Runabout to Rhode Island

The author’s “nav station” on his 21-foot Eastern Pilot. Photo by Kevin McCarthy

Winter 2023

By Kevin McCarthy
For Points East

At the Rye Harbor launch ramp, I launch The Pilot and head for the Isles of Shoals with the last light of the day. The Shoals will be a good step-off spot early the next morning. While never advertised as a cruiser, this capable little runabout has already proven its ability. Aligning the weather, work and wife’s approval had been my real challenge.

Approaching Gosport Harbor, I watch the last supermoon of the year rise from the ocean into the clouds. Once in the harbor, I waste no time setting up the canvas enclosure. This transforms The Pilot into a pocket cruiser for the five-day voyage ahead of me.

Aug. 11, 0530: I wake to the beat of a working boat’s diesel engine and the seagull’s constant bark. Coffee in hand, I don’t feel the need to rush. The sun works to make the horizon. My first waypoint is 23.4 miles, just east of Cape Ann. Heavy cloud cover, no wind, no waves. Overcast, yet eight to 10 miles of visibility. The Pilot is making 23 mph with her Honda 135-horse, four-stroke outboard – rare for this boat on the North Atlantic.

By 0735, Thacher Island/Cape Ann off the starboard beam. The ocean has a greasy feel to it. Shades of gray. Calm with some sun on Cape Cod Bay. Still making good time. Whales in the distance are a welcome sighting. At 1012 I’m alongside the Cape Cod Canal “CC” buoy off the east entrance. I’ve covered 82.7 miles in three hours and 46 minutes.

Next is a quick stop at the Sandwich Marina, just inside the canal, where I take on 32.7 gallons of fuel. That eight gallons-per-hour will prove to be the most for this trip, making me wonder if I’d been able to take on as much gas when the boat was on the trailer as I could have when The Pilot was in the water. Was the fuel tank truly full?

Rain starts as I’m exiting the canal into Buzzards Bay. I pull on the foul-weather gear rather than go for the convertible top. I aim to keep the Elizabeth Islands close off the portside, staying in the lee toward Cuttyhunk, my destination for the night. I arrive at 1344 and splurge, spending the night at the town docks. With well over 100 miles already under the keel, it’s time to throttle back and adjust to island time. While lounging in the cockpit I can see a raw bar, a cafe and a lobster shack up on the pier. Looks like I’ll have what I need for the night.

Before taking advantage of the local vendors I decided to set out on foot. I ask a couple old-timers on the dock for some local knowledge. I’m told if I walk to the top of the street then right up a hill I’ll be rewarded with an ”exquisite” view. Being a sucker for exquisite views, I set out that way.

After several hours of exploring I find myself back at the harbor. With Cuttyhunk being a dry island, I am happy that I have a well-stocked cooler. I grab a cold can to help wash down the dozen oysters I’ve ordered from Charlie at the raw bar. Summer life on Cuttyhunk.

Aug, 12, 0655: I am under way. Cuttyhunk has treated me well. Charming little harbor, local color, early coffee and muffins plus a bag of ice as my parting gift.

I’m ready for Block Island. My GPS confirms this will be a short leg. I’m able to make good time; however, I find conditions a bit sportier than the one- to two-feet that are forecast. By 1000, Old Harbor sits close off my bow, but I continue on toward my final destination, the Great Salt Pond.

Only a short walk on foot, it still demands a jaunt around the northside of the island, and 1052 sees me entering the harbor with a parade of other boats aiming to get the jump on the weekend’s activities. Before I find my spot for the night, I take on 29.1 gallons at Champlin’s Marina. The trip log shows 51.7 miles done over four hours and 46 minutes. Average speed: 12.3 mph.

Most services are available on the west side of the harbor leaving the shallower eastside mooring field to those who like to anchor. With The Pilot’s small size and shallow draft, I can get in close to the beach, with easy access to town. Vessels range in size from the vagabond sailor to mega yachts. Me? I’m just smiling in my pocket cruiser.

It’s time to play tourist. I inflate my standup paddleboard (SUP) and paddle the short distance to the beach. In town, I secure a rental bike and explore the island. Tens of thousands of day-trippers descend on Block Island on any given summer’s day, and today is no different. I spin away 18 miles. My night on the Salt Pond is punctuated by a fast-moving storm, with heavy wind and rain. I stay dry in the V-berth, periodically poking my head out to be sure the anchor ‘s holding.

