Frozen shadows

Cotuit Town Dock

Photos of Cotuit in the 1890s

Ezra George Perry was a real estate promoter and developer from Bourne; a self-described “Cape Cod Boy” who marketed the sublime pleasures of owning a Cape Cod summer estate in an illustrated guidebook, “A Trip Around Cape Cod.”

“At the end of the nineteenth century, Perry came back to Bourne, his hometown, where he began buying up pastureland around Phinney Harbor and developing it into lots to be sold to the urban rich for seaside summer estates,” writes John T. Cumbler in Cape Cod: An Environmental History of a Fragile Ecosystem.

Ezra George Perry

Perry’s book is the first time I’ve ever seen the full extent and scale of some of the old estates and seaside hotels and the different styles and grandeur of estates that were marketed by Perry as a more moral and natural alternative to the excesses of Newport. President Grover Cleveland turned his 110-acre estate, Grey Gables, into the Summer White House from 1893-96, which in turn brought the railroad, electricity, and telegraph to the region for the first time.

Ezra Perry’s colorful career and shameless hucksterism comes through his copywriting in A Trip Around Cape Cod. He spun a grand, compelling vision of the Cape that enticed more tycoons and scions and developers to follow and spur the development of grand estates and establishing a number of exclusive summer enclaves in Cotuit, Oyster Harbors, Wianno and Hyannis Port that began to fill in the economic void left by the decline of whaling, shipping, and the traditional Cape Cod arts of shipbuilding, shellfishing, and shipping and the related need for salt to preserve fish, wood to build saltworks, rope, sails, and the other components of the maritime culture that faded after the Civil War, done in by the railroad, petroleum and steam. In their place followed the grand hotels and guest houses and eventually the private clubs along the shores of Buzzards Bay and Nantucket Sound.

Gray Gables, 1890

The book is available for free online – Google Books is where I found a copy that can be downloaded as a PDF or read in a browser.

I took the liberty of making copies of the Cotuit photographs from A Trip Around Cape Cod. I’m sure Ezra Perry would appreciate the back links were he still flogging land on the Cape today.

In the Sound

Artificial General Intelligence panel Sept. 30

I’m moderating a panel discussion on Friday, Sept. 30 at 6 pm EST. with five experts from IBM, Samsung SDS, Oxford University, Volkswagen, and Thomson Reuters. The topic is Artificial General Intelligence (essentially the rise of a AI system which can understand or learn any human intellectual action on its own), a controversial topic in light of recent debates at Google when a researcher’s memo about the company’s LaMDA project (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) claimed the system was “sentient.” The engineer was fired.

The science fiction scenario of a world governed by a massive AI presence has be been around since the earliest days of computer science, with the result that many within the AI community as well as the press, are calling for safeguards that would constrain such a self-learning system and ensure it operates ethically, under a sort of code similar to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The panel of experts will debate the concept of AGI and offer their insights from their experiences with advanced AI.

To join, please egister for the two-day webinar at The event is sponsored by Wow-AI, a provider of data for AI training in multiple languages.

In memory of William Dunnell III

My first crew coach, the man who taught me how to row, passed away last month at the age of 89. William Dunnell taught English and coached the novice crew at The Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts from 1963 to his retirement in 1994. I never had a class with him (I did have his brother Jake for Shakespeare’s Tragedies) but he taught me one of life’s lessons at an impressionable enough age that it became something of a mantra for the rest of my life and that was not to quit.


It is 1973 and I have to pick a spring sport. Tennis and baseball aren’t my thing, it was lacrosse I wanted to play but Brooks didn’t have a lacrosse team so of course I had to try to start one and I petitioned the athletic director to consider adding a new sport, rallied other students who wanted to join the team, researched the costs, etc. … but when the time came for a decision to be made there suddenly was no decision as the three crew coaches, Bill Dunnell among them, had conspired to kill my nascent lacrosse team through some treachery in the faculty lounge behind closed doors. Lacrosse would rob the crew coaches of bodies and nothing would be permitted to challenge rowing at Brooks. Or so I thought as the March deadline for declaring a mandatory sport approached. Tennis. Baseball. Or Crew. One of those three or I could work on the spring play in the campus theater or join the grounds crew raking leaves and picking up cigarette butts.

