A July 2002 trip
to Nantucket by Ellum Enopee
Quote: Ever wonder what it’s like to lose your lines and take to the seas? We experienced the highs and lows of ‘living the dream’ last summer when we took our 38-foot sailboat on our annual cruising adventure to Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and the Long Island Sound.
En route to Black Rock, we listened in on a rescue attempt. A man had fallen off his speedboat, leaving only his terrified wife on board. She called the Coast Guard on the radio for help. They asked her to state her position so they could find the boat. She said they were just outside of Great Neck harbor. They then asked her to provide a more specific position (meaning latitude and longitude), and she responded, "I’m in the Sound!" The Sound, of course, is over a hundred miles long! I would never make light of a story like this if it didn’t have a happy ending. The husband, who had quite sensibly fallen overboard with his lifejacket on, managed to make his own way back onto the boat. He got on the radio, sounding mortified, and let the Coast Guard know he was safe. They immediately asked him to call in on his cell phone to provide "details" of his adventure. That’s official-speak for "a tongue-lashing." I’m sure his wife got one too when he got off the phone.
When cruising the Sound, your options to tie up for the night tend to be either busy Long Island fishing villages or blue-blood Connecticut hamlets. But there is an exception to every rule, and we always seem to find it. We overnighted in Black Rock, a suburb of Bridgeport, CT that is best known for having an even higher crime rate than Bridgeport itself. We found an isolated pocket of safety and urban renewal in the form of a marina/entertainment complex called Captain’s Cove. It was quite a blast to tie up to the dock to the sound of live music and shouting revelers! Inside the Cove’s main building, we found all sorts of boating memorabilia (including a replica of the Titanic), every fried fish product ever created, and a busy nightclub upstairs overlooking the water. We took our salads and fried goodies back to the boat and ate in the cockpit, accompanied by icy cold beers from our refrigerator.
On Monday, I went back to work while my fearless single-handing husband sailed the boat as far as Groton, CT, just shy of the Massachusetts border. He found a great marina off Pine Island and grabbed a mooring there. Monday night I made the 3-hour drive by car to meet him and we spent the night on the boat. It's amazing how in a car, you can do in 3 hours what took two days on a sailboat.
That completed the first leg of our journey. We drove home in the morning and the boat waited patiently for us while we went back to work, visited family, and suffered through the appallingly hot and humid July 4 holiday. It may sound like a good idea to be on a sailboat in those conditions, but trust me, it isn’t. Totally unsuitable sailing weather!
Fortunately it wasn’t too late to alter course, so we headed instead for Menemsha, a quiet fishing town on the west end of Martha's Vineyard. We had the unique pleasure of approaching the famous multicolored Gay Head cliffs (recently returned to its indigenous name of Aquinnah by some local Bureau of Politically Correct Renaming) just as sunset was starting to touch up their already startling colors. Menemsha’s few marinas were sold out, but a few moorings were still up for grabs in the Bight, a marginally sheltered cove just outside the harbor. The current had turned against us, creating some nasty rough chop for us to struggle through. Still, after a few hearty attempts (which included the tragic loss of our boat hook) we managed to grab a mooring with a nice view of the beach. Note to self: never buy a non-floating boat hook again!
Next challenge: how to get to shore without a dinghy. Larger harbors generally have one or two launch services, (small powerboats that ferry people to and from their boats for a modest fee,) but Menemsha wasn’t built for visiting boaters. So we got into our bathing suits and t-shirts, stuffed our money and credit cards into a plastic bag, grabbed our horseshoe lifebuoy, and prepared for a swim. Just as we were descending the stern ladder (literally!), the harbormaster arrived to collect our fee for the mooring. We sweet-talked him into taking us back to shore with him. This meant we didn’t have to drip dry on the beach! So after a delicious dinner and some locally made fudge, we headed back to the beach to watch the end of one of Menemsha’s famous sunsets. A simple, modest wedding ceremony was taking place by the water. Kids made sand castles and couples nestled on blankets. When the sun was nearly down we each grabbed a side of the lifebuoy, took a deep breath, and waded into the brisk surf. After the first few minutes of struggling against the current, we had made some modest progress toward the boat, and attracted the attention of several people on shore. When we finally climbed back on board, dripping and exhilarated, applause and cheers rose up from the beach and several neighboring boats sounded their horns in recognition of the wacky swimmers!