Aug. 14: I’m not in any hurry this morning. Not sure whether I’m savoring my morning coffee while the sun plays hide-and-seek or putting off the long leg toward Martha’s Vineyard. The GPS says 51.6 miles to Oak Bluffs Harbor. Underway at 0750, I take time to chat with my neighbor aboard a small, light catamaran. An interesting design; however, I’m getting spoiled aboard the agreeable Pilot. I observe a fresh breeze as I make headway speed through the harbor.

The forecast called for one- to two-foot seas out of the north. Outside the breakwater, I’m greeted by white caps being blown off the tops of three-to four-foot waves in rapid succession. I’m having to slug my way off Block Island in the toughest conditions my craft has faced. Green water is being shipped over the top of my boat with every wave. I’m in safety mode, reducing my speed to seven or eight mph, taking the waves 10 degrees off the bow.

Still needing to clear North Reef before turning to my rhumb line, I change my plans. I commit to motoring into the wind, figuring I can get in the lee of Point Judith and Rhode Island. An hour and a half later, when Point Judith is a couple miles off, I put it on my port beam. While far from the rough ride encountered earlier, it’s still quite lumpy. I jump in behind a fast trawler and let it do the pacesetting for the next hour. Now I’m kicked up to 10 mph as the bigger boat knocks down some of the slop ahead.

Leaving Cuttyhunk to port, I enjoy more protection in the lee of the Elizabeth Islands as I transit Vineyard Sound. All is well, yet West Chop lives up to its name as I pass the lighthouse at 1412. Ten minutes later I’m in Oak Bluffs Harbor. If harbors have a capacity, then OB has exceeded theirs. I exit an hour later, after having trouble taking on fuel due to an apparent clogged fuel vent.

I round East Chop and head to my destination for the evening, Vineyard Haven’s Lagoon Pond. Lagoon Pond is an old favorite due to its protected waters and close proximity to land and provisions. I tie up at the dock to take advantage of a freshwater hose with which to douse me and my boat. While relaxing at the dock I met Rico, owner of Rico’s Marine Services, who proves a welcoming soul. He offers his nearby mooring at no cost. I’m grateful.

Just to add to the trip highlights, I met up with my sister, Christine Rose – a longtime real estate agent on the Island – and her friend Gregory. We relax and make plans for dinner later that evening. They leave, I nap. I had traveled 53.8 miles in six hours and 10 minutes, averaging nine to 10 mph.

Aug. 15: Morning in Lagoon Pond. Today I start with the largest coffee the Black Dog Cafe could offer and enjoy watching Vineyard Haven wake up. People hustle to catch the ferry; small-boat day-trippers anchor off the pocket beaches lining the harbor. I hop back on my SUP and glide across the shallows, completing the full lagoon in just under two hours.

At 1100 I am under way from the Vineyard to Provincetown via the Cape Cod Canal. Have had trouble taking on fuel in OB, I’m aware that this may be an issue moving forward. One more full tank will get me back to New Hampshire. Taking on that fuel is on my mind.

At 1542, I’m back at Sandwich Marina, in the canal, where I fueled that first day. The face dock had a couple of big boys taking on diesel; however, I was able to tie along the smaller backside. Again, it’s a super-slow flow, but demand is for diesel, so I wasn’t holding up other mariners. I top off with 20.3 gallons; The Pilot holds 64 gallons so I knew I had more than enough to get me to Rye Harbor. I’m soon under way to P-town, where I plan to overnight before final leg home. I’m struck by the lack of boats on Cape Cod Bay. Late afternoon on an August Sunday, I expected more activity. I enjoy the calm sea over the next two hours as the miles click away.

We arrive at Provincetown Marina at 1812. I had considered dinner in town. Maybe walk the streets, take in some local color. The marina was closed, and the locking steel gate prevented me from coming and going. The harbor launch operator broke it down for me: $80 for two hours at the transient dock. This was about the same for an overnight mooring or . . . scram and find a place to anchor at no charge.

