Bay Tripper

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ICW snowbirds, circa 1912

ICW snowbirds, circa 1912

Somehow, “doing the ditch” as a migratory snowbird on the Intracoastal Waterway has never appealed to me as a sailor. Motoring solo for days on end in my Sailmaster 22 powered by a 5-hp 4-stroke would amount to punishment, not pleasure. On the other hand, perhaps if I were now enjoying the winter as a liveaboard somewhere in the Florida Keys I might have a different take on the rewards.

Whatever the case, it caused me to wonder what the earliest sailing snowbirds must have experienced with no dredged ICW laid out before them and with few services along the way. Come to think of it, migrating boaters before World War I might have actually had it a bit easier than migrating motorists attempting long-distance travel in Model T Fords on unpaved, rutted wagon trails.

A search of the Internet on this subject led me to an unusual book about such an unusual voyage: “The Boy, Me and the Cat: Cruise of the Mascot, 1912-1913.” It was published in 1914 by the author, Henry M. Plummer, of New Bedford, Mass., in 700 hand-bound, mimeographed copies. He sold them for $1 apiece. An offbeat Harvard man with a Thoreau approach to life, Plummer was from a distinguished New England family. He preferred “roughing it” and at age 47 decided to escape from his desk-bound insurance business. He planned a round-trip, eight-month cruise to Miami to calm “a set of frazzled nerves and tired eyes and to limber up a back slowly recovering from an old-time injury.”

As company, he “recruited” Henry Jr., his 20-year-old son, and cat-napped his squirrelly housecat, Scotty. They sailed their 24-foot Cape Cod centerboard catboat whenever possible, and rigged a 15-foot dory with a 3-hp gasoline inboard as a towboat and tender. The hardy Plummers intended to live off the land and took along spears, harpoons, fishing gear, a shotgun, and a .22-caliber rifle fitted with a silencer, because they knew they would be shooting birds out of season.

Henry Jr. later remembered the cruise as “mostly hard work and running aground: push, push, push.” So-called channels along the waterway were “marked by boards nailed to posts. If the bottom corner was cut off, deep water was farther off. All of this was fine in theory, but in practice you just couldn’t depend on them. Continually we ran aground. With only 3 or 4 inches of tide, getting off meant an endless shifting of ballast and heeling the boat to raise her keel. After doing this four or five times a day, it became more than just monotonous.”

The story — now published with vintage photographs and sketches by the Catboat Association, of Middleboro, Mass. — begins Sept. 15, 1912, in New Bedford. Insightful and often amusing entries come in log form as the exploratory armada struggled southward. The charming, compelling qualities of this book are the daily observations and glib comments of the mellow, senior Plummer. Readers can go to almost any entry on any page to climb aboard the 1882 gaff-rigger and get a good feel for the experience.

I had read the book just before visiting a friend last summer in the vicinity of Cape Fear, N.C., where the Plummers shipwrecked in December 1913 — the most harrowing part of their journey. I looked forward to finding a way to reach the wreck and recovery site at New Inlet, which is still listed on charts but is no longer an inlet.

Plummer had decided to go for the opening, hop the bar and find shelter inside. Concerned about his “glass [barometer] falling,” he was growing “mighty uneasy as to what was coming next, for I felt there was a change in store, and soon. The situation was not a good one. Before dark I could not reach the slew inside Frying Pan Shoals off CapeFear. To run 12 miles to sea and round the shoals meant risking a gale on one of our worst bits of coast. … The sea was comparatively smooth, and I thought that now was the time to take a chance at an inlet.”

New Inlet was charted as offering 4 feet at low water, which looked good to them with 6 inches to spare. They battened the hatches, lashed everything down, gave the launch a 10-fathom tow line, and surfed toward a hole in the beach under full sail.

“For genuine excitement,” wrote Plummer, “give me the next 12 to 18 hours. We took bottom on the first breaker and broached to, bilging to seaward on about the third. The fourth came roaring over cockpit rail, and flooded us knee deep. … The launch came whooping along on her own hook. Just missed hitting us; brought up on bottom and rolled over and over with the next breaker and sank.

“We got sail off, and with the hope of turning her head towards a little deeper water which we saw some 50 yards to starboard, Henry waded out and placed the kedge anchor. Might as well have put out a sweet potato. We were bound for that middle ground, and nothing would stop us.”

Running aground again, they attempted to bail the launch after struggling to pull it into their lee. “Then came a big comber to which we rose, and crunch-o, the nose of the launch went through our bilge for a 6-inch hole. Up she went again, and bang-o there was another hole. My eye! We would soon be a pepperbox at that rate.”

