When a brand gets blamed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I see your puny N95 and raise you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carving a half-model

Half-model of the cutter Madge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hulk of the Madge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the water in October

Chasing fish on a Saturday afternoon in Cotuit

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

Mount Seapuit

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

An October Blow

I read a depressing story in the New York Times yesterday about the sick trees of Massachusetts, beset with borers, weevils and fungi, getting hammered as the climate changes and local nurseries have started to offer species from the mid-Atlantic region instead of the native hardwoods and pines that have been here for 10,000 years.

The late Paul Noonan told me the old timers in Cotuit said summer always ended in October with a big blow from the southwest. I guess that happened yesterday. The morning was calm enough to make me guilty about not going for a row and one of the Ospreys was still complaining atop the tall pine tree in the woods behind the shop, and once again I fretted a bit that the birds usually decamp for South America the third week of September and have shown no signs of migrating like the rest of the flock. I knew it was going to get windy, with gusts forecasted to reach 50 mph, and that’s exactly how it blew all day, just like it does every October when the humidity suddenly vanishes and the cricket in the shop starts to chirp slower and slower with the coming cold.

I don’t imagine the ospreys picked the day of gale to fly straight into the face of the cold front coming at us from where they are going, and I wasn’t surprised the morning after the gale when I went outside to discover them still in residence, after a long stormy night when I pictured them gritting their big beaks, menhaden-ripping talons locked around a tossing branch, facing into the tempest like pirates pissing to windward after the sun went down and the winds built up to their grand finale.

The gusts had been building every minute or so, holding their breath at the peak then subsiding and letting the shaken trees compose themselves before the next one built up and swept over the yard. Around dinnertime one gust kept building and building and went from a Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale to a Force 11 on the Nigel Tufnel scale, shaking the old house, its window frames and iron sash slugs clattering and bonging in the walls, the flimsy, sill-rotted frame of the sail loft and boat shop creaking like the end was near.

Then a big bang as a huge limb of honey locust, tree turds and all came down in the back garden, just missing the roof of the loft and the double doors at the end of the shop. My neighbor Phil’s cars weren’t so lucky and this morning we agreed it’s time for the old tree to be cut down. Honey Locusts only live 120 years or so, and this one is massive and has been shedding limbs the past few seasons. Even though the last arborist to work on the tree rigged some steel cables, the one that suspended last night’s victim got unhooked and the result is a mess of seed pods, broken branches and leaves.

“I don’t want to be the last boat builder”

A marvelous profile of one of the last of the wooden shipwrights in Essex, Massachusetts. the center of colonial ship building on the North Shore.

I found this brief profile of one of the state’s last shipwrights while researching the history of shipbuilding in Massachusetts. Harold Burnham’s ancestors started building boats in the 1600s in Essex on the North Shore. He’s still at it today, preserving a bit of history one tree at a time.

Drive-in Dead

In which I go to a “Dead” concert at a Cape Cod drive in

The last time I saw the Grateful Dead play was sometime in the early 90, shortly before Jerry Garcia’s death. Since then I’ve never been bothered to go to any of the post-Dead bands’ concerts by the likes of Dead & Co, Further, Phil Lesh and Friends, Bobby and the Midnights … I never was a fan of tribute bands and getting me to pull out my wallet to pay current ticket prices only happens if the band is sort of still together and I’m buying the tickets as a present for my wife who is far more of a true fan of the music than I am.

Early last week I caught the news that the Dark Star Orchestra would be playing two shows on Friday and Saturday nights at the old Yarmouth Drive-In on Route 28 here on Cape Cod. $150 bought me the right to show up in a vehicle with up to four people, so I bought the tickets and told my wife and son we were going. Was it a responsible thing to do with Covid cases on the rise here in Massachusetts? Would it be fun or a pain in the ass? Would the band be any good?

Who cares. It was the first weekend of the fall, the weather was great, and seriously, it’s not like the social calendar is crowded with other competition for my leisure time.

Got to love a faux lighthouse

The band was great. The facility was well run and we were directed at our “suite” staked out by wooden posts and ropes in the fourth row and slightly to the right. The crowd was in the spirit, tons of tie-dye shirts, battery powered blinking lights, glow sticks and clouds of marijuana everywhere.

We backed in, opened the rear lid of the SUV, and hung out in the back of the car or on the bumper. Two sets and three hours later, I predicted two out of the last three songs — Stella Blue, Sugar Magnolia, and an encore of US Blues. Son and wife looked at me like a wizard when I announced “we are outta here” and loaded up the car for an early exit before the usual traffic jam. We listened to US Blues on the radio (Your Car is the PA!) as we cruised down a deserted Route 28 under a rising moon, past the t-shirt shops and mini-golf courses towards home.

I’d do it again — the drive-in concert experience that is. When the band said these were their first concerts since February I was sad for all those musicians who are grounded by the quarantine. Hats off to the promoter who figured out the drive-in solution, but still it felt sad to consider that the Yarmouth Drive-In claims to be the biggest live music venue in New England this summer.

