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The Tuckaway at Straitsmouth (long)


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Cousin Paul had decided it’d be better for both psyche and spirit if he stuck around a few days more. It was hot as hell back in Colorado anyhow, and moreover he hadn’t been home here on the east coast since last year, when we paddled to Cuttyhunk from Westport.

“What the hell,” he said. “Sticking around a while can’t make things much worse in Colorado. Wolves’re already at the door, a few days more can’t rile them up more.”

Notwithstanding that I was burned out on kayaking and he was feeling jaded on it, maybe if we got into the boats and fished in Sandy Bay for blues for the afternoon we’d spend some time together as we had decades ago: creating adventure on the water as boys who were now adults.

As I wrote in an earlier trip report, my successful cousin Paul’s sandblasting company was going down the tubes, his marriage too.

“Being home’s good,” I offered.

He looked at me. “Depends on where you call home”

“Well, anyhow. I’m glad you’re here...”


“Knew it.”

“Yeah?” I said.

“Yuh, that the fall run would get you to get me to stick around a while. Let’s go to G-town.”

I thought about the first part of what he said.

“It’s not that simple ---”

“Sure it isn’t that simple. But: old G-Town.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Old G-town. The good old good-old.”

G-town is Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Paul and I grew up and went to school. Sandy Bay, where we planned to take the boats, lies off Rockport,

Gloucester’s neighbor town. Sandy Bay is a cozy if sprawling body of saltwater marked by bold Halibut Point, the offshore Salvages, and Straitsmouth Island. Those waypoints form an approachability and sense of accessibility on Sandy Bay; the bay gives a kayaker the opportunity to explore some close-by yet other-worlds which the coast of Gloucester fails to do, because Gloucester's coastline is too empty and open.

The two towns are as different as their coasts.

Old Rockport joke:

Rockporter: “You Gloucesterites never go over the bridge.”

Gloucesterite: “What bridge?”

In most facts Gloucester is like Rockport in ways no more profound than that both lie on the ocean. Rockport, the smaller town, hasn’t distinct villages and neighborhoods, and is much more insular, yet it is also nowhere near as provincial even if it is far more exclusive.

As for blues: they are bluefish, a pelagic species simultaneously celebrated and reviled by people who fish for sport. Bluefish are voracious feeders, and they race through Rockport’s and Gloucester’s inshore waters between July and late October, feeding on the schools of herring and mackerel that bloom off Cape Ann in late summer and early fall. Come late October they migrate south, rousted by cold water and mauled, in turn, by bluefin tuna. Weighing between five and twenty pounds and twelve to thirty-six inches long, bluefish are bulb-headed, yellow-eyed, and sharptoothed, and have jaws that close as powerfully as a slammed door.

Some argue bluefish are inshore New England’s most exciting smallwater sportfish, pound for pound, even if when they start to feed they become so easy to catch you need nothing more complex, really, on your line than a steel leader and something --- anything --- with a hook in it. Fishing for bluefish from your kayak won’t put your life in danger, just make you think it were. Kayak anglers whoop and holler when bluefish surround their boats.

“Bluefish, Paul”, I repeated, simplifying everything between us in a way wholly false. “Told you. Being home is good.”

He took this in, chopped it down:

“Cape Ann’s not the only place in the world. What is it with you and this home town ----.”

“Gloucester is home,” I said. “Always has been. Always will.”

Paul left Gloucester fifteen years ago.

“Colorado. The Jersey shore. Lewes, Delaware. Upstate New York. Those places are my home.”

"For me it's Gloucester still."

He then looked at me closely.

“Gloucester? You? There’s a new one. Nineteen-eighty-three it was Boston. Then Somerville, then Cambridge, then Belmont, and finally --- what ?---- Arlington by way of where, Westwood, Randolph? Seems like home for you is everywhere and nowhere at once.”

“Don’t see you on Cape Ann now,” he concluded.

This was awkward. Sometimes the body does not live where the heart goes. I leave Gloucester when it disappoints, return when it’s had time for me to become fresh and new. Sometimes the turn requires a week or two, sometimes more. When I lived there I was too callow a boy to know it at a depth beyond shallow. Besides. Love best what you return to. This was one of the warmed-over wisdoms of a wholly specious sort I’d come up with in my forties, about as profound as any of my other garden-variety Poloniuses.

“Anyhow,” I said.

“ ‘See the working waterfront. Walk the piers of the historic port. Ocean beauty. The luminists: Fitz Hugh Lane, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Milton Avery and Nell Blaine and so on,” Paul said. “ ‘Home is where -----’ ”

---- “ ‘home is where you pay the mortgage’.”

"Where's your mortgage go?"

This was awkward too.

