A Treasured Moment in Time
It's dawn on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Nepenthe, my 34-foot cutter, has just slipped between Knubble and Halfmile rocks, at the mouth of the Westport River, in eastern Massachusetts, and is heading out to sea. Nepenthe is alone as the November sun rises. Even Westport Point's lobster boats are still tied to their docks. But being the only boat at sea makes Nepenthe's crew happy. We're proud of our family tradition of taking the season's last cruise on Thanksgiving weekend, when most sailors' boats in the region have been on the bricks since Columbus Day.
The wind's out of the southwest. We'll have a close reach to the Elizabeth Islands and our destination of Cuttyhunk. Our original plan was to sail to Tarpaulin Cove, at nearby Naushon, then farther east on Saturday to Vineyard Haven, on Martha's Vineyard, and be back in Westport before dark on Sunday. But NOAA weather radio is forecasting a storm tomorrow, with northeast winds reaching 40 knots by late afternoon. Starting in early November, the waters of this cruising ground-Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound-are visited by gale-force winds weekly. But today, there are no gales, just a moderate breeze. In fewer than three hours, we'll reach Cuttyhunk.
We have unlimited visibility and easily spot the jetty marking the entrance to the pond. The channel to Cuttyhunk harbor is narrow. The southwest wind that had given us such a great ride from Westport is now on Nepenthe's nose. The safest thing to do is to start the engine, drop the sail, and motor into the harbor. This is something sailors don't like to do, but it's better than running aground.
For me, Cuttyhunk is a magic place. It's captivated my imagination since my first visit there on my father's 19-foot sailboat in the early 1970s. Realistically, I know there are two Cuttyhunks. There's the island depicted in my photographic mementos of this Thanksgiving sail, and there's my imagined Cuttyhunk. Looking at the photos, I see a small, almost treeless hill with a cluster of nondescript buildings. But my mind's eye sees a peaked summit rising out of the sea bearing fine examples of New England architecture etched by the pure November light. For me, this image rivals the beauty of France's Mont-Saint-Michel.
My imagining illustrates a bias of mine: I'm in love with my own backyard. I fully identify with Henry David Thoreau's attitude on travel. Besides urging us to simplify our lives, he wanted us to be well traveled in our own neighborhood. It makes no sense to go traipsing off to Europe when everything worth seeing is within reach on an afternoon's walk, after a morning spent writing and weeding your bean patch. The whole universe can be experienced in the bare branches of a scrub oak silhouetted by November twilight. To me, Cuttyhunk's summit or the cliffs of Martha's Vineyard are just as beautiful as Michener's Bali Ha'i. Thoreau is correct in maintaining that his Merrimack is as laudable as Twain's mighty Mississippi.