Forty-Six Years of WoodenBoat Magazine

Decades of wooden boat knowledge in a USB key

First published in 1974, WoodenBoat Magazine is one of those rare magazines best read in print, never thrown away, and kept in a safe place for that inevitable time in the future when one needs to know the proper way to caulk a seam, steam a plank, or scribe a new waterline. I’ve been a occasional subscribers to the bimonthly for some time, but every so often, as I try to teach myself how to build a new boat or repair an old one, I turn to the WoodenBoat online forums, ask a question and receive a reply that my question was answered in an issue from long ago.

If I’m really desperate for the knowledge I buy a single electronic issue from the WoodenBoat store. But having done that several times in the past few months, I gladly parted with $170 to receive a USB packed with all 276 issues. It arrived this morning, packaged in a beautiful wooden case inlaid with a brass anchor and ship’s wheel.

Every publisher should do this with their archive of past issues

When dealing with boats, there’s no such thing as a bargain, but this investment translates into a per issue cost of sixty-one cents. Not bad for a gorgeous magazine that costs $7.95 on the newsstand.

Now, if I can only figure out the index to the issues (the file seems to be corrupted), I need to hunt down an article about building half-models, which in turn will lead me to other articles about lofting and other arcane pieces of shipwright knowledge that can’t be found any place else.

And I need to figure out what to do with the wooden case, with some modifications it might be a nice case for my collection of rusty sailmaker needles.

Here’s the cover of the first issue:

Circumnavigating Grand Island

In the mid 1990s I purchased a single scull to row around Cotuit Bay. I built a rack for it on the back fence and painted the blades of the two oars with the same green-yellow-white palette used by my grandmother to help my color-blind grandfather pick out my father’s skiff from the rest of the fleet. Every weekend morning when I was home from NYC I would wake up at dawn, put on a pair of rowing shorts that were more likely than not still wet from the last row, slip on some rubber clogs and slip out the back door to lift the boat from its rack and swing it up and onto my head for the walk down Main Street and Old Shore Road to the harbor.

I’d pretend to laugh if someone I knew drove up the hill and rolled down their window to say “Nice hat!”

If I was lucky the tide would be high, otherwise I’d have to kick off the clogs and squish through the primordial clam mud, 40-lbs. and 29-feet of racing shell held high overhead with locked arms, grimacing as I stepped on broken clam shells and the black goo squirted between my toes before I could reach enough water to roll the hull out and down with a splash. The ladies of the Cotuit Rowing Club would wave as they rigged their oars in a four. Fishermen would look at me suspiciously as they backed their trailers down the ramp and checked out the fat guy with the too-tight shorts about to climb onto an impossibly skinny boat.

I’d set off on flat calm waters as the sun topped the pine trees on Grand Island, heading across Cotuit Bay, picking my way carefully out of the anchorage and down the fairway to open water where I’d turn the bow to point down the long straightaway into North Bay, lining up the narrow stern with the steeple of the Masonic Temple next door to Freedom Hall.

Ten strokes, starting with short quarter, half, then three-quarter length slides up and down the tracks on the rolling seat to get the boat moving, settling down to full strokes and lengthening every catch and drive as I started to sweat in the morning humidity. Turn around on the tenth stroke, take a quick snapshot over my shoulder for any obstacles like moorings, channel markers, fishermen cruising out to the Sound without any navigation lights, or other rowers, kayakers or paddleboarders who might not see me paddling away. Then counting off ten more stokes, looking backwards and upsetting the boat a bit, readjusting the course by pressing down on one foot more than the other.

Having plowed a borrowed Alden Ocean Shell double into a moored Boston Whaler, and rowed a borrowed Grahame King-built double head-on into another boat at a regatta on the Charles River, my paranoia of rowing backwards without the guidance of a front-facing coxswain is deep and abiding.

The first leg from the cove at Ropes Beach through Inner Harbor to the Narrows is about 1000 meters. On the ergometer each stroke is typically counted as ten meters, so ten strokes can cover 100 meters. a distance long enough that a backwards glance is only enough to see if the next ten strokes can be hard ones, or if the bow is pointed at a dock and needs to start curving to port on the third stroke to thread the gap between the red channel can and the float at the end of the pier. I stay out of the channel at all times, preferring to hug the shore and find the gap there between any anchored boats and the beach. That way, if I flip the boat I wind up in waist deep water, a good thing if the water temperature is under 50 degrees and hypothermia becomes a fear.

10,000 meters of some of the best rowing water there is.

Then the transit of North Bay, the designated water skiing area, where everyone pushes the throttles down to the deck and relieves the boredom of the 6 mph speed limits in effect everywhere else in the Three Bay estuary. Fast motorboats can generate huge tsunami wakes that come at a rower from the side, lifting you three feet up, oars wildly swinging in the air, rolling you into the trough where the next wave washes over the boat and soaks one’s lower body in green water. Some motorboaters get enraged when a sculler paralleling the channel passes them on the right and pulls away. Once they hit North Bay they want to get away from me like an old lady passing a hedge fund princeling riding his $20,000 Colnago down the middle of Main Street, and take off with a roar and a big fart of two-stroke outboard exhaust for me to inhale on the next stroke.

