Road to the Grey Lady

August, 2017

By Marilyn P. Brigham
For Points East

There’s a predictable pattern to the beginning and end of our cruising season: launch in late May/early June and haul-out late October in Saquatucket Harbor, in Harwich Port, Mass. Our homeport is in Quissett Harbor, in Falmouth, 35 nautical miles away.

When we sailed a smaller sailboat, we sailed directly from the elbow of Cape Cod, west to the opposite end of the Cape’s triceps, and around the corner to our mooring. This took about eight hours. Once we owned a larger cruising sailboat, we took advantage of these logistics by adding Nantucket Island – and a long weekend – as an additional waypoint.

For the many times we have sailed to and from Nantucket, each cruise has been different: the weather, the light, the seas, wind and crew. But the “Grey Lady” – a nickname for an island that sees its share of fog – has always been hospitable. Never have we experienced the island twice in quite the same manner. We love Nantucket for all its charm and appeal: its fog and warm sun, the birds, the “old whaling town” feeling, the gracious, historic homes, the cobblestone streets, the pretty and well-tended yards, the upscale shops with their distinctive flower boxes, the high-end dining experiences and the peace-and-quiet of the off-season.
From Saquatucket Harbor, it’s roughly 19.4 miles south to Nantucket and the trip takes us about three and a half hours. From Chatham Roads Bell “3” to Handkerchief Shoal Nun “2” (off Rodgers Shoal), we are cruising in Nantucket Sound, parallel to Monomoy Island. We see fishing weirs and lots of seals (Monomoy is an important seal breeding ground), but once past the tip of Monomoy, seldom do we see any maritime traffic or sealife.

Handkerchief Shoal to port is to be avoided, not only for sandy shoals at low tide, but for strong currents, large ocean swells, and occasional rip tides tearing through from the Atlantic Ocean. This part of Nantucket Sound can be lonely and treacherous. Past N “2”, we are sailing, but keeping our eyes peeled for N “12, then “14” on the far side of Handkerchief. Then pick up Great Round Shoal Lighted Buoy G “15.” From here, the rhumb-line course takes you to the Nantucket Harbor entrance buoy.

Many years ago, our sail from Harwich Port to Nantucket began on a cold, but sunny, June morning. Well into the trip, we observed a bright, white gleam in the south. As we sailed further, the gleam intensified, radiating a shiny, white halo against the blue sky and water. We marveled as we realized it was the sun’s reflection off the Great Point Lighthouse tower at the northern tip of Nantucket. In the 12 years of making this annual trip, we have never again seen that halo effect. Nantucket is a very special place in many ways.
Nantucket Island, along with the nearby islets of Tuckernuck and Muskeget, comprise the Town of Nantucket and the County of Nantucket.

Nantucket was first inhabited by Wampanoag Indians, and its name is thought to originate from a Wampanoag name that may mean “in the midst of waters” or “faraway island.”

Once a thriving and wealthy whaling center, Nantucket’s economy began its decline in the 1880s and continued until well after World War II. Nantucket had, however, developed a following as a summer resort.
Much of the appeal was that it was somewhat remote (in the midst of waters) and unspoiled (far away). The poor economy had left much of downtown Nantucket – its residential, commercial and maritime buildings, and its wharfs – in decay.

In the mid-1960s, a wealthy Nantucket summer dweller, along with several like-minded investors, devised a multimillion-dollar plan to buy dilapidated downtown buildings, restore them, and then market the island to attract an upscale tourist trade.

They began with the Jared Coffin House, Nantucket Looms, and the White Elephant Hotel. But the most ambitious project was the transformation of the Nantucket waterfront. They felt that a large-scale boat basin would attract upscale yacht captains and mariners who would spend money, not only at the marina, but also at the town’s attractions and restaurants. Wharfs were demolished, and an icehouse, fish shanties, gas stations, a lumberyard and other concerns were removed to build what is now the Nantucket Boat Basin. The Basin was built behind a protective stockade in the harbor, containing slips for 240 boats.

As we approach Nantucket, it’s comforting to see land again and to get a glimpse of the town. As we make our way down the channel, toward Brant Point Lighthouse in the mouth of the harbor, it’s always a joy to see the church steeples and the sturdy, shingled homes with their widow’s walks. The channel to Nantucket Harbor begins at the Nantucket Bar Lighted Bell “NB”, just off the jetties on either side of the channel. Obviously, it is important to stay in the channel and proceed slowly, for there can be lots of maritime traffic, like one of the large ferryboats, a superyacht, boats under sail, and small fishing vessels. It’s easy to see the stockade of the Boat Basin on the west side of the harbor, not far from the ferry dock. It’s then that we call the marina to get our slip assignment and request the help of their staff with our docklines.

