The Black Box Theory 

(being a continuation of June 10, 2004)

Venturing out to sea in a small boat is always a serious business, and around here the stakes are higher due to the multitudinous rocky channels. shifting shoals and strong, tidal currents.  In preparation for taking the Bones Party on a cruise today,  my First Mate and I began the preparing early this morning. A quick check of the Marine Coastal Weather Forecast verified what we can see from the living room window, it's a beautiful day

The next step is to check the tide tables for today, so we know what to expect from the channels and harbors of the along our route.  As it turns out, most of our trip today will be during the ebb tide for Buzzards Bay.  As the bay begins to empty, the channels between the islands will initially flow southeast as the last of the flood tide pushes through them, then they'll reverse direction and flow hard to the northwest as water from Vineyard Sound siphons into the emptying bay.  At the peak northwest flow, the speed will reach six knots, and burble up over ledges to form circular counter currents  like small whirlpools.  

Our initial float plan is to pick up a mooring in Hadley's Harbor over on Naushon Island to eat our lunch, then make a trip down Buzzards Bay to Cuttyhunk Island.  We'd never been out with this group of people before, and so we planned to break the trip up into bite-sized segments with lots of opportunities to bail if anyone got sick or uncomfortable.  I know this probably sounds callous or calculating to the uninitiated, but it's prudent seamanship since the local conditions can be challenging.

There's a theory among professional mariners speculating that every time you do some planning, preparation or maintenance task that wasn't strictly required, but was prudent under the circumstances, it gets metaphorically stashed away in a big black box for later use.  On that dark stormy night, when one failure follows another and the consequences all cascade towards a real fucking disaster, the lid of that black box flies open and all the prudence and forethought you'd stored up comes to your aid.  Sounds kooky I realize, but I know many old salts who swear they've survived the savage sea as a result of their almost religious adherence to this belief.  I just figure it's cheap insurance and I try to keep my black box full..

Bones, Coby and Papa Bear showed up about ten in the morning and we caravanned down to Woods Hole along Sippiwissett Road. When we came into town, they stopped at the Food Buoy Market in Woods Hole Village to pick up some sandwiches. The Mate, Bones and I took our Amesbury Skiff, Sleuth, out to South Swell in preparation for getting underway.  Sleuth is an Amesbury 12 (4 meters long) pushed by a ten horse Mercury outboard.  The Amesbury design has long been favored in New England for its stability and load carrying characteristics.  They actually seem to ride better as you put more weight in them, and it doesn't take much to push them up through the water, even when they're fully loaded.  

On the water

The Mate loves to drive Sleuth, and by the time Bones and I lugged all the gear down the dock, he has already gotten the rainwater bailed out and the engine fired up.  We step aboard, cast off the lines and are suddenly sending long wakes across the waters of Great Harbor.  There's something so endlessly thrilling to me about being on the water.  Doesn't matter really whether it's slow or fast, kayak, catamaran, sail or power, doesn't matter what kind of boat, it's just plain cool to be out there.  

After dropping us off on South Swell, the Mate streaks back across the harbor to ferry the rest of our party out to the boat.  South Swell is a stout and seaworthy little powerboat ideally suited for the local waters.  She's got a huge modern four stroke outboard motor hanging off her stern, a cockpit big enough for a football team and all the gizmos and widgets that make modern boating, well, modern.  I light off the engine and smile at the sound of precision machinery purring. We're not going to need radar on this beautiful afternoon, but I warm it up just to make sure everything is okay.  Likewise I start up the GPS chartplotter.  It will be in constant use today because the accuracy of these modern differential GPS receivers is utterly amazing.  They've become too useful to be without.

The Mate is soon back with the rest of the party and after stowing the lunch and food we drop the mooring and slide out of the harbor and into the turbulent waters of Woods Hole.  In a power boat, even the strongest tidal currents aren't much of a problem and South Swell cruised through the Hole with no problems under the steady hand of the Mate.  After we'd passed the last channel marker we accelerated into the rising swell and began slicing into a nasty four foot chop where the wind and tidal current collided.  We were taking green water over the bow and slapping hard against the steep wind waves.  In short it wasn't any fun and it was a relief to turn west and head for the shelter of Hadley's Harbor on Naushon.

