Finally I found the right setup for my Ruth wherry just in time for a leisurely transcendental fall row around Grand Island.
Over the summer of 2021 I built a model of a “Martha’s Vineyard” catboat on the workbench of my boat shop as therapy to recover from the nerve-wracking reconstruction of a full sized 75-year old sailboat with rotten chines.
The model is the first fully rigged wooden boat model I’ve ever made, as well as the first “scratch” scale model constructed without the assistance of a kit and carved off of plans. The model took about a month of occasional work to complete. I’d sand a little here and paint a little there whenever I needed a break from writing and research or calls with clients.
Beginning a year ago in the fall of 2020 I’ve built a few half-models: three Cotuit Skiffs (one of my own boat, two as gifts), an 1850s whaling ship, a 19th century British racing cutter, and restored two Wianno Senior models carved by Malcolm Crosby in the 1970s. I started off with a how-to set of plans from WoodenBoat Magazine, learning the “bread-and-butter” method of cutting 1/2″ thick basswood blanks conforming to the shape of the hull and gluing the stack of “sliced bread” together with yellow carpenter’s glue (the “butter”) . The zen of it all is in the shaping of the rough blanks into a perfect three dimensional model of what began as a two dimensional blueprint. Basswood is a tight grained, clear soft wood that is a joy to carve and shape with wood chisels and hand planes. I have to force myself to not get carried away with the fun of turning wood into curled shavings, and have had to toss a couple of Cotuit Skiff hulls away because I daydreamed away too much wood for an experienced eye to consider a true model of the real thing.
The latest is a hybrid half-hull/fully-rigged model displayed behind a sheet of acrylic inside of a wooden shadow box backed by an insanely expensive sheet of thin black walnut plywood. Basically it’s what you’d get if you build a miniature boat with all the above-deck details, spars and rigging and cut in half.
The project started as a simple half-model of just the boat’s hull — something to whittle on — but in time it evolved into a full tweaker OCD game of seeing how many details I could cram into a very simply rigged boat. As I puzzled over the clues Chapelle drew on his plans, I started to deduce how the details worked in practice — for example he drew a line from the peak of the gaff down to the boom by the tack, a line I have never seen before on a gaff rig. Some smart commenter on the WoodenBoat Facebook page noticed it from the photo I posted and identified it as a vang that kept the gaff from twisting forward of the mast while running downwind on a breezy day. Other details I provided from my own experience sailing cats. Whenever I found myself frustrated I posted questions or watched how-to videos and worked through the steps careful not to make a move I would regret later on. The project gave me an excuse to learn some of the techniques used in traditional ship model construction, but also immensely improved my understanding of full boat building concepts. Basic half-hull models were used by boat builders in lieu of printed plans to guide the construction of new full-sized boats for centuries. By the time I started building the top of the boat I had to ask myself why I hadn’t built a full and not a half model. Why half a hull and not the full shape? As an actual model used in building the real deal, a full hull was unnecessary as one side is a mirror image of the other and a builder only needs the dimensions of one side of the hull to make the other.
Toys, decor, or tools?
A search of half-models for sale reveals a lot of cheap $200-$400 mass produced models and a few antique examples that carry price tags well north of $5000 depending on the historical interest in the final product. Most old models were left unadorned, with the modeler slapping on a coat of paint or just oiling the miniature hull with linseed oil. The purpose of working from a three-dimensional model as a template (versus a flat two dimensional set of plans) was the builder could rely on the model to scale up, or loft, full-sized templates to guide the construction of the boat itself by tracing the curves at fixed points along the hull to make patterns that could be expanded (or “lofted”) into full size frames that perfectly matched the proportions of the miniature model. Some model makers cut slots through the half-hull at specific “stations”, slid a sheet of paper into the slot, and then traced the perimeter with a pencil. Models were usually left unpainted and omitted the tiny details that make a full-scale ship model so fascinating to study – no deck houses or port holes, no masts, or cleats and winches – just the shape of the hull and nothing more. That was enough in most cases to guide the design of a new boat. The customer could hold the model, feel its curves and judge the lines, asking for modification and adjustments long before massive keel timbers were laid out and the real work commenced.
As yachting became a thing in the second half of the 19th century, shrew builders realized the half-model would make a nice christening gift to the customer. The model would be mounted on a board, perhaps painted the same colors of the finished boat, and then given to the owner to hang on a wall for off-season adoration and admiration. The New York Yacht Club’s Model Room is a shrine to those yacht models. My early efforts in carving models was transformed by the work of a master model marker, Malcolm Crosby, thanks to his daughter Betsy Crosby Thompson’s channel on YouTube. In one project Crosby adds a few details to a model, and so inspired, I decided to do the same.
I realized in the final stages of the month-long project , as I was struggling to make tiny shackles with sausage-like fingers, that I could spend endless hours fiddling with the details. Instead, I decided to call a halt when the boat was fully rigged, realizing that displaying the full model would be a challenge beyond the usual practice of screwing the hull onto a nice piece of wood and hanging in on the wall. Once scale details like rigging and spars are added, the concern over time is keep dust from building up on the model. At the scale I was working at, a single speck of dirt looks proportionally the size of marble, and to keep curious toddler fingers from destroying hours of intense concentration, I mounted the model inside of a shadow box to protect it from curious fingers and the accumulation of dust. A sail was considered but life is short and there’s a point where enough is enough.
Origins of the Cape Cod Catboat
I first saw the design in Howard I. Chapelle’s book, American Small Sailing Craft. Chapelle defined a branch of American maritime history focused on the cataloguing and tracking of the development of American boat design and its regional evolution from the Old World examples the colonists brought with them from Europe and modifications inspired by the canoes, kayaks, and dugouts used by the indigenous natives. In 1933 Chapelle toured the boatyards and backwater creeks of southern New England and Cape Cod looking for examples of the 200 or so small boat designs used across America in the 19th century. He explored New Bedford’s waterfront and the coves of Fairhaven, and discovered the boat undergoing repairs at a local shipyard. It was a 50 year-old example of what has come to be known as the Cape Cod Catboat, that familiar local icon most closely identified with the Crosby clan of boat builders in Osterville. Chapelle learned the boat had been built fifty years before in the late 1880s on Martha’s Vineyard, where several local builders had been turning out a large fleet of working boats for the island’s watermen. The design element that persuaded Chapelle to fix the boat’s provenance to a Vineyard builder and not a Cape shop was its square cabin house, a fast and inexpensive shortcut versus the process of steaming green planks of white oak in a steam box.
Chapelle’s work is important because of his diligent detective work and the credible theories he proposed for how a practical boat design originated to perform a specific task — say hunting waterfowl from a Barnegat Bay Sneakbox — and then migrated from one region to another, being modified along the way to adapt to local conditions and techniques, the original archetype’s design “DNA” carrying over to modern fiberglass boats. Much had been written about the evolution of the catboat by early expert like C.P. Kunhardt and various contributors to Field and Stream and Rudder, but Chapelle was the historian who dispelled some parochial Cape Cod sentiment that the radical design was invented sui generis by the Crosbys. The Crosby builders — and there were a few of them working independently from their own boat shops around Osterville in the late 19th century — were indeed geniuses, and innovated many construction techniques as well as introducing major breakthroughs such as the swinging centerboard for working in shallow waters (which they decided to do after asking their mother, a practicing Spiritualist, to consult the spirit of an dead ancestor to get his assent).
The Catboat is thought to have been introduced to America by Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam (Manhattan) based on the hull design of canal barges and shoal draft boats used in the Friesian Islands. The beamy, single masted boats were very different from the heavy carvel planked shallops and ship’s boats brought over by the English to Plymouth and Boston. To be classified a catboat the mast is stepped only a foot or two from the stem of the bow, and the hull is roughly half as wide as long — a 2:1 ratio that made for a wide, very stable platform to fish or clam from. Jibs were sometimes added by extending a bow sprit, but the general bones that make a catboat a catboat are a single mast stepped right into the nose of the boat and a beamy, fat, relatively flat hull. The single sail rig meant one person could easily manage a catboat on their own. With three sets of reef points, the sail could be reefed on windy days, and by using a combination of the topping-lift and peak halyard, the rig could be “scandalized,” raising the boom high above the deck and reducing the sail area while the sailor went to work hauling traps, tending a fish weir, or catching fish with handlines. The capacious hull could carry more oysters or fish or passengers than the prevailing working boat used on Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds: the Vineyard Boat or No Man’s Boat, a two-masted open sloop favored by the fishermen on No Man’s Island south of Aquinnah.
The catboat’s single, gaff-rigged sail is huge, laced onto a long boom that overhangs the stern so far from the transom that rigging the outhaul to the clew of the sail sometimes requires a dock or a rowboat to reach the very end of the spar. Another catboat-specific feature is an oversized rudder, sometimes referred to as a “barn door,” the top of which is visible above the water.
The Migration of the Catboat
The catboat first appeared on Cape Cod in the middle of the 19th century after migrating for two hundred years northeast along Long Island Sound to Noank, Connecticut, then Narragansett Bay where a deep-keeled version known as the Newport Catboat became popular; then creeping a few miles east into Massachusetts where the Rhode Island design was well suited to Buzzard’s Bay. It was on Martha’s Vineyard where the principles of what is now considered a Cape Cod Catboat were first applied. Horace and Cornelius Crosby of Osterville launched their first catboat, Little Eva, in 1850, but it appears the radically new design was most popular on the Vineyard where the shoals around the island made a deep keel impracticable. As the design won over more watermen, it migrated to other builders around Buzzards Bay in the 1860s before reaching its apogee in the last decades of the 19th century in the hands of the Crosbys in Osterville and C.C. Manley of Monument Beach.
By 1900 the Cape Cod Catboat was the signature small boat design associated with the peninsula, and it remained popular with commercial fishermen who were quick to retrofit their boats with naptha and gasoline “one lunger” engines.
The arrival of tourism on the Cape in the 1880s sparked a revival of big catboats at some of the earliest resorts — such as the Pines Hotel and Santuit House in Cotuit — who hired retired whaling captains to take their guests for sails and picnics around the bay, the big cockpits of the catboats well suited for carrying a dozen or more guests for a boisterous sail on Nantucket Sound while the old salt at the tiller regaled them with sea stories. Catboats evolved further in the first three decades of the 20th century, morphing into extreme racing machines with a reputation for killing their crews.
