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Overnight Near Cuttyhunk


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Overnight near Cuttyhunk

It was one of those two-nighters you throw together on a whim: clean the campstove, toss the drybags into the car, pick up some canned goods and fill a couple of gallon jugs with drinking water before ducking down into the basement to retrieve the headlamps and the VHF. It was that time of year when Buzzards Bay is prone to fog, and I wanted the VHF in case we had to make a securite' call to avoid getting run down by a powerboat or merchant vessel during our crossing. Our compass course, 170 degrees magnetic from Horseneck Point, Westport, Ma. to Cuttyhunk, the last island in the Elizabeth Island chain off Woods Hole, would take us within two miles of the Buzzards Bay entrance tower and directly across the shipping lane that runs past the Elizabeths before sliding into the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal. Sure, my cousin Paul, who was paddling with me, had spent two years in the merchant marine fifteen years ago, but that was no reason for us to get run down by one of his former shipmates captaining a New York-bound tug, oiler, or LNG tanker during our passage. The crossing we planned ran from Westport to the light off Cuttyhunk's Sow and Pigs reef, and would take us across six miles of open water. It would only prove us hapless bumblers, "damned sea kayakers", were a container ship or tug run us over. I'd had a mug of coffee aboard a tug in Boston Harbor about a month back ("crank", those guys call their coffee), and felt my ears burn in embarrassment when the second mate, hitching up his pants, informed me ---"present company excepted, of course" --- that any self-respecting merchant mariner regarded a kayaks as god-damned yuppie-toy nuisances (which sometimes they are), navigational hazards, or worse.

We planned on sleeping out on Cuttyhunk on a friend's land. We had one-man tents. One advantage of paddling to Cuttyhunk in late-October, of course, is the chance to land on an island otherwise overrun with summer visitors. And property rights tend to loosen when there's no one around to care whether you've spent the night in their field or on their lawn, useful to consider, as we weren't exactly sure where our friend’s land was. Besides, and because I'm not much of a planner, I wasn't exactly sure either where we'd sleep the night before in Westport. We'd slip into the woods with our tents somewhere, I told Paul, shove off in the morning from the ramp by the Route 88 bridge. We’d thus avoid the need for a crack of dawn departure from Arlington.

"Westport's got plenty of undeveloped land", I told Paul. "We'll find a place to sleep there".

I owed Paul one anyhow. Back when we were in high school, he bought a pickup truck which he raced, over hills and through forests, and with me in it, against friends from surrounding towns. In the wasteland of wire cuts that run from the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth to towns west, we flipped the truck on a rock berm and received matching cuts on our chins in return. Paul's take on the crash, over the years, has been that the experience bonded us, even if it was me who emerged from the crash also with a separated wrist, a broken arm and foot, and twenty stitches to his six.

So we loaded the kayaks onto my station wagon and headed down Route 95 towards Westport. We ate supper in a local chop house on the Westport River, unrolled our charts during dessert, and dissected the bearings and distances we’d cover during the crossing. We paid our bill, parked the car at the ramp, and set out with our tents in search of an empty house lot near the beach to sleep in, which we found, and did.

Paul was in town for a few days from Colorado. Since he introduced me to sea kayaking ten years back, I figured the least I could do was show him how we seakayakers in Massachusetts seek out adventure. The NOAA forecast called for two days of fair weather, big swell, low winds. We agreed the crossing would be a no-brainer.

Cuttyhunk is one of those remote, beautiful Massachusetts islands kayakers land on only if they know someone who lives there, have the money to spend a night in the island's pricey inn, or make the island a ludicrously long day-trip's resting spot during an expedition up one side of the Elizabeth Island chain and down the other --- a truly sick puppy paddle of 28 miles-plus sick even if one rides the tides on both legs of the trip. Otherwise Cuttyhunk is a quick if pounding motor trip east, etc., across choppy Buzzards Bay from such southeastern Massachusetts coastal towns as Dartmouth, New Bedford, Falmouth, Woods Hole, Mattapoiset, Marion. And even then most visitors leave Cuttyhunk at dusk to spend the night at anchor in Tarpaulin Cove at Pasque Island four miles distant. Once primarily a private anglers preserve, Cuttyhunk has since become a colony of summer cottages. The island is small. It's barely a mile long and half as wide. Visitors can summit its single hill, scan the horizon for Marthas Vineyard and then in vain for Nantucket, then simply content him- or herself with counting the number of yachtsmen walking the dirt road from the tiny general store to the dock. There, many September afternoons, freshly-caught yellowfin and bluefin tuna, shaped so uncannily like footballs, can be seen lying inert in ice chests. But you're talking high-season excitement here.

