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Cape Poge, or The Five Lights (long)


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“ I want to do a forty-miler, just for the heck of it,” I told Sam.

“Wow, that would be a new personal best for me,” he replied, “My previous longest paddle was 33 miles. But I’m pumped for this, bro.”

Sam is my good paddling buddy from Vermont, where most of his paddling is on Lake Champlain and Lake George. He was coming down to visit and paddle the ocean with me for a couple of days, and I wanted to make the trip worth his while. Sam and I both like to paddle long, fast and far, and neither of us has found too many paddlers that like to do those kinds of trips. We also have a good-natured rivalry about who’s the fastest, whose boat surfs better, etc. I’m a fool to bait him and challenge him because there is no way I can win. Sam is nearly ten years my senior, so I should be besting him anyway, I suppose.

We had tossed around some pretty aggressive trip ideas – a paddle to Nantucket, a trip to Noman’s Land, crossing Buzzards Bay - but conditions weren’t going to be ideal with up to 10 foot seas and 20-knot winds predicted for south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, so we decided on a trip to Cape Poge from Woods Hole, using what current we could to help us along. We did a tune-up 12 mile paddle in Buzzards Bay on Sunday with Mike, Jill and Ben, which included surfing some classic 3-4 foot Buzzards Bay chop for a while. Sam’s carpal tunnel started acting up on him, which was looking to be another mitigating factor in a quest to do forty miles on Monday. That, and the fact that it gets dark so damn early now.

I wanted to put-in late - at 8:30 - so that we could catch some of the flood current through Woods Hole and across Vineyard Sound, but the fastest currents wouldn’t be until later. We would also need to wait until around four o’clock for our return crossing if we wanted any ebb current under us coming back. But, with sunset just before 6PM, we would have to book the last 8-9 miles from East Chop without the best currents, which wouldn’t be running until dusk. We had a big breakfast at Connie’s in Hanson, and then headed to Woods Hole. Time slipped away from us, and we didn’t get to our chosen put-in at Stony Beach on the Buzzards Bay side of Penzance Point until nearly nine o’clock.

With a late start, without the fastest currents to ride, and with some moderate west-northwest winds in our faces, we had pretty much given up on shooting for forty miles by the time we got ready to launch. We agreed we would just start paddling and see where we got to. We launched into some light surf at 9:10AM, paddling around Penzance Point in a stiff 15 from the northwest. As we swept into Woods Hole on the three-knot current, it was clear that the northwesterly breeze was going to help us have a nice ride over, but it would be a real slog coming back if conditions held. As we ran the Strait in Woods Hole Passage, the water hissed loudly around the crazily tilting and swaying red nuns. Coming out of the Hole off Nobska Point and opposite Nobska Light, we ran into some residual southwesterly swell that piled to 3-4 feet as it bumped into the east flowing current and southeast-running wind waves. The convergence of these three forces of varying size and from three different directions made surfing pretty much impossible, but we were still moving quickly across Vineyard Sound toward West Chop.

Sam was a little queasy. “This is really different from lake paddling.” He shook it off and we picked up our pace, while three Vineyard ferries steamed by just to the south of us. We flew by West Chop Light and kept out in the fast current as we turned down toward East Chop. Looking back for ferry traffic, I was surprised to see a full-size cruise ship bearing down on us. She came across Vineyard Haven Harbor with us and kept coming as we approached East Chop. We had planned to take a short break at East Chop, but we had covered the 8.5 miles in just 90 minutes and both felt like we should just stay out in the current and keep going.

As we turned southeast toward Cape Poge, the wind-driven waves were finally right behind us, and the ocean swell was now blocked by the hulk of Martha’s Vineyard. It was a seven-mile open water crossing to Cape Poge Light, and we pretty much surfed the whole way, hitting the beach just inside the point right at noon. Our first break of the trip came after 15.5 miles of paddling, in just under three hours.


We took a short break and then paddled down along the barrier beach to the opening into Cape Poge Bay. We drifted in on a still-swift flood current into what seemed like another world from that just outside the inlet. The unrelenting northwest wind stopped blowing, there was no chop, just a gorgeous vista of flat blue water, white sand, and high bluffs with the occasional Chappaquiddick mansion dotting the horizon.


We beached for lunch in the lee of a brush-covered sand spit, enjoying the sun and rest as we tried to decide what to do next. We’d come 18.5 miles, but this had been the easy part, using the wind to our advantage for most of the trip. I had wanted to paddle down the bay to its southern end and scout a potential portage of 100 yards or so over the barrier beach and into Muskeget Channel, then run back up the outside of the cape on the way back. But we weren’t going to have time to add another four miles south to this trip. We decided to cross over to Edgartown Light and paddle the shoreline back up to Oak Bluffs and East Chop, hoping for a wind shadow as we hugged the Martha’s Vineyard shoreline. At 1:30, we hauled ourselves reluctantly off the warm sandy beach and climbed back into the boats.

The slog into the wind across Edgartown Harbor took us nearly an hour. We’d hoped to make East Chop by 4PM, but that was going to be a challenge at this pace. Fortunately, we got some relief from the wind as we headed up to Oak Bluffs. The big cruise ship was still anchored there, outside Oak Bluffs Harbor, and we saw its “shuttle bus” heading back out to the mother ship after an excursion ashore.


We landed for a break in the shadow of East Chop Light at 4:15, with 27.5 miles under our belts and nine left to go back to our put-in. Looking across the Sound, conditions looked pretty good. The wind seemed to have dropped some and shifted more into the west. We had about two hours of light left, and after a break both Sam and I felt good about doing the last nine miles. Our bailout was the Vineyard Haven ferry, the thought of which left us both with a bad taste in our mouths.

At 4:30, we took off out into the Sound, picking up some decent ebb current which was quite obvious as we rounded the red #2 bell off West Chop. The wind was light and we were moving right along. Suddenly, as we lost the wind shadow of West Chop, the seas went berserk. Still blowing 10-15 knots, but now piling into an opposing two-knot current, we had some steep chop with breaking tops that made for a mad pounding, wet and splashy ride across Vineyard Sound. We whooped it up, exhilarated by the wild conditions that energized us for the last few miles of this long trip. “I love this sport!” I yelled to Sam above the crash of the waves and ripping winds.

By 5:30 we were back off Nobska Point, out of the main Vineyard Sound ebb current and getting sucked back into Woods Hole. We had crossed six miles in an hour, into the wind. We were no longer tired. Negotiating Woods Hole Passage by the failing light was a bit tricky as ferries crossed in front of us, then a slow-moving tug pulling some kind of barge filled the lane coming from the north even as the New Bedford Fast Ferry zoomed up from the south. I ended up getting yelled at by the tugboat captain, but I was more worried about being run down by the fast moving ferry cat than by a lumbering tug plodding against the Woods Hole current. I didn’t even realize it was moving until I was right in front of it.

We rounded Penzance Point at sunset and surfed back to Stony Beach, landing at 6:10PM, exactly nine hours and 36.5 miles after leaving. Oh, the Five Lights? Nobska Light, West Chop Light, East Chop Light, Cape Poge Light and Edgartown Light.


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Wow, Stephens. That truly counts as a sick-puppy trip. But more important: You guys see any fish?

For what it's worth, BTW, you can always pick up a commercial captain on VHF 13, which they by law monitor as bridge-to-bridge. The channel's by law tamped down to 1 watt so you talk only to the captain of the tug or whatever near.

Then again, getting yelled at on VHF 13 by a tug captain probably stings a whole lot more than getting yelled at by him while he gives you the finger, which happened once in Salem Sound to a guy I knew who liked to paddle there.

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