23 Sept - a spot of witchcraft, ashore and afloat
Salem is best known for the witchcraft trials of the 1690s, but that was not our main reason for visiting. When we were in Portsmouth, Dominica earlier in the year we became friendly with Mike and Melissa Rutstein, who run a replica War of 1812 privateer called ‘Fame of Salem’; we had a longstanding invitation to visit them and sail aboard ‘Fame’.
The short passage down from Gloucester was most enjoyable, Escapade making the most of some afternoon sunshine, just enough breeze to sail on a broad reach, a favourable tide and some interesting eyeball and chartplotter navigation through a maze of small islands, some inhabited, some not. We passed the attractive looking town of Manchester-by-the-Sea before turning into Salem Sound just as a fleet of 20-odd racing yachts came out for an evening ‘round the cans’ – just an hour before sunset. Fond memories of the RNSA Portsmouth Wednesday evening series, but we might have been overwhelmed by the numbers! Whilst Gloucester is focused on commercial fishing, the towns of Beverly, Salem and Marblehead just to the south are important sailing centres with Marblehead often touted as the home of American yachting.
Marblehead moorings – 2000 in all and an 18 year wait (RNSA-P members note!)
We nearly picked up a buoy in Salem Harbour, but the owners wanted $65 a night for the privilege, so we anchored just outside the fairway where the Pilot book and the chart showed a general anchorage. In the morning we went ashore to explore Salem before a lunch date with the Rutsteins. Downtown Salem isn’t quite the visual feast of clapboard, 17th century homes and Puritanism that you might expect. I think there are some more historic areas, but we did not see them and for the most part it’s a fairly ordinary town dedicated to witchcraft tourism and commuting to Boston. But still, Halloween in modern-day Salem is a big deal; given that most Americans seem to celebrate 31 October with as much enthusiasm as Independence Day, that’s saying something! Every other shop seemed to sell rather tawdry witchcraft souvenirs, offer tarot readings or ghost tours. Everything from local beers to bookshops cash in on the harrowing story of some 20 individuals who were hanged (or in one case, pressed to death – how civilised!) for alleged witchcraft in 1692.
Maritime Salem – the masts and spars from ‘Friendship of Salem’ (in refit at Gloucester) with some of the more historic parts of the town in the background
It’s worth reflecting that the tragedy took place not that long after the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock; Salem was a growing settlement attracting Puritans keen to practice their faith and rather more liberal merchants looking to open up the country and make their fortunes. It offered many a chance for a new start and some were hideously underqualified for their new roles: the Revd Samuel Parris being one in particular. We visited a simple but effective memorial to those who died but avoided the museum which was guarded by a woman with purple hair, gothic makeup and a pointy hat. Instead, we arranged to watch a very good documentary at the visitors centre which told us everything we needed to know. It’s an awful story of mass hysteria, mistrust, misunderstanding, jealousy and fear; of weak people in positions of power and the difficulty of rescinding a story once you have told it. Eventually the community saw sense, the hangings stopped and a long journey of exoneration began which finally achieved closure in 2001. In the interim, they renamed Salem village where it all took place ‘Danvers’ and it’s several miles from the seaport… so the town you see today has little to do with it!
We both found the story harrowing, and it seemed ironic to see modern-day Americans reducing the tragedy to an opportunity for Hen Party weekends and cheap plastic broomstick manufacturers.
Fame of Salem alongside the modern waterfront in the town centre
Fortunately, there’s more to Salem than pretend witchcraft. The maritime history is very interesting (more on this later), but so is the Peabody Essex Museum, where we spent much of the day.
The great Peabody Essex Museum at Salem
This is a museum full of fascinating things from around the world. There is a good maritime section, but the underlying raison d’etre for this richly endowed place is that centuries of sea captains from this town went off around the world on trading voyages and undertook to bring something INTERESTING back from their travels in order to enlighten those who remained at home (or financed the trip). Their extraordinary collections were brought together here in the Peabody. So each piece, remarkable in its own right, also carries an intriguing story about how it came to be here: the friendships made with people from distant civilisations, the growth of global trade and the spread of American influence around the world. The parallels with our modern society and politics are striking.
Carved tusk in the Peabody
My favourite artefact is a magnificent Chinese carving of an elephant tusk, given to a Salem sea captain Abiel Low by the wealthy Chinese trader Wu Bingjian (one of only a handful authorised to trade with the West) as a gesture of friendship when the American finally departed Hong Kong in 1839. The craftsmanship is breathtaking and it is hard to imagine the scale of friendship and trust it embodies. It’s an interesting contrast with the story of fear, mistrust and hatred for which Salem is better known.
Lunch with the Rutsteins was at the waterfront restaurant ‘Finz’, a smart seafood joint with the imposing ‘Fame of Salem’ moored right there and we caught up on each other’s news since we last met in April. Mike is a journalist, marine historian and seafarer who built Fame in 2002 as a replica of a privateer that fought in the War of 1812 against the British, where with a crew of Salem men she disrupted the supply of raw materials from southern Canada to Britain. Salem at that time was a busy trading port whose prosperity was being undermined by a combination of Anglo-French wars and trade embargos; Fame’s crew were the same sort of men who went on to stock the Peabody with such remarkable things. Today, Fame runs day trips around the local waters for a steady stream of more discerning tourists who are certain that there must be more to this part of the world than broomsticks and silly hats. We sailed aboard her on Saturday lunchtime. I found the rig easy to handle, the helm pretty heavy, but she tracked well, showed no vices and proved to be quite manoeuvrable, even in relatively light winds. The crew were slick, engaging, enthusiastic about the vessel, local history and the War of 1812. I think she would be exhilarating in a good blow…
‘Put your back into it, Laddie!’
Later that afternoon we took the rubber boat around Peach Point and into Marblehead for a look. Some claim it as the birthplace of the US Navy during the Revolutionary War and more recently Marine Corps Aviation; in the past it was associated with whaling and privateering. But for the last century or so, it has been a major yachting centre with several impressive yacht clubs dominating the shoreline and more than 2000 moorings in the fine harbour. We enjoyed wandering through the quiet streets, lined with immaculate clapboard houses, many of them with a plaque explaining who the house was built for and when, most dating from the 1700s. The waterfront was busy with keelboats, fishermen and visitors and reminded us of a blend of Salcombe and Cowes – but probably richer than the two combined!
Saturday afternoon on Marblehead waterfront with a fleet of J70s
The next morning, we sailed for Boston.
‘Fame of Salem’. True witchcraft? Find out more at https://schoonerfame.com/