A Paddle Among the Islands

By Vladimir Brezina

IMGP3727 cropped smallFor kayakers, islands exert a special allure. There is the attraction of  a circumnavigation, returning to the very same place from which you started from the opposite direction and completing the magic circle. But even more romantic is the idea of paddling out to that remote, preferably deserted, island that you can see on the horizon—or just on the chart!—which can be reached only by boat…

In New York Harbor, we have plenty of islands—even apart from the world-famous ones. But there’s no denying that they all offer a decidedly urban paddling experience. No matter what remote corner of the harbor you are in, the city is always there when you look up. And the city is exciting. But sometimes the country calls.

So in mid-May, we drove up to Westport, MA, on the south coast of Massachusetts just past the Rhode Island border. While Johna was enjoying a couple of days of surfing and rock-gardening (which I hope she will write up, as she did last year), I set out to paddle to my favorite deserted islands.

(click on map to expand)

Elizabeth Islands May 2013 Map 2

Bright and early in the morning, Johna drove me to Gooseberry Neck, a rocky and sandy promontory that extends out into Buzzards Bay, and dropped me off at the old, dilapidated boat ramp. I had last launched from here more than ten years ago, and was relieved to see that nothing had changed. On the south side of Gooseberry Neck, surf was pounding the shoreline. But on the protected north side, where the boat ramp was, gentle ripples beckoned me to launch into the crystal-clear water. It promised to be a warm, sunny day with a light breeze…

IMGP3459 cropped smallBut first things first: to transform this





IMGP3462 cropped smallinto that!



A couple of hours later, the Red Herring was assembled and the camping equipment, food, and water packed. With the sun now high in the sky, it was high time to launch!

I set out across Buzzards Bay, toward the chain of islands—the Elizabeth Islands—that I could see on the other side, low on the horizon, six miles across open water.

The wind was from the north, and as I left the shelter of Gooseberry Neck wind waves built up that helped push me on my way. But soon I also began to feel longer swells arriving from the open ocean to the south that raised the overall wave height to two or three feet, although the waves remained nonthreatening. That’s one of the things I enjoy most in paddling in this part of the world—that big-water feeling is always there, even on a calm day such as this.

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In an hour and a half I reached the closest of the Elizabeth Islands, Penikese. I paddled along IMGP3473 cropped smallthe boulder-strewn shoreline that fringed its low green hills, passing rocks on which numerous cormorants perched, drying their wings.

The Elizabeth Islands are a chain of six main islands, and a number of smaller ones, that stretch like stepping stones from Cape Cod to the southwest, dividing Buzzards Bay from Vineyard Sound. The Elizabeth Islands were named for Queen Elizabeth I, and the last island in the chain, Cuttyhunk, has the distinction of having been the site of one of the earliest English settlements in North America—in 1602, predating even Jamestown and Plymouth, and second only to Roanoke—although it was abandoned after only a few weeks. Since the 19th century, all of the Elizabeth Islands, except for Cuttyhunk and Penikese, have been privately owned by the Forbes family, which has, remarkably, kept them almost completely free of development. There are very few buildings, and even landing is forbidden except at three specified places. Furthermore, the islands are largely devoid of trees, and altogether present a thrillingly wild, desolate appearance—a bit of Scotland (the origin of the Forbes family) in Massachusetts.

The passages between the islands are known as Holes. Since the tide in Buzzards Bay is out of sync with the tide in Vineyard Sound, strong currents flow through the Holes in parts of the tidal cycle, up to 6 knots in Woods Hole, the hole closest to the mainland of Cape Cod. Furthermore, the currents up and down Vineyard Sound are strong—plenty strong enough to make, or break, a long paddle. From my several previous paddles in the area (such as this one), I knew how important these currents were, and before today’s trip I had looked up their timing on this day. Bottom line: it was now high time to pass through one of the holes and continue the trip along the southern, rather than the northern, shoreline of the Elizabeth Islands, through Vineyard Sound.

I turned the corner of Nashawena Island into the next hole, Quicks Hole, between Nashawena and Pasque Islands.

I was paddling very close to shore, and as I turned the corner I got a shock. I came face to face with a huge shaggy, horned beast, lounging on the beach and looking at me with uncomfortable interest.

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Fortunately, almost immediately I remembered reading about the Scottish Highland cattle that had been introduced onto Nashawena Island after the previous population of sheep had succumbed to coyotes.

With a strong flood current, I continued up Vineyard Sound, as new cliffs, capes, and bays of the Elizabeth Islands came successively into view.