The Boat Detective
During a 1933 trip to southeastern Masssachusetts and Cape Cod Howard Chapelle visited New Bedford and Fairhaven looking for old boats to measure and preserve on paper in the form of plans and the formal boat building measurements known as a table of offsets. Chapelle, then thirty-two years old, had been a shipwright’s apprentice and boat builder since the age of 18, and worked in a few shipyards at a time when the shipwrights craft was still alive and flourishing. Seeking to design his own boats, he trained as a naval architect at The Webb Institute, a Long Island school of naval architecture that offers a free education in naval architecture and marine engineering to a handful of lucky students.
The engineering science practiced by naval architects first emerged in the middle of the 19th century when the traditional rule-of-thumb methods of ship design and construction were rendered obsolete by the addition of steam engines, sidewheels and propellers, and riveted steel hulls on massive warships. For centuries shipwrights had worked without drawn plans or blueprints, relying on carved half-models to determine the proper proportions for a new ship. A simple half-model was far more effective than two-dimensional drawn plans because it could be held in the hands, where fingers could trace and feel the shape of the hull and the eyes could sight along the form to critique the curve of the sheer and other subtle but crucial details that are undetectable when examining an unfurled roll of paper plans or trying to visualize the hull’s measurements as expressed by the “table of offsets.” Those tables were included by the designer who would include within a “spreadsheet” of rows and columns of three-hyphenated numbers signifying specific points as measured from a common point, or baseline. Those sets of three numbers represented feet-inches-eighths. Hence “ 3-11-4” is interpreted by the builder as “three feet, eleven and ½ inches” (sometimes a “+” or “-“ is added to the third number to indicate a sixteenth of an inch).
Chapelle was trained in the process of measuring an existing hull and creating a faithful set of plans which could be used by a shipwright to build an exact copy of the original. That process, known as “taking off the lines,” is well explained in a post by Steve Reynolds where he describes taking the lines off a small skiff he admired. Chapelle’s detective work preserved the design of dozens of small boats which otherwise would be lost save for a few grainy photographs. A few years after his trip to Cape Cod he was in charge of the New England section of the Historic American Merchant Marine Survey (HAMMS), a New Deal project started in 1936 that employed unemployed naval architects in the cataloguing of thousands of examples of American maritime history within a 79-volume collection held by the Smithsonian Institution. Chapelle combined his field work with intensive research, combing through archives and back issues of 19th century yachting magazines for clues about the origin of a design and the possible whereabouts of existing examples or the builders who specialized in the type.
The Martha’s Vineyard Cat
In New Bedford Chapelle received permission to “take off” her lines and set to work with plum lines, levels, and tick sticks — notched boards used to measure points on a curve. It’s a complicated process to perform accurately — essentially a method for capturing on paper the subtleties of a three-dimension object. In his writing he referred to the 21’ boat as “an example of an Eastern working cat” and estimated it was built about 1888. He classified the boat as a “Martha’s Vineyard Cat” in American Small Sailing Craft, where he compared it to an early prototype sailed around Newport, Rhode Island on Narragansett Bay.
“A somewhat similar boat existed in the 1880s in Buzzards Bay and along the south shore of Cape Cod, this was the type first called the Martha’s Vineyard catboat,” later the “Cape Cod cat.” These were powerful boats, capable of operating in exposed waters and meeting much heavy weather in careful hands. In working boats the range of size was between 18 and 30 feet on deck.”Howard Chapelle, American Small Sailing Craft
Chapelle estimated the catboat was nearly 50 years old when he measured the hull in 1933 but he doesn’t indicate what clues led him to date the boat to 1888, nor what made it a “Martha’s Vineyard Cat” versus a “Cape Cod Cat.” Whether it was the square cabin house, or some bronze fitting or other specific detail that fixed the date, Chapelle chose the boat to illustrate his history of the catboat design, noting that the custom of calling a catboat a “Cape Cod Catboat” gradually took over from Martha’s Vineyard, especially as the reputation of the Crosbys in Osterville and C.C. Manley in Monument Beach of Buzzard’s Bay grew with the spread of the design beyond southern New England to the waters along Massachusetts’ South Shore from Boston to Plymouth where they mutated into extreme designs raced on Massachusetts Bay. The application of “cat” to the boat’s design apparently originated in Osterville when Horace and Cornelius Crosby’s first boat, the Little Eva, was judged “quick as a cat” by a sailor impressed by her nimble tacking abilities.
One of the best remembered catboat builders on Martha’s Vineyard was Manuel Swartz Roberts of Edgartown, also known as “The Old Sculpin”. He opened a boat shop by the docks in 1906 and built dozens of catboats there until closing his doors in the late 1940s. Cats were very popular in the fishing port of Menemsha, and were built with fish wells beneath their cockpit alongside the centerboard trunk so the fishermen could open a deck hatch, toss in their catch, and be assured the fish would still be alive and swimming when they got back to the dock at the end of the day, some so overloaded with swimming fish that their decks were awash. The boats could be easily reconfigured for different purposes or types of fishing. Pulpits would be attached to the bow for sword fishing, scallop dredges could be towed astern through a salt pond for bay scallops in the fall, and many catboats saw service as a packets carrying passengers, cargo and mail from the island to ports on the mainland such as New Bedford and Falmouth.
Building the model
I ordered the plans from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History maritime division.
Because of my affinity for Chapelle’s work (he was the curator of the Smithsonian’s maritime collections), I’m focused on modeling the designs described in his book: American Small Sailing Craft, especially boats with some relevance to Cape Cod or my personal interests. I bought the plans for a Long Island Sound Skipjack c. 1870, a Vineyard Sound boat, a Kingston lobster boat, a Crosby catboat, a three-masted schooner, and a few others I may or may not attempt in the future… time willing.
Earlier in the summer I built my third Cotuit Skiff half-model of #66, the Swamp Fox, which has been raced for decades by the Odence family. Why that boat? Larry Odence, author of the definitive history of the class, Mosquito Boats: The First Hundred Years of the Cotuit Skiff, was a huge help to me during my stint as president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, putting in hundreds of volunteer hours in support of the sailing program but also inspiring me with his research and attention to detail as the third edition of his book was printed this past summer. Philip, his son, helped me out by smuggling some paint samples out of the Odence boat shop, helping me get the paint scheme exactly right for I knew if anyone was qualified to have a critical eye it was his dad. Once that was finished in mid-July, I realized I mentally benefit from always have a model underway, something to take my mind off of work and my writing when I take a break and stretch my legs.
When the cardboard shipping tube arrived from the Smithsonian and Mystic Seaport I unrolled the plans for the 1888 Martha’s Vineyard catboat and began tracing the templates of the hull with carbon paper and cutting out patterns from some heavy card stock. Last winter I ordered a big expensive supply of basswood – one of the best woods for ship model hulls – and found a local woodworking shop with a big bandsaw to rip the stock into ½” thick planks. I use the “bread-and-butter” technique of building up the hull by cutting “lifts” or horizonal slices of the hull (the “bread,”) then gluing then together in a stack with yellow carpenter’s glue (the “butter”). I have a very small bandsaw, a Rikon, which my brother gave me a few years ago, and its enough to accurately cut the lifts out of the basswood. I clamped the stack of wood together, let it cure for a day, then carefully cut the sheer – or curve of the deck from bow to stern on the bandsaw. After that I screwed a holding piece onto the back of the hull, clamped that into a vise, and began shaping the hull with a ½” wood chisel and a small Lie-Nielsen block plane that lives inside a pocket of my shop apron.
Refining the lifts into a faithful copy of the hull always brings to my mind the the sculptor’s philosophy that inside of every block of marble lies a statue waiting to be revealed. There’s nothing like a sharp plane and the satisfaction of turning good wood into curls of shavings to release some pent-up stress.
After sanding and gauging the shape of the hull with a set of nine templates copied from each of the hull’s “stations” on Chapelle’s plans I sealed the wood with two coats of TotalBoat Varnish sealer before painting. The traditional color of the old catboats I remember from the early 1960s were white hulls with “mast buff” decks and cabin tops. Mast Buff is an odd, almost flesh-tone color, and seems to have fallen out of favor. appearing occasionally on some lovingly restored boat . Some boat builders used it to paint the mast, hence the name mast buff, as few working sailors bothered to varnish the spars and trim of their boats. Varnish, or “brightwork”, is a vanity of yachts and a tricky substance to work with, requiring at least a half-dozen coats to protect the wood and bring out the amber shine of the wood grain. Working boats such as catboats and sharpies were painted …. and even so, occasionally. The most attention was paid to the bottom – which was typically painted with red copper bottom paint from George Kirby Jr. Paint, the New Bedford inventors of copper antifouling paint. The topsides, or visible part of the hull, were almost always painted white. The old timers joked that there are only two colors for a boat – black and white – but only pirates and fools paint their boats black. I knew first hand from my childhood in the early 1960s that the big Crosby catboats around Cotuit and Osterville were invariably painted with the distinctive Caucasian flesh tone color of mast buff As the name suggests, mast buff was usually used to paint the mast in lieu of clear, golden varnish. Varnished brightwork had no place on a working boat and was regarded as an expensive vanity, appearing on catboats when they were cleaned up for tourist excursions. But as the time approached during my project to paint the model, I couldn’t find any old color photographs or archive of online knowledge of what paints were used on 19th century catboats to guide my color choices. So I winged it.
After adding the keel timber, centerboard, and rudder I taped off the waterline and put three boats of white on the hull with three coats of dark red on the bottom. I use ean xpensive sign painter’s paint, “OneShot”, because it’s oil-based and can, when applied full strength with no thinning, cover pretty much anything in one coat.
All my previous models had a minimal amount of above-decl detail save for tillers on Cotuit Skiffs. Watching Malcolm Crosby on YouTube finish a model of a catboat with extra details such as rub rails and toe rails, I decided the hull of the Martha’s Vineyard catboat would be far more interesting if I included its unique, square cabin house and the big combing, or curved plank that keeps an errant wave from flooding the cockpit. The decision to build a faithful model of the actual boat then led to a month-long, self-taught series of lessons into the bending of wood, the whittling of small details as captured on the plans by Chapelle, and the need to rig the model with its mast, boom, and gaff. Once a modeler commits to rigging and presenting every detail of the original craft the project goes from a couple of weeks of shaping and painting to a couple of months of painstaking detail work. As it turned out, the detail work, while frustrating at times, was the part I enjoyed the most. My biggest frustration was dropping tiny pieces on the floor and then peering at the concrete for ten minutes with my hands on my knees, searching for a wire shackle I had spent thirty minutes bending just so only to have it fall and bounce under the work bench where it hid under a nest of wood shavings.