In the morning we set sail for Vineyard Haven, where we picked up a mooring and headed into town with our folding bikes snugly secured in the launch. Vineyard Haven is one of three towns on the Vineyard that are most frequented by tourists. If Oak Bluffs is for the young and noisy, and Edgartown for the old and wealthy, then Vineyard Haven is somewhere in between. We spent a fun-filled weekend there: we biked around the island, attended an old-fashioned ice cream social, and enjoyed pricey but delicious meals everywhere we went. Only one mishap befell us on the Vineyard. One afternoon, as we raced home from Edgartown on our bikes under darkening skies, the weather got ahead of us. We couldn’t catch a launch back to the boat in time to "batten down the hatches" before a rainstorm moved in and doused the boat through its open portholes. (Happily the "v-berth", where we sleep, was spared.) But the following day was sunny and glorious - we left the hatches open again and it was as dry and fresh as ever when we got back that night.
On another bike ride around the island, we saw nesting ospreys with their chicks, and bought made-from-scratch lemonade from some enterprising youngsters on the side of one of the many bike paths. One afternoon we took the car ferry (an antiquated contraption that must be seen to be believed, and can only carry 3 cars at a time!) to Chappaquiddick and biked to a beautiful remote beach overlooking the Nantucket Sound, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch. No signs of any Kennedys but we did see Ted Kennedy’s infamous bridge! Hard to believe anyone could drive off it OR drown in such shallow water.
The cost of our slip ended up being equally extravagant at $4 per foot per night – the most expensive slip we’d ever seen, beating the record held by the Trump Marina in Atlantic City, where the fee included use of the hotel spa and exercise room. We decided to make the most of our night in the lap of luxury and then move to a mooring (which itself broke the ‘Most Expensive Mooring ever’ record and included nothing in the way of services!) the next day.
Our two and a half days on Nantucket were postcard perfect. Threatened rainstorms never arrived, and we enjoyed extravagant brunches, delightful browsing in the shops of Main Street, and an excellent guided walking tour of the town led by a staffer from the historical society. We visited the Whaling museum, where a storyteller gave a rousing account of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex, which was rammed by a sperm whale and sank. This, of course, was the true story upon which Herman Melville based his story Moby Dick. Melville spared us the sad story of the crew, many of whom starved to death or died of exposure (or worse, were unhappy victims of cannibalism) as they languished for months in their lifeboats.
A visit to the Historical Society proved fascinating. I was there on a mission, so my resourceful sidekick decided to research the history of his maternal relatives on Nantucket and instead found a wonderful privately printed history of his paternal family. As for me, I learned all I could about the Straight Wharf Theater, a much-beloved theater founded in the ‘40s that burned down in a fire in the mid-‘70s. My grandmother spent a summer season there directing plays, and while I couldn’t find anything in the archives about her, I did find her good friend Charles Goff’s picture smiling out of a 1959 Playbill for Hamlet. At the Peter Foulger museum, we wandered through a special exhibit on the unlucky and now defunct Nantucket railroad, an early contributor to the tourism boom on Nantucket Island that survived almost 40 years of hardship but ultimately succumbed to the elements – and the increasing popularity of motorcars – in 1917. If you purchase a package admission ticket to the Whaling and Foulger museums, the walking tour is thrown in for free – a great value!
While it’s impossible to find an internet café in Martha’s Vineyard, we found one in Nantucket at the Even Keel restaurant, who provided laptops equipped with wireless LAN cards so you can browse the net at your table over lunch. Prices, like everything else on Nantucket, were exorbitant - $8 for 15 minutes! The Even Keel serves a delicious brunch and is very vegetarian-friendly, but service is slow when they’re busy, and the waiters comically inexperienced.
