Sculling in cold weather

With this portrait of a fingerless Blackburn in mind, I rowed for home, determined to get some gloves to avoid his fate.

I noted the arrival of “meteorological winter”   in my fingers on Saturday morning while sculling across North Bay on my way around Grand Island in my wherry the S.S. Cheesecloth.  While they grew numb and number  I thought of the indefatigable Howard Blackburn, the Gloucester fisherman who was separated from his schooner in 1889,  lost in the north Atlantic in a tiny dory with another fisherman. Blackburn lost all his fingers and most of his toes to frostbite while rowing himself and his shipmate ashore.  He lost his mittens while bailing the dory, and using his socks to try to save his fingers only meant the loss of his toes. So he let his numb fingers freeze around the wooden handles of the oars, knowing they were beyond salvage but were his only means of surviving the long winter ordeal.  The other fisherman froze to death but Howard survived and  went on to live a colorful life, sailing alone across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn to seek gold in the Yukon, before retiring from the sea to run a tavern in Gloucester until his death in the early 1930s.1

Howard Blackburn, portrait by Margaret Fitzhugh Browne, 1929

Any person who sets out in a rowboat, racing shell, kayak, or canoe in the winter months on Cape Cod takes a risk of not  returning home. Water temperatures around the Cape can plunge below freezing in January. Should a person find themselves in that water for any length of time (other than the crazy New Year’s polar bear swimmers who dash in and out of the water in a matter of screaming seconds) they have about two minutes before they lose dexterity, fifteen before they slip into unconsciousness, and death before 45 minutes. 

Hypothermia table from the University of Sea Kayaking

The perils of cold water rowing is why the four-oar rule went into effect in November at my rowing club (the Union Boat Club) on the Charles River in Boston.   That edict prohibits the launching of single sculls (one person pulling two oars) and pairs (two people pulling one oar each) .    The requirement for a minimum of four oars per boat  ensures rowers don’t go out alone.   A few years ago the Massachusetts legislature passed a law requiring paddlers to wear a lifejacket or approved “personal floatation device” while on the water between September and May 15.   The law was passed at the urging of the Commonwealth’s harbormasters following a few tragedies involving cold water kayakers who went missing off the shores of Cape Cod.

I built my wherry with winter rowing in mind.  I had never rowed in the winter months in fifty years of rowing, but one day, while walking along the beach of Bluff Point in Cotuit, one of the local scullers went sliding by in his racing shell, careful to keep close to the shore line as he paddled around the bay on a sunny, calm January afternoon.  I was impressed by his stoic example of damn the weather, full speed ahead, but started thinking about what my “plan” would be if I were to go rowing in the depths of winter on desolate waters with no other boaters around to witness and assist me in the event of a capsize or breakdown.

Staying close to the beach is obviously a good idea. My rowboat draw very little water and can be rowed over sandbars and shoals with only a foot of depth (the downside being a drastic reduction in speed as a boat slows down in shallow water due to the “squat effect” where a moving hull is sucked down towards the bottom.) In theory I could flip a shell a few yards from the beach, stand up and walk everything ashore. Drenched and shivering for sure, but at no risk of succumbing to hypothermia and drowning.  But what about those points where my route crosses a stretch of open water to wide to swim and too deep to wade? What would the best plan of action be if I were to flip over in the middle of the bay? Do I stay with the boat and try to climb back aboard?  Or is the move to abandon ship and strike out swimming for the nearest dry land? 

Scullers capsize all the time but I have never seen one wearing a lifejacket. The precarious, thin-skinned boats are twenty-four foot needle-like  hulls designed to go as fast as possible in a straight line over protected waters. They are incredibly tippy and can flip just a few feet away the dock if the rower doesn’t keep the oar blades flat and perpendicular to the boat like pontoons. Once the boat is moving it gains some stability like a rolling bicycle.  A motorboat’s wake, waves stacked up by the wind,  or a collision with a buoy can flip a sculler upside down in an instant. Most of my capsizes came as surprised. One moment I was focused on driving the shell through the water, heart pounding, lungs breathing hard, and the next instant I was upside down in a state of  submerged shock . 

Righting a capsized shell and getting back aboard is a trick novice scullers are taught near the dock during warm weather; some coaches even using a swimming pool to practice the difficult maneuver, much the way a novice kayaker is taught how to perform an “Eskimo roll.”  I used to flip my Empacher racing single at least once a summer, usually when I forgot to  turn around and look  where I was going and carelessly clipped a channel marker or mooring float. 

Once one finds themselves on the wrong side of the water and accepts the shocking surprise, the first order of business is to get some air. Feet strapped into shoes with their toes bolted to the boat must  be released and usually have some Velcro quick release for just such emergencies. Free from the boat, the rower then has to roll the boat right side up, sort out the crossed oats, then fetch any floating personal possessions such as a  water bottle and telephone sealed in dry bag. Then, with one hand holding the two oar handles together and the other holding onto the far side of the deck, the sculler must lunge up from the water and get themselves across the narrow shell without damaging anything. Here’s a video that shows the maneuver:

My experience in trying to climb back into a capsized shell in warm weather leads me to favor the abandon ship plan for surviving a winter capsize. I’ve broken the combing or splash board of a wooden shell trying to get back aboard, and it was like I sat on a Stradivarius judging from the repair bill. Although the Cheesecloth is much stabler than a racing shell and seems to be immune to flipping, the possibility of going into the water means I need to consider the risks and have a solid plan before finding myself in 30 degree water with about two minutes of time before the cold makes it impossible to do anything with my fingers and the chances of a heart attack increase.

Clothing choices for winter rowing are similar to what a cross-country skier wears: layers of tight, synthetic leggings and long-sleeved shirts with the addition of  a sleeveless “turtle” vest shell with a wind-breaker back panel, a hat, and neoprene dive boots. Rowing is strenuous and the body quickly warms up through the workout, making things miserable for the rower as they overheat and begin to sweat. But as soon as they stop that sweat  immediately starts to freeze, especially if wind is a factor.

