By Vladimir Brezina
I am already thinking forward to those crisp blue days in late winter or early spring when you can see forever, and can paddle a long way before the day is done, and are alone on the water… (and you can also get seriously hypothermic).
Here is my account of one such day in 2002, written up for the March/April 2003 issue of ANorAK, the Journal of the Association of North Atlantic Kayakers. (I wrote up a series of three trips for Anorak in 2003, whereupon the journal died—hopefully not cause and effect. The others two trips are already posted here and here.)
A Perfect Day Trip on Cape Cod
When people ask, which was my most memorable kayak trip?, I often think of this one.
On a Friday in early April 2002, I drove up from New York City to Woods Hole, MA, to attend a weekend conference at the Marine Biological Laboratory. In the trunk I had my Feathercraft folding kayak, as I intended to go paddling once the business of the conference was done. Arriving on the Cape with time to spare, I took the coast road from Falmouth and got out of the car on the headland of Nobska Point. Across the sparkling blue expanse of Vineyard Sound, stirred by a chilly wind, the coastline of Martha’s Vineyard disappeared over the horizon to the southwest, and on this side of the Sound, the line of the Elizabeth Islands along which I planned to paddle. The next day during breaks in the conference, as I stood chatting with colleagues outside the hall (even with steaming coffee in our hands, all of us shivering in the April cold), I found my eyes wandering to the sunlit green and red buoys visible out in the Hole, leaning hard to the left, then later to the right as the tidal current turned. I couldn’t wait to go paddling.
So on Sunday, as soon as it was light, I drove to the boat ramp next to the Aquarium. No one was about. I assembled my kayak and packed drybags with extra gear including a sleeping bag, which would be essential in a real emergency as the Elizabeth Islands are very sparsely inhabited, especially in winter. I struggled into my drysuit (I was definitely going to need it!) and launched around 8:30 a.m. I paddled across the calm Great Harbor, across the narrow tidal stream rushing down through the Hole (at this southern end I encountered just a few small standing waves, but looking northward I could see whitecaps glinting in the sun), and around the corner of Nonamesset Island into Vineyard Sound.
It was April, but this was still a winter day—one of those cold, clear days with a deep blue sky, yet already spring-like in the stronger April light. Even in the sunshine, the cold wind was a constant presence; the air temperature remained in the thirties all day. The water temperature felt to be around forty, not instantly stinging, but deeply chilling after only a few moments. The visibility was tremendous. In front of me, across the few miles of the Sound, the coastline of Martha’s Vineyard stood out in distinct detail, stretching away over the horizon. The blue water turned grey as gusts of wind swept across it. A ship belonging to the Oceanographic Institute had followed me out of Woods Hole, but otherwise the Sound was empty. I saw only two or three other boats all day.
There was now (as predicted) a good ebb current down the Sound; the wind was blowing from the north, at perhaps 15 knots out over open water, less in the lee of the Elizabeth Islands. With both current and wind in favor, I made rapid progress to the southwest, surfing on two-foot following seas. The succession of the Elizabeth Islands—Nonamesset, Naushon, Pasque, Nashawena—came into view one after another. From my route about half a mile offshore, I admired their boulder-fringed sandy cliffs topped with dark, bare hills. Between the islands, I could feel the wind pick up power as it swept down through the Holes. Across the widening Sound, the coastline of Martha’s Vineyard gradually receded; low-lying sections disappeared below the horizon.
In about two hours, I was nearing the last of the Elizabeth Islands, Cuttyhunk. I got a sense of my speed down the Sound when I had to ferry sharply over to come closely round the southwesternmost tip of Cuttyhunk and avoid being swept onto the Sow and Pigs Reef just outside. Beyond the reef I could see the red finger of Buzzards Tower; beyond it, just the blue sea and sky. I paddled back along the north shore of Cuttyhunk, now painfully slowly against the wind and current, to loop back into Canapitsit Channel, the Hole between Cuttyhunk and the penultimate island, Nashawena. On a convenient sandy beach in the narrow channel, I landed for a quick lunch. As always in winter, I soon regretted getting out—amid clouds of rising steam, the loss of warmth made visible—of the cocoon of the boat. I barely had time to eat my sandwich, cowering in the inadequate shelter of some rocks, before I was forced back into the boat by the cold wind.
