Sampson’s Island Dredge

This week the county dredge took the last bites out of the appendix of sand that had hung off the south side of the Point the last 10 years or more. She chewed it off up to the new salt marsh that has been forming right where there had been a salt marsh in the early 1800s that produced three tons of winter cattle fodder every year.

I’m glad to see the channel is wide open again. For the first time since the mid-1960s you can see open water all the way to Grand Island. Boat traffic will regain some sanity next summer but swimmers are going to have to work for it to get to the Point on their morning swim (hopefully the widening will persuade the inexperienced from attempting the crossing on a Saturday afternoon in July. With a cooler for a PFD.)

This is the second part of the project to widen the channel, build a sand dune for the terns to nest on, and pump the rest of the 40,000 cubic yards of sand nearly 2 miles through a floating pipe running down the Seapuit to the beach next to the west jetty of the Osterville Cut.

According to the Barnstable Clean Water Coalition there will be one more round of dredging in 2021:

Phase one began in November 2018 with the removal of approximately 130 feet of the western tip of DNSI. Five acres (5,000 cubic yards) of the dredge material was placed in the middle of DNSI to enhance nesting habitat for shorebirds. The remaining material (39,800 cubic yards) was deposited on the eastern end of DNSI for beach nourishment and bird habitat.

“Fall 2019, phase two, will see the removal of an additional 130 feet at the western tip of DNSI. Again, some material will be placed in the middle of the island for habitat enhancement with a larger amount added to the eastern end for habitat and beach nourishment. In phase three, to be completed in 2021, we will remove an additional 130+/- feet from the west end and “back pass” that material to the east end.”

Transcribing History: Whaling Log Books

On and off over the past two years I’ve been writing a book about the wreck and rescue of the crew of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix. For a long time I struggled to find a first hand account of the 1858 disaster written by the captain of the Phoenix, Bethuel G. Handy, Jr. of Cotuitport, brother of my great-great grandmother Florentine Handy. The closest I came was a four-part story published in the Daily Alta, one of San Francisco first newspapers, which interviewed Handy in the fall of 1859 after he entered the port aboard my great great grandfather Thomas Chatfield’s ship the Massachusetts.

Captain Bethuel Gifford Handy

Chatfield’s Reminiscences briefly relates the story of the wreck and Handy’s (Chatfield and Handy married the other man’s sister and so were brother-in-laws x two) hard trek over the frozen straits between the island where the Phoenix went ashore, then over a mountain range, followed by a 100 miles hike along the coast and up the Uda River to a Russian fort where he spent the winter. I could find no first-hand account penned by Handy though, and assumed the ship’s log book had been lost in the wreck or was sitting in some distant relatives attic, repurposed as a scrapbook the way so many old whaling logs were treated.

I finally found the last logbook of the Phoenix in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association and I made plans to take a day off from work and ride the ferry over from Hyannis for a day in the NHA’s library. I emailed the librarian to warn her I was coming, but literally missed the boat and had to postpone the research. A few weeks ago, as I made plans to get over to the island I searched for the manuscript in the NHA’s online archives and discovered the archivists had kindly digitized the book. I was very excited to download a PDF and finally read, in the fine penmanship of the time, my ancestor’s account of a summer spent hunting whales in the Sea of Okhotsk, ending with the agonizing loss of his first command on the reefs surrounding Elbow Island in the Shantar archipelago.

I transcribed the log over two weeks, struggling at first to decipher Handy’s handwriting but gradually getting comfortable with the format of the entries , his abbreviations, and the occasional illegible scrawled. After some time in the process I realized there was a trick to deciphering illegible handwriting, a combination of paying attention to context and carefully examining the ascending and descending strokes of the pen from the lines above and below the word in question. Often I would find a version of a previously illegible word that I could decipher, allowing me to go back and correct any ambiguities.

Foreword to the final log book of the whaling ship Phoenix

As I finished I received an email from the NHA announcing a gift that would fund the transcription of its collection. The email said the NHA was looking for volunteers, so I emailed Sata David, the digitization archivist running the project and offered to start transcribing other log books from ships involved in the events that took place 100 years ago.

The experience was tedious at times, doubtless a reflection of the tedium of life at sea as the Phoenix sailed from the Hawaiian islands to the Sea of Okhotsk in the spring of 1858. But then things quickly started to fascinate me, subtle clues such as the gradual degradation of Handy’s handwriting during stressful times such as gales or being lost in the pack ice in the thick summer fog. The account is very terse, there are no personal asides, no confessions of doubt or fear, just a daily record of weather, wind and work.

