A report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts – 1891

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.

Restoring a half-model

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.

Maiden voyage of the Snafu III, May 1967, taken from the dock at Crosby’s

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.

Tony Churbuck in the early 1960s

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.

Malcolm’s signatue next to the pencil station marks on the back of the hull.

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.

The damage from forty years of neglect, trips to college, and acts of God

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.

Sanding down to the wood

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.

Everything sanded, underlying grain of the pine showing, masking tape being applied to preserve the waterline during repainting

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.

It was all yellow.

                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.

Masking off the backboard to keep the white off the varnish. Semi-success

                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.

Finished except for filling the seam between the keel and garboards

Part 3: Cotuit Bans Docks but Suffers Moorings

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 david@churbuck.com or leave a comment on the post.

Introduction

 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:

“The proposed Coastal Resources Management Plan for Barnstable’s southwest coast is, in many respects, ill advised and absurd…. We don’t need another costly commission or staff. We don’t need or want a shuttle bus system from inland parking lots to all public water access areas…. We don’t need or want a launching ramp at the Cotuit Town Pier, nor we need the pier enlarged. The addition or improvement of ramps would bring in more boats on trailers. Where are the additional cars and trailers to be parked?”

Frank Fuller of Osterville

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:

“…the permitting process for new pier construction goes through at least eight different town, slate and federal agencies for approval before getting a final OK. Alger believes there are enough groups and regulations looking over applications for adequate review. “If people got their acts together, we can do it all at once,” he said, once again raising applause from the audience. This sentiment was echoed by several other people, all of whom believe there are sufficient departments currently in place to deal with these water issues.”

John Alger, attorney for pier applicants as quoited by the Barnstable Patriot

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.

Bob’s aftermath at Ropes Beach – from the Barnstable Patriot

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.

The mooring boundary betrween the Sobin Pier and Gould beach house proposed in 1993

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 shore of Cotuit Bay represents one of the last accessible, unbroken stretches of coastline in the Town: it is a remnant of what was once a much more common feature. The construction boom has reached the opposite shore, making this a highly advantageous time to preserve the Cotuit shore’s character while it still exists.”

Town Councilor Rick Barry of Cotuit

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.

Part 2: the Sobin Pier and other dock fights of the 70s

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.

Background

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.

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

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

A Fitting Memorial to the Kirkmans

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

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

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

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

The town passed on 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 Bluff Point Subdivision Plan of 1973

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…

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

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

Mister Sobin Tries to Build His Dream Dock

Billy Sullivan was far from the first “boldface” name to take a shine to Cotuit. Larry O’Brien, JFK’s chief of staff and 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.”

Billy Sullivan

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

Julian M. Sobin was not a 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”

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

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

Attorney John Alger

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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

Anna Murray, founder of STOPP

Proliferating Piers

Murray’s reference to the “Eisenstadt” and “Blakely” piers, were in reference to two 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.

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

Attorney John Alger

Alger, who was also Town Moderator of Banstable’s town meeting, 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:

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

Fred Bodensiek, writing in the Barnstable Patriot

The tide turns against piers

The Army Comes to Cotuit

The Army Corps of Engineers took 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:

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

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

Robert Hayden 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.

Appeal

After the Cotuit hearing in June, 1978,  the Army Corps of Engineers retreated to its office outside of Boston to review the public comment it received from the village’s residents and come to 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:

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

Anthony Franchi

Little could be done to thwart the Sobin’s from moving ahead unless an abutter objected. That abutter was 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.

 Next up….

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

When a brand gets blamed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I see your puny N95 and raise you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carving a half-model

Half-model of the cutter Madge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hulk of the Madge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the water in October

Chasing fish on a Saturday afternoon in Cotuit

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

Mount Seapuit

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

First Boat: the Ruth Wherry

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

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

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

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

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

It leaks but it rows

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

Lines of the Ruth Wherry (from Gentry Custom Boats)

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

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

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

One can never have enough clamps

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

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

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


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

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

Black Cherry breasthook with “character” crack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First coat of paint before trimming the fabric to the gunwales

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

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

Portage down Old Shore Road

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

The builders
Chamfering the stem

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

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