Still, I catch up to them again within a mile when they leave the bay and hit the channel into Osterville and the boat yards. That’s where careful navigation is needed, threading through moorings off of the fourth hole of the Wianno Club golf course before sliding down the main channel between the boat yards and gas docks. The drawbridge is always tricky because the current accelerates under the span and its best to stay out of the center and take the shoreside arch in case another boat is coming around the corner from the Wianno Yacht Club.

Yesterday, as I rowed into West Bay, I realized the winds had shifted and started to swing back towards the usual southwest direction it blows from most of the summer. The gusts left over from Hurricane Teddy (which passed well to the east of Chatham the day before on its way to Canada) were shrieking in the late afternoon sunshine, kicking up a jagged chop as I popped out from under the draw bridge. Fetch and shadow is the trick to open water rowing. Fetch being the amount of open water that the wind has to work with to churn up any waves. The more fetch there is, the higher the waves. The wind shadow is the calm area in the lee, or downwind side of any land mass, usually extending out five to ten times the height of the land and trees. When transiting West Bay, a shallow body of water bisected by a busy channel, sometimes the trick isn’t to take the shortest line to the head of the bay, but to tough out a few minutes of taking the waves on the beam, the boat rolling a lot in the chop, just to gain the strip of calm water beneath the verdant mansions on Oyster Harbor’s eastern shore.

I was pooped by the time I sculled up to the entrance of the Osterville Cut, the man-made ditch flanked by stone jetties that divides the barrier beach of Dead Neck from the Osterville mainland. A big swell was infiltrating the bay through the channel out into Nantucket Sound, putting the wherry to its first big test since I launched it in mid-August, rolling me around enough to make me a bit queasy as I crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the Seapuit River, a shallow area the colonists called the “Wading Place” because they could drive their cattle across at low tide to graze on the island’s salt hay.

I waited for a couple of motorboats to make their intentions known, then zipped across the Seapuit to Dead Neck, beached the bow and hopped out, ancient bones and sore muscles making me hobble around on the beach while I drank some water and pulled out the pump to empty the wherry (which still leaks a bit, but had been taking an occasional wave over the side as I crossed the bay and took the wind broadside).

The Seapuit River is my favorite stretch in the entire 10,000 meter row. The sand dunes of Dead Neck block the worst of the wind, the river is too narrow for any chop to build up, and this time of year, when the water begins to clear, it’s a pleasure to skim over the shallows near the beach grass and get a clear stretch of water for some hard speed work.

My buddy Steve and I agree the worst part of the row is the end of the river where it enters Cotuit Bay near Cupid’s Cove, the ancient harbor entrance that silted over after the Osterville Cut was built in the early 1900s. On a southwest wind there’s a lot of fetch across lower Cotuit Bay and white caps build up over the shallows before crashing into the shoreline of Oyster Harbors where they bounce back into the next set of waves, creating a vicious chop that has to be transited broadside. I’ve had some dicey moments in my Empacher over the years, filling the cockpit with water and rolling so hard my knuckles would get smashed on the gunwales, but in the wherry the ride was bearable, I just had to grit my teeth and “sky” my blades high in the air during the recovery to keep them from spanking the tops of the waves.

And then, with the end in sight, it was a matter of getting through the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant, covered with little black buoys, across the main channel, and back into the mooring field off of Ropes Beach.

I pulled ashore next to the boat ramp, pumped out the boat to lighten the load, picked up the stern and set the green hull into the trolley I made out of PVC pipe and wheelbarrow tires. I had circumnavigated the Three Bays estuary for the first time in who-knows-how-long, something I hadn’t realized I missed until I finished it. Ten years ago, when I was competing as a “senior master” in fall regattas from the Green Mountain Head (my favorite) to the Head of the Charles (the most prestigious), I was rowing around the island five or six times a week, timing myself from the drawbridge to home because that’s roughly the same distance as the Head of the Charles course. In those days I could make the entire 9,250 meter row in 40 minutes. It took me over an hour this week. As Charlie Clapp says, “The older we get, the faster we were.”

As I strap the boat into the trolley and make it ready to be dragged up the hill to the house, every time without fail, someone stops their car, gets out and walks down the boat ramp to admire the boat and ask me if I built it, an indication I suppose of the boat’s unfinished condition and people’s fascination with home built boats in this era of plastic kayaks. I haven’t cleaned up the wooden frame since assembling the boat, so bits of dried epoxy and smears of paint need to be chipped and scraped off before I can consider varnishing the red cedar. Right now the wood is protected with a coat of teak oil, but I think later this fall I’ll put some time into finishing the boat properly before suspending her from the rafters of the garage in a kayak/canoe sling I purchased on Amazon.

Every row in the boat is an opportunity to tune the rig a little bit to make it row easier and smoother. I’ve had two Olympic rowers — Charlie Clapp and John Bigelow — take a look at the setup of the riggers, slide, foot stretchers and oarlocks. Both agree I needed to get my weight lower and the oarlocks higher. Once all the adjustments are made and I know I won’t be trimming any wood to get thing exactly right, then I can declare the boat finished and spend some time with a can of varnish to make her gleam.