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Massachusetts' Roughest Waters


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Woods Hole, Shmoods Hole. Middle Ground Shoal? Piffle. The mouth of the Merrimack or New Inlet on the North River? Maybe, with the right onshore winds and swells, but probably the roughest waters in Massachusetts on a day in-day out basis are around the Muskeget Channel and over Wasque and Mutton Shoals.

The “official” maximum current in Woods Hole is 4.1 knots, according to Eldridge and NOAA, but some sources report speeds of up to 7 knots in there. Current running over Middle Ledge in only 2-3 feet of water can kick up some decent standing waves in a small area maybe 200 yards long by 50 yards wide. (The biggest waves in Woods Hole are actually the result of boat wakes.)

Compare this to the 4.4 knot “official” current that runs through Muskeget Channel over shoals that are just as shallow as Middle Ledge in Woods Hole, but extend for miles across in all directions. This is without even talking about the effects of wind opposing current. The longest fetch that can affect Woods Hole is about ten miles, on the rare occasion that northwest winds blow across Buzzards Bay and into the Hole. By contrast, the prevailing southwesterlies that blow through the Muskeget Channel have a clear fetch at least to the Bahamas, and in the condition of a southeast wind, the fetch is clear across the equator to Brazil, or possibly to Antarctica. Well, you get the picture.

So when Adam and I paddled to Muskeget Island last month, we were pretty impressed with the water we saw in this area and agreed that we would really like to see Muskeget at full rip through the deep-water channel that runs just west of Mutton Shoal. Water depths run from 160+ feet to only 5 feet in a matter of only yards, and with a 4-5 knot current ripping through, it is not hard to imagine some pretty impressive surf as wind pushes this water against the steep sides of the channel and forces it up and out over the shoals. While in numerous trips to the area I’ve never found any reason to believe the tales of six-foot standing waves over Middle Ground Shoal off Martha’s Vineyard’s northern shores, I could easily imagine such conditions in the Muskeget Channel. We wanted to see this for ourselves, but the remoteness of this spot was a difficult hurdle to overcome. After all, we are talking about a spot that is some 20 miles from the mainland. Then I came up with a plan that would get us out there, give us time to hang around and watch the action and then get us quickly out of there and back safely to the mainland in a single day, without the need to paddle 40 miles. The key to the plan was Skiff Island.

If you have never heard of Skiff Island, you have plenty of company. It doesn’t appear on any nautical charts and probably won’t show up on aerial imagery of Wasque Shoal either. In fact, Skiff Island isn’t really even an island. Like Brown’s Bank off Plymouth’s shores, Skiff Island is an area of sand that uncovers for a few hours each day at low tide, and then is swallowed back up on the flood. It lies two miles south of Wasque Point at the edge of the Muskeget Channel. The plan was to ride the end of the ebb current so that we reached Skiff at low tide/slack water and then use this bar as a base of operations to watch the flood current as it ramped up to maximum roughly two hours later. We would be able to see everything from slack water to max flood in just over two hours because of the asymmetric current cycle in Muskeget Channel. The deep-water channel is essentially a bottleneck to the passage of water in and out of Nantucket Sound from the south so that water piles up quickly on both the ebb and flood as the tide rises and falls, causing the current to reach a maximum flow sooner than is normal in less constricted passages. Depending on conditions, we would rest, then maybe surf and play for awhile before catching a fast flood trip back north to the Vineyard.

We planned to take the ferry from Woods Hole to Oak Bluffs, which would make the paddle to Skiff Island a manageable 13 miles, out around Cape Poge and then, using the ebb current, a quick slide down Chappaquiddick Island to Wasque Point. From there we would use a compass heading to find Skiff Island two miles due south of Wasque Point. We expected to be able to see Green Can 3 and Red Nun 2, marking the pinchpoint of the deep-water channel, off to our right as we approached Skiff, and if we found ourselves approaching Green Can 1 (which is 2 miles south of Skiff Island) we would know that we had missed the elusive and low-lying “island”. We had a tight window, as the first ferry into Oak Bluffs didn’t arrive on-island until 10:15 and slack water at Muskeget Channel was at 12:45. On the other end, the last ferry back to Woods Hole from Oak Bluffs left at 6:15PM. This gave us roughly 2 ½ hours to get to Skiff, 2 ½ hours to scout the channel and 2 ½ hours to get back to Oak Bluffs.

So that was the trip plan, but we needed another paddler to accompany us. We found an able accomplice in the form of my friend Pat. The three of us arrived at the Steamship Authority dock at 8AM, bought one-way tickets to Oak Bluffs, and then, declining any help from the crew in loading our boats (we weren’t keen on having them thrown in a pile with bicycles tossed on top) carried our gear into the hold of the “Martha’s Vineyard” after all the other cars and bikes had been loaded. We wanted to be the first ones off so that we could get on the water as quickly as possible at Oak Bluffs. We bought one-way tickets in the event that we weren’t able to reach Oak Bluffs in time for the last ferry. As ferries ran later out of Vineyard Haven, we might find we needed to paddle the extra hour to catch one there. We also all carried bivvy bags “just in case”.

