Amesbury Skiffs around the Elizabethan Islands
In 1602 the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold explored the waters
south of Cape Cod in his ship Concord. During that journey,
Gosnold made ample use of his status as the first Englishman to explore
the area by naming everything of any significance. He named Cape
Cod, after the abundant cod fish his crew found in the area. He
changed the local Indian name of Suckanessett to Falmouth, after his
home port of Falmouth, England. He also named the island chain laying to the
south and west of Cape Cod, the Elizabethan Islands after Queen
Elizabeth. The largest of these islands, he called Martha's Vineyard
after his infant daughter.2, 3
Last fall my daughter Christine and I took advantage of the warm Indian summer
weather and went boating with
my friend Scott and his son Danny. In short we decided to
go on a skiff expedition, exploring the Elizabethan Islands.
We drove up to Wild Harbor Market and picked up a couple of sandwiches then
headed down to Woods Hole where we met up with Scott
and Danny at the Woods Hole
Yacht Club. My daughter and Danny have known each other half their lives. Back then, they were best of friends, two
bear cubs romping through
the woods together. Now, as TeenAngels, their relationship is considerably more
complex. Scott and I greet each other on the dock and begin making sailor chat about the day,
whilst Christine and Danny circle nervously around keeping each other within peripheral
vision, but never coming close enough to acknowledge that the other
is actually there. Danny is a man of few words, Christine never shuts up, this is going to be
an interesting day...
Our two boats are identical twins, Amesbury Skiffs, twelve feet in length
with ten horsepower outboard motors. Nothing fancy, just solid seaworthy
little craft perfect for our intended bit of voyaging. All of us are pretty experienced skiff
operators, so the gear is quickly stowed and
we're off and running before you know it. Christine is driving our boat, and
Danny is driving Scott's. The water is calm as we pass the Marine Biology Labs,
and see the research vessel Atlantis tied up with the famous submersible Alvin
perched on its stern.
Pine Island Passage
The first destination is Pine Island Passage, a clever way to get through Woods Hole in a small boat when the tide is
running hard against you, like it is today. I think that the waters of Woods
Hole will always fascinate me no matter how long I live here. The very idea of
normal pleasure boats routinely traversing a place that turns into a white water
rapids four times a day seems a bit much, and when you add in excitement of
large commercial ferry traffic and really strong winds, well, you get the idea.
Pine Island Passage avoids the traffic and the worst of the chop, but the
trade off is that it amplifies the current. Our two boats caravan across the
pass then turn northwest near Nonamesset Island and work our way into the
strengthening current. The outboard motors on these boats can push them about
10 knots flat out, and the current is rushing through the passage at about six
knots, so we are creeping forward while the water appears to race by us.
The pass itself is marked by a bunch of scary looking rocks and you have to navigate a little
dogleg to thread your way through. The engines are screaming
and the water is streaking and the foam is flying and the scary rocks are close
enough to reach out and touch. And the best part is that our kids are driving
Christine is smiling like a maniac at the excitement of it all and the sudden
realization that she knows exactly what to do and that this is really really
REAL! I can see Danny up ahead as he keeps looking back protectively to make sure
that we are following his track. He's done this lots of times, mister cool.
Suddenly, as quickly as it started, we're through the Pine Island Passage and the current slacks off and
10 knots suddenly sends us flying across the water.
"The fifteenth day we had again sight of the land, which made
ahead, being as we thought an island, by reason of a large sound that
appeared westward between it and the main, for coming to the west end
thereof, we did perceive a large opening, we called it Shoal Hope. Near this
cape we came to fathom anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store
of codfish, for which we altered the name, and called it Cape Cod.1"
Pretty much airborne
The next stop is the Northwest Gutter, a narrow passage between Uncatena and Naushon
Island. To get there we have to go into Buzzards Bay, and work our way around
the North end of Uncatena. It's likely to be a wet ride, so we zip up our
pull up our collars tight. I'm facing backwards so I don't get slapped in the face.
The waves are only four feet high, but that's a lot for a twelve foot skiff and
we get pretty much airborne every time Christine misjudges a swell and launches us
off the top. She tries going fast, then she tries going slow, then she figures out that if
she quarters the swell and backs off the throttle every time we ride over the
crest it's pretty tolerable.
Once we enter the protection of the Northwest Gutter the swell disappears and our trip
takes on an entirely different character. The hidden agenda for visiting this
place is to
explore the prospects of bringing our sailboat Dolphin into the inner cove next
summer. It's really shallow in spots, but Scott claims that it's possible, and he's
the guru. The place is drop dead gorgeous, turquoise water, white sand spit and
flat calm reflecting the fall colors. The sociology of the moment is a little
less serene though. Scott and I have taken over my skiff to do some surveying and
so Danny and Christine are alone together. So far they are both staying in the boat
Using an oar to check the depth, Scott and I find a narrow channel that looks
like it might float a Dolphin. We track it around the sand spit where it widens
into the inner pond, a completely protected pool about fifty yards across. The
bottom is clear of rocks, a quiet salt marsh surrounds the pond and most of the sand spit
will be high and dry when the tide's out for perfect beach combing. Our very own
"From this opening the main lieth south-west, which coasting along we
saw a disinhabited island, which so afterward appeared unto us: we bore with it,
and named it Martha's Vineyard; from Shoal Hope it is eight leagues in circuit,
the island is five miles, and hath 41 degrees and one quarter of latitude. The
place most pleasant; for the two-and-twentieth, we went ashore, and found it
full of wood, vines, gooseberry bushes, whortleberries, raspberries, eglantines,
&c. Here we had cranes, stearnes, shoulers, geese, and divers other beards
which there at that time upon the cliffs being sandy with some rocky stones, did
breed and had young.1"
Christine and Danny are shadowing us but they look happy enough. Danny is
driving the little white skiff, all standing and assertive, while Christine
lounges like Cleopatra in the bow. I admire Christine for the more or less
graceful way she is handling the tidal wave of adolescent angst. Everything about her is changing
really fast. Suddenly boys have become interested and interesting.
