THE BOY, ME AND THE CAT: Cruising South Down the ICW (Before There Was an ICW)

Plummer illo

These days voyaging south down the U.S. East Coast via the Intracoastal Waterway is so commonplace as to be cliché. Literally thousands of cruisers now make the pilgrimage annually. Calling themselves “snowbirds,” they ply the murky waters of the ICW in all manner of vessels, both power and sail, and pride themselves on the tobacco-colored bow stains that denote multiple annual transits.
But back in the early 20th century, when long-distance cruising was still in its infancy, taking a boat all the way from New England to Florida was a challenging proposition. One of the first to take up the challenge–and perhaps the very first to do so under sail–was an unassuming insurance salesman from New Bedford, Massachusetts, named Henry Plummer. An avid amateur sportsman who enjoyed hiking, hunting, and sailing, Plummer had long dreamed of embarking on an extended cruise and at last got his chance after retiring early in 1912 at age 47.

Plummer and his second-oldest son, Henry Jr., age 20, spent all that summer preparing for the journey. To train for entering surf-ridden inlets they spent hours riding breaking waves on a local sandbar in a 15-foot canvas canoe. They modified Plummer’s old 24-foot Cape Cod catboat, Mascot, adding shelving, cabinets, a galley stove, and a heater to her interior. They also installed a 3-horsepower inboard gasoline engine in a 15-foot dory, which they intended to use both as a tender and as a tug for towing the engineless Mascot when she could not sail.

Mascot raising sail

Raising sail on Mascot

Finally, just before departing on October 14, Plummer press-ganged the last member of his crew into service. “Crawled under the shed, caught the cat, rubbed her full of flea powder, and dropped her into a gunny sack to moult,” he wrote. “Will have troubles enough without fleas.”

In many respects, Plummer’s experience as he traveled south exactly anticipated those of the many others who have since followed in his wake. Primarily, he was pressed for time, as early winter gales hampered his progress and made it that much harder to get south before the weather got even worse. Between shaking down his boat and crew and waiting on weather, it took him almost two weeks just to get down Long Island Sound to New York City.

The culmination of this first leg was one of those wild event-filled days so characteristic of small-boat sailing. Within the space of a few hours Plummer tore his mainsail, extinguished a fire onboard, rescued five helpless men he found adrift in a rowboat, lost control of his vessel in the tide-tortured waters of Hell Gate, repeatedly collided with a barge in the East River, and yet still managed his best day’s run to date of 54 miles from sun up to sun down (“that’s some going for a 24-foot boat,” he noted in his log) before tying up for the night in Brooklyn’s Erie Basin.

Plummer illo Erie Basin

In other respects, his experience was unique. The biggest difference between then and now was that in 1912 the ICW as we know it today did not exist. Only seven years later did Congress authorize its creation, and it wasn’t until 1939 that it actually became operational.

Plummer did however get to take advantage of one very important inland waterway that is now only a memory. This was the Delaware & Raritan Canal, the so-called “missing link” in the ICW, which first opened in 1834, yet closed in 1933, before the rest of the system was complete. Entering the D&R at New Brunswick, New Jersey, on November 3, Plummer made himself some makeshift fenders by filling gunny sacks with dry leaves, then locked through directly from New York Bay to the Delaware River below Trenton in two easy days, thus bypassing all of the Jersey shore and Delaware Bay.

D&R Canal entrance

Mascot at the entrance of the old Delaware & Raritan Canal

Another unique aspect of Plummer’s cruise was his determination to “live off the land.” Armed with a shotgun and a small .22-caliber rifle with a silencer (nicknamed “Helen Keller”), he and his son spent much time shooting birds as they sailed south. Many of their victims were tasty game fowl taken out of season, kills they obliquely identified in the log as livestock, such as cows and “blue-nosed pigs,” so as not to incriminate themselves. Others were much less palatable sea fowl, and early on Henry Jr. complained of having to eat such fare.

“Old squaw stew for dinner, and Henry had to run from the cabin,” wrote Plummer on November 18. “Foolish boy, he needs starving.”

One rather surprising fact was that the Plummers found they had company. While transiting the D&R, and later at the entrance to the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, they met a couple in an open 26-foot motor launch who were also bound for Florida. “Heaven I hope will help the outfit or wreck them on some friendly shore,” wrote Plummer, “for the man had neither charts nor directions and didn’t know the meaning or use of buoys.”

Soon afterwards in Norfolk, Virginia, they encountered another small motor launch heading for Florida, Querida, manned by two young men on assignment for Motor Boating magazine. One of them was Alf Loomis, age 22, who went on to become one of the most influential boating journalists of his time. The articles he wrote on this trip marked the beginning not only of his own career, but of public interest in the East Coast’s inland waterways as a long-distance cruising ground.

Alf Loomis

Crew of Querida. Alf Loomis is on the left

Mascot later met both vessels again on Albemarle Sound in North Carolina not long after locking through the Chesapeake & Albemarle Canal below Norfolk. She also met Querida again in Beaufort several days later after working her way down Pamlico Sound and the Neuse River. “All this meeting and passing of boats on the same quest adds much to the interest,” noted Plummer cheerfully. And certainly this is a sentiment contemporary snowbirds can easily relate to.

Proceeding south from Beaufort, as is true of modern sailboats today, Mascot was forced into open water. On December 11, after a night offshore, there came a sudden change in the weather and rather than risk getting caught out rounding Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear in a gale, Plummer elected to try entering New Inlet just north of the cape. His chart showed 4 feet of water here, just enough for Mascot‘s draft of 3-1/2 feet, but in fact the inlet had silted up. First Mascot and then the launch were driven hard aground in breaking waves. By the end of the day the former had a gaping hole in her hull and the latter was in pieces.

