Jump to content

Sailing to Nantucket

Joe Anderson

Recommended Posts

This is a reproduction of a trip report I wrote for my blog. Sundogboatbuilding  I am sailing my home built Graham Byrnes designed EC22     SKORPA.




August 19, 2019


 I left Point Judith Pond just at dawn. There was a light southwest wind. The current in the breach way would be at maximum flood at 8:45am. The sooner I could get to the breach way the less current I would have to sail against. If I couldn't make it out I would have to delay my departure a few hours until after the current eased. I was beginning my 225 nautical mile trip from Point Judith to Nantucket and back. I was already juggling currents and schedules.


My plan was to sail up Vineyard Sound between the Elizabeth Islands and Martha's Vineyard to Tarpaulin Cove. The next day  I  would sail around the northern end of Martha's Vineyard and into Nantucket Sound. Day three would be a sail across Nantucket Sound to the Island of Nantucket.



GPS Track 2019 Trip to Nantucket




The currents in Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound often run 3 or 4 knots.  That may not sound like much just a brisk walking pace and to a power boat not of much consequence. In my sailboat without an engine that amount of current could easily bring me to a halt or push me back. When I reached the Point Judith breach way the current was rushing in and I wanted to sail out. Not quite at max but getting there. I was close hauled to the wind which was partially blocked by the buildings surrounding the gut. I snuck out by hugging the eddies that are close to the rock walls of the breach way. Once free of the breach way I could run before the wind on a course for Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island.


The tidal range around the Martha's Vineyard and southern Cape Cod is a fairly modest 3 to 4 feet. Yet the currents in and around the islands are strong. And sometimes the direction of those currents have not made sense to me. But now I think I am beginning to understand. The currents of Nantucket Sound are driven not only by the rising and falling of the tides in the area, they are driven primarily by changes in the ocean level in the Gulf of Maine and the Mid Atlantic Bight. Cape Cod divides these two areas that have dramatically different tidal ranges and times.


I found this neat Giff put together by someone at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology.





The arrows indicate direction and strength of the tidal current flow. At the same time water is flowing into the eastern end of Nantucket Sound water is flowing out between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The only explanation can be that water is sloshing back and forth around Cape Cod between the Gulf of Maine and the Mid Atlantic Bight. This makes navigating the area in a sailboat look like a nightmare. The Giff though is playing a six hour tide cycle in just a couple of seconds so it is not as bad as it looks. Still sailing between the islands can take a few hours and in that time the currents can reverse. You can start a crossing with the current in your favor but the tides are apt to turn before you reach your destination. Sailor beware. 


I want to bring up another issue, water depth. My boat draws about 4 feet of water with the centerboard down and only about 6 inches with the board all the way up. There are a lot of shoals in Nantucket Sound but most of them have a water depth greater than four feet. So you might think that water depth would not be much of a concern for me except for two other factors, currents and waves. Currents accelerate when they are forced over shoals. Ocean swells rise and steepen when they reach shallow water. Waves also rise and steepen when they meet an opposing current. In Nantucket Sound conditions can go from manageable to treacherous pretty quickly.


I had a smooth crossing from Point Judith to Tarpaulin Cove. The wind was modest and from abaft the beam. The only issue was some fog that would occasionally drop the visibility to around 1/2 mile. Numerous large cargo ships ply these same waters going in and out of Narragansett Bay and up Buzzards Bay to the Cape Cod canal. I kept a sharp eye out for them and tried to spend the minimum time in the marked shipping channels. The fog cleared by the time I made it to Cutty Hunk and I was having a peaceful sail up Vineyard Sound when the main sprit boom suddenly dropped to the deck.

I hove to and went forward to find the block holding the sprit to the main mast had chaffed through. I was able to repair it easily with some spare line, but it made me wonder if I should have checked the rigging more closely.


After a quiet night in Tarpaulin Cove I set off early. The current in Vineyard Sound would be running against me until 9am but I wanted to take advantage of the northwest breeze  which would fade later in the day. As I sailed out of the cove wing and wing and somewhat by the lee I crossed just astern of a sloop sailing close hauled. Her skipper called out to me that Skorpa looked like she was designed for that point of sail. With her sails spread wide before the wind she was cutting into the current with a bone in her teeth.


By the time I got to West Chop, one of the headlands on the northern side of Martha's Vineyard the wind had grown light and the tide had begun to flood strongly. The water was flowing under me almost as fast as I was moving so I had very little steerage. I was like a little stick floating down the river drifting between  West Chop and East Chop. One of the ferries  cutting across in front of me on its way into Vineyard Haven blasted her horn at a power boat that was in her way. The little power boat opened her throttle and sped out of the way. I had no such option. I was glad I wasn't a few minutes earlier or the ferry a few minites later.


The current was so strong and the ferry traffic so heavy I made a mental note to consider returning by another route. The wind had grown light and it was getting late in the day. I knew there was no way I could make it all the way to Nantucket so I started looking for a place to anchor for the night. I was not inclined to go into Edgartown, though I am sure it has plenty of yachts and moorings. Nearby is the shallow and secluded Cape Poge Bay on Chappaquiddick Island and that is where I headed.






 I found a snug little bay nestled up against a marsh and some barrier dunes not far from the Cape Poge Light.






I walked along the edge of the marsh in a couple of feet of water bringing my boat with me. Schools of minnows darted in the clear water fainting and turning hundreds moving as one.




Cape Poge Light sits on a lonely area of sand and woods looking out on Nantucket Sound.