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It was time for lunch. I ducked into Tarpaulin Cove, one of the places where landing is permitted on the islands. A couple of curious seals poked their heads up between the outlying rocks to watch me arrive.

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I climbed partway up the slope to the lighthouse that stands high above Tarpaulin Cove. As I ate lunch—salami, cheese, and dried fruit—I enjoyed a magnificent view of Vineyard Sound, a broad expanse of blue, still empty of boat traffic at this time of the year.

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After lunch, it was time to cross Vineyard Sound to Martha’s Vineyard itself.

IMGP3549 cropped smallVineyard Sound was calm—or as calm as it ever is, with only one- or two-foot waves. But a notorious feature of Vineyard Sound, and even more Nantucket Sound farther east, are the shoals. Vineyard Sound shoals

The shoals are long narrow underwater ridges, often running more or less parallel to the main direction of the waterway for a couple of miles or more, where depths of just a few feet separate much deeper water on either side.  When the tide runs strongly over the shoals—as it was running just then—they are marked by agitated white water and tide rips on even the calmest day.

I crossed over the deeper tail end of Middle Ground Shoal, where the water was not much disturbed. But as I then paddled farther into the passage between the shoal and Martha’s Vineyard, where the shoal becomes progressively shallower and simultaneously converges with the shoreline so that the flood current becomes channeled into a progressively narrower passage, I began to see a distinct line of agitated white water, parallel to my course off to the left. Along it trawled a couple of small fishing boats (almost the first boats I had seen all day). And this was a calm day. I could well imagine how such a shoal would act up in bad weather.

I rounded West Chop, the northernmost point of Martha’s Vineyard, and then, passing across the entrance to Vineyard Haven after giving way to several entering and exiting ferries, also its twin, East Chop.

Although sunset was still almost three hours away, I began to think of finding a campsite for the night. I was now paddling along a densely settled shoreline, part of the town of Oak Bluffs. And this was Martha’s Vineyard, a fiercely private and exclusive island. The camping possibilities did not look promising.

Furthermore, I was not making much progress—both current and wind were now against me.

But I remembered that on the mainland of Cape Cod, due north across Vineyard Sound, there was Waquoit State Park. Johna and I had researched it in preparation for our trip to Cape Cod in 2011 (but in the end did not go there). I could not remember the details, but I remembered that it was a wilderness area in which there were even some official camping spots (which required a permit, of course, which I did not have).

So I turned the boat around and crossed Vineyard Sound again, about five miles to Cape Cod. Now at least partly aided by the wind and the current, I made good time. Over some of the shoals I encountered four-foot waves, but, with the spray glittering in the low evening sun, they were more exhilarating than challenging.

When I made landfall on Cape Cod, the current and the wind had carried me somewhat to the west of Waquoit Bay. I paddled east along the shoreline, into the setting sun.

But I was also paddling directly into the wind, and the entrance to Waquoit Bay was still some way off. I began to think that, by the time I finally entered the Bay, it would be too dark to find the official campground.

So, just at sunset, I ducked into Eel Pond (0ne of a thousand with that name in New England!), which I could see from the chart was the pond one short of Waquoit. Paddling through the narrow entrance, the scene was instantly transformed. In place of choppy windy waters, there was a calm, shallow pond over which I glided to a perfect campsite which I spotted almost immediately in front of me, in a fragrant pine grove painted golden by the setting sun.

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(Subsequently, looking at Google Maps, I found that I had actually landed on Washburn Island, the same island on which the Waquoit Bay campsites are located, just on the side facing Eel Pond rather than Waquoit Bay. And my campsite looked very similar to the official ones, judging from other campers’ photos, just without any amenities.)

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I pulled the boat up into the pines, made camp, and ate dinner—salami, cheese, and fruit, once more–while I watched the last colors of the day fade over Eel Pond.

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IMGP3601 cropped smallToward morning it became a bit chilly. So I was quite ready to get up, just in time to see the colors of the dawn spread over Eel Pond again.

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But I discovered the real reward for getting up early on the other side of my IMGP3625 cropped smallcampground. A short walk through the pine grove brought me to a small landlocked pond, over which I watched the golden sun rise through the morning mist.

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The sun was up, and it was time to paddle!

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I paddled back west along the shoreline of Cape Cod. I passed under Nobska Point Lighthouse that guards the entrance to Woods Hole, where I tangled a bit with the Woods Hole ferries. Then I continued down the chain of Elizabeth Islands.

IMGP3702 cropped smallOn the other side of Vineyard Sound, I could see Gay Head, which I had visited on a previous memorable occasion, gradually emerge over the horizon.

