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Buell Hollister

Requiem for a martini glass

A 1964 photo of the experimental radar antenna at the Round Hill estate in South Dartmouth. A 1964 photo of the experimental radar antenna at the Round Hill estate in South Dartmouth. (Associated Press file)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Buell Hollister
May 1, 2008

IT WILL FEEL like a missing tooth for navigators venturing out on Buzzards Bay this spring - the martini glass is gone.

Officially called a radome on federal navigation charts, it was a large, experimental radar antenna built after World War II when radar was still young. It had little historical significance as a relic of the beginnings of the electronic age. After its useful life was over, the huge bowl of its reflector was turned straight up and locked in place; from a distance its base and stem topped by the big dish did indeed look like a goblet. It has been called the martini glass almost since then, an affectionate term undoubtedly coined by some homeward-bound sailor looking forward to an evening's libation. It stood close to the seaward end of Round Hill Point in Padanaram Harbor, South Dartmouth.

The radome was demolished last fall after 60 years of serving as an unmistakable landmark during smoky sou'westers or any other time when visibility was marginal, when haze made the low-lying Massachusetts shore blend with the sea and sky. It was on private land, maintained for the public benefit by a family who spent every summer in a curious yet attractive gray shingled house that originally served as a control station for the antenna. The property changed hands after the last owner died, then the new owner, in the face of sudden and futile opposition from local mariners, razed the old landmark to make way for his estate. It had become so much a part of the landscape that no one thought to protect it earlier with historical covenants or restrictions.

It is hard to overstate the old radome's usefulness to mariners on the western end of the Bay; its distinctive shape in some unmistakable way would bore through the thickest murk. It likely saved more than a few lives over the years, according to the Dartmouth harbormaster.

The local waters are liberally salted with house-sized glacial boulders called "accidentals" by geologists, most of which lie just below the surface, their mossy tops waiting to be found accidentally by the careless boater. They have names like the Dumplings, Lone Rock, Fatal Rock, and Keel Rock, and have given a heart-stopping thump to many a keel.

Any visual mark that guides the way is most welcome. The radome is gone now, and its destruction leaves a hole that cannot be filled, even by the ubiquitous Global Positioning System. It was a friend - a tangible thing - when finally spotted in a smudged horizon that blurred the transition between land and sea.

At one time or another, just about everyone who has spent time on those waters has been affected by it. On seeing it, the navigator would inevitably feel his spirit lift. Any vague unease about his position, after sailing for hours with little more in sight than water ending in a circle of haze, would evaporate. The helmsman would smile and nudge his course a tad. All would be right in the world again. It was indeed a glass of good cheer.

Yes, we have GPS and perhaps do not need the visual reference as much as we did even a few years ago, but some of us prefer to navigate the old-fashioned way, by dead reckoning - what used to be called Lead, Log and Lookout - or, when offshore, with a sextant and the stars.

Constant use of GPS equipment shrivels the old skills. God help us if the satellite dependent system crashes - we'll all drown! These days it is so much easier to glance at a little digital chart with a blinking stylus as one's "boat" inches along a course line. GPS does away with having to pay attention to magnetic compass course and speed, adjusting for currents, and bringing the right navigational buoys up on time.

Now that the martini glass is gone, our job of dead reckoning will get a little harder; we will just have to suck it up and go on. The GPS is so tempting, so easy to use, and our intellectual lives as sailors are ever so slightly diminished.

Buell Hollister, who worked for the state Division of Marine Fisheries, is a sailor and freelance writer.

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