebellum years of westward expansion and the wrenching debates over whether or not each new state would be for, or against, slavery. Hence the infamous Missouri Compromise and the nation’s gradual descent into outright rebellion and succession as the southern states exercised their right to kick up a fuss and follow their own drumbeat.

So how did masks become an icon for civil disobedience and the greater good? I wear a mask in public (one of those neck gaiter things) and I put it on whenever I enter a store, go into the post office etc.. I also wear it during my daily walks around the village, tugging it up before I get too close to an oncoming pedestrian, then pulling it back down when I’m well past them. This simple act, visible from 100 yards away, feels to me like tipping my hat to a stranger as we stroll by one another on the boulevard. Except instead of a top hat or bowler I do it with a mask. Am I offended if they don’t do the same? Not especially. I view mask wearing as a courtesy more than a preventative, an act of sparing the other person my exhalations versus the inhalation of theirs. If I was really freaked out by the prospect of inhaling some infectious miasma I’d go full biohazard.

I see your puny N95 and raise you

Would it make a difference if our lame duck President magically reversed course and issued an executive order tommorrow that all Americans must wear a mask at all times in public or risk being fined? I can see some iconoclastic rugged individuals who fly Don’t Tread on Me flags and clutch their rifles and handguns with white knuckles being very upset at the chutzpah of some Beltway bureaucrats telling them what to do. Even if the Mango Mussolini was the one giving them the advice, some people are always going to chafe under authority of any kind and get tight faced with raised hackles if told to respect that authority.

The right to be pissed off, disagree, and throw a revolution is very much a part of the American tradition. Both the left and the right alike have an abiding reverence of this tradition: to push back, to speak up, to fight the power. Thoreau, the spiritual light behind Massachusetts’ tradition of Unitarian progressiveness, the godfather of civil disobedience and nonviolence who inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King wrote : “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Henry David’s fellow Concord goo-goo — Ralph Waldo Emerson — counselled in his transcendental self-help guide, the essay Self-Reliance: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

But inevitably there comes a situation where being an obstinate individual results in the Typhoid Mary phenomenon where the scofflaw gets arrested and restrained from making other people sick. Does a guy on a Harley Davidson pose a threat whether he wears a helmet or not? Mary Mallan killed a few wealthy families with her asymptomatic typhus because she insisted on her right earn a living as their cook. Eventually she was clapped into irons and spent her remaining years in prison.

Getting back to the middle and agreeing on a common cause in America seems to be our national priority following the election. What this country needs most is a return of moderates as the governing force for compromise between the nut jobs on either end of the spectrum. Let those wingnuts on the fringe carry on their Twitter slap fights and Facebook meme wars: there’s going to be a fringe element no matter what, and all of it is bullshit as long as there are bots and sockpuppets and troll accounts with no measure of authentication.

Tune out the anarchists and fascists alike and if our future sanity means we all need to take a knee before the law or just follow the good old Golden Rule then so be it. Agree to disagree, but also understand it was a tradition in this country that led President Trump to never issue a single national policy for the pandemic. Leaving the states to their own devices is rooted in the earliest years of the republic, when America was a confederation of independently governed state. For a certain segment of society, its not the law but the presumption of distant lawmakers claiming to know what’s best for them that makes them pull a Cartman, flip them off, and say “Make me. I dare you.”

The supremacy of the individual in America versus the herd is alive and well and not going to bend a knee to the collective. Brats are going to be brats. Humor them. Be patient with them. Let them be onery.

The Left needs to confront its Nannyism and the use of over-regulation and attitudes of knowing what’s best for us, and realize a lot of people on the Right view them like a bunch of smug know-it-all nannies who are a bane on society like a toe nail fungus that persists and persists. Hell, I feel it every time I walk down the lane to the beach to use my boat. That formerly serene walk is now spoiled by dozens of signs ruining the scenery around the most scenic spot in Cotuit — Hooper’s Landing — each one creeping in over time to join the usual no-parking signs, a visual testimonial to the rise in rules and regulations that seems to have started in the early 80s when my generation turned into helicopter parents and electronically leashed our kids with cellphones. No dinghies on the beach after November 15. No dogs on the beach between Memorial Day and Labor Day. No smoking. No windsurfing. No refueling of boats. No parking. All are well-intended and were doubtlessly proposed, debated and passed by some elected town officials getting pressure from an upset citizen. But the net effect is a proliferation of rules issued by the no-fun-committee which we all must obey. The bureaucrats are winning and gone are the days when the rules were few and the latitude wide. Some people may even want more rules and more warnings stuck on their tools and ladders, but do they really give a hoot if their nightly bottle of wine might pose a threat to them according to the State of California?

The point of all this? Embrace the contradiction of being true to your self while fitting into a society founded on laws, mutual respect and a sense of common cause. Learn when its time to dig in and when its time to concede. And wear a mask, sit up straight, and eat your peas.