As we crossed Vineyard Sound on the ferry, we noticed that the expected northeast wind was kicking up already. While this would help us get to Skiff Island more quickly, it was likely to slow us up coming back. More to the point, with a current flow of NNE through Muskeget Channel, this wind would be directly opposing the flood tide that we were planning to check out. Things would likely get really interesting if the wind got up to the predicted 15 knots by afternoon. As we passed Middle Ground Shoal on our way into Oak Bluffs, we could see some small standing waves as the maximum ebb current flushed over it on its way down Vineyard Sound. As soon as the ferry docked, we scrambled for the beach and were underway by 10:30.

The crossing from Oak Bluffs to Cape Poge was fast, but hampered a bit by the beam seas kicked up by the northeast wind. Still, we made the six miles in just over an hour. We then caught a tailwind and the ebb current around Cape Poge and down to Wasque Point where we landed for a quick break at 12:30. Then a quick dash south the last two miles to Skiff Island as the current started flooding north. We landed on the small sandy isle just after 1PM. Already we could see whitecaps and hear the roar of water rushing over shallows, as the wind whipped up frothy little haystacks around Skiff Island. We looked at each other as if to say, “OK, we’re here. Now what?” or was it “OK, we’re here. What were we thinking?!?”


"Toni" surfs the Muskeget Channel

We had lunch and relaxed for a bit. Watching the water through binoculars, we could see standing waves building to the northeast.


Standing waves in Muskeget Channel

Pat and I decided to venture out and feel around a bit, leaving Adam on Skiff as the “safety net” guy. We paddled over to the edge of the deeper water, then started getting sucked north toward the pinchpoint. When we had floated up close to Red Nun 2, we ferried back over to the edge of Wasque Shoal and started surfing back toward Skiff. Wahoo! Steep standing waves were breaking all around us, their tops blown off by the wind. We were having a hell of a good time, until we realized we weren’t getting any closer to Skiff. The current was picking up every minute and we were finding that we couldn’t surf back up against it, even with the wind at our backs. Paddling like mad, we finally made an eddy behind Skiff and were able to land. It was 2 o’clock, still an hour until max flood.

We talked it over. It seemed obvious that the next foray from Skiff Island would be our last. We decided that we would try to shoot through the pinchpoint in the channel, then ferry west over the shoals as we were carried north on the tide until we were close enough to the Vineyard’s shores for safety. We decided not to wait until 3PM either, as we were unsure how big the waves would be that we would be trying to ferry through as we crabbed west. So, at 2:30, we launched into the maelstrom. Within minutes, we were cruising by Red Nun 2 in a rollicking sea of fast current opposed by a stiff 15 knot breeze. Even here in the deep water channel, the chop was 3-4 feet high. Then we saw it.


The edge of the deep-water channel - a wall of water

A solid wall of water marked the edge of the channel next to Green Can 3. Rushing water was bouncing off the steep sides of the channel as it hit the shallows, creating a very strong “eddy line” (except there was no eddy). Taking deep breaths, we launched ourselves at the wall of surf, punching hard to break through. It was like paddling out through a surf zone of six-foot dumpers.


Pat punches through

By the time we got through, we were exhausted, but there was no calm on the outside of the break to rest in. We were now in six feet of water and the opposing fast current and wind kicked up tremendous haystacks and steep breaking waves in all directions. It was like a wet hell.

We slid back west into deeper water where there was only four foot chop to contend with and paddled north in the deeper water until we could see Wasque Point to our left over the swells. We started edging west, still riding a fast north current into the wind.


Racing north with the tide

Soon we were opposite the Cupola on Chappaquiddick that marked a bailout point. We paddled hard to the beach, crash landed through dumping surf and crawled up the shore, collapsing in wet heaps. From here we could portage into Pocha Pond and paddle in protected waters up to Edgartown Harbor. We had to bust our butts to get back to Oak Bluffs by six, but we just made it. We did it! We had visited the notorious Muskeget Channel and lived to tell the story!

Note: This trip has not yet taken place. However, the last opportunity to attempt it this year is next Wednesday, October 12th (the last day that the Oak Bluffs ferry runs). The timetable in the story (and the forecast for wind) correspond to October 12th. If there are a couple fast, strong, skilled and adventurous paddlers that would like to go out there with me, send me email at jmarkstephens@comcast.net .

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Not sure what the alternatives are unless one plans to pay for lodging on the Vineyard or attempt to poach camp on the beach.

I had thought of bringing a vehicle over with three boats on it and driving to Wasque Point from either Vineyard Haven or Oak Bluffs. With three people I think it would work out to around $30 pp, round trip. That would be my preference over planning to stay overnight somewhere. It also creates many more options in terms of what days this would work.

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This trip is cancelled. I know there were a bunch of folks that were hoping to join me on this, but I'll be the one to weenie out so no one else has to lose face.

Today's Forecast: E Winds 25 to 30 kt with gusts up to 45 kt. Seas 10 to 15 Ft, building to 13 to 18 Ft this afternoon

I'm going surfing instead.

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As the saying goes "discretion is the better part of valor"

I got into a discussion with a long-time fisherman who has plied the waters of Nantucket Sound on Monday. He cursed about the Muskeget Channel and how nasty it can get when the winds are up.

Good call!

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