I was only 15 years old but adventurous — what 15-year old isn’t? We were all sailors. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the yacht club would hold races for a fleet of Beetlecats to go round buoys on Waquoit Bay on Cape Cod — a large, 3-by-1 mile bay that lets out through a rocky jetty to Vineyard Sound. I say “we” because my buddy, Jimmy Johnson, used to crew for me in those races. We were a team.
That bay, though large, was extremely safe, as there were few locations on the bay that were deep, and all locations were very visible to the surrounding houses, but mostly because it wasn’t the real ocean — which lay just beyond the rocky jetty. The ocean was where unpredictable and potentially dangerous things happened, but the bay was “safe” or so it seemed.
I got the idea one day that it would be fun to sail across the sound and go to Martha’s Vineyard, where I had never been. Jim liked the idea, too. So the next stop were the parents. Would they say yes?
Now there must be few decisions more daunting than to ask parents to put their children in harm’s way. The easy answer is simply to say no and be done with it — to keep them safe. But is there not some harm in forever saying no because it leads to far less experience for the adolescent as well as stunted initiative, which, one would think, parents want to encourage? So it is not necessarily an easy decision. Perhaps because the two of us were such seasoned sailors — even at that young age we had years of experience sailing — the decision, a bit to our surprise, came down in the affirmative.
We didn’t go off half cocked. First thing was to get two sleeping bags so that we could sleep on the boat comfortably. Then we needed a compass — all sailors know to always bring a compass. That’s second nature, an iron-clad rule. Finally we needed a solid 3-day stretch of good weather — we did not want to sleep out in the open in the rain. The very next weekend, everything fell into place, including the weather.
The morning we lit out, there was a steady but not overwhelming breeze, which was encouraging — the “chop” on the sound would not be that formidable. But we had a challenge right off the bat. The wind was blowing straight in on the narrow channel made by the jetty — a narrow channel in between two lines of rocks that extended pretty far out into the sound. The two lines of rocks were necessary to protect the dredged channel from the shifting sands near the beaches. Having to sail up wind in that narrow a channel meant that we had to make a series of quick tacks to make any headway, and it was perilous to come anywhere near the rocks on either side because you did not know how far out these jagged ship-wreckers extended under water. But we finally made it through the narrow channel, and broke free of the jetty out into the open water. At that point, we put on life preservers — one of the requirements that we had promised to live up to if we were allowed to make this voyage.
From where we were, I could make out approximately the locations of East Chop and West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard, and took a reading on the compass, so that I would know the compass direction to our destination. But what I saw was a little unnerving. A fog bank had come in on the island so that you could still see the land, the dark outline of the land, but you could no longer see any detail, and even the outline of the land was getting less and less distinct, as we sailed on in an easy reach, across the wind, toward the island. Only about a third of the way across Vineyard Sound, the fog bank came in hard and enveloped our little Beetlecat. You could barely see 50 feet in any direction. I was confident, though, because I had the compass reading and so knew our direction despite the thick, pea-soup fog. I knew we were still on course.
Perhaps overconfident is the right word, for that is when terror struck. It was a truly gigantic blast of a fog horn that seemed to be right on top of us, even though we could not see anything. We both knew instantly what it was — the big Nantucket Ferry, and we both knew it was extremely close, given the magnitude of the deafening blast. It was a moment of abject fear, for had the ferry run into us, it would have crushed the little sailboat and, no doubt, pulled the two of us as well as the sailboat underneath its hull and toward the blades — in other words, almost certain death. And even if we had been able to escape to the surface, they would have never found us in the fog.
I had a small canister fog horn of my own, and let out my own wee blast, but did it almost simultaneously with a second blast by the ferry, but this second blast was already past us — so we had survived a potential collision. But that’s when the huge wake from the ferry hit the Beetlecat broadside.
Sailboats are really designed for the type of water they are meant to sail on. Out on the ocean, you really want a boat with a deep, built-in keel that can stand up to a severe wind and a deep “chop,” and you want a boat with high topsides, that space from the waterline to the deck, so that water has a pretty decent climb before it can get inside the boat. The Beetlecat has neither. It has a skimpy little centerboard, not a keel, and very low topsides, so it sits very low in the water and can be easily swamped. To make matters worse, the boat also has a wide beam for its length, so it is designed almost like a a bucket, ready to be filled with water. This is not a problem when you are sailing on shallow bays, but, let’s just say, it is less than ideal on the ocean.
Swamping was the real risk with such a huge wake from the massive ferry. With a wake like that hitting the boat broadside, the Beetlecat goes up, sideways, on one side of the wave, reaches the top, and then slides down hard, sideways, on the other side of the wave, and so now the tilted boat kind of spears down into the gully made by the wave. When the side of the boat speared into the water, the water shot up over the low topsides, flooded onto the narrow desk, and spilled ever so slightly over the very top of a 4-inch railing that was the last barrier to flooding the boat. So we were just a few inches away from disaster — of being swamped in a bucket of a boat in the middle of Vineyard Sound in the fog. But a few inches were as good as a mile.
We never even considered turning around and going back — not for one second. For one thing, we were as close to the island as we were to the mainland, and I still had a fix on the right compass direction, so we just kept going. And just as suddenly as the fog bank had come upon us, it started to dissolve, and so in a short amount of time, we began to see that thin outline of land that was Martha’s Vineyard dead ahead. We hit East Chop and West Chop straight on; sailed into the inner harbor; took out the small anchor we had stowed away for the trip; and made sure it had a snug grip on the bottom to hold the boat in place. We had made it!
The island was ours for the taking. We rented bikes. Need I say more — two boys with complete license to explore an enchanted island with new discoveries at every bend in the road. We left no rock unturned, no corner of that island unseen, no small community untapped — and no ice cream parlor unmolested. We saw it all, top to bottom and inside out. But what a huge surprise lay in wait for us that very first night, that was just as unexpected — but in a good way — as that menacing ferry had been in a bad way.
When the twilight came on that first evening, we found ourselves, by chance, walking around Oak Bluffs. How should I describe the unique experience that surprised the bejesus out of us there? About the only thing that comes anywhere near the magic we experienced that night is the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, after surviving the tornado (like we survived the ferry), suddenly arrives in Munchkin Land, for we had walked into a true faeryland of our own, called by the natives of Martha’s Vineyard “Illumination Night.”
Just imagine these little gingerbread cottages, each with extraordinary whimsical designs, lined up close together on narrow lanes, and decorated with strings of the most extravagant and huge illuminated lanterns. It was a true faeryland, but we were not dreaming — it was real, and we were there to see it. It was literally like you didn’t really believe your own eyes — that level of incredulity.
The sail back to the mainland was a snap — downwind all the way on a steady breeze. What could be easier? And with a straight shot through the jetty, we were back into the “safe” waters of Waquoit Bay lickety-split. The parents were all happy — and relieved — to see us pull up to the mooring and come ashore. They had taken a chance on us and let us go on our adventure. Looking back on it, I would say, yes, there was risk, even fatal risk, in the offing, but there was also magic — such is life.
Illumination Night on Martha’s Vineyard
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