Carving a half-model

Half-model of the cutter Madge

In the early 1850s, at the peak of the age of sailing ships, Donald McKay designed and built a series of ships with names like Stag Hound, Flying Fish and Sovereign of the Seas. Over the span of five years McKay’s East Boston shipyard built 18 ships, each pushing the outer limits of ship construction and the design of the most complex machines ever conceived and realized by man: the “extreme” clipper ship. The opening of the Pacific Ocean and the frantic greed to get from New York City to San Francisco’s Gold Rush of 1849 made the sheer speed of the clippers more valuable than mere bragging rights, as one record after another were smashed by McKay’s thoroughbreds, cutting the time from the east coast of America to the west to three months. So valuable were McKay’s designs — the source code for the innovations that turned centuries of naval architecture obsolete in an instant — that he burned the wooden half-hull models in his office woodstove.

Carved half-hull scale models were used in lieu of blueprints for centuries. They were physical representations of what a new design would look like, a model for the customer to handle and inspect, and a vital source of the various measurements and shapes the shipwrights needed to build a full scale version.

The New York Yacht Club’s Model Room with half-models of past member’s yachts.

Some of the models had slots cut into them so a piece of card stock could be inserted into a slot and a pencil then run along the curve of the hull to give the shipwrights a template for that section of the hull’s shape. “Lofting” is the process of expanding the lines of a two-foot long model into a 150-foot ship, and was done in an open sail loft with room to work out the lines and create full-sized patterns of the ship’s ribs.

As yachting became a popular pastime after the Civil War, designers would often present the model mounted on a backboard to the customer, something for the wall of his office or yacht club club house to show off his excellent taste and inspire some mid-winter reveries of summer sailing.

In the early 1970s my father commissioned a half-hull model of his Wianno Senior from Malcolm M. Crosby in Osterville, one of the famed Crosby family known for their Cape Cod Catboats, the Crosby Striper, as well as the Wianno Senior, Wianno Junior, and a lot of other small boats, skiffs and yachts popular with the local fishermen and yachtsmen. It was a simple model, painted in the colors of the Snafu III with a yellow hull and a green bottom. A year later my father commissioned Malcolm to build a half-model of a Cotuit Skiff, the 14-foot flatiron skiffs raced by the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club. That model was also painted the Churbuck family colors of a yellow hull, but include the green boottop (the narrow stripe that run along the waterline) and white bottom. Eventually I changed the Wianno Senior’s colors to match the skiff’s — painting a green boottop and committing myself to a white bottom, which after a few weeks in Cotuit Bay, would turn brown with slime and required a lot of snorkle diving to keep clean.

The Cotuit Skiff half-model carved by Crosby was mounted on a big wooden backboard above a brass plaque engraved as the Henry Chatfield Churbuck Trophy, awarded annually to the CMYC racer who won the Senior Series — the Friday afternoon races open to sailors younger than 25 years old. Naturally my father created the trophy the year I won the series, so my name was the first to be engraved on the thing. A few years ago Larry Odence, author historian of a beautiful history of the Cotuit Skiff, organized a trophy case at the Cotuit Library to display the yacht club’s permanent trophies and spare them the dings and scrapes that occur when the winners took them home for the winter, hanging them in dorm rooms or who knows where. I had the trophy refurbished and remounted on a walnut backboard and all the names of the winners over forty years were re-engraved on a silver plate.

I’ve used these days of pandemic isolation as an opportunity to teach myself boatbuilding, paying close attention to the rudiments of the craft and starting modestly, building four sawhorses to begin with, and gradually working up through a few full ship models to an actual boat: the “Ruth” wherry I built over the summer of 2020 with my daughter and son-in-law. With that boat finished in early August, I turned my attention to building a new workshop in the old two-bay corrugated tin garage to spare my suffering wife from the pungent fumes of solvents, epoxies, paints and varnish that wafted up from my grandfather’s boat shop into the sail loft and the bedroom adjoining it.

While there are online courses in ship design, I decided to teach myself how to read a set of boat plans, figure out the strange code of measurements known as offsets (represented as three numbers indicating feet-inches-eighths), and learn how to loft full sized patterns and templates from drawn plans. Having purchased the entire fifty year archive of WoodenBoat Magazine, I searched the back issues for relevant articles and found one about building half-models. The magazine offered half-model plans and kits for constructing them, so I ordered the plans for the 1879 cutter Madge, a “plank-on-edge” deep-keeled cutter designed by George L. Watson and built in Scotland for the thread tycoon, James Coats, Jr. The Madge was very successful in British yacht races, so Coats shipped the 46′ boat to New York aboard another ship, where she challenged and beat the fastest boats of the New York Yacht Club , impressing such early yachting writers as C.P. Kunhardt, a fan of the deep cutter hulls. But when the Madge went to Newport, Rhode Island she met her match in the Shadow, one of Nathaniel Herreshoff’s first yachts after an early career designing fast steam powered torpedo boats for the navy.

Discouraged by the decisive victory of the Shadow, Coats sold the Madge and she was hauled to Lake Ontario where she raced for a few years, before winding up abandoned in an empty lot outside of Rochester, New York.

