19 September. Noonish, sitting in the sun on the wide comfortable wooden
steps of the Woods Hole Yacht Club. Scott and I have our boat gear and about
three days worth of groceries sitting down on the dock. It's a Friday, and
neither of us really have any important assignments until Monday.
This could be epic.
After finishing our coffee and reviewing the latest harbor gossip with the
yacht club porch rats, we pile into the dinghy, Canary, and row out to Scott's
sloop Beluga sitting gracefully at her mooring in Great Harbor. Once we're
aboard, and all the gear is stored, I remove the sail covers while Scott fires
off the engine. There's not much need to talk, we've done this together lots of
We slip the mooring and head south towards the Hole.
Normally, I'd go below and get out the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book to
continue my ongoing education in how this place works. Today, however, Scott has
already informed me that our departure could get interesting and I think I'm
better off keeping my nose out of the book.
On the West coast, where I grew up, tides mean huge masses of water moving
slowly and pretty regularly. They go up, they go down. Make sure there's enough
water between the bottom of your boat and the ground, simple. The tides here in
New England, and Woods Hole in particular, are a
whole different animal. Most importantly, they not only move up and down, but
horizontally at alarming speeds. Sort of like salty white water rapids. You
can be sailing along at a good clip and still be going backwards against the
The tidal flow around here is both powerful and quirky. Today it's flowing
west in Buzzards Bay, east in Vineyard Sound and southeast through the
Hole. All at the same time. When we leave this morning, the tide will be
running about four knots against us. Since Beluga can go about six knots that
shouldn't be a problem, but I'm riding up on the bow next to the anchors just in
case anything goes wrong.
As we depart Great Harbor and make the turn around Red Ledge into the Hole,
Beluga is buffeted by a river of surging water. We are suddenly standing still
in the current. Scott slowly eases the throttle forward until we gradually begin
to make progress against the current. If the engine failed we'd be on the rocks
in moments. Not that it's a big adventure or anything, you just have to know
what you're doing. Like Scott said, "Interesting."
Once we're through the Hole we hoist the sails and set a course for the Weepecket
Islands a few miles southwest. As we tack up the Bay with the wind and sun in
our faces, we begin "The Conversation." The Conversation is the
process we use to decide on a safe and enjoyable sailing plan. The Conversation
generally involves an ongoing analysis of the current situation against which we
play out every likely scenario. I believe this is the way every competent
captain gets from place to place, but on Beluga, Scott and I externalize the
process. I get an education and he gets to pontificate to an
The issue today is fog. Cape Cod fogs come on suddenly and wrap you in a
thick moist blanket of invisibility. The familiar landmarks disappear; sounds
carry for an unbelievably long distance and seem to wander away from their
source as if they are confused by all the thick air. It's dangerous to move,
because you can run into something, and it's dangerous to stay still, because
there's plenty of other traffic out there that can run into you. We hate fog.
This morning was socked in. I started hearing the big deep foghorn on
Cleveland Ledge in the middle of the night and woke up to zero viz.
Fortunately, it's been lifting all morning and currently we can see about
five miles in every direction. The question of what it's going to do next makes
for a good Conversation.
We are headed for Cuttyhunk Island, the southernmost of the Elizabethan
islands, and a classic end-of-the-season sailing destination. To get there, we
need to sail down Buzzards Bay about 14 miles then tuck into the Cannapitsit
Channel between Nashawena and Cuttyhunk islands. If
conditions are right, we'll pick up a mooring in Cuttyhunk harbor for the
night and work our way home tomorrow. It's a pretty good bet that we can make
Cuttyhunk, the question is whether we'll wake up to such heavy fog tomorrow that
we can't make it home. The good news it that we've got a few hours before we
have to make the call. The bad news is that this time of year the fogs develop
in Vineyard Sound which will be obscured from view all day by Naushon, Pasque and Nashawena
Beluga is a sweet sailing boat. What she lacks in speed, she more than makes
up for in creature comforts. Scott made us the normal killer lunch of
sandwiches, chips, apples and ice cold Ballentine Ale. We have steered pretty
close to the wind all day, long lazy tacks down the Bay. Nice smooth sailing.
The afternoon brought Penikese Island into prominent view. Penikese is
an interesting place. It's privately owned and hosts a school for boys who
have gotten into trouble. My friend Bob is on the board and he says the
approach is a combination of tough love, and simply removing them from a bad
environment and into the isolated beauty of the island. Apparently the
results are excellent.
Penikese lies off the entrance to Cuttyhunk and, as it approaches, so does
The Conversation has been in a holding pattern all day; there may be fog, but
there's no sign of it now, so we go on. With Cannapitsit Channel in sight, it's
crunch time. Unexpectedly, the decision is made. Scott checks the GPS, jots a
fix on the chart and gives me a course for the entrance to Cuttyhunk. In a few
short minutes, we are through the narrow shoal channel between the harbor
jetties and securely tied up to a town mooring. For better or worse, we're here
for the night.
No sooner have we gotten things buttoned up, then the first fog monster
came rolling over the island. The hulking pillow of fog looks surreal in the
yellow afternoon sunlight as it crawls up the Cannapitsit channel and enters Cuttyhunk
harbor. As it approaches, everything behind disappears; the channel, the harbor
entrance, then the whole damned eastern end of the island! It rolls over
Beluga, stealing the sunlight and imparting a sticky poisonous chill to the air.