Plummer and his son spent the next eight days marooned on the open beach working feverishly to repair the damage. As Plummer described it:

It took us three days to repair the launch and when we finished, the whole stern was made up of canvas patches, putty and copper tacks. The engine was full of salt water and sand, so we had to take it all to pieces and rebuild it. We then put Mascot on the beach and patched the hole two-foot long in her side with a bit of canvas well painted and laid over some sail battens. This patch was my pride and has never been removed.

Plummer engine rebuild

Henry Jr. rebuilding the launch engine

After another week spent perfecting their repairs at nearby Southport, the Plummers again headed offshore and again were caught by weather. They spent a full day hove-to off the coast in a strong gale and though Mascot fared well enough, the launch, tethered at the end of a 60-foot tow line, was almost swamped. Henry Jr., however, stripped naked and managed to board her in breaking seas to bail her out. Finally the pair safely reached Georgetown, South Carolina, where at last they were able to come inside again.

But now the Plummers faced a different sort of challenge. For it was here, as they gunkholed south through the creeks and marshes of South Carolina and Georgia and on into Florida, that father and son suffered most for not having a well marked, well dredged waterway to navigate upon. The wind-driven tides were fickle and unpredictable, the navigation aids crude and unreliable, and the water relentlessly shallow. By the end of January 1913 they had reached northern Florida and progress was painfully slow as Mascot was now routinely running aground as many as four or five times a day. Getting her off again often involved much laborious shifting of ballast, setting of anchors, and heaving and hauling.

Plummer illo swamp

By mid-February they were only as far as Daytona. Here Henry Jr. hit on the bold notion of “taking the launch and making a dash for the pole,” as his father put it. The launch was duly converted into an open-air camping machine, but in the end, after a cold northeast wind set in, the Plummers elected to stay aboard Mascot. With her ballast entirely removed, they found her much more manageable in the thin water behind Florida’s barrier beaches and at last reached Miami on March 3.

“I guess this is the southern end of the cruise,” wrote Plummer somewhat wistfully. “I want to go a-fishing and I want to go down among the Keys, but the season is getting on and indeed the road northward is long. The south point on my compass is all rounded off from steady use, and you can hardly read read the letter ‘S’ it is so worn.”

The Plummers spent little more than a week in Miami and most of that time had Mascot on the hard up the Miami River for a refit. In a precise bit of emotional punctuation, it was at this turning point that Scotty, the ship’s cat, who had often thrown hysterical fits in Mascot‘s tiny cabin, died in the arms of her skipper. “We gave her a sailor’s burial in the Miami River,” noted Plummer mournfully, “and by mutual understanding have not mentioned her name since.”

The return trip, as so often happens, went much more smoothly. The weather now was improving and Mascot and her crew were seasoned waterway veterans. In just a month and a half they reached Norfolk again, averaging better than 30 miles a day sailing only by daylight. A month later, by June 1, they were back on Long Island Sound, with enough time in hand to make the last leg of their journey a lazy, leisurely affair. Finally arriving in New Bedford on June 22, they had in all spent 8 months completing their 3,000-mile circuit of the East Coast.

Soon afterwards the world as Henry Plummer knew it changed dramatically. Henry Jr., who was in England selling coal-mining equipment soon after World War I broke out in 1914, joined first the French ambulance corps and then the U.S. Army after America entered the war in 1917. He, fortunately, survived the rigors of the Western Front (and lived until 1963), but Plummer’s oldest son, Charles, an aviator, did not. Nor did his older brother, Thomas, who died in France serving in the American Red Cross.

Plummer himself finally passed away in 1928, having sold Mascot only shortly before he died to Wyn Mayo of Kittery, Maine (just across the Piscataqua River from where I now live in Portsmouth, New Hampshire). Mayo cruised the boat locally for another 20 years and in 1946 treated her to a thorough refit. The following year he took Mascot on an extended cruise of the Maine coast. Tragically, the beloved old boat, then aged 65, was destroyed in a fire that summer. Rumor had it, however, that her remains were used as a lobster car for many years thereafter.

Plummer book cover

Plummer’s book about this groundbreaking cruise has long been hailed by the cognoscenti as “the greatest cruising story ever written,” though it is still a relatively obscure text. Originally the book was published by Plummer himself in a limited mimeographed private edition (replete with many drawings), and laying hands on a copy was said to be “about as simple as borrowing a man’s favorite wife.”

Fortunately, this is no longer the case. At least two commercial editions are currently in print (the cover above is from the Narrative Press edition). There is also a very nice edition put out by the non-profit Catboat Association, which is the one I most recommend. It has all the original illustrations, plus many interesting photographs.

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4 Responses
  1. Harvey Loomis

    Richard: I thought to myself as I started the Plummer article that my father had made that cruise at about the same time — and you can imagine my pleasure when his picture appeared in the article. That, I believe, was Alf’s first cruise of any distance; he later did another one later going the other way — up to Maine — in an open boat with a two-cylinder make-&-break engine. Very adventury he was. Thank you for sending that article — I’d like to read the Plummer book.

  2. Richard

    Charles, the “Richard” is “nephew of Harvey” who was spending a productive hour in the post boating season reading your blog and saw your article mentioning Harvey’s dad, very pleasurable, thank you.

  3. Lia Loomis

    Lia, here. Alf’s grand daughter and Harvey’s niece. What a charming piece and what fun to see Grandpa there in the photo looking like a young whippersnapper with tousled, long hair etc. I, too, would love to read the book. Perhaps we can get a family copy and send it round!

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