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Monomoy: a near perfect trip


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On a good day, with the right atmospheric conditions, I could see S. Monomoy’s western shore off in the distance from my house in Harwich and dreamed of a circumnavigation. I believe that one of the BCU ratings involves making a crossing of some distance where you’re away from land. With a map, I calculated that I could accomplish this by going from roughly the southern tip of Monomoy in a bee-line to my house, but never quite had the gumption to try this.

I’d have done the circumnavigation in a nano-second, but some of the “guide books” to kayaking in Massachusetts made the circumnavigation seem like a true feat of arms, and, frankly, scared me off. Here’s a sampling from one guidebook:

“Strong tide rip off southeast end of South Monomoy. Breaking and dumping waves on east side of Monomoy. Thick fog can roll in rapidly and unexpectedly, especially during the summer. Do not paddle without a compass and solid navigation skills. Note that most marine charts are not accurate as to location of sand bars and breaks that have occurred in the island in the last decade. Poison ivy is abundant on the islands, especially on South Monomoy.”

“The circumnavigation of the Monomoy Islands requires solid ocean skills, great stamina and knowledge of local waters. Even proficient kayakers benefit from paddling with an experienced guide in this confusing and sometimes dangerous area.”

The level of difficulty is listed as “strenuous”. Later in this description, it says “Those looking for challenging conditions can remain on the east side of the islands and continue paddling south, paralleling the east shore of South Monomoy. Swells off the Atlantic hit shoals offshore and generate lines of breaking waves. At the south end of South Monomoy, 7.1 miles from the channel, kayakers reach Pollack Rip. All paddlers must exercise great caution in this area. Strong tidal current can generate large and breaking waves , and fierce current can pull kayakers eastward through the Pollack Rip Channel. The trip to the south end of Monomoy is rewarding but the trip demands excellent ocean skills.”

No wonder it took me years to try this.

Thanks to your website, I managed to hook up with Tom Hennes, a Manhattan-ite who is up visiting Chatham and had an interest in some long-ish trips. My other companion was George Palanasky, who is a geologist at Harvard.

I became the de-facto guide because I had already obsessed over Monomoy long enough. It was time to try it out.

I got a GPS track from Liz Eneumeier, which I figured was about as accurate a tracing of the coast as possible, since she’d gone through there with Walter, Sanjay and Nigel on August 10th. I got some local advice from Adam Bolonsky and a number of other people who’d recently done the trip.

In terms of planning, I figured that a clockwise rotation was optimum: by hitting Pollack Rip at the start of ebb tide (which, counterintuitively, flows west), we’d get a kick around the point, but not have many standing waves because they didn’t have time to build up. High tide on the flats is about three hours past the start of ebb at Pollack Rip. The tides are very complex in this area, and unless you puzzle over the current and tide patterns, the idea that a high tide happens three hours after an ebb current starts seems a bit daft, but there you are – it’s true. In any case, clockwise run around Monomoy at the start of ebb gives you the kick you want around the tip, and the high water over the flats coming back the west side.

The start of ebb was at 9:40 and high tide at Stage Harbor was at 12:40. I tried for a 7 AM put-in, but, with all the fussing with our VHF’s and ton of emergency gear (having had the daylights scared out of me by the above warning), we ended up getting going by 8.

The forecast was for light NW winds in the morning, shifting to SW in the afternoon. West winds had been blowing for three days, which would minimize the swells on the East side.

We left from the Morris Island causeway, and passed some clammers. There was very little boat traffic in the winding passage between N. Monomoy and S. Nauset beach. Sometimes this bit can be like Grand Central station, but this time it was relatively quiet. By the time we got close to the southern end of S. Nauset, we began to see harbor seals in great abundance. Right at the tip of S. Nauset there was a herd of these critters lollygagging in the mild current. Little pups would poke up their heads in curiosity and then duck back down.

George asked about the shore birds that were making the funny noises, and I said that they were piping plovers. George said “oh, that’s why they’re called ‘piping’, huh?” Even though I knew their names and seen them for years, that was the first time I’d realized why they were called piping. That’s one benefit of paddling with companions: they’re seeing things with different eyes and bring a different perspective.