I wanted an early start for the crossing to Nantucket so I breakfasted and dressed while it was still dark and I raised sail while a few stars were still in the sky. The weather forecast called for a chance of thunderstorms. I reasoned they most likely would come later in the day, so an early start would get me to Nantucket before they arrived. The sky was clear with a light wind from the southwest. Far off on the western horizon I could see frequent flashes of lightning.


After I rounded Cape Poge I could see there was very little ocean swell. I decided to run straight across the shoals between Chappaquiddick and Nantucket. As I approached Howes Shoal, Norton  Shoal and Long Shoal I could see  eddy lines and changes in the wave patterns. On my GPS I can access stations that give current speed and direction for a number of locations. I checked the station located in a channel between Long Shoal and Norton Shoal. I had a current of 1.4 knots flowing 114 degrees Magnetic, roughly along my course. Passing over the shoals I could at times see bottom but I am unsure of the depth  around 10 feet I would guess. I find it difficult to judge water depth because a variation in water clarity can throw off your estimate by a lot.


By the time I passed Tuckernuck Shoal my attention was drawn to the darkening sky off to the southwest. It was around 10 or 10:30am and I was still about 6 miles from Nantucket. I tuned into the marine weather forecast. They were announcing a severe thunderstorm warning for the area and urged all mariners to seek safe harbor. 



By 11am the clouds had darkened and lowered. They had a strange greenish color and were dramatically three dimensional. I abandoned my plan to reach Nantucket harbor before the storm hit but hoped I could reach within a mile or so of the shore where the water was about 20 feet deep and I could anchor and lower my sails and wait out the storm. 


Soon though the wind increased, rain began, and visibility dropped. Continuing to sail even if double reefed seemed out of the question. The only question was had I waited to long. Would I be able to get my sails down and secured before it was too late. 


I grabbed some ties, freed the main halyard and went forward to tie down the main. The wind was howling, the rain pouring, and the thunder roaring. Yikes. All the stories I had heard or read of small boats capsizing came to mind. I tied the main down as well and as quickly as I could and while I was up forward I grabbed the anchor and tossed it over. Then I hurried aft. Crew standing up in the bow can make a small sailboat more likely to capsize.







I marked my GPS track where I dropped my sails and again where I raised them and got underway after the storm had passed. I decided to lower the mizzen. I am not sure if this was a good idea. The mizzen was keeping the boat pointed into the wind and waves. With the mizzen down Skorpa began drifting broadside to the wind and waves. The anchor had gone out with 140 feet of line but there was no sign of it holding. I began to worry that it might suddenly catch and jerk the boat around. The anchor might become entangled preventing me from retrieving it, but there was no way I was going back up on the foredeck until the wind eased off. That was the hardest part I did not know how long the wind would continue to howl or if it would increase in speed. The waves began to build and some broke into the cockpit, I huddled on the windward side hoping my weight would help keep her from going over.


It was more than half an hour but less than an hour and the wind began to ease and the waves to diminish. I went forward and pulled in the anchor. It offered no resistance. Then I raised the mizzen and began straightening up the cockpit. I felt a little dazed. I was shivering. I could see a boat coming straight for me its bow high in the air. The SeaTow boat pulled right alongside and a young man asked if I was OK. I said I think so like I was not too sure. He flashed me a thumbs up sign and I gave him a thumbs up in return. He roared off. Just before the storm had hit I saw a few boats go racing by heading into the harbor. One of them must have let SeaTow know that a small sailboat had not made it in.


The wind had dropped to around 10 knots but I put two reefs in the sails. The sky was still dark off to the south and I just was not going to take any chances. I laid out some lunch so I could eat as I sailed towards Nantucket Harbor.







The lighthouse at Brant Point was a most welcome sight.





The deep water in Nantucket harbor is crowded with vessels of all kinds.




The waters of the harbor extend 4 miles to the northeast, but the average depth is around 4 feet.






Perfect for small boat sailing.






This photo is looking out the harbor entrance on Wednesday morning. I anchored Skorpa in close to the beach at Brant Point and hopped out for a walk around town.







There is a feeling of old money in the tree lined streets, sidewalks and roadways paved with brick and cobblestone and well preserved 19th century buildings.






Near the ferry docks the streets are crowded with tourists unloading from all over the world. Strangely similar but oddly different from 19th century Nantucket.






Thursday I sailed early one the first leg of my return to Point Judith. I sailed close by Tuckernuck Island and Muskeget Island to the Muskeget Channel. I met some stiff winds and chopping seas and sailed an hour or so under mizzen alone. When I reached the Muskeget Channel I had the choice of

sailing across the southern end of Martha's Vineyard or heading around Cape Poge and back the way I had come towards Vineyard Haven and Woods Hole and all the ferry traffic and strong currents.


The southern coast  of Martha's Vineyard has no harbors no good places to seek shelter. A weak front was coming through so there were dark skies and gusty winds. I decided to take my chances with the ferries and currents.







The winds grew light and seemed to shift to always be on my nose. But finally after a glorious sunset over Woods Hole I coasted into Tarpaulin Cove around 9pm.



By morning the front had cleared and a fresh breeze was blowing from the north. I had some near perfect sailing conditions for the last leg back to Point Judith. I took this video sailing southwest down Vineyard Sound. Off to starboard  Naushon Island, one of the Elizabeth Islands, is in the foreground and Cuttyhunk Island is in the distance. At the very beginning of the clip you get a glimpse of Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard off to port
































Point Judith to Nantucket.jpg

Nantucket 2019a.kml

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.


  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use.