As for the quote, these were our grandfather’s words. Twice fill-in father to Paul, once for me, first after a car crash then, later, after a couple of divorces, our grandfather had been a self-made man in our small town. He had a shrewd nose for the dollar and was good to us if brutal to adults. His mortgage paid for a restored antique home by the shore in which he slept, alone, in a small bed monastic in its narrowness. Next to his bed stood a reading lamp and under that a table piled with books on philology and word power. His wife kept her bedroom on the other side of the hall. In 1984, his mortgage paid off, his tidy estate was sold off to a developer. The rose beds got torn up. The lawns got rototilled. The privet bushes that fronted the house and most of the pines and hardwoods got stumped down, and finally the house was chopped up into seaside condo units. The showcase unit retained the view that had opened out to the front lawn that lead to the shore. For Paul and I that house had at crucial times been a refuge. We also broke our first outboard motor and capsized our first boats off its shores, and when we ran away, we ran away down its shores.

“Allright Gloucester boy,” Paul said. “Sandy Bay. Let’s go. Let’s go kayakfish our brains out.”

“It’s more complex than you make it sound, Paul, my relationship with that town --- ”

“Whatever, cousin.”

“Come on.”

“Come on what?”

There was no use, really, in going down these old routes.

“Anyhow,” I said.


“Allright. So let’s go fish off Straitsmouth. ”

“Good old Straitsmouth”

“The good old good old,” added Paul.

“Yeah,” I said. “The good-old good old. Let’s put in at Moore’s.”

We got in the car, headed north.

* * *

“Hutchins told me the rip by Tuckaway was good a couple of days ago,” I said as we unloaded the boats. We had lots of lures, steel leaders, and two spincast and boat rods which we put into the boats.

“Hutchins? That guy still alive?”

Hutchins was the younger brother of a girl Paul had dated a long, long time ago.

“Yeah, ” I said.

“Now, there’s a golden boy this town destroyed.”

Hutchins’s is a sad story but one for now besides the point. Tuckaway is not a sad place at all, though. Anyone with heart falls for it.

Tuckaway is a broad granite notch in Straitsmouth Island which a freshwater stream has driven into the island’s north corner. Deep, wide, and tall-sided, it’s emptied and re-filled by the tide and by the surge and swell running in from offshore. You can stuff ten kayaks into it on a hot afternoon and no one out on Sandy Bay on a boat will know you’re in there lounging around.

Counterclockwise from Tuckaway runs a tidal current which narrows at Gap Head and Straitsmouth. Unexpected, hidden, and delightful to paddle into and swim through, Tuckaway is a summer spot, mostly, because to really appreciate it you need to paddle your boat into it and swim through it. Vince Lamberi motors to it regularly from Newburyport in his ninety-horse to free-dive it for lobster. He runs his boat in, anchors, and simply backsaults over the gunwale to snatch up the lobsters he knows lurk in its crannies and nooks. Tuckaway’s drop-offs lead to underwater crevices, notches, and nooks ten and fifteen feet down. Lobsters hold in all of them.

Typically you kayak into Tuckaway’s narrow western chute, and although I once took a group of NSPNers in there to snorkel, those days are over. Time your trip for mid-tide and the running surge will gently lift your boat onto Tuckaway’s landing ledges like an infant onto a cradle.

We were strapping down the rods on the foredecks of the boats.

“If not there,” I added, “maybe Broken Ground.”

Broken Ground lies about a quarter mile southeast of Straitsmouth. It is weird water. Paddle over it and immediately you understand how a hole in the bottom of the ocean, and rough structure over it, trampolines the water column and flips it over. Broken Ground appears first as a markedly discernible depression on the water’s surface, a dip, much like what you might see in the safety net at the circus when the trapeze artist, fallen, gets photographed just at the bottom of his fall, when the net touches sawdust.

The depression hangs on the water, distinct and obvious; then the sides of the depression fall inward. You can see seawater’s tensile surface tension here, the pressure exerted on it by what lies below. Broken Ground is one of many patches of Cape Ann water which make swaths of blank ocean look as familiar as the houses in your neighborhood.

“Broken Ground, Tuckaway. Either’s good,” Paul shrugged. We got into the boats.

Paul had been friends with the younger brother of one of the lobstermen who owns a share in the ramp we were using, and he used both their names on another guy he knew to get permission to use Moore’s. We’d swum to Milk Island off Pebble Beach the week before, and I was between projects on boats, and because this a weekday, anybody who would have been out paddling was probably working. We’d have the bay to ourselves.

We paddled outchannel past Ocean Reporter and Freemantle Doctor, respectively dragger and standup net boat, then headed southeast for Straitsmouth. At Avery Ledge we put out some lures. The fish ---- blues --- hit quick, and catching them each felt like an absolute truth, the kind that tends to temporarily obviate whatever might be troubling you, if only for a short while. Paul would be around for a few days more. We’d see what developed. A lot had gone on before, a lot had not that should’ve, but for now all of that flew down the mouths of our bluefish. Sure, sure: home is where the mortgage goes. But home is also where the heart goes when it wants to heal. Fishing won’t solve problems, nor does banging around in fast and narrow boats, nor will visiting places like Tuckaway and Broken Ground, Thachers, or Straitsmouth. Sometimes you don’t know, exactly, what will help when what can won’t, but for now, this, and these, and a day with my cousin, would have to do. ##.

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