Buzzards: A bay with attitude

By Marilyn Pond Brigham
For Points East
Buzzards Bay – named after the osprey, which early European explorers mistook for a buzzard – is an estuary in southeastern Massachusetts, 28 miles long and eight miles wide. The Wampanoag Indians called it Poughkeeste, I’ve found references to that meaning either “bay with coves” or “where the waters open out.” Either of those descriptions is fitting.

feature1605Buzzards Bay is bounded by Cape Cod to the east, the Elizabeth Islands to the south, and, to the northwest, the Massachusetts counties of Plymouth and Bristol. To the southwest, it is open to Rhode Island Sound. The bay has 280 miles of shoreline and some 30 harbors and coves.

A typical Buzzards Bay summer’s day begins with light winds from the southwest, developing by midday to 10 to 15 knots, gusting to 20. The wind can die back by late afternoon, and, at day’s end, if you’re on the east side of the bay, you can look west for a glorious rosy/golden sunset. Other times, the bay turns nasty with a mean chop, sharp winds and fog. Often times those conditions exist on the same day.

The bay is shaped like a funnel, open to the southwest. The higher up the bay you go, the more narrow the funnel and, therefore, the more significant winds, waves and currents. Traveling with the wind and current, you whip along with the rolling swells lifting your stern. Traveling against the wind and current, you bang, bang, bang against the waves, a hard, pounding joyride.

At the top of the bay, the current from the Cape Cod Canal flowing against an incoming tide and wind from the southwest, can form five-foot standing waves. This can come as a surprise to the unwary cruiser, coming from the flat water of the Canal.

It’s important for sailors to realize that the tide in Buzzards Bay is about three hours earlier than the tide in Cape Cod Bay, at the other end of the Cape Cod Canal. The Buzzards Bay tide (west entrance of the canal) is measured by Newport tides, while the Cape Cod Bay tide is based on the Boston tide guide. With a five-foot tidal differential between the canal’s east and west ends, and a six-knot current, knowledgeable cruisers time their canal passages to correspond with either favorable or slack tide. With more water rushing through the canal from the east side to the more narrow part of the funnel, cruisers traveling west can face a challenging collision. The current can be so strong that canal channel markers are pulled underwater.

We often take our sailboat, Toujours, for cruises through the canal to Massachusetts Bay or Maine, but we also enjoy cruising to harbors in Buzzards Bay we otherwise might overlook by heading to more “exotic” ports.

Our homeport is Quissett Harbor in Woods Hole (Falmouth). There’s not much in Quissett Harbor, and that is its charm. There’s a boatyard, residences and the 18th hole of the local country club. The homes on the harbor are picture perfect, and the Knob, a 12-acre parcel held as a bird sanctuary, offers a wonderful place to walk and a perfect promontory to view the bay. The boatyard offers repair work and ice, and has moorings for rent. Quissett is a beautiful place to grab a mooring for a picnic lunch and a swim, or to spend a pleasant and protected night on your boat.

Our Buzzards Bay travels often encounter fickle weather conditions. In late August one year, on a trip west through the Cape Cod Canal, the day was bright, and we had an advantageous tide to take us though the canal from Cape Cod Bay. Our plan was to spend the night in Onset, after a long day’s voyage. We planned to relax after our cruise, have a nice dinner at a favorite Onset restaurant, and then, next day, we’d head home to our mooring in Quissett.

Once through the canal and into Buzzards Bay, it was early afternoon, and we found conditions to be favorable – winds 10 to 15 knots, seas one foot or less. Since we had motored through the canal (sailing is not allowed in it), we decided to sail around the bay – a little cruise to nowhere – and circle back to head into Onset. At one point, somewhere off Marion, the wind totally died, and we stalled. We started the engine and headed towards the middle of the bay, where there is often more wind.

Not more than an hour after we came into the bay, our blue-sky day turned steely gray, and the winds picked up and with that the seas. The incoming tide coming up the bay met the tide from the canal and created large swells. We were soon plowing into four-foot waves with 20- to 25-knot winds.