I used a Dremel and a router bit to hollow out the cockpit, carved the cabin house from a scrap of basswood,, and at the rate of an hour per day here and there, built a sliding hatch cover, carved the sloe-eyed oval porthole so characteristic of catboats, and gradually created a half of a detailed model.
The rigging came last. This was the part I remember from my grandmother’s schooner project in the late 60s as the most challenging part of ship model construction. Working with thread and wire and tiny pieces of wood drilled with drills slightly thicker than a strand of hair gave rise to many a lament on my part of having sausages for fingers. I started looking online for some tips and techniques and discovered some tutorials on YouTube by Tom Lauria, a master modeler here on Cape Cod who specializes in local designs such as Beetle Cats and Wianno Seniors.
Admiring Lauria’s work inspired me to try harder and not cut any corners in finishing off the final details of my Martha’s Vineyard Catboat model. It also led me to joining two organizations devoted to ship models – the Nautical Research Guild, and the USS Constitution Model Shipwright Guild.
Child’s play or adult therapy?
Ship models are not for the impatient. There are still a few manufacturers of kits – notably Bluejacket Ship Crafters in Maine – but most hobby shops today have nothing on their shelves. A “scratch-built” ship model is one that the builder constructs from plans, drawings, or photographs without the assistance of a kit which generally includes a roughly pre-shaped hull, some cast metal fittings, a bundle of sticks and dowels, and some illustrated instructions. My grandfather, Henry Churbuck, made a model of the launch that Captain William Bligh sailed 4,000 miles with eighteen loyal crew after the famous mutiny of 1789. The model was displayed in a shadow box on the wall and I spent a lot of time inspecting the rigging of the two-masted boat, the oars and thwarts and cordage, marveling at the minutiae of the furled sails, the coiled lines, and the bronze gudgeons and pintles that held the little rudder to the stern. After he passed away in the late 1960s my grandmother was living by herself in an apartment north of Boston. Upstairs were a young married couple who were friends of the family – she had been our babysitter when my brother and I were toddlers, and he was home from Viet Nam, convalescing from the loss of a leg and other wounds suffered while serving as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army. Together, my grandmother and he each built – separately but simultaneously – identical kits of the famous Nova Scotia fishing schooner, the Bluenose. I assisted a little on my grandmother’s project, and learned a lot from her about working “clean,” thinking and strategizing through a sequence of steps before picking up a tool, measuring twice before cutting once, and most of all the sublime pleasures of pure patience and focus, telling me “You only get to build once, but your mistakes live on forever.”
There was a lot of modelling going on in my family during my childhood, unsurprising as my grandparents needed something to spend their time in the days before television. My father, while a student at Harvard Business School in the early 60s, built a huge radio controlled sea plane in our apartment in Cambridge, using it to think through his assignment and case studies before pecking out his papers on a Remington typewriter. My grandfather had a train set in the basement of his house in Melrose that nearly filled an entire room and required one to crawl underneath to get to the controls in the center, with panels of blinking lights and banks of switches and levers that controlled sleek German model trains that schussed around the copper tracks and toot-tooted going through the lovely shaped paper mâché alps.
For all the trains, planes and boats being built in miniature I have always been drawn to ship models. The Cotuit Library has a few great examples I admired on my daily visits as a child to read the next recommendation from the librarian, Ida Anderson. They are true ship models: big multi-masted clipper ships and whalers with skeins of threaded rigging and webs of ratlines, tiny deadeyes and portholes. Those models pique the imagination with their detailed examples of the rigger’s art – the use of blocks and tackle, wire and rope, sheaves and chafing gear to power and control what was, in the heyday of the actual ship, the most complicated pieces of machinery in the world.
I’ve decided to concentrate on models of boats and ships that have some personal or local relevance. I don’t plan on building any models of 16th century galleons or modern missile frigates; my preference is to recreate the small skiffs, sloops and schooners built around Cape Cod and catalogued by Chappelle. Because my interest in historical boat design stems from a paper I wrote in college about the development of the New Haven Sharpie, I’d like to tackle a full model (as opposed to a rigged half-model) of that iconic oysterman’s boat next. A Wianno Senior is also on the list, as well as a Beetle Cat, a Vineyard Sound boat, a Long Island Sandbagger, a three-masted coastal schooner and …..well, the list is long and life is short and whatever comes next, I have two full-sized Cotuit Skiffs to repair and restore over the winter ahead.
It’s been a great summer to get back into sculling. After a slow start involving some adjustments to the seat and riggers, I managed to get my wherry tuned up perfectly; found a slot on a rack near the beach to store it, and gradually worked up to long, six-mile rows around Grand Island.
I won’t set any speed records, but the boat (which I build over the summer of 2020 from Dave Gentry’s plans for the “Ruth Wherry” out of cedar and polyester cloth) is very stable, is actually fun to row through waves and wakes, and draws lots of admirers on the beach and passing boats.
After three months of regular sculling and I’ve lost a ton of weight, enjoyed hours on the water, and have started thinking about my next boat project.
During the July heat wave I sequestered myself in my airconditioned office and went down the rabbit hole of reading about the exploration of the Arctic, especially the region around Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Greenland’s Davis Straits, and the waters around Svalbard (Spitzbergen).
The first book I read (and one of the more recent about exploring the start of the Northwest Passage) was Alvah Simon’s North to the Night, an account of his winter, alone, aboard a 36′ sloop, with only a kitten to keep him company while frozen in a cove on Bylot Island. Simon mentioned H.W. Tilman, a name I was vaguely familiar with, so I read enough excerpts online to order a single-volume anthology of of his eight “mountaineering and sailing” books: H.W. Tilman: The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books. His accounts of his treks in Nepal are collected in a separate volume, H.W. Tilman The Seven Mountain Travel Books
Harold William Tilman was an English explorer and mountain climber who made his reputation in the Himalayas with his neighbor in Kenya, Eric Shipton. Together they nearly succeeded in being the first expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and are regarded as one of the most illustrious climbing teams in the history of mountaineering. Tilman wasn’t content with merely climbing mountains, he decided to combine bluewater ocean sailing and purchased an old Bristol pilot cutter, Mischief, which he sailed to Patagonia, the Crozet islands, and other remote islands in the southern ocean known as the Roaring Forties, the most storm swept, dangerous seas on Earth.
In the 1960s Tilman advertised for volunteer crew members in the personal section of the London newspapers under the headline “No pay, no pleasure, no prospects” — seeking men who either had sailing or mountain climbing experience to join him on four to six month expeditions to the southern oceans as well as the coast of Greenland, Canada, and the northern islands of Iceland, the Faroes, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen. Ashore, the eccentric Tilman, a decorated veteran of both world wars, a life-long bachelor who lived on the Welsh coast with his sister and his dogs, wrote a series of books to support his explorations.
Tilman was a navigator, skilled with a sextant but admittedly humble in his accuracy, and a devout traditionalist who liked gaff-rigged boats, cursed marine engines, and was very particular about how a proper yacht should look and be sailed. Mischief carried him around the world and to the northern ice pack on many voyages, but was eventually sank while under tow off of Jan Mayen after crushing some planks on a submerged rock. A YouTube video of the old ship being careened on the beach of Jan Mayen before her loss can be found here.
Undeterred, Tilman bought another decrepit Bristol pilot cutter — one of the fleet of nearly 100 that were built on England’s west coast in the 1880s to carry pilots out to ships bound for English ports. When steam made them obsolete they were converted into yachts, and Tilman, who was as old as the boats he sailed in, seemed to take great pride in sailing the plucky little boats as close to the poles as possible. He would own three of them during his lifetime, sinking two, and gamely buying a third, each one compared to his beloved Mischief. They were fast, seaworthy boats. They had to be, for the pilots competed to be the first to meet the arriving ships ; and they were capable of handling the worst conditions around Cornwall and the southern Irish Sea with only one or two crew members aboard to carry the pilot and return alone to port to wait for the next job. Tilman poured whatever cash he had into repairing the old boats, continuously repairing sprung planks, worn out rigging, rotten timbers and spavined spars, sewing the tattered sails either himself or at the hands of a local shipwright. Once they were at sea, things, as the Russians would say, began to get worse. If it took 2000 pumps of the bilge pump to stay ahead of the leaking, then Tilman would “hove to” and let the boat drift in the seas until the wind and the waves calmed down enough to proceed. Inordinately fond of sailing the wooden boats in icy seas, he timed his expeditions to coincide with the one or two weeks in August when ice-bound hamlets on Greenland’s east coast were briefly accessible by small boat. If he made it ashore — and on some voyages the ice never cleared or the crew rebelled against his dogged determination to sail down some narrowing lead in the drifting pack ice and demanded he turn for home –but if he made it to shore then it was time to explore a glacier or climb a seaside mountain, always gauging himself by the effort it took him to reach a summit.
As a fan of great travel writing, I think Tilman is one of the best I’ve read, particularly in the broad sub-genre of nautical explorers and singlehanded sailors. His biting portrayals of some of his more hapless crew members, most of whom had little sailing experience and were very dismayed to find themselves sailing into the most extreme conditions on the planet on leaky 100-year old boats commanded by a navigator who only had a vague idea of their position, a taciturn commander with a strange drive to sail into frozen oceans littered with immense ice bergs and rafts of floating pack ice in thick fog and the darkness of night, are some of the more memorable passages in all his books.
A great leader, Tilman believed in following the example of the old New England whaling captains who avoided going into port because they knew their crews would desert the ship at the first opportunity. One of his favorite quotes Some members of his crew, terrified to be at sea in a decrepit boat, or disgusted to be served a left-over curry for breakfast, mutinied and abandoned Tilman in some remote port, left short-handed and willing to take any man with a pulse aboard to help continue his quixotic quest to be the first to climb some desolate frozen mountain surrounded by the sea.
