Cotuit Skiff plans and specifications

I noticed a bolus of traffic last week and traced the sudden interest in this blog to a thread on the WoodenBoat Magazine forum recommending an old post I wrote about my grandfather’s boat shop. I did a search on my last name and found a few threads where members of the forum were seeking a set of plans for a Cotuit Skiff — the 14-foot, gaff-rigged one-design flatiron skiff designed over 100 years ago by Cotuit boatbuilder Stanley Butler.

Having a digital copy of the Edwin Mairs plans — the set of offsets and lines created at the request of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club that was tired of having to calculate each boat’s handicap when determining the correct-time winner of its summer races.

The page with links to the plans and the official specifications from the Cotuit Skiff Class Association can be found here: https://wordpress.com/page/churbuck.com/26309

Review: This is how they tell me the world ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race

Nicole Perlroth has spent more than a decade covering the cybersecurity beat for the New York Times. She followed John Markoff, a contemporary of mine who broke the story of the first Internet worm when Robert Tappan Morris sent a string of code out into the unmapped network to map its nodes and byways.

In her reporting she’s covered some legendary hacks, attacks, and feats of digital espionage that, when viewed across a timeline of escalating threats and exploits against the world’s new central nervous system, portray a world being eaten by software. The cybersecurity beat is, in my opinion as someone who covered computer crime in the 80s and 90s, the most frustrating and opaque of any in journalism. An editor at Forbes challenged me to find out what secret supercomputers or massively parallel Thinking Machines the National Security Agency had inside of its impenetrable glass cubes at Fort Meade and after months of fruitless phone calls chasing unsubstantiated rumors of incredible feats of American hacking and cracking with not a single source willing to go on the record I realized I wasn’t up to the challenge.

Perlroth’s new book This Is How They Tell Me World Ends, is the first thing I’ve read about cyberwarfare that made me seriously consider turning into a full fledged prepper to get ready for China and Russia to turn off the grid, open the floodgates, and knock the world back to the 1850s. The book is a modern history of how the world’s spies and criminals have amassed an arsenal of “exploits” that can turn an iPhone into a tracking device, lock nuclear power plant technicians out of a reactor’s control systems, infest the firmware and programmable logic controllers that spin Iranian centrifuges, open and close American hydroelectric dams, sneak backdoors into popular apps and nearly drain the national reserves of Bangladesh by hacking into the SWIFT financial network.

I read the book in the week leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country Perlroth portrays as a sandbox for Russia’s state sponsored hackers’ to test out new DDOS attacks and malware, where the wiping of entire networks has been going on for years. The book is a grim lesson in how cyberwar is waged and underlined by long-held belief that privacy and the concept of secrecy is a fiction, that anything can be hacked, and unless software developers stop “moving fast and breaking things” and figure out how to ship unhackable code, the best a person can do it turn on two-factor authentication and start changing their passwords from the minimum requirements to scrambled sentences of nonsense.

I don’t ordinarily recommend a lot of books on this blog or post review on Goodreads or Amazon, but I think this book is important as it reveals the secret, sordid history of cyberweapons, the irony of how those weapons were developed in some cases by the American intelligence community only to be hacked and unleashed on the world for any repressive regime to use. The story of former American intelligence community hackers becoming hired guns and hacking the First Lady’s phone and email for a Middle-East regime, of the impact of Snowden, of the software industry prosecuting hackers who brought bugs and flaws to their attention to now paying them bounties for testing and probing and finding exploits that, on the black market, could sell for well over $250,000 and wind up in the hands of anyone with the money and ambition to stock their own arsenal with weapons that have already been used to extort, defraud, and destroy with incredible speed and ferocity.

Up until this book, the hidden market for zero day exploits has been covered in bits and pieces, but it’s Perlroth’s dogged reporting that breaks through the code of lies and silence and clearly lays out for the layperson the extent of the threat, the misadventures and ignorance that got us to where we are today, and unfortunately little in the way of speculation of what we’re supposed to do if the lights go out and the data is lost and the supply chains and the grids and their fundamentals of civilization get knocked off line and stay off line.

Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Chris Locke died on the winter solstice. Facebook posts by Doc Searls and J.P. Rangaswami broke the sad news that the man the world knew at the dawn of the World Wide Web as Rageboy was gone, done in by too many ciggies and a long struggle with COPD.

