As Finisterre boiled past New London, a long forgotten song began to run through my mind. "East of the sun and west of the moon," it went, and as I looked over the bow toward the squat stone lighthouse at the corner of Fishers Island, the words changed to "east of The Race and west of the Cape." Until that moment I had no handy way to describe my planless itinerary, embracing one of the most unique and delightful collections of little islands and coves and villages to be found in the world of sailing: the Elizabeth Islands, taking the charted name of the string under the uplifted arm of Cape Cod, or Vineyard Sound, if you chose to ignore the equal claims of rival bodies of water from Montauk to Monomoy—Block Island Sound, Nantucket Sound and Buzzards Bay.
As though pleased that the problem was solved, Finisterre put her shoulder down to a puff and sped toward The Race. Under us the water began to churn and spin into giant whorls, silent reminder of the power of the sea. Twice each 24 hours, millions upon millions of tons of water surge from the open Atlantic Ocean into Long Island Sound, running westward toward Manhattan, flowing through the arteries into the smallest capillaries, refreshing and revivifying every foot of shoreline. Then with clocklike regularity the cycle reverses, and the buoys begin to lean the other way as the tide rushes back out into the ocean.
We had caught the ebb just right, and Finisterre shot through The Race like an arrow from a bow. A crisp northwest breeze leaned against the sails above, while the current gripped the keel below, both hurrying us in the same direction. As the elements were in accord, there were none of the steep, breaking waves that sometimes make the passage unhappy for small-boat voyagers; instead, the water ran with a deceptively glazed smoothness, only patches of roiled white showing the forces at work. Fishing boats circled, now barely stemming the tide, now spurting downstream, until suddenly the water changed color and character, and we were through, east of The Race.
Almost as suddenly there was a perceptible difference in the very air. For The Race is more than a tidal portcullis: it is a geographic and climatic boundary, as clearly defined as though Plum and Gull islands were walls reaching to the sky. Behind, there is a feeling of the hinterlands of Connecticut and New York, crowded, dusty and sometimes insufferably hot: people, noise, neons and clogged highways. Beyond, there is the feeling of the open sea, a chill tang in the shadow of the mainsail even though the sun may lie warm on bare shoulders at the wheel. Somehow this is part of the world of drifting ice, of long winter nights, of fog and rock and raging gales, just as the other side of The Race is the last stand of sand and rolling lowlands stretching all the way back to Florida.
July 21, 1963
As I lounged in the cockpit, keeping an eye on the luff of the jib, Finisterre responded as always to the open sea. There is something in the way she lifts to a long ocean swell that is different from the way she meets a chop, a reserve of power waiting, come what may. Now beyond the shelter of the shore, creaming wavelets slapped under the counter, riding the backs of a sea from an earlier southerly.
On the port hand was Fishers Island, summer haunt .of names symbolizing wealth and position, a narrow irregular bastion behind which lay another exit from Long Island Sound, a passage to be preferred to The Race in strong winds and a foul tide. And Fishers Island Sound is something of a cruising microcosm in itself, with two good harbors on the parent island, and the picturesque towns of Stonington and Mystic across, the former a fishing port maintaining its character, the latter through the Marine Museum probably the closest link with the Golden Age of Sail to be found outside English Harbour, on the faraway isle of Antigua.
To starboard, distant but visible, was the eastern tip of Long Island, culminating in Montauk Point. Under it I visualized Gardiners Island and the bay of the same name, flowing toward and around Shelter Island to join the Peconic bays, Great and Little, with such lovely nooks as Sag and Dering harbors—another little cruising world in itself, so remote yet so close to great population centers and not even requiring an open sea passage to attain. It is hard to think of any other area blessed with such variety for the boatman as the environs of New York City.
Yet despite these remembered blandishments Finisterre remained on course toward a smudge on the horizon that could only be Block Island. We 20th century voyagers were sailing in the wake of an almost forgotten little sloop named Onrust (Restless), under the command of Adriaen Block. That doughty Dutchman, too, had seen the smudge in 1614 and sailed toward it to an anchorage called Manisses by the Indians, thus endowing the island on future charts with his own name.