Who slashed X’s across the entries describing the loss of the Phoenix? The Captain? The owner of the ship? A disgruntled crew member? An annoying researcher?

Here’s the entry from October 12, 1858 when the Phoenix dragged anchor during a blizzard and went ashore on Elbow Island.

Handy’s account

And here is my transcription for that day:

Tuesday 12th [entry crossed out with large X in pencil]
Begins with a fresh breeze from E steering over toward the North Shore saw nothing began to breeze on at 2 PM wore ship and steered for Elbow Isle at 3 took in main topgallant sail at half past 3 pm took in fly jib and spanker at 4 dubble reefed the topsails at 6 came to anchor 2 ½ miles west of Elbow Isle blowing a strong gale and began to rain at 9 pm the wind came out W in squall and blowed a gale accompanied with thick snow very dark could not see anything lett[sic] go second anchor and gave her all chain she lay without dragging until half past 3 AM let up a little and blowed harder a heavy sea a running she began to drag being too near the land to slip the cables we gave her all extra iron fluke chains fin chains boat anchors etc. dragging still and very close to land commenced to cut away the masts while doing so she struck on the end of a reef and dragged over broke off the rudder pintles and done no more damage after she got over the reef she stopped dragging the tide was falling but water enough to drop the rudder out of the port wedged it up as well as could she soon began to strike bottom started the pumps and found she leaked badly pounded and found two feet of water found by keeping both pumps a going could keep her free the rudder working in the port had nocked[sic] off one of the planks off of the stern ends this day the tide down and the ship striking bottom heavey and still a blowing [another pencil X at the end]

With the final piece of puzzle in place (for now, research is addictive and I could spend another year in the archives) the writing can proceed. I’ll publish chapters as I draft them and link to the source material as I go.

Former Cotuit Kettleer Lights Up Fenway

How cool that Mike Yastremski spanked a homer for the S.F. Giants in his first game at Fenway with his grandfather, the almighty Yaz looking on?

I remember the summer of 2010 when Mike played for the Kettleers under coach Mike Roberts. That was a treat, but last night’s homer made it all the sweeter.

Wiring a boat

Last weekend’s tropical storm gave me the excuse I needed to hook up the trailer and haul the skiff out of the water for an overdue scraping and power-washing. On Saturday, as the last traces of Dorian scudded overhead, I decided to fix a bunch of things, the biggest being a rewiring of the navigation lights.

I don’t do much boating at night, but come September and October I do like to do some night time fishing for striped bass and the massive bluefish that invade Cotuit Bay every morning just before first light. Running around a dark harbor in an 18-foot motorboat with nothing but a flashlight is illegal, even if there isn’t another boat on the water. I like to think I run a fairly tight ship so along with working navigation lights, I’m good about having, life-jackets, signal flares, a horn and fire extinguisher aboard just in case I get boarded for a spot inspection by the harbormaster or coast guard.

I’m generally pretty good about electrical work around the house and when I was a kid I aced the science classes about parallel and serial circuits, resistance, grounding, positive/negative poles, volts-amps-watts and all that stuff. Yet wiring a white stern light, a bow light and the compass powered by a 12-volt boat battery to a three-pole switch (off, navigation, and anchor lights) kicked all memories of my 9-year old smarty-pants self out the door. The confusion began with a Google search for a schematic wiring diagram and degenerated into a moron’s temper tantrum as I tried to trace the old wiring and tag everything before replacing it.

The schematics called for a single red wire from the battery’s positive (red) terminal to the switch, and a black wire to a “ground.” I don’t know where said “ground” is on my boat. Some diagrams showed a “ground bus,” others vaguely suggested the engine was the ground. All I knew is that a boat floats and is only aground when it gets dragged onto the beach. Anyway, that wasted an hour.

Six hours, two claustrophobia attacks, and a dozen crimped terminals and connectors later and my boat had lights, didn’t blow a fuse, and had two modes: on and off. I had planned three modes.: everything on, stern light only, and off. But the fish were calling my name, the days are growing short, and soon there won’t be any fish to chase in the light or the dark.

So I launched her back in the water and went out fishing.

Spanish Mackerel and me

How Gerald Ratner lost $10B in 10 seconds

Excellent story by Zachary Crockett in The Hustle about how one CEO sank his own business with a few bad jokes. It’s amazing how a mere slip of the tongue — even back in the pre-Internet shame cycle days of 1991 — can kill a reputation. It’s also a cautionary tale about using humor or sarcasm when one isn’t a professional comic. Heck, even a stand-up comedian can torpedo themselves in an instant nowadays.