Ever erudite, Tilman intersperses his stories with accounts of the history of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, recounting the Viking exploration and settlement of Greenland, the discoveries made by whalers and sealers, presenting their stoic tenacity in light of his own voyages’ challenges and setbacks. What emerges over the course of his eight sailing/mountaineering adventures is a story of the end of the romantic era of bluewater sailing — a world without GPS, digital charts, reliable diesel engines, satellite-informed weather forecasts, and the other modern conveniences that have removed so much of the ambiguity and risk of classic celestial navigation. It is also a paean to a generation of explorers — iron men in wooden ships — that roved the seas and high latitudes looking for the blank spots on the maps, the “last of the firsts” — first to circumnavigate Spitzbergen, first to climb Mount Heard, first to set foot on the most desolate, remote places left on the planet.
As a writer, Tilman has the clear declarative style of someone in the habit of diligently maintaining a ship’s log, but enlivens his sea stories with a biting wit, an encyclopedia of obscure quotations, and love for the language of the sea.
He’s by far the best nautical food writers I’ve ever read. Like one of Tolkien’s hobbits who obsesses about stuff like “Gentleman’s Relish,” Tilman lived by the edict that an army marches on its stomach, fretting the most about the difficulty of finding a cook for his expeditions, one who could work in the pitching, heaving chaos of the galley where even the saltiest sailor is sure to get seasick, juggling flying pans on swinging stoves and trying to do the best with a larder consisting of tins of bully beef (the corned beef that is the mainstay of British military rations), lifeboat biscuits (aka hardtack), twice-baked bread (Tilman obsesses about bread, chapattis, tostadas, regarding them as the essential tool for conveying cheese, fish paste, or peanut butter to the mouth), and rotten onions. The high point of any day at sea for Tilman was the “duff,” a kind of boiled pudding made from flour, lard, sultanas and molasses (among other things) in a bucket. I’m grateful he taught me that some indestructible black rye bread he procured from a Danish bakery near Godthab (Nuuk) was an “aperient” or mild laxative.
At about this early stage we first noticed a strange smell in the cabin, all pervasive and difficult to pin down, which I attributed to either a dead rat, fermenting rice, or uncommonly bad cheese. We had on board, stowed in the cabin, six whole ten lb Cheddars, each in a soldered tin. The smell having become intolerable we got to work with a cold chisel to open up all the cheeses. In three of the tins – and it is still a mystery how it got there — we found and inch or two of water. All was not lost. I housed the three sickly invalids in a box on deck where they could enjoy the sun and the wind. They were the last and by no means the worst to be eaten. Good judges, such as Taffy and myself, spoke highly of them, especially when alleviated with a raw onion.H.W Tilman
He vanished in 1977 at the age of 79 in the South Atlantic near the Falkland Islands while crewing on an expedition organized by one of his former crew, Simon Richardson on a converted Dutch tug, the En Avant.
One of Tilman’s former hands, Bob Comly, has a wonderful blog about Tilman’s travels. There are a couple biographies of the man: High Mountains and Cold Seas and The Last Hero which I have yet to read. If you want some other Greenland reading I recommend Sloan Wilson’s Ice Brothers, a fictional story of the author’s service in the Coast Guard patrolling Greenland’s east coast for Nazi weather stations, and Rockwell Kent’s N by E.
Jim Gould passed away last Saturday: March 13, 2021 at the age of 97.
His obituary spares me from trying to condense nearly 100 years of an incredibly accomplished life into a scant paragraph or two. I learned more about the man from reading it than he ever told me himself.
That was Jim. It wasn’t about himself, he wanted to know what was new with you, and always had a question for me that would occasionally brighten my inbox such as “Do you have any records of the Job Handy shipyard at Little River?” or “I’m working on a piece about captain’s wives who went to sea with their husbands on coastal schooners. Do you know if Chatfield brought his wife Florrie with him?”
I knew Jim Gould most of the last half of his life, first meeting him in the mid-1960s but more closely after I moved the family to Cotuit year-round in 1991 where he had retired with his wife Anne. He was involved in a number of projects to capture the history of the village he loved. Early on in the 9os he offered to come by the house and go through the old family photos with me, identifying nearly every forgotten face of my great-great uncles and cousins-twice-removed with delightful anecdotes about nearly all of them. A few years later he borrowed some of those photos for his book about Cotuit and Santuit which he and Jessica Rapp-Grassetti published in 2003.
Jim’s devotion to pacifism and Quakerism grew from his D-Day experience on the beaches of Normandy. His career in the foreign service and his professorship at Claremont College were preludes to his passion for promoting diplomacy and non-violence and diving into the history of Cape Cod and Cotuit
Jim was my mentor as an amateur historian. He put up with my questions patiently, corrected my facts, and genially reminded me of the factual ethics of primary historical research (using only first-hand accounts or records whenever possible vs. being lazy and quoting other historians). He did more primary research than any Cape Cod historian, and there have been several. Jim applied the academic rigor of a college professor to the cataloguing of dozens and dozens of old Cotuit homes through hours spent at the county registry of deeds, cataloguing old photographs, and doing lots of detective work in the field. Mention a barn and Jim knew the year it was floated on a barge around the Cape from Brewster to its first resting place in another village before landing next door. His memory was almost photographic and I can only hope I retain a fraction of the mental acuity he had well into his ninth decade.
Thanks to Jim no walk today through the village is boring. He was influential in creating the Cotuit Historic District in 1987, putting in a massive amount of legwork for the Town of Barnstable Historic Commission to inventory Cotuit’s old homes and get them listed in the National Register of Historic Places. He was an ardent preservationist, using stories about the old captains who had built the homes as an effective tool against over-development and thoughtless tear-downs, vanity piers and docks and sprawling subdivisions eating away at the village’s remaining open space.
After I moved to town he recruited me to join him and some others on a study group studying the possibility of having Cotuit declared a state historic preservation district, an rigorous and controversial process where the legislature passes an act declaring a neighborhood such as Beacon Hill in Boston, old Edgartown and Nantucket and even a long stretch of road such as the Old Kings Highway (Route 6A) from Sandwich to Orleans a special district subject to rigorous historical and architectural review before any old structures can be demolished or modified. The concept can be controversial, with a citizen review board given the legal authority to give its thumbs up or down to things like satellite TV dishes or the color of shutters. Jim’s intention was to put in place a mechanism where the village could have a say in the tear-down of old homes and present options to a new homeowner or developer that would preserve the historic character of the village at large. The razing of the Cotuit Inn — the former hotel owned by Congressman Charles Gifford and his wife Florence — that once stood on the hill above the center of the village with its beloved watering hole, Hack’s Bar. had broken a lot of hearts, especially after a generic mass of condos took the place of the old rambling hotel. I supported Jim for trying to put a protection in place, but the horror stories from other historic preservation districts of neighbors feuding with neighbors and review boards acting like overweening dictators soured me and other Cotusions on the idea. Jim bravely made the case of the district before a packed crowd at Freedom Hall, and gracefully folded his tents when it was obvious Cotuit wasn’t ready to add a new layer of bureacracy. As one friend said, “I’ll paint my damn house pink and purple if I want to. House paint is a matter of free speech!”
Though defeated, Jim was indefatigable. He was a pillar of the Historical Society of Santuit and Cotuit. The first paper he presented to the HSSC was in 1971: The Lowells and Literary Cotuit. His second, presented twenty years later, was a History of the Little River District of Cotuit , followed by A History of Santuit with Ken Molloy in 2001, and the following year on the Mansard Ladies of Cotuit.
The biggest test of his research skills required a lot of off-Cape research in the archives of Plymouth and Boston: his 2007 paper on the history of Colonial Cotuit. The country courthouse fire of 1827 destroyed all the earliest land records of the colony from the 1630s onwards, but Jim was undeterred and dove deep into the land deals negotiated by Myles Standish, and the subsequent “Kings Grants” of land to the first colonial settlers of Cotuit in 1648.
He did most of the research himself, in person, at the archives and libraries where the past was stored in paper — none of it digitized or converted into searchable online databases. Where I can send an email to the librarian at the Nantucket Historical Association with a request for a whaling log, Jim had to write a letter or take the boat. Where I can now do a full grantor-grantee title search on a property from my PC. Jim did it in person. I can find every mention of some old Cotusion like Braddock Crocker or Hezekiah Coleman online thanks to the Sturgis Library’s digital archives of the Barnstable Patriot. Jim had to visit in person, request microfilm, and spend hours squinting at a screen looking for the clues which he accumulated into great stories of the forgotten past.
Jim’s love of history was infectious. I majored in American History in college with a focus on 19th century spiritual and philosophical thought and a minor in maritime history. Jim was an expert in both and he revived my love for the topic, inspiring me to dig into the history of Cotuit/Mashpee relations and the Woodlot Revolt of 1833 (which he referred to as “The Troubles”), to use his initial research to delve deeper into the history of colonial Cotuit, hurricanes and gales, and Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck. In return I helped him set up his blog, a rich archive of much of his research over the past twenty years.
Jim led a walking tour of Mosswood Cemetery every Halloween. Every stone prompted a story about a person he could connect from memory to most of the other tombstones in the graveyard. Genealogy was his forte, and he was tireless in tracking down family trees long before tools like Ancestry.com existed. Jim loved the “story” in history, and the crowds who followed him through the graveyard heard his tales of Baby Ella, the infant who died on a whaling voyage and was pickled in a cask of rum with a little window so her grieving mother, Rosilla Nickerson, could mourn her baby; or to hear him recite, from memory, in his distinctive mellifluous voice, the epitaph of Azubah Handy, the first person to be buried in the cemetery under a slate tombstone engraved with the dolorous and oft-quoted epitaph written by Mr. Elisha Holmes:
My bosom friend, come here and see,
Where lays the last remains of me.
When I the debt of nature paid,
A burying yard for me was made.
I’ll miss the familiar sight of Jim on his daily walk picking up litter and stuffing it into a plastic grocery bag which he’d dispose at the Post Office before collecting his mail. He was the only person I’ve ever seen pick up roadside trash who wasn’t wearing an orange jumpsuit under the supervision of a sheriff. Years later, when he wasn’t making the walk any more, I started bringing a bag along with me on my lunch hour walks. His passing is a huge loss.
