You’re a grand old isle . . .

Everyone wants to know when the golf cart parade starts in town because no one can quite remember from last year. Dale, the harbormaster, always knows. Photo by Chris Birch

Editor’s note: According to Lisa Wright, town clerk of Gosnold-Cuttyhunk, after COVID-19 closures, it was decided in May to open the harbor on June 1, with moorings offered for rent and marina slips available. The question of fuel availability had not been resolved.

By Christopher Birch
For Points East

When the smoky sou’wester abates, and the air is clear, a full array of late-afternoon color is on display atop Cuttyhunk’s Lookout Hill. There’s the red barn that takes its cue from the red cliffs of Aquinnah behind it, the blue water, the white sails, a crayon box full of boats in the mooring field, the 97 shades of green that make up the island itself, echoed by what looks like 97 more on Nashawena Island, next door.

Once a year, on the Fourth of July, the show starts all over again after dark. From the unique vantage of Cuttyhunk’s mountaintop, a symphony of fireworks comes together, crackling, soaring and banging over a vast two-state horizon as if conducted by the great bald eagle above. Regal Falmouth pumps gracious strains into the northern sky, while off to the west, Newport answers in counterpoint. Thousands of smaller, backyard displays strum and hold a resonating chord. Nearby New Bedford delivers the loud, bright, white ones quickly, while the Vineyard’s Menemsha sprinkles in some hues off to the southeast. The boats in the harbor all have their cigarette lighters held high above their heads in an anchor-light salute of gratitude.

Mother Nature provides stars and fireflies by the millions. Not to be outdone, Uncle Sam trots out his regular performers, too. Down at sea level, the wide array of enthusiastic red and green flashers proudly keep time, while Buzzards Bay Tower and Gay Head Light flash their winks of parental approval from their raised stature. It’s the moment for which they have been practicing all year.

Oh, and yes, there’s a fireworks display on Cuttyhunk, too! A few, low, sparkly zingers sent up from the sandspit evoke a roar of enthusiasm from the horns on moored and anchored boats. A long pause ensues – I think beer drinking might be involved – and then the call-and-response repeats. It’s not much of a display, but it adds a quirky flare to the grandeur of the night.

Rewind back to sunrise, and July 4 looks much like any other July morning on Cuttyhunk. Slowly-waking sailors settle in for a long and contented sit with their coffees in their cockpits – some looking for shade, others soaking up the morning sun. Mooring master Dale Lynch buzzes around tending to the flock of boats. A few early risers get under way for Vineyard Haven or the Sakonnet River or Fairhaven.

In midmorning, the mood changes from relaxed to festive. Could it be that people are drinking at this early hour? Yes, it could be they are. Soon someone decides to crank up a Souza march on the stereo while her neighbor goes about dressing ship with signal flags. Quickly a dozen boats are so dressed, and the party has begun.

Partying in Cuttyhunk Harbor often adds up to little more than riding around in your dinghy and chatting with your neighbors. Everyone wants to know when the golf cart parade starts in town because no one can quite remember from last year. Dale will know. It’s also agreed that when the dinghy dock gets exceptionally crowded, the parade will likely start soon thereafter. People have learned that, one way or another, they should not miss this parade. Hot tip: The parade starts at noon. Hotter tip: If you go to watch, expect to get wet.

Kids riding on the parade floats throw candy to the spectating crowds of youngsters who are eagerly awaiting it. Spectators toss water balloons in all directions. An abundance of squirt guns, some menacingly large, spout away like little whales. It’s hard to avoid getting wet while watching this parade. It’s also not uncommon to find yourself eating, off the ground, little wet Starburst candies meant for the children.

From the looks of it, you don’t need to be a member of a marching band or the Elks Club or play the kazoo to join this parade. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare that anyone who shows up at the muster site on time with an appropriately decorated golf cart would be welcome to participate.

On a good year, when the fire truck is running, it brings up the rear of the parade packing three surprises: 1) foul puffs of smoke from its dying engine; 2) an incredibly loud siren; and 3) a real fire hose operating at full-strength, blasting the crowd like a real fire. With this thing in view, you are likely to get more than a little bit wet.

Unfortunately, for the last few years the red menace has been out of commission and replaced instead with a yellow backhoe carrying in its bucket a man wearing a gorilla suit and waving a hockey stick. (Go America!) And then, just like that, it’s over. Small island, small parade.

But there’s a coda. Without being told, the spectators follow the fleeing parade up past the only store, then take a right and pass the only museum, the only church, and the only school as they make their way to the top of the island. Generation upon generation of families have repeated this same reflexive migration on this same day for decades. Visiting yachtsmen are welcomed with a smile and are instantly accepted as members of the community. Like a school of fish, the crowd moves along the road with much chaos at the individual level and much order to the whole.

Summer is short on Cuttyhunk. For many people, the July holiday marks their first visit of the season. Islanders and visiting sailors reunite with old friends with much fanfare after the long winter. Children turn free-range, and people tend to gather in age-similar packs rather than in nuclear family units. For everyone involved, there’s much to discuss and get caught up on. The Fourth of July is more than just the country’s birthday here; it’s also an annual island reunion and the celebration of the beginning of the long-awaited summer.

At the top of the hill, the sun and breeze work to dry people off. The raised viewing platform serves as a pulpit where the summer preacher calls the town to attention. A short prayer is followed by a moment of silence for those in the community who have died in the past year, and that’s followed by everyone singing “God Bless America.” The simple joy of singing together in community, on a hilltop surrounded by the sea, is relished by all.