On this side, the desolate landscape of the Elizabeth Islands, the sea around, and the clouds above all showed off to advantage on this sparkling blue day.

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By the time I reached Nashawena, the current had started to turn against me. I therefore gave up on rounding Cuttyhunk, and instead ducked north through Quicks Hole once more.

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And then it was time to cross Buzzards Bay. I was now paddling into the wind, and into the four-foot waves which it kicked up. The mist had closed in, and the other side of Buzzards Bay was not visible.

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But my navigation was good. Gradually, Gooseberry Neck emerged from the mist. I landed there in the late afternoon.

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Looking at the chart, I see that I did not circumnavigate any islands on this trip. But of remote islands, deserted islands, islands low on the horizon, I saw plenty!

More photos from the trip are here.

77 responses to “A Paddle Among the Islands

  1. Wow, fantastic! Wonderful description of the trip, and gorgeous photos :)


  2. What a great adventure! Your photos of it are beautiful…even the one of the huge, shaggy horned beast, which would’ve shocked me to see up close too. I love the colors in the photo of you arriving at the pine grove campsite. What a relief it must’ve been to find that site. :)


    • Thanks, Miki!

      I used to think that finding campsites would be a problem. But ever since last year’s Long Island circumnavigation, I’ve stopped worrying. We discovered that it’s almost always possible to find a campsite in some corner of beach, park, etc., of which there are many even on the densely settled East Coast. In a few areas, such as the Long Island Sound shoreline of Western Connecticut, it might be a problem, but elsewhere it’s easy enough… :-)


  3. So very cool, to read about. Thanks for sharing with us.


  4. Fantastic story! I loved it and your wonderful photos – especially the sunrise!


  5. vastlycurious.com

    Beautiful Blog!!!! ♛♛♛♛♛

    I have never seen Highland cattle . The rise and sets are brilliant ! You two have it made :)


  6. wow! really fantastic! the photos are beautiful.. i enjoyed reading your adventure and thanks for featuring the Elizabeth Islands, never knew them before.. p.s.i was named after the queen too :)


  7. Sounds like a nice paddle. Glad you also like solo paddling, it certainly heightens your senses when you have no one else to rely on……and nice photos as well.


    • I completely agree! Before I met Johna, I paddled solo, doing the same kind of trips, for more than 10 years.

      And yes, you learn to be very aware, and to notice many more things, under those circumstances. From our experience over the past few years, however, I would suggest that the presence of two paddlers, provided that both of them are focused outward, on their surroundings, does not diminish that—it may even enhance it, because each of them notices different things and points them out to the other. What does diminish it, in my experience, is having someone along who wants to talk about matters—movies, politics—that should be left back at home. And large groups are inevitably even worse.


      • Johna Till Johnson

        For the record, our conversations are often limited to, “Look! There’s a cormorant!” (Or, as in the recent trip to Sandy Hook, “Look! An osprey and a heron having an airborne battle!”–boy was THAT interesting!), Still, Vlad’s right–two people looking outward can enhance the experience. But two people discussing movies or dinner…. not so much!


        • Actually, to be perfectly accurate, our conversations are often limited to:

          “Look! There’s a cormorant!”


          “A CORMORANT!”

          “I can’t hear you! YOU ARE FACING AWAY FROM ME!”

          We haven’t yet developed that deep, sea-going voice that carries effortlessly over long distances that many long-time sailors have… :-)


      • I think the only way to get away from politics is to get on the water. In Australia the Election Campaign just started for September Federal elections, so I will be in the kayak or on the mountain bike for the next few weeks !!!!


  8. Wow, memories. We spent many happy weeks over a period of nearly 30 years on the Vineyard and of course, both of us grew up in New York. I had a little 16 foot centerboarder. Drew just 16″ with the board up and mostly we sailed her in the marshes on the south shore of LI. But we also took her out through Jones Inlet to the ocean … Big rollers, little tiny boat. Thanks for the reminder of some very good days.


  9. What a fantastic post and photos!!! :)


  10. Spellbinding account of a solo journey into the wat’ry realm, photography better than ever, paddling adventure both exciting & wistful.

    And now the Sun had stretch’d out all the grove,
    And now was lift above the Eastern pond;
    At last he turned, and twitch’d his herring red:
    This morning to fresh holes, what lies ahead.