The Trustees of Public Reservations was created by an act of the Massachusetts state legislature in 1891 in response to a campaign by landscape architect Charles Eliot and others to preserve historic buildings and vistas in the state which were threatened by development.
The organization, known today as the Trustees of Reservations, commissioned Jonathan Baxter Harrison to survey the towns along the coast of the state from the New Hampshire border to Rhode Island and report on the public access situation in nearly 50 seaside cities and towns.
Here is Harrison’s report, extracted from the Trustees’ first annual report published in 1891.
The half model of my old Wianno Senior had collected dust for years on the wall of my grandfather’s boat shop. The hull was scratched , gouged and dinged and needed some attention to bring it back to rights. but I never got around to it and gradually ignored the sad boat despite the twinge of guilt I felt when visitors would notice and ask me who made it. With a need to do something during the isolation of the pandemic I decided last summer I’d learn how to carve a half-model of my own. I read everything I could find about half-models, and in my searching I discovered a YouTube channel featuring Malcolm Crosby, Jr. of Osterville carving and painting various half-models.
The series was filmed by Malcolm’s daughter — Betsey Crosby Thompson — and show, step-by-step ,how Malcolm designs, carves, and finishes his models. They are beautiful objects that command high prices at auction, but as Crosby says several times over the dozens of episodes, the old-timers knocked them together for a practical purpose — to help them build a full-sized version — and slapped on a coat of paint without too much concern for perfection.
All fall I watched the master artisan transform stacks of lumber into perfect embodiments of classic Cape Cod boat design, taking notes as he shared the secrets of his craft. Every episode taught me something new. I’ve worked on wooden boats ever since my father handed me a sheet of sandpaper and told me to start sanding the spars of my Cotuit Skiff. I thought I knew how to varnish a spar or paint a hull, but after watching Malcolm Crosby turn a stack of basswood, pine and mahogany into a piece of maritime art made me realize I have a long way to go and far more to learn.
As well it should, for Malcolm ran the varnish and paint shop at the Crosby boatyard in Osterville for 40 years. He has boats in his blood, growing up in a clan of shipwrights and boat builders legendary for their designs and craftsmanship. Watching Malcolm wield a spoke shave to get the perfect curve in a catboat, noting his tips on how to apply masking tape, to finally achieve enlightenment as to why so many coats of varnish are necessary (each coat fills the wood grain a bit more,and when sanding in between coats one looks for the bright spots to indicate where the grain still needs to be filled), how to minimize brush strokes, to keep paint from bleeding into rub rails….. . I started watchingBetsey’s videos with a notebook in my hand, taking notes before going out to the boat show to applying the lessons on my own models.
After building a model of an 19trh century cutter last fall — the Madge — from plans sold by WoodenBoat Magazine, I carved a Cotuit Skiff from templates I made myself working from a set of plans. Both of those first two efforts were varnished, or finished “bright”, but I was confident from watching Malcolm Crosby on YouTube that I could tackle a painted model.
I really hated to touch the original, damaged as it was, worried my surgery would be a disaster that killed the patient. Eventually I found the courage to unscrew the hull from the mahogany backboard. When it came off I saw Malcolm had signed and dated it in October 1979.
My father had commissioned an earlier half-model of the family boat, the Snafu III, for himself in the early 70s not long after Malcolm started carving models of local boat designs, selling them at a gift shop on Osterville’s Main Street. One summer in the late 70s, as I got ready to return to college, I thought my dorm room would benefit from the presence of the model so I smuggled the model out of the house and took it to school.
My father realized it was missing and asked me if I knew where it had gone. Of course I confessed and brought it back home, hitchhiking with it in my duffel bag as I held up a cardboard sign that read “Home to Mom.” I showed the model to the drivers who picked me up. The bag couldn’t contain the three-foot long piece of wood but flashing the yellow hull made me more visible to potential rides. Some of the drivers marveled at the flawless workmanship, especially the paint job, which made it shine like a candy apple.
At the Christmas of 1979 my dad presented me with a Malcolm Crosby model of the Snafu III of my own. Until I decided to restore the model I had never remembered it was mine and that the other model my brother owned was the original I pilfered from my father.
Standing in the shop a few months ago, reading the inscription on the back — “From ACC to DCC, Xmas 1979” — I grieved for him again as it occurred to me I was holding the last gift he gave me before he died three months later in a car accident in Mashpee in the winter of 1980.
So the restoration took on more sentimental significance. I doubted myself and wondered if I should call Malcolm Crosby and ask him to do it. As I pulled out the screws holding the hull to the backboard and the scuffed-up yellow banana of painted carved pine separated cleanly from the keel and centerboard Malcolm had glued to the backboard 41 years ago, I realized I was committed.
I decided to repaint the model in the colors she had when I owned her after my father’s passing, the same white bottom she had when she was launched in 1967, but with the green boot-top I added in the 1980s. That was the same paint scheme as her namesake, the Snafu¸ II. the family’s Cotuit Skiff my grandfather Henry built after WW II. Yellow boats were a family thing, starting in the 1950s when my colorblind grandfather couldn’t pick my father out from the rest of the fleet during its races on Cotuit Bay. For some reason yellow stuck out for him, so my grandmother, a graduate of Mass Art in Boston, broke out her oil paints and tinted some white marine paint a vivid shade of yellow.
The old salts used to say there are only two colors you can paint a boat: black or white…..and only a fool paints a boat black. That’s fine for the hull, but a white boat bottom is pure vanity. Like expecting a brand new pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars to stay white while roofing. A week without scrubbing will see white turn to brown, an embarrassing sign of nautical ineptitude whenever a gust of wind filled the big gaff-rigged mainsail and tipped the boat l over to give the people watching from on the beach definite confirmation that a slob was sailing her. My father got rid of the original white bottom almost immediately for that very reason, and for the first ten years he sailed the boat, she had a green bottom.
Leave it to me, ever the traditionalist reactionary and hater of change, to change back to a white bottom in the 1980s. I keep a reasonably ship-shape boat but I’ve never been obsessive about it, and with my phobia of jellyfish and spider crabs and convinced by the filming of Jaws across the Sound in Edgartown I would meet my end underwater as shark food, I hated to go swimming, let alone hold my breath and try to swim under the boat wipe the sea slime off its white bottom.
My further conceit, similar to the owner of a Vega painting racing stripes and a big number on the doors, was my decision to paint the boat’s hull number – 140 – under the turn of the bilge to let other boats racing in the fleet know who to hail when claiming right of way as I charged towards a windward mark with the lee rail buried and the boom sheeted in. That was a courtesy to other races, except we never raced the Snafu III after my father’s early frustrations on the race course when he first got the boat in the late 1960s. A better seaman than a racer, he could knock out a long splice, back splice, short splice and eye splice while opening quahogs, tie a Matthew Walker knot, sing an obscene sea chantey and charge a boat through a seething rip without knocking the ash off the butt hanging off his lip. My brothers and I preferred to load the 26-foot sloop up with our friends and take them for long booze cruises to nowhere, mooning the Hyline ferry to Oak Bluffs or the Ostervillian in a biplane who buzzed us one day and who, offended by our lewd behavior, wrote an indignant letter to the race committee of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club complaining about the uncouth barbarians who couldn’t keep their shorts on aboard on the yellow Wianno Senior with the convenient green 140 painted on its bottom for races it didn’t race.
Approaching the restoration, I briefly considered stripping off the original paint down to bare wood, filling the scratches, gouges, and dings, then sanding and priming before applying two or three coats of the new color scheme. That meant losing the waterline as Malcolm had painted it, but it would be easier to go from a dark green bottom to a white one if I could prime the green first with a good primer. The problem with that plan was that the keel and centerboard were glued, maybe even epoxied onto the perfectly finished mahogany back board. It was too fragile to try prying off but it was dark green and would need to be completely covered in white like the hull.
While I thought about the best way to approach the color conversion I went after a few gouges in the yellow topsides of the hull with some 330 grit sandpaper, taking the paint down to the bare wood and opening up a bare patch around each flaw about the circumference of a nickel. I used a pungent smelling filler called “Swedish Putty” to fill the gouges. Swedish putty is used by commercial painters to get the glossiest effect possible when painting doors. Also known as a “knifing compound,” or “Enduit” by the French; Swedish Putty is some ancient Scandinavian concoction based on varnish, linseed oil, and finely ground titanium dioxide and silicates. It comes in a flat, round can wrapped in tin foil, swims in amber oil and smells gloriously of things that are bad for you. It also costs $50 for a little can on the stuff.
I used the putty instead of a general wood filler because I knew the putty was meant for glass-like finishes and would fair out into the rest of the hull without contracting or expanding and interrupting the perfect curves Malcolm had carved over 40 years ago with no humps or depressions. I applied tiny dabs of the stuff onto the scratches and dents with a thin plastic spatula, letting it dry before knifing on another layer until I was sure all of the dings were completely filled. Then, wearing a hardcore respirator to keep the silicates out of my COVID threatened lungs, I sanded the repaired patches until I was satisfied.
Then back to YouTube to re-watch Betsy Crosby Thompson’s gift to would-be half-model builders (and restorers), as Malcolm went through the ritual of straining his paint through paper filters, conditioned it with 333 Interlux brushing thinner, wiped the surface with a tack cloth and some rubbing alcohol and picked up a small nylon artist’s paint brush and began painting. I masked off the hull from the bottom, headed out to the paint shed, found an old can of Petit Yellow, brought it inside, and let it come up to room temperature before cracking it open, stirring it thoroughly, and then filtering it into a small paint cup.
In all I gave the hull three coats of yellow. The first I thinned down way too much, and the repaired patches showed through the transparent paint. The second I painted full strength but suffered sags, as the thick paint drooped while it dried and had to be sanded back before the final “goldilocks” coat that was just right thanks to Malcolm’s painstaking process of wet sanding in between coats with ever finer pieces of wet sand paper, soaked with soapy water to help the abrasive sheets slide smoothly over the paint. (Malcolm’s tip on how to fold a half-sheet of wet sandpaper was a revelation in itself).