Chris came into my world in the mid-80s when I was a reporter at PC Week and rang him up after seeing him quoted somewhere talking about artificial intelligence. He was a great source who had a wild mind that would veer from outrage to hysteria,  riffing about whatever came to mind with great clarity and emotion. Chris was the most “un-IBMer” I knew at IBM.

In the early 90s at Forbes I moved away from covering the PC industry which had sunk into a boring spell of interactive CD-ROMs and the rise of chief information officers who were supposed to be the original digital transformation prophets at the old, hidebound companies Chris would mock in The Cluetrain Manifesto, the book he co-authored with Doc, David Weinberger, and Rick Levine in 1999 just in time for the first collapse in the dot.com mania that had been building ever since the introduction of the Web in 1994. When I went deep into document processing and hypertext technologies in 1992 Chris introduced me to the father of the granddaddy of all page description languages, SGML (Structured Generalized Mark-up Language, Stanley Goldfarb.   Stanley tried to persuade me to help him write a book about SGML, but the technical level of the material was way beyond my comprehension and, as Chris would say, “MEGO” (My Eyes Glazed Over) set in, so I begged off and instead started digging into the simpler world of HTML – a descendent of SGML known as the HyperText Markup Language.

Steve Larsen: “There are whistles and cheers in the crowd. People are standing. One guy is on his table. Paper airplanes and erasers are filling the air.”

Doc Searls: The Cluetrain Manifesto had four authors but one voice, and that was Chris Locke‘s.”

Other tributes to Chris

Chris introduced me to Yuri Rubinsky, CEO of HotMetal Pro, one of the first HTML authoring tools. Before long I was building very crude websites, relying on Chris for introductions to people like John Patrick at IBM, who built the first IBM.com and ran it on a ThinkPad under his desk  (when he closed the laptop at the end of the day to go home IBM.com went dark until Patrick could get back online. ) In 1995 Chris hired me to contribute a series of essays on digital journalism for a project called NetEditors that was sponsored by InternetMCI.  Those six essays gave me the space, with Chris’ expertise as an editor, to speculate about a lot of things that were going to change in media — especially newspapers and magazines — when the Internet grew up and took over because of the inevitable power of open technology standards to overcome the proprietary. When the means of production moved from tanker cars full of ink and monster rolls of newsprint to the infinitude of limitless page space filled with free publishing tools, opening the door to the long tail publishing model that would permit special interest online publishers to further distill themselves into niches driven by a community as opposed to content alone. I borrowed the insights of Bill Ziff into the unique function a magazine like Modern Bride, Skiing, Popular Mechanics, or PC Week played for people who were really into stereo gear or ski bindings. Advertisers paid a premium for the focus of each magazine’s circulation list or “audience” who in turn regarded the advertising as relevant to their interests but also a valuable source of new information that was of equal value to the stories and photographs published by the magazine’s writers and editors. With Chris’ egging me on , I wrote about the business model for fictional “hyper-niche” website for people who knit with pet hair, not knowing there are actually people who do just that and who even wear the resulting sweaters, mittens and hats .

Little did I know that this in fact is a real thing,nor that a Forbes colleague had written a book on the subject. Not wanting to base my speculations on cat sweaters instead I continues the NetEditors series with speculations about a hyper-focused, hyper-local online publication for anglers who fished in saltwater, with fly rods, with sub-editions for different regions of the world. That led me to collaborate with an actual fishing buddy to start a company to build just a site and others in the outdoor sports space. We launched Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing in 1995.

That project gave me the courage to build the first Forbes.com prototype which I showed to the Forbes brothers who put me in charge of activating the publishing deals they had signed with CompuServe and Prodigy. Once those were figured out we were able to launch the Forbs Digital Tool at Forbes.com

Around that time I invited to participate in an invite-only “retreat” hosted at a conference center somewhere around Philadelphia by Jerry Michalski, the editor of Esther Dyson’s tech newsletter, Release 1.0. There Esther dubbed Chris with the “Rageboy” tag that became his alter-ego to the end of his days. As fifty or so smart people talked about then-hot topics like community and micropayments, Chris took to the microphone and delivered a long, escalating rant that combined the acerbic wit of H.L. Mencken with the gonzo excesses of Hunter S. Thompson.