This is why I’ve always told clients to avoid the annual April Fool’s Day post or press release. I offer this amendment to Stirling Moss’ observation that “there are two things no man will admit he cannot do well: drive and make love“: or tell a joke.

Thanks to Om Malik who pointed out The Hustle story about Ratner in his weekly newsletter.

In harm’s way

I never imagined the time would come when a child of mine would go to war. I lived through my brother Tom’s deployments in the late 1970s through the first Gulf War, and know a little about the emotional toll it took on my mother and his wife. Now, with my youngest son Fisher deployed to the Middle East to take part in Operation Inherent Resolve the war and shifting situation has been brought closer to home than I ever imagined.

Loose lips, sinking ships and all that make me very cautious to even say where he’s going, but it isn’t great and I assume it’s definitely in harm’s way. He was honored to be selected to go, having enlisted nearly two years ago as an “11-brav0“, the military designation for an Army Infantryman, or, as he says, a “grunt”: a foot soldier on the front lines with a rifle, the  main land combat force and backbone of the Army. ” That was his decision and his alone. His test scores qualified him for any military job he wanted, but it was so like him to pick the job that defines the essence of what it means to be a soldier: an infantryman.

Fisher Churbuck

For a soldier like my son, the entire purpose of all the training and the discipline, the early morning runs, the field exercises, and the rest of it comes down to going to war. I grew up in a generation that tried to avoid going to war. I missed having to register for the draft by a few months when I turned 18 in 1976, when some young men were desperate to avoid Vietnam through college deferrals or by fleeing to Canada. It is hard to remember that this country has been at war in the Middle East for close to 20 years, that young men are fighting against an enemy of terrorists in ancient lands where conflict has been the norm for centuries. It’s humbling to consider his bravery and that of his cousin, a Navy Seal, when my own generation seemed so allergic to serving.

One doesn’t read much about Operation Inherent Resolve. I didn’t know it even had a name until a few weeks ago. The mission is stark: :”Defeat ISIS in designated areas of Syria and Iraq and sets condition for follow-on operations to increase regional stability.

Just as his uncle Tom went to the mountains of northern Iraq in 1991 with the special forces to defend the Kurds fleeing the depredations of Saddam Hussein and the Turks, my son is there now with essentially the same purpose. Yes, ISIS — or “Daesh” — is still active and always reorganizing, determined to inflict their will on a population driven from their homes to refugee camps and beyond. Yes, the geopolitical situation is fraught with risk. The Syrian regime has obliterated entire cities and attacked its own population. Russian forces attack rebel groups on behalf of that regime. Iran pumps arms and money into the fray.

But thanks to few thousand American soldiers, a tenuous peace is making areas of the region safe for civilization to return. Without their presence, that peace could quickly vanish. My son is there to protect them, to project the power and morality of his country to a place in desperate need of peace. He’s joining a war that has persisted for too long and I hope his presence hastens its end and that he returns home safe and well.

If you want his address, please email me: david AT

Woodsman, Spare That Tree

Behind the boat shed, on the property line between my good neighbors Phil and Beth, looming over the roof of the sail loft and the far back corner of my property, stands a towering honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos). I’ve written about my love-hate affair with this same tree before ( when I ranted about the “tree turds” the old timer manages to produce and drop onto the back yard each and every fall.

Honey Locust seed pods. Take one of these and repeat several hundred times every windstorm and you learn to despise these tree turds.

I have no idea how old the tree is, but despite the mess it makes, I’ve always been fond of it, respecting its survival instincts when nearly every other tree on the property has succumbed to winter gales or late summer hurricanes at one time or another. I also suspect whomever planted it was a serious tree connoisseur, because elsewhere on the perimeter of the property once grew a majestic black cherry and an English chestnut. The cherry tree, which gave up the ghost on Christmas morning 2017 during a sudden whiteout snow squall, dropped black fruit over the yard every summer which managed to stain bare feet purple and induce shrieks of horror in my wife when she discovered someone’s purple footprints tracked all over the rugs. The chestnut drops spiked nuts all over the sidewalk, green caltrops that cause shrieks from the little kids walking barefoot to their sailing lessons.

According to Wikipedia a honey locust is:

  • a relatively short-lived tree with a life span of 120 years. That means this tree was probably planted around 1900 or later. I’m guessing by the same person who thought it wise to plant the cherry and the chestnut.
  • considered an invasive species — especially in Australia where everything not from Australia goes root and goes beserk
  • used in new developments and on compromised land without a steady water supply to provide fast shade.
  • normally is covered with wicked thorns that can be turned into primitive needles or fishing hooks.