  11. beautiful, beautiful pictures. ever thought of paddling to Bermuda? :)


  12. You found a Wee-Beastie (Scottish Highland Cow), that’s awesome. Oh Scotland, my Second homeland…


  13. Loved your island hopping adventure — especially your close encounter of the bovine kind!


  14. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    what incredible photos…your journey was very enjoyable even from here on the computer…
    Take Care…


    • That’s high praise indeed! Thank you, maryrose :-)


      • LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

        You’re Welcome…
        ( I think I stayed warmer and dryer..) though I have never been kayaking so I don’t know much about it..so I read your thoughts..it takes me there!


        • It’s hard to describe what it feels like, actually. Alternately hot and cold, wet and dry ;-) The operative word has to be “endure”, but in a good way—it brings many rewards. I see we’ll have to write about it in a future post to explain it properly :-)


        • LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

          yes please since I am pretty sure I will never do it myself…
          Thank you!


  15. I pinned the photo of the cattle on my Animals, Domestic and Wild Board on Pinterest. http://pinterest.com/gaylealstrom/animals-domestic-and-wild/. There’s so much to see around New York/New England that it can take a lifetime just to explore this area.


  16. Awesome. Enjoyed the post.


  17. Reblogged this on Sykose.


  18. I love camping on an island with no sign of humans. I always pretend I discovered it and it’s my own private kingdom for the night :D


  19. Sounds like a wonderful voyage. I’ve only been kayaking once (so far). I went with Artistboat out of Galveston. They have a cool program, mostly for kids to get them outside and appreciative of nature. I went and tipped myself over the minute I got in the boat :-( ruined my camera, double :-( But I really had a great time after that (had to get a new camera). I’m glad you stopped by my blog, now I know you’re here I’ll be around…


  20. Ya nailed it with “Steam rising on Pond.” pic.


  21. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Unexpected | Wind Against Current

  22. got here via the current photo challenge. i have never seen cattle settled down on the beach before! enjoyed your adventure. thanks for sharing. :)


  23. You do such a terrific job capturing nature’s beauty! I love virtually vacationing through your blogs!


  24. We spent a lot of time on the Vineyard over the years. Nantucket is exclusive. MV is just crowded, overly popular, and expensive. Camping is difficult because there’s so little empty land. But it’s not at all snooty. It must be much nice this time of year … not so much traffic, a little space not filled with touristos. Like us :-)


    • I’ve been to both MV and Nantucket on land (by ferry), years before I ever went there by kayak. Official camping is probably pretty impossible, but “unofficial” camping should be possible, I expect, especially in seasons other than the summer. Just not in the really built-up parts. So probably better on Nantucket, with its sandbars. Have to check it out next time! :-)


  25. I loved the paddle you took us on. What an adventure. Sunrise over the lake was superb.


  26. Thanks for sharing your adventure. Few of us, especially at my age, ever has a chance to do something like this, and you are able to do it with frequency. Where does your mind go in these endless hours of paddling without companionship, especially in open waters where there is little to catch the eye’s interest?

    Also, thanks for visiting my f-stop fantasy blog and liking my weekly photo challenge: grand (Sparkles).


    • Loved Sparkles, and other posts on your blog!

      You ask a very interesting question—I think the answer deserves its own blog post! But in the meantime, the main thing to understand is that one doesn’t (or, if one wants to pursue long-distance kayaking, one soon learns not to) become bored. There’s no time to become bored, if that makes sense. Apart from anything else, it’s not true that in open water there is little to catch the eye’s interest. There is the sea, with each wave a bit different. (It’s like what they say about fire—you can watch it forever.) In addition, that slight element of danger keep the mind alert…

      I’ve asked Johna about this too, and she has her own answer. So there’s definitely material there for an interesting post—thanks for asking the question! :-)


      • Thanks for your response. Actually, I forgot the question I asked. Age gets us all. LOL

        I can appreciate having to have your mind alert all the time while kayaking.

        I’ve only been kayaking once, and that kayak didn’t look anything like yours. And it was on a river, not the open sea. The only real “excitement” was when I was pulled between two cement columns of a bridge that were about six feet apart. That was a bit thrilling, considering neither myself nor the young lady behind me (a 2-seater) had never been in a kayak before. I’m not even remembering how that all came about or how we got back. LOL


  27. Pingback: Travel Theme: Illuminated | Wind Against Current

  28. I’ll say it again, you have some of the best adventures ever.


  29. Pingback: Early Bird | Wind Against Current

  30. What a great adventure you had, the photos are wonderful! I’ve lived in MA all my life and don’t think I’ve seen as much of the islands as you have on this trip!


  31. Pingback: Still | Wind Against Current

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