Today, she is the exact definition of a blossoming nymphet. Her womanhood is
emerging like a flower bursting from its bud and unfurling a new and special
beauty. It's deeply spiritual and almost comically sexual at the same
time. Pollen fills the air when she and her friends get together for a
grrrrrl confab. As a dad, I'm a little unnerved by it all.
I'm thinking that Danny may be a little unnerved as well. In any event,
it doesn't look as though there's that much
conversation going on over there. Now that we have a plan for getting Dolphin into
this snug little harbor, I'm thinking about what will happen when the
all the way out. For certain, Dolphin's keel will be touching, but it's soft mud, no
problem. One thing's sure, once we get in here, we're there to stay till the
next high tide. The passage is going to be high and dry for hours.
Time to move on, so we trade the kids back and head South under the low
bridge between Uncatena and Naushon and into Hadley's Harbor on the other side.
Christine's wry comment was, "gosh Dad I tried hard to get him to talk, but he
wouldn't say a word." She's a little baffled, but laughing. Fine. I'm
driving the skiff again, and the passage under the bridge is a treat. It's
narrow enough that you have to thread the needle, but the tide is still rushing,
so if you do it right, you get flushed right down the channel. Scott does it
right, because he's been doing it for half his life. I do it right cause I
just follow him, carefully.
"Towards night we came to anchor at the north-west part of the
island, where the next morning offered unto us fast running thirteen savages
apparelled as aforesaid, and armed with bows and arrows without any fear. They
brought tobacco, deer-skins, and some sodden fish. These offered themselves unto
us in great familiarity, who seemed to be well-conditioned. They came more rich
in copper than any before.1"
We just drift for awhile in Hadley's, soaking up the warmth and the view. The
route from here takes us down around Naushon and under the Second Bridge between
Naushon and Nonamesett Island. These Islands are very special places. Privately
owned by the Forbes family, they have a nice mixture of wilderness and New
England elegance. We're traveling along a wooded shoreline that looks like it's
never been touched by man, then around a bend and you find a manicured shingled
Victorian mansion with a beautiful yacht tied up to the dock.
Only members of the many-branched Forbes family tree are supposed to go ashore, but
Scott has finagled his way into the family and is now able to stay in some of
these beautiful houses. Just before the bridge we take a detour to go have a look at the
one he has lined up for their next visit. There's no dock, but a pretty sand beach and
a long screen porch with a view across to Martha's Vineyard. She'll do fine.
We're off again, under the bridge, around the bend and into Vineyard Sound.
Half the day is gone and we're all ready for lunch. The trick is finding the
perfect beach and there are several nearby to choose from. Two years ago a
little sailboat from Boston went aground nearby and we decide to go have a closer look at
the pieces. The beach is a bit rocky and the chop from the Sound is slapping
against the shore but we can make it work.
Once we're ashore and have eaten our sandwiches and Scott and I are taking
turns pulling on my bota bag of zinfandel, a very strange thing happens. Danny
begins talking. Even more odd, once he gets started, you can't shut him up. A
final mystery, he and Christine decide to take a walk together down to look at
yacht bits on the point! Suddenly, they are buddies again, just like in the old
days. Amazing, but what the heck, pass the bota...
"We set sail and bore for England, cutting off our shallop, that was
well able to land five and twenty men or more, a boat very necessary for the
like occasions. The winds do range most commonly upon this coast in the summer
time, westerly. In our homeward course we observed the foresaid floating weeds
to continue till we came within two hundred leagues of Europe. The
three-and-twentieth of July we came to anchor before Exmouth.1"
1 Gabriel Archer's Diary 1602:
2 Tetracentennial Commemoration of Gosnold's Voyage:
- Archer's report of the Gosnold expedition to Cape Cod, which is quoted above, is known as "The Relation of Captain Gosnold's Voyage." Archer's account was originally printed in "Old South Leaflets." Gabriel Archer was born 1559, Mountnessing, Essex, England. The exact date of Archer's death is unclear, but was likely in the 1620's in Jamestown, James City Co., VA. His diary is in the public domain and is reprinted in several places including The Legacy Preservation Library website:
Archer's diary is also included in GREAT EPOCHS IN AMERICAN HISTORY Edited, by Francis Halsey, copyright, 1912, Funk & Wagnalls Co.
3 Looking for America, Gosnold: