One Particular Harbor

We were up early stowing gear for what the forecast had promised to be an unruly ride down Buzzards Bay. We cleared the Onset channel without incident and immediately felt the keel gripped by the Cape Cod Canal current as we made a hard to starboard turn, avoiding a fishing boat and keeping an eye on one inbound at high speed. A strong southerly was on our nose building wedge-like standing waves in the canal as the wind and current worked against each other. We watched in horror as a new sleek cruising boat slowed ahead of us, violently hobby horsing when every wave hit. The cruiser’s bow hurdled then crashed hard into the next wave only to be sent skyward again.

Caprica lurched as a train of slab waves marched into the channel. Alison took the helm and increased power, and I shook out the mainsail. Ahead, the two men in the back of the large cruising boat looked helplessly over as their sleek sailing machine shuddered. I trimmed the sail hard, and Alison turned the helm 10 degrees to port. Our powerful mainsail filled and Caprica heeled – a natural and happy state for a sailboat. Our boat speed doubled as the ride became comfortable. I watched in dismay as the other boat tried to do battle with the cacophony of sharply steepening waves. I turned away just as their bow hurled skyward revealing much of their keel.

Alison handed over the helm and went down below as through a porthole we spied Eleanor stirring from all of the action. Outside of the channel, I reefed half of the mainsail and let the full-forward sail fly. Caprica pointed high into the wind, and we tacked across Buzzards Bay shaping a course for the leeward edge of the Elizabethan Islands where the waves would be nothing but chop. As we headed further south against the wind a backdrop of fog cloaked the canal behind us.

Down below, Eleanor ate breakfast as Alison read a favorite story aloud. On deck, I turned the boat through the wind passing a column of sailboats to starboard. Within a few hours, we were on track for Cuttyhunk Island, mindful of the ever-increasing wind and the forecasted weather. 

Cuttyhunk exists at the southern end of the Elizabethan Islands and has a small community perched on a gradual hill that overlooks two harbors. From the former WWII outpost, the exquisite view includes old fishing cottages, white-sand beaches, or conversely boulder-strewn barrier beaches. Most days, Martha’s Vineyard fills the eastern expanse of the horizon. To the north, one can see steep cliffs and crashing waves, and the North Atlantic stretches on forever to the southeast.

The preferred anchorage is the inner harbor – small, dredged, and sheltered. Dozens of boats tie up to moorings; occasionally two abreast with dinghies, paddleboards and floats of every description trailing behind in the gentle current as they sway in unison to subtle wind shifts. Laid in the standard grid pattern, the Cuttyhunk moorings are $45 a night – an alternative to dropping your anchor in the shallow area at the edge of the dredged harbor. The inner harbor is reached by navigating a breakwater and a hurricane barrier that is beginning to shoal; therefore requiring a gentle S turn in the narrow channel that is often burdened with dinghies, sailboats, and powerboats of every description.

As we closed in on Cuttyhunk, the occasional sailboat ducked in and out of the leeward side of the sparsely populated Elizabethan Islands to our port. To our starboard, an endless procession of fast-moving wake spewing powerboats overtook us. Nearing a series of channel markers and a red can to port, a million-dollar Grand Banks trawler squeezed between us and an oncoming center cockpit fishing boat, leaving Caprica to wallow in the giant wake and suffer a cloud of diesel exhaust. To our starboard, we watched breaking waves careen over a reef partially submerged in the changing tide. I double-checked our charts and spotted the entrance markers to the inner Cuttyhunk harbor mindful of the close quarters within but also considering the forecasted weather.

The outside harbor, protected from all but the West, was nearly empty with a few boats tied to moorings and a spattering of dinghies parked at a strip of white beech. A column of five powerboats fell in line and raced towards the inner harbor channel. I looked beyond the rock barrier beach to starboard and saw dozens of sailboat masts jutting into the blue sky. To port, a wall of white water crashed into the hurricane barrier and drowned out the wind with a sudden thunder. We were seconds from entering the channel, and I knew that the inner harbor was going to be near capacity from the forest of masts, but it was too late. Caprica was committed to the channel with a giant rock breakwater to starboard and a green marker to port as a friendly reminder that a pile of rocks hid under gentle water.

Just as I was regretting my decision to enter the channel, a sizeable express cruiser buzzed us to starboard cutting to half a boat length from our bow then throttling back hard. We watched the boat’s stern wake lift them as the driver sat casually at his wheel, looking down at an unseen gadget. Seconds later, he was joined by two kids and a broad-shouldered blonde.

With the wind coming over our port side and clocking around to our bow, I needed to maintain boat speed to keep some steerage in the narrow shoaling channel. Caprica’s bow began to fall off towards the stone jetty, and I bumped up the throttle to make a course correction. With very little maneuvering room I started calling the powerboat on the VHF as we approached his stern. He was still playing with a gadget, only occasionally looking frontward. We crept forward, maneuvering slowly around the first shoal and into a slight cove, alternating the throttle between forward and neutral. We were inching closer to the powerboat as he casually eased through the channel, never considering the boat behind him. 
Another gust to our port pushed Caprica towards the last shoal, and our depth sounder began to ascend rapidly.