Because Malcolm’s eye for waterlines is the best around, I respected the line of green paint below the yellow and masked it off with parallel strips of tape to form a stripe that broadened under the tuck of the stern where the waterline meets the top of the rudder. An even-width stripe on the side of a boat looks wrong, and should be elongated to present someone admiring her the optical illusion of two parallel lines, when in fact a boot-top strip that is two inches wide amidships at the middle of the boat, can grow to eight inches wide under the transom. I did my best to pull off this effect with masking tape, preserving the uppermost edge of Malcolm’s original green before painting the rest of the bottom, the keel, and the centerboard white.
I mentally prepared my sense of patience for a long, frustrating series of coats thinned out enough to level out the brush marks but thick enough to get the job done, followed by wet sanding which remove some of the previous coat, only to repaint and be repeated again with finer sandpaper and more paint. Then Malcolm, in an aside he made as he rummaged through his paint table, held up a little four ounce yellow can of One-Shot Sign Painter’s Paint and said while impossible to find at the hardware store, and a challenge to get at a professional painter supply store, One-Shot was extremely concentrated and could do the job in … one shot.
Off to Amazon, where I dropped $25 on four ounces of One-Shot white. Eventually it arrived and I stirred it up, and with faith in Malcolm, started brushing it over the dark green bottom paint. It worked beautifully and completely covered the bottom with two coats.
There are so many brilliant insights into finishing a boat delivered by Malcolm over the course of the dozens of videos filmed by his daughter that I keep going back to the episodes just to remember things like what brand of paper towel he recommended for wiping down after wet sanding (Viva is the softest and won’t scratch the paint). The result, while flawed to my eyes, was good enough to invite the admiration of my wife and the suggestion to hang the refurbished hull on a prominent spot in the kitchen. And no, I didn’t paint the number 140 on the bottom.
A village allergic to docks
This is the last of a three-part series on the history of Cotuit’s opposition to docks and piers.
Part one is about the Harbor View Club and its 250-foot pier/marina that was built and then demolished by court order in the late 1960s.
Part two was about opposition in the late 1970s to the Sobin Pier on Bluff Point in 1978.
This final installment is about the efforts in the 1990s and 2000s to change the town of Barnstable’s zoning by-laws to permanently ban the construction of new piers in Cotuit from Handy’s Point to Loop Beach, and the attempt a decade later to extend that ban on new docks near any shellfish relay areas in all of Barnstable
As always, I’m looking for comments and insights from people who participated in past dock and pier issues. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment on the post.
Julian Sobin’s victory to get a 144-foot permanent pier for his new home on Cotuit’s Bluff Point triggered a mild case of paranoia among the anti-dock contingent in the village. They had missed the Conservation Commission hearing when the dock was first discussed in public, and realizing legal abutter notifications wouldn’t alert them to every new pier, the learned to be more vigilant and to comb through the legal notices posted in the Barnstable Patriot every week to ensure another pier wouldn’t catch them unaware. It wasn’t until email started to be more used in the early 1990s that it became much easier for the anti-pier activists to rally opposition and solicit letters of opposition from summer residents who weren’t on the Cape in the off-season when the various town departments and boards charged with reviewing pier applications usually met.
From the Cotuit Narrows to beaches fronting Nantucket Sound, every dock application was challenged. After a while it became a familiar process and the same cast of opponents with the same anti-pier arguments routinely appeared before the planning board, the shellfish advisory committee, the waterways committee, and the conservation commission. Both sides became familiar with the other’s arguments, but it seemed no matter how many times the debates for and against docks and piers were made, it appeared nothing could be done to put the contentious issue to rest forever.
In the early 1990s the impact of the building boom of the 1970s and 80s were felt everywhere on the Cape. The parking lots of the town’s beaches filled up before noon. The harbors filled with boats, and in Cotuit, where only a handful of boats were once moored in two distinct anchorages off of Ropes Beach and the Town Dock, the two coves merged around Lowell Point until moorings extended along all of the western shore line of Cotuit Bay. The surge in moorings put pressure on the parking spaces at Town Dock and Hooper’s Landing. Dinghys, Hobie Cats, kayaks, were scattered in the beach grass along the shore, some seemingly abandoned for years. The length of the town dock in Cotuit was extended further to accommodate more boats and four floats were installed to manage the surge of dinghies.
In the 1980s the town revamped the composition of its waterways committee – the board chaired by the town harbormaster which looked over the town’s waterfront — and reduced its size from 19 to 5 members, dropping the old system of assistant harbormasters who managed the town’s anchorages and public piers, sometimes with the appearance of conflicted commercial interest because some members of the committee owned boat yards or marinas or had some economic interest in the waterfront such as marine construction, boat sales or real estate transactions. The new five-person committee, like its 19-person predecessor, lacked enforcement power and gave its recommendations to those town boards who did.
The era when a person could row out into the harbor and drop their own mooring was ending. Where the local assistant harbormaster had informally approved the placement of moorings in the past, the proliferation of moorings spurred the town’s Government Study Committee to start discussing the need for a formal mooring permit program.
Peter Murray, who served for 20 years as the town’s assistant harbormaster for Cotuit, told the Barnstable Patriot in 1989 “that until the harbor management committee plans are considered by the town for approval, there will be little done to unsnarl the mooring and launching area tangle.”
The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association formed a waterways committee of its own in the late 80s to address the pressure the village was feeling from the surge in demand for access to its waterfront. In 1989 the head of the civic association’s new waterways group — Dr. John Shea — told the waterways committee that Cotuit had quickly become a haven for recreational boaters, many of whom were not residents of Barnstable. Dr. Shea criticized the new launch service operating from town dock with the claim (according to the Barnstable Patriot) the launch attracted larger boats and was the main enabler of the expansion of the mooring field. Shea, also criticized the seasonal use of the boat ramp at Ropes Beach by commercial fishermen — mostly off-Cape scup fishermen — and told the committee the civic association wanted a restriction on the use of ramps to certain hours of the day.
Cotuit’s concerns over the rapid surge of moorings and the parallel decline in the harbor’s water quality spurred the Town Council to commission a Boston consulting firm — Camp, Dresser & McKee — to conduct a comprehensive study of the town’s waterways and beaches. Citizens were invited to participate in a series of workshops moderated by the consultants. The recommendations that resulted were scoffed at by critics who deemed the entire study a waste of money with absurd recommendations to increase public access, not curtail it. In the spring of 1990 the town’s Coastal Resources Task Force held a hearing to discuss the study’s findings and recommendations. The public was not enthused. Frank Fuller of Osterville, in a letter to the editor of the Barnstable Patriot, wrote:
Mr. Fuller’s opinion that improving the waterfront facilities in Cotuit would only attract more boats, more trailers, and more parking problems was shared by other skeptics in the village. Those improvements were, in the opinion of some, “attractive nuisances” that encouraged out-of-town boaters to avail themselves of Cotuit’s beaches, public pier, launch ramp and town ways to water . But the forces of progress and state and federal grant money prevailed. The Cotuit Fire Department obtained its first rescue boat but couldn’t launch it at low tide. That led to the boat ramp at the foot of Old Shore Road getting a major upgrade. What had been a somewhat iffy place to launch a small boat from the beach turned into a concrete slab bedded in crushed stone. Despite the warnings of some in the village that the new ramp would attract out of town boat owners and their trailers, the ramp was built and driveways on Old Shore Road began to get blocked by parked trailers that made it impossible for home owners to get in or out of their property. The shoulders of Putnam Avenue around Ropes Field began to get clogged with parked trailers every afternoon from spring to fall. What had been a scenic cove was cluttered with more than 50 various street signs from one end of Old Shore Road to the other. Traffic jams built up around the launch ramp as boat owners tried to back their trailers down at the blind curve at the bottom of the hill. Tempers flared and eventually the scenic lane was declared a one-way street.
More boat ramps were among the recommendations presented to the Coastal Resources Task Force by the Boston consultants. But there were others according to newspaper accounts:
“In the consultant’s recommendations are proposals for a commission or committee to oversee and enact this and similar plans town wide, the phasing out of seasonal mooring rentals by 1995, tightening transient mooring rental regulations, and a batch of new, higher fees lo pay for the numerous waterfront proposals such as boat ramp improvements, channel dredging, bus shuttles from inland parking arrangements, and the construction of two marinas in Cotuit and West Bays.”
Attorney John Alger of Osterville — a familiar figure to dock opponents from his involvement in the Harbor View and Sobin pier disputes –told the coastal task force hearing:
Bob Comes to Town
The catalyst to organize the chaos in Cotuit’s anchorage arrived in mid-August of 1991 whjen Hurricane Bob hit Cotuit and threw dozens of boats on the beach shoreline from Town Dock to Handy’s Point. An estimated 200 out of 800 moorings in Cotuit failed when Bob blew through. The aftermath exposed the serious flaws in the traditionally laissez faire approach to moorings. Forty-foot sailboats were found on the beach still connected to a mooring suited for a 14-foot skiff. Worn out chains and tackle, mooring pennants with no chafing gear, and half-submerged hulls in the harbor led to calls by mooring holders nd give the Harbormaster more authority to manage the crowded anchorage, inspect ground tackle and bring some organization to the chaos that led to improperly moored boats break free and take neighboring boats ashore with them. With boat owners suing other boat owners and cranes rolling down the beach to lift boats back into the water, a lot of attention was focused on the management of the anchorage. That attention made it clear, according to published reports, that “Cotuit Bay is believed to contain the largest concentration of moorings” in town. Today the town of Barnstable has more moorings than any city or town in the state. And more of those moorings are in Cotuit than any other town anchorage.
Like Peter Murray, another professional mooring servicer, Bob Jensen, owner of Cotuit Mooring and Marine service, told the Patriot that he felt the mooring field “had grown too large” and the town should take steps to “shrink the mooring area” and “eliminate rental moorings.”
Jensen wasn’t alone in his concerns. When Hurricane Bob hit, the mooring field covered the western side of Cotuit Bay from Bluff Point to Handys Point and was creeping steadily eastward towards the channel. The sailors in the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club mourned the loss of a good portion of their traditional race course inside the sheltered bay. Grumbling and grousing mounted as long-time village residents found themselves on mooring waiting lists, unable to do what they had done for generations when no more than 50 boats were moored in the harbor: set their own moorings and throw a dinghy on the beach so they could row out to it.