Brooks was a rowing school. It was part of the whole Boston Episcopalian “St. Grottlesex” prep school tradition of recreating the Eton-Harrow “public school” experience in the woods of Massachusetts. Groton. Buckingham Brown and Nichols, Belmont Academy, St. Mark’s, Nobles and Greenough. Middlesex. Those were the competition. Schools that used to reserve slots for the sons of illustrious alumni, schools known for their rigor and their tradition. Mandatory chapel six days a week. Three ordained Episcopalian ministers or rectors on the faculty (one of whom, Doug Peterson, was the head crew coach). A trip to Henley every five years. Alumni who had won Olympic medals or went on to Harvard, Yale or Penn to become “gods” in the insular world of rowing. Old coaches named “Ox” Kingsbury and boats named after them, dusty trophies, tattered pennants, rows of oars and plaques with the names of every rower in the history of the school and above all a general stoical cold shower ethos that comes with rowing on icy waters in New England in March in wooden boats that turn green boys into iron men.

I thought it was all a crock of shit. Unsure of what to do I asked my father, who had rowed in a club boat at Harvard Business School, what I should do. A former tennis star at Boston University, my old man knew I was utterly uncoordinated with zero finesse and was, gauging my maddening inability to handle algebra, definitely mentally handicapped. “Try rowing. At least you’ll be in a boat.”

First day and all my experience rowing around Cotuit Bay in an old wooden skiff with two ash oars meant zero once I climbed into an ancient Pocock four, taking care not to step on the veneer of western red cedar on the bottom of the boat where the words “No Step” were stenciled to warn doofuses like me from doing the truly stupid. I was put in with the other novices under the care of Bill Dunnell — a little man, a former coxswain at Harvard and Nobles and Greenough who wore a patched green army field coat and had his stop and his stroke watches hung around his neck on old laces from his hockey skates.

If any one on the faculty was the personification of the acerbic, mustachioed Mister Chips, it was Bill Dunnell. Eccentricities abounded. The perpetually grumpy mood that told indolent students to “go fry ice” or “if you have nothing to do, don’t do it here.” The very precise command of the English language befitting an English teacher: “Kindly refrain from expectorating in the public drinking water supply Mister Churbuck” when I spat up a chunk of lung after some horrible slog across the troubled waters of Lake Cochichewick. And the dogged persistence to repeat 10,000 times “Clean up that finish Mister Churbuck” that I thought was a case of pure personal torment for daring to challenge the Rowing Tradition with a lacrosse stick, but turned out to be the same thing every other coach that followed him would say 10,000 more times.

When I wrote The Book of Rowing I dedicated it to William Dunnell for teaching me how to row. What I really should have said, was “To William Dunnell for teaching me not to quit.”

He had the hardest coaching job — he taught the novices how to row in the cold chop of that windy lake. And more importantly, he sent them up onwards to the JV and Varsity boats where we would hopefully continue the heroic Brooks tradition of better oarsmanship. But first he had to stop us from quitting the single most difficult, maddening, exhausting and cold sport imaginable.

During my first season on the water with Mister Dunnel I eventually lost my temper after splitting my thumb open when it got pinched between the gunwale and the oar handle after the 2 man caught a crab.

Spattered with blood, with boils on the back of my thighs from the stinking perpetually wet rowing shorts, hands massacred by the rough oar handles, I did the sensible thing and I quit. I told the cox, and then I told another guy, and before lunchtime Bill Dunnell was stalking the halls of Brooks looking for me.  I was twice as tall as he was but he dragged me into an empty classroom and with his crooked finger began jabbing me in the chest demanding answers. 