At that point, we were tired and wanted a drink and a good dinner. We faced the prospect of navigating the channel to Onset in wind, rain and rolling seas, or pounding down the bay for an hour or two – into the wind, against both waves and tide – to Quissett. With some resignation, we decided the devil we knew (our mooring in Quissett) was better than the devil we didn’t know (the Onset Marina dock). We motor-sailed down the bay, entered Quissett Harbor, and caught our mooring just before the winds clocked 30 knots.

We closed the companionway, hunkered down in our cozy cabin, had a drink and some canned soup while swinging on the mooring, and waited for the wind to subside. Not too long after, the sky cleared, the wind died, and we watched a beautiful sunset over New Bedford.

Having missed our opportunity to dine in Onset, several weeks later on Labor Day weekend, we cruised up the bay to Onset under somewhat iffy conditions. We set off from Quissett with winds out of the east at 10 knots, with a good deal of fog. By the time we’d made it up to Pocasset, the wind had freshened to 20. With the east wind, the Onset Bay Channel was not particularly difficult to navigate, and, in hindsight, we should have followed our more adventuresome instincts that fateful day in August and made the shorter and less arduous trip to Onset. We would have found better shelter in Onset than on our mooring in Quissett. Ah, hindsight.

Onset was delightful, even in gray skies and drizzle. We had a slip at the Onset Bay Marina and enjoyed their accommodations and friendly staff. The marina, though full of boats, was devoid of people that Labor Day weekend. The only occupied boats seemed to be those of the transients, and since there was now a steady rain, most everyone was holed up in their cabins.

Later in the afternoon, the rain stopped and the fog cleared, but the wind was still fresh. Equipped with our foul-weather jackets, we boarded our inflatable to explore. We headed out toward the center of town, passing pleasant Victorian gingerbread houses with welcoming front porches. We motored toward the town pier and saw the distinctive harbormaster’s building.

Out of the mist, and heading right toward us, appeared the m/v Viking, on its way out for a cruise through the Canal. We gave way and waved back at the tourists onboard. We circled around Wickets Island and then edged along the coastline, up to Broad Cove to explore Muddy Cove. Out on Onset Bay, we could see both the canal’s Railroad and the Bourne bridges through the mist.

Another of our memorable Buzzards Bay excursions took us to New Bedford. Despite our many years cruising the Bay, we rarely sailed to New Bedford/Fairhaven. My co-captain spouse and I were joined by another Buzzards Bay sailing couple for the voyage. The appointed Saturday came, and it was not one of those picture-perfect, blue-sky days. Nonetheless, we were all determined to make the trip. It was overcast and gloomy, but the camaraderie of the crew more than made up for the weather. The winds were out of the southeast at 15 knots and seas were two to three feet. We made it under sail to New Bedford in no time, and put the sails down and motored once we came to the entrance to the channel.

We followed the channel to the hurricane barrier at the entrance to New Bedford Harbor. The barrier was built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane with a 20-foot storm surge. That would be seriously bad weather on Buzzards Bay. The barrier is the largest barrier of its kind in the world, and was built after the devastation of the Hurricane of 1938 (The Great Hurricane) and Hurricane Carol of 1954. The storm surge from the ’38 Hurricane left much of New Bedford and Fairhaven under eight feet of water.

When large, threatening storms now come up the coast, the big gates close, sealing off the New Bedford/Fairhaven harbors, which makes them very safe havens. We were thinking of those storms as we passed through the barrier’s thick gates and headed to our slip at the Fairhaven Shipyard.

We enjoyed the Fairhaven Shipyard. Our neighbors were lots of large vessels of all descriptions, and there were good facilities for the crew. We had our lunch and decided we’d head over across the harbor to tour the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the surrounding New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park neighborhood.

We must have been a sight: Joyce and I in the bow of the small inflatable, George and Paul seated in the stern. Four of us in a rub-a-dub-dub inflatable crossing large New Bedford Harbor on a gray and windy afternoon. Paul quartered the waves so we would not get wet, but Joyce and I took a splash or two. Lucky for us, the wind was behind us. After unsuccessfully poking around the docks trying to tie up, we finally found the dinghy dock at the Marine Park, and we hopped off to explore New Bedford.

