A pocket cruise in the Elizabeths

By Ken Packie
For Points East
Suddenly, I turn and look back over my wake and realize that, at age 74, 35 years of sailing have slipped under my keel. With age comes the awakening to the fact that the destination is not as important as the time spent with friends and being on the water. Although we sold our Able 42 several years ago, the friends we have made during this time afford ample opportunity for my wife, Susan, and me to pass many pleasant hours at the helm. You need not be far from home to enjoy these moments.

During our sailing experiences, certain events have been etched in our memories and will never be forgotten. Some of these are of special harbors, but some are of poor decisions and prices paid. These are decisions that should never be repeated. My recollection of the first time we exited the Cape Cod Canal into Buzzards Bay against a 25-knot southwesterly falls into this category.

Buzzards Bay can be challenging at times. The strong southwest wind that often builds on summer afternoon can raise havoc for small boats entering the bay from the canal. The frequent northeasterlies of autumn can send short, steep wave trains to greet boats headed to the canal on a delivery. The discomfort, when operating in both wind directions, is compounded by shallow depths and strong currents opposing wind. As unpleasant as these occasions may be, most are easily avoided and, in fact, by building a few extra days into the schedule, captain and crew can enjoy the cruising delights Buzzards Bay and the surrounding waters have to offer.

Vineyard Sound to the south can often be used as an alternative route and an opportunity to turn unfavorable conditions to your favor. Likewise, Woods Hole and Quicks Hole – the main connective passages between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound – also provide options for the passage between the bodies of water. Anchorages at Menemsha Bight, Tarpaulin Cove, and a few other sheltered spots provide places to overnight out of the prevailing winds.

Rather than coming through the Cape Cod Canal to enter Buzzards Bay on a late afternoon with 20 knots from the southwest, anchoring behind the breakwater at the east end of the canal in settled weather, or holding over at Sandwich Marina/East Boat Basin for a morning passage, are good options. Likewise, ducking into Onset just before exiting into Buzzards Bay offers another alternative.

Our long-time cruising friends Paul and Jean keep Selkie, their Alden 45, in Marion at the head of Buzzards Bay. It is from this harbor that most of our sailing opportunities originate these days. With the exception of an occasional delivery to Tortola or jaunt to Maine, Selkie spends the majority of her time cruising Buzzards Bay and the surrounding waters of Vineyard Sound, Nantucket Sound or Cape Cod Bay.

Those looking for a pleasant week of true cruising – those not hell-bent on putting miles under the keel – a most interesting and relaxing time can be spent sailing and anchoring in and about the Elizabeth Islands. Such a “pocket cruise” is exactly what the captain and crew of Selkie embarked on during the week following Labor Day 2014. Marion Harbor is a convenient place that has easy access to Maine or any of the Massachusetts Islands. While summer weekends can be crowded at Naushon Island’s Hadley Harbor and at Cuttyhunk, after Labor day, things start to wind down.

It had been several years since any of us had visited Hadley Harbor so we decided to make it a first stop. After a nice reach across from Marion, we dropped sail for the motor in past Bull Island and into the inner harbor. There were more moorings than any of us recalled, but we found a spot to anchor, and the mud provided good holding.

Hadley is a lovely spot, with lots of areas to explore by dinghy and spots to take a dog ashore for some exercise. The Coast Guard buoy was no longer in place, but otherwise the harbor seemed unchanged. We did some research on the moorings scattered through the inner harbor, and were told that transients can pick up any open mooring. Not knowing the reliability of these moorings, however, encouraged us to stay on the hook.

The wind stiffened in the evening, but we had backed the anchor down, and it seemed firmly in place. A forecasted front came through around midnight, accompanied by a 90-degree wind shift. Around 0100, we were awakened by shouts, and going up on deck, we discovered we were dragging. I took the helm, Paul went to the bow, and Jean followed with a spotlight.

Once clear of anchored boats, Paul asked me to do slow tight circles until we were able to orient ourselves and select a spot to re-anchor. Once down and backed in, Paul explained what had happened. The wind shift had caused the CQR anchor to break out, and, as it was resetting, it fouled with an old abandoned anchor in the harbor mud. Our anchor had actually picked up the old Danforth and skidded along the bottom rather than resetting. Strange things do happen.