Things were “getting interesting,” he noted casually. “Before another surge caught us we twisted her bow round and a sea, catching her, rolled her over and away.” Bumping along on the middle ground, they finally slid into deep water after a heavy lurch and crunch. The boat settled down; they anchored and began to patch the bilge with tacks and canvas.

The next day the tide went out, putting Mascot over on her side. They tried to bail the launch “but you could as easily bail out the ocean, for her stern was split wide open, likewise her bottom and several planks. Now what do you make of that?”

Somehow they managed to sleep that night, and when day came, “We could see the bow of the launch come out of water like a white shark, turn and plunge again to the bottom.” They had a good breakfast, and along “about 8 a.m. a man turned up in a skiff and came on board. I surely was glad to see that skiff and that man, too. He said he thought our launch was sunk. He was a very truthful man. I gave him eggs on toast and coffee at once.”

Pressing the man for his skiff, Plummer used it to haul the launch up on the beach and then sent him walking for home. “So I read the signs right after all,” he wrote, “and I felt justified in taking the chance I did, for this blowing to sea in a December norther is no joke.”

From Dec. 13 to 20 they were marooned at desolate New Inlet. “I must utterly fail to give any idea of the great loneliness of the beach stretching 1,000 miles on either side and trembling to the constant crash of roaring surf,” he continued. They dismantled an abandoned fisherman’s shack and used the planks to repair the boats. Henry Jr. took apart and rebuilt the swamped engine, which started on the first turn in her new life.

They had lost their iron ballast and replaced it with a half-ton of sand in gunny sacks. Finally, they departed on the night of Dec. 20 at the top of the tide. They “went to sea nicking our heel only once as we plunged through the tumbling surf, eventually anchoring just north of CapeFear.”

(As it turned out, there was no way for me to reach New Inlet on my visit. It once fed an estuary called Corncake, but after Hurricane Fran, New Inlet filled completely in 1999, and that was the beginning of the end of Corncake as a productive estuary. Plummer’s harbor of refuge is now all beach.)

By Christmas Day they had arrived at the town of Southport and beached their launch for more repairs. Southport is a lovely town not far from OakIsland, where I was staying, and I visited the haulout site.

Plummer: “It is all very snug and comfy. At the base of a big skeleton wooden tower is the club room of the 15 Southport pilots who daily do congregate for lengthy gams and pleasant smokes. They come and whittle sticks and talk to Henry and me, and we are tied to their private wharf where the sign reads, ‘Landing Forbidden.’ ” At noon Dec. 29, the Plummers waved goodbye to their Southport friends and continued their adventure.

This very beach is still recognizable from Plummer’s old photographs and is still the site of the operations center and clubhouse of the Southport Pilots Association, which hosted the sailing snowbirds of so long ago.

The account of their remarkable voyage must end here because it would take pages to tell. It ended for Plummer when he published his limited edition, which, much to his surprise, was immediately oversold. It is now considered a rare and valuable collectible.

The author had noted sarcastically to a distributor that he “believes it will form a welcome addition to the library of institutions for the blind and feeble-minded.” He signed himself off as “author, editor, publisher, printer, binder and Captain of the Mascot.”

The voyage ended safely back home June 22, 1914, “eight months, eight days, from port to port. The little [anchor] chain rattled, the blocks sung their song, and with a shake of the hand the cruise was done,” Plummer wrote.

One tragedy befell them in Miami when their beloved Scotty died. “Pauvre petit Miami-me,” Plummer mourned. “The heat, the noise, the smell, too much for little Scotty. You who love animals will know how much we missed that little bundle of fur, and you who don’t are of little account anyway.”

The Mascot survived intact until the 1940s, when she exploded, burned and sank at a gas dock in Port Clyde, Maine. Henry Jr. (The Boy) died in 1963, age 69, having never gone cruising again. Henry Sr. died in 1928 at the age of 63. He is buried in the family plot in the New Bedford Cemetery with other Plummers who were artists, carvers, sculptors, seagoing captains and merchant princes — stylish people and great storytellers from a bygone era with a special way of approaching life.

The elder Plummer defined the sporting life as a “pursuit of pleasurable occupation which requires exposure to weather, exercise of all bodily muscles, judgment, skill of hand, foot and eye, never to be followed without a degree of personal risk. Under such classification I put sailing of boats, handling of horses, hunting and canoeing, and mountain climbing. I know of no other purely sporting propositions.”

The hardcover edition of “The Boy, Me and the Cat” (191 pages, $29.95) was edited by Brenda and Bob Osborne of Upper Saddle River, N.J., and published and distributed by the non-profit Catboat Association. To order, go to www.catboats.org or call theOsbornes at (201) 818-4834.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.