Most likely I was thirteen or so when the Annisquam Yacht Club catered a traditional New England clam bake on Light House Beach. No doubt it derived from Native Americans who harvested shellfish during summers before migrating to winter quarters.
Remains of their clam feasts are found along the New England coast. Algonquin names like Annisquam and Wingaersheek Beach are a part of that extinct legacy. Charles Olson wrote about them in his epic Maximus poems.
It started in the afternoon with a large crater dug into the sand above the high tide line. Into that kindling, then wood and charcoal was lit. When the fire was stoked round beach stones were piled on getting hot enough to crackle and split.
Over the stones was laid a thick layer of seaweed pulled from the rocks. Mesh nets were filled with steamers, corn, sweet potatoes and lobsters. Wet sand was shoveled on top to make a tight mound. A tarp is another option. It was left to simmer until supper time.
The top was shoveled off and the mesh bags of food were spread out on portable tables, along with paper plates and drinks. We were served a lobster each and a portion of clams and corn. For seating, we had the granite rocks. The food had a wonderful smoky, briny flavor that I vividly recall after all these years.
To my surprise old Manley “Bampa” Ives, the scion of the Ives/ Whittemore/ Bishop clan sidled up to me. It was the first such encounter with the venerable gentleman who lived but a stone’s throw up the hill from us. The Shingle Style house was surrounded by indigenous growth so dense that it was barely visible from the road.
It seems the old Yankee had an agenda as he engaged me in talk about sailing. Every young lad needed a proper sailboat was his drift. I was intrigued by that notion and bent an eager ear.
As luck would have it, he had just such a vessel in his garage. To help a nice young fellah such as myself he was willing to part with it for a decent price.
Upon further inspection it proved to be a small sloop of the then quite obsolete Friendship class. It was the remnant of one of many attempts to establish a class of boats of sufficient number to comprise a fleet for racing. They proved to be slow and ungainly and the attempt fizzled. No doubt it would have been adequate for casual family sailing but my appetite was whetted for nautical competition.
Eventually, I was the skipper of an indigenous, locally crafted, mongrel Fish Boat. It was broad of beam with a shallow draft and centerboard. That proved essential when tacking near shore off Wingaersheek Beach and navigating the swift, treacherous tides of the Annisquam River. There was a large, single, Marconi-rigged sail. In a good wind out on the Bay it could really fly. On rough days one could reef the sail or take on a third to crew. Mom came on one of those days and at other times I enlisted my girlfriend Betsy Fox. She was sopped by crashing waves as I barked at her to keep pumping. Her protests made it all the more fun as I was something of a Captain Bligh.
The boats were built by Montgomery’s Boat Yard on the Annisquam River. Decades ago Monty designed and built a prototype. This was used to create a cement form. That endured such that the hull of every boat that came out of the yard was precisely the same.
They were delivered bare bones, no frills generic. Rope instead of turnbuckles was used for stays that supported the mast. For more money one might purchase an expensive Pigeon mast but not from Monty.
The rudder came with a thick, blunt edge which meant drag that slowed down the boat. That was compounded by the standard red lead, anti-fouling paint on the bottom. While pragmatic it was not up to snuff for competition.
Once launched the boats sank. It took a couple of days for the caulked bottom planks to swell. After that it was tight enough to sail to a mooring in Lobster Cove.
There were several new Fish boats the summer that I got mine and enough of a growing fleet for competitive racing.
Mom and Dad had the insane idea that Jo and I would share the boat taking turns as skipper. The races took place on Saturday and Sunday. The start and finish line was from the dock of the club.
There were other sibling teams both, oddly, twins. Jack and Jill Babson got along just fine but were hardly competitive sailors. Jack and Joe Mechem fought like cats and dogs and pulled some dirty tricks. Pissed to be running behind me I was rammed in the rear approaching the Lighthouse. That ripped my rudder off and knocked me out of the race. There were lots of Mechems in Annisquam to be wary of. My brother-in-law, Mike Moonves, was a friendly tennis rival of Tom Red Terror Mechem. Their matches were fierce fun to watch.
On race days, the Lightnings, an international class of sleek sloops, started first. Then Fish Boats, followed by the Turnabouts for junior sailors. Pip’s boat was the Skipperdee and Marcie Davis was her crew. Power boats volunteered to follow the fleet and haul us home in the event of capsizing in heavy weather. They also acted as referees in the event of fouls. For such infractions you tied a red scarf to a stay as protest. These were heard during the week by the race committee. It seems the odds were stacked against me.
That changed dramatically during Marblehead Race week which is story for a later chapter.
It’s essential to have a two man team with suitable synergy. For Jo and I it was anything but. We would get stuck near the Lighthouse with her absolutely refusing to take any of my suggestions. After an epic battle she resigned.
For the first couple of seasons it was a matter of follow the fleet. Particularly when the Janeway girl was the first to have a Dacron sail made by Hood’s from Marblehead. The following summer we all switched from cotton to synthetic. That evened the odds.