“Listen Mister. You can go fry ice for all I care. Whether you like to row or not is up to you. But if you quit this then you will surely find it just as easy to quit the next hard thing and before long you’ll just be another quitter telling yourself it’s okay to be a quitter. So you go tell the others in your boat why you’re leaving them without a 3 man. and then go have fun on the work gang picking up cigarette butts with the other quitters.”

When I went back to Brooks to give him the first copy of the Book of Rowing he wept and blinked behind his glasses and said, “Damn you for making me cry Mister Churbuck but thank you for making me proud.”

Then we went together to the shore of the lake and quietly watched the races, him propped on his shooting stick, clicking the stroke watch and announcing the rating, never exhorting, never yelling, just being there with me.

I said to him before I left, the last time I ever saw him, “When I rowed against Harvard in New London my sophomore year I wanted to quit half way through when we were down a length and had another mile and a half to row.”

“Can’t quit in the middle of a race,” he said, watching the rowing through binoculars.

“Yeah, that’s what I remember you saying every single one of those remaining miserable strokes. Nobody quits rowing in the middle of a race. Nobody.”

“But did you ever clean up that finish?” He smiled under his moustache, never taking his eyes off the rowers approaching us, his attention with them in their agony as they sprinted for the finish.

His obituary

Crosby Striper

Cuz Ize Eats Me Spinach

Repairing Cotuit’s Town Dock and Restoring Little River

An update on the status of the town dock which has been closed to vehicles since the fall of 2021.

Last fall the town banned vehicles from driving onto town dock — a traditional use for loading and unloading commercial fish catches, refueling the county dredge, and the rigging and unrigging of dozens of sailboats. Cars, pickup trucks, crane trucks — all have been a familiar sight on the century old pier since it was first built in the 1920s.

That dock has been rebuilt or repaired several times over the years, extended in the 1970s from its original square configuration to include the four dinghy floats and an L-shaped extension that extended it another 50 feet into Cotuit Bay. When a permit was requested to allow a fuel truck to refuel a vessel from the dock the Cotuit fire chief and harbormaster discovered the pier was rated with a carrying capacity of only 10,000 pounds, yet has been used by trucks weighing three times that amount.

So the dock was closed to vehicles — its entrance blocked off by a cube of concrete that has been replaced with a metal post that can be unlocked and folded flat — and remains closed. The impact will first be felt this spring when Murray Marine needs to swap the mooring field’s winter sticks with mooring balls and sailboat masts need to be stepped with a boom truck.

Last week the town released its FY2023 capital budget and FY2023-2027 capital improvement plan. It’s a big document with a list of all the projects pending in the town — from bathrooms in town’s offices to repaving beach parking lots.

There are a number of Cotuit projects of interest. Foremost being repairs to the town dock. For those too lazy to download the big PDF (here). I’ll summarize a few.

Cotuit Projects

Cotuit Town Down Design & Permitting: p. 217, MEA-23. Listed as the second priority in the Marine & Environmental Affairs list of 18 projects. The request is for $70,000 to design improvements to the existing dock and “evaluate it to confirm that a retrofit of the existing structure is feasible (i.e. increase pier cap sizings and decking. If the current dock structure cannot be retrofit to accommodate a load rating increase, then additional funding will be required for the design and permitting of a complete reconstruction of the dock.”

Repair work or reconstruction would happen in 2024, costs to be determined by the results of the survey and redesign work.

from the Barnstable FY2023-2027 Capital Improvement Plan

Evaluation of Little River Fish Passage Restoration

Little River connects Lovell’s Pond to Cotuit Bay, where it empties into the harbor at Handy Point. It is a major watershed for three Bays, one of three important freshwater contributors (along with the Mills River to the east and the Santuit River to the west). A historic herring run and important habitat for other anadromous species including the American Eel, Rainbow Smelt, winter flounder, and Sea Run Brown Trout, Little River has been severely compromised by various man-made obstacles along its short course from its headwaters at the southeast corner of Lovell’s Pond, under Route 28 near the offices of the Cotuit Water Company, and through the woods around Sampson Mill Road, south parallel to Putnam Avenue, emerging in a series of man made culverts and ponds created by a developer in the 1960s before flowing under Putnam Ave at the base of the old Green Acres curve at Bell Farm, and then through the woods of the glacial valley to the east of Mosswood Cemetery and under Old Post Road where it opens up to the saltmarsh that divides the Little River neighborhood and Handy point from the rest of Cotuit.

