We were charging toward Nantucket
through Great Round Shoal Channel, about finished with a fast sail all
the way from Nova Scotia thanks to an offshore tropical depression
pumping a northerly gale across the Gulf of Maine. The visibility
was excellent, as it so often is in October, the summer fogs of
southern New England long gone. To starboard, the low shore of Cape Cod
barely rose above the horizon, a reminder that the mainland was near.
Yet as we spent time on our late-season cruise to Nantucket and
Martha's Vineyard, the cape's presence steadily faded until we fell
once again under the spell of the islands, each with its own distinct
Soon it was time for us to jibe, and shortly after we did, the flocks
of eiders that had been traveling with us went on their way, their
white wing patches flashing westward. The wind, now astern, lost its
bite, and the rounded dunes of Great Point and its lighthouse slid by
to port. Not surprisingly, Nantucket Harbor was empty, with most of the
already on the hard for the rapidly approaching winter. We had the anchorage off Coatue's First Point all to ourselves.
During the busy summer months when all the moorings are taken or when
you simply want to have a beach close by, you can find refuge farther
up toward Head of the Harbor, as long as you approach and depart well
after low tide. A narrow trough of deep water swings by First Point and
digs into a huge bay stretching northward away from the town, marinas,
shops, and galleries. Shallows alternating with pockets deep enough for
safe anchoring are the norm, so it's wise to know the state of the tide
and to have a good look at the chart before venturing in.
As we gazed up the bay, we wished for a shallower draft. The ponds and
sand dunes at the northeastern tip of Nantucket beckoned. The shore
birds like the place, too, especially for early summer nesting. That
part of the island is exceptionally rewarding when the crowds are gone.
Indeed, it's one of the loveliest spots on the entire U.S. East Coast.
Of course, most summer cruisers head for the moorings off the downtown
waterfront because that's where the action is. Megayachts 100 to 220
feet long moor stern to along the outer seawall of Nantucket Boat
Basin. The three-masted, 160-foot Arabella, based in Newport, often completes this amazing array of boats.
Looking Back at Nantucket's Past
For shopping addicts, Nantucket delivers everything from clothes,
books, and pottery to bronze sculptures and paintings for all tastes.
But Nantucket offers far more than shopping and plenty of nightlife. A
stop at the Whaling Museum will remind you of the island's historic
importance as a center of maritime commerce, most of it linked to the
whaling industry. Ships from all over the world's remotest oceans put
in there--150 of them in 1770 alone; that was a typical number when the
port was thriving.
Among the museum's exhibits are carved Polynesian dugout canoes,
paddles, and clubs. We found the sailor Valentines amazing. Made of
shells, they're intricate and beautiful. There was also a huge
scrimshaw collection. Dramatic scenes scratched on whalebone and teeth
show what whaling was really like. It wasn't romantic, that's for sure.
Rather, it was hard, greasy work punctuated with short periods of sheer
terror as the men harpooned the whales, then were towed behind the
fleeing whale in their small, open boats at fantastic speeds in what
became known the world over as a Nantucket sleigh ride.
We also learned that in the 18th and 19th centuries whaling ships
coming in and out of Nantucket had to negotiate a six-foot bar that
stretched from Great Point southwestward to Madaket. Supplies and
equipment had to be ferried over the bar to ships fitting out on the
seaward side, and inbound whalers were forced to unload cargoes into
lighters to reduce draft. The whaling fleet was so exposed that when a
strong north wind blew across Nantucket Sound, the ships usually ran to
Martha's Vineyard and its well-protected Edgartown Harbor, formerly
called Great Harbor.
West to the Vineyard
Listening to the weather forecast, we decided we should sail for
Martha's Vineyard before the next frontal system swept in. Our passage
was uneventful and pleasant enough. Knowing that Edgartown Harbor would
be packed with moorings, we played it safe and carried on to anchor at
the mouth of Katama Bay. The open views, warm water during the summer
for swimming, and dinghy access to a landing on Katama Point, close to
South Beach, make the bay a prime cruising stop. Perhaps too prime.
Unfortunately, after our trip, in the spring of 2004, the bay was
closed to all anchoring because of fear that pollution from
recreational boats might harm the shellfishing industry there. The
closure represents a big loss for cruisers, who now may anchor only in
Edgartown's outer harbor.
Just to the east of Edgartown is Cape Poge Bay, which is only
accessible to shoal-draft boats. However, it's a lovely, well-protected
place close to the dunes of East Beach. With chart in hand, steer east
from green can "7" to Cape Poge Gut, preferably on a rising tide. You
can land your dinghy across the bay in the little Shear Pen Pond. Its
name is quite appropriate. In the 17th century, settlers sheared sheep
there. The only other way to get onto East Beach is via the
Chappaquiddick ferry, then a drive on Dike Road over Chappaquiddick
Bridge. A visit to this part of Martha's Vineyard is well worth the
One of the main attractions of the island is Edgartown, with its
sheltered harbor. We tried to imagine what it was like back when
whaling was at its height, but it was difficult. With its cozy
restaurants and hushed galleries filled with remarkable works of art,
Edgartown is a nice port to visit in settled weather, and it's even
better when a gale howls outside.