Hulk of the Madge

The plans and instructions arrived in the mail and my next task was to find the right wood for the model. The method used in the Madge project is known as the “lift” or “bread and butter” method. The profile of the hull — the side view — is divided into 1/2 inch horizontal slices from the bottom of the heel to the uppermost edge of the deck — each slice of the pattern was represented by templates on the plans. I glued them to a stiff piece of poster board with spray adhesive and carefully cut them out along the inked lines, laying the template on top of the wooden “lifts” and tracing around the perimeter with a pencil to mark where I would cut them out on a bandsaw.

Finding the right wood is difficult — most local lumberyards don’t bother stocking any exotic woods, so I had to go online and order five foot planks of basswood, African mahogany, and red cedar. Those were not cheap, but eventually arrived in a big box. Because the lifts are 1/2″ thick, and the planks I ordered were 1 and 1/16th inch thick, I needed to “resaw” them to the required thickness on a table saw with a thin kerf resawing blade.

Soon I had a stack of identical 24″ long, 1/2″ thick pieces of mahogany and basswood, and a single 1/16th inch thick piece of western red cedar for the waterline. I coated the faces of the lifts with carpenter’s glue, tacked them together to keep them from sliding around with small brads, and then clamped the sandwich together with lots of clamps, letting it dry over night.

What resulted was a boat-like shape, but one with chunky steps, like a ziggurat or Minecraft character. Then the fun part began. Using a beautiful new 1/2″ wood chisel from Lie-Nielsen in Maine, followed by my low-angle “apron plane”, model maker’s plane, and brass spokeshave., I carved all the sharp corners off, reducing the “steps” between the lifts until the glue lines between them vanished.

Then followed more shaping and sanding, beginning with coarse 80-grit sandpaper on a sanding block and finishing with 220 grit by hand before the model was ready to be varnished.

I immediately made two big mistakes by rushing. The most blatant was my mis-ordering the stack of lifts so that the two topmost mahogany lifts that made up the hull and deck, were reversed. This required some delicate cutting away with a coping saw and careful fitting of the cut-off piece to the top lift. When I glued that to the model’s transom I left a cut mark that had to be filled with wood putty and sanded fair. It is a serious boo-boo visually. The second mistake I made was setting one of the brads used to keep the lifts from sliding out of alignment during the gluing/clamping process too far out from the back of the model, so that my sanding eventually exposed the shiny silver head of the tiny nail under the curve of the stern’s counter.

I kept pushing on, despite the flaws, because I was so pleased with the final shape and how it fit the six side-view templates I took from the plans. I finished the model “bright” (clear varnish vs. opaque paint) with three coats of TotalBoat varnish sealer, followed by eight boats of Epifanes varnish — each coat was sanded with 400/600/800 grit wet sandpaper then cleaned with a tack rag and a wipe of a rag soaked in rubbing alcohol. Each coat was given 24 hours to dry, then I sprayed the hull with soapy water and gently scuffed up the varnish with the wet paper, drying it off and holding the surface up the light to look for bright spots and circles, an indication that another coat was needed until all those shiny depressions vanished and the hull was immaculately sealed in a thick shell of six layers of varnish, gleaming like a candy apple.

My cousin Pete let me pick through his wood shop’s offcut pile, and gave me a gorgeous 10″ wide plank of hardened eastern white pine. I cut that down to size, routed a clean edge around the perimeter (routers are insane tools which my father told me were finger-eaters, hence neither he, his father, or I wear any rings, including wedding rings, for a bandsaw blade or planer that catches a ring will strip it and all the flesh from it to the tip off the finger leaving behind bare bone ((or so I was told))).

I’m pleased with the result and now I feel confident to now move on to making half-models of boats that are relevant to me and the family history — two Cotuit Skiff are next, followed by a three-masted coastal schooner like the Joseph Eaton, Jr. my great-great grandfather’s coastal schooner and tthen maybe a Mattapoisset whaling bark like his ship the Massachusetts. I’m looking forward to making more small boat models and indulging my college education in 19th century American maritime history with a New Haven Sharpie, Cape Cod Catboat, Whitehall gig, Swampscott dory and so on.

And finally, I’d like to thank Betsy Crosby Thompson and her father, Malcolm M. Crosby, for their excellent series of videos on YouTube. I learned a huge amount from them, and wouldn’t have achieved the result I did without Malcolm’s wisdom. I also picked up some great tips such as how to properly fold a piece of sandpaper, how to wet sand, and how to use a spokeshave.

On the water in October

Chasing fish on a Saturday afternoon in Cotuit

Yesterday was a perfect day to get on the water with a fishing rod. After doing the usual chores to absolve any guilt, we circled Dead Neck to check out the last of the dredging and admired the new mountain of sand near the Wianno Cut.

Mount Seapuit

Stripers were blitzing near the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant in the middle of the bay, so we drifted along the shore of Grand Island and caught (and released) a few hungry schoolies. With only a few weeks left before the dinghy has to come off the beach, boating season is coming to an end.