After my first December row last weekend I put the boat away on its rack and headed for home, definitely a frightening sight in tights, a chartreuse Day-Glo safety vest, and my orange, red and black Karl’s Sausage Kitchen wool hat. I jumped into a hot shower and immediately started moaning as my blue fingers began to painfully thaw out.  Once I was out of the shower and dressed I went online and bought a set of “pogies” — strange mittens that slip over the oar handles to keep my hands warm without sacrificing the essential grip of bare skin on the rubber grips. I’ve never tried them before, but ordered a set from JL Racing to get me back on the water before the harbor freezes.  Smallboat Monthly published an article about pogies in 2017 (subscription required).

“Pogies” keep hands warm without sacrificing contact with the oars.

1 The Blackburn Challenge honors Howard’s desperate row with a 20-mile rowing race around Cape Ann. It takes place every July so no one loses any digits. 

Half a catboat

Over the summer of 2021 I built a model of a  “Martha’s Vineyard” catboat on the workbench of my boat shop as therapy to recover from the nerve-wracking reconstruction of a full sized 75-year old sailboat with rotten chines.

The model is the first fully rigged wooden boat model I’ve ever made, as well as the first “scratch” scale model constructed without the assistance of a kit and carved off of plans.  The model took about a month of occasional work to complete. I’d sand a little here and paint a little there whenever I needed a break from writing and research or calls with clients.

Beginning a year ago in the fall of 2020 I’ve  built a few half-models: three Cotuit Skiffs (one of my own boat, two as gifts), an 1850s whaling ship, a 19th century British racing cutter, and restored two Wianno Senior models carved by Malcolm Crosby in the 1970s. I started off with a how-to set of plans from WoodenBoat Magazine, learning the “bread-and-butter” method of cutting 1/2″ thick basswood blanks conforming to the shape of the hull and gluing the stack of “sliced bread” together with yellow carpenter’s glue (the “butter”) . The zen of it all is in the shaping of the rough blanks into a perfect three dimensional model of what began as a two dimensional blueprint. Basswood is a tight grained, clear soft wood that is a joy to carve and shape with wood chisels and hand planes. I have to force myself to not get carried away with the fun of turning wood into curled shavings, and have had to toss a couple of Cotuit Skiff hulls away because I daydreamed away too much wood for an experienced eye to consider a true model of the real thing.

The latest is a hybrid half-hull/fully-rigged model displayed behind a sheet of acrylic inside of a wooden shadow box backed by an insanely expensive sheet of thin black walnut plywood. Basically it’s what you’d get if you build a miniature boat with all the above-deck details, spars and rigging and cut in half.

The final model mounted in the shadow box. Pardon the glare of the acrylic “glass”

The project started  as a simple half-model of just  the boat’s hull — something to whittle on —  but in time it evolved into a full tweaker OCD game of seeing how many details I could cram into a very simply rigged boat. As I puzzled over the clues Chapelle drew on his plans, I started to deduce how the details worked in practice — for example he drew a line from the peak of the gaff down to the boom by the tack, a line I have never seen before on a gaff rig. Some smart commenter on the WoodenBoat Facebook page noticed it from the photo I posted and identified it as a vang that kept the gaff from twisting forward of the mast while running downwind on a breezy day. Other details I provided from my own experience sailing cats. Whenever I found myself frustrated I posted questions or watched how-to videos and worked through the steps careful not to make a move I would regret later on. The project gave me an excuse to learn some of the techniques used in traditional ship model construction, but also immensely improved my understanding of full boat building concepts.  Basic half-hull models were used by boat builders  in lieu of printed plans to guide the construction of new full-sized  boats for centuries. By the time I started building the top of the boat I had to ask myself why I hadn’t built a full and not a half model. Why half a hull and not the full shape? As an actual model used in building the real deal, a full hull was unnecessary as one side is a mirror image of the other and a builder only needs the dimensions of one side of the hull to make the other.

Toys, decor, or tools?

A search of half-models for sale reveals a lot of cheap $200-$400 mass produced models and a few antique examples that carry price tags well north of $5000 depending on the historical interest in the final product.  Most old models were left unadorned, with the modeler slapping on a coat of paint or just oiling the miniature hull with linseed oil. The purpose of working from a three-dimensional model as a template (versus a  flat two dimensional set of plans) was the builder could rely on the model to scale up, or loft, full-sized templates  to guide the construction of the boat itself by tracing the curves at fixed points along the hull to make patterns that could be expanded (or “lofted”) into full size frames that perfectly matched the proportions of the miniature model. Some model makers cut slots through the half-hull at specific “stations”, slid a sheet of paper into the slot, and then traced the perimeter with a pencil. Models were usually  left unpainted and omitted the tiny details that make a full-scale ship model so fascinating to study – no deck houses or port holes, no masts, or cleats and winches – just the shape of the hull and nothing more. That was enough in most cases to guide the design of a new boat. The customer could hold the model, feel its curves and judge the lines, asking for modification and adjustments long before massive keel timbers were laid out and the real work commenced.

As yachting became a thing in the second half of the 19th century, shrew builders realized the half-model would make a nice christening gift to the customer. The model would be mounted on a board, perhaps painted the same colors of the finished boat,  and then given to the owner to hang on a wall for off-season adoration and admiration. The New York Yacht Club’s Model Room is a shrine to those yacht models. My early efforts in carving models was transformed by the  work of a master model marker, Malcolm Crosby, thanks to his daughter Betsy Crosby Thompson’s channel on YouTube.  In one project Crosby adds a few  details to a model, and so inspired,  I decided to do the same.

I realized in the final stages of the month-long project , as I was struggling to make tiny shackles with sausage-like fingers, that I could spend endless  hours fiddling with the details. Instead, I decided to call a halt when the boat was fully rigged, realizing that displaying the full model would be a challenge beyond the usual practice of screwing the hull onto a nice piece of wood and hanging in on the wall. Once scale details like rigging and spars are added, the concern over time is keep dust from building up on the model. At the scale I was working at, a single speck of dirt looks proportionally the size of marble, and to keep curious toddler fingers from destroying hours of intense concentration, I  mounted the model inside of a shadow box to protect it from curious fingers and the accumulation of dust. A sail was considered but life is short and there’s a point where enough is enough.

