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A Treasured Moment in Time

His family's Thanksgiving tradition of a late-season sail reinforces one sailor's relish for exploring nearby cruising grounds aboard a beloved boat. "Under Way" from our November 2009 issue

December 1, 2009
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Elizabeth Islands 368

The fall ushers in a pastoral mood in the Elizabeth Islands, a crowded summer destination for sailors in New England. Dave Norton

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.

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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.

When we dock, there’s no welcoming committee. No one’s working on the fishing pier. Six boats still bob in the water, but nobody is messing about in them. There’s something appealing about visiting a place in the off-season; you have it all to yourself. There’s no competition for the best dock space and no standing in line. Plus, we can make believe that the island is as empty of people as the day Bartholomew Gosnold claimed it for the Queen of England. With fewer than four hours of daylight left, my brother Allen and I decide to hike to the west end of the island to a tower memorializing Gosnold’s discovery for Europe of the island and Cape Cod, on the Massachusetts mainland.

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The walk up Broadway, the main street, calls to mind a visit to a ghost town in the Old West. Not a soul in sight. Although it’s Friday, the island store is closed. From the hill above the monument, we can see the bridge to the seaside city of Newport, Rhode Island, about 25 miles to the west.

When we get back to the boat, it’s almost dark. We remove the washboards to get below, and the smell of roasting beef, onions and garlic welcomes us aboard. While we’ve been exploring, my brother Davis has been cooking a prime-rib dinner. A substantial evening meal is a tradition on the boat. There will be no Dinty Moore beef stew out of a can for Nepenthe’s crew. Besides feasting on prime rib, we are going to have all the fixings­: oven-roasted potatoes, winter squash, garlic bread, and gravy, with a little red wine thrown in for taste.

My dad and Uncle Ernie are sitting at the table paying cribbage. Cribbage is another tradition on the boat. If it were a summer evening, Ernie and Dad would be playing cards out in the cockpit, enjoying their highballs and watching boats sail into the harbor and anchor. But this evening they’re down below because the temperature is already in the 30s F, and a low of 25 F is predicted. As much as I like a summer night at anchor, coming into a warm cabin heated by what will be a delicious dinner and lit by a flickering wick of an old brass lamp has to be one of the cherished benefits of having your own boat and family and friends to share it.

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Saturday morning, we wake to clouds. A cold wind is blowing out of the northeast. NOAA radio announces small-craft warnings for the waters from Chatham, Massachusetts, to Watch Hill, Rhode Island. So Nepenthe and crew will brave the waves and 25-knot winds and go home today. Heading for Westport, the wind will be on Nepenthe’s starboard quarter, giving us a broad reach. Our boat will head home like a wayward child who doesn’t want to go to bed.

When we reach the halfway point in our sail home, it starts snowing. Sailing in the snow is something most people don’t do for recreation in these waters, and it may be a sign that we tried to stretch the season just a little too far. But for me, having the snow hit my face is another reason why I love this family tradition and the crewmembers, who are eccentric enough to love it with me.

As we approach the Westport River, our objective is to sail into the mouth of the river without starting the diesel. The trick is to avoid hitting Knubble Rock, to port, while not running aground in the shallow waters just off Horseneck Beach, to starboard. In a strong breeze, there’s no better way to end a sailing season than to sail all the way right to the docks at the F. L. Tripp and Sons boatyard at Westport Point, a mile and half upstream.

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But today the northeast wind is blowing right down the river. So as we did at Cuttyhunk, we start the engine and motor the rest of the way. We tie up at the floating dock next to the Travelift because Nepenthe is coming out of the water tomorrow. In a couple of weeks, I’ll drive down to Westport to make sure she’s safely stored in the shed. Then I’ll take a walk on Horseneck Beach. I’ll do the same thing in February just to see her and tell her that we can’t wait until she’s launched again on tax day, April 15.

With Nepenthe in his wake, John Bergstrom now sails Adagio, a 34-foot O’Day, on Cape Cod waters.

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