First Boat: the Ruth Wherry

Since I have so much boat building in my DNA I thought it was about time I tried my own hand at building a wooden boat. My daughter asked me last spring, as she and her husband made plans to drive across the country with my newborn grandson, to think of some projects my son-in-law and I could do together while they spent the summer with us here on Cape Cod. My son-in-law wanted to learn more nautical skills, so immediately upon his arrival I organized a lifting party to lug one of the two Cotuit Skiffs out of the boatshed for a paint job and some repair work.

second shakedown cruise: still leaking and the slide needs to be clamped down, otherwise much better than the first attempt

Alas, I opened up a significant crack in the lower starboard strake, just above the chine, where years of iron rot caused by the use of galvanized boat nails in the late 1940s finally caught up to the old boat and expressed itself as a total hull failure that is going to require some advanced shipwright skills to resolve. Rather than waste weeks trying to rout out the old rotten white Atlantic cedar and replace it with a new graving piece or chine log, I proposed our next project be the construction of a small wherry — a light rowboat often used to teach novice rowers how to row.

I looked at a variety of wherry designs, focusing on those with the lines of a Whitehall wherry, named after Manhattan’s Whitehall Street at the southern tip of the city, where watermen offered their services rowing freight or sailors to and from the ships moored in New York harbor. The Whitehall design is a classic — a plumb, or nearly vertical stem (bow) and a wineglass transom combine to make it one of the most admired small boat designs, and a model for countless build-at-home projects by builders such as myself.

I have long wanted a boat with a sliding seat for sculling around Cotuit Bay in all sorts of weather throughout the fall, winter and early spring months when a typical racing scull gets overpowered by wind and wave. So I focused my search for a Whitehall that could be fitted out for sliding seat rowing, looking for a boat that I could get down to the harbor myself — either on top of the car rack or carried overhead — launch, and row around the Cotuit-Osterville estuary. That meant I needed a design that was about 18-feet long and weighed under 50 lbs. Length is important because the sliding seat means the sculler’s body weight is rolling two to three feet on a seat set in two parallel tracks. As the sculler finishes a stroke their weight settles forward, towards the bow; and at the catch, (or start of the stroke) the weight shifts towards the stern, causing the boat to “hobby horse” and rock inefficiently from end to end. Longer boats track straighter, and hobby horse less, than a shorter boat, which is why you don’t see scullers trying to make a ten-foot pram go fast.

It leaks but it rows

A new subscription to Small Boats magazine (companion to the venerable Woodenboat) introduced me to the Ruth Wherry, a design by Dave Gentry that hews to the Whitehall’s look but saves on weight by eschewing traditional riveted clinker planking for a stretched skin-on-frame construction method borrowed from Aleut kayak builders who covered their baidarkas with animal skin stretched and stitched over a wooden skeleton assembled from driftwood.. I ordered a set of digital plans from Gentry, had them printed out locally, and started sourcing the materials I would need to complete the project. It turns out that pandemic quarantines are excellent home improvement opportunities, and wood was initially an issue as one lumberyard after another on the Cape were cleared out of select lumber by the fourth of July. Apparently pressure treated lumber is in such short supply on Nantucket that some construction projects had to pause for a couple of weeks. Sourcing the hardware, paint, and various parts was generally an issue as more and more boatyards have closed their hardware shops under pressure from the Big Box villain of the marine industries, West Marine. The specific types of lumber and hardware used in wooden boat building are hard to find at the retail level, and much as I dislike giving my business to Amazon and West Marine, I was able to get a lot of the odds-and-ends from Jamestown Distributors in Rhode Island.

Lines of the Ruth Wherry (from Gentry Custom Boats)

The frame of the boat is made from six frames cut from 1/2″ Okume marine plwood and 18-foot stringers cut from western red cedar. The plywood, while expensive, only required a half of a 8’x4′ sheet, and the red cedar took some hunting around to find as lumber is in extremely short supply due to the closure of some sawmills due to COVID-19, and a big spike in demand caused by people working from home and looking for DIY projects around the house. Eventually my local lumber yard, Botellos, got a new shipment of cedar and I spent an hour in their lumbershed sorting through stacks of ten-foot planks looking for a few that were straight, knot-free, and had their grain oriented vertically. Because the stringers on the Ruth run the full length of the hull, they needed to be cut from 20-foot planks and of course, planks that long are very hard to find, especially so-called “CVG” planks that are Clear of knots, Vertically-grained. Gentry wisely advises lumberyard noobs like myself to not ask the gang who work there for “CVG” or even to tell them the wood is intended for a boat. I walked right into a belly laugh from one amused lumberyardsman when I asked if he had a “piece of ash” which I needed to build some floor slats from.

To get the lumber length I needed, I needed to “scarf” two ten-foot planks together. This caused me anxiety and several hours watching YouTube how-to videos before I dared try it myself. But it worked out, and I cut a nice flat and even 10-to-1 bevel in one end of the two planks, and scarfed them together, by lining them, driving as staple through to keep them from slipping, and then epoxying the two together overnight in a sandwich of wax paper and some iron kettlebells.. Those planks were then ripped length-wise through a table saw to produce the keel, chines, gunwales and inwales. I soaked the bundle of nine long stringers in new blue tarp which was clamped tightly together, then and filled with water from a garden hose. After a day of soaking the stringers were laid across a pair of saw horses and bent into a gradual curve by hanging a five-gallon bucket of water from the middle. Yes, steaming planks is part of the shipwright tradition, but according to Gentry’s excellent construction manual, a little water and some weight accomplished the same result.