I throttled forward briefly and lined our ground tackle up to the driver’s seat ahead. My index finger flicked over to the autopilot button and the mechanism engaged with a deep clunk. Just as I began to step out of the cockpit to yell, he throttled forward, and we were in the clear.

Caprica cleared the final shoal and emerged into the inner harbor where the stiff ocean breeze reached 20 plus knots, but the water was only graced with a gentle ripple. The mooring field reminded me of a checkerboard, and as we vectored towards the soft anchorage behind, there were few empty moorings. It seemed like a hundred boats were crammed into the mooring field, pulling in unison against their tethers creating neat alleys.

We made a sweep through the congested anchorage, behind the mooring field and throttled through an alley emerging into the channel near the town docks. The wind pressed against our bow threatening to turn us into a moored boat. I throttled forward as another multimillion-dollar trawler thundered towards us amidships. The channel ended a boat length ahead of us where we would have parked our keel, and the trawler was closing fast without thought or consideration. With two engines and bow thrusters, the trawler was infinitely more maneuverable then Caprica, but it still closed on us. I pumped up the jam with the feeling that the trawler was intent on striking. An elderly woman stood on the great gleaming bow staring into the distance with a 100-pound stainless steel anchor jutting forward.

We cleared the turn as they rumbled towards the docks and we subjected ourselves to another unsuccessful round through the mooring field then worked back to the outside anchorage. We enjoyed the open space and anchored at the edge of an empty mooring field within a comfortable dinghy ride to a beautiful beach. We sat on deck for an hour ensuring that all was well and watched a parade of boats enter and exit the inner harbor. Exploring the town, dropping off mail, meeting new friends, eating excellent pizza, and hauling water were the highlights of our afternoon.

The next morning I stood on the bow watching a newly filled mooring field of trawlers, race styled sailboats, heavy cruisers, and one miniature steamship sway in the gentle breeze. Earlier that morning, the radar showed the anticipated line of storms heading our way. The weather would strike in the late afternoon, and we had a few hours to decide what to do. We knew at the very least it was time to move Caprica away from the beach, giving us room to lay out our heavy ground tackle (and possibly a second anchor if things became sporty).

Alison started the engine after we decided to jump on a recently vacant mooring in a prime location, just as I heard a voice. “It looks like they are leaving.” I turned to see an approaching dinghy. A woman sat forward with a wide smile and a friendly wave. “Don’t leave yet!” She yelled. 

“Maybe they are delivering tiny cakes.” I thought to myself as the dingy approached our stern. 

“We’re your sister!” She yelled as Alison shut down our engine.

Another boat, the same make and model as Caprica (but much cleaner) rested at a nearby mooring. We drifted by the previous night and admired her Caribbean green cockpit canvas and the freshly waxed glint from her hull. 

The dinghy pulled to our stern, and we found four like-minded souls inviting us to share cocktail hour and stuffed clams later that evening. We compared notes on the boats’ performance features and intricacies, down to the in-mast furling system. With promises to reunite later, we hauled in our anchor and cruised over to the coveted mooring position just as an inbound large powerboat was angling for the attack. 

Alison snagged the ball and ran a series of lines to our heavy duty bow cleats. Moments later, the trawler boomed by us intent on another mooring just as a group of boats moved towards the harbor. We watched from Caprica’s deck as the trawler nearly backed into an elegant sailboat. The driver throttled hard forward then hard reverse while a slender white-haired pastel-clad lady reached from the summit-like bow with a boat hook ready to grab the mooring.

By late afternoon the sky was ominous, and the radar further confirmed a nasty weather front approaching. Our weather apps were scattered with special marine watch boxes and warnings. The mooring fields were full to capacity and boats filled the harbors.

Eleanor and I made a quick trip to the shore to hike the hill before grabbing 15 gallons of water on our way back to Caprica. The inside harbor was buzzing with outboard motors, dinghies, paddle boards and swimmers. We putted slowly through the incoming and outgoing dinghies full of solo cup brandishing fashionistas, sunburned retirees and lifejacket wearing boat dogs. As we left island, Eleanor yelled at the kids on the fuel dock, “I have a cat named Hammy and a dog named Eddie,” as they somersaulted from the ends of tall pilings into the deep waters below the pier. The way Eleanor longingly watched them displayed her longing to be a Cuttyhunk kid.

At sunset, we linked up with the crew of the other Beneteau 423 for the evening, but we were forced to call it a night when a squall line started to blow through the anchorage. As we putted home through a sprinkling of rain in the quiet mooring field, a barge anchored just outside of the harbor began to unleash the epic Cuttyhunk fireworks display. We three climbed aboard Caprica and took seats on our starboard side, in full view of the enormous colors and shapes that burst in the night sky. Eleanor screamed, laughed, and provided commentary with full joy. The dense, humid air trapped the firework smoke plumes and sheets of cordite fog wandered like ghosts twisting in the gentle breeze, and during the grand finale boat horns from all around us provided a strong applause that complimented our clapping and satisfaction with the Cuttyhunk show.

Well into the night and long after Eleanor fell asleep, I finally laid in my damp bunk and smiled with contentment for our day as lingering cordite wafted through our hatches.

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