Edmund Tarbell “My Family at Cotuit” 1898

Prof. Jim Gould shared this discovery by Paul Rifkin of a painting by Edmund Tarbell of a mother and her children sitting on the bluff of Lowell’s Point looking south over Codman’s (Bluff) Point and Sampson’s Island in Cotuit. This was the home of Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, my great-great grandfather’s friend who encouraged him to write his reminiscences.

Tarbell was a noted American painter. Here is his Wikipedia entry.

Sampson’s Island Dredging Begins

The big dig begins. Early this week a tug and barge dropped off the heavy equipment.

Today before pulling the Tashmoo for the winter I took a ride out to Sampson’s Island to check out the Dredging project. Two backhoes and a porta- potty are parked by the dune left over from the spoil pile deposited in the late 60s.

I don’t think this round of dredging will be that extensive, a pole in the shallows near a small excavator looks like the line — maybe 100 feet or so from the inner point.

So far the excavator has started chewing up the beach grass near the very end. I guess the idea is to get to bare sand before sending in the dredge and setting up the pipeline to pump the sand east towards the Wianno Cut where it’s needed to build up the eroding beach.

This has taken a few years, delayed by some opposition here in town, but supported enough to finally get the blessing from the state for work to commence. I agree with those who argued a win-win solution would have been a dredging of the Cotuit channel which is need of it, and could have supplied a lot of clean sand for the beach nourishment. But I also support cutting the point of Sampson’s way back towards the east the way it was in the 50s and 60s. Navigation is getting tough in the gut between Riley’s beach and the point, the short distance is all too inviting to people who think it is cool to swim across, and any widening that improves the tidal flow should do something to improve the quality of the water inside the harbor.

Building a boat

I want to build a boat as an antidote to the pernicious effects of digital devices on my soul. I live in a house with a boat shop attached to the back of it, a place where my grandfather turned out a dozen Cotuit Skiffs in the late 40s, the lofting plans carefully scribed and painted on the floor by my grandmother who went to art school.


This is an old urge, a genetic thing, a type of compulsion I can’t and won’t resist but still try to conceal from my wife Daphne who regards the shop as a place to hang raincoats and store rarely used kitchen appliances like rice cookers and deep-fat fryers.  She came back home after two weeks of travel to find I had proudly built four old-school saw horses. “What are those?” she asked. Knowing exactly what they are. “You aren’t going to build a boat,” she commanded, but there’s no way to hide the fact that over the past few months I’ve been cleaning the place out, purging it of a lot of accumulated crap and spider webs, poring over WoodenBoat magazine’s forums for advice on what tools to buy, to get ready for my first project.


The house has no basement to speak of, so the shop has served as a  lazy storage area ever since we moved here in 1991. In the early 1960s, when I first came on the scene and my grandfather Henry was still alive, the shop was a boat shop, with drawers filled with templates and cast bronze boat fittings. There was a lathe, an oak  Gerstner machinist’s tool-and-die set, huge wood vises, and tidy little wooden drawers filled with silicon bronze screws. The tools were still all there then: an electric Miller’s Falls drill, a razor-sharp spokeshave, a collection of handmade wooden block planes, whet stones to sharpen them, boat maker’s bevels, wooden folding rulers, jars of boiled linseed oils and cans of Woolsey marine paint. The smell was of marline, that sailor’s twine that reeks of Swedish pine tar and Lapsang Souchong tea.


A pot belly cast iron stove stood in a wooden box filled with sand, the chimney pipe curved into a brick chimney that exited the roof of the sail loft on the second floor. Working out there in the winter must have been cold, but in the age before temperature sensitive two-part epoxies were a necessity they just slipped on a faded denim shop coat, stoked the fire, and went to work.


The ceiling was filled with scrap lumber in racks except for one big section where the trap door to the sail loft is located. My great-great grandfather, the whaling captain, after retiring from the sea,  made and mended sails up there, plying his trade on a sailmaker’s bench with a leather sailor’s palm, linen thread waxed with beeswax, three sided sail needles, big wooden fids for splicing ropes and hawsers, and all sorts of grommets and gasket. Heavy blocks with lignum vitae sheaves — blocks being the nautical term for “pulleys” — hung from the rafters, and above them, in the warmest, driest part of the room are still four immense rough sawn baulks of white Atlantic cedar, just waiting for me to take them down and turn them into a boat.


Over the years the shop lost a third of its floor plan as we renovated that end of the house and turned a section into an  entry-way, or mudroom. Now, as I contemplate building an 18-foot long rowing wherry on a 20-foot long frame. I am reaching the limit of how big a boat I can build indoors.

