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Mucking about in boats 

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 time before.

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 current.

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 appreciative audience.

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 islands.

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 our decision.

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 safely.

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 magnatesrailroad 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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