Channel Dangers Recall 1950 Drownings

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Local History

The Catchalot beached at Morris Island. COURTESY PHOTOS

Sixty-seven years after the sad event, Archie S. Nickerson recently reminisced about the afternoon of Oct. 30, 1950, when his father and his father’s fishing partner drowned crossing Chatham Bar.

Archie, now 82, is the sole remaining member of the family in which he grew up. This afternoon he is sitting at the kitchen table in his ranch house not too far from Ridgevale Beach. He opens a thin manila envelope labeled “1950 Dad’s Boat Pictures.” In it are four glossy eight-by-10 photos, a black and white postcard of fishing boats in Aunt Lydia’s Cove, and several yellowed newspaper clippings. The clips tell a terse and grim story that made its way into the bestselling book “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue” by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman.

Fishing partners Archer Elwood Nickerson, 44, and Elroy McLean Larkin, 50, had headed out from Old Harbor at 2 a.m. in Archer’s 41-foot fishing boat, the Catchalot, on Oct. 30, 1950. After a day of fishing, they were returning with the rest of the fleet. While the autumn weather was fair elsewhere, at Monomoy the fog was thick, and “a heavy sea was running,” according to a Cape Cod Standard-Times article of Oct. 31, 1950. The captains were all having trouble navigating back to the Chatham Fish Pier.

At one point the Catchalot passed Archer’s brother Kevin “Cobbie” Nickerson in another fishing boat. Cobbie later recalled that Archer was in the boat’s cabin at the helm and Larkin was on deck. A little later, Cobbie witnessed an appalling scene. “Suddenly the sea seemed to curl up behind the Catchalot and drove it over on to the bar and then pitched it over, all at once,” he later said. Various newspaper accounts mention that the boat hit a rock, or the sandbar, when the wave hit. Whatever happened, as Tougias and Sherman sum it up in “The Finest Hours,” the boat was “tossed end over end, ‘pitchpoling’ the vessel.” The two men were thrown from the boat. Larkin’s body was soon plucked from the churning waters either by another fishing vessel or the Coast Guard. Archer’s body could not be found.

Archie was 16 at the time and working at the Chatham Fish Pier as a fish packer at Old Harbor Fish Co. He was no longer a student because when he turned 16 the previous August, “I didn’t want to go back,” he says.

Word of the accident would have spread quickly as the fishing boats, minus the Catchalot, returned to the fish pier.

“They told me about it,” Archie recalls. One of his sisters was working as a telephone operator, and she heard about the accident through the telephone exchange. “It was a shock to us all.”

Between them, the men left eight children. At 15, Archie’s brother Elwood Henry Nickerson was the youngest of Archer’s children.

The Coast Guard searched for Archer’s body until darkness drew in in the late afternoon; searchers resumed their task again at dawn on Oct. 31.

Bernard C. Webber, a young Coast Guard coxswain, was among those searchers from what the newspaper referred to as the Chatham Light and Lifeboat Station. Webber, in fact, was using the 36-foot wooden rescue boat CG-36500 for the search. Webber later received the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal after he and a crew of three in CG-36500 rescued 32 shipwrecked sailors from the doomed tanker Pendleton which broke in half off Cape Cod during a northeaster in February 1952, a year and four months after they searched for Archer’s body. Tougias and Sherman cite Webber’s participation in the search for Archer to note that it was then that Webber’s respect for the treacherous Chatham Bar was cemented.

The Catchalot washed up near the weather station at Morris Island, Archie says. It was upside-down in the sand, and was righted with a great deal of difficulty. The 16-year-old Archie appears in some of the news photos, standing among the men looking on from the beach.

Although the Coast Guard’s amphibious plane from the Quonset Naval Air Station and Coast Guard vessels widened their search to Pleasant Bay, Archer’s body was never recovered.

When Archer drowned, his family was living on George Ryder Road, and two of Archie’s older sisters were married. (Four years later the third, Beverly, married Richard Livesey, who was a member of Webber’s crew.)

“It was just my brother and I in the house,” Archie says. After their father died, their mother Dorothy continued working in Chatham Drug Company on Main Street.

Archie himself later took up fishing, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He then served in the U.S. Coast Guard and was stationed on a weather ship off New York for four years. Eventually he returned to Chatham and raised a family. Today his daughter Cheryl lives with his grandson in Nebraska while his son Glen, a fourth generation fisherman, lives with him here in the ranch house he bought in the 1960s. Retired from 14 years as a custodian in the Chatham school system, Archie works mornings as a caretaker for a Shore Road house and in his free time makes complex ship models.

Dorothy Nickerson outlived her husband for eight years, dying at age 48. Etched on her gravestone in Seaside Cemetery is a memorial to her late husband Archer, whose body rests in the sea: “Lost at Chatham Bars.”

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