Block Island is shaped like a stingray swimming south, the head a steep bluff topped by the green, blinking eye of a lighthouse, the tail a long trailing reef, cause of many maritime tragedies. It smells of seaweed tempered by small shrubs clinging to damp earth. Gulls wheel and cry above creeping tendrils of fog and the wash of surf on the outlying rocks. Even the weathered shingle houses seem to huddle against the coming of savage winter gales. It is only when flying over in a small plane that another aspect appears, mute record of attempts to wrest the land from the sea. Patterning the surface are stone fences, monuments to Block Island pioneers who cleared fields in hope of establishing farms.
Modern sailors have an advantage not enjoyed by Adriaen Block. In the old days there was no shelter. Now there are two harbors, man-made, at opposite sides of the island and at opposite poles in character. To the west is Great Salt Pond, created by cutting a channel from a lake to open water. Extending over a mile into the land, bordered principally by rolling meadows, it has an air of spaciousness, of detachment from the hurrying throng. No matter how many boats may crowd in over a summer weekend, there is always a place to escape to anchor in solitude. Not so on the other side. The old harbor, held fast in the embrace of stone breakwaters, is pure Baltic or Mediterranean, boats moored to the quay; it is in turn the focal point of the community, rimmed by restaurants and shops oriented to fish and fishing. Rarely uncrowded, the old harbor can become so jammed when the swordfishing fleet is in that the water may be crossed dry-shod by stepping from one deck to another.
Anyone who doubts that boating has become a participation sport has only to arrive at Block Island in fair weather on a Saturday afternoon during the vacation season. Other sailing auxiliaries and assorted power vessels filed along with us, some with crow's nests for lookouts or outriggers, proclaiming them fishermen, others with TV antennas and an extra beer cooler on the afterdeck. There were small sloops equipped with awnings and sleeping bags, and outboard cruisers carrying entire families. Big boats, little boats, sail and power, we all converged to slip past the sandspit at the Coast Guard station and debouch into the spacious anchorage, fanning out to likely mooring spots as our fancies dictated.
Always, coming into a harbor, be it familiar or strange, I like to sit a few minutes in the cockpit and let the atmosphere seep into my soul, softening the transition from the sea to the land. It is a ritual best observed glass in hand, in this case preparing me for the Alice in Wonderland mixture I knew I would find ashore. For while Block Island has a quality of aloof loneliness—houses widely scattered except for the two settlements around the harbors—it also manages an air of complete improbability. Perhaps this stems from the rambling wooden hotels that dominate the urban landscape. In all stages of repair and disrepair, these faintly Victorian relics linger as reminders that people used to settle on a place for a holiday and stay put. Ghostly battalions of guests in rocking chairs look out over cast-iron deer browsing on lawns running to weed. These are harmless ghosts, but it is sometimes something of a shock to encounter the modern denizens of these establishments in force. "Schoolteachers," a sailing companion once commented mournfully, staring down into his beer. "Shoals of schoolteachers in slacks and bandannas." Not yet discovered, like Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket, by the current generation of resorters, Block Island has a feeling of being more remote than some islands of the Caribbean. Land may be had at bargain prices, as it is only recently that summer cottages have begun to appear.
Change, alas! is almost inevitable, I thought as I later made my annual pilgrimage by automobile to Old Harbor and Block Island Southeast Light, passing the freshwater ponds—95 shown in color on the detail chart, but natives swear there is one for every day of the year if you count them all; passing the tiny old cottages, covered by beach roses and honeysuckle, smelling, too, the pungent fields of bayberry and clover. Block Island has a genuine quality of its own, culminating in the magnificent view from the base of the lighthouse, of restless ocean stretching unbroken across to Land's End.
Change also may come to the restaurant of my friend Deadeye Dick, at the head of the ferry dock in Great Salt Pond. Already it has expanded to keep pace with postwar marina construction, but still it is a friendly informal establishment of plain furnishings and bustling waitresses, where a jukebox does not sound amiss, and where a man can still get jumbo lobsters on demand: beautiful scarlet warriors fresh from undersea grottos, worthy antagonists for a cruising appetite.
