Buzzards Bay had the last word

Mark Barrett aboard his J/24 Student Driver navigating the waters of the Cape Cod Canal under outboard. Photo courtesy Mark Barrett

September 2021

By Mark Barrett

The southwest wind was whipping through the Cape Cod Canal, and it would be right on my nose with a west-running tide. I wasn’t sure I could make headway against the wind with the little outboard on my 40-year-old J/24. I consulted “Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book” and decided to leave at 3:30 p.m. In this way, perhaps, I would be able to take advantage of most of the current flow pushing me, and then it should be slacking off somewhat by the time I got to the other end.

The current pushed me against the wind much faster than I figured it would, and I made it to the Railroad Bridge near the other end in about an hour. I knew it was going to be rough coming out of the canal, with the strong southwest wind opposing the current, and I was mentally preparing myself for this when I noticed that a canal patrol boat was approaching. Oh no, I thought, I’m going to get in trouble for being in the canal with such a small motor. Maybe Student Driver isn’t “adequately powered.”

“How you doing, Cap?” one of the uniformed men on the patrol boat yelled over to me as they came up alongside. They were about 20 yards off my port side, moving in the same direction.

“I’m doing fine,” I said, thinking, “yeah, fine right here in the canal, but can you check on me in about 20 minutes when I get out into that giant washing machine that is called Buzzards Bay?”

“Listen, we have a big car carrier on its way in, so you’re going to have to stay way over to the right, OK?”

“Oh, OK,” I said.

I looked out past the end of the canal and saw the ship they were talking about. I had been planning to get the mainsail up while still in the relatively protected waters just past the railroad bridge, but now that plan was out the window because I had to wait for the big ship to go by.

And it was a big ship. I squeezed over to the right side of the channel and gazed up at the side of it as it went by. Way, way, up there was one of the lifeboats, on davits. I knew it was bigger than Student Driver, but it looked like a dinghy from my vantage point.

By the time the ship had passed, I was out near the end of the canal, and the waves were huge. I attempted to raise the mainsail, which required letting go of the tiller and going up on deck to the mast. I managed to get the sail partially raised, but the wind quickly turned the boat broadside to the waves, and I had to scramble back to the cockpit before I got thrown overboard.

I got the boat straightened out, head to the waves, and tried again, but it was no use. The waves were too big and too close together. It was like trying to stand up on a bucking bronco. My only option was to leave the sail wrapped up on the boom and motor straight into the waves and hope for the best.

The point of land I was trying to get around, Wings Neck, was only a couple miles from the end of the canal, but it was a really rough couple miles, and it was straight upwind. At full throttle, Student Driver was making only a knot and a half to two knots against the wind and waves. Half the time the propeller was out of the water, and I wasn’t going anywhere at all.

At full throttle the motor was burning gas quickly, so sure enough, it ran out. That meant I had to lean over the stern of the boat with a jerry can and fill the tank on the motor while the boat wallowed beam-to-beam in four–or five-foot waves. Here I need to issue a heartfelt apology to the Buzzards Bay Coalition for any spillage.

The J/24 is a very light boat that can actually get airborne when riding over waves. The waves were tightly packed due to the opposing current, and the thunderous sound they made as they slammed into the bottom of the hull was terrifying. It took just a little more than an hour to reach Wings Neck, but it was the longest hour of my life so far. Finally, I rounded the corner at Wings Neck Light, got into the north channel behind Bassetts Island, and motored to my mooring in Red Brook Harbor. The battle was over, but Buzzards Bay had gotten in the last word.

Mark Barrett started at the bottom in the boating industry – literally – scraping, washing and painting all sorts of vessels. He is a yacht broker for Cape Yachts in Dartmouth, Mass., lives in Sandwich, on Cape Cod, and sails his boat out of Red Brook Harbor.