The Nantucket Boat Basin offers just about anything a mariner would want, from boat-welcome gift bags (even one for the dog), Wi-Fi, discounts for dinner at their sister-hotel properties, and help with arrangements for fishing charters, sightseeing trips, jeep rentals, and dog and child care. The wharves also have shops and restaurants, and attractive cottages are for rent if you decide not to stay on your boat. The only thing missing in the marina is a ship chandlery. There was one at the end of the wharf, but it closed several years ago, and now that space is occupied by a trendy boutique. As there are no chain stores in Nantucket, do not expect to find a West Marine.

In late-spring/early summer, we enjoy walking about town, poking into the shops, visiting the Nantucket Historical Society’s Whaling Museum, and the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum. And, if our timing is right, dining during Restaurant Week. We also enjoy exploring the residential streets of town, either on foot or by bike, and going to Jetties and Children’s beaches. Staying at the Boat Basin puts you within walking distance of most everything. There is no end of things to do on the island.

Once it is time to leave Nantucket (which is never easy), it’s fun to wonder about the two small island communities, Tuckernuck and Muskeget, west of Madaket Harbor on the west side of the island. These islands are not on our way home, but even if they were, the low waters of Tuckernuck Shoal would prevent us from sailing there. But they can be seen in the distance – Muskeget just barely as it’s so low in the water. Much of 900-acre Tuckernuck Island is privately owned by summer residents; the remainder is owned under conservation easements. Apparently, there are about 40 homes there, powered by generators and solar panels. The island has no paved roads or public utilities.

Muskeget Island (41° 20” 7’, N 70° 18” 15’ W) is a tiny 290-acre islet about a mile and a half northwest of Tuckernuck. Its highest elevation is 14 feet, and it’s mostly sand. It had been an outpost of the Life-Saving Service (the precursor of the U.S. Coast Guard), with a boathouse, several small homes, and fishermen’s shanties. But the Service relocated its personnel to Nantucket Island in the 1920s, and residents on the little island dwindled.

The Hurricane of 1938 blew away many of the remaining structures. Now, only two unoccupied buildings remain, one the abandoned Life-Saving Service boathouse. Important inhabitants of the island are the Muskeget vole, a beach vole that’s indigenous only to Muskeget, and thousands of gray seals, for which the island is a breeding ground.

When heading home, we avoid those little islands and Tuckernuck Shoal by heading northwest from Buoy “NB” to Tuckernuck Shoal Lighted Bell “1” (5.7 miles), to the Nantucket Sound Main Channel Lighted Buoy #17 (2.6 miles), to Halfmoon Shoal Lighted Buoy R “18” (2.3 miles) south of Horseshoe Shoal Lighted Buoy R “20” (2.2 miles).

Within the next mile, we can see the wind tower on Horseshoe Shoal, which, if the project comes to fruition, would be one of 130 wind turbines on the shoal. Then it’s another 9.1 miles to Hedge Fence Lighted Gong Buoy R “22”, northeast of East Chop, Martha’s Vineyard. Around the point, in Vineyard Haven, we sometimes stop for lunch and wait for the turning tide.

As our homeport is in Quissett Harbor, off Buzzards Bay, we like to arrive at Nobska Point Light – at the approach to Woods Hole – when the tide is in our favor. Woods Hole is a treacherous channel, and we must go through it to get to our harbor in Buzzards Bay. The tide will determine when we need to leave Nantucket, and whether we might grab a mooring in Vineyard Haven to await the change in current.

Our return trip to Nantucket in the fall has a very different feel. The air is crisp and cool, and the winds are generally stronger. One season, with following seas and wind astern, we took on a “hitchhiker” somewhere off Cape Pogue Lighthouse, at the north end of Chappaquiddick. A windblown and very tired goldfinch flew onto the boat and sailed briefly with us while it rested.

Last season, we intended to sail to Nantucket after a short layover in Edgartown, on the Vineyard. We never made it to Nantucket: Hurricane Matthew had other plans for us. Sixty mph winds unexpectedly swept up the Massachusetts coast, giving us an uncomfortable stay in the harbor that night. The next day was beautiful, but the ocean swells were more than we were up for, so we stayed in the Vineyard for several days and sailed directly to Harwich Port.

Our experiences in Nantucket in the fall are different than early in the season. We enjoy the annual “Organ Crawl,” six organ recitals held in each denomination of the town’s churches on Columbus Day weekend; the last play of the season at the Theatre Workshop of Nantucket; stargazing on clear, starry nights; and renting a Jeep for a drive out to the beach at Great Point Light.

Nantucket has loads of appeal for the mariner, the history buff, the conservationist, the beachcomber, the day-tripper, the upscale vacationer, and the second-home owner. Most everyone can find something to love about Nantucket. That it is in the “midst of waters” and “far away” just adds to the appeal.

Marilyn Brigham, along with her co-captain/spouse Paul, sails Selkie, a Catalina 445, out of Quissett Harbor, Falmouth, Mass. She is a lifelong sailor and a current member of both the Quissett and Cottage Park yacht clubs. She hopes the 2017 sailing season finds Selkie cruising off the coast of Massachusetts and exploring the Connecticut and New York coastlines. If fair winds and time allow, perhaps Selkie will cruise to Maine this year.