- by Carol Standish
The Boy, Me and the Cat (Catboat Association, 191pp, $29.95) has been considered “the greatest cruising story ever written” by four generations of New England sailors—at least by all those who have been able to get their hands on a copy.
In the first edition of The Boy, Me and the Cat (1914), Henry M. Plummer describes himself as “the author, the illustrator, the editor, the publisher, the printer, the binder, and the Captain of the Mascot.” A recently retired New Bedford insurance man, Plummer may have been the first man to sail a small boat down the inside passage from Massachusetts to Miami, Florida and back. When he returned, he mimeographed his illustrated log, hand bound it with fishing line and sold an edition of 700 copies by subscription.
The publication of the second edition in 1961 was inspired by a comment from the then Managing Editor of Yachting magazine, who said “borrowing one [of the original 700 copies] is about as simple as borrowing a man’s favorite wife.” The Cyrus Chandler Company of Worcester, Massachusetts published the book so the principal could read it himself.
The handsome third edition just published by the Catboat Association, Inc. owes its existence to the purpose of the a non-profit organization itself, which is “to keep the love of catboats alive and flourishing.” Re-issuing “the tale of this voyage is just the ticket,” says the new prologue. An extensive collection of photographs, taken by Plummer on the voyage, have been unearthed between the two editions and are included in the current text, enhancing an already marvelous read.
The voyage took place between October, 1912 and June, 1913. The boat was a 30 year old 24-foot “old-fashioned Cape Cod catboat…with a self-bailing cockpit she is as safe and able a little ship as a man could want to go to sea in.” She towed a 15-foot dory with a 3-horsepower motor installed. “Cabin accommodations are comfortably ample for two men and included a small shipmate stove…a well-filled bookcase, two roomy transoms [berths] and plenty of storage room.” (A photo is provided to prove it—more or less.)
“All hands and the cook” consisted of Mr. Plummer, a Victorian Renaissance man if there ever was one. In addition to being a cracker-jack sailor, Plummer was a keen observer of nature, a fair shot, an inventive and versatile cook, (the meals he describes cooking on board are nothing short of amazing) a more than adequate illustrator and photographer, a knitter and a sewer. “A beautiful afternoon and I boiled and roasted a ham besides the duck which H. got yesterday with the rifle. Also made my ninth ballast bag all French seamed and Bristol Fashioned.”
Crew member, Henry Jr., Plummer’s 20 year old son, must have learned a lot, but he had a few talents of his own, like engine mechanics, which meshed handily with his father’s.
Father and son had a few “thin” spots. “The first touch of mutiny on board” occurred when Jr. “allowed he would desert at Norfolk or right then and there if I gave him anymore sea fowl to eat. Foolish boy, he needs starving. Scotty and I finished the stew.” Scotty is the unbelievably game ship’s cat who was deemed a “full 50% of this trip.”
The route they followed was what would become the inland waterway. As a piece of history, alone, the story, especially with photographs, is a boggle. (The Cape Cod canal would not be completed until 1914.) But they had plenty of adventures, too. The launch was swept away, the boat often “bilged” at anchor on a low tide. They wrecked in the combers inside of Frying Pan Shoals and spent days on the deserted Carolina beach making repairs and patches with canvas and copper nails.
But most of all, the charm of the book lies in the character of its author as expressed in his sly and quirky sense of humor, through his detailed observations and informed opinions and in his elegant (more or less) solutions to the problems inherent in the adventure. And like many Victorians, the man could write as well as he could think. Of Southport, North Carolina, he says, “The boat builder is nearby, the storekeeper across the way and the sun shines warmly on us all and saps the energy out of H. and me, and we are glad to sit and listen to the yarns spun in this softly spoken southern tongue.”
The third edition of The Boy, the Cat and Me is available through the Catboat Associaton at www.catboats.org or Catboat Association Publications, 38 Brookwood Drive, Branford, CT 06405-2325.