Charming the snake

The antique steel railroad bridge (above), and a pretty little harbor in the lee of Wickets Island (below). Photo by Mike Martel

By Capt. Michael L. Martel
For Points East

The antique, steel railroad bridge that crosses the Cape Cod Canal between the towns of Buzzards Bay and Bourne, Mass., its center span raised, resembles a giant, square gate. It towers imposingly over the canal where, essentially, the fury of the flooding or ebbing tides from Cape Cod and Buzzards bays begins its rage in earnest.

That’s what the friendly voice on the Canal Control radio told us as we puttered along in the sweet, but slow, 32-foot Freedom sloop Mariposa that Tom, the mate, and I were delivering from Rhode Island to Boston. “By the time you reach the bridge,” the keeper had responded, “you’ll be pretty much at a dead stop.”

We were late due to contrary winds – and, at times, no winds. Now the tide was against us, the opposing current flowing westward, right on our nose, and soon it would be surging at more than five knots. Five knots was our top speed under power.

Even laboring mightily, the two-cylinder was no match for it. The bridge – the gateway – stood imposingly before us, a mile or so away, silently declaring, “You shall not pass.”

Sunset was minutes away, and we were in a race against time, fighting a strengthening current. Our goal was to turn out of the current and into a narrow channel at riprap-ringed Daymark “21” then head into the little harbor at Onset. There, we would wait for a few hours until the tide turned in our favor, allowing us to re-enter the channel and transit the seven-mile-long waterway, riding the flooding current eastward.

However, each minute that passed strengthened the flow of the tide against us, and pushed the sun closer to the horizon. I grew increasingly anxious for I did not want to enter an unfamiliar harbor after dark. Our speed dropped a knot from five to four, and there weren’t many knots left, and we seemed to crawl endlessly past the shore. Finally, with an orange-red sunset filling the sky, we turned into the well-marked channel, and the powerful current melted away. We motored barely a tenth of a mile up into one of the prettiest little harbors I’ve ever seen, still within view of the canal, and we anchored in the pastoral lee of wooded Wickets Island. Several other sailboats were anchored around us, presumably all waiting for a fair tide. As we set the anchor in good holding ground, I began to relax, stress and worry evaporating. We had brought minimal provisions, but we had enough to get through the night and into Boston the next day. The sun dropped lower, and I began rummaging in the dim light of the cabin for nourishment.

We didn’t have a dinghy, so there was no practical way of getting ashore. No matter: We had water, food and drink. I found some light beer in the icebox, still full of ice, and the beer was very cold. I set one on the cockpit table in front of Tom, a good sailor and half my age. “That’s a lightweight beer,” he scoffed.

“Oh, then you don’t want it?”

“Oh no, no, I’ll drink it,” he snapped. Necessity and thirst are the death-knell for beer snobbery.

In addition to the last big sub sandwich, stowed in the icebox for the following day, I found a block of white cheddar cheese, some crackers, a bag of tortilla chips, a can of salsa, and two apples. I laid these out on the cockpit table, and Tom and I snacked while the sun set and dusk fell. The wind had died, and the surface of the tiny harbor was like a mirror. A quarter-moon shone overhead. We sat back and relaxed, and I brought out a bottle of golden Jamaica rum. “In case we couldn’t go ashore, and we can’t,” I explained, preempting the question.

A brightly-lit party ferry, blaring music and full of booze-cruise passengers, slowly came up the narrow channel into Onset and disappeared around the back of Wickets Island, headed for some final tie-up at the far end of the harbor. We watched vessels pass by out on the canal, heading swiftly down-current.

At last, it was time to get some sleep; we would be up early. In what seemed like barely a moment after my head touched the pillow in the vee-berth, Tom’s noisy activity awakened me. I looked at my watch; it was 3:30 a.m.