And after the repast came the comfort of a snug berth in a sheltered harbor. There is something touching about small boats clustered like sleeping birds for the night, each a separate entity, a conveyance of gentle escape from workaday problems. Rowing out in the dinghy, long, shimmering spears from riding lights were mirrored in the dark water, while a thin veil of cirrus cloud high overhead blurred the stars without hiding them. From afar came the faint moan of a whistle, too soft to disturb the fleet, for it seemed everyone slept.
In the golden morning light there were new color values in the harbor: blue hulls, red hulls, white hulls, yellow hulls, topped by flags drooping lazily, while beyond, gently rolling hills formed a pattern of brown and green, accented by dark stands of trees. Slowly life began to blossom on decks, here a straggler sipping coffee in the cockpit, there an energetic skipper wielding a swab, even a few tousled heads bobbing alongside for a morning swim.
But at 10 o'clock, as though by signal, the marine parade began in reverse, boat after boat dropping lines at the marina or hoisting anchor to make for the exit channel, much like twigs being swept along in a summer shower suddenly to disappear. Finisterre powered out as part of the procession, as for once the harbor breeze had failed to function. Great Salt Pond is one of those odd places that funnel and concentrate whatever wind might be blowing, so that prudent crews often reef before leaving, only to find a moderating breeze beyond the breakwater.
This time, though, nothing stirred outside, either. The bell buoy was mute as we passed, the automatic pilot set on course for the next buoy, beyond North Reef. Peacefully we putted past the scene of a tragedy famous in maritime lore, the wreck of the ship Palatine during a winter gale early in the 18th century. Bound for Philadelphia with Dutch immigrants, she had been driven far off course by successive storms; the crew had mutinied and forced the passengers to pay outrageous prices for food and water—over $50 for a biscuit, runs the tale. Some starved to death, others became walking skeletons. Then when land was sighted the crew deserted in the boats. The passengers tried to sail the Palatine to shelter but fetched up on North Reef—lured, some say, by misleading lights shown by the natives of Block Island. Hoisting sails is a good antidote to almost anything, and the thoughts of dark deeds were blown away by the first stirrings of a southerly breeze. With a faint murmur from bow and stern wave, Finisterre came round the corner at the buoy and again swung cast, a whole selection of harbors over the bow, with Cuttyhunk getting the nod when I plotted a course on the chart.
As the sun lifted, the breeze freshened, part of a local phenomenon called the Buzzards Bay sou'wester, a wind so regular in settled summer weather it is claimed you can set your watch by it. During the night the land cools, to warm again as the sun climbs; the heated air rises, and in sweeps cold air from the water. The clearer the upper sky of clouds and the less diluted the sunshine, the stronger becomes the wind, until some days it is very fresh indeed.
Gradually the wind rose and, as it did, a haze gathered, another local phenomenon called the smoky sou'wester. Rarely in these waters is there a golden day after the sea breeze appears. Instead the sun takes on a frosty look. Land and buoys and other boats are seen as through a gauzy curtain. Colors are subdued. The sea turns a cold gray, and the sun path is silver. Visibility is restricted: there is none of the heart-clutching, blind groping of fog, but distant objects are swallowed, to appear unexpectedly with a bigger-than-life quality.
And so it was as Finisterre neared the Texas Tower replacing the lightship that for many years had marked the entrance to Buzzards Bay. Progress! A shed atop spindle legs, looking, from our angle of approach, like a fawn standing in shallows, an illusion heightened by the weather instruments at one corner, simulating the raised head and spike antlers. Closer, the tower resolved into an ugly symbol of functional modernity, helicopter landing field included.
