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The Mast Head: Much in a Name

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 17:30

During last Thursday’s editorial meeting, one of the editors, Irene Silverman, asked why it was that I had named my sailboat after a three-headed dog. I deferred the answer to another day, not wanting to take up time during our weekly staff Zoom gathering.

The truth is that I had been deeply uncertain if Cerberus might carry too much bad mojo, not that I am particularly superstitious, but with boats one cannot be too careful. But, after running the name by several wise friends, who approved of the idea, so it was to be known.

As far as I know, I am the fifth possessor of Cerberus, a 28-foot-long Cape Dory sloop built in Taunton, Mass., in 1979. Its most recent captain was Stan Wheatly, who called it Nonsly. The fourth owners were unable to sail it due to an illness; they may have named it, but I don’t know. I found it on Craigslist in Marblehead, Mass., still sitting in the shaded yard to which it had been hauled in about 2013.

In thinking about names, I felt that whatever it ended up as, it ought to have some kind of local relevance. Unrolling a chart at the office, I looked at the names for the various points, bays, and rocks, searching left to right, that is, from west to east. Toward the middle of Chart 13209, almost straight north from Montauk Inlet, I noticed Cerberus Shoal, a rocky mound that reaches up from deep water to 16 feet below the surface at mean low water.

What I recalled, though I still have not dug out the source, was that the H.M.S. Cerberus, during the American Revolution, made shuddering note of the shallow spot in Block Island Sound, where it was stationed beginning in about 1776 to aid in a British blockade of rebel shipping.

Cerberus had begun its naval career in 1758, one of a group of 28-gun frigates built on the Isle of Wight. It saw service in the French and Indian War and was the first British warship to arrive in Boston Harbor after the beginning of the colonial rebellion. Its end came in the summer of 1778, as it and the H.M.S. Lark were pinned in near Newport by much larger French warships.

The captains aboard the Lark and Cerberus ordered them run aground, stripped of anything the men could carry, and burned so they would not fall into the enemy’s control.

Cerberus is, of course, the guardian of the gates to Hades in Greek mythology, the original hell-hound, I suppose, with the tail of a snake and the claws of a lion, who was subdued by Heracles as his 12th and final labor. “Hot stuff!” I thought. But was it too dark? Turns out, not, and, anyway, the birthday of one of the friends I consulted on this important matter was Aug. 5, the same day in 1778 that the British Cerberus was put to the torch.

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