Origins of the Cape Cod Catboat

I first saw the design in Howard I. Chapelle’s book, American Small Sailing Craft. Chapelle defined a branch of American maritime history focused on the cataloguing and tracking of the development of American boat design and its regional evolution from the Old World  examples the colonists brought with them from Europe and modifications inspired by the canoes, kayaks, and dugouts used by the indigenous natives. In 1933 Chapelle toured the boatyards and backwater creeks of southern New England and Cape Cod looking for examples of the 200 or so small boat designs used across America in the 19th century. He explored New Bedford’s waterfront and the coves of Fairhaven, and discovered the boat undergoing repairs at a local shipyard. It was a 50 year-old example of what has come to be known as the Cape Cod Catboat, that familiar local icon most closely identified with the Crosby clan of boat builders in Osterville. Chapelle learned the boat had been built fifty years before in the late 1880s on Martha’s Vineyard, where several local builders had been turning out a large fleet of working boats for the island’s watermen. The design element that persuaded Chapelle to fix the boat’s provenance to a Vineyard builder and not a Cape shop was its square cabin house, a fast and inexpensive shortcut versus the process of steaming green planks of white oak in a steam box.

Chapelle’s work is important because of his diligent  detective work and the  credible theories he proposed for how a practical boat design originated to perform a specific task — say hunting waterfowl from a Barnegat Bay Sneakbox — and then  migrated from one region to another, being modified along the way to adapt to local conditions and techniques, the original archetype’s design “DNA” carrying over to modern fiberglass boats.  Much had been written about the evolution of the catboat by early expert like C.P. Kunhardt and various contributors to Field and Stream and Rudder, but Chapelle was the historian who dispelled some parochial Cape Cod sentiment that the radical design was invented sui generis by the Crosbys. The Crosby builders — and there were a few of them working independently from their own boat shops around Osterville in the late 19th century — were indeed geniuses, and innovated many construction techniques as well as introducing major breakthroughs such as the swinging centerboard for working in shallow waters (which they decided to do after asking their mother, a practicing Spiritualist, to consult the spirit of an dead ancestor to get his assent).

The Catboat is thought to have been introduced to America by Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam (Manhattan) based on the hull design of canal barges and shoal draft boats used in the Friesian Islands. The beamy, single masted boats were very different from the heavy carvel planked shallops and ship’s boats brought over by the English to Plymouth and Boston. To be classified a catboat the mast is stepped only a foot or two from the stem of the bow, and the hull is roughly half as wide as long — a 2:1 ratio that made for a wide, very stable platform to fish or clam from. Jibs were sometimes added by extending a bow sprit, but the general bones that make a catboat a catboat are a single mast stepped right into the nose of the boat and a beamy, fat, relatively flat hull. The single sail rig meant one person could easily manage a catboat on their own. With three sets of reef points, the sail could be reefed on windy days, and by using a combination of the topping-lift and peak halyard, the rig could be “scandalized,” raising the boom high above the deck and reducing the sail area while the sailor went to work hauling traps, tending a fish weir, or catching fish with handlines. The capacious hull could carry more oysters or fish or passengers than the prevailing working boat used on Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds: the Vineyard Boat or No Man’s Boat, a two-masted open sloop favored by the fishermen on No Man’s Island south of Aquinnah.

The catboat’s single, gaff-rigged sail is huge, laced onto a long boom that overhangs the stern so far from the transom that rigging the outhaul to the clew of the sail sometimes requires a dock or a rowboat to reach the very end of the spar.  Another catboat-specific feature is an oversized rudder, sometimes referred to as a “barn door,” the top of which is visible above the water.

The Migration of the Catboat

The catboat first appeared on Cape Cod in the middle of the 19th century after migrating for two hundred years northeast along Long Island Sound to Noank, Connecticut, then Narragansett Bay where a deep-keeled version known as the Newport Catboat became popular; then creeping a few miles east into Massachusetts where the Rhode Island design was well suited to Buzzard’s Bay. It was on Martha’s Vineyard where the principles of what is now considered a Cape Cod Catboat were first applied. Horace and Cornelius Crosby of Osterville launched their first catboat, Little Eva, in 1850, but it appears the radically new design was most popular on the Vineyard where the shoals around the island made a deep keel impracticable. As the design won over more watermen, it migrated to other builders around Buzzards Bay in the 1860s before reaching its apogee in the last decades of the 19th century in the hands of the Crosbys in Osterville and C.C. Manley of Monument Beach.

By 1900 the Cape Cod Catboat was the signature small boat design associated with the peninsula, and it remained popular with commercial fishermen who were quick to retrofit their boats with naptha and gasoline “one lunger” engines.

The arrival of tourism on the Cape in the 1880s sparked a revival of big catboats at some of the earliest resorts — such as the Pines Hotel and Santuit House in Cotuit — who hired retired whaling captains to take their guests for sails and picnics around the bay, the big cockpits of the catboats well suited for carrying a dozen or more guests for a boisterous sail on Nantucket Sound while the old salt at the tiller regaled them with sea stories. Catboats evolved further in the first three decades of the 20th century, morphing into extreme racing machines with a reputation for killing their crews.

The Boat Detective

During a 1933 trip to southeastern Masssachusetts and Cape Cod  Howard Chapelle visited New Bedford and Fairhaven looking for old boats to measure and preserve on paper  in the form of plans and the formal boat building measurements known as a table of offsets. Chapelle, then thirty-two years old,  had been a shipwright’s apprentice and boat builder since the age of 18, and worked in a few shipyards at a time when the shipwrights craft was still alive and flourishing.  Seeking to design his own boats, he trained as a naval architect at The Webb Institute, a Long Island school of naval architecture that offers a free education in naval architecture and marine engineering  to a handful of lucky students.

Howard Chapelle

The engineering science practiced by naval architects first emerged in the middle of the 19th century when the traditional rule-of-thumb methods of ship design and construction were rendered obsolete by the addition of steam engines, sidewheels and propellers, and riveted steel hulls on massive warships.  For centuries shipwrights had worked without drawn plans or blueprints, relying on carved half-models to determine the proper proportions for a new ship. A simple half-model was far more effective than two-dimensional drawn plans because it could be held in the hands, where fingers could trace and feel the shape of the hull and the eyes could sight along the form to  critique the curve of the sheer and other subtle but crucial details that are undetectable when examining an unfurled roll of paper plans  or trying to visualize the hull’s measurements as expressed by the “table of offsets.” Those tables were included by the designer who would include within  a “spreadsheet” of rows and columns of three-hyphenated numbers signifying specific points as measured from a common point, or baseline. Those sets of three numbers represented  feet-inches-eighths. Hence “ 3-11-4” is interpreted by the builder as “three feet, eleven and ½ inches” (sometimes a “+” or “-“ is  added to the third number to indicate a sixteenth of an inch).