We poked our nose out into the open ocean. We paused briefly to assess the situation, but the swells were very low and modest. George said “I’ve been communing with the seals and they tell me that we should proceed around S. Monomoy.”

The whole passage south was serene. We had a little push from the wind behind us, and the tide was dropping off of flood into slack at this point. At some moment, we could gaze up and down the length of S. Monomoy and it was truly spectacular – a long, untarnished stretch of barrier island with the swells gentle breaking on the sand, and that beautiful diffuse light that baths the island.

As we approached the tip, right on time, the ebb current was kicking in, and we were really hauling the mail around the southern tip. At this point, there was almost nothing in the way of serious waves. You could’ve landed anywhere on the southern tip you chose. There was only a hint of standing waves, but you had to look hard to identify them. At some moment, we arrived at the precise south end – a kind of mystical point where we imagined the Labrador current mixing with the warmer currents from the south. I estimated a 2 kt current at this point.

Periodically, Tom would dip his hands into the water and it would range from very warm to quite cold, depending on the given moment of sampling.

After rounding the southern tip, we pulled up and had lunch, which a number of seals watched from nearby. The weather was clear, with a few clouds floating by lazily. There were almost no green flies to bother us.

We chatted about this and that. Tom is a specialist in Museum building and we discussed the aims of teaching folks about nature. An amusing quip from Tom about the curators of aquariums: “All aquarium curators are great seafood lovers. They get to eat their mistakes.”

After satisfying our palates on various goodies, we shoved off again. We could see the location of my house, 8 miles away across Nantucket Sound, and briefly contemplated the open passage to my house to knock off this BCU requirement, but it would involve a complex car-ferrying arrangement, and, frankly, I thought it would be boring to paddle to a speck that only slowly grows larger and larger over the course of a couple of hours. So, back to Stage Harbor.

We took care to head reasonably far west to avoid the sand flats, even though they were mostly covered up by the high tide. The southwest wind kicked in, and before too long we had enough waves coming from behind that we could actually surf a few.

Soon enough, we hit the Stage Harbor entrance, and went back through the channel up to the Morris Island causeway and hauled out. As I was getting loaded up, a guy I know from a recent trip to Woods Hole pulled up and said that he’s ready to do a crossing to Nantucket. His idea was to go down to the southern tip of Monomoy, poach camp, and then launch on the 20 mile crossing to Nantucket. Now, that’s a challenge!

Tom and George came over to my house for a beer and some of my homemade smoked bluefish pate while we surveyed Monomoy from a distance.

All-in-all, it was about as close to a perfect trip as I could imagine. The wind was favoring us out and back, the swells on the east were minimal. The seals were being very friendly. The current around the tip was very cooperative. In retrospect, I couldn’t recognize the description of the place in my guidebook compared to my experience. Of course, we got lucky with the weather, and a bit of careful planning helped make the rip tide experience very easy. George suggested that I might want to try it again, solo, in a nor’easter.

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Sounds like it could not have worked out better.

>The tides are very complex in this area, and unless

>you puzzle over the current and tide patterns, the idea that

>a high tide happens three hours after an ebb current starts

>seems a bit daft, but there you are – it’s true.

I think part of this is due to the difference between what is happening at Pollock rip and what is happening just a few miles north, at the S. tip of S. Monomoy where we actually paddle. The current in Eldridges is for Pollock.

Liz N.

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Yeah, it was about as good as it gets.

On the point of the tide and rip current - I was staring at the Eldrige current pictures for over an hour trying to figure it out - flipping from one page to the next.

Here's what I'm guessing: high tide is reported for Stage Harbor and the flats 3 hours after start of ebb in Pollack Rip. If you look at Eldrige's plots,there is still some residual flow from the west on the flood into Stage Harbor and the flats (from the north) as the ebb begins to pick up on the southern tip. You can see the current in the diagrams continuing into the Stage area at slack and an hour or two after the ebb current begins at Pollack. Most of this current into the flats and Stage is coming from a northerly area of Nantucket Sound, and not from the southern tip of Monomoy which seems to be filling the more southerly bit of the Sound.

This change-over happens at different times - e.g. start of ebb is an hour later at Woods Hole than it is at Pollack Rip.

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