Moving on, we sailed westward to Vineyard Haven, deciding to bypass the
harbor at Oak Bluffs even though we knew it wouldn't be crowded in
October. We'd put in there once before and found its resortlike
ambiance a bit too frenetic for our tastes.
However, like much of Cape Cod and the islands, there are interesting
stories behind almost everything, and that goes for Oak Bluffs. In the
1830s, Methodist preachers found that the place made an ideal spot to
spread their messages of salvation. Thousands of people flocked to the
island. Later, on one August Sunday in 1860, approximately 12,000
sinners renewed their spirits at 30 prayer meetings. Politicians eager
for public acclaim came too, including President Ulysses S. Grant. Oak
Bluffs certainly was--and still is--very popular.
Classic New England Charm
Ferry boats unload thousands of summer visitors at Vineyard Haven, too.
It's as crowded as Oak Bluffs at the height of the season. Yet outside
the wharf landings and highway crossroads, the harbor belongs to pretty
boats, and that helps make it special. A class of small gaffers nestles
inside the breakwaters as well as a number of custom wooden cruising
boats. The Gannon & Benjamin boatyard, which still launches new
wooden schooners, creates the right ambience. In addition, Vineyard
Haven hosts more one-off sailboats than any other New England port
East Chop and West Chop headlands protect Vineyard Haven, except in
winds from north to northeast. In the age of sail, when the harbor was
once called Holmes Hole and lacked breakwaters, it was a popular spot
for windjammers. It was risky at times for these vessels to anchor
there. For example, in 1898 a blow known as the Portland Gale stranded
25 vessels all over Vineyard Haven. Today, visiting cruisers can find
protection inside the breakwaters or in Lagoon Pond, on the east side
of the outer harbor. Enter through an opening bridge and a
seven-foot-deep (at low water) channel.
You can find a couple of public landings in Lagoon Pond, such as the
launch ramp south of the bridge. However, along the west shore, south
of the cages of the shellfish hatchery and behind beached dinghies,
stairs lead to wonderful trails on the bluff. Up there, in Ramble Trail
Preserve and Brightwood Park, you'll find unexpected ravines.
Once we arrived in Vineyard Haven, the weather forecast called for yet
another strong north wind due within 24 hours. Nevertheless, we were
determined to poke around ashore, at least for a couple of hours. We
hopped a tour bus, much as we prefer to walk or ride bikes. The wind
was from the south and the skies began to rapidly cloud over when the
driver, acting also as a witty narrator, pulled into Menemsha.
About 20 years ago, we were allowed to tie up at the fishing wharf
thanks to the respect the harbormaster had for an influential resident
we came to visit. With a row of fish boats, nets drying, stacks of
lobster pots, and gray-shingled gear shacks, Menemsha still smells and
feels like a genuine fishing harbor, though the locally designed and
built working catboats are gone. There are now slips for recreational
boats as well as some moorings, all signs of the changes taking place
throughout Cape Cod and the islands, or, as the digitized voice over
NOAA weather radio drones, the "cape 'n' islands." The great beaches
facing Vineyard Sound on either side of the channel--protected by
breakwaters and scoured to a good depth by tidal currents rushing in
and out of Menemsha Pond--have long been a major draw for sun
The day we were there, though, no sunbathers basked on colorful beach
towels. The sky was gray, with low clouds. It began to drizzle. By the
time we reached Aquinnah, a wet southwest wind gusted, then subsided,
only to gust again as a warm front swept down on New England.
Even on this dismal day, the curiously peaked layers of earth exposed
at the Aquinnah cliffs were radiant, each color commemorating the land
that had been dry on and off as the sea receded four times through
millions of years. A fold of black clay is all that remains of primeval
forests. A green strip holds fossilized marine creatures and the teeth
of monster sharks, and on top are traces of rhinoceros and crocodiles.
The Aquinnah Conglomerate covers it all, its contents arranged
according to past sea and land levels--from marine mammals to camels,
and later, horses.
The west tail of Martha's Vineyard also inspired us to think of more
recent times. Wampum for sale in the tourist area at Aquinnah is made
in Aquinnah village by the Wampanoag people, descendants of indigenous
island inhabitants who'd been there long before Europeans arrived and
began changing the land. In those days, the islands were covered with
mixed forests, but the early pioneers harvested most all the trees for
housing, shipbuilding, and to make room for farming.
By morning the skies had cleared, and we left before the cold wind
strengthened from the north, as was expected. The islands, we
discovered, had so much to offer, which is why they're so popular. Even
with all the summer crowds, a wily cruiser will find secure anchorages
and remote beaches. With a dinghy, kayak, or bike, cruisers can enjoy
the vast sections of the island that are kept free of development. And
the sailing is great on
Nantucket Sound and Vineyard Sound, where the winds blow freely over waters sheltered from ocean swells.
Tom Zydler is the co-author, with his wife, Nancy Schwalbe Zydler, of The Georgia Coast: Waterways and Islands (2001, Seaworthy Publications).