It was still only 12:30 p.m. During my rapid progress down the Sound, I had begun to entertain the idea of crossing next to Martha’s Vineyard, whose nearest point, the cliffs of Gay Head, I could see above the horizon six miles away, framed in the gap of Canapitsit Channel, as I ate lunch. Conditions were favorable. The wind was moderating and shifting to the northwest; it was forecast to become westerly, even southwesterly, later. The current was slackening and would turn to help me back to Woods Hole.
I started across. The wind dropped and the sea was calm, with only long, two- or three-foot swells. The cliffs of Gay Head grew, very slowly, larger. (I also had my GPS, which I find provides comforting reassurance that progress is being made, sometimes despite all appearances to the contrary, out on open water.) Some time after 2 p.m. I passed the green buoy two miles out from Gay Head, and finally the beach under Gay Head came up into view. Bobbing on the swells just off the beach, I photographed the multicolored cliffs glowing in the sun; on the beach I could see a man walking a dog. Remembering my experience at lunchtime, I did not land.
The wind was now picking up from the southwest as forecast; swirls in the water over the reef showed that the current was beginning to flood back up the Sound. Both were pushing me away from the shore of Martha’s Vineyard, diagonally across the Sound toward the Elizabeth Islands again, and I was happy not to resist. Soon I was surfing down steep three-foot waves. (With a southwest wind, Vineyard Sound has a reputation of quickly building up larger seas than the windspeed would warrant as they funnel up the Sound.) Turning the boat around for a moment to look back toward the open sea, I faced a grand seascape of tumbling waves advancing out of the yellow western sun, past the dark silhouette of Cuttyhunk. Directly behind me, Gay Head was already sinking below the horizon. I passed over the tail end of Lucas Shoal, where I anticipated extra turbulence, but saw none. Throughout the day, I had been drinking a lot of water and now had to pee—not an easy matter in the boat in winter with all those layers. But I was now only a mile off Naushon once more, and made for the stubby white lighthouse marking Tarpaulin Cove, a picturesque hill-ringed bay with turquoise water that, in the summer, must be idyllic. Again I had to ferry sharply to avoid being swept past my goal. I landed below the lighthouse, but it was too cold to linger long.
On my way again, I was paddling only a hundred yards off the rocks of Naushon when I heard a hiss behind me, which must have been different from the hiss of a breaking wave because I turned around to see a patch of smoothly roiling water, like a ship’s wake, among the rough waves. I watched it as it slowly dissipated but could not figure it out. Then I heard the sound again and saw something dark out of the corner of my eye, and I realized it was a whale. Sure enough, moments later the whale surfaced directly in front of the kayak in a ring of bubbling green water. It was a smallish whale, probably no more than 25 feet long; I never saw its head or tail, only an arching grey back surmounted by a small, sickle-shaped dorsal fin. (The next day I tried to classify it, not very successfully: it may have been a minke.) The whale surfaced for only one or two seconds each time, more than ten times all around me as I sat there, excited and just a little tense. I did not feel in any danger from the whale; on the other hand, there was nothing I could do about it. After the whale had surfaced a few times, it occurred to me that I had a camera and that I should use it. But, scrambling to get a picture before the whale vanished, I forgot to disable the slow autofocus. So later I had my choice of two kinds of pictures, perfectly focused pictures of empty waves and very blurry pictures showing, unmistakably, something. Even Photoshop could not help there; hence no whale picture with this article—you’ll just have to believe it.
Eventually the whale tired of this game and I continued on. I saw it again some time later, as it followed me, or vice versa. But by then I was already turning the corner of Nonamesset into Woods Hole once more. I paddled up through the side eddies, ferried across the rushing tidal stream and coasted through the empty Great Harbor to the boat ramp from which I had departed ten hours before. My car had not even been given a ticket.
I tore apart the kayak and threw everything into the trunk. With the heater on full blast, I drove back to New York City without even changing out of my paddling gear. Somehow I was happy just to sit there. I don’t remember much from that drive, but I do recollect standing in line in a McDonald’s in a rest area on the I-95 in my mango-colored drysuit. Sometime after midnight, I peeled off the layers one by one under a hot shower.