It started, as so many of these things do, over a beer. At the time, a circumnavigation of Cape Cod sounded easy. After all, it’s our home territory.
That conversation took place sometime in 2003, and here we were last summer, still planning this epic voyage. Not that we hadn’t tried. Twice, SAIL editors had set off in Corsair F-24 trimarans borrowed from the Multihull Source in Wareham, Massachusetts. Twice, they were beaten back by contrary winds, ornery currents and dirty weather. On the first attempt, an all-female crew headed east from Wareham in a promising brisk southwesterly that faltered and died by the time they reached Chatham. At least they had a few good days cruising the south side of the Cape. A couple of years later an all-male crew set off clockwise, heading through the Cape Cod Canal toward Provincetown, which is as far as they got in what turned out to be a comedy of errors. At least they enjoyed some excellent seafood in Provincetown and Wellfleet.
Now here we were, ready to make an attempt in Ostara, our venerable Norlin 34 project boat, which sported a newish rig, new sails, recent electronics, a new autopilot and a reliable diesel engine. Would it be third time lucky?
A Cunning Plan
This time there was a twist in the plan. I wanted to make as few stops as possible. One reason was the difficulty of getting crew to commit to a 200-mile passage that would take several days. Another was that cramming a week’s cruise into two days would require as much planning as a much longer passage and would make an interesting exercise. There would be at least one night at sea; there would be tidal gates to contend with at the southern tip of the Cape and at notorious Woods Hole, so timing would be vital; current would be a factor at all times; there would be plenty of shipping to deal with; and then there was the wind, whose direction would determine which way we’d go around.
Should we go counter-clockwise? Leaving Salem Harbor, we’d sail south for the Cape Cod Canal, enter Buzzards Bay, slip past the Elizabeth Islands at Woods Hole, then head east past Nantucket through Nantucket Sound before turning north, popping the kite, and running up the outside of the Cape for a relaxing ride home. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. The prevailing wind in summer is from the southwest. After a tiring beat to the canal, which we would have to transit on a fair tide, we would likely be greeted by wind-over-tide chop at the western end of the canal where it’s not unusual for winds to exceed 25 knots on summer afternoons. I’ve heard tales of boats our size sliding backward down the standing waves there. Then there is Woods Hole, where an easy transit depends on the state of the tide. And even if we headed into Nantucket Sound with the tide under us, the prospect of negotiating the Pollock Rip channel with a stiff southwesterly churning up a west-streaming current was far from appealing.
I decided on a clockwise circumnavigation, if possible. Given a fair wind for the long haul across Massachusetts Bay and down the outer Cape, plus timing our departure to arrive at Pollock Rip and Woods Hole at the optimum state of tide, we should have little trouble. This plan would require wind in the north or east for at least 24 hours; if it went into the southwest once we’d entered Buzzards Bay, so much the better, as the canal runs more or less west-east.
The Plot Thickens
Much of the summer of 2009 had slipped by in a blur of wet weekends and domestic obligations before we could firm up dates. Old sailing friends Patrick and Ellie Doyle tentatively agreed to come along for the ride; we’d done a couple of Marblehead-Halifax races together so I knew they’d be good company. Rick Williams, another sailing friend from Marblehead, took the fourth crew spot. Ordinarily I’d happily undertake a long coastal passage doublehanded, but this ambitious agenda called for well-rested eyes on deck.
In the last week of August, everything came together. A trough of low pressure was forecast to elbow its way through New England on Monday, August 31, bringing with it 12- to 20-knot northwesterly winds that would veer north and then north-northeast before going farther into the east as a high-pressure system developed on Wednesday. By then we expected to be clear of the canal and heading north again.
The writing was on the bulkhead; we could wait a long time for another such opportunity. We slipped our mooring at 0930 on Monday morning, set the kite to make the most of the 15 knots of northerly breeze, and were on our way. Soon enough, though, the wind subsided and we replaced the kite with the iron genny and the autopilot. We wanted to be through the Pollock Rip Channel at the tip of Monomoy, the long chain of sandbanks off Chatham, around the time the ebb started at 0145 (in order to arrive at Woods Hole as the tide turned northwest), and there was no time to waste. As the sun inched toward the horizon we puttered past the white-sand beaches of Race Point, watching whales break the surface.
I’ve sailed down the outside of the Cape a half-dozen times and encountered almost every wind combination except the light northerly we experienced that night. It was a beautiful evening. The waning moon’s reflection shimmered on the water as we plugged south at a lazy 5 knots, following a string of waypoints Ellie had keyed in to the GPS to keep us a respectable distance off the beach. The last of these was just off the entrance to the channel at Pollock Rip, the ever-changing sandbar that almost ended the Mayflower’s voyage.