Kerry Country

Naushon Island is John Forbes Kerry country.  His Forbes ancestors amassed great wealth as China Traders and purchased several of the Elizabethan Islands in the early 1800's. The islands have remained in the Forbes family since that time.  Naushon, Nashaweena and Uncatena are used by members of the Forbes family as summer vacation homes according to a complex reservation system based on the family genealogical chart.  John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, rates high enough on the Forbes hierarchy to merit a farm house on Nashaweena Island for his personal use!  

Hadley's Harbor is the hub of island life with a schedule of visits daily by the island ferry, the Cormorant.  Cormorant shuttles people, supplies, horses and the occasional tractor back and forth between the islands and Woods Hole.   Most everyone and everything comes and goes through Hadley's, so just kicking back and watching the harbor traffic can be entertaining. As we settled onto a mooring at the head of Hadley's for lunch, we watched Cormorant cruising past with a crowd of nostalgic vacationers heading for home. 

While the rest of the party enjoyed their lunch, Bones set out on an unholy mission to recruit legions of Seagulls for his nefarious plans.  The bread chunks flew, the wings flapped and soon he had dozens of these monsters in his thrall.  A mad cacaphony ensued with the gulls shrieking and Bones, his arms raised to his new subjects, cackling "ME!, Me me me!, ME!." It was not a pretty sight and a shiver ran down my spine when he began referring to them using names we recognized - "dannye, halspal, up and away! Mwuhahahahahaha!"  The damned things followed us around the whole rest of the day too.

After lunch we needed to make some tracks, so we lashed the deck chairs down tight and ramped up to warp speed for the run down Vineyard Sound to Cuttyhunk Island.  The Sound was in the lee of the north winds and the water was smooth and glowing in the afternoon sunlight.  Sweetness.

South Swell is a planing hull which means that at a certain speed she'll hop out of the ditch that a boat makes as you push it through the water and 'get up on a plane.'  When that happens, half to two thirds of the hull comes out of the water, there's a burst of acceleration, and you suddenly feel as though you are flying.  I brought South Swell up on a plane as we rounded the southern edge of the island and used the lines of lobster trap buoys as a giant slalom course as we rocketed towards the west.

The Battle of Falmouth

I turned the wheel over to the Mate as we slowed down to explore Tarpaulin Cove.  There's a lighthouse on the point, and the caretaker's farmhouse along the western shore.  This was the site of the tavern where, in 1779, the innkeeper overheard British soldiers discussing their plans to raid the town of Falmouth for supplies and conscripts the next day.  He dispatched his son, John Slocum to ride the length of the island at night, row a skiff across the unlighted and unmarked Woods Hole Passage, then acquire another horse and alert Colonel Joseph Dimmick, the leader of the Falmouth Militia of the upcoming attack.  When the Brits arrived the next day, the militia was ready for them and the plan was foiled.  In an apparent fit of pique, the British ships lobbed a few cannon balls all the way into the town center prior to their departure, one of which is still lodged in the wall of a restaurant off Main Street. The Battle of Falmouth is a classic piece of local lore.  

Headed for the barn

After touring the Cove, we ramped back up to speed and followed the coastline all the way to Cuttyhunk Island.  Plenty of words have already been written about the many scenic and historical treasures of Cuttyhunk.  I suppose you could summarize them all by noting that, back in 1602, after exploring the entirety of Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and the rest of the Elizabethan Islands, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold chose Cuttyhunk for his first attempt at a permanent settlement.  The place has a unique magnetism.

We threaded our way through the narrow and rocky Canapitsit Channel and took a quick tour of Cuttyhunk Harbor before heading home again.  I love the languor that always seems to descend on a boat once it heads for home.  I let the Mate take the wheel, with a stern admonition not to hit anything, then I wandered back to the stern to watch as our wake expanded hypnotically across the horizon.  None of us felt the need to talk, stunned by the moment I reckon.

Tomorrow we PARTY!