"There is nothing -- absolutely nothing -- half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not."

Spoken by Ratty to Mole in Wind in the Willows a children's book by Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932).

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 the boats.

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 foulies and 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 at least!

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 secret spot.

"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 tide goes 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"

Hadley's Harbor

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:

  • 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:
  • http://www.usgennet.org/usa/topic/preservation/epochs/vol2/pg38.htm
  • Archer's diary is also included in GREAT EPOCHS IN AMERICAN HISTORY Edited, by Francis Halsey, copyright, 1912, Funk & Wagnalls Co.
2  Tetracentennial Commemoration of Gosnold's Voyage: http://www.sc2.com/~smokingrocks/gosnold.htm 
3  Looking for America, Gosnold: http://www.thefab.net/topics/culture/cg15_gosnold.htm

CST Approved

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