The boat was built on a “strongback” — a 12′ foot 2×4 screwed across two saw horses. The frames were cut out by laying the full-sized templates on top of the sheet of Okume marine plywood and then transferring their outlines by pressing an awl through the water and into the wood. I connected the awl-marks with pencil lines and let my son-in-law cut them out with a jig saw. Each frame was placed on the keel stringer at a specific distance from the stem (or bow) then sanded smooth, their stringer notches cleaned up and beveled to ease the curve of the stringers. Using nylon straps as extra hands, we temporarily assembled the skeleton of the boat by fitting the stringers into the notched and beveled cut-outs on the frames. When we were comfortable with the measurements and alignment of the frames we then pre-drilled and countersunk holes for the fasteners, then screwed and epoxied the stringers into place, sanding and planing everything down to remove sharp edges, saw marks, and dents and dings from the soft cedar.

One can never have enough clamps

My plan for the sliding seat was to originally to scavenge the pieces from my old Empacher rowing scull, but in the end I decided to build a new rowing rig from plans sold by Colin Angus of Angus Rowboats. I placed an order for new tracks, foot stretchers, oarlocks, and a carbon fiber seat: by far the most expensive items on the bills of material after the lumber and paint. While I waited for the rowing components to arrive I kept busy planing and sanding the frame until the pieces arrived last week (along with a free copy of Angus’ new book, Rowed Trip about he and his wife’s expedition from Scotland to Syria by rowboat and bicycle). I estimate I spent ten hours building the rowing station and forty on the boat. Oars I already had from the Empacher.

The boat is covered with a 20-foot length of polyester cloth which Gentry advised in his instructions could be secured from George Dyson of the Dyson, Baidarka & Co. in Bellingham, Washington. I emailed George (brother of Esther Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson) and he suggested a heavier weight cloth than the material recommended by Gentry. I went with George’s advice because I was in a bit of awe that I was corresponding with the man credited as the top authority on native kayak design, the hero of the wonderful book The Starship and the Canoe, by Kenneth Brower. and the author of his own work, such as Turing’s Cathedral and his definitive history of the baidarka (the Russian word for kayak), Baidarka: The Kayak.

As the materials for the project were collected, my son-in-law and I cleaned out the boatshop where my grandfather Henry Chatfield Churbuck built a dozen Couit Skiffs after World War II. The workbench was covered with a new layer of masonite, the hardware drawers emptied out and sorted, and anything not related to boat building was hauled away to be stored in the garage. Stainless steel screws, cans of two-part epoxy and microballoons, teak oil, Dynel 3/ 8″ staples, an electric staple gun, an electic hot knife, putty knives, wax paper, countersinks, green polyurethane paint, paint brushes, epoxy brushes — all had to be ordered online or tracked down in stores here on the Cape. Suddenly my initial claim that the two of us could knock the boat out in a single weekend looked very hubristic. I didn’t mind. There are no deadlines with such projects, just set backs and lessons learned and I learned that boat building is best done in short episodes which focus entirely on one essential task and not many. As Gentry wisely points out in his instructions: “Learn to enjoy the zen of repetitive movements.”


The boat is a gift to my daughter. She had a far more illustrious rowing career than I did, winning the national high school championships her first year in a boat, then going on to the junior national team and ultimately the woman’s crew at the University of Virginia. So I wanted to personalize the boat a bit — Gentry encourages it — and since I had saved some black cherry logs from an old tree that came down on Christmas Day three years ago while I was drinking my morning coffee, I decided to put it to use in the boat.

One of the pieces I saved came from the main tree trunk where a major branch split off and the grain made a beautiful V-shaped pattern. The problem was how to get a flat, vertical slice of it which could be shaped into the boat’s breasthook: the “V” of wood that fits into the bow to make a tiny deck. A day spent with the chainsaw, a router, and a lot of sandpaper yielded a nice piece of wood which I managed to split in half when a belt sander launched it off of the sawhorse and into the wall of the shop. But glue solved the crack and the final result justified the huge amount of work required to get that personal touch in place.

Black Cherry breasthook with “character” crack

The skinning of the boat was fairly simple. We unfolded the bundle of white polyester shipped by George Dyson, lay it flat to get rid of the shipping creases, and then laid over the inverted hull over the keel where we snapped a centerline with a chalk line and pinned the slippery fabric down with a row of pushpins stuck into the wood beneath. We pulled the fabric tightly down dow and stapled it around the edge of the gunwale before trimming off the excess material with the hot knife. After sneaking my wife’s clothes iron out from underneath her nose, we used it to shrink the polyester tight with the heat set on high. I saw very little shrinkage. I was skeptical, but not pessimistic about the watertight integrity of the hull. I reminded myself that racing shells had once been made from laminated sheet of paper, and fiberglass cloth has been used to build boats since the late 1950s. but unlike fiberglass, skin-on-frame (SOF) doesn’t use epoxy to seal the fabric, but instead relies on varnish or regular oil-based boat paint to permeate the fibers and make the skin water tight.

When I ordered the fabric George Dyson wrote :”Most builders of Dave Gentry’s designs are using the 9-ounce polyester, but if you don’t mind the extra weight and favor much higher durability I would personally prefer the 14PE64 (14-ounce polyester, loose basket weave).” I agreed with his expert recommendation because the boat was built to get a lot of use by myself and my daughter and whomever else wants to give it a spin. The wherry ‘s design grants a s far more stable and forgiving a platform for beginners to learn in. Putting a novice in a racing shell will result in many capsizes and possible damage to the boat. But a wherry is wide and stable enough to stay upright on its own while still delivering the total muscle power of the legs.

I also expected the boat to get used by my wife and son-in-law. The boat will be car-topped on some expeditions to other harbors I have long wanted to explore; and with my wife taking to the ergometer and my son-in-law brave enough to trust my carpentry skills there is already talk of building a second companion boat!

After rolling on the first coat of Interlux Brightside Sea Green paint, I realizee heavy cloth was very “thirsty” and would require several coats to completely permeate and seal the weave. I started searching for more Sea Green, but boat paint is evidently in short supply on Cape Cod, and the best I could do was find a quart at West Marine, in Hyannis, another from Falmouth and two half-cans left over from painting my disabled Cotuit Skiff. Gentry’s instructions call for two quarts of paint or varnish, I rolled on three quarts, and still was seeing light shining through the fabric. A lot of SOF builders strive for the translucent look and prefer varnish over opaque paint to cover their skins.

The finishing touches took a week to finish — lots of hand planing, sanding and painting, then a lot of painstaking measurement and modification to the Angus Rowboats sliding seat frame to make it fit inside of the wherry with the right geometry between the seat, foot stretchers and oarlocks.

Yesterday we carried the boat down the hill to the boat ramp, sons and daughters insisting they be present for the builder’s shakedown cruise despite my pleas that they wait until the boat was debugged and adjusted. We dropped her in the water for the first time and immediately she began to leak where the paint hadn’t fully sealed the warp and woof of the polyester along the edges of the chines and the keel. But I had a bailer and I needed to pull a few strokes to judge how well placed the oarlocks, wing rigger, and seat were inside the boat.

I pushed off from the beach, grabbed the two oar handles, and immediately knew the seat was too high and the riggers set too far astern. I managed three strokes, glanced back over my shoulder to look for other boats, and in the process of turning broke the foot stretchers off of the rowing station frame because the screws were too short. That ended the maiden voyage, and as I turned back for the beach, grateful to be facing away from the disappointed cheering sectionm I realized the boat had a couple inches of water sloshing around, a sign the fabric hull was far from watertight.

I made it ashore without sinking,. I managed to climb out without shoving my foot through the floor, and told the crowd the shakedown cruise was a complete success — we learned we had leaks to fix and stretcher boards to reattach and adjustments to make to the seat and riggers, factors that have to be perfect in order to get the geometry of the rowing stroke just right. I also dubbed the boat the “S.S. Cheesecloth” and the name seems to have stuck. It was trudging hike with the boat back up up the hill, but once it was home I headed back to the hardware store for a tube of marine Goop and some longer stainless steel bolts to raise the height of the oarlocks and repair the footplate.

First coat of paint before trimming the fabric to the gunwales

I lifted the boat up from the grass later in the afternoon and used sunlight to reveal where the leaks were. I smeared a thin layer of Goop on the inside of the boat over the worst spots where the paint hadn’t completely filled in the weave. I think two more quarts of paint should completely seal the weave and solve the leaking problem. Now to get the rigging correctly adjusted and figure out some sort of trailer/portage system so one person can walk the boat down the hill by themselves. The roof rack on the Yukon also needs to be set up with pads and straps because as one of the big allures of this design will be the opportunity it affords me to explore some other waters around the Cape such as the salt marsh behind Sandy Neck, Pleasant Bay in Orleans and Chatham, Wellfleet harbor, the Pamet River and so much more.

All in all it took two people working a couple hours per day about a month to complete the boat. Delays were mostly spent waiting for parts and materials to arrive via UPS or the post office. I estimate — counting the time spent running around searching for wood and parts — that the boat could have been built in under 25 hours.

Portage down Old Shore Road

The result is pleasing but far from perfect. The skin isn’t the most beautifully finished hull — it’s coarse like painted canvas and lacks the perfection one gets from painted planking. Lessons learned? Sawdust and shavings pile up alarmingly fast. Cedar dust is not great to breathe, so decent respirators with filters were essential. Silicon-bronze screws, while traditional looking, are very hard to find, so stainless steel did the trick. And time — well, there’s no rushing a boat. This was less an exercise in carpentry and more like fine woodworking, and as I spent many an evening in the old boat shop, lovingly planing wood to perfection, the ghosts of the old Handy shipwrights and my grandfather Chat seemed to come out of the shop walls and guide my hand.

The builders
Chamfering the stem

Now to plug the leaks, adjust the riggers, and launch for test row #2. I’m also going to buy a pair of wooden sculls (oars) with the traditional Macon/tulip blade pattern for easier rowing in a chop. A classified ad placed on ROW2K.com found a set up in New Hampshire which will fit the bill.

If you have a boat shop you need to build a boat
The setup entails getting the center of gravity fore and aft just so while adjusting the height of the oarlocks relative to the seat and the rower’s hips, the pitch ( or angle off of perpendicular to the surface of the water) of the oarlocks, the span of the oarlocks, and the height of the seat. The objective is to capture a full range of motion with no impingement that allows the blades of the oars to cleanly enter and exit the water, and track solidly throughout the drive of the legs. Any deviation can cause the blades to crab or slice too deep, or “wash out” and not fully bury themselves. Adjustments also have to take into account the height of the thighs relative to the oar handles so the feathered blades can glide above the water without skipping through the recovery. Entire text books have been wriitten about how to rig a racing shell. I’m trusting to what feels right.

The Winter of the PT-109

I saw the movie PT-109 from the back of of a Ford Falcon station wagon parked on a berm filled with other cars, with other kids, at a drive-in movie theater somewhere outside of Houston, Texas in early 1963. I was five and my brother Tom was watching it beside me. We were totally militarized from watching too many war movies, and a few months later we’d watch JFK’s funeral somberly unfold over a few days on the black and white TV we watched Saturday cartoons and Mercury launches. We were of a divided mind about what was the better career option — astronaut or bazooka-man — but we both agreed if we had been at the helm of the PT 109 that dark night on the phosphorent waters of Blackett Strait, we would have not only sunk the evil Amagiri, but scored direct hits with the three remaining torpedos and then gunned multiple out-of-the-sun attacks by the Japanese Zeroes harassing us for drowning Admiral Yamato.

In the summer on Cape Cod, behind the boat shed, was a cedar rowing skiff without a name. Left out right side up on the grass, we climbed aboard and turned that 12-foot yellow and grey rowboat our grandfather built in 1948 in between a fleet of a dozen Cotuit Skiffs, a tender he could tow around behind his catboat if he was visiting Nantucket or Edgartown, a heavy beast of a boat with three thwarts and two rowing stations.

Broomsticks became Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons and Browning .50-cal machine guns. We both provided sound effects and threw driveway stones at the corrugated tin sides of the lean-to to make big sheet metal booms. My father and grandfather were, like many old Cape Codders, Lincoln Republicans and no fans of the Kennedy clan and their sketchy bootlegger fortune and Papal allegiances. I’d eavesdrop on them laughing about how young Kennedy made it to the White House on a sunken motorboat thanks to father Joe’s Hollywood influence, thousands of copies of John Hersey’s account of the sinking of the PT-109, and Kennedy drifting in neutral with a throttle system that wasn’t connected to the boat’s three 12-cylinder Packard engines, but to an indicator in the engine room that told the engineer what to do — just like the Titantic.

Tom and I didn’t care. The thought of being given command of an awesome 80-foot long war ship with torpedos and cannons and underwater exhaust diverters made us anxious, so we began to fight for command of the PT-109 parked on the lawn. I began to suspect my grandfather and father suggested that name just to wind us up and get us scrounging for old foot-powered foghorns and massive oak fids left in the eaves of the sail loft.

My Grandfather Henry Chatfield Churbuck, builder of the “PT 109, his mother and my great-grandmother, Oie Chatfield Churbuck, my father Alton Chatfield Churbuck and me, Davod Chatfield Churbuck.

Here my brother Tom and I re-enact the secret mutiny on the PT-109 while our cousins all watch and think to themselves together: what lame losers….

I won most of the bouts versus Tom until 1977 when he returned home on leave from Fort Bragg after getting his Green Beret and used me to demonstrate how to kill a person with a rolled up magazine and turn a knife wielding antagonist onto his own blade. I love the lines of that old rowboat. I rowed it out from Doctor Morrill’s beach nearly every day to sail my Cotuit Skiff, #36 the Snafu II — also built by my grandfather in the boat shop behind the house.
The Snafu II flying under a single-reef.

I never gave the PT-109 much thought after the skiff rotted out and was thrown on a burn pile or hauled away to the dump. When I did think about the PT-109 I thought about that sweet rowing skiff with the heavy ash oars and the leather collars and galvanized folding oarlocks that were permanently attached to thje boat. I toured the PT boat on display in Fall River in Battleship Cove with my son and marveled at the huge planing hull and vast amount of wood that went into it. A couple of years ago I read a recent biography of John Hersey, in which I learned how Hersey and JFK had wooed the same woman, how Kennedy told Hersey about the wreck and rescue of his crew at a New York night club, which Hersey wrote for the June 17, 1944 edition of the New Yorker in a story titled Survival.

Our men in the South Pacific fight nature, when they are pitted against her, with a greater fierceness than they could ever expend on a human enemy.Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, the ex-Ambassador’s son and lately a PT skipper in the Solomons, came through town the other day and told me the story of his survival in the South Pacific. I asked Kennedy if I might write the story down. He asked me if I wouldn’t talk first with some of his crew, so I went up to the Motor Torpedo Boat Training Centre at Melville, Rhode Island, and there, under the curving iron of a Quonset hut, three enlisted men named Johnston, McMahon, and McGuire filled in the gaps.”

