MA - Martha's Vineyard - 1998/07/08 to 1998/07/09

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Cape Cod to Martha's Vineyard and return - 19 miles

By Hank McComas

Finally we are under way. Our senses fill with the rhythmic burble of the double-bladed paddles dipping into the cool water, the morning sun glinting off the polished chrome of the sailboats moored in Green Pond Harbor and the salty aromatic smell of drying seaweed on the jetty rocks. We start on our five mile crossing from Falmouth, Cape Cod, Massachusetts to West Chop Light and then on to Vineyard Haven on the island of Martha's Vineyard.

The beauty of this day belies the tumultuous weather earlier in the week that had delayed our departure by two days. Lines of thunderstorms swept across the Cape for five consecutive days, with steady winds exceeding 25 knots, hail and even tornadoes. The normally gentle southwest winds of summer were replaced by hard and steady winds from the north that threatened to cancel our trip. But on the last possible day, we are blessed with this warm 78 degree sunshine, winds five to ten knots at our back and a forecast for ten knot winds from the south for our return tomorrow. We are to have fair winds in both directions!


Our luck with the accommodations on Martha's Vineyard paralleled that with the weather. Unable to obtain a reservation for a Bed & Breakfast located close to the water without a three day minimum, we had made arrangements to camp at the southern end of Vineyard Pond in a private campground. We prepared all our camping gear, purchased our camp food and test packed our kayaks the day prior to our departure. A last minute call to the Chamber of Commerce located a wonderful B&B right on the water that had had a cancellation because of the bad weather. Out of our kayaks came all our camping related gear. Even though we added in some town clothes, the load stored in our kayaks was reduced by almost two-thirds.

In spite of all the extra time for preparation due to the bad weather, a myriad of minor details delays almost every trip and this was no exception. With last minute instructions to house and children sitters, we were behind our intended schedule by an hour. Nonetheless our delay was not enough for the field reporter that the local radio station was to send out to cover our launch and provide us with T-shirts and other promotional material. His late night party had taken precedence over our early morning adventure. Our call to the station just prior to leaving the house was put on air and arrangements were made to contact the station at the midpoint of our crossing.

With the car loaded with children and a driver to bring the car back, we left Harwichport for the drive through Hyannis to a point near Falmouth directly north of Martha's Vineyard where we would put in from a public ramp at Green Pond. The normal summer traffic at the Cape was worse than usually due to the pre-4th of July weekend crowds. Our progress was exasperatingly slow. We wanted to be on the water, not in a line of traffic.

Ferry Routes from Woods Hole to Vinyard Haven
Track shows ferry route from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven.

Upon arrival at the public ramp, the posted signs indicated that there was to be no overnight parking. local opinion was divided over whether that was enforced or not, but we felt that it would be safer to park our second car elsewhere. This took some effort as parking near the water is difficult anywhere on the Cape. The safest place that wasn't posted was several miles away at the elementary school. This added twenty or so minutes to our departure as well.

Finally all is ready to go and we load our kayaks and step carefully into them so as not to slip on the wet, slick algae covering the sloped concrete at the waters edge. The ramp is busy with fishing boats bristling with rods and large outboard engines, sitting on expensive trailers pulled by muscular four wheel drive trucks. The kayaks launching on one side of the ramp seems so small in comparison. Although we are trying to minimize the time we are at the ramp, one inconsiderate boater launches as we attempt to get our kayaks into the water. I guess the fish just won't wait.

We pull away from the ramp and begin paddling between the sailboats moored in the pond. We adjust our foot pegs, check our rudders and fasten our skirts. Maps, food and water are arranged for convenient access during the crossing. This is it. We are underway!

As we head out between the jetty rocks, we point our bows due south to the readily apparent West Chop lighthouse less than four miles away. The day is so clear and the island looks so close, we spend some time studying chart and compass to verify that we are looking at the right spot. Reassured that we are indeed on course, we turn around and note landmarks on the shore behind us for our return tomorrow or in case of an emergency today. A five hundred foot radio tower west of the harbor is close enough to use for a landmark.

In preparations for our trip, we called the local Coast Guard station to inquire about the tidal currents that we might encounter during our crossing. They said that there were no currents of consequence in that particular area, unlike the currents that occur near Woods Hole and the islands south of there. We received similar advice from the local kayak rental shop, with the additional piece of information that what current there was flowed west on the flood tide and east on the ebb.