A typical set of offsets

Chapelle was trained in the process of measuring an existing hull and creating a faithful set of plans which could be used by a shipwright to build an exact copy of the original.  That process, known as “taking off the lines,” is well explained in a post by Steve Reynolds where he describes taking the lines off a small skiff he admired. Chapelle’s detective work preserved the design of dozens of small boats which otherwise would be lost save for a few grainy photographs. A few years after his trip to Cape Cod he was in charge of the New England section of the Historic American Merchant Marine Survey (HAMMS), a New Deal project started in 1936 that employed unemployed naval architects in the cataloguing of thousands of examples of American maritime history within a 79-volume collection held by the Smithsonian Institution. Chapelle combined his field work with intensive research, combing through archives and back issues of 19th century yachting magazines for clues about the origin of a design and the possible whereabouts of   existing examples or the builders who specialized in the type.

The Martha’s Vineyard Cat

In New Bedford Chapelle received permission to “take off” her lines and set to work with plum lines, levels, and tick sticks — notched boards used to measure points on a curve. It’s a complicated process to perform accurately — essentially a method for capturing on paper the subtleties of a three-dimension object. In his writing he referred to the 21’ boat as “an example of an Eastern working cat” and estimated it was built about 1888.  He classified the boat as a “Martha’s Vineyard Cat” in American Small Sailing Craft, where he compared it to an early prototype sailed around Newport, Rhode Island on Narragansett Bay.

“A somewhat similar boat existed in the 1880s in Buzzards Bay and along the south shore of Cape Cod, this was the type first called the Martha’s Vineyard catboat,” later the “Cape Cod cat.” These were powerful boats, capable of operating in exposed waters and meeting much heavy weather in careful hands. In working boats the range of size was between 18 and 30 feet on deck.”

Howard Chapelle, American Small Sailing Craft
Study plan of Chapelle’s 1888 Martha’s Vineyard Cat from American Small Sailing Craft

Chapelle estimated the catboat was nearly 50 years old when he measured the hull in 1933 but he doesn’t indicate what clues led him to date the  boat to 1888, nor what made it a “Martha’s Vineyard Cat” versus a “Cape Cod Cat.”  Whether it was the square cabin house, or some bronze fitting or other specific detail that fixed the date, Chapelle chose the boat to illustrate his history of the catboat design, noting that the custom of calling a catboat a  “Cape Cod Catboat” gradually took over from Martha’s Vineyard, especially as the reputation of the Crosbys in Osterville  and C.C. Manley in Monument Beach of Buzzard’s Bay grew with the spread of the design beyond southern New England to the waters along Massachusetts’ South Shore from Boston to Plymouth where they mutated into extreme designs raced on Massachusetts Bay. The application of “cat” to the boat’s design apparently originated in Osterville when Horace and Cornelius Crosby’s first boat, the Little Eva, was judged “quick as a cat” by a sailor impressed by her nimble tacking abilities.

One of the best remembered catboat builders on  Martha’s Vineyard was Manuel Swartz Roberts of Edgartown, also known as “The Old Sculpin”.  He opened a boat shop by the docks in 1906 and built dozens of catboats there  until closing his doors in the late 1940s.  Cats were very popular in the fishing port of Menemsha, and were built with fish wells beneath their cockpit alongside the centerboard trunk so the fishermen could open a deck hatch, toss in their catch, and be assured the fish would still be alive and swimming when they got back to the dock at the end of the day, some so overloaded with swimming fish that their decks were awash.   The boats could be easily reconfigured for different purposes or types of fishing. Pulpits would be attached to the bow for sword fishing,  scallop dredges could be towed astern through a salt pond for bay scallops in the fall, and many catboats saw service as a packets carrying passengers, cargo and mail from the island to ports on the mainland such as New Bedford and Falmouth.

Manuel Swarz Robert’s boatshop — now the Old Sculpin gallery — in Edgartown

Building the model

I ordered the plans from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History maritime division.

Because of my affinity for Chapelle’s work (he was the curator of the Smithsonian’s maritime collections), I’m focused on modeling the designs described in his book: American Small Sailing Craft, especially boats with some relevance to Cape Cod or my personal interests.  I bought the plans for a Long Island Sound Skipjack c. 1870, a Vineyard Sound boat, a Kingston lobster boat, a Crosby catboat, a three-masted schooner, and a few others I may or may not attempt in the future… time willing.

Earlier in the summer I built my third Cotuit Skiff half-model of #66, the Swamp Fox, which has been raced for decades by the Odence family.  Why that boat? Larry Odence, author of the definitive history of the class, Mosquito Boats: The First Hundred Years of the Cotuit Skiff, was a huge help to me during my stint as president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, putting in hundreds of volunteer hours in support of the sailing program but also inspiring me with his research and attention to detail as the third edition of his book was printed this past summer. Philip, his son, helped me out by smuggling some paint samples out of the Odence boat shop, helping me get the paint scheme exactly right for I knew if anyone was qualified to have a critical eye it was his dad. Once that was finished in mid-July, I realized I mentally  benefit from always have a model underway, something to take my mind off of work and my writing   when I take a break and stretch my legs.

