The Cuttyhunk Island Running Aground Experience

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 Illustration by Steve Sanford

Illustration by Steve Sanford

I had planned a six-day family cruise with my wife and two daughters on Dreamer, our new Catalina 36 Mark II. This was the fourth sailboat I had owned and sailed on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, each bigger and more seaworthy than its predecessor.

Sailing out of Warwick, Rhode Island, we are fortunate to have some great cruising destinations nearby in Narragansett Bay and Buzzards Bay. The first stop on our cruise was the picturesque and tranquil speck of land called Cuttyhunk Island. It is the most southwesterly of the Elizabeth islands off Woods Hole, Massachusetts. A long, narrow, beach-lined inlet leads into the harbor. The amenities on this scenic island don’t include much more than a couple of small inns, a store for basic kitchen supplies and a bakery. Still, it’s a safe haven for small craft, and on a summer afternoon the small dredged-out center of its harbor is full of moored sailboats. Among them, it is not uncommon to see a non-vertical mast, indicating a sailor who has drifted outside the dredged center and is aground in the shallows, having the “Cuttyhunk experience.” I can’t imagine a more interesting and special island.

A 16-knot southerly breeze carried us comfortably on a close reach to Cuttyhunk on our first day. We arrived late in the afternoon and were elated to pick up the last mooring inside the well-protected harbor—many times I have had to retreat to a less protected mooring or the anchorage, which is located outside the harbor and exposed to the northeast. We fired up the grill and settled in for a peaceful evening.

Our plan for the second day was to sail through the Wood’s Hole channel and on to a mooring I had reserved in Edgartown Harbor, Martha’s Vineyard. However, since my all-female crew had depleted our freshwater tanks taking showers, I wanted to replenish at the dock before leaving Cuttyhunk. Without using a lot of forethought or prudence, I rushed straight toward the dock and promptly stopped dead in the shallows. Now I was the spectacle.

After trying to maneuver out, I resolved to use the tried and true technique of kedging. With all the dignity I could muster, I loaded my anchor and chain into the dinghy and set out to show everyone in the harbor how it’s done. I connected the anchor rode to my spinnaker halyard and winched it in, amazed that my anchor held while my 14,000lb boat heeled over until the keel came free. I gave the engine a little throttle and motored clear of the shallows, completely oblivious to the problems that lay ahead.

Feeling proud of my use of skills, I set about retrieving the anchor. “Boy, that Danforth dug in well!” I said to myself as I cranked on the halyard and the boat heeled over some 30 degrees with the anchor rode as taut as a violin string. As reality set in, I realized the anchor was hooked onto something immovable. I was having the Cuttyhunk experience and then some. Now what?

My fear of diving down into the unknown, especially considering the forces at play, began to take over. Without taking enough time to deliberate every option, I went right to the extreme and cut my anchor free. I can feel the pain from its loss to this day! Nonetheless, after that it was on to Martha’s Vineyard—or so I thought. As I motored into a headwind and out of the channel, I noticed the engine temperature rising. Uh-oh, I thought, as I realized that racing the engine while aground in shallow water must have caused its intake to clog with seaweed. Now I struggled to run the engine slow enough to not overheat, but fast enough into the headwind to exit the channel and clear the rock breakwater on each side—a true nail-biter of a dilemma if ever there was one. Luckily, I made it.

As my pulse slowed down, I set sail for Woods Hole and then on to Edgartown. A beautiful south wind shot us to the Vineyard in no time. Entering the harbor, I hailed the harbormaster, confirmed my mooring assignment for the night and then turned upwind toward our next respite. Again my pulse quickened as I noticed the engine temperature rising. It was a struggle to balance upwind progress with not overheating, but at last we made it to the mooring. Now we could rest, be calm and appraise our situation.

First, I dove under the boat, but I found little seaweed at the intake. After some disassembly, I also found no blockage in either the strainer or water pump. It must be in the heat exchanger. Further investigation would have to wait.

Regrettably, I had not equipped my new boat with a second anchor and rode before my first voyage. So, yes, believe it or not I now I had a poorly running engine, no anchor and a very long sail home. Of course, my original plan to sail to Nantucket Harbor and drop anchor there was out of the question as well. Luckily, even on a busy Fourth of July weekend, the Edgartown harbormaster allowed us to keep the mooring we were on for two more nights. What a relief, as I didn’t have to move! It also gave me time to order another anchor and chain, and have them delivered by the ferry from Falmouth. My options were increasing again.

On day five our plan was to inch out of Edgartown Harbor under power and sail back to Cuttyhunk. This time we would cross the Elizabeth Islands at Quick’s Hole, a well-marked channel that nonetheless required my full attention under sail. For this I enlisted the help of my wife at the helm and my oldest daughter on one of the winches. It took a few well-executed tacks to clear the channel and not become a permanent resident of Pasque Island.

The thought of navigating Cuttyhunk’s long entrance under sail was too daunting for me to take the risk. Sometimes the seas outside the harbor can be uncomfortable and restless, thanks to a long fetch to the northeast, but this time the wind stayed southerly and allowed for a comfortable anchorage. We dropped our new hook outside the channel and then prepared the best of what we had left for dinner. Everything we had in the cooler went on the grill for our last night out. We’d had several anxious times, but we still survived our vacation and enjoyed great sailing.

In the morning we were pleasantly surprised to find that same southerly breeze blowing for us, giving us a comfortable reach all the way to Brenton Reef and then a run up Narragansett Bay and home to Warwick.

In the following days, I cleaned the seaweed out of my engine cooling system, bought a second and third anchor and rode, and reflected that every sailor has made mistakes, some embarrassing, that he or she has learned from. I had been in too much of a hurry and I compromised our safety. I learned to always plan for the unexpected, and anticipate problems. And I resolved to never make the same mistake twice.

Thomas Bozzi grew up sailing in Rhode Island around Narragansett Bay. He has owned a series of increasingly larger boats, and enjoys cruising the coastal islands of Block Island, Cuttyhunk, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket with family and friends

Read more sailing experiences here.

August 2015

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