My tree doesn’t have the thorns, but it does have the little leaves and the seed pods of the species. My good friend has a honey locus in his yard, just as big as mine, but his has a rope swing hanging from one branch, and the trunk is studded with the dreadful thorns like some psycho horror movie tree that can talk and impales misbehaved children who dare to ride its swing.

Shading the sail loft

After Phil and Beth moved in a couple years ago and finished restoring the houuse, the locust dropped a big branch onto their driveway, barely missing a parked car. Phil was astonished by the tree turds and how they seemed to keep dropping in an endless supply every time the wind blew hard or a storm swept through.

Last summer, after nearly decapitating myself taking a fallen Norway Maple off of the roof of my garage, I gave up any delusions of being a competent tree surgeon and called a professional, a local outfit called Treefrog. I asked them to get the maple off the garage, to finish removing the old cherry, another dead maple at the end of the driveway, and to please give the honey locus and the chestnut tree some love by cleaning out the deadwood and giving them a good going over.

The foreman on the job took me aside when his crew was finishing up and told me that the honey locust was the most beautiful specimen he had ever seen. I was glad he gave it a bill of good health.

Then one day this spring Phil and I conferred on matters related to our property line [insert the tired cliche of good fences make good neighbors here] and he floated the idea of cutting the honey locust down because of the risk it posed to his cars and the atrocious mess the tree turds caused.

Suddenly I got all sentimental about the tree. I told Phil what the expert told me, that the tree was healthy and an amazing specimen, but I had to put my usual reactionary aversion to change aside and agree with his reasons for cutting it down.

My “woodsman, spare that tree” lament went something like this: “That thing is twice as old as we are. It survived at least six hurricanes, including 1938 and 1944 when very few trees in Cotuit survived. Squirrels and chipmunks crave the seed pods and sit on the fence eating them like cobs of corn. It shades the site of the first Masonic temple in Cotuit — my great-great grandfather’s sail loft, and has shaded four generations of Chatfields and Churbucks during summer chowder parties and other celebrations. Now it’s going to die.”

I made the case for keeping the tree, but I was resigned to see it go. Look at the bright side I told myself. No more tree turds. No more worries about English Ivy choking the bark of the trunk. No crushed cars or pedestrians. More sun for the rose bushes, less of a threat to the dilapidated boat shop and sail loft.

But deep down inside I was getting more sad about the tree than I expected. I’ve never planted a tree. I’m not a big celebrator of Arbor Day and I am quick to pull out the chain saw to do away with a shitty tree like a pernicious maple trying to undermine the foundation of the house. But this tree had a hold on me. I stare at its branches through the skylight over the bed in the winter. In the summer, when its leaves finally fill in (later than other trees), the entire canopy makes a soothing susurration in the breeze. I started to mourn it, staring at it all this past spring like I was saying goodbye to it.

On Monday of this week Phil called to let me know the tree service was coming the next day to take out a shattered maple and take care of the honey locust. Yesterday their trucks backed down the driveway, a man in a hard hat ascended in a bucket truck, and by 10 am his chain saw was making short work of the maple.

I took a few farewell pictures of the tree, recalling John Cheever’s beautiful description in his novel Oh What a Paradise It Seems of Connecticut’s former elm trees before the Dutch blight killed them all off in the 1960s.:

“He was old enough to remember when the horizons of his country were dominated by the beautiful and lachrymose wine-glass elm tree and when most of the bathtubs one stepped into had lion’s claws. “

I was sad. “Woodsman spare that tree,” I muttered to myself as I went to work and avoided going outside the rest of the day to witness the felling of the tree. I wanted to put it out of my mind and vowed to plant another tree, maybe not a honey locust, but the same impulse that makes people rush out and buy a puppy after an old beloved dog passes away.

The end of the maple, the honey locust stand on death row to the left.

Late yesterday afternoon Phil called. His tree surgeon had said the same thing my guy said — the tree was special and shouldn’t be cut down. Beth agreed. Phil agreed, and with true tears in my eyes I stepped out of the boat shop and looked up at my old friend and smiled. It sports a few steel cables in its canopy and some deadwood is gone, but it still stands and hopefully will stand for a long time to come.

Still standing after all these years.

Fly Fishing for mahi mahi south of Martha’s Vineyard

30 miles south of MV on an 8-wt sink tip, chartreuse clouser. We boated 25 fish in an hour from a single hi-flyer with ultra light spinning tackle. I nailed just one with the fly rod from the bow, almost went overboard trying to fight it back to the cockpit. I handlined it over the side just as it bit through the tippet and fell into the cooler.