August 2012

Sailing Through Time

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2012 /

Writer: Diane Speare Triant

“Never thou marry a landlubber,” an old sea captain instructed seven-year old Faith Bassett, “but thou marry a sailor who has tasted plenty of salt brine, and he will take thee with him to far places.”

Faith, herself, was a “landlubber,” raised on an inland farm in 1830s Marshpee (the original spelling of “Mashpee” before local pronunciation dictated a name change). Although longing for a view of the ocean from the time of the old salt’s visit, she did not set eyes on the Atlantic—a mere five miles away—until age 17 when a retired sea captain in Cotuit approved of “the cut of her jib.” He hired her as the town’s first female schoolteacher.

Tracing the fascinating story of The Cut of Her Jib, a novel inspired by the 1850s diary of a Cotuit captain’s wife.

The Cut of Her Jib

Once settled, Faith was dazzled by the lore of the local sailors who had traveled to exotic lands in search of whales to light lamps around the world. She imagined partaking of these lengthy voyages herself, where she might “give a hymnbook to a heathen or a cookbook to a cannibal!” It was inevitable, then, that Faith would wed a seaman—the dashing Seth Nickerson. Yet she was not quite prepared for the whaling wife’s tedious life, waiting out the days, months, and years for her beloved’s return from the sea.

The Cut of Her Jib

“I long to unfold my mind in your ear alone,” she writes to Seth, hoping that the schooner carrying her letter might one day encounter his square-rigged whaler in a far-off port. “Where and how are you tonight? I ask, but no answer. Oh that I had wings. Then I would fly across the wide waste of waters in search of my dear companion.”

The Cut of Her Jib

Faith’s fictional story, originally published in 1953 but long out of print, has been recently republished for a new audience. The author, the late Clara Nickerson Boden, aptly named her historical novel The Cut of Her Jib. Boden’s engaging writing is reminiscent of another Cape Cod storyteller who was roughly her contemporary—Joseph C. Lincoln. What elevates Boden’s work above simply another charming tale, however, is that she meticulously fashioned Faith and Seth’s fictional account from the real-life experiences of her own schoolteacher/sea-captain grandparents, Clarissa and Horace Nickerson. Just as Clarissa longed for Horace’s return, so Faith pines for Seth’s. Both women—the fictional and the factual—pass the wearisome years by “attending meeting,” visiting the sick, participating in sewing circles, and keeping a diary; both scour the local papers for reports of a distant sighting of their husbands’ ships in Hong Kong, the Arctic or the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii); and both—perhaps aware of a just-published novel titled Moby Dick—fear a Captain-Ahab-like fate for their mates.

“The tradition is really true,” Boden told radio station WEEI in a 1954 interview. “When we sold our Cape house in Cotuit to summer folks, we found my grandmother Clarissa’s diary (1851-1853) in an old sea chest. It had been tucked out of sight and hadn’t seen the light of day for nearly 100 years . . . I could definitely remember the diary stories, as I had heard them as a child from grandmother’s own lips. They inspired me to write this book.” For Boden, who was born in 1883 in the very house Horace built for Clarissa above Cotuit’s Loop Beach, it became a 13-year journey to weave together the diary entries and recalled historical snippets into The Cut of Her Jib.

The Cut of Her Jib

The Cut of Her Jib

Today, it is the author’s own grandchildren (the great-great grandchildren of Clarissa and Horace) who have republished the novel. “We had several requests to do so,” says  Beverly Boden Rogers of Minneapolis and Cotuit. “Not only is it a good read, but also a book of valuable 19th-century history.” This summer, Rogers has been visiting nautical museums along the eastern seaboard, introducing them to the book’s chronicles of Cape Cod culture and maritime practices during the golden age of sail. Some of the volume’s more absorbing accounts:

The Cut of Her Jib

The Cut of Her Jib

  • Ship’s captain’s families sometimes accompanied them on long voyages. When an infant died at sea, each crewman gave up a small portion of his rum ration, pouring it into the tiny coffin to preserve the body for burial at home.
  • Wives who had rounded South America at Cape Horn considered their “Cape Horn skirt” an emblem of prestige to show off. Made of silk layered over wool, the garment was so heavy that it could not be blown above the ankles in the notoriously tempest-tossed region.
  • Whaling ships approaching the Cannibal Isles (Fiji and environs) were threatened by spear-wielding natives in canoes. Cape Codders greased the sides of their ships with whale blubber, rendering them too slippery for the cannibals to board.
  • A sensation that swept the Cape was “Spiritual Knockings.” Meetings were held in various parlors where mediums claimed to connect participants with deceased loved ones. In the darkness, tables tipped and raps sounded loudly in answer to eager questions—one rap from the beyond meaning “yes;” two meaning “no.”
  • Entire families abandoned the Cape for the California gold rush, only to return demoralized and destitute.
  • In a pre-wireless era, lengthy visits and long letters were common. Unfortunately, in a pre-antibiotic era, so were illness or death from “ague, typhus, sickheadache, liver complaint, lung fever and slow bilious fever.” (Following one wrenching funeral, Clarissa writes: “They have laid a mother in a cold grave beside her five little ones who are fast mouldering to dust.”)

The novel’s end is upbeat, with Faith achieving her sea-going dream. As she embarks on a whaling voyage with Seth and their young son, “Honolulu and Hong Kong seem to loom in the distance.”

The author’s own life, a century later, mirrors this ending. After writing The Cut of Her Jib, Boden—like Faith/Clarissa before her—was gripped by wanderlust. In 1955, at age 79, she fittingly utilized profits from her novel to board a tramp steamer to Lahaina, Hawaii, the 19th-century whaling port that to this day teems with humpbacks. When nearing Lahaina’s shores, she saluted her whale-chasing forebears by emptying a bottle of liquid into the Pacific. It contained Atlantic sea water brought from Cotuit.

Diane Speare Triant last wrote for Cape Cod Life on Barnstable and the Civil War.

Diane Speare Triant