Skiff’s Island is back. The elusive island that sometimes resides southeast of the Vineyard may be making a comeback this winter.
The island is legendary. A number of ships have been lost to the treacherous waters of the Island or its shoals. While recreational anglers sometimes have caught their biggest fish next to it, there are other fishermen who are fearful of it, especially at night.
On Sunday, Jan. 13, Robert and Edith Potter of Chappaquiddick first witnessed the island’s reappearance when they went birdwatching at Wasque. Mrs. Potter said her husband are avid bird watchers, but they also pay attention to the natural affairs on and near Chappaquiddick. Mr. Potter saw huge waves breaking and their spray rising into the air, clear evidence that the sandbar and the little Island were back.
On Wednesday morning, Chris Kennedy flew over to Nantucket for the day on a Cape Air flight. He saw the little Island surrounded by turbulent seas.
The mystery of whether Skiff’s Island is coming back is partly fed by large changes that have taken place since Norton Point Beach has opened, allowing the ocean to flow in and out Katama Bay. The sands on the beach have shifted significantly, giving rise to the possibility that the sands just offshore are starting to rebuild the little island.
“I remember seeing the island back in the 1990s,” said David Belcher, The Trustees of Reservations superintendent for the organization’s Chappaquiddick properties. “At times it was as big as a football field.”
Record books in Mr. Belcher’s office show that in 1978, one of the interns was sent out to study the vegetation, including the possibility of beach plums, on the tiny island.
“In the 1990s, I could take a walk down the fishermen’s boardwalk with a pair of binoculars and count the seals that were on the island,” Mr. Belcher said. “I used to wonder whether all that sand coming from our beach was going out there.”
Blame it on weather, blame it on a storm. As magically as it appeared, the tiny island then disappeared again.
The Vineyard Gazette archives are rich in stories about ships that met their doom on the little island.
The five-masted schooner Marcus L. Urann, loaded with coal from Sewall Point, Va., ran aground on Skiff’s Island in September of 1913.
More recently, a red 71-foot sea scalloper called Midnight Rider with a crew of four ran aground at night on the island in June of 2006. The crew abandoned ship and were rescued by the Coast Guard late at night.
The vessel ended up drifting and washing up on Norton Point Beach where it sat for weeks and drew serious concerns about possible environmental harm from its loaded fuel tank.
“There is no question that captain ran his boat up close or onto Skiff’s Island on that night,” Mr. Kennedy said. “One can only imagine what the captain of that scalloper felt when he ran aground, thinking that he was in 100 feet of water.”
Nelson C. Smith of Edgartown, 83, believes that Skiff’s Island was pretty close to becoming a permanent fixture offshore until the mid-1950s.
“Foster Silva and Steve Gentle landed an airplane on it. In order to take off they deflated their tires,” Mr. Nelson said. “I think the 1954 hurricane finished it off.”
The little Island seems to have a special allure for pilots. In February of 1940, state Rep. Joseph A. Sylvia and pilot Phil Desmarias landed an airplane on the little Island to investigate the seal population. They were chased back into their plane by seals and made a treacherous takeoff, according to a Vineyard Gazette article.
Mr. Nelson, a retired charter fishing captain, has memories of fishing close to Skiff’s Island, for that is where the biggest fish gathered. To help his customers catch fish, the captain made a point of knowing where the sandbars were in that area.
At times he would fish so close to the Island that a wave entering his boat might deposit sand on the deck. From year to year, he would have to relearn the movement of the changing bottom.
Tall breaking waves on the shore and the shoal is the easiest way to spot the Island.
“My father used to call those waves breaking at Skiff’s Island bull breakers,” said Donny Benefit, a commercial Edgartown fisherman. Mr. Benefit said: “There is this way when two waves come together, the spray shoots straight up into the area. He said they were very dangerous.”
As a child, Mr. Benefit said, his father Joseph used to tell him stories. “He told me there was a fishing shack out there. It was always scary stories. I think he wanted me to stay away from the Island,” Mr. Benefit said.
Clay Merrill, an offshore rod and reel fisherman from Edgartown, operates a boat called Fish Finder. “I’ll tell you it is pretty scary there in the night and in the fog,” he said.
When coming in from offshore fishing for yellowfin tuna, he said he tries to stick to the buoys in Muskeget Channel rather than chance an encounter with Skiff’s Island. The channel runs north and south between Nantucket and the Vineyard.
The lore of the Island has been fed through the last century by newspaper articles. Joseph Chase Allen, who wrote the fishermen’s column in the Vineyard Gazette for 55 years as the Wheelhouse Loafer, used to say his offices were out on Skiff’s Island. That is where Mr. Allen, who died in 1981, said he opened his mail and replied to correspondents.
A New York Times writer describing the tragedy of the 1913 grounding of the schooner Marcus L. Urann, wrote: “Skiff’s Island has never given up a ship, but the wrecking tug Tasco is expected from New Haven tomorrow to try to save the Urann.”
A New Bedford newspaper article in 1910 describes the heroic rescuing of the crew of the 400-foot six-masted schooner Mertie B. Crowley, by Edgartown fishermen, lead by Levi Jackson. The headline reads: “Lost Island, Loss of Mertie B. Crowley Calls Attention to Mysterious Speck of Sand between Martha’s Vineyard and Muskeget — There Today Gone Tomorrow.”
The sinking took place on Jan. 23, 1910. Donny Benefit is related to one of the Edgartown fishermen, Eugene Benefit, who participated in the rescue in bitter cold. For his efforts, Eugene Benefit along with the others received a congressional medal.
If Skiff’s Island seems elusive, an even smaller chunk of sand just to its south also has made an appearance.
Everett (Porky) Francis, 68, is an Edgartown charter fishing captain with his own respect for those waters.
Years ago, when Skiff’s Island dominated the attention of his colleagues, he found another small spit of sand farther south and started fishing there. Among his colleagues, the spot earned his name. They called it Porky’s Island.
On a calm day, when the winds and current were just right, Mr. Francis said of Porky’s: “I used to take my 20-foot boat and land it on the west side of the Island. Then I would walk over to the other side and fish.”
At one point — Mr. Francis can’t recall when — he took government officials out to Skiff’s Island on a charter so they could establish the latitude and longitude of the wayward Island. Their intent was to establish the offshore state and federal boundary line.
Since federal waters begins three miles from the shore of land, using Skiff’s Island instead of Wasque resulted in expanding the state’s domain. Anyone with a government-approved navigational map will see that state waters extend five nautical miles from Wasque’s shoreline, for the measurement is based on the location of that mysterious disappearing Island.