Turns out the President of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy is quite a writer. Rear Admiral Richard Gurnon is also the co-chair of the Cape Cod Canal Centennial Committee and in that role, he penned an essay about his memories of the Canal and his little boy.
The following essay first appeared in the Cape Cod Centennial special supplement of the Cape Cod Times and with full credit to them, I reprint it here today. If you've never stopped to explore the canal, preferring instead to speed over it on the bridges that whisk you home, take in the lovely prose of Rear Admiral Gurnon.
"Big Boat! Big Boat!"
By: Richard Gurnon
"Big boat! Big boat!"
Those words were the first sentence uttered by our toddler. We had moved to Buzzard's Bay in early spring of 1978, and our young son was instantly enamored with the ships that plied the Cape Cod Canal--just 200 yards from our home.
The throbbing, slow-speed diesels of the oil tankers with their red "bravo" flag flapping in the wind, reminding those in the know that they carried petroleum products; the higher-pitched whine of the tugs laboring to pull their barges to Boston; the giant car carriers, huge floating shoe boxes stuffed to the gunnels with Toyotas and Subarus; each ship had a distinctive frequency but their powerful marine engines rattled the drafty windows in our old Cape and alerted the boy that they were coming.
With his shouts of "Big boat!" we were off and running down the street to the banks of the canal, where he would wave frantically to the mate in the wheelhouse or on the bridge, hoping for a toot of the ship's whistle in reply. A lonely crewmember, lounging on the fantail talking in the scenery of Cape Cod from this unusually close vantage point, would wave back. I would read the homeports off the stern -- Panama City, Baton Rouge, Liberia-- names beyond both his comprehension and his horizon, as I explained that the sailors he saw were tens of thousands of miles from their home. "They probably have a boy just like you at home, and they must miss him very much."
Even when it was cold outside, the boy would want to wait, tucked snugly inside my warm parka, until the ship turned a bend in the canal and disappeared from his sight.
There are very few places in the world where one can stand on the ground and observe an ocean-going ship or huge integrated tug and barge unit go by-- so close that you can see the faces of the crew and shout a greeting. Usually these vessels operate far from shore, out of sight and, too often, out of mind, delivering over 90 percent of the stuff Americans use every day. Not here in Bourne, Massachusetts. Anyone who walks the banks of the Cape Cod Canal is an up-close and personal witness to America's maritime heritage and the faces of her waterborne commerce. Here on the banks of what was once the widest sea-level canal in the world (the Suez is now wider), skateboarders, bikers, even mothers pushing strollers have amazing front-row seats to tall ships and warships, tug boats and motor boats, even some of the most ostentatious private yachts in the world. Add in the three iconic bridges that suture the island of "Cape Cod" to the mainland of Massachusetts, often framing the selfies taken there, and you have some of the most magnificent and unique scenery in the world.
My office overlooks the canal, and I feel privileged to work at the biggest and best maritime college in all of America. Whales and porpoises have frolicked just outside my window. I see the Mayflower sail south in the fall and return in the spring for her tourist duty station in Plymouth Harbor. The magnificent Russian tall ship Kruzenshtern has docked at the campus twice. Too tall to even fit under the bridges, she had to be turned to head back down Buzzards Bay when her port visit was over. Watching the Coast Guard in action, whether the muscular black-hulled buoy tenders or the sleek white cutters, always makes me proud. Even in the darkness, there is much to see. The "triple-white, towing-at-night" mnemonic learned by all licensed mariners who study the "Rules of the Road" comes to mind whenever I see a tug pulling a barge through the cut, her three white masthead lights ablaze for all to see (and interpret). Canadian diesel subs have slipped by my door, black and silent in the night. I saw the last voyage of the Bounty as she sailed past the academy and into the teeth of Hurricane Sandy.
The Cape Cod Canal is beautiful to look at, but it also teems with wildlife. Everyone knows it fills with striped bass every spring, the fish a magnet for anglers across the region, both species drawn to the clean, deep and cold water lapping the riprap of the canal. But my dog and I on our twice-daily walks have seen both colors of fox, steered clear of the occasional skunk, spotted an otter, surprised a skittish, spindly legged deer and saw rafts composed of thousand of eiders--punctuated with a few mallards and loons-- all almost close enough to touch. The dog, an Australian shepherd (a breed that needs a task to be happy) is convinced that his purpose in life is to keep the roosting cormorants off the light poles that line the banks of the canal. Barking furiously, he will run to the pole and create such a fuss that the perplexed bird flies away in search of a more quiet perch. Walking the canal is always an adventure for us, the highlight of our day.
Functional, beautiful, accessible, bountiful-- all are words that apply to the Cape Cod Canal, celebrating its 100th birthday this summer and continuing a century of service to our region. The years have passed, the little boy is grown, now with little boys of his own, but the lure of the ships on the canal still lingers and when the window panes begin to rattle, I can still hear in my mind, the call to action: "Big boat! Big boat!".