Here the open sea voyage ended. Soon Finisterre came under the shelter of Cuttyhunk, first of the Elizabeth Islands, and magically the sea smoothed. Running in close to the shore, we followed buoys to the entrance channel, narrow and deep as a stocking. And at the toe, like a child's delighted discovery on Christmas morning, there was a sailor's present of an almost perfect harbor, completely landlocked, restful in its perfection, with a little fishing village sprawling over a hillside at the far end, faintly reminiscent of the Mediterranean yet with touches that could only be New England: clapboard and shingle houses, weather-beaten to a silvery gray, green shutters, rambler roses and a church steeple prim as a Pilgrim maid.
These are waters dear to the fisherman as well as the sailor, and at Cuttyhunk the striped bass reigns supreme. There is even a special breed of boat operating out of the harbor, rugged clinker-built craft that can be tiller-steered from the bow, allowing the skipper to weave between rocks in boiling surf. For one who has spent a lifetime learning to keep clear of such dangers, it is something of a revelation to watch these fishermen at work—to say nothing of the surf casters, whose primary aim seems to be heaving a bit of lead as far as possible. But both methods bring home stripers, as a stroll along the fishing dock will prove. Cuttyhunk, too, is the last refuge of some of the most dilapidated station wagons extant, wondrous specimens proving the survival qualities of Detroit when exterior finish is ignored.
Beyond Cuttyhunk the Elizabeth Islands extend like steppingstones to Cape Cod. A variety of courses is possible. If time is ample, a side cruise may be made along the mainland shore of Buzzards Bay, touching New Bedford, Mattapoisett and Sippican harbors, before turning eastward to enter Vineyard Sound through Woods Hole. The opposite approach is to go back around Sow and Pigs Reef, off Cuttyhunk, and sail the entire length of Vineyard Sound, perhaps stopping at Menemsha Bight. Or it is possible to effect a combination of the two, starting in Buzzards Bay but swinging east to enter Vineyard Sound by one of the lesser channels.
It was the latter route we chose, in part to have a swim at a delightful beach on the south side of Quicks Hole. The "Holes" joining Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound are not like anything similarly named I have seen elsewhere. They are actually tidal channels, more millraces than the placid backwaters the term would imply. Except for a few places far Down East in Maine and Nova Scotia, Ushant off the coast of France, and the Pentland Firth between Scotland and the Orkneys, there are few channels that give a more jet-propelled ride if the tide is fair, or can be more frustrating if it is foul.
It was against us as Finisterre rounded the corner of Nashawena Island. Back and forth we tacked, gaining precious little at the end of each hitch across, yet somehow it was the quintessence of sailing: swift blue water, warm sun, cool breeze, the genoa barely in flat on one side before it had to go to the other; squinting at landmarks and peering at the chart, gaining when close under the shore and losing in the full current sweep of mid-channel, until finally a long hitch among the rocks of Pasque Island let us fetch across to the other shore, dropping anchor off a crescent of white sand. Left alone except for a distant red farmhouse on a hill beyond the dunes, we took our reward in a swim out of the tide, with mainsail and mizzen still set.
After we reset the genoa, a slant carried us beyond Quicks Hole and into Vineyard Sound, destination Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, sanctuary for generations of sailors. The late John Alden once told me that as a boy he had seen more than 100 coasting schooners sheltering within its protecting arms. Safe not only against dread nor'westers and nor'easters of winter, the old windjammers bound for Long Island Sound also lay there during periods of strong summer sou'westers, as they could not make headway to windward when loaded. In our modern age of small pleasure boats, it is a magnet for picnic lunches and overnight stops, as well as for those awaiting milder weather, and we dropped anchor in the midst of a small fleet.
It was midafternoon before we stirred again and reached along the shore of Naushon to Woods Hole. Something of a legend surrounds this particular channel joining Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound, a dogleg studded by rocks and swept by a tide transcending ordinary experience. I have been asked about Woods Hole by sailors as far away as the Baltic, and it seems to form a mental hurdle for many cruising the area.
