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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

No. 99 Breakwaters, Junk Cars & Net Spreads

My father used to talk about playing baseball on ground between his home at the landing and the shoreline to the south. That was hard for me to imagine even then, since the waterline was no more than thirty feet from the south porch of Ole Pa’s house. As Daddy described it, the grassy back yard he had played on extended out as much as fifty yards or more towards the Banks. But that was before the Storm of ‘33 had cut an inlet at the Cape, and the much stronger tides that resulted began to eat away several feet of shoreline every year.

The clutter on the shore in the 1970's
Even at that, it is tempting to remember the south shore of the Island as an almost unbroken ribbon of golden sand — but that’s not how it was. Skiffs and smaller boats were pulled up all along the landing, but they were temporary and often moved from place to place. And there were twenty or more raised walkways that led out to private or commercial docks or moorings. Still, those were not the only or main obstructions, and some of the others actually disfigured the shoreline.

In the early 60's the state installed tons of granite rocks in groins running perpendicular to the shore. The jetties were intended to stem the rapid erosion of the shoreline that had intensified after several powerful hurricanes of the previous decade. For the most part, these seemed to work, at least to the point that the waterline now is not all that far removed from where it was when the “breakwaters,” as we called them, were first installed.

An example of the clutter and waste that accumulated on
 the shore at the Landing in the 1960s. 
Even more than the jetties, the expanse of the shore I knew as a boy was blocked by piles created when the landing was used as a combination junkyard and community dump. I guess it was assumed that the sound was a natural recycle bin that had no limits. Refuse along the tide lines ranged from household garbage to abandoned cars that were placed on or around the breakwater jetties. It was assumed that metal frames would somehow augment the work of the solid rocks, at least until they corroded completely away from the natural effects of the salt water that washed over them several times each day.

But there were other stationary structures that dotted the shoreline; and these ones actually added to both the beauty and the function of the spot they sat on. These were the “net spreads” that were used by fishermen to dry and mend their cotton nets. The spreads were framed of wood, either of rough cut lumber or sometimes of small trees that were trimmed with a hand plane to smooth the knots that could snag the net. The cotton mesh of the nets was prone to rot if not dried out soon after to being used, so almost every day, before heading up the path for home, the Island fishermen would spread their nets over the raised platform so they could thoroughly dry in the sun and breeze.

Willie Guthrie's net spreads at our landing (@ 1962)
Photo by Tommy Hancock
When not being used for their purpose, they had another, and even more fundamental use, at least for us children who saw the landing as our own “public” playground. The spreads were the closest we had to the fabricated gym-sets that might be seen in the parks and towns of the mainland. Many hours were spent balancing on the upper boards and even walking their full length with arms extended for balance. At other times we used the longer planks for “skinning the cat” and similar exercises that might now be labeled as gymnastics. Even when the spreads were in use and covered by the white cotton nets, they were a safe haven when playing “tag,” “hide ‘n seek,” or the much more intense, “old bears.”

By the later part of the decade cotton nets began to give way to nylon, polypropylene, and other fibers that were not nearly so susceptible to the ravages of salt and moisture. Eventually the old net spreads were not needed, and no longer maintained by the ones who had used them. The top boards broke or were pulled off. Then the posts either rotted away or were washed up by the encroaching tides. No new ones were built and within a decade they were gone completely, not so very different from the way of life of which they remain a pleasant memory.

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