Option No. 3 sounded most appealing: I had everything I needed onboard and didn’t feel the need to spend more money. I worked my way across the large harbor to a protected area behind Long Point. Immediately, my choice was validated. Long Point is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. It’s highlighted by a pristine beach with two lighthouses, one on either end. There’s deep water right off the beach and a perfect angle to view the sunset. More my speed tonight.

Settling in on the hook, I assemble the enclosure and prepare chicken curry on crackers and a cold beer. Awesome colors in the sky, a sailing family nearby, lighthouse flashing green. I’m truly at peace.

At peace, yet I’m not ready to let my guard down. What can or will go wrong? Another issue that’s developed is the USB port has stopped charging my phone, which is desperately low. I’m well aware this final leg will take me far offshore, across Massachusetts Bay to Cape Ann. I have two handheld VHF radios, but no phone; let’s hope this is the extent of my mechanical issues.

Aug. 16: I won’t know the time until I fire up the GPS. Again, it’s the little things. I stopped carrying a watch years ago as I became dependent upon my phone. Regardless, I relax in the cockpit with my mug of coffee sweetened by the last of my flavored creamer. I am struck with the realization that I need a shower. My four-day deodorant has worn out. Another small advantage of traveling solo.

This is the last morning and the last leg of my trip. I take another sip of coffee and reflect on the past week. Typical of me, I spent more money in the first day-and-a-half than the rest of the voyage. That need for a slip rather than a mooring, a mooring rather than at anchor is all but gone. The desire for a restaurant meal versus going into the cooler has passed. A private view of a National Preserve far outweighs an expensive slip in town. I slowly start prepping for the open-water leg ahead. The bay is calm, I’m calm, at 0725 the anchor is aweigh, and I am under way.

Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod, to Rye, N.H. GPS says 72 miles. Conditions are close to perfect. Finally, the calm seas that have been forecast. I’m running close off Long Point in 125 feet of water. The sun shining on the Wood End Lighthouse is spectacular. I steer 337 degrees to my waypoint off Cape Ann, 42 miles away.

I’m running 20 mph, under the sun on a flat-calm surface. I go where there is no horizon. This is my reward for working through the sport stuff earlier in the trip. It’s Lake Atlantic. Cape Cod gets smaller in the rearview mirror as I start to cross the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. I’m elated.

Suddenly I’m into a pod of jumping dolphins. As I gaze across the water, I observe dozens of them. Then I realize it to be hundreds, extending quite a distance from my port side. No, it could be thousands, and I’m reminded that I’m a visitor in their sanctuary. Barely in sight of land, I’m completely in the moment. I let that feeling wash over me. I’m left to wonder: Is this perhaps one of the Top 10 days of my lifetime on the water?

It’s 1000 and I’ve got Cape Ann’s Thacher Island, with its twin towers, off my starboard beam. Not ready to wrap up too early, I revise the route. I’m often passing this way on a boat delivery, so I move with purpose: inside, along the Annisquam River, when conditions demand it; wide outside of Cape Ann when conditions allow for it.

Today I chose to explore closer to the cape and enter little Rockport Harbor, another first for me. From there, I follow the coast home – running close off Plum Island. At 1127, I run the cut at the mouth of the Merrimac, just because I can, then aim for my final waypoint, the deep-water mark off Rye Harbor. At 1220, I am in Rye Harbor, completing a remarkable final leg to an amazing voyage. Today’s trip was truly one for the record books: I completed 89.4 miles in five hours, averaging 18.2 mph.

Because of my late-evening start at the beginning of my trip, I was not able to connect with the harbormaster. Not surprisingly, the payment envelopes were stacking up on my truck’s windshield. I happily pulled out the $80 to cover the truck and trailer parking. My trip totals: 105.4 gallons of fuel to cover five days under way for roughly 344 miles.

I catch the rising tide for an easy retrieval onto the trailer. I’m left with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. Small-boat cruising continues to enrich my soul.

Kevin McCarthy is a USCG-licensed marine-industry professional. He has operated 100-foot motor yachts, whale-watch vessels, harbor-tour boats, push tugs and towboats – and seemingly everything in between. When he’s not training or assisting other mariners, he’s likely planning his next small-craft adventure.