Cotuit Skiff #66, Swamp Fox

 When the cardboard shipping tube arrived from the Smithsonian and Mystic Seaport I unrolled the plans for the 1888 Martha’s Vineyard catboat  and began tracing the templates of the hull with carbon paper and cutting out patterns from some heavy card stock.  Last winter I ordered a big expensive supply of basswood – one of the best woods for ship model hulls – and found a local woodworking shop with a big bandsaw to rip the stock into ½” thick planks. I use the “bread-and-butter” technique of building up the hull by cutting “lifts” or horizonal slices of the hull (the “bread,”) then gluing then together in a stack with yellow carpenter’s glue (the “butter”).  I have a very small bandsaw, a Rikon, which my brother gave me a few years ago, and its enough to accurately cut the lifts out of the basswood.  I clamped the stack of wood together, let it cure for a day, then carefully cut the sheer – or curve of the deck from bow to stern on the bandsaw. After that I screwed a holding piece onto the back of the hull, clamped that into a vise, and began shaping the hull with a ½” wood chisel and a small Lie-Nielsen block plane that lives inside a pocket of my shop apron.

Refining the lifts into a faithful copy of the hull always brings to my mind the the sculptor’s philosophy that inside of every block of marble lies a statue waiting to be revealed. There’s nothing like a sharp plane and the satisfaction of turning good wood into curls of shavings to release some pent-up stress.

After sanding and gauging the shape of the hull with a set of nine templates copied from each of the hull’s “stations” on Chapelle’s plans I sealed the wood with two coats of TotalBoat Varnish sealer before painting.  The traditional color of the old catboats I remember from the early 1960s were white hulls with “mast buff” decks and cabin tops. Mast Buff is an odd, almost flesh-tone color, and seems to have fallen out of favor. appearing occasionally on some lovingly restored boat . Some boat builders used it to paint the mast, hence the name mast buff, as few working sailors bothered to varnish the spars and trim of their boats. Varnish, or “brightwork”, is a vanity of yachts and a tricky substance to work with, requiring at least a half-dozen coats to protect the wood and bring out the amber shine of the wood grain. Working boats such as catboats and sharpies were painted …. and even so, occasionally. The most attention was paid to the bottom – which was typically painted with red copper bottom paint from George Kirby Jr. Paint, the New Bedford inventors of copper antifouling paint. The topsides, or visible part of the hull, were almost always painted white. The old timers joked that there are only two colors for a boat – black and white – but only pirates and fools paint their boats black. I knew first hand from my childhood in the early 1960s that the big Crosby catboats around Cotuit and Osterville were invariably painted with the distinctive Caucasian flesh tone color of mast buff As the name suggests, mast buff was usually used to paint the mast in lieu of clear, golden varnish. Varnished brightwork had no place on a working boat and was regarded as an expensive vanity, appearing on catboats when they were cleaned up for tourist excursions. But as the time approached during my project to paint the model, I couldn’t find any old color photographs or archive of online knowledge of what paints were used on 19th century catboats to guide my color choices. So I winged it.

Deckhouse and combing

After adding the keel timber, centerboard, and rudder I taped off the waterline and put three boats of white on the hull with three coats of dark red on the bottom. I use ean xpensive sign painter’s paint, “OneShot”, because it’s oil-based and can, when applied full strength with no thinning, cover pretty much anything in one coat.

All my previous models had a minimal amount of above-decl detail save for tillers on Cotuit Skiffs. Watching Malcolm Crosby on YouTube finish a model of a catboat with extra details such as rub rails and toe rails, I decided the hull of the Martha’s Vineyard catboat would be far more interesting if I included its unique, square cabin house and the big combing, or curved plank that keeps an errant wave from flooding the cockpit. The decision to build a faithful model of the actual boat then led to a month-long, self-taught series of lessons into the bending of wood, the whittling of small details as captured on the plans by Chapelle, and the need to rig the model with its mast, boom, and gaff.  Once a modeler commits to rigging and presenting every detail of the original craft the project goes from a couple of weeks of shaping and painting to a couple of months of painstaking detail work. As it turned out, the detail work, while frustrating at times, was the part I enjoyed the most. My biggest frustration was dropping tiny pieces on the floor and then peering at the concrete for ten minutes with my hands on my knees, searching for a wire shackle I had spent thirty minutes bending just so only to have it fall and bounce under the work bench where it hid under a nest of wood shavings.

whittling away

I used a Dremel and a router bit to hollow out the cockpit, carved the cabin house from a scrap of basswood,, and at the rate of an hour per day here and there, built a sliding hatch cover, carved the sloe-eyed oval porthole so characteristic of catboats, and gradually created a half of a detailed model.

The rigging came last. This was the part I remember from my grandmother’s schooner project in the late 60s as the most challenging part of ship model construction.  Working with thread and wire and tiny pieces of wood drilled with drills slightly thicker than a strand of hair gave rise to many a lament on my part of having sausages for fingers. I started looking online for some tips and techniques and discovered some tutorials on YouTube by Tom Lauria, a master modeler here on Cape Cod who specializes in local designs such as Beetle Cats and Wianno Seniors.

Admiring Lauria’s work inspired me to try harder and not cut any corners in finishing off the final details of my  Martha’s Vineyard Catboat model.  It also led me to joining two organizations devoted to ship models – the Nautical Research Guild, and the USS Constitution Model Shipwright Guild.

Child’s play or adult therapy?

Ship models are not for the impatient.  There are still a few manufacturers of kits – notably Bluejacket Ship Crafters in Maine – but most hobby shops today have nothing on their shelves. A “scratch-built” ship model is one that the builder constructs from plans, drawings, or photographs without the assistance of a kit which generally includes a roughly pre-shaped hull, some cast metal  fittings, a bundle of sticks and dowels,  and some illustrated  instructions.  My grandfather, Henry Churbuck, made a model of the launch that Captain William Bligh sailed 4,000 miles  with eighteen loyal crew after the famous mutiny of 1789. The model was displayed  in a shadow box on the wall and I spent a lot of time inspecting the rigging of the two-masted boat, the oars and thwarts and cordage, marveling at the minutiae of the furled sails, the coiled lines, and the bronze gudgeons and pintles that held the little rudder to the stern.  After he passed away in the late 1960s my grandmother was living by herself in an apartment north of Boston. Upstairs were a young married couple who were friends of the family – she had been our babysitter when my brother and I were toddlers, and he was home from Viet Nam, convalescing from the loss of a leg and other wounds suffered while serving as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army. Together, my grandmother and he each built – separately but simultaneously – identical kits of the famous Nova Scotia fishing schooner, the  Bluenose. I assisted a little on my grandmother’s project, and learned a lot from her about working “clean,” thinking and strategizing through a sequence of steps before picking up a tool, measuring twice before cutting once, and most of all the sublime pleasures of pure patience and focus, telling me “You only get to build once, but your mistakes live on forever.”