The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association created a ten-member waterways committee chaired by Peter Hickman. In December of 1993 , after “a great deal of give and take” within its membership, the CSCA presented the town’s waterways committee with its recommendations to make things better on Cotuit Bay for the residents of Cotuit. Among those recommendations were a proposed boundary line to keep the mooring field from expanding further into the harbor, a moratorium on new moorings, more enforcement of boating and mooring regulations, and improving the mooring renewal process.
For the most part, most of those requests have been honored. Under the management of former Harbormaster Dan Horn, Barnstable was able to establish some control over the anarchy . His department started to keep a boat on patrol in the Three Bays, taking over enforcement powers from the former Barnstable Police boat the Alert. It acquired a pump out boat to empty onboard holding tanks from boats visiting or moored in the bay. The mooring permit process evolved and was tweaked, but still demand was soaring, and waterfront property owners who couldn’t get a dock began to demand a mooring off their beach. People would miss the renewal deadline and had to appeal to the Waterways Committee to get their moorings back. No one was happy with the situation.
In 1993 the Cotuit Fire Department went to the town Waterways Committee seeking permission to tie its 17-foot Boston Whaler to one of the floating dinghy docks at Town Dock. Saying the boat ramp at Rope Beach on Old Shore Road was in bad shape and unusable at low tide, former Fire Chief David Pierce told the committee he couldn’t guarantee the fire department could launch the boat safely at all tides. The Barnstable Patriot story about Chief Pierce’s request also disclosed, for the first time, plans to rehabilitate the Rope ramp, saying “If the ramp is refurbished by next season, it may preclude the need [of the fire department] to use space at the town dock.”
The town denied the fire department permission, and to this day Cotuit’s rescue boat depends on the kindness of private pier owners for a berth and Cotuit gained a new boat ramp it hadn’t requested.
Cotuit bans piers and docks
In 2000,Cotuit attorney Rick Barry was elected to the town council to represent the precinct now represented by Councilor Jessica Rapp-Grassetti. Barry was an avid fisherman and clammer, so one of his first acts on the council was the filing of a resolution to designate all of Barnstable’s waterways as a “no discharge zone,” to give the town’s waterways a level of regulatory protection that superseded the regulations set down by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Barry pushed for the resolution, according to the Patriot, because “…reports show fecal coliform bacteria levels in all of the town’s coastal embayments are having an adverse effect on water quality, forcing the closure of shellfish beds, and threatening the health and safety of the town’s residents.”
He was right. Feces from dogs, waterfowl, and boats were a disgusting problem that contributed to the decline in Cotuit’s water quality. So too was road runoff from rainstorms, lawn fertilizer leeching into the water table, phosphorus-based laundry detergents, the careless dumping of chemicals and solvents, and even the flushing of pills down toilets. What wasn’t identified then as the primary culprit was nitrogen, nitrogen in the form of human urine that leeched through a septic tank into the permeable sands and down into the water table. The freshwater springs that for centuries “sweetened” the waters of Cotuit Bay and made its oysters sweet and world famous, were now delivering an invisible tsunami of pee that was slowly making it’s way to the waterfront from subdivisions built in the woods in the 1970s as well as from the mansions and other homes along the shoreline.
Barry’s resolution succeeded in stopping boaters from flushing the heads of their yachts into the bays. The town purchased a pump-out boat and installed a pump out facility on a dock beside the marine boat lift at Crosby’s boat yard in Osterville.
Then Barry went further, and picked up on an earlier effort to beef up the town’s regulations for piers and docks that had stated in 1998 when the conservation commission tried to clamp down on applications for new docks in West, North, and Cotuit Bay . The ConCom argued that since it rarely approved a new dock and almost always had its denials upheld by the courts on appeal, the regulations should be tightened to dissuade waterfront property owners for seeking a dock they inevitably would be denied. Dock applications were clogging the commission’s meeting agendas and taxing the capacity of its staff to review each and every one. The ConCom didn’t seek a total ban on new docks, but the pro-dock forces of real estate agents, environmental consultants, attorneys, and marine construction companies feared one was coming, and argued to the Town Council that the Conservation Commission didn’t have the authority to change the existing regulations, and that the existing process that required review and approval by several other town boards was sufficient. Thus changing the zoning rules to govern the placement of new piers was considered by the town but dismissed until another study could be completed.
During all of this the attitude of the state courts towards dock applications changed dramatically. By the mid-1990s the country and state courts began to overturn the town’s denials and bless new docks.The reversal of its rulings forced the ConCom to change the way it reviewed new applications, gradually granting more approvals as the demand escalated. In 2000 the town decided to take another look at its dock regulations, appointed a pier and dock committee, and waited for its report.
Rick Barry wasn’t going to wait. Having worked to get the “no discharge” resolution passed with the support of the town’s shellfishers, Barry drew up a “zoning overlay district” in December of 2000 to amend the town’s zoning laws to ban docks on the western shore of Cotuit Bay along a two-mile stretch from Handys Point to Loop Beach.
In his explanation of his proposed ban, Barry wrote:
The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association, bruised by the Harbor View and Sobin pier disputes that had divided its membership, decided to go beyond polling only its membership on the question: should Cotuit ban docks and instead mailed a survey to every Cotuit address: 2,000 of them. Thirty percent of those surveys were returned – over 600 – with nearly 80% indicating support for the ban. The CSCA helped Barry refine his proposal. The president of the CSCA at the time, Peter Hickman, told the Patriot “It was a subject of intense debate within the executive committee of the board… Some on the executive committee wanted to see a much more expansive prohibition, basically encompassing the entire Cotuit shoreline.”
The proposed ban would bar a potential 40 new piers from ever being built in Cotuit. Hickman told the Patriot he expected the ban would be opposed by waterfront property owners “…and a Cotuit-based group known as the Waterway User Association.”*
Over the winter of 2001, Barry’s Pier and Dock ban resolution sailed through a public hearing and was approved by the Town Council by a vote of 8 to 3. The only dock construction permitted in the future would be the rebuilding and repair of existing ones.
The hearing attracted a good deal of public comment before the Town Council – most of it in favor of Barry’s proposal – with the ban’s opponents arguing for the right of property owners to apply for a dock on a case-by-case basis. Councilors Richard Clark and Osterville’s Carl Riedell voted against the proposal, with Riedell offering an amendment to put a four-year sunset provision on the new overlay zoning proposal. Clark wanted the town to finish its planned revision of its dock regulations and wait for the recommendations of council’s sub-committee studying the issue.
Cotuit’s ban relieved some of the pressure off the town council to change its regulations. Cotuit was the most ardent anti-pier village in the town and a ban there would take off some of the heat. The changes that were eventually proposed by the town council sub-committee would have tightened restrictions in environmentally sensitive areas and relaxed them elsewhere. The way the town study group defined “sensitive” was to set the minimum required depth at the end of a dock to 3.5 feet – a depth thought sufficient enough to reduce the impact of propellers on bottom sediments. Getting to that depth would require a dock longer than the 100-feet limit set by the study group.
The town-wide ban
Rick Barry went back to the town council in the spring of 2007 with a proposal to create another zoning overlay district to ban new docks and piers near any designated recreational shellfishing and relay areas. The Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishers (BARS), a citizen group formed to encourage recreational clamming, was fully behind the concept, fired up by the approval of a new pier adjacent to Cotuit’s Cordwood Lane area despite BARS’ vehement opposition and the opinion of the town’s shellfish biologist. Waterfront property owners in Osterville and Oyster Harbors began to complain about the impact of commercial aquaculture grants and floating bags of seed oysters off of their property. Now Barry and Cotuit were joined by the town’s clammers to take another stand to protect the bivalves.
Barry’s town-wide ban would have stopped new docks in Barnstable Harbor near the Scudder Lane recreational clamming area, in Hyannis Port near the relay area (used to cleanse clams raised in polluted areas with cleaner water near the Sound) near the yacht club, the West Bay landing in Osterville to the east of the Wianno Yacht Club, North Bay in two locations near Bay Street and Sand Point Road, and all of Cotuit’s relay and recreational areas.
The town council took the proposal under advisement and turned it over to the zoning subcommittee to put some thought into it, reviewing the concerns of waterfront property owners, and refining the specific areas to be affected by the ban .
Things heat up on the town council
In January of 2008 the proposed town-wide ban went before the Town Council. For two and half hours it heard comments for and against the ban. It was one of the more heated hearings in the history of town goverment. Reporter David Still, writing for the Barnstable Patriot, wrote “…the town council pushed off a final vote …until other options are reviewed with the harbormaster and legal department. That move came after two reconsiderations, some parliamentary maneuverings and good deal of ill will among town councilors.”
The councilors debated the proposal, with some proposing that waterfront property owners be given a mooring off their property in lieu of a new dock – a move apparently objected to by the harbormaster’s office. Five councilors opposed the ban, their opposition led by Jim Crocker of Osterville who “…objected to the proposal because it was not fair to property owners, and also because he does not believe science supports such a ban as a protection for shellfish resources.”
“This is a grab, and we have to admit that it’s a grab,” the late councilor said. Before long Crocker and Barry were openly sparring on the dais of the meeting room at town hall, with Barry claiming Crocker had been a no-show at every public hearing he attended and Crocker saying “You’re going to regret saying that, but go ahead.”
The crowd gasped.
The Patriot reported of the 25 people who gave public comment at that hearing, all but two speakers were in favor of it. Barry openly challenged his fellow councilors who joined Crocker’s opposition. He called out one councilor who had abstained to take a stand.
The following month a compromise was hammered out. The ban would be limited to the Three Bays area and capped by a two-year sunset provision while the town figured out a harbor management plan. The town’s shellfish committee, chaired by Cotuit attorney Stuart Rapp, was disappointed because it hadn’t been consulted during the dickering that led to the compromise. Meanwhile the Planning Board was still in favor of the original ban without the two-year expiration and apparently they too were not consulted when the town council was working out a compromise.
It took two years, but in 2010 the town council approved a ban of new docks and piers in designated shellfish areas by a 10 to 3 vote.
Goodbye to all that
Rick Barry told the Barnstable Patriot that even if he could run for re-election to the town council (he was prohibited by term limit rules), he didn’t know if he would because “His experience with the pier and dock ban, an expansion of an earlier Barry-sponsored ban for Cotuit’s shoreline, proved discouraging.”
