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Menemsha, MV 7-11-04


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On Sunday morning I met Don Perry of Burlington, MA at the Trunk River parking lot in Falmouth for a trip across Vineyard Sound to Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard. Don had planned the 30-mile trip and would lead, and I was along for the ride, anxious to learn what I could from Don about paddling the currents and shoals in Vineyard Sound. Don has local knowledge of these waters that goes beyond what one can get from Eldridge or other guidebooks, and he relies on his seamanship and knowledge of the currents, rather than brute force, to pull off these long trips in potentially treacherous waters. We agreed to meet sometime after 7AM for an eight o’clock launch, planning to take advantage of the ebb tide currents in the Sound for a fast ride down the west coast of Martha’s Vineyard to Menemsha Harbor, just east of Gay Head. Don called me at 6AM and we both left home shortly after. Since I live closer, I was at the put-in and ready to launch by 7:30. The forecast was for calm seas, winds light and variable under ten knots and plenty of sunshine – perfect conditions for a trip like this, given the usual strong southwesterlies that tend to blow up on Summer afternoons down here, creating plenty of chop and swell on a typical afternoon. So far so good, as the Sound looked almost mirror-like from shore, and the breeze from the north was light. The forecast called for a shift into the southeast later in the day, which would not hurt our cause for the return trip.

Don arrived shortly before eight and after considerable preparations, we were launching by 8:30, one hour after Boston high tide and on the beginning of the ebb current which runs east to west across the northern shore of Martha’s Vineyard and then south down Vineyard Sound. Don had plotted a course that would follow the deep water along the Vineyard in order to take advantage of the faster currents a half-mile off shore. We started across the Sound, out past the #26 Bell off Nobska Point, heading toward Norton Point on the Vineyard, with the wind directly behind us blowing from the NNE at about 5 knots. The Woods Hole to MV ferries plied the waters back and forth in front of us, but serendipitously at a comfortable distance from us each time they passed. We crossed a mildly bumpy Middle Ground shoal in about 12 feet of water and reached our first course change 5 miles into the trip off Norton Point in a little over 50 minutes with an average speed of 5 knots.

As we turned further west, sighting off Gay Head in the distance on a heading of about 240 degrees, we hit the faster current in the deep waters off the Vineyard shore, picking up an estimated 1.5-2.0 knots from the current. The wind was now on the starboard aft quarter, and waves were larger due to the combined effect of wind and current. Don’s Seda Glider, with its 19-foot length, high volume bow and rudder deployed, was taking the quartering seas in stride, and catching the occasional wave for short surfing runs. My Surge, without a rudder or skeg and its low volume bow, was presenting me with a more “dynamic” ride, pearling and broaching as I tried to surf. Still, I was having a blast, as we averaged 5.5 knots over this leg, with top speeds over seven knots. We passed through a fluke fishing tournament off Lucas Shoal, but there was surprisingly little boat traffic otherwise.

The last 3.5 miles into Menemsha Harbor was directly downwind, which was now in the 8-10 knot range. Don found the surfing too much work, as the waves were smaller without the effect of the current, but I kept chasing rides, working harder than I needed to on a long trip that wasn’t half over yet. We reached the mouth of Menemsha Harbor at 10:50AM, having covered 14.5 miles in two hours, twenty minutes for a 5.2-knot average. Not bad for a couple of duffers, we thought.

We paddled into a surprisingly busy Menemsha Harbor, and found a small cruddy beach at the back of the harbor to land and stash our kayaks out of sight so we could explore the village and grab some lunch. Amidst the various flotsam of the fishing trade, old lumber, plenty of seagull excrement and a couple of garbage cans, the kayaks seemed relatively safe from molestation. The smell alone of our “landing” would make a cormorant cough up a herring. We chatted up a nice little lady artist who was painting pictures of all the crap around our boats, seemingly oblivious to the stench of the garbage cans she was sitting next to. She kindly offered to watch our boats for us while we went off to explore.