Rigging the throat halyard on the 1888 Martha’s Vineyard cat boat

There was a lot of modelling going on in my family during my childhood, unsurprising as my grandparents needed something to spend their time in the days before television. My father, while a student at Harvard Business School in the early 60s, built a huge radio controlled sea plane in our apartment in Cambridge, using it to think through his assignment and case studies before pecking out his papers on a Remington typewriter.  My grandfather had a train set in the basement of his house in Melrose that nearly filled an entire room and required one to crawl underneath to get to the controls in the center, with panels of blinking lights and banks of switches and levers that controlled sleek German model trains that schussed around the copper tracks and toot-tooted going through the lovely shaped paper mâché alps.

For all the trains, planes and boats being built in miniature I have always been drawn to ship models. The Cotuit Library has a few great examples I admired on my daily visits as a child to read the next recommendation from the librarian, Ida Anderson. They are  true ship models:  big multi-masted clipper ships and whalers with skeins of threaded rigging and webs of ratlines, tiny deadeyes and portholes. Those models pique the imagination with their detailed examples of the rigger’s art – the use of blocks and tackle, wire and rope, sheaves and chafing gear to power and control what was, in the heyday of the actual ship, the most complicated pieces of machinery in the world.

Next project

I’ve decided to concentrate on models of boats and ships that have some personal or local relevance. I don’t plan on building any models of  16th century galleons or modern missile frigates; my preference is to recreate the small skiffs, sloops and schooners built around Cape Cod and catalogued by Chappelle.  Because my interest in historical boat design stems from a paper I wrote in college about the development of the New Haven Sharpie, I’d like to tackle a full model (as opposed to a rigged half-model) of that iconic oysterman’s boat next. A Wianno Senior is also on the list, as well as a Beetle Cat, a Vineyard Sound boat, a Long Island Sandbagger, a three-masted coastal schooner and …..well, the list is long and life is short and whatever comes next, I have two full-sized Cotuit Skiffs to repair and restore over the winter ahead.

Rowing my ass off

My friend and former Latin teacher, Tom Burgess and me one September morning, photo thanks to Pieter Burgess

It’s been a great summer to get back into sculling. After a slow start involving some adjustments to the seat and riggers, I managed to get my wherry tuned up perfectly; found a slot on a rack near the beach to store it, and gradually worked up to long, six-mile rows around Grand Island.

I won’t set any speed records, but the boat (which I build over the summer of 2020 from Dave Gentry’s plans for the “Ruth Wherry” out of cedar and polyester cloth) is very stable, is actually fun to row through waves and wakes, and draws lots of admirers on the beach and passing boats.

After three months of regular sculling and I’ve lost a ton of weight, enjoyed hours on the water, and have started thinking about my next boat project.

What I’m Reading: H.W. Tilman

During the July heat wave I sequestered myself in my airconditioned office and went down the rabbit hole of reading about the exploration of the Arctic, especially the region around Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Greenland’s Davis Straits, and the waters around Svalbard (Spitzbergen).

The first book I read (and one of the more recent about exploring the start of the Northwest Passage) was Alvah Simon’s North to the Night, an account of his winter, alone, aboard a 36′ sloop, with only a kitten to keep him company while frozen in a cove on Bylot Island. Simon mentioned H.W. Tilman, a name I was vaguely familiar with, so I read enough excerpts online to order a single-volume anthology of of his eight “mountaineering and sailing” books: H.W. Tilman: The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books. His accounts of his treks in Nepal are collected in a separate volume, H.W. Tilman The Seven Mountain Travel Books

Harold William Tilman was an English explorer and mountain climber who made his reputation in the Himalayas with his neighbor in Kenya, Eric Shipton. Together they nearly succeeded in being the first expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and are regarded as one of the most illustrious climbing teams in the history of mountaineering. Tilman wasn’t content with merely climbing mountains, he decided to combine bluewater ocean sailing and purchased an old Bristol pilot cutter, Mischief, which he sailed to Patagonia, the Crozet islands, and other remote islands in the southern ocean known as the Roaring Forties, the most storm swept, dangerous seas on Earth.

H.W. Tilman was captain of the schooner Patanela for the 1964 expedition to first climb Australia’s highest peak on remote Heard Island

In the 1960s Tilman advertised for volunteer crew members in the personal section of the London newspapers under the headline “No pay, no pleasure, no prospects” — seeking men who either had sailing or mountain climbing experience to join him on four to six month expeditions to the southern oceans as well as the coast of Greenland, Canada, and the northern islands of Iceland, the Faroes, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen. Ashore, the eccentric Tilman, a decorated veteran of both world wars, a life-long bachelor who lived on the Welsh coast with his sister and his dogs, wrote a series of books to support his explorations.

Tilman was a navigator, skilled with a sextant but admittedly humble in his accuracy, and a devout traditionalist who liked gaff-rigged boats, cursed marine engines, and was very particular about how a proper yacht should look and be sailed. Mischief carried him around the world and to the northern ice pack on many voyages, but was eventually sank while under tow off of Jan Mayen after crushing some planks on a submerged rock. A YouTube video of the old ship being careened on the beach of Jan Mayen before her loss can be found here.