We soon spot one of the navigation markers for the channel into Green Pond. It is nearly in the same direction as our desired destination. By pointing directly at it, we can tell from the relative movement of the land behind it that a current is indeed setting us to the west on this flood tide. We adjust our course until the land behind the buoy no longer moves, indicating the our course made good is directly toward the buoy. In order to reach our destination in the shortest possible distance and time, we need to point (ferry) almost thirty degrees to the east to account for the effects of wind and current. Since our average paddling speed is three knots, the effects of wind and current today are equivalent of one knot. The Coast Guard blasts around in their cutters at 15 to 20 knots, so a one knot current is of little consequence to them. But to kayaks powered by paddle, current and wind is critical. Tidal currents around Woods Hole can reach ten knots and easily overpower the paddler. The words "Go with the Flow" always hold special meaning for the kayaker.

Now that we have our landmarks and compensated our course for the wind and current, we get down to the business of paddling. Our paddling routine consists of thirty minutes of steady paddling followed by a rest period of up to five minutes. During our rest periods we always drink water because dehydration can be a serious problem in the unrelenting sun and with the exertion of paddling. We eat something as well in order to keep our energy up, usually some time of packaged cereal bar.

As we progress further into Martha's Vineyard Sound between Falmouth and Vineyard Haven, we find the waves are quite confused. They come from all directions. There are the wind generated waves. There are waves generated by the numerous ships and boats in the channel, particularly the frequent ferries carrying passengers to and from the Vineyard and Nantucket to Woods Hole and Hyannis. All these sources generate a chop on the water that makes paddling more difficult than the usual open sea conditions, because there is no rhythm or pattern to the waves to synchronize your stroke. This sea state is common here. The East and West Chop lighthouses are well named!

Cape Cod is an ice age remnant - a terminal moraine of large boulders composed of rock transported from Canada. The north shore of the Cape in nearly unbroken, while the south shore is lined with long narrow harbors pointing south into the sea. The islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket show these same geologic features formed by the grinding flow of the great ice sheet that once covered this area. But not all of the work of the previous ice age is above sea level. There are several ridges lying between the Cape and the islands that rise within several feet of the surface. When currents flow from the deeper parts of the sound, averaging 60 feet, and encounter these ridges, some only a couple of feet below the surface at low tide, unpredictable eddies and current gradients are created. One of these area lies half way between the cape and the Vineyard. The waves here are particularly challenging, even on this otherwise placid and weather friendly day.

Having reached the half way point in our journey and one of our scheduled rest periods, it is now time to check in with the kids back home. We brought along our cellular phone encased in a water proof bag. Reception is very good on the open water this close to land. The kids are excited to hear from us and happy that the trip is going so well. We also call in to the radio station and they put us on the air from the middle of the channel. Perhaps they still think we are crazy!

West Chop lighthouse
West Chop Lighthouse
We have arrived.

Taking up our paddles once again, we continue to head for the West Chop light. We have been swept even further west by the current as we were resting and making our calls. It is clear that we will probably come in too far to the west of the lighthouse, but not much so we are worried about missing the point.

A ferry passes astern of us and a large wash approaches us from behind. The waves are quite steep and intermittently break sending white foam sliding down their forward slope. We take advantage of these waves by riding their fronts, surfing down the advancing faces. Our kayaks gather speed quickly, in fact so quickly, that the kick-up rudders do not have sufficient weight to stay fully in the water. As they lift out of the water, they become ineffective and one must compensate with body position and paddle to keep from turning broadside into the wave. The action gets a little too intense for me as I would not look forward to a dunking in the middle of the channel, so I let the waves roll on and continue on with the steady sustainable paddle stroke toward the land fall ahead.

In spite of our understanding of the effects of the current, it is a natural tendency to point toward your visual objective. During our rest stops, we might stop but the current does not. Apparently the current is stronger closer to the Vineyard. All of these factors have combined to sweep us well west of our objective. Now that we have crossed the channel, we must now paddle up current to round the point and head for Vineyard Haven and our B&B. Fortunately, this is not too difficult as the current close to the shore is not as strong and we reach the point after fifteen minutes. As a lighthouse aficionado and collector of lighthouse models, it is an absolute requirement to take several pictures.

Continuing close to the shore, we head toward the jetty and protected anchorage of Vineyard Haven. We have a detailed map of the how to get to the B&B by car! Our water approach is unorthodox, but we easily locate the property and pull up to a beautiful sand beach right in front of the house. Our crossing is done. We made excellent time, arriving one hour sooner than expected. Our bottoms and legs are happy to be released from their cramped positions. We unload our gear and move our kayaks further up the lawn.