Menemsha is a quaint little fishing village with the requisite handful of tourist shops, casual eateries and a Coast Guard station. There is one nice-looking restaurant that overlooks Menemsha Pond, but they only serve dinner, opening at 5PM. Another fish market will cook you a lobster to order, which you can then eat on the dock, throwing the shells into the harbor. After picking our jaws up off our shoes after looking at the prices at the clam shack, where you order through the screen door and eat outside (I remember $29.50 for a large plate of something from the ocean) we ended up at the deli for sandwiches. Vineyard prices were in effect here as well – I paid $8.50 for a roast beef sandwich. After eating, we wandered around, waiting for the tide to turn at 1:30 when we would start the return trip. Don suggested a paddle on Menemsha Pond (about 8 miles around) while we waited, but I declined. I hadn’t told him that this was my seventh straight day in the kayak, and tenth in the last twelve. I preferred to save my energy for the 15-mile return trip, which would be into the wind. The forecasted shift to the east/southeast wasn’t happening, and it looked like we would be heading back right into it.

We left our friend the artist and her putrid beach at 1:20PM, anxious to get going. Since there wouldn’t be any current to catch for an hour or two, we agreed to paddle the shoreline and see if we could find some protection from the wind, which was up to 10-12 knots now, but also to enjoy the scenery. We opted for the casual, scenic, relaxed paddle versus the fast and furious approach we used coming over. We are glad we did, because this section of the Martha’s Vineyard shoreline has a wild beauty – easily some of the nicest coastline in Massachusetts. High, eroded cliffs of sand and clay in multiple colors, similar to the cliffs at Gay Head, are carpeted with rich vegetation in multiple hues and textures. The shoreline is strewn with plentiful rock gardens filled with house-sized boulders, rich sea life and crystal clear waters that looked like a snorkeler’s paradise. There are virtually no homes or buildings for most of the 7.5 miles from Menemsha to Cedar Tree Neck. Don and I found ourselves thinking the same thing – how could we get other kayakers over here to see this superb stretch of coastline, those who didn’t want to have to paddle this far in a day for the privilege?

After about two hours we were at Cedar Tree Neck, halfway back to Falmouth. We were both yawning in the sunshine and gently rocking waves. Time to strike out into the current again, which was expected to be running up to three knots now, based on the Eldridge current charts. Our speed quickly picked up to 5 knots as we hit the deeper water offshore. Even heading directly into the wind, we were hitting speeds up to 5.5 knots as we approached Norton Point. As we approached Middle Ground shoal, we could see the footprint of large upwellings as the current hit the shallower bottom and was pushed upward. I expected the shoal to be more turbulent, given the strong currents and opposing wind, and based on stories that I had been told by other kayakers (four foot standing waves, kayaks unable to break through, etc.) As it turned out, it was again only mildly interesting, not much more exciting than a good-sized boat wake. Don had pooh-poohed my concerns about this earlier, and I somewhat sheepishly glided through the chop as he rather loudly muttered “Doesn’t look like four feet to me!”

North of Middle Ground, we aimed the boats for Woods Hole and Nobska Point, expecting the two-knot current to carry us east of our heading back to Trunk River. Even with a 30-35 degree ferry angle, we still drifted off-course a bit. We were so busy watching the currents, our ranges, and the turbulence that we almost missed the New Bedford Fast Ferry, which went zipping by 75 yards in front of us. Right after that, two Woods Hole ferries passed behind us. Once again, our timing was just right regarding the ferry traffic, without any planning on our part. We made the 7.5-mile run from Cedar Tree Neck back to Trunk River in an hour and a quarter, averaging 4.6 knots into the wind. As we approached the beach, a power-boater near shore bore down on us. We looked at each other, both thinking the same thought – “Oh great, paddle 30 miles only to be run down 50 yards from the finish!” We made it in unscathed, none the worse for wear, as they say.

It was a great pleasure making this trip with Don, on such an excellent day, and I’m looking forward to our next trip together. Thanks, Don!

GPS Track Image: http://www.harmonicstrategy.com/MenemshaTrip.png

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