This project– MEA-23 — is ranked 7th in priority of the Marine and Environmental Affair’s list of 18 projects and requests $100,000 to perform:

“A comprehensive assessment of restoring fish passage in Little River. Little River was historically a vibrant herring run with fish traveling to spawn in Lovell’s Pond in Cotuit. However, current conditions prohibit the migration of fish into the herring run at multiple locations….”

Deferred Marine & Environmental Affairs General Fund Projects, 2023 CIP p 223
From p.224 of the Town of Barnstable FY2023-2027 Capital Improvement Plan

Other projects of interest (to me at least) include:

West Bay Breakwater improvements to put new boulders on the Wianno Cut jetties and repair the navigation light at the end of the eastern jetty. That project carries a $5.150 million price tag

Channel Dredging: Cotuit Bay is listed in 2024 for a “Cotuit Bay Embayment Channel 7′ section ($75,000). The entrance to Osterville at West Bay and the Seapuit River is scheduled for a big dredging in 2027: “West Bay Outer Entrance $150,000), West Bay Inner Entrance Channel – Lower Reach ($1,000,000), Seapuit River Channel ($360,000), project management contingency ($100,000)

The Cotuit-Nantucket Packet Tansy Bitters

Tansy Bitters

My friend and fellow Cotusion history nerd Phil sent me this photograph of the last of the Cotuit-Nantucket sailing packets, the two-masted schooner Tansy Bitters.

The picture is taken from the current site of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club’s pier — the forner Braddock Crocker pier — and is aimed WSW at Coleman’s Pier on Old Shore Road beside Ropes Beach at Hooper’s Landing. The chimney on the roof of Phil’s house beside Old Shore Road and Main Street can be seen just astern of the aft mast of the Tansy Bitters, the boat tied to the pier on the right. This is a reverse view of the shorefront that has long been the header image of this blog.

I’ve been picking away at the history of Cotuit packets and coastal schooners this winter while I carve a model of a bluewater schooner built at Essex Connecticut, something to do while I do more legwork in hopes of finding the lines for a shoal draft, centerboard “tern” schooner like the ones favored by Cotuit owners and captains during the last half of the 19th century. I’m working through the shipping news in the digitized archives of the Barnstable Patriot and Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror to get picture of how many packets carried passengers and freight twenty-eight miles across the Sound to serve Nantucket’s waning economic power.

The big stacks of cordwood along the lane were the only way to supply Nantucket with firewood; the first colonists totally deforested the already barren island to boil the blubber of washed-ashore whales, and boil the ocean for their salt. The whaling fleet shipped a lot of Cotuit and Osterville wood to the Pacific where it fueled the ships’ brick fireplaces, or tryworks, invented by Nantucket whalers in the late 18th century to turn their ships into fully self-contained processing plants that could catch, kill, butcher and render the leviathans into conveniently stowed barrels of whale oil while at sea.

A packet is defined as a merchant ship that sails on a schedule between two ports with mainly passengers and some freight as cargo. From the end of the War of 1812 to the appearance of the first railroad lines in the late 1830s and early 1840s — packets were the fastest and least expensive way to travel from city to city given the deplorable state of the young nation’s old paths and post roads.

The packets sailed from Coleman’s pier at the northern head of the harbor, clearing the bay at Sampson’s Island and setting a course of 140 magnetic to fetch Nantucket Harbor a few hours later on a beam reach on the prevailing southwest blowing from west to east across Vineyard Sound. With a favorable wind a packet could make a straight course across the Sound without tacking once.

