Friday, October 9, 2009

Day 10: Through the armpit of Cape Cod

Having set my sails -- at leisure! -- I made about four knots, with wind and current behind me, up Buzzards Bay to the western end of the Cape Cod Canal:

Since Day Ten happened to be a warm sunny Sunday in August, I was greatly harassed by motorboats, both approaching the canal and especially in it.

I'm sorry to sound like a New Yorker, or something, but... Massachusetts drivers don't seem to improve when they get out of their cars and into a boat. Even when they've got lots of searoom, they come roaring past you at full throttle, ten feet away if that, and knock you around like a bowling pin with their wake. And when they don't have lots of searoom -- as in the narrow confines of the canal -- they never throttle down, in spite of the apparently unenforced signs setting a speed limit.

The wakes of course are much worse in the canal, since they bounce off the sides and revisit you four or five times before the next bathtub-like displacement hull comes shoving its way through the water at fifteen knots and adds its own reverberating wake to the pandemonium of apparently immortal wakes you're already trying to negotiate.

I had hoped to make it through the canal on the last of the flood tide, which sends a robust current roaring from west to east through the canal. I made it, but just barely -- the current had just begun to change and was swirling in sinister eddies and growling on the rocks that line the canal as I squeaked out the east end and into Cape Cod Bay.

I mentioned some days ago that I was planning to pick up a crewman, Ishmael, in Wellfleet, out on the sinewy forearm of Cape Cod. I hadn't really expected to make much more progress today in that direction than Sandwich, at the east end of the canal, but when I emerged into Cape Cod Bay I found a spanking south-southeast breeze and went bowling along on a beam reach, very exhilarating, hitting eight knots occasionally. (The wind was brisk but because I wasn't very far offshore, the water was comparatively flat, a combination the little Scapegrace and I both like very much. Oh and the sun was still shining and the air was warm; even a person who doesn't much like sailing would have liked this.)

For a couple of hours I made great progress and felt very much a peace with the world. But of course it was too good to last.

The wind backed into the east, then the northeast, and got a lot stronger, and the seas came up choppy and harsh, and lead-gray clouds covered the sun, and the temperature dropped twenty degrees. It became clear that I was not going to make it into Wellfleet, which now lay almost dead to windward.

I wanted to furl the jib partway and reef the main, but the dear little roller furler chose this moment to jam, a thing it had never done before. I could furl it partway but then the fitting at the head of the jib wouldn't go any further, and the halyard wrapped around the forestay in a vile ugly corkscrew. I hove-to long enough to reef the main, which eased the boat's motion a bit. But where to go?

A mean drizzling rain had begun to fall, so wiping water off my glasses every minute or so, I squinted at the charts and finally found a tiny little harbor, Sesuit(*) --

... which seemed to have a crinkum-crankum narrow river twisting up a mile or so from the beach. I certainly didn't want to try making my way up this river, which appeared to be about as wide as a Greenwich Village sidewalk, with a sail I couldn't douse, in a lively wind -- and who knows whether there would be a place to moor or anchor anyway? But I figured I could anchor in the angle between the breakwater and the beach and at least ride out this little blow, and maybe figure out what was the matter with the furler.

So that's what I did. And just after I got the hook down, and lowered the jib to check out the furler, a little launch came roaring out of the mouth of the river, very official-looking, and my heart sank. Based on earlier experiences with the New York City police, I had some expectations in place.

Everybody has heard the salesman joke: traveling salesman has a flat tire way out in the country, discovers there's no jack in his trunk. Has to hike along the country road looking for a place to borrow a jack. It's a hot day. he takes off his jacket, then loosens his tie, then rolls up his sleeves, and he starts to think, How's this gonna go? I'm gonna find some hick and he'll want to jerk me around, or charge me some ridiculous amount, or he'll just be so goddam narrow-minded and suspicious he'll sic his dogs on me....

Finally our man arrives on the doorstep of a pretty little rose-covered cottage. He knocks on the door. A dear little rose-cheeked granny answers the door. Perhaps she even has a nice little apple pie, fresh from the oven, in her hand.

Our man stares at her for a long apoplectic moment and then screams, "You can take your fucking jack and shove it up your ass!"

That was more or less the mood I was in.

The little launch throttled back and eased up next to me. There was a chap about my age at the controls. "Do you need assistance?" he shouted.