One day we took our bikes to the quiet community of Madaket, on the Western end of Nantucket, and went for a long walk on the end of the island. We found shearwater nests dug into the cliff sides and had the beach largely to ourselves. Too tired to walk back, we were grateful for Nantucket’s efficient public bus system, which runs everywhere you’d want to go and can accommodate up to two bicycles on a rack on its front bumper. One evening we visited the Gaslight Movie Theater, which was showing the dark French drama "L’Emploi du Temps (Time Out)." We browsed the racks at Murray’s Toggery Shop and managed to resist buying a timeless classic, like matching pairs of bright yellow golf shorts with blue whales on them. Murray’s is the quintessential spot to buy the famous Nantucket Reds, which are pants, shorts, or even skirts in a cheery red fabric that quickly fades with washing to a signature pink. Only on Nantucket will you find more men wearing pink than women.
Biking around the island, we visited the Jared Coffin house (the oldest house in Nantucket, circa 1686) and an old gaol (sorry, jail) still sporting its original handmade metal bars over the windows.
While we were basking in the charm of cobble-stoned streets and wind-swept beaches, Mother Nature had been busy whipping up some daunting weather. So when on Wednesday morning at 3:30am we dragged ourselves up on deck to prepare for our sail to Provincetown, we found three feet of chop in the harbor (one of the most well-protected harbors in the Northeast, mind you!) One could only imagine how much worse conditions were outside it. Maybe it was the chop, maybe it was the gross injustice that it we were awake at 3:30am during our vacation, darn it! but we decided to go back to sleep, head into town for a nice brunch, and head for the south shore of Cape Cod on the afternoon tide instead – a much shorter trip.
The sail was rough but worth it, as we arrived just in time to rent a car so we could DRIVE to P’town the following morning. Have I mentioned how much faster driving is than sailing? We opted for a quick trip to Woods Hole to see the sights, buy a t-shirt at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Society, and have an excellent vegetarian dinner at a restaurant called, improbably, the FishMonger.
The following day found us en route to Hyannis, where we did a quick drive-by of the JFK Museum and had a beautifully-spiced Indian meal in town. We arrived in P’town in the early afternoon to the distressing news that the winds and waves we had been struggling with the day before had caused one whale-watching boat to turn back that morning. Undeterred, we signed up for an afternoon trip and spent the next few hours wandering the streets, amazed at the number of buffed, shirtless men who seemed oblivious to the chillingly cold winds. We found everything from WW II gas masks to bridal gowns in the endless array of stores.
The whale-watching trip went on as planned, despite entreaties by the crew to avail ourselves of the free Dramamine they’d provided. By the time we got out of the maze-like channel of P’town harbor, the seas had calmed considerably as we sped six miles north of the harbor to the Stellwagen Bank. This Marine Sanctuary was once a sandy hill standing well above water, but melting glaciers buried it under the sea long ago. You can actually see the boundaries of the sanctuary in the form of a white-ish curve in the water’s surface. Seeing whales there is almost a sure thing, and see them we did, although in lower numbers than usual, according to a few ‘regulars’ on our boat. We were relieved to have passed on the Dramamine; the woman next to us who took it ended up taking a nap, and didn’t even bother to get up when a mother and baby finback whale surfaced repeatedly not ten feet from our boat, providing a stunning finale to our voyage. "Mom" was 75 feet long and "Baby" apparently eats enough plankton to gain 75 pounds a day.
After whale watching we went back for more people watching, and were not disappointed. The Friday night festivities were just beginning, and a full complement of drag queens were out and about, including the all-male singing group "Drag-a-pella," who were dressed in bright, tight florals, sporting '50s-style girl-group hairdos, and singing their own praises in four-part harmony. We were tempted to stick around for their 9pm show, but we had a long drive back to Falmouth ahead and decided to leave.
Our second day in Cape Cod was devoted to a different kind of water: the great Salt Marsh at Nauset. We took a guided canoe excursion offered by the Parks Service and set about exploring as much as we could before the tide went out and left us beached in the mud. The highlight of this adventure was the discovery of countless pairs of mating horseshoe crabs in the shallow water. We had no idea that the male horseshoe crab is about half the size of the female, or that they can’t actually hurt you with that big scary pointy-looking prong on the end of their shells.