If we'd arrived ten minutes later, it would have been dicey getting in here
Scott looks a little grim, no sailor likes the fog, and even though we are
safe for the night, tomorrow could be a bitch. We're both knocking around below
stowing gear when the fog lifts as quickly as it came. The sun reappears and all
the landmarks are back. The fog monster rolled right over us and there are blue
skies beyond. Strange, but nice.
Earlier, we discussed going for a walk this afternoon, and it suddenly looks
like a good idea again. We pile into Canary and I pull against the oars, guiding
us toward the dinghy dock. Once ashore, we climbed the long hill out of the
harbor, through the tiny town and on up to the island summit. Cuttyhunk Island
was one of the places visited, written about and named by the English explorer
Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602. Some say that Gosnold's account of Cuttyhunk was
used by William Shakespeare as a setting for his play The Tempest. Modern
Cuttyhunk is a village with a year round population of about 26 year round
residents. This number swells to over a hundred on a busy day in the
summer, but visitors are welcome. The town has a general store, a bakery a
restaurant and a few streets of homes that ooze Yankee determination and
character. Down by the harbor, there's a flourishing lobster and fishing
fleet. At the top of the hill is the church and school. Everything
is immaculately groomed.
Cuttyhunk is a little over two miles long, and a little under a mile
across. Most of it has been set aside as conservation land and the town is
tucked into the eastern end overlooking the harbor. Walking trails
traverse most of the island, providing access to some beautiful white sand
beaches, saltwater marshes and excellent bird-watching.
The development of Cuttyhunk1 was driven by a group of robber barons in the
early 1900's who created the Bass Fishing Club as a lodge for their sport
fishing vacations. Over time the Bass Fishing Club hosted several
American presidents, oil magnates,
railroad tycoons and other "masters of the universe-types".
In 1912, the club (and most of the rest of the island) was
purchased by William Wood2, the owner of the American Woolen Company and a
multi-millionaire. Wood was born on Martha's Vineyard to a poor
Portuguese family and had risen to fame and fortune through hard work, a
timely marriage to the boss's daughter and a little luck. His descendants are
still the primary landowners on the island, the Bass Fishing Club has been
converted into a bed and breakfast, and the Striped Bass fishing is still great.
From the Cuttyhunk Summit Scott and I got our first clear look across
Vineyard sound, the breeding ground of the fog monsters. As we watched, a lone
grey fog bank broke loose and scooted off towards us. With sunlight beaming down
all around, this odd little cloud traversed the island below us, then broke free
again and headed on to Penikese island.
After enjoying the show for awhile, we wandered off along the trail towards
the southwest end of the island. The trail winds along a grassy old road lined
with ragweed and sage. When we come around a bend, we were presented with a
spectacular view of the oyster pond and land's end. The late afternoon sun
cuts through the salty haze in slatting coffee latte-colored beams. Beyond lies
the vast Atlantic Ocean.
On the way back to the harbor, we took the shortcut past the Cuttyhunk Yacht
Club where we bumped into Seth Garfield, and stopped for a chat. Seth is a
classic New Englander. He's about 6'6", skinny as a rail, with white hair,
ruddy cheeks, piercing blue eyes and the sharpest wit you'll ever encounter. I
met Seth last year when we visited Cuttyhunk. He and my wife got to talking
about the Cuttyhunk school system and before we knew it, they were scheming to
get her a job as the island schoolmarm!
We got to talking about the island and islanders and I commented that it must
get a little rough out here during the long winter. Seth considered this for a
while, then remarked that a good islander needs 'a bit of grit and a good
hobby.' Precisely so.
On the wharf we ran into Janet and her son Ian. Janet used to take care of Scott's
kids when they were little, small world. Ian is a cool little kid, and Janet
reminds me of the pretty earth mother type girls that you don't see much
anymore. She is home schooling her kids out here and little Ian seemed like an
advertisement for the home schooling process. He was so open and curious with we
two strangers. I think it's because home school kids are constantly exposed to
the real world in the course of their daily lives rather than being sheltered in
the artificial environment of a schoolroom. They have a nice life out here, not
an easy life probably, but a good one.
Back on Beluga, the neighborhood has filled in. There's an exquisitely salty
looking yawl at the next mooring, and a big comfortable-looking trawler
behind us. The sun is dropping fast, so we drop into the dinner routine.
Scott starts the BBQ while I get out the steaks, open a bottle of Cabernet
and start chopping up a salad. We are surrounded by an abundance of riches.
Dinner in the cockpit with an apocalyptic sunset as a backdrop and dive bomber
cormorants for entertainment. After eating, we stash the dishes then sip a
little Black Seal rum and watch the stars, dropping into a comfortable
silence. There isn't anything left that needs saying.
The next morning was clear as a bell. Hot coffee, granola & honey bagels,
fair winds and a following sea, so it goes...
1 Cuttyhunk visitor info and great pictures: http://www.cuttyhunk.com/info.htm
2 Wood Bio: http://personalweb.smcvt.edu/winooskimills/millshistory/william_madison_wood.htm
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