As the center of gravity for the American whaling industry moved west fifty miles from Nantucket to New Bedford, a steam packet, one of the first on Nantucket Sound, joined the two whaling ports together with same day service beginning in the 1830s. There was at least one Cotuit-t0-New Bedford packet, and from my research as many as six packets serving Nantucket by the late 1840s.

The Coleman family ran a boarding house on the bluff behind the woodpiles, and advertised a coach service to bring packet passengers to their hotel, the Santuit House, which gave travelers a place to rest from their travels and a hot meal before heading off for the island. Packets carried everything and anything — some carrying up to 50 passengers and untold cords of wood stacked on their decks. Shoal draft, the packets were generally rigged as sloops — with a single mast and a hull design that had slowly evolved from Colonial times and had influenced the design of another coastal working sloop, the pilot boats that competed to meet arriving ships first so their pilot could get the job of brining the ship into Boston or New York Harbor.

The Tansy Bitters is a two-masted schooner, roughly sixty-feet in length, doubtlessly built to draw no more than three feet of water with a centerboard which could be dropped in deep water to slow the boat’s slip to leeward and speed its forward speed. The packets carried the mail, newspapers, freight, and spare spars and rigging for the whaling ships that still outfitted at Nantucket as its harbor shoaled over with a shifting sandbar that spelled its eventual eclipse by New Bedford.

With names like Forrester, Rail Road, Mary Ann and the Charles Everson, the first packet sloops were probably built at Job Handy’s shipyard at Little River. The Phinney family of Cotuit Port were the most active in the packet trade, with some unknown Phinney’s captaining both of the New Bedford-Nantucket steam packets in the earl7 1840s and two Phinney captains sailing packets during the same years.

Finding plans of a packet sloop is proving to be a challenge, but not that surprising one given most 19th century shipwrights to work from a carved half-model of the hull and the seat of their pants. Howard Chapelle, the maritime historian who did so much to preserve 19th century ship and boat design, draws a distinction between the trans-Atlantic packets that carried passengers between England and New England or New York, and the coastal packets that served routes such as Boston to New York or Cotuit to Nantucket. The trans-Atlantic packets were full-sized ships: often rigged as brigs, brigantines, hermaphrodites, or snows with a fore-and-aft rigged mizzen and a square rig forward. The coastal packets on Cape Cod were single-masted sloops. Chappelle writes in The History of American Sailing Ships:

“In addition to the sea-going sloops, built more or less on the sharp model, there were also a number of packet-sloops which ran along the coast, carrying passengers and light freight. These were often fast craft, built on a good model and heavily sparred…The introduction of the centerboard increased the usefulness and popularity of the shoal-draft sloop at a time when the sea-going and coasting sloops had lost favor…When the centerboard was introduced into these sloops they improved in weatherliness and speed.”

Howard Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships, p.299

Chapelle noted that the coastal sloop survived the longest on Cape Cod and the New England coast, “Here, also, the sea-going sloops used in off-shore fisheries existed the longest. The stone, ice, and cord-wood trades were, until a comparatively recent time*, carried on almost entirely in sloops, as was much of the shore-fisheries.”

From the Barnstable Patriot – 1837

*: Chapelle was writing in the early 1930s.

Cotuit Skiff plans and specifications

I noticed a bolus of traffic last week and traced the sudden interest in this blog to a thread on the WoodenBoat Magazine forum recommending an old post I wrote about my grandfather’s boat shop. I did a search on my last name and found a few threads where members of the forum were seeking a set of plans for a Cotuit Skiff — the 14-foot, gaff-rigged one-design flatiron skiff designed over 100 years ago by Cotuit boatbuilder Stanley Butler.

Having a digital copy of the Edwin Mairs plans — the set of offsets and lines created at the request of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club that was tired of having to calculate each boat’s handicap when determining the correct-time winner of its summer races.

The page with links to the plans and the official specifications from the Cotuit Skiff Class Association can be found here:

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