John Hersey, Survival, The New Yorker, 1944/6/17

JFK’s father, then grieving the loss of his eldest son and namesake Joe Jr. after his plane exploded during a test flight, ordered thousands of reprints of Hersey’s story, sent the Kennedy political fixers out to find the crew of the boat, and had little PT-109 lapel pins made as campaign tschotkes when JKF ran for Congress, the US Senate, and the presidency. The story of the PT-109 became the most famous naval story to come out of World War II. Which of course added to my father and his father’s scorn for Democrats, and they would scoff and joke about the myth that turned a raw college boy fresh from the tiller of a Wianno Senior beating into the afternoon southwester off of Hyannis Port who manages a few months later to get rammed while bobbing out of gear under the bow of a charging Japanese destroyer.

In the late 90s my brother, retired from over a decade in the Special Forces and enjoying the fruits of his entreprenurial labors, built a summer house here in Cotuit and built in the basement an astonishing workshop devoted to radio controlled airplanes, cars, and boats. Bandsaws, drill presses, long clean and level workbenches encased in epoxy, racks of tiny screwdrivers and batteries, transmitter and receivers, servo motors, clutches, fuel…….

And on the top shelf, in a long narrow box, was a kit to build a 1/20th scale model of the PT-109. The hull was made from Fiberglass, a heavy four-foot long shell that looked beautiful and powerful. The instructions offered two options for powering the boat — either a small 4-stroke engine driving a single propellor, or a bank of electric motors driving three propellors. I looked at that model every time I visited, always teasing him to build it, feeling sorry that instead of slowing down he was spending more time on the road, checking out deals in Asia and the Middle East and rarely home long enough to adjust back to the time zone, nevermind start building a massive ship model.

Last fall I told him I would build the kit for him. I pulled the box down from the shelf, pulled out the instructions and the parts list and inventoried everything to see what was missing. I already had the right gas-powered engine from an old Piper Cub model, radios, batteries — all I need to do was buy some glue, set up a workbench, and build it over the winter.

Here’s what I accomplished in about six months of very occasional work, usually turning to the boat project when the cabin fever started to get from me, or when I needed a break from working on my book about Bethuel Handy and his Siberian adventures. I’ve worked on ship models since I was six and given a ship-in-a-bottle kit. I helped my grandmother build a scale model of a Grand Banks fishing schooner, and a few years back I built a planked model of a New Bedford whaleboat. The focus that is required and the concentration to get clumsy fingers to behave is very therapeutic to my wandering mind and a few minutes working at a cast metal fitting with a file or soldering together little linkages and pieces of rigging under a magnifying glass gave me a great deal of space to think through bigger issues I was struggling with in the planning and writing of the book.

Here’s a slideshow of the construction progression. The kit was made by the Dumas Company and evidently was only produced in a limited run due to OSHA ventilation requirements for Fiberglas work. I couldn’t build the gas engine configuration because the plans specified a marine-adapted variation of the engine I had for a model airplane — and I’m not clever enough of a machinist to make a water jacket to surround the cylinder and keep it from overheating.

The owner of M.A.C.K. Products and Model Marine in Long Branch, New Jersey was very generous with his time and advice and quickly talked me out of the gas-engine option, reminding me that I was dealing with a kit that had been out of stock for the past twenty years and that advances in brushless motors and digital electronic speed controls, radios, etc. made it a far better (and quieter) idea to put very powerful, high torque electric motors and LiPo batteries rather than wire up a shrieking gas banshee and annoy the neighbors. I’m a sucker for an expert voice of reason, so I told him to set me up and he did: selling me two electric motors and ESCs and wiring harnesses and little navigation lights.

I haven’t launched it yet. My brother Tom only got his first showing yesterday after coming north from Florida and self-quarantining for two weeks. When we do put it in a pond I will video the maiden voyage and update this post.

I am fairly happy with the final result. Some model shipwrights are incredibly talented at scale details and realistic paint schemes, using online forums to discuss every variation and detail of these boats. Some have digitized the original naval architect’s plans used by the Elco Co. of Bayonne New Jersey to mass produce the PT boats, and converted them into CAD files for 3-D printing. I spent $100 for about 80 3-D printed plastic pieces and the detail on the parts is incredible, but somehow not nearly as rewarding as improvising machine guns out of little lengths of brass tubing, some basswood, and a lot of glue.

I’m already thinking of next winter’s project but haven’t decided yet. I have yet to do a fully rigged ship, so something with sails and most likely for display on a mantel, not running on ponds or harbors like the PT-109.

Here is the finished model:

Port nav lights, masthead white light, helmsman’s spot light and stern light on the jack staff.
Aft 20 mm Oerlikon, port aft torpedo tube, smoke generator
Aft turret with dual .50 cal machine guns and preventer rails (to keep the gunner from accidently shooting the captain or his shipmates.
The decals need to be redone and cut out individually
Too big to display anywhere. Too wide for fireplace mantels, too long for a glass case. Brother Tom doesn’t know where to put it. Wife wants it out of sight.

T