Let it be said that although Woods Hole involves some element of risk—woe betide the power vessel running out of gas or the sailboat out of breeze at a critical point—on no account should it be missed. The fainthearted may prefer to make the passage at slack tide, easily determined from published tables, but then it is like almost any other body of water. Choose, rather, to arrive nearly at maximum flood or ebb; study the detail chart carefully, memorizing the placement of key marks and ranges, as later there may be scant time to divert attention from the helm. Prepare for surging crosscurrents, as ready to sweep the boat sideways out of the fairway as the main flow is to check progress entirely, and for a radical change of orientation at the spindle marking sunken Grassy Island. Prepare, also, to make the critical mile in seemingly one minute flat if the tide is fair, an hour if not. And keep discreetly away in thick fog.
As Finisterre entered with a fresh breeze at her back, we were showing up to seven knots on the Kenyon, faster than the engine could have driven us. Soon our progress over the bottom began to slow, as the current was running foul—slower, slower, as we got farther in, then coming almost to a halt at the Grassy Island turn. With the puffs, Finisterre would forge ahead; in the lulls she would drop back, while around us the water ran with the curious serpentine undulations of a swift-flowing river. Each exposed rock showed the white fangs of a sailor's nightmare, but more startling were the buoys: nuns and cans alike, huge steel cylinders no offshore sea could bury, behaving like errant porpoises, now sucking under, now breaching above the surface, a now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't fillip to the usual uncertainties of navigation.
It has undoubtedly become apparent that cruising the waters east of The Race and west of the Cape bears little resemblance to indolent drifts on the Chesapeake (SI, Oct. 9, 1961). One is like a casual stroll through a garden, the other has aspects of an Alpine climb—easy enough in part but always requiring the necessity of paying attention, a succession of minor challenges represented by tide, fog and swiftly altering weather patterns, making the harbors and the lazy moments even more pleasant by contrast.
And so it was for us after we had finally broken through. Off to port lay Hadley Harbor, teacup snug, where once I had ridden out a howling three-day nor'easter with barely a strain on the anchor rode. Finisterre crept through the winding entrance almost at sunset, only the tops of the sails filling, to come to rest near another small yawl. Donning sweaters—for hereabouts the chill falls fast when the sun lowers—we sat in the cockpit watching the sky and the colors so faithfully reproduced in the water: the golden rise outlining the clouds above the western horizon, then slowly turning a delicate mauve, almost exactly like the inside of a Bahamian conch shell. As we watched, the purple tints deepened, until Venus appeared framed in the pattern of rigging, soon to be joined by myriad stars, brighter than the riding lights of our fellow voyagers.
In the morning a heavy haze was in the air, rendering indistinct the nearby shoreline. Moisture dripped from the boom. "Fog," predicted the radio during breakfast, "light rain and fog, visibility one-half mile, less in patches, clearing about noon. Light southerly winds."
I must confess distaste for one phase of boating: groping through fog. Me, I'm from the sunny South, and it has always seemed compounding the cruelties of nature for fog to frequent the regions already made difficult by tide and rock. Still, the half-mile visibility did seem to offer a sporting chance, to say nothing of the noon clearing. So finally we crept forth, agreeing that if the first buoy was hard to find we would return.
A red-black can soon showed over the bow, then the spindle off Penzance Point, and Finisterre was again in the current.
On crossing Vineyard Sound we lost the land as the fog suddenly thickened. It was a gray world, with unusual interest in a floating bit of driftwood or a gull resting immobile.
Before uncertainty could turn to worry, however, one of the buoys off West Chop appeared, and beyond loomed the shoulder of Martha's Vineyard. Now around the corner lay a snug harbor, Vineyard Haven, ours for a turn to starboard and a short run along the beach, while beyond the next headland was Edgartown. Yet such is the perversity of the cruising yachtsman that the passage on to Nantucket seemed more alluring, 29 miles of swirling currents setting across rocky outcroppings.
We kept on, and our reward came before we had cleared Cape Poge. Almost as though a celestial button had been pushed, the overcast peeled back, the sun broke through in warming torrents, and the water changed from gray to blue. Tentatively a puff of breeze came from the west, then another, and soon all around us were dancing whitecaps. Mainsail, genoa, mizzen, mizzen staysail—one by one the sails went aloft, and Cross Rip lightship became a rapidly growing scarlet toy on the horizon, to recede almost as speedily after Finisterre rounded.