Late October is different. There's really no one out there. The fields of grass are windswept. The sandspit at the island's east end nearly connects Cuttyhunk to Nashawena across the Canapitsit Channel. Walking there, you can watch the Forbes family's herd of water buffalo, standing around at water's edge unattended, chewing cuds and cooling off, shaking their wet, scraggly beards like ruminating prophets. The livestock are a tax dodge. Sticking farm animals here and there on these twelve largely uninhabited islands, the Forbeses receive significant farmland-use tax reductions.

The crossing takes about four hours, including a layover at the Wildcat hulk on Old Cock Ledge, where we talk to a couple of sport fishermen hunkered down on the wreck with their gear. The Wildcat is the rusted remains of a cement barge that ran aground on the ledge in a gale three decades back. When the barge broke up, its cargo of cement seeped from the hold like flour leaking from the biggest flour sack in the universe. The cement cemented the barge to the ledge. It has lain there ever since, rusting down over the years to an enormous, partially-collapsed dock-like platform whose sides and bottom the seas have punched in. You can paddle into the middle of the hulk, land on it, climb on it, fish from it, dive into its hold from its decks --- all without getting killed. The hull's bow and stern sections overhang the ledge like matching garages whose roofs the wind have ripped up.

We land at the hulk to swim and cool off. The fishermen lying around the decks look pretty well done in, like the sun has gotten to them. They are sunburned, and I wonder how long they've been out here. Apparently long enough: they have a striped bass the size of a goat hanging from a rope tied to the wreck's rusted anchor stanchion. They have also set up a little encampment on the hulk's lower deck, where it looks like they burned about half a cord of firewood.

"You guys sleep here?" I ask.

"Yup," one says. He is trying to stab a piece of bait onto a hook he's sharpened with a whetstone he takes from his hatband.

"What, you serious?"

"Yup. See our cots?"

Their battered aluminum outboard skiff, tied off in the hold at the hulk's transom, has two cots folded up inside it. Of this I make a mental note. Who was it said Washburne Island in Waquoit Bay, a couple of Boston Harbor islands, and Rockport's Thachers Island are the only places a sea kayaker can legally sleep offshore in Massachusetts? We shove off.

We land at Cuttyhunk’s town dock a couple hours later. There’s no one there. The cottages are mostly boarded up. We take a look at the chart. We’d found my friend’s land, but it was too hilly and rocky to pitch the tents. Other places looked too sloped and thick with brush or difficult to get to from landing spots. The state territorial sea line extending from Mishuam Point on the mainland to the northern edge of Quicks Hole, where Quicks cuts into Pasque Island, has us in state waters by at least six miles, meaning we are still in state police jurisdiction and could be harassed here if someone sees us.

We get back in the kayaks and paddle west to Penikese Island, where someone once told me there is a remote remedial school for boys. We can't raise the school on VHF, so we land, find a path, follow a boardwalk. We break through some thick brush and come upon two boys tossing a football around in a field by a laundry line blown nearly horizontal in the rising wind and snapping with heavy linen. So much for NOAA's forecast for mild evening breezes.

A big, burly man with a beard appears on the front porch of the building on the bluff and tells us to come on up to the main house for dinner. He is the school director, he tells us, and after dinner informs us that there is no way we can sleep here. In fact, the last time kayakers were on-island was years ago, when James Taylor held a fundraiser here for the school with a couple dozen friends. They ate lobsters and steamers. We are welcome to pitch our tents, however, at the extreme east end of the island, on state wildlife refuge land, but only so long as we never expect to be able to do it again. The school needs its remote distance from the mainland, he tells us, to protect and nurture its students, many of whom have been abused by their families, were threats to their neighborhoods, and have been given a second chance by the state's juvenile penal system. The school's therapeutic model includes the exclusion of visitors. After us, only birders with infrequently-granted permission from the state's department of environmental management will set foot on the refuge at the end of the island again. It is near dusk. If we try paddling to Nashawena, he says, the island’s caretaker will only find us and kick us off, regardless of how far dusk has fallen or what the weather is.

Paul and I paddle where we are directed. We pitch our tents. The bird-droppings in the grass are thick as dust in a wood shop. The next morning, we paddle the six-mile crossing back to the put-in. The hulk's overnight anglers have left. Wetsuit paddling season is approaching its end. On land, only our car awaits us; the crossing back is as uneventful as the trip out has been.

When I get home, I do a web search. Those who want to can spend the night on Cuttyhunk through legitimate ends by booking a night in any number of the island’s bed-and-breakfasts. They're closed after Columbus Day, however. This has been more than a few days after that, though, and thankfully so at that. If I hadn't taken my cousin on an improvised adventure, he would have called me a wimp, or, worse, a boy scout paddler who only does things by the book. ##

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