“I find issues like this personally very frustrating,” Barry told the Patriot. As debate wound down and the modified ban was passed, “he encouraged those in the room to remember how people represent them when they go into the voting booth for contested races.”
*If anyone knows anything about the “Cotuit-based Waterway Users Association” please contact me.
A village allergic to docks
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 an 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.
1978 marked the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Harbor View Club’s 250-foot pier. Watching its dismantling might have felt like a victory for the preservationists in the village who wanted to preserve the quaint character of the place. Morton Clark, the Rhode Island businessman who owned the club, passed away 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 to a new group 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. One of the subsequent owners tried, and failed, to get a permit for another 250-foot pier.
The anti-dock forces didn’t have long to savor their victory over off-Cape developers. The early sixties had focused world attention to Cape Cod during the JFK Camelot-era, and the opening of a four-lane highway (Route 3) from Boston to the Cape had cut the drive time to Cotuit from several hours to 90 minutes. Cotuit had a history as one of the first summer resorts on the Cape. With President Kennedy eating lunch on the fantail of the Honey Fitz with the president of Italy off the cove of Sampson’s Island, it was impossible for the westernmost and smallest village in Barnstable to hide from public view.
Large scale development on the Cape began in the mid-1960s. That development especially impacted the town of Mashpee which had remained undeveloped for the first half of the 20th century because of its tenuous identity as the soverign tribal lands of the Wampanoag tribe. Real estate developers succeeded in breaking the colonial covenants put in place by the tribe’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 in Mashpee — New Seabury — sprang up along Cotuit’s western borders along Popponesset Bay to Waquoit Bay to the west.
The next decade, the 1970s, were the decade when what the Cape’s early preservationists called the “Rape of the Cape” occurred. Those early environmentalists and preservationists warned town selectmen and planning boards of the impact that unchecked real estate development would have on the sole source fresh water aquifer beneath the Cape’s sands as well as the water quality of the peninsula’s bays and harbors. As they pushed back against that development and created organizations such as the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, the first symptoms of over-development were emerging. In the early 70s Cotuit Bay was no longer a pristine place prized for its oysters. Eel grass beds began to disappear. “Marker” species like spider crabs that indicate a sick bay proliferated, while prized species such as scallops began to dwindle. Where once only a few old catboats and bass boats were anchored in the Bay, the invention of fiberglass and the convenience of outboard motors made boat ownership a reality for the Cape’s surge in new residents.
Environmentalism was gaining momentum in Washington in the early 70s, fueled by the back-to-nature movements of the 60s, and the realization that chemical dumping was threatening species such as the osprey. The passage of the Clean Air and Water Acts of 1972 marked a change in attitudes about unbridled development, but on the Cape, the land grab was just getting under way, and off-Cape developers jammed the agendas of planning boards with applications for subdivisions and demolition permits. Across the Cape, every town’s board of selectmen were glad to grant those permits. More houses meant more taxes, more employment for year round residents. Yet with nothing but the country government to unite them in considering the impact on traffics and roads and other infrastructure, the towns went their own way, with the outer Cape towns indignant over JFK’s creation of the National Seashore, and upper Cape landowners selling hundreds of acres of scrub forest to off-Cape developers before something similar to the Seashore could happen to them.
The veterans of the Harbor View fight didn’t let their guard down. Cotuit preservationists were on guard and learned to scrutinize 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 the opposition would be elsewhere. The year-round residents, many of whom were former summer residents and Cotuit Skiff sailors, were on high alert, swinging into action and soliciting letters of opposition from summer residents 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 from 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 the Thorndike house on Old Shore Road). It was built after the Civil War by Colonel Charles Russell Codman, the officer in the Union Army who commanded of the 45th Massachusetts Infantry. Codman was heir to the Sturgis China-trade fortune. After the war 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 and commanded a spectacular view over Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck. Unlike many early summer mansions torn down in recent years Codman’s home 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’s charms 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, they 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 biggest gift the Town of Barnstable had ever received. 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 glass dome over the graveyard.
The Kirkman gift included their Bluff Point property and the Codman house. But that property was rejected by the town, who preferred that the executors of the Kirkman estate sell the house and 14 acres of land and include the proceeds in the proceeds from the Kirtman bequest along with the bonds and other securities. Apparently the Kirkman will was a bit vague and failed to restrict the proceeds for Cotuit alone. So the board of selectmen took advantage of its ambiguity to persuade the probate court to expand the intent of the gift to include all of the town’s cemeteries and libraries, not just Cotuit’s. Some villagers were not pleased by the move.
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. Beaches were popular and expensive to acquire, but in the early 50s nobody could have predicted the future demand for more of them. The town’s feelings about acquiring open space and removing valuable real estate (especially waterfront land assessed at an extremely high rate compared to interior lots) from the tax roll were indifferent if not openly negative.
In the spring of 1954 the Barnstable Patriot wrote two editorials which confirm how close Cotuit came 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:
The town passed on its chance to acquire Bluff Point, raided the Kirkman fund, and disbursed its money around the entire town. 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 opportunity to turn Bluff Point into a public park and 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 trustees and 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” represented by 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 Osterville attorney John Alger filed a 14-lot subdivision plan with the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds following that plan’s earlier review and approval by the Barnstable Planning Board.
The identity of the new owners of Bluff Point became public when the 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 involvement in the subdivision: $1 for the parcel where the Codman mansion stands as well as an adjacent lot for 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…
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 former 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. Former Massachusetts Governor Foster Furcolo summered in Cotuit. 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 had been guests at the Codman mansion.
Now it wasn’t a Boston Brahmin, but Billy Sullivan who was the owner of 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 private road called Bluff Point Drive.
Appearing before the town’s Planning Board in 1973 to present the subdivision plan, the Cotuit Trust’s local lawyer John Alger 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.”
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 celebrity figure like his neighbor, but 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 was so deeply involved in the 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 interviews conducted by Sobin with other American businessmen who pioneered trade with China in the early 70s.
Update 2021_01_30: I ordered a used copy of "The China Guidebook: 1990" another book Sobin co-authored with Frederic M. Kaplan and Arne de Keijzer. His official biography reads: "Julian M. Sobin is Chairman of Chemtech Industries of St. Lous, and Hall Chemical of Cleveland, as well as Goldman Resources, Inc., of Boston. A former Fellow, now an Associate, of the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, he is retired corporate senior vice president of International Minerals and Chemical Corporation. Mr. Sobin was the first US businessman invited to Beijing (in March 1972). Over the next 12 years, he negotiated some of the largest Sino-US trade contracts, including the first US purchase of Chinese crude oil in 1977. Co-author of Encyclopedia of China Today, and author of China Trader, Mr. Sobin was chairman of the International Marketing Institute at Harvard Business School.
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 briefed on 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 from their beach out to deeper water where they planned on dredging to cut enough depth to tie up their boat. They claimed the length was required 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 because other than Billy Sullivan, Julian Sobin had no other abutters who he was legally obligated to notify of his plans.
While Cotuit slept, the Sobin pier was quietly born. 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 the pier had been reviewed and approved by the town’s conservation commission with no opposing comments made by the public. The harbormaster Richard Sturges and assistant harbormaster 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, led 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 adults for daring 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 possessing a photographic memory of anything to do with Cotuit’s shoreline, Anna Murray was ready to lead the fight against another pier.
She 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.” Cut it in half and don’t dredge, and she would be in favor she said.
The length of the proposed pier was required 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 the first story 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.
Cotuit resident 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 constitutional provision 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 first published story, the Sobin Pier made the front page of the local weekly newspaper the following week as well. The second story described the delicate diplomacy 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 a bit of an understatement. His caution and non-partisan diplomacy to keep 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, a former country sheriff, but by the time the Sobin pier came along, it was struggling to present a neutral opinion. Aselton told the Patriot that tje members of the CSCA and himself “are concerned about the great amount of out-of-town boats mooring in the harbor.”
Aselton initially told the Army Corps of Engineers that the civic association was opposed to the pier, but then he retracted that statement and told the ACOE the CSCA would be taking a neutral position. When the monthly newsletter went out that spring, some readers 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 wasn’t the only civic leader struggling to keep their organization neutral. Geoffrey Jackson, president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club wrote a letter expressing his personal opposition to the Sobin pier, only to change his mind later after being contacted by the Sobin’s lawyer with more information. 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, like the CSCA, decided to sit on the sidelines of the debate and let its individual members make their opposition known to the town and ACOE themselves.
Into the breach stepped Anna Murray and Barbara H. Sullivan. They founded
“STOPP” — Sensitive Thinkers Opposed to Permanent Piers — and organized a blitz of letters from Cotuit residents who were 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 to new heights.
Attorney John Alger was confronted by over a hundred letters opposed to his client’s pier. He wrote letters to every opposing letter writer and enclosed a six-page memo with plans and drawings. It some respects it was a brilliant move by Alger; instead of trying to sway village opinion in a raucous public hearing, he directly replied to every opponent with his best arguments for why their new neighbor should have a big pier. 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 by its recipients is not known.. But Alger’s gambit paid off and soon some opponents changed their minds and joined the minority of supporters who had sent their letters endorsing the pier 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 deliberately 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”
Cotuit resident Anne Gould wrote a letter to the editor in rebuttal to Alger’s claims:
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.”
The Patriot’s 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 III 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:
Murray’s reference to the “Eisenstadt” and “Blakely” piers, were in reference to two previous 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 former Riley estate had historic approval for a 232-foot pier that 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.
Alger, who was also Town Moderator of Banstable’s town meeting, successfully 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:
The tide turns against piers
The Army Comes to Cotuit
The Army Corps of Engineers took notice of the 150 letters that eventually arrived at its Waltham offices . 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 Corps arrived with a preliminary assessment of the project and stated at the start of the hearing that it saw no significant environmental impacts, pointing ouit 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:
Robert Hayden of Cotuit 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,said her neighbors in the Bluff Point subdivision “feel the pier will cut out their vested right to traverse the beach around the point.”
Sullivan’s neighbor, Anthony Franchi, said the pier would hurt property values, and according to the Patriot, he 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 impossible to speculate 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.
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 a 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 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:
Little could be done to thwart the Sobin’s from moving ahead unless an abutter objected. That abutter was 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 which required all members of the association have free and unobstructed passage along the beach around all of Bluff Point. 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. 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 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.