By the end of the 1990s, as normalcy started to spin out of  control and strange stuff like WorldCom and Enron were at their fraudulent peaks, when dot.com mania was peaking, Chris and his co—authors issued the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. When those declarations were turned into a book, Chris Locke wrote the first chapter. You can read Internet Apocalypso here. It’s a very good measure of the way the man thought and wrote.  Churned by a number of projects ranging from InternetMCI to Mecklerweb, Chris wound up at IBM as Big Blue’s Internet evangelist, where the cultural mismatch was breathtaking to behold even given the extremes of the rest of Chris Locke’s exceptionally eccentric career. In “Internet Apocalypso” he wrote:

“In 1995, I ended up in IBM’s Internet division. A ranking PR guy from corporate headquarters ran into me one day and said he’d heard I had a lot of contacts in the financial press. He suggested we get together for lunch and talk about it. I took this as a good sign, maybe an opening to do what I liked best. But when we met several weeks later he said something like, “All those journalists you know? Never talk to them again.

“He said I should refer all such conversations to him instead. That way, he said, the company’s messaging would be consistent. Or words to that effect. But I knew they wouldn’t be real conversations — they would be “key message” pitches, and I wasn’t about to subject people I knew and liked to that sort of targeting. I kept my contacts to myself.

“I was devastated. It was bad enough that I’d been explicitly forbidden to speak with journalists, many of whom had become good friends, but where was I going to write? If I published anything, I’d get busted for not asking permission — there was that word again — and if I wrote sleazy PR for IBM, I’d have to kill myself to blot out the karmic stain. “

Internet Apocalypso, The Cluetrain Manifesto, Chris Locke

Instead, Chris  launched his own blog, Entropy Gradient Reversals, quit IBM, and found his voice of indignant amazement at the general cluelessness of the dinosaurs about to get wiped off the face of the economy by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter.

I’m going to miss him as a friend and force for good in my life. It has been years since we last spoke and I know his recent years were tough financially and medically. Sadly he’s gone to join  other friends of mine from that first wave of Internet prophets – John Perry Barlow, Tom Mandel at SRI,   Jimmy Guterman come to mind – all of them people who died too soon who never cashed out, who never faked it until they made it, who saw the future and worked to make it right.

 As I pulled together my thoughts for this post after another sleepless night, I tried to find some evidence of those early Chris Locke collaborations from 1995. Alas, as pointed out earlier this year in The Atlantic by Harvard Law prof Jonathan Zittrain – link rot has erased all signs of that work, with even the Internet Archive missing those longwinded speculations about what might be wrought on civilization by the commercialization of a network where nobody was in charge. Chris hated authority and would probably approve of the gradual vanishing of those old early essays. This was a man who took offense at a Burger King website that invited customers to contribute – but warned them in the legal fine print that anything submitted to Burger King automatically became the property of Burger King.

“Our own contribution to the furtherance of responsible Copyright Protection consisted in feeding the entire collected corpora of Project Gutenberg through the Burger King form, thus ending Literature As We Know It.”

Christopher Locke, 1947-2021

Vincent Scully on winter rowing

Vincent Scully was an architectural historian who lectured at Yale. His class was one of the can’t-miss hits on the college curriculum in the 70s and 80s . From the jammed lecture hall came stories of Professor Scully breaking down in tears at the lectern while grieving the demolition of great works such as New York City’s Penn Station, presenting his slide show of architecture’s greatest hits and misses with great duende.

Vincent Scully: Credit

Scully was profiled by The New Yorker in February 1980. James Stevenson concluded by quoting Scully explaining his love of rowing on Long Island Sound in the winter. In 1974 the professor acquired a Gloucester Gull dory — a light, cut-down dory for one rower on a fixed thwart or seat. It’a design meant for very raucous open water rowing.

“When the river is frozen in the winter, I carry the boat until I find open water, and then I just launch it. It’s wonderful rowing through the ice floes. I go out in wild seas all winter. The wind comes from different directions, and the water is always alive, always different. I love to row through the big waves. Way out in the Sound, there’s a triple rock, sort of a monster, and I often row out to that. Sometimes I shout Greek: “Polyphloisboio thalasses!” It’s from the ‘Iliad,’ the best description of the sea: ‘the many-voiced roaring.’ And it’s exactly the sound that the big waves make: ‘polyphloisboi’ as they come tumbling toward the bow, and then the soft, sighing sound – ‘thalasses, thalasses’ – as they pass under the boat.”

Vincent Scully as told to James Stevenson, The New Yorker, Feb. 18, 1980 p. 69
Gloucester Gull – By WoodenBoat Magazine

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.

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