Mischief was Tilman’s first Bristol Cutter — he sailed her around the world, losing her off Jan Mayen in 1968

Undeterred, Tilman bought another decrepit Bristol pilot cutter — one of the fleet of nearly 100 that were built on England’s west coast in the 1880s to carry pilots out to ships bound for English ports. When steam made them obsolete they were converted into yachts, and Tilman, who was as old as the boats he sailed in, seemed to take great pride in sailing the plucky little boats as close to the poles as possible. He would own three of them during his lifetime, sinking two, and gamely buying a third, each one compared to his beloved Mischief. They were fast, seaworthy boats. They had to be, for the pilots competed to be the first to meet the arriving ships ; and they were capable of handling the worst conditions around Cornwall and the southern Irish Sea with only one or two crew members aboard to carry the pilot and return alone to port to wait for the next job. Tilman poured whatever cash he had into repairing the old boats, continuously repairing sprung planks, worn out rigging, rotten timbers and spavined spars, sewing the tattered sails either himself or at the hands of a local shipwright. Once they were at sea, things, as the Russians would say, began to get worse. If it took 2000 pumps of the bilge pump to stay ahead of the leaking, then Tilman would “hove to” and let the boat drift in the seas until the wind and the waves calmed down enough to proceed. Inordinately fond of sailing the wooden boats in icy seas, he timed his expeditions to coincide with the one or two weeks in August when ice-bound hamlets on Greenland’s east coast were briefly accessible by small boat. If he made it ashore — and on some voyages the ice never cleared or the crew rebelled against his dogged determination to sail down some narrowing lead in the drifting pack ice and demanded he turn for home –but if he made it to shore then it was time to explore a glacier or climb a seaside mountain, always gauging himself by the effort it took him to reach a summit.

As a fan of great travel writing, I think Tilman is one of the best I’ve read, particularly in the broad sub-genre of nautical explorers and singlehanded sailors. His biting portrayals of some of his more hapless crew members, most of whom had little sailing experience and were very dismayed to find themselves sailing into the most extreme conditions on the planet on leaky 100-year old boats commanded by a navigator who only had a vague idea of their position, a taciturn commander with a strange drive to sail into frozen oceans littered with immense ice bergs and rafts of floating pack ice in thick fog and the darkness of night, are some of the more memorable passages in all his books.

A great leader, Tilman believed in following the example of the old New England whaling captains who avoided going into port because they knew their crews would desert the ship at the first opportunity. One of his favorite quotes Some members of his crew, terrified to be at sea in a decrepit boat, or disgusted to be served a left-over curry for breakfast, mutinied and abandoned Tilman in some remote port, left short-handed and willing to take any man with a pulse aboard to help continue his quixotic quest to be the first to climb some desolate frozen mountain surrounded by the sea.

Ever erudite, Tilman intersperses his stories with accounts of the history of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, recounting the Viking exploration and settlement of Greenland, the discoveries made by whalers and sealers, presenting their stoic tenacity in light of his own voyages’ challenges and setbacks. What emerges over the course of his eight sailing/mountaineering adventures is a story of the end of the romantic era of bluewater sailing — a world without GPS, digital charts, reliable diesel engines, satellite-informed weather forecasts, and the other modern conveniences that have removed so much of the ambiguity and risk of classic celestial navigation. It is also a paean to a generation of explorers — iron men in wooden ships — that roved the seas and high latitudes looking for the blank spots on the maps, the “last of the firsts” — first to circumnavigate Spitzbergen, first to climb Mount Heard, first to set foot on the most desolate, remote places left on the planet.

As a writer, Tilman has the clear declarative style of someone in the habit of diligently maintaining a ship’s log, but enlivens his sea stories with a biting wit, an encyclopedia of obscure quotations, and love for the language of the sea.

He’s by far the best nautical food writers I’ve ever read. Like one of Tolkien’s hobbits who obsesses about stuff like “Gentleman’s Relish,” Tilman lived by the edict that an army marches on its stomach, fretting the most about the difficulty of finding a cook for his expeditions, one who could work in the pitching, heaving chaos of the galley where even the saltiest sailor is sure to get seasick, juggling flying pans on swinging stoves and trying to do the best with a larder consisting of tins of bully beef (the corned beef that is the mainstay of British military rations), lifeboat biscuits (aka hardtack), twice-baked bread (Tilman obsesses about bread, chapattis, tostadas, regarding them as the essential tool for conveying cheese, fish paste, or peanut butter to the mouth), and rotten onions. The high point of any day at sea for Tilman was the “duff,” a kind of boiled pudding made from flour, lard, sultanas and molasses (among other things) in a bucket. I’m grateful he taught me that some indestructible black rye bread he procured from a Danish bakery near Godthab (Nuuk) was an “aperient” or mild laxative.

At about this early stage we first noticed a strange smell in the cabin, all pervasive and difficult to pin down, which I attributed to either a dead rat, fermenting rice, or uncommonly bad cheese. We had on board, stowed in the cabin, six whole ten lb Cheddars, each in a soldered tin. The smell having become intolerable we got to work with a cold chisel to open up all the cheeses. In three of the tins – and it is still a mystery how it got there — we found and inch or two of water. All was not lost. I housed the three sickly invalids in a box on deck where they could enjoy the sun and the wind. They were the last and by no means the worst to be eaten. Good judges, such as Taffy and myself, spoke highly of them, especially when alleviated with a raw onion.

H.W Tilman

He vanished in 1977 at the age of 79 in the South Atlantic near the Falkland Islands while crewing on an expedition organized by one of his former crew, Simon Richardson on a converted Dutch tug, the En Avant.

Tilman’s last berth

One of Tilman’s former hands, Bob Comly, has a wonderful blog about Tilman’s travels. There are a couple biographies of the man: High Mountains and Cold Seas and The Last Hero which I have yet to read. If you want some other Greenland reading I recommend Sloan Wilson’s Ice Brothers, a fictional story of the author’s service in the Coast Guard patrolling Greenland’s east coast for Nazi weather stations, and Rockwell Kent’s N by E.

Jim Gould

James W. Gould, 1924-2021

Jim Gould passed away last Saturday: March 13, 2021 at the age of 97.

His obituary spares me from trying to condense nearly 100 years of an incredibly accomplished life into a scant paragraph or two. I learned more about the man from reading it than he ever told me himself.

That was Jim. It wasn’t about himself, he wanted to know what was new with you, and always had a question for me that would occasionally brighten my inbox such as “Do you have any records of the Job Handy shipyard at Little River?” or “I’m working on a piece about captain’s wives who went to sea with their husbands on coastal schooners. Do you know if Chatfield brought his wife Florrie with him?”

I knew Jim Gould most of the last half of his life, first meeting him in the mid-1960s but more closely after I moved the family to Cotuit year-round in 1991 where he had retired with his wife Anne. He was involved in a number of projects to capture the history of the village he loved. Early on in the 9os he offered to come by the house and go through the old family photos with me, identifying nearly every forgotten face of my great-great uncles and cousins-twice-removed with delightful anecdotes about nearly all of them. A few years later he borrowed some of those photos for his book about Cotuit and Santuit which he and Jessica Rapp-Grassetti published in 2003.

