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Cape Cod Rum Runners

“Rummies” were in constant peril on their way back to shore. Getting caught often meant having the boat seized and a $10,000 fine assessed. However, they had their share of tricks to avoid capture. One involved tying all the cases together, on the edge of the boat. As Cummings recalled: “if they were in danger of being intercepted, they would kick over the first case of whiskey and all of the others would be dragged along with the rope. Then they would have a buoy at the tail end of this, but the Coast Guard would see it, so the rum runners put a block of rock salt on the buoy, and the salt would dissolve in a few days, leaving the buoy where the load was dumped.”

Some rummies were not able to recover their cargo, and the “burlocks,” as the liquor sacks were called, washed ashore, much to the delight of the locals. A Yarmouth man once scooped out several cases of whiskey from Bass Hole and sold them from his home. Years later, when his home was being renovated, two bottles—one empty and one full—were recovered and are now in the possession of the Historical Society of Old Yarmouth. 

If the Coast Guard got too close in their pursuit of rum runners, the smugglers had several ways to unleash a smoke screen and sail off at top speed. In moments of desperation, they’d even sink or set fire to their own vessels. The Rhode Island was a New Bedford-based rum runner that was scuttled in Buzzards Bay to avoid capture after a long chase. Some smuggler vessels, such as the Nola in Vineyard Sound, were so bullet-ridden after a chase that they either caught fire or were sunk.

Ships on Rum Row, along with other rum running boats, usually registered as British vessels, limiting the Coast Guard’s authority. 

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