Island ingenuity creates a boat for the ages
By Doreen Leggett
People are familiar with the long, sleek lines of the whaling dories of old, and the wide-bodied, single-sailed catboats that were designed for commercial fishing before they became a sailor’s favorite.
Less well-known are the sturdy Noman’s Land boats native to Martha’s Vineyard, a mainstay of inshore fishing for close to 30 years.
“It is a measure of how significant the Noman’s Land boat is in Vineyard culture that it appears on the town seal of Chilmark,” said A. Bowdoin Van Riper, research librarian at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.
There are only two known vessels still around. One is at the Vineyard museum and the other is at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.
But in her heyday there were dozens and her beauty and usefulness has been described in writings by Joseph Chase Allen and Gale Huntington.
Both told of how she was crafted to serve a specific purpose in a time when most everyone’s focus was on cod. They were popular in the late nineteenth century and set out from Noman’s Land, which early settlers of Chilmark had deemed valuable for its close proximity to good grounds, one of the reasons they annexed it in 1714.
“A colony of fishermen sprang up on Noman’s Land, each man fishing out one of these boats, which soon became known by the name of the island,” wrote Allen in “Martha’s Vineyard Boats,” adding “Everyone’s regular duty is to catch and salt a supply of fish for winter use.
Van Riper noted that brothers by the name of Fischer owned a chandlery in Vineyard Haven and shipped cod not used locally to larger markets. The pair said it was better than cod from the Grand Banks and even marketed a boneless fillet.
Fishermen have personal relationships with the boats they fished from, oftentimes crafting them in previous generations. The Noman’s Land boat was no different.
Fishermen on the island had been out to the Grand Banks and launched slender, long boats from schooners out there. But they needed something different when they discovered cod closer to shore. Noman’s Land saved about four miles of commute to the local grounds over mainland Martha’s Vineyard, so fishermen moved there year-round to take advantage and others brought family and stayed for the spring.
“In the late 19 century, it looks like there were as many as 60 families on Noman’s during the fishing season . . . divided into two settlements called Crow Town and Jimmy Town,” said Van Riper.
There was a one-room school, staffed by a teacher from Menemsha, but it closed in 1898.
Allen described the kind of craft these fishermen needed: Boats that could be pulled by oars by one man in calm weather, stable enough to carry a sail and hardy enough to carry a lot of fish.
There wasn’t one that fit the criteria so they invented her.
“They were probably as fine a model as it was possible to devise. They were exceptionally seaworthy and of equal importance they could be beached or launched from the beach in almost any weather,” Huntington said, quoting his brother Fred.
Unlike catboats, which need a sheltered harbor, the Noman’s Land boat was made to be dragged ashore.
“West of Menemsha in 1880 you would have seen Noman’s boats on the beach and then catboats bobbing. On Noman’s where there was no shelter it was almost exclusively Noman’s boats,” Van Riper said.
They were double ended, about 18 feet long, hard to capsize, “much more visibly pudgy with a much straighter upsweep at either end,” said Van Riper.
The boats had two holes high up on the bow where a big metal ring was inserted. Oxen would haul the boats up on greased rails, to be dragged down when it was time to fish again.
“They’ve got that sort of 1940s or 1950s Land Rover feel. Very blocky, very solid, like one could drive down the side of the mountain, bounce off boulders, and be fine,” Van Riper said.
The boat didn’t start off double ended. Huntington wrote that in the early 1900s Perez Horton of Vineyard Haven put the first waterboard and curbing in a Nomans Land boat; William Mayhew had already added the gaft-headed sail.
Some were rigged with a single mast, but a main mast and a small mizzen were more common. The sails were quadrilateral for better balance and since there was more flexibility on how much sail let out, Noman’s boats were able to nimbly respond to weather.
“The Noman’s design is very particular to the Vineyard but it was also tweaked… so if there were a dozen Noman’s Land boats they would all have a strong family resemblance, but if you knew Noman’s Land boats well you would be able to see subtle differences between them,” Van Riper said.
Of course all this long predates Noman’s present association as a place used in the twentieth century for military munitions practice offshore, where relics of those bombardments still appear now and then.
This is a deeper history for the small island, and perhaps one day, if the style revives, we’ll be able to see those subtle differences once again.