On Day Two of our pocket cruise, we decided that Cuttyhunk was a good spot to head for as winds were supposed to moderate and go back to the southwest. Paul prefers the outer harbor, so we headed left, or south, of the entrance channel and looked for a mooring with good swinging room. Once secure to the Cuttyhunk mooring system, we sat back for some entertainment as other boats came to moorings in a very stiff breeze.

If you are not familiar with the mooring system used here, it can be a bit of a challenge on a blustery day. Crouched down with your dock line in hand, you try to maneuver to the mooring stick and thread the eye. I have always found a boathook useless here. Much better, in my opinion, is to bare-hand it, grab the eye, and quickly run the dock line through. Mission accomplished, you know you earned that can of beer or glass of wine.

Cuttyhunk has added some amenities for transients over the past few years that encourage a shore visit. Of course, the older services are still available. The Harbor Raw Bar (VHF Channel 72) will still make visits to moorings. The fresh seafood is still available at the wharf for 1800 pickup. Heads are at the waterfront as well as a recycle station and a breakfast/lunch booth.

A short walk up the hill will find the local market with most staples you would want, and a turn to the left brings you to an apparel shop that is very nice. There are lots of trails and lanes to follow along the coast, and a restaurant/hotel is also within walking distance. We always enjoy grilling on the beach, and you can do that on either side of the channel that brings you to the inner harbor.

Since the winds were settling back to the prevailing southwesterlies, captain and crew agreed that a visit to Menemsha Bight, on Martha’s Vineyard, would be a great Day Three of our Elizabeth Islands circumnavigation. This is a short hop through Quicks Hole and then across to the south side of Vineyard Sound. There were no more than three boats at anchor in this huge basin, plus a few more in the mooring field on the north side of the breakwater of the inlet.

Paul motored slowly toward the beach until we were in nine feet of water, where he deployed the anchor and backed it in hard. A gentle offshore breeze kept us nice and steady, and the water was great for swimming, although there was a current you needed to be aware of. After a refreshing swim, we set up the dinghy for a run into town to buy dinner at Larsen’s Fish Market (508-645-2680). In my opinion, this is the best swordfish you can find. Our plan was to go ashore for a beach cookout in the evening, an event that Paul has developed to a science.

Since retiring and selling Golden Mean, I have picked up an old passion for fly-fishing. Although I am 90 percent fresh water for this activity, I brought along a nine-foot, nine-weight rod to use in and around Martha’s Vineyard. There is great water here, and, in the fall, there’s a serious fishing tournament with impressive awards.

James Jindal, an old friend from Tight Lines Fly Fishing in New Jersey, gave me a lot of info on where and when to fish Menemsha. I tried my luck at the channel that leads to the inner harbor and pond. I had no luck finding any false albacore or bonito, but had lots of fun all the same. I will be looking for stripers on the next visit.

Paul checked the currents up Vineyard Sound and decided a 1000 departure would be ideal for a push up to Vineyard Haven. Moorings outside the breakwater are well protected, except from the northeast, and can be reserved. There are two dinghy docks, either next to the ferry or on the south side of the inner harbor. Heads are also there near the small beach.

Restaurants seem to come and go in Vineyard Haven – except for the Black Dog, which is an institution. We have eaten at the Blue Canoe, which is close to the Black Dog. The Salt Water Caf� is excellent and not that much farther. A visit here this spring showed them as closed and undergoing renovation, but hopefully they will reopen.

With our mini cruise now winding down, Paul checked currents at Woods Hole and planned our entry time, a scant hour and a half from our mooring. Once back in Buzzards Bay, a three-hour beam reach and we were passing Bird Island and back to Marion. Can there be a more pleasant way to pass time with friends than a September sail with settled conditions in Buzzards Bay? I doubt it.

Ken began sailing in the early 1980s in an effort to find a family activity to engage his wife and four children. The family quickly discovered the joy of Long Island Sound and moved farther east as their skills developed. The last 16 years have been spent sailing the coast of Maine, nine deliveries and races to and from Bermuda, and an occasional delivery to the Caribbean. Along the way, Ken was a cofounder of the Stonington (Conn.) Cruising Club, from which sprang many cherished friendships that now perpetuate his sailing, since he sold his last boat, the Able 42 Golden Mean, several years ago.