The park ranger told us that a local pharmaceutical company has found a way to use the blood of horseshoe crabs to test the effects of new products. Horseshoe crab blood seems to respond very quickly to different chemicals – much faster, in fact, than the equivalent response in most lab animals. The company told the park service that they have figured out a way to extract some blood for testing without killing the crab, and can then return them to the wild. This could save time, money, and the lives of many lab animals if it can be proven that is not harmful to the horseshoe crabs – which are actually somewhat rare worldwide despite their seeming abundance in the Northeast. They simply don’t exist anywhere else but our stretch of coast. Not many studies have been done on horseshoe crabs before, so the park service has to date been unable to assess the impact this could have on the crab population. They have temporarily banned collection of horseshoe crabs in state-owned land until more research can be done.
We went to bed early that night, in order to be well rested for our early (4am) departure for Pine Island the following morning. With everything stowed and tucked away belowdecks, we were ready to brave the famed tidal rips of "The Race" first thing in the morning.
The following Friday morning we returned to Pine Island to pick up the boat. You know what they say about the best-laid plans, though. We started up the engine and noticed that there was no water coming out of the raw water exhaust pipe on the stern. This is bad, very bad. Diesel engines will run until they melt if you don’t cool them with water. We hastily shut off the engine and spent the next few hours taking strainers and pumps apart until we found the culprit, a sea strainer stuffed to bursting with local sea grass. Better the strainer than the engine – but in order to make the necessary repairs, we had to row the dinghy to shore and make a trip to West Marine for parts.
West Marine didn’t have the right gasket, so we drove to Old Lyme, CT instead, where we bought spare parts and treated ourselves to brunch at "Pat’s Kountry Kitchen" (famous for their clam hash, believe it or not, which was ordered and deemed inedible by my adventurous spouse. Being a vegetarian, I fortunately carry a "Get out of culinary experiment free Card" with me at all times.)
After fixing the engine, we set sail for Branford, CT, a respectable distance from Groton. Branford’s harbor is terrifyingly shallow, with a narrow channel cut through it which itself is only 6 feet deep. By way of comparison, our boat’s keel extends four and a half feet into the water. I think we each sprouted 10 or 20 white hairs on the way in. Because we were planning an early departure in the morning, our hosts let us tie up at the fuel dock for the night – much easier than negotiating our way into a tiny slip meant for a much smaller fishing boat. No moorings in Branford – I suspect the harbor is just too small!
We turned in early after a shower and brisk 10mn walk to the nearest restaurant (a surprisingly good pizza and Italian food place) and departed on schedule at 4am. If the harbor had been terrifying the day before it was ten times as much so in the dark, with an assortment of flippantly named rocks (Little Mermaid comes to mind) to dodge in addition to the aforementioned shallows. We avoided all the mermaids but were less lucky when it came to the near-invisible unlighted Red Buoy #4, with which we expertly collided en route to lighted Red Buoy #6. The resulting ‘thunk’ on our hull easily caused another 20-30 white hairs to appear instantly on each of our heads. Fortunately our hull is tough, and the only damage was an embarrassing red paint mark that we will remove at our earliest opportunity.
We had allowed plenty of time to get all the way home, but fate was not on our side this time. We got as far as Stamford, CT by mid-morning, but alas, the Long Island Sound was busily filling up with water from the Atlantic. The East River serves as a giant, narrow funnel which can get 4-5 knots of aggressively flowing current at peak – and given that our engine doesn’t like to go more than 5 knots, there was no way we were going to try to do battle with it. So we pulled over in Larchmont NY, where the venerable and ancient Larchmont Yacht Club was holding its annual (since 1880!) Race Week.
The club was overrun with teenagers carrying dagger boards, life jackets, and all manner of sailing paraphernalia. But as tempting as it was to take advantage of our sudden "membership" in one of the Northeast’s most exclusive sailing clubs, we had no time to watch, and our own race to run: back to Pine Island to get the Jeep, then back home, then back to Larchmont to get the boat, then back to our marina. This last bit took three and a half scenic hours, including the always-harrowing dash across busy New York Harbor, which entails dodging the Staten Island ferry, smaller ferries, cruise ships, tugboats pushing barges, and a maniacal speedboat called The Beast that specializes in taking tourists on really really fast rides. But we dodged them all once again, and pulled the boat into her slip, where we gave her a good scrubbing, then jumped on a train back to Larchmont to retrieve the Jeep. Home, sweet marina!
New York, New York