I explained: trying to get to Wellfleet, couldn't make it, anchored here to sort things out.

"Follow me," he said, "I'll get you on a slip in the harbor."

Have I mentioned before how fond I am of Boat Dudes?

I got the anchor back easily, from the clean sandy bottom off Sesuit, with the jib still lying in a pathetic huddle of sodden laundry on the foredeck. The Sesuit harbormaster -- for it was he; let's call him Stubb -- patiently waited, idling fifty feet abeam.

I motored behind Stubb's launch up the little river I had seen on the chart, which proved to be every bit as narrow as I had feared but a lot prettier, past a waterfront restaurant and a rather imposing chandlery and boatyard, to the municipal marina, where he showed me to a slip. He intimated that the town would like to be paid for it -- $2 a foot, so for me, $52 a night -- but didn't seem very anxious on the subject.

He helped me maneuver the boat into the narrow slip -- always an ungainly process, with a sailboat. Then we chatted a bit.

Stubb is a retired schoolteacher from somewhere inland, whose post-retirement life at the shore now revolves around boats. Not a bad deal, and he's a very likable guy. He wants to do some cruising, but his wife so far is only ready for day-sailing, so we indulged in some comradely musing about how we might talk our respective girls around.

Stubb seemed to think that if Mrs Stubb saw how home-like I've made the Scapegrace, that might go some way to persuading her. I was very aware of the compliment, and pleased by it, but had some private reservations: her standard of homelikeness, I suspected, might be a bit more exigeant than his.

I tried to call Ishmael but my cell phone was then just beginning the last phase of its terminal illness. So I cooked up some of my dehydrated camp food, and showered in the marina's shower, and emptied the porta-potty again. Drank some of my El Cheapo boat wine and went to bed.

Sesuit is a nice quiet harbor and I slept like the proverbial log.


(*)Pronounced, as I later discovered, with the accent on the second syl-LA-ble: Seh-SOO-it.


  1. I love it when you talk salty. Furl the jib! Reef the main! Check out the furler! Call Ishmael!

    Speaking of the Cape, Wellfleet, &c, I just finished Russo's latest. Bit of a downer, but some good lines.

  2. Yes, it's pretty clunky, isn't it?

  3. It's fun to hear about the canal from the boat's point of view (or sailor's, excuse me). The near bridge in the postcard has a huge place in my early consciousness, as we spent the summer I was 5 in Dennis, which had my parents' first home town together a decade earlier, and the Cape was a place they loved deeply.
    You can take Route 6 all the way from Grinnell, Iowa to Dennis, and maybe we did. The way that bridge worked, and the reason it was needed, was topic of conversation and fascination for all six of us for days. Weeks! (my older brothers probably remember it even better than I do.) What goes over it now? Or was it a train bridge that we just saw from afar? (I don't think so. I think we waited for it.)

  4. Yes, it's a train bridge. When it's down, it's about ten feet above the water.

    Fortunately, or unfortunately, it's not down very often these days. The only train that crosses it is the Cape Code Trash Train -- a rickety repurposed passenger train that takes the Cape's bundled garbage back to the mainland, presumably to a landfill somewhere.

    One can only hope it's Hartford.

    Last year on my way home from Maine -- the first time I did this trip -- the Trash Train passed me as I was motoring west in the canal. There's a mile or so where the railbed runs right beside the canal.

    The train was all lit up, with that seductive homelike look that nocturnal trains always have. It was making a cozy taca-taca noise on the bumpy badly-maintained track, and poking along at maybe ten or twelve miles an hour.

    It was easy to imagine what one might have seen through those warmly-lit windows a few decades back -- tired Boston salarymen joining their families for a weekend on the Cape, or heading back from such a weekend to face the grind again.

    These days, what you see through the train's windows is piled bags of trash. The tired salarymen are all stuck in traffic, in their Lexuses or Escalades, on the highway bridge a mile or so to the east.

    On the train, they might have had a cocktail or two. In the Lexus, they're probably listening to the angry-white-guy talk radio that seems to dominate the airwaves in Massachusetts, and most other places in America.

    Not really a story of progress, is it?

  5. No -- one advantage of getting old is that I remember Cape Cod and Florida in the fifties, and they are pleasant memories indeed, and free, and I don't have to go see what they look like now.

  6. Cape Cod still has its charm. Florida --- well, the less said about that, the better.