On a recent weekend we got a chance to sail away for a few days, leave Martha’s Vineyard and its drama (an approaching Presidential visit and the August summer in full swing) behind.
Nantucket Sound is a wonderful place to get away. You’re never away from the sight of land. Sailing across the 650 square mile inland sea is like being in the ocean without the huge rollers that can be experienced only a few miles away.
We sailed away in an 18-foot catboat, Cat’s Meow, designed in an earlier century, held together today with modern fiberglass, carbon fiber, aluminum spars and one Dacron sail, to West Dennis for a gathering of catboat owners.
The sail out of Edgartown harbor was perfect. A northwest breeze got us nearly all the way out on the same port tack. We left the dock at 8:30 in the morning, dodging between the two Chappaquiddick ferries at about four knots. We were off Cape Pogue lighthouse an hour later, alone, amid every shade of blue and light seas.
Well before we got to the waters off Hyannis, we saw the little city’s bustling boat traffic. Hyannis is busy, the home of ferryboats, fast ferries, and speedboats. It has a roaring summer community, and every summer we hear amazing reports about how crowded the roads get.
To our south, we saw the Cape Wind weather observation tower, looking like a pencil sticking out of the water.
It was a pleasant thought to think Martha’s Vineyard would host President Obama and his family’s week-long vacation. The community wass anxious, the conversations with our neighbors either beginning or ending with an observation about what the Island would be like when the President arrived.
These waters, too, have hosted Presidents, whether accustomed to the sea or not.
In my lifetime, Presidential presence on the Island began when John Kennedy sailed Nantucket Sound. Then, of course, while a journalist for the Vineyard Gazette, President Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea came to the Vineyard for eight consecutive summers, boating with the Kerrys and the Kennedys.
Catboats don’t point well into the wind, and they don’t go fast; roughly five knots is the most one can expect. For those who choose to take a catboat by the helm, how the trip unfolds is defined first by the boat. There is no rush while in a catboat.
The wind gave out about five miles south of the Bass River entrance. With our four-horsepower outboard named Sparky, we puttered in.
Catboat owner Paul Cook was on the cell phone with us, giving directions to our destination, the West Dennis Yacht Club. Once there, we found 21 other catboats and if you count their wives, a lot more than 21 captains.
We found the Vineyard was very much a part of the catboat rendezvous, even on the Cape.
Bill Mullin of Barnstable owns a catboat named Old Sculpin, a Vineyard name. His boat was built by the Old Sculpin, Manuel Swartz Roberts, in 1912 at his shop in Edgartown. Today, that boat shop is the home of the Old Sculpin art gallery. I sailed in Mr. Mullin’s boat close to a decade ago with its previous owner, Alan Symonds of North Water street and Cuttyhunk. At the helm, Mr. Symonds took me out for a catboat race just off from the Edgartown lighthouse. It was a Vineyard catboat rendezvous.
We saw Bill Sayles in his catboat Pinkletink, built in 1932 by Herbert F. Crosby. Pinkletink once belonged to John Leavens and his wife and sailing partner, Pinky Leavens. The couple spent 47 summers in Chilmark. In 1962, John Leavens founded the Catboat Association.
On Saturday, all 22 catboats raced, and like the day before, the wind gave out. We spent the whole day out of view of the Vineyard, but were reminded of her constantly as we sailed amid the air and wake of Old Sculpin and Pinkletink.
The highlight of the visit to the West Dennis Yacht Club wasn’t the racing, or the sailing. It was the fellowship of catboat owners.
The trip home to the Vineyard on Sunday morning was first colored by an eggs and bacon breakfast prepared by the sailors, and instructive help was received from the catboat captains. Paul Cook, a friend from Bass River, made sure the gas tank for Sparky was full, should the wind give out as it did on Friday. Others helped us plot a safe course away from the shallow and rocky waters south of the Point Gammon lighthouse in West Yarmouth. The Point Gammon rock and mortar lighthouse marks a spit of land that protrudes dangerously into the Sound.
Two miles south of the point, there is the Bishop and Clerks ledge, another treacherous shallow spot marked permanently by a weather and wave beaten lighthouse. To get home, sailing near the shore, we chose to safely sail between the two lighthouses.
The morning’s southeast wind wouldn’t allow us to retrace our trip back to the Vineyard, so our planned course was altered. Our returning trip was similar only in that it was again on a port tack. Sea and wind conditions were different: more dramatic. The wind was blowing south-southeast, and the sky and seas turned to every shade of gray as the waves rolled, rising to two to three feet.
We passed the Cape Wind weather tower on our port and saw a 12-metre yacht sailing out of Edgartown harbor. The World Cup sailboat’s 90-foot mast was so high, we saw the sail before we saw the Vineyard behind it.
Our boat seemed smarter than we were, as it moved almost instinctively in and out of the valleys between the rising waves.
The sail home ended late Sunday afternoon with several tacks from Cow Bay to Edgartown harbor.
Our thoughts, our friendships and our navigation were perfectly juxtaposed this August weekend, but now it was time to return to finish up a busy Vineyard summer.