“Time to go,” I muttered to myself. We shared half a thermos of still-warm coffee, hoisted anchor in the darkness, and motored out of the channel and into the brightly lit canal. The current immediately grabbed us, carrying us past Mass Maritime Academy and under the bridges. We rode it through the canal, zipping along at more than eight knots over the ground, emerging at the far end of the canal well before sunrise.

Along the way, we saw fishermen along the banks, their eerie blue-white electric lanterns suspended and moving about in the chill, damp darkness. As we were leaving the canal, we passed the entrance to the little marina and Harbor of Refuge at Sandwich. It is also a last stopping-off point before the canal when coming from the other direction, but it is not an anchorage.

Transiting the Cape Cod Canal has always been a rite of passage of sorts: Calculate the tide correctly, and you will flow through it at speed; get it wrong, and its five-plus knots of peak foul current will stop you – or throw you back, unless you are in a fast, robust power boat. But even then, you will throw up a huge wake and struggle against the tide and swirling currents.

The canal is always one extra obstacle, a planning variable, and an annoying extra calculation for any captain wanting to proceed from Block Island Sound or other points southwest to Cape Cod Bay, the South Shore and Boston Harbor. Going out around Cape Cod and braving Nantucket Shoals is out of the question; too many miles, too much time, too much water.

The wise mariner times his or her passage up Buzzards Bay, or down from the South Shore, to coincide with tide changes at the canal entrances. You want a slack tide at low tide, just turning to flood, at whatever end of the canal you enter first. As the locals say, “The tide floods east, and ebbs west.”

So, if you are transiting the canal from Buzzards Bay, you enter the canal just after slack tide – perhaps an hour – and the flooding tide carries you eastward at your speed plus the current. Likewise, when you enter from Cape Cod Bay and Sandwich an hour past low tide, the flood bears you westward into Buzzards Bay. That can be a rough ride at the end, though. One night, in mild weather, with a light southwesterly, we had to bust through three-foot standing waves at the west end of the canal. Opposing wind and current there can be nasty before you reach the end of the Stony Point Dike, also known as The Sand Spit.

The canal is roughly seven nautical miles long, and you have a good four hours, and more, before it turns against you. If you can make four knots, and the current is flowing at four, you can transit the canal in less than an hour.

On the Cape Cod Bay side, the only sheltered places nearby to wait for a fair tide are the Harbor of Refuge and marina at Sandwich. It’s a small, crowded harbor with a large commercial fishing component. It’s not yet in DOCKWA. The marina (, 508-833-0808) is operated by the Town of Sandwich, so making reservations directly is a good idea during the busy summer months. The marina has a fuel dock, and restaurants are within walking distance.

On the Buzzards Bay side, in Onset, one finds Onset Bay Marina (, 508-295-0338), in Onset, and Buzzards Bay Marina (, 508-759-1880) in Buzzards Bay. We could see Onset Bay Marina from our anchorage, but we didn’t want to pay for a slip since we were only waiting for a few hours for the tide. Farther down the bay is Kingman Yacht Center (, 508-563-7136) in Cataumet, but nothing could beat the advantage of being right next to the canal when the tide changed. For exhaustive Cape Cod Canal tide information, regulations and map, purchase Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book 2019, or enter “Cape Cod Canal Tides” in your computer browser.

The rest of our delivery trip was uneventful. We arrived at the dock, in Hingham Harbor, by early afternoon, then returned to our vehicles at the departure point, Paul Dennis’s Warren River Boatworks in Warren, R.I. [see page 18]. Mariposa was a Freedom 32. Paul, a specialist regarding Freedom boats, had spent months completing a major overhaul of her, and she was like a new boat with a new rig.

We had brought Mariposa down to Warren from Hingham the previous fall, and now Tom and I, sadly, had to say good-bye to her again. We had become quite fond of her. But she was reunited with her owners, who were delighted to see her back in their home waters.

Capt. Mike Martel, sailing out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton Master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine-industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. East Coast and in the Caribbean, and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.