During the era of cotton sails you had to wash them with a hose and stake them out to dry. The salt could result in mold. That wasn’t an issue with synthetics which just got stuffed into sail bags.
At first Bobby Dangelmeyer brought up the rear with an old waterlogged boat. That spring he and his dad picked up a new boat from Monty and brought it home to their garage. There they gave it a hotrod makeover. It was rumored that they sunk in the screws and planed down the bottom planks. That lightened the boat and made it faster. Then they applied a slick enamel base.
That and other fine tuning of the rake of the mast and Bobby’s was the boat to beat. He also had the advantage of an eager and steady crew mate in Chuck Johnson. It was his task to navigate and find the marks. For the rest of the fleet it was a matter of following behind and battles for place and show.
During Spring Break before the next season I spent a week alone in Annisquam. I was hell bent on getting my boat in competitive shape to give Bobby, my best friend and rival, a fun for the money.
Each day I caught the bus next to the Village Church for the ride to Addison Gilbert Hospital. From there it was a long walk down to the boatyard.
There I learned the etiquette of old Yankee diplomacy.
It started with “How was your wintah.” Monty was a lean, laconic Scotsman with bushy eyebrows. He wore a cap and had a pencil tucked behind the ear for measurements.
The Fishboats were stored on a loft in the shed. Boats had to be moved to get to them. He was always busy with something else and it was not a priority. I was there too early for the normal season. Other than me the boatyard was deserted.
As to when I could get my boat the answer about tomorrow was “Maybe. We’ll see.”
Precious days passed with nothing to do. There wasn’t much grub in the house as I scrounged for subsistence meals. In the closet were a couple of cans of fruit including one of plums. That was supper one night.
A couple of times I took the bus to Gloucester for a burger and a movie at the North Shore or dingy old Strand. Main Street, other than the sound of shrieking gulls, seemed ever so quiet. As though in slumber waiting for summer.
Jane Tarr, a sailing friend, was exceptional as a year-round resident. I went calling and she invited me to weekend Gloucester parties. On visits I came to know her father Jack a then budding inventor and entrepreneur. We shared an interest in sailing and he became an important mentor. He taught me the techniques of Ted Wells and his book Scientific Sailboat Racing. That entailed the strategies of tacking and blocking the wind of opponents.
At some point in the evening Jane would say, with dramatic, annoyed emphasis, “I’m going to bed.” Later during one of my raucous house parties she hooked up with Eban Andrew and they soon married. He was a wild card in the Annisquam mix. Notoriously, he buzzed the tennis courts in his plane during finals with Betsy Fox and Julie Hedbloom. But that’s a story for another time.
Finally, I was making progress at Monty’s. There was a very long extension cord from the shed to my boat. I rented the sander which entailed gluing on round sheets which soon wore out. I was taking the bottom down to bare wood and beyond.
Then the sander would suddenly stop. Hiking back to the shed I found that the cord, mysteriously, was unplugged. The likely culprit was crotchety carpenter Boynton. There were snickers as Monty looked the other way. The old salts had issues with upstart city slickers.
There were trips into town for nautical supplies at Tarr’s where Mom let me open an account. I applied a slick enamel bottom. That was faster for racing but meant that you had to regularly beach the boat, tip it over, and scrub the bottom of marine growth.
I had a window sewn into my sail which made it easier to keep an eye on opponents. I also put in two hiking straps. You got your leg under one which allowed for laying out over the windward side. That flattened the boat in a good breeze and meant less drag and more speed. It was also good for tightening abdominal muscles.
My boat had menacing, rebellious, pirate colors with a black hull and bright orange deck. To which I added sand in the paint for better grip.
At Boston Latin School I was studying Latin, French and, by sophomore year, German. Initially, I named my boat Periwinkle, then changed to L’Escargot. But when Rick Lordan joined me as indispensable crewmate, we renamed it Uferschenke. Race committees were annoyed that I kept renaming my boat.
I also took the number One as I had to sew it on myself. That was the limit of my skill set.
Indeed a crewmate makes all the difference. Bobby had a great mate in Chuck Johnson. For a time, his sister Lee crewed for me but it wasn’t a good fit. Then Rick came aboard and we took off as a team. His energy and enthusiasm was a challenge and match for mine.
Races were won or lost in the river. On Sundays there were tons of boats anchored off Wingaersheek Beach. That and the tricky tide were major challenges. After the final buoy it was a long tack against the wind to the Lighthouse then tacks up the river.
In general, the fleet followed Bobby. That day he went port toward Wingaersheek. They all trailed behind hoping to settle for second or third. We went starboard catching a nice header wind off the shore. By the time we finished Bobby and the fleet was nowhere to be seen. We moored our boat and were up on the porch by the time they staggered in.
That day I learned an important lesson. Don’t follow the fleet and dare to tack the other way. You either loose or win by a nautical mile.