Nantucket has always possessed a special charm for me, as it should for anyone interested in the sea. From this tiny island off the New England coast bold mariners penetrated the most difficult and distant regions on the globe, engaged in the most hazardous trade—the capture and killing of whales by hand. Ships and men were lost in the ice packs of both poles, as well as on uncharted equatorial reefs in the far Pacific; vessels foundered in gales or went to the bottom, planking stove in when the pursued turned pursuer. Yet most managed to struggle home, two years out of port, three years, even four, to this little island, where walks were built atop the houses so those waiting could scan the horizon in mingled hope and doubt.
It blew hard while Finisterre lay overnight at one of the guest moorings of the Nantucket Yacht Club, and on the following morning the small-craft warnings still flew. In deference, a small jib was set, but outside we found a dying slop of a sea and a breeze with little heft. Changing to a genoa, Finisterre came alive. For most of our cruise it seemed we had been bucking the tide; now it was fair. Rail down, we fetched Cross Rip lightship close reaching. Coming on the wind, the tide set us bodily forward and we gained on Cape Poge in giant strides. But alas! on the final leg into Edgartown, tragedy struck. Gradually the wind had freshened, but stubbornly we had held on to the genoa as the distance diminished. Now with Chappaquiddick Island abeam we were telling ourselves how glorious it was—glittering water rushing along the lee deck and sloshing into the cockpit, liferails burying, the quarterwave sucking over the transom—when there was a crash from below. Some leftover swordfish, intended for lunch, had decanted into the port bunk—which happened to be mine.
Perhaps the most sophisticated of the island resorts, with smart shops and a variety of restaurants, Edgartown has a residential area of charm, some of the houses stemming back to whaling fortunes. But I must confess finding the Vineyard a shade too civilized for my taste. It is possible my reaction was unfairly colored by a visit to Gay Head, last stand of the Gay Head Indians. The magnificent view from the cliffs, embracing Nantucket, Cuttyhunk and a whole sweep of the Elizabeth Islands, has been partially obscured by commercial enterprises of the red men: a lunchroom under the banner of Napoleon Madison, Chief Medicine Man; plywood tepees filled with garish pottery and beadwork; a team of oxen placarded "'Take your picture with the oxen 25¢."
But my gorge settled, and I made peace with Martha's Vineyard, on entering Menemsha, final port of call, tucked in behind that same Gay Head. From the water the entrance is barely visible, just a bell buoy close in under a short stone breakwater. Enter carefully, watching the tide, and be ready to swing sharply to port. There, in a basin, lies a snug working fishing port, picturesque because not consciously so, free of the usual trappings that grow up around quaint places from Portofino to Papeete.
Menemsha shelters an extensive and varied fleet. There are swordfishermen with padded rings atop tall masts, some fitted with seats like children's swings, to make easier the long hours of scanning the sea for the sickle fin of a basking broadbill. Over the bows extend almost equally long pulpits, with the ancient tools of the harpoon fisherman's trade at hand: barbed lances, tubs of lines, painted floats.
Chocked among these are the offshore trawlers, rugged little vessels, dark green of topside, trimmed in black, with nets drying from orange masts, and between the larger craft shuttle the lobstermen, looking for space to unload basket after basket of crustaceans fresh from the sea's deep caverns.
Everything else about Menemsha also carries the tang of the sea, the piles of traps and floats littering the quayside, the discarded trawl doors, the rusted anchors bedded into the sand and weeds. Boiling tide, wheeling, screeching gulls, smell of salt and hint of chill always in the air, Menemsha conveys the undiluted essence of the sea—complete to a surf boat poised on rollers at the Coast Guard station, a reminder that outside, even in this electronic age, ancient forces exist.
And by way of perfect contrast, Finisterre slanted across to Newport in one lazy jump, wind abeam. Cuttyhunk off to starboard, Sakonnet Point also to starboard, then the panoply of Castle Hill and the inner approaches to Newport, gray stone mansions and clipped green lawns, flowing down to encompass a final anchorage in Brenton Cove, the very heart of American yachting.