What remains is the big double shop doors, the main workbench overlooking the flower garden through ten big glass windows speckled with fly poop and saw dust suspended in the spider webs, the paint rack with all the scrapers and mineral spirits, turpentine and cans of boat paint, the ceiling racks for battens and scrap wood, and a lot of antique tools that call back to the time, not so very long ago, when everything was done by hand. Holes were drilled with a bit-and-brace. Screws driven with wooden handled screw drivers.

Lots of the tools are gone, lost by me and my brother as plundered the shop after my grandfather’s death in the mid-60s to repair our boats, build fences, or fashion bongs out of whatever bong-like material we could filch — like the long bamboo pole used to roll up the porch rug every fall and which we sawed into three-foot lengths and drilled out to make devices to smoke the evil “love weed” as our zero-tolerance father called it. The lathe went to Bob Boden, because he’s a salty guy and a distant relative. The hand saws, the planes, the wooden handled chisels and block planes, the band saw, the screw drivers — all were lost or wrecked over the years.

But now I’m replacing that stuff one tool at a time. One favorite new tool is a Lie-Nielsen block plane. Planing wood with one of these tools is an immensely rewarding experience as the thing is so sharp, so perfectly engineered, that wielding it gives me a feeling of being one with the wood, understanding the first time the true spirit of wood grain and a deft touch.


Now I’m getting ready to order the lumber and the various fasteners and adhesives needed to build the Petaluma wherry — an open boat with a sliding seat,foot stretchers, and stainless steel riggers I plan on rowing around the three bays next spring. But first I’m practicing not cutting off my fingers with my new Makita skilsaw, and not ruining a couple hundred dollars worth of Sitka spruce by building things like saw horses. I’ve also become addicted to a few wooden boat building channels on YouTube, especially Tips from a Shipwright by Wickford, Rhode Island skiff builder Louis Sauzedde; Acorn to Arabella, in which two young men in western Massachusetts are building a 38′ wooden ketch designed by William Atkin in the style of Colin Archer; and Sampson Boat Company’s restoration of the 107-year old Albert Strange English racing yacht, Tally Ho.

The Petaluma wherry: project #1

All of this reading, watching and practicing is giving me enough confidence to be dangerous, but until I actually drive up to Boulter Plywood and start ordering pounds of copper nails from Jamestown Distributors, it’s all just an excuse to perform a kind of nautical puttering.

After the storm

Three of us walked Sampson’s Island with a garbage bag on Sunday afternoon. The storm the day before blew from the southeast so the berm of island was chiseled down flat, the wet sand black with old wood ash from some ancient fire that cut a thin black line across the face of the base of the dunes.

We stuffed the heavy duty bag with Dunkin’s cups, mylar birthday balloons, Fireball nips and lost lobster buoys then drove it over to Crosby’s where the accomodating barman at the Chart Room let us sling the bag into his dumpster.

A cup of chowder, a beer or two, and back to Cotuit at full speed into the honking breeze with the trees in their glory and the clouds scudding out to sea.

Shark Risks

The sad and violent death of a young surfer last weekend in Wellfleet was the first death by shark in Massachusetts since the 1930s and  has everyone I know here in Cotuit wondering about the risks of going into the water in the future. I can act the know-it-all and give them the usual reassuring statistical probabilities about lightning and air crashes being a more likely way to die, but there’s something so primally awful about the thought of being attacked by an unseen apex predator that I imagine the most improbable odds are enough to keep some people from taking the chance. Even the latest victim reportedly scoffed at his grandmother’s warning and told her he was “Superman.”

Would I have gone swimming this summer given the earlier, non-fatal attack of a New York neurologist in Truro, and the constant news reports of shark sightings and beach closings? Of course not. I won’t go swimming  anytime unless I’m thrown in the water by a capsize or pushed in by a jerky friend.  I just have a thing about other critters in the ocean, ranging from jellyfish to spider crabs, not to mention 20-foot long sharks.

Do I blame people for ignoring the warnings? Nope, because I live in the IdiocracyOw! My Balls! era of GoPro recorded self-injury and if people think jumping off cliffs wearing batsuits is entertaining, then people are going to go bodysurfing in the waves with sharks. I guarantee people are going to try to get selfies of themselves with sharks just for the likes and shares.

When I am in or on the water I don’t considered myself at any exceptional risk of a shark attack, but the thought has crossed my mind, especially in the early  70s when Jaws was  being filmed across the sound around Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t do the sort of things that get people eaten — kayaking in a boat shaped like a seal, boogie boarding, skinny dipping, abalone diving, etc. — but I have spent a lot of time wading in the water at night, especially twenty years ago when I was into surfcasting and taking stupid risks in the surf along the outer Cape from P-town to Monomoy. I gave that pastime up when the seals started to be a serious nuisance, stealing stripers off the line just because they could.  Nothing gets a heart rate up like getting one’s legs bumped by a playful seal in the surf off the beach at Chatham Light at 3 am. Now the seals are all over the place out there, massive shoals of the mermaids-for-dogs blanketing the beaches around Nauset and Monomoy Island. There’s so many of them — more than 50,000 according to the Boston Globe — that they can be seen from space.

