A solo transverse of the Cape Cod Canal

By Chuck Roast

I had just blown in from Gloucester, Mass., the day before on Navicula, my Cape Dory 33, courtesy of a stiff breeze from the northeast. The morning would begin in Provincetown, Mass., with what may well have been the worst breakfast of my entire life; a dreadful Egg McMuffin from the famed Wretched Diner. An improvement was promised by a continuation of the fine northeasterly that would in theory get me 240° from Long Point to the Cape Cod Canal and on to Onset, Mass., and a mooring ball around nightfall. The day would prove to contain one of the great trips of my coastal sailing life. It all came together: wind, time, tide, fog, rain and darkness.

It was late October, and P-Town was slipping into hibernation mode. The inherent funk of the tight and cozy little place was now on display. The men are beautiful there and the women? In my experience . . . not so much. It was fun to see the locals wandering around taking care of business, or non-business. One woman was walking her dog down Commercial Street in a pink bathrobe and slippers chatting up her neighbors. Definitely my kind of town.

The wind was threatening to back south and west the next few days, so I had to go. The day’s weather promised late afternoon showers and a strong breeze over my port quarter. High tides at the Canal were scheduled 6:15 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. – the absolute worst times. When all you have is 24 hp, ya’ gotta’ go with the current. There was no way my lazy bones were getting up to sail SW during the night to meet the sun and the morning push. So, I had to shove off for the 20-mile trip by calculating a Sandwich, Mass., arrival time on the early evening slack. Sunset was scheduled for 5:50 p.m. It would be a close-run thing.

While consuming the food product at Wretched I called Cape Cod Canal Traffic for more info on slack and current. A very helpful staffer informed me that slack was scheduled for 5:15 p.m. at the railroad bridge. After some conversation he agreed that if I started my east/west transit around 5:30 p.m., my trusty little diesel would push me along nicely. With 12 to 15 knots over the quarter I had to sail 20 miles and arrive at the red canal breakwater horn by 5:15 p.m. With a plan and a queasy stomach, I motored around the north end of the P-Town breakwater at 11:00 a.m.

I rounded Long Point, passed green bell #3, shut down the iron sail, set a course for the emissions stack at the power plant and brought my generous headsail to starboard. Wind speed was around 12 to 17, but the small craft does not respond well to wind off the quarter or stern. I figured if I could make around three knots with the trailing chop, I would arrive at the green cans on the east channel around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. Then I could crank the diesel and push the sloop through the Canal before dark.

It had been a singular trip. All the way from Diamond Cove there was not a pilgrim in sight except for a couple of sails out on the ocean by Cape Ann. I guess everybody was reconditioning their snow blowers.

It was a fine sail to the Canal. Cool and slightly overcast and again – no sails on the horizon. And there would be no running the autopilot on this leg. The five year-old batteries were becoming demonstratively senile in their dotage. They needed nursing. Also, there would be no desultory gannet-watching and checking for razorbills from the cockpit. I would have to drive the buggah’.

By 4:30 p.m. I was a mile-and-a-half off the entrance and doing a quick change into my wets. It had begun to mist, and fog was forming along the Cape. I furled the headsail and started the engine. There was a big oil barge near the entrance, and I could only hope that he was not awaiting the tide. To my relief, Canal Traffic radioed me on 13 that the barge was heading north and the Canal was clear. I told Traffic that I would begin my east/west transit in around a half-hour. Onward!

My chart plotter told me that visibility was around one-mile. Not bad. I kept the green can to port and aimed for the red breakwater tower. Clearly the current was with me. “So fah’, so good,” as they say in Maine. Nothing was happening with the traffic light on the eastern shore, and I picked up some speed at the beautiful Coast Guard Station. When I passed the power plant around 5:30 p.m. I was hitting 7.5 knots. Visibility was diminishing, but we were cooking.

I kicked the throttle to 2,000 rpm for a bit more speed, and now the craft was moving along at 8 to 9 knots. Could I get through the seven-mile Canal and reach my right-hand turn at Onset before dark?

Night was falling quickly, and the sodium vapor lights along the Canal turned on at some point. Now I was beyond the Bourne Bridge, approaching the railroad bridge, and could see the bright lights of Mass Maritime Academy (MMA) ahead.

The football field was illuminated, and the athletes were running around doing whatever it was that they were doing. Past MMA. Back into the deep gloom and increasing mist. All I could see now were flashing greens and reds down the invisible fairway. The third flashing green was my turn-off to Onset Bay. Without my chart plotter I was toast.

Onset is tricky even in daylight. A big boulder topped by a flashing green does double duty in marking the Canal channel and showing the way to the Onset entrance. There is also a green can about 150 feet from the flasher marking Onset. Armed with my big yellow flashlight, I slowed appreciably and searched for the Onset channel green guy. There it was! All I could see was the little reflective green square on the side, but it was enough. I was up the entrance.

The Onset channel is very narrow with an entrance at around 90 degrees to the Canal channel, then a well-marked dogleg to the right and a long dogleg to the left. My chart plotter lit the way up the channel at ¼-mile increments, but it can be squirrely when close to nuns and cans. Now I was trying to light a green and a red marking the first dogleg. Again I found the little green reflective square, and with the red nun within arm’s reach I bore off to starboard up the first dogleg.

The distant marina night-lights were reflecting faintly off the channel buoys. I was doing OK. I found the red nun at the second dogleg and steered to port. The Wickets Island anchorage was coming up, but the plan was to cruise through the anchorage and grab an empty mooring by the marina. Up past the shallow spot to starboard, I angled through the empty anchorage and toward the channel.

Approaching the north channel, I could make out what appeared to be a schooner off my starboard beam. I slowed and turned to port up the channel. The wind was quickening, but I could see empty balls now. I passed a few without pennants. Not a good sign. The silhouettes of two or three boats appeared, but the mooring field seemed largely vacant. Yes! About 20 degrees off the starboard bow a nice big ball with a tall pick-up. I circled it once and approached to windward. I slowed . . . popped it into neutral . . . ran to the foredeck . . . grabbed the pick-up . . . brought the pennant aboard and lashed it to the cleat.

What a trip!

Chuck Roast – a nom de plume – sails his Cape Dory 33, Navicula, around the Gulf of Maine.