The B&B is a well kept three story shingle home just four blocks from downtown. Several other guests are occupying the lower levels. Our room is upstairs on the third floor, reached by a vine covered outside stairway.

Our room is a comfortable bright room overlooking the harbor, the private beach and the kayaks nestled safely under the bushes in the yard. After unpacking and settling into the room, it is time to check in with the kids at home and let them know that we are safely arrived. All is well with them. It is nice to be able to talk with them.

The shower is outside in a private corner of the house. The warm water feels good and we wash the salt from our skin. Feeling warm and relaxed, its time for a quick nap.

Refreshed by our nap, we once again push our kayaks out into Vineyard Haven harbor. We cross to a little causeway with a nice sand beach and a kayak store. There is always interest in the latest gear or any other excuse to purchase something to try out. A replacement for a salt and sun faded hat is all that catches our eye this time.

Leaving the kayak store, we continue to paddle under the draw bridge and up to the far end of Vineyard Pond where the camp ground is located. It is about a half mile from the bridge to the end of the cove. We are unable to see where we would have landed the kayaks to begin the walk to the campground as everything we can see from the water looks to be private property. We are happy that we have our accommodations waiting for us back at the B&B.

Returning back to our room, we change and head out for a satisfying dinner in a local restaurant where we discover that Martha's Vineyard is dry. No alcohol, including wine, served at any restaurant, which seems strange for a place named Vineyard.

The next day we awake to another beautiful day and even finer continental breakfast of juice, muffins, coffee and fruit outside in the shade of a flowering tree. We linger overly long in this pleasant place, but as we are planning to go to Edgartown and then return to the Cape that day, we are soon repacking our gear into the kayaks and saying good-bye to our hostess.

We launch from the beach and paddle out between the moored boats in the harbor. The ferry is already repeating its routes to Hyannis and Woods Hole. It leaves its pier with another load of automobiles and mainland bound visitors as we pull out of the harbor. We give it all the room that a big lumbering vessel deserves.

We head east out of the harbor and stop for the obligatory picture session of the East Chop lighthouse. Two lighthouses in as many days and yet another one this afternoon in Edgartown. This is heaven.

The day is growing hot and our progress around the headland seems to be slower than anticipated. The breeze is light but there must be a current against us. We round the point and can see Edgartown in the far distance. We begin paddling toward it. We aren't making a lot of progress when we decide to pull into a lovely sand beach for a cooling swim. The Atlantic water here is a beautiful turquoise color which the picture does not adequately portray. It is cool and refreshing. After some nourishment and liquids to remain hydrated in the hot temperature, we get back into our kayaks and start out once more for Edgartown.

Once again our progress is not overly rapid and we begin to feel fatigued. We stop to confer and size up the situation. We estimate the distance yet to be traveled to reach Edgartown, the time it will take to get back to this point and the time it will take to return from this point to across Vineyard sound to Green Pond and our pickup point. We decide that there is not enough time and not enough energy to do it all, so we turn around at this point and head back toward Cape Cod.

Shortly after we turn around, the wind begins to pick up from the northwest on our port bow. Blowing at about 10 knots, the problem with the hot day is no longer an issue. But the headwind has increased the resistance as we paddle into it, and effectively made the return trip that much longer. Our decision to return without making our original objective of Edgartown harbor is completely validated.

In addition to the wind blowing us back, the current which was causing us to drift to the west on the way over, is now causing us to drift to the east. Not only is the tidal effect reverse, but the strength of the current is enhanced by the Northwest wind driving the water our of Buzzards Bay and through the slot between Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. Naturally, the Eastward current is slowing us down as we point into it to maintain our course.

After an hour of paddling, we can see that we are being swept well to the east of our objective. The current is very strong here. We decide to continue to paddle across the current to the Cape Cod shore and then turn and paddle up along the shore where the current will be less. As we are in some danger of running out of daylight, even on this early July evening, this strategy will allow us to pull up on shore and walk the roads to our pickup point, if necessary. It is always good to have a contingency plan.

We reach shore with plenty of daylight left. The paddle along the shore back to Green Pond in the sunset light is a fitting end to a wonderful two days on the water. We gingerly raise ourselves out of our kayaks onto the floating docks in Green Pond Harbor, load the boats onto our waiting ride back to the house in Harwichport, slightly sunburned, quite tired and very satisfied.




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