Monomoy  seals as seen on Google Earth

This past June I saw a seal pop up inside of the drawbridge in Osterville, right in the channel across from the gas docks. That’s a first — I’ve seen seals in the spring, swimming around the Wianno Cut and out in the Sound during squid season, popping up and looking like a curious scuba diver from a distance. But June? When the water quality isn’t very good and there isn’t a ton of food in the water like the April herring run or the late summer menhaden schools …. I guess the seals are heading into the estuaries and bays to avoid swimming in the open water where they can get picked off.

So the question to ponder is: what are the odds a great white shark has entered the bays around Cotuit looking for something to eat? Great whites are pelagic fish — open ocean creatures — who cover lots of miles in their migrations and range everywhere from Cape Cod to South Africa to Australia to the Farallon Islands off of San Francisco . It makes sense they would hang around inshore if their favorite food happens to be a big ball of seal blubber and that blubber is laying by the thousands on the sandy strand.

There was a big to-do in Hadley’s Harbor in 2004 when a big female great white swam around  in that little harbor for a couple of days. That sighting drew a lot of attention to the fact that  there were great whites swimming in Cape Cod water. Around the same time the seal population in Chatham went crazy, flourishing in the decades since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act which stopped the rumored practice of commercial fishermen and lobstermen to carry hunting rifles on their boats to keep the seals from raiding their traps.  These seals didn’t just appear from nowhere. Apparently they are part of a big herd from Canada’s Sable Island who decided to relocate to the Cape’s clement shores.

The Hadley’s Harbor Great White of 2004

Seals equal  great whites. It’s just the way it is. No seals. No sharks. But no one is seriously considering getting rid of the seals, which means the sharks are here to stay, There were no seals around Cahoon Hollow Beach last weekend when the most recent attack occurred.

The question about shark attack risk is as much historical as it is about probabilities. The last victim, 16 year old Joseph Troy Jr. of Dorchester*, got picked off by a great white while swimming off the beach north of Mattapoissett on Buzzard’s Bay in the summer of 1936,  why weren’t there other attacks reported from that time, before that time, or in the 82 years that followed?  Where were the seals hanging out in 1936? Why were there very few seals in the late 1980s and 90s and suddenly a bazillion at the turn of the century? Did they vanish because of some cyclical trend or were they being hunted to the point they weren’t a feature of the local fauna?

Spring Gathering Of Seals On Cape Cod

Let some marine mammal expert answer that question, but the prevailing local wisdom is either kill  all the seals and repeal at the Marine Mammal Protection Act (the fisherman’s solution) or let Mister  and Missus Jaws do their thing and let nature sort it out. Something tells me we’re closer to the historical balance in the food chain now than we were at any point in the last 50 years.

Shark about to take out a mermaid-for-dogs

But in the aftermath of the fatal attack the press is now talking about solutions. I think the local officials on the outer Cape are biting their knuckles and acting like Mayor Larry in Jaws, worried about tourist season and summer dollars if beaches get closed and no one can go for a dip. My favorite elected wingnut, a Barnstable county commissioner, wanted to adopt the solution used in South Africa — a thing called a drum line which is essentially a set of baited hooks that intercept the sharks before they find someone’s leg.

Shark nets are used in Australia — I saw one next to the ferry terminal at Manly Beach on Sydney Harbor — but I can’t see how they would last very long in the pounding surf of the Atlantic. Maybe around Cotuit and the more protected waters, but even then I bet the expense is crazy and the effectiveness is limited. All it takes is one unlucky paddleboarder to fall off outside of the net and there goes that false sense of security. There are ankle bracelets one can wear which emit some electronic repellent that keeps sharks away, but if you’re wearing electronics to ward of man-eaters then you need to reassess your choice of pastimes.

As I tell my worried friends — the Mattapoissett attack happened a little more than 15 miles away from Cotuit. Hadley’s Harbor, where the 2004 sighting took place is 14 miles away. And Monomoy Island, where the seals are, is 23 miles from Cotuit. So do the math. Are great whites swimming around Cotuit? Probably not on a daily basis — it’s shallow, kind of murky and nasty in the summer, and not stocked with a huge number of seals — but I wouldn’t declare the place shark free by a long shot.


*: the definitive account of the 1936 Mattapoissett attack was published in 1950. Online version at Jstor (registration required) https://www.jstor.org/stable/2421830?loggedin=true&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

See, Gudger, E. W. “A Boy Attacked by a Shark, July 25, 1936 in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts with Notes on Attacks by Another Shark Along the New Jersey Coast in 1916.” The American Midland Naturalist 44, no. 3 (1950): 714-19. doi:10.2307/2421830.