GLOUCESTER — It’s a nice Sunday afternoon, so John Stevens is doing what he always does on nice Sunday afternoons; he is sitting in a chair next to the drawbridge that crosses the narrow canal behind his house, a beer in one hand and his cell phone in the other.
He’s ready to film bad boating, and he rarely has to wait long.
“This guy is going to be close” he exclaims as he begins recording a small Boston Whaler with four young people on board as it attempts to squeeze underneath the bridge while it is closed.
“Captain Dummy is having second thoughts,” he quips as the man at the wheel suddenly realizes his bimini is too tall to fit, throws the engine into reverse and tries to abort. “He’s going to back into the bridge! Oh my god!”
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The footage, which he posts on Instagram along with his scathing commentary (the best of the worst earn the title “Captain Jackass”), has made Stevens something of a celebrity in Gloucester. For what he is documenting, the precarious crossing through Blynman Canal and under Blynman Bridge — known to locals as “the cut” and “the cut bridge” — is a time-honored maritime curiosity that has tormented boaters and entertained onlookers for nearly 400 years in America’s oldest seaport.
“So many small things come together in this one spot that it can create big trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing, and sometimes even if you do,” said Mike Mann, the captain of the 70-foot charter fishing boat Lady Sea, who navigates the cut nearly every day. “It’s like the central conversion point for the idiocy of boating.”
Dug in 1643 under the leadership of Reverend Richard Blynman, a Welsh Puritan, “the cut” connected Gloucester Harbor to the Annisquam River, sparing fishing boats from the long trip around Cape Ann to reach Ipswich Bay. It still serves that purpose for the Gloucester fleet, but nowadays most of the traffic is recreational boaters, whose frequent visits make the drawbridge one of the busiest on the East Coast, opening as many as 60 times in a day, typically on a 10 minutes up/10 minutes down cycle.
And it is those recreational boaters, who are not required to be licensed or have taken any sort of a boating course in Massachusetts, who often run into big trouble at this deceptively complex passage, usually with the pressure of a crowd of onlookers. The cut bridge is on the heavily foot-trafficked waterfront boulevard, just down from the famed Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, and when the bridge is up people naturally congregate along the railings to watch the boats pass through.
Down below, the trickiest obstacle is the ripping current that can often create standing waves under the bridge, especially during an astronomical tide when it can reach 6 or 7 knots. In a lot of situations, regulars say the key is to gun it through the waves, but nerves often make people do the opposite.
One Gloucesterman, who did not want his name in the newspaper because he’s still trying to live this down, was gunning it toward the waves on Memorial Day a few years ago when his wife screamed at him to slow down. Unfortunately, he listened.
“The minute I pulled back the wave came over the bow and swamped the whole boat up to my waist,” he said. He was able to limp the boat through the cut and around the corner to a beach, while his wife and kids jumped overboard and swam for shore. They are no longer married.
In addition to the waves, many boaters fail to anticipate the refraction caused by the wake of the boats in front of them. Mann said that when the Lady Sea goes through, he’ll get on the radio to tell the boats behind him to wait a minute or two for the water to settle. Few listen, however, and it’s not uncommon for boats to get tossed against the side of the bridge by the turbulence; three times, Mann has watched boats flip over behind him.
Then there is the question of who has the right of way when the bridge opens. In many river crossings, that goes to whoever has the current pushing their stern. But at the cut bridge, the boats on the Annisquam always have the right of way because it’s so narrow and can become easily clogged with boats waiting for the bridge to open. There are signs informing boats in the harbor that they must yield, but it is often ignored, creating situations where two boats are squeezing past each other through an opening that can barely fit one.
And finally, there is the just plain bad luck that seems to happen to people going through the cut. An uncanny number of motors seem to choose that spot to stop working. Last August, Stevens captured a harrowing event when a boat lost power and slammed backwards into the closed bridge as the captain tried desperately to get his anchor to catch.
Most incidents at the bridge are minor, according to Gloucester Harbormaster T.J. Ciarametaro, and can be chalked up to inexperience and poor preparation, such as not knowing the fixed height of their boat and hitting the bottom of the closed bridge, or doing the opposite, which is radioing for a bridge opening when they don’t actually need it.
“The thing I want to stress the most is: you don’t always have to go through,” Ciaremataro said. “Just because the bridge is up and it’s your turn in line, you don’t have to go. If you’re in a small boat and you’re behind three giant tuna boats, you probably need to wait a bit for the water to calm down.”
And now, he acknowledges, there is a new motivation to be smart at the cut bridge: not wanting to end up on Stevens’ Instagram page @cutbridgecrazziness and being subjected to one of his expletive-filled rants.
The goal, Stevens insists, is comedy. But within it, there is a chance to ponder the strangely evil question: “Why is it so satisfying to watch boating stupidity?” he says.
For he is certainly not alone in this genre of schadenfreude. There are several YouTube channels that document boats getting into trouble in the notorious Haulover Inlet in Miami. And “The Qualified Captain,” an Instagram page that is a clearinghouse for “what not to do” on a boat, has nearly 750,000 followers.
“There’s just something about it,” Stevens says after yelling at two cigarette boats who violated the right of way and came in from the harbor just after the bridge opened. “It’s usually not some devastating blow. It’s not a devastating loss. It’s just stupidity. And stupidity on a boat is amusing.”
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @billy_baker.