I would not like to be at the eastern entrance to Pollock Rip in an onshore gale. The channel is clearly marked and well lit, and the lights are easy enough to follow; but I don’t enjoy places like this, full of sneaky cross-currents, shifting sandbars, and featureless, rapidly shoaling shorelines. All it takes is a little fog, a bit too much wind, a moment’s inattention, and all of a sudden the depth alarm is bleeping and your hair is standing on end. We’d timed it well. The current was just turning against us by the time we scurried through, eyes glued to the depth sounder, diesel hammering, taking back bearings on the lights to avoid being set out of the channel. I prefer to stem the tide a little going through an unfamiliar channel, even if it means going slowly; if you do make a mistake, at least you won’t have a couple of knots of current pushing you onto the bricks.
Then Nantucket Sound opened up ahead of us. A spanking breeze from the northeast came up with the sun, and soon we were galloping along at close to 7 knots under genoa, 6 knots over the ground allowing for the knot of foul current. To port, sails were being set as the early birds left Martha’s Vineyard. Ahead of us lay notorious Woods Hole, where the tide sluices through a narrow, crooked channel at up to 5 knots and where there’s no turning back once you’re committed. We’d planned to arrive there at slack water, but the adverse current slowed us; by the time we were heading into the channel, me with my eyes saucer-wide and a death grip on the wheel, the tide was ebbing fast into Buzzards Bay and we were helpless in its grip, making maybe 8 knots over the ground. A tug and barge came the other way at a crucial moment, water seething at their bows, but it turned left into the harbor and somehow we shot out the other side in one piece. Only then could I appreciate my shipmates’ cheerful anecdotes about assorted acquaintances who’d come to grief there.
It’s All Downhill From Here
There’s one thing you can be sure of about Buzzards Bay in the summer: wind. It was still in the north, and we sheeted in the sails and enjoyed a cracking beat up the bay toward the Cape Cod Canal, which bisects the Cape and carries almost all the traffic heading into and out of Massachusetts Bay. We were on schedule to arrive at the canal as the tide turned eastward; the current runs at 4 knots and there is no point in a typical sailboat trying to stem it. Sails stowed, we rode the current through the 17-mile canal in a couple of uneventful hours in the light weekday traffic.
Now it was decision time: keep going and complete a nonstop circumnavigation, or take a break at Sandwich, the small harbor just inside the eastern entrance of the canal? None of us had had much sleep, and the prospect of showers, cold beer and a restaurant meal was much more enticing than an 8-hour slog—not to mention the forecast for the following day, which promised a southerly breeze to carry us home. No contest. At 1600 on Tuesday, 30 1/2 hours after leaving our mooring, we were snugged up in a slip in Sandwich marina.
The last stretch of any voyage is often the one that sticks in the mind, either for its when-will-we-get-there tedium or for a pleasant sail that is a fitting end to a fine break. There was scarcely a breath of wind when we left the slip to fill up with diesel at 0800, and it wasn’t until we’d motored slowly north for two hours, semi-dozing as the autopilot did its work, that Patrick detected a tickle of breeze. In short order the spinnaker was up, the engine was off, and we cruised the last 30 miles at a lazy 5 knots, yarning and yawning in the cockpit while the autopilot steered. On one of those rare days when the wind goes out of its way to be helpful, we carried the kite to within a couple of hundred yards of the mooring, which we picked up at 1730, still on a high from two excellent days of sailing in glorious New England summer weather.
Our circumnavigation had taken 56 hours, of which 16 were spent in the Sandwich marina. Strangely, everything had gone to plan. That’s rare for any coastal cruise, much less one that depended so much on timing. I got some odd looks when I told people what we’d done: “Circling Cape Cod in two days? Seems kinda pointless.” Well, yes. That was the point, actually.
This voyage was a great excuse to reawaken dormant passage-planning and pilotage skills, in particular those relating to tidal gates—these being “a place where the tide runs with great velocity, such as through a gate.”
There were three such gates on our route—Pollock Rip, Woods Hole, and the Cape Cod Canal. Failing to arrive at any at the right time would have meant either agonizingly slow progress or anchoring to await a favorable tide.
This means there is no place for sailing purism if you are on a schedule of any kind. On this trip, if our boatspeed dropped below 5 knots, the engine went on. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes had to shorten sail and slow down to avoid arriving at a gate too soon.
Any cruiser in tidal waters must know how to use a current chart and tide tables. We could not have planned this cruise so easily without our copy of the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book, an essential reference for East Coast sailors. Other regions have their own equivalents.
It’s important to identify a few harbors in which you can take refuge should the weather turn nasty. On the first day, we could have ducked into Provincetown for shelter had the northeasterly wind increased in strength. The long leg down the Cape offered nowhere to hide; traversing Pollock Rip in a gale would be far too interesting an experience for most of us, and the Nantucket Shoals are waiting to gobble you up to the south. Best to pick your weather window and get through it as quickly as possible.
Once into Nantucket Sound, the choices multiplied. We could have ducked into Great Harbor on Nantucket, or Edgartown or Vineyard Haven on Martha’s Vineyard, or headed for Hyannis. In Buzzards Bay, there is a multiplicity of havens to choose from.
Wherever you sail, you’ll face questions and decisions like these, and as long as you’re aware of your options and how to take advantage of them you should have no problems.