A smorgasbord of other activities follows the song. One year, when the town leaders felt we needed to be reminded that all men are created equal, the Gettysburg Address was read aloud. Never mind that people usually read from the Declaration of Independence on this day.

Another year, instead of Old Abe’s speech, a young and talented man delighted the audience with his bagpipe-playing. Among the clapping, I overheard one woman say to another, “I’ll bet his poor mother has to put up with that thing tooting in her house every day.”

Another year, a young and talented woman thrilled the crowd with a baton twirling routine. Amid the clapping, I overheard yet another woman comment, “I’ll bet her poor mother has to put up with that stick-throwing in her house every day.”

The island may not have a bar, a liquor store, a traffic light, or a nightclub, but it does have miles of walking trails and miles of sandy beaches. These perfectly simple places for perfectly simple pleasures are just as popular on the Fourth of July as they are on any other day in July. Swimming, reading, and throwing the tennis ball for the dog all compete regularly for the honor of being crowned as the island’s top pastime.

My favorite spot is the beach along the inside of the channel into the harbor. Every boat must pass by this spot at close range both when arriving and when departing. Some motor. Some sail. Some row. Two- and four-legged swimmers, kayakers and paddle-boarders add to the mix.

A few boats got a late start and are just now headed out after an overnight visit: The one family on the Pearson that stayed for the parade, but now needs to get back to the mainland for the regular BBQ with their cousins; the smart captain on the Grand Banks, who was waiting for the tide to change before heading to Oak Bluffs to join a raft-up. Then there’s the big group on the Sea Ray who didn’t know this was a dry island and are now in the midst of making new plans and leaving a bit too much of a wake while they’re at it.

The arriving traffic is more constant. The eager Rhode Island sailors come in from the west while the fresh meat from Massachusetts approach from the north and east. The second parade of the day forms when they merge at the end of the jetty and head for the inner harbor. At this hour, I see anxiety in their faces. We all know it’s getting late, and the mooring field and the anchorage might soon be full.

They would have gotten here earlier if they had left earlier, but they lingered over breakfast, for example, at Pie in Sky Bakery in Wood’s Hole. Then they had to wait for the Eel Pond Bridge to open, and the beat upwind into the building southwesterly in Buzzards Bay was slow-going. They’ll find a spot, I know. Dale works miracles in there and usually finds a home for all comers.

The late-afternoon sun calls for a retreat back to a shady corner in the cockpit on the boat for some reading. Or a Red Sox game might be on the radio, in which case a middle-inning nap might be scheduled, instead.

The newcomers swarm the mooring field. Sticking a conspicuously public mooring landing cleanly adds to their arrival anxiety. Some crew are unprepared for the need to provide your own mooring pendant in the Cuttyhunk mooring field, and they find themselves standing on the bow without the needed dock line, feeling foolish to be holding a useless boathook instead. Other boats come in a little too hot on the mooring approach, and a lot of yelling ensues. So much for that boat’s amiable name, Namaste. It’s a mooring, not a bowling pin; speed is not your friend here. A second pass wouldn’t be the end of the world, though. Soon enough they will have it sorted, and their tired hands will be happily holding an arrival beverage.

Dale has his wetsuit on. Someone must have tangled a line in their prop. Dale is the most versatile man in Buzzards Bay and can solve pretty much any problem. If he isn’t saving the day underwater, he might be helping to fix a davit platform, or rescuing a drunkard in a capsized dinghy. I’m guessing he gets tasked with some marriage counseling and child policing out in the mooring field from time to time, too. The best thing about Dale is that you never need to call him or go looking for him; he’s just always there, and all you need to do is wave him over.

Right around cocktail hour, the Cuttyhunk Raw Bar boat starts making the rounds, and VHF channel 72 is quickly jammed with requests. You could eat these same world-famous oysters at The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, where you would be surrounded by Yankee fans. Or you could eat them here at their source, deep in Red Sox Nation, on your own boat, with your own drink. It’s no wonder that Raw Bar boat is so busy.

That oyster is the taste of the sea and the taste of America. Not only are they delicious, they also have a bit of a 1776 Massachusetts feel that makes them ideal for the Fourth of July. I can see Sam Adams and John Hancock kicking back and enjoying a dozen oysters at the Warren Tavern back in the day. I can hear Sam saying, “I’ll get the next round of beers and another dozen oysters if you let me sign it first when we’re down in Philly.” Little did he know that Hancock would take the free beer and oysters and then steal everyone’s thunder by making a big show out of signing it last.

I’m not saying it’s a historical fact, but I suspect it might have happened. Oysters have a way of getting front-and-center in the chronology of revolutionary events. They were fitting food for the day.

In the year of the bagpipe, the musician reappeared in a rowboat right as the sun set between the island’s two highest points. He put down his oars, picked up his pipes, and played “Amazing Grace” as he drifted past the moored boats in the gloaming. The crowd quickly switched from raucous revelry to silent reverence. He played it through twice, and when he hit his last note, the crowd of moored boats erupted in cheers as if Cuttyhunk had just won the Olympics in every event.

I was almost lulled into staying onboard and calling it a perfect day; the Sox had won their game, too. But curiosity prodded me back into my dinghy and had me headed for shore. I was wondering if the midday magic at the top of the hill had faded somewhat with the sunset. Or had that spot somehow managed to hang onto the spirit of the day. I trekked up, and that was the year I discovered what a fireworks show can be.

On July 5, it’s a reversion to the mean on Cuttyhunk: Mother Nature’s oysters, stars and fireflies, and they do just fine.

Frequent contributor Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc., on Long Wharf in Boston, where he has been building, restoring and maintaining boats for the past 33 years.

Photos by Christopher Birch