Jim’s devotion to pacifism and Quakerism grew from his D-Day experience on the beaches of Normandy. His career in the foreign service and his professorship at Claremont College were preludes to his passion for promoting diplomacy and non-violence and diving into the history of Cape Cod and Cotuit

Jim was my mentor as an amateur historian. He put up with my questions patiently, corrected my facts, and genially reminded me of the factual ethics of primary historical research (using only first-hand accounts or records whenever possible vs. being lazy and quoting other historians). He did more primary research than any Cape Cod historian, and there have been several. Jim applied the academic rigor of a college professor to the cataloguing of dozens and dozens of old Cotuit homes through hours spent at the county registry of deeds, cataloguing old photographs, and doing lots of detective work in the field. Mention a barn and Jim knew the year it was floated on a barge around the Cape from Brewster to its first resting place in another village before landing next door. His memory was almost photographic and I can only hope I retain a fraction of the mental acuity he had well into his ninth decade.

Thanks to Jim no walk today through the village is boring. He was influential in creating the Cotuit Historic District in 1987, putting in a massive amount of legwork for the Town of Barnstable Historic Commission to inventory Cotuit’s old homes and get them listed in the National Register of Historic Places. He was an ardent preservationist, using stories about the old captains who had built the homes as an effective tool against over-development and thoughtless tear-downs, vanity piers and docks and sprawling subdivisions eating away at the village’s remaining open space.

After I moved to town he recruited me to join him and some others on a study group studying the possibility of having Cotuit declared a state historic preservation district, an rigorous and controversial process where the legislature passes an act declaring a neighborhood such as Beacon Hill in Boston, old Edgartown and Nantucket and even a long stretch of road such as the Old Kings Highway (Route 6A) from Sandwich to Orleans a special district subject to rigorous historical and architectural review before any old structures can be demolished or modified. The concept can be controversial, with a citizen review board given the legal authority to give its thumbs up or down to things like satellite TV dishes or the color of shutters. Jim’s intention was to put in place a mechanism where the village could have a say in the tear-down of old homes and present options to a new homeowner or developer that would preserve the historic character of the village at large. The razing of the Cotuit Inn — the former hotel owned by Congressman Charles Gifford and his wife Florence — that once stood on the hill above the center of the village with its beloved watering hole, Hack’s Bar. had broken a lot of hearts, especially after a generic mass of condos took the place of the old rambling hotel. I supported Jim for trying to put a protection in place, but the horror stories from other historic preservation districts of neighbors feuding with neighbors and review boards acting like overweening dictators soured me and other Cotusions on the idea. Jim bravely made the case of the district before a packed crowd at Freedom Hall, and gracefully folded his tents when it was obvious Cotuit wasn’t ready to add a new layer of bureacracy. As one friend said, “I’ll paint my damn house pink and purple if I want to. House paint is a matter of free speech!”

Though defeated, Jim was indefatigable. He was a pillar of the Historical Society of Santuit and Cotuit. The first paper he presented to the HSSC was in 1971: The Lowells and Literary Cotuit. His second, presented twenty years later, was a History of the Little River District of Cotuit , followed by A History of Santuit with Ken Molloy in 2001, and the following year on the Mansard Ladies of Cotuit.

The biggest test of his research skills required a lot of off-Cape research in the archives of Plymouth and Boston: his 2007 paper on the history of Colonial Cotuit. The country courthouse fire of 1827 destroyed all the earliest land records of the colony from the 1630s onwards, but Jim was undeterred and dove deep into the land deals negotiated by Myles Standish, and the subsequent “Kings Grants” of land to the first colonial settlers of Cotuit in 1648.

He did most of the research himself, in person, at the archives and libraries where the past was stored in paper — none of it digitized or converted into searchable online databases. Where I can send an email to the librarian at the Nantucket Historical Association with a request for a whaling log, Jim had to write a letter or take the boat. Where I can now do a full grantor-grantee title search on a property from my PC. Jim did it in person. I can find every mention of some old Cotusion like Braddock Crocker or Hezekiah Coleman online thanks to the Sturgis Library’s digital archives of the Barnstable Patriot. Jim had to visit in person, request microfilm, and spend hours squinting at a screen looking for the clues which he accumulated into great stories of the forgotten past.

Jim’s love of history was infectious. I majored in American History in college with a focus on 19th century spiritual and philosophical thought and a minor in maritime history. Jim was an expert in both and he revived my love for the topic, inspiring me to dig into the history of Cotuit/Mashpee relations and the Woodlot Revolt of 1833 (which he referred to as “The Troubles”), to use his initial research to delve deeper into the history of colonial Cotuit, hurricanes and gales, and Sampson’s Island and Dead Neck. In return I helped him set up his blog, a rich archive of much of his research over the past twenty years.

Jim led a walking tour of Mosswood Cemetery every Halloween. Every stone prompted a story about a person he could connect from memory to most of the other tombstones in the graveyard. Genealogy was his forte, and he was tireless in tracking down family trees long before tools like Ancestry.com existed. Jim loved the “story” in history, and the crowds who followed him through the graveyard heard his tales of Baby Ella, the infant who died on a whaling voyage and was pickled in a cask of rum with a little window so her grieving mother, Rosilla Nickerson, could mourn her baby; or to hear him recite, from memory, in his distinctive mellifluous voice, the epitaph of Azubah Handy, the first person to be buried in the cemetery under a slate tombstone engraved with the dolorous and oft-quoted epitaph written by Mr. Elisha Holmes:

My bosom friend, come here and see,
Where lays the last remains of me.
When I the debt of nature paid,
A burying yard for me was made.

I’ll miss the familiar sight of Jim on his daily walk picking up litter and stuffing it into a plastic grocery bag which he’d dispose at the Post Office before collecting his mail. He was the only person I’ve ever seen pick up roadside trash who wasn’t wearing an orange jumpsuit under the supervision of a sheriff. Years later, when he wasn’t making the walk any more, I started bringing a bag along with me on my lunch hour walks. His passing is a huge loss.

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.

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