It was a short walk across the road to the Historical Park area, with its restored Federal clapboard structures, and interesting brick and stone buildings. Many had been repurposed as restaurants and shops. We wished we had time to explore the area, but we headed to the Whaling Museum first. We enjoyed seeing the whale skeletons, the paintings, the ship models, the scrimshaw, and all the artifacts from New Bedford’s storied past. We spent hours in the museum, which was fascinating.

When we left, it was time to get back to the boat. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and we knew we faced an unpleasant trip back across the harbor to Fairhaven. We just didn’t know how unpleasant it would be. The wind wasn’t that strong, but there was that chop on the harbor. We were low in the water, with four in the inflatable, and this time we were motoring into the wind. Joyce and I, in the bow, took more than our fair share of the chop: We were the “dodger” for our husbands in the stern. Not that they didn’t get wet, but Joyce and I were soaked by the time we got across to Fairhaven. The dollar bills in my wallet, which was in the pocket of my jacket, were so wet that they stuck together. We could have called the Pope’s Island Marina launch service (VHF Channels 9/74, 508-979-1456), or the Whaling City Launch (Ch. 72, 508-207-6994) to cross from Fairhaven Shipyard to the New Bedford waterfront, and back, to stay dry. We enjoyed the hot showers at the Fairhaven Shipyard facilities, and walked later in the evening through the lovely residential district in Fairhaven to a great local spot for dinner. Our dinner discussion included a resolve to return to New Bedford when we had more time to explore more of the history, architecture, galleries and museums – hopefully, with less wind. Our return trip to Quissett was uneventful, thankfully, but a quick one with a strong wind on another gray day.

Another of our Buzzards Bay excursions found us near Nonamesset, an islet in the Elizabeth Islands, a chain of islands running westward from Woods Hole, between Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. A beautiful day on the bay, with a nice 10- to 15-knot breeze, provided for a perfect sail. We were heading back to Quissett, when I glanced back over the stern and saw a wall of dark, black clouds over Martha’s Vineyard and Vineyard Sound. I’d never seen such an ominous looking cloud formation before, but nonchalantly asked Paul, “Is that dark cloud something we should be concerned about?”

Of course, it was a squall, and we estimated we had about 20 minutes to get to our mooring before it hit. We took down the sails and started the engine and raced back to Quissett, making the mooring just before the torrential rains and 35-knot winds hit us. Once again, we found ourselves bobbing on our mooring, waiting for a storm to pass.

Certainly, Buzzards Bay is not the only body of water where bad weather torments sailors. But it seems that conditions rapidly change on the bay, making a memorable sail into an unforgettable one. Changing sailing conditions of this dimension either make good sailors even better, or it discourages them from venturing into these waters.

As did the early explorers, modern sailors see the osprey around Buzzards Bay. Ospreys can be seen atop their untidy nests on the tops of daymarks, buoys and phone poles. They can also be seen diving into the waters of the bay, emerging with a fish locked in their talons. On a recent cruise to Cuttyhunk – the outermost island of the Elizabeth Island chain – while exploring the shores of Nashawena, another island in the chain, we saw a turkey vulture eyeing potential prey from a limb of a dead tree. He was huge and haunting – a true buzzard.

How unfortunate it was that this beautiful estuary didn’t take the rightful name of the graceful osprey, rather than the nasty buzzard. But that is our Buzzards Bay: beautiful, but with an attitude.

Marilyn grew up sailing in Pleasant Bay, in North Chatham, during the summer months. Through last fall, she sailed the Jeanneau 36i Toujours out of Quissett Harbor with her husband Paul. This winter, the two purchased a new vessel, a Catalina 445 they have named Selkie. Marilyn is a member of both Quissett and Cottage Park yacht clubs, in Woods Hole and Winthrop, Mass., respectively.