Unlike yesterday, we were going to get an early start. With an outgoing tide from Menemesha Pond, we would slide out into the northwest current and make it around West Chop and out of Vineyard Sound well before noon. Then, despite the reversal of the tidal flow to against us, the southwest wind would hurry us home diagonally across Nantucket Sound.
If the engine would start.
A little after five the evening prior, we had followed the channel markers to the cut at the mouth of Menemsha Creek and the broad salt pond beyond. Familiar as I was with the Stage Harbor cut, this was it in miniature. Yet the amount of water that transfers back and forth through this narrow opening was fairly daunting. Moreso because I had never been here before, and my experience maneuvering this 27-foot sailboat was limited to just the previous hours.
And this morning, the engine would not start.
The night before, with plenty of sunlight still, Noah and I left the Colby at the last slip available and went to investigate the cluster of cottages, fish houses and docks circling this little cove. Two shiny Coast Guard Motor Lifeboats immediately caught our eye, and then the number of commercial and charter fishing boats. In the filming of “Jaws,” this was where Captain Quint had kept his shark hunting vessel, the Orca.
Despite the several waterfront seafood restaurants and fish markets, we secured the most treasured meal we could find – soft serve ice cream – and walked to the beach and the breakwater at the mouth of the creek. This was the place to catch sunset. I’ve never seen a beach so crowded at this time without a band involved. One man trudged over from a takeout window with a lobster dinner on a plate and sat down on a dune to watch the last rays of daylight disappear beyond the Elizabeth Islands. Summertime in the quintessential New England fishing village.
I don’t know why the engine wouldn’t start. It ran for nine hours the day before, without issue. James, the mechanic, had given it a clean bill of health at the dock after a lot of work. It would turn over, but that was it.
When I had gotten back from dinner with an island friend in Edgartown last night, it was simply a matter of getting tucked in for the night. The battery was fully charged. The leak from the shaft repaired by James was minimal, and the pump could keep up. Sleep was easy, rocking gently next to the channel.
Now at 7:45 in the morning, having gotten ourselves coffee at the gas station to go with breakfast, we were definitely ready to leave on the outgoing tide. I relented and called James. Left a message. Texted. He called back even before I pressed send.
After going over the general procedures for starting a diesel inboard, to no avail, it was time to look mechanically. Here we were, on an island where we knew one person and no mechanics, with a narrow window of departure and a battery that was only going to last so long with constant attempts to start. James suggested we check the fuel pump.
No, it wasn’t making any noise when we turned the key. So we pulled open the engine compartment and saw the wire running to the pump was hanging freely. How did this happen in a sealed compartment?
Just using my fingers, I connected the wire. After a bit of warming up and making sure the fuel was in the engine, we tried again.
Miracle of miracles, we fixed it. Started right up.
Unprepared for success, now we had to go. Now. Casting off, we shot out between the rocks on either side of the channel entrance and back onto our course. The mackerel sky of the morning made the sea surface a bit oily in appearance, despite the steady waves coming up from Gay Head.
Hugging the sand cliffs of the Vineyard, we followed our navigation app through the deep water and swift current for almost two hours. Naushon Island, private and timeless preserve of the Forbes family, shadowed us off to port until we caught site of Woods Hole. “Look,” I said to Noah. “Buildings. Ships.” Aside from occasional houses, it was our first view of urbanization since we passed Newport 24 hours before. The distance diminished the appearance.
One of the Steamship Authority ferries heading to Vineyard Haven came into view. As the tide slacked, we turned to let the ferry pass. Crossing its wake, we entered Nantucket Sound at last.
Munching on leftovers from last night's Mexican dinner, we passed into the early afternoon looking for familiar landmarks. Nobska Light. South Cape Beach. Cotuit Harbor. Osterville. Craigville Beach. As we approached Hyannis, we made sure to wend our way between the shoals where two decades earlier I had briefly dug the keel of another Catalina 27 into the soft, swirling sand – before moving on without further incident.
With a South-southwest breeze to our starboard quarter, we were rolling in four-foot seas. Even if the weak current was against us now, we still made five knots. The mouth of Bass River. West Dennis Beach. Familiar water towers appeared. Swan River. Allen Harbor. And just as we came up to the Stage Harbor entrance buoy, we spied Wychmere and Saquatucket to port.
Stage Harbor Lighthouse greeted us, as it always has for trips in the Mako to Monomoy and South Beach. Once inside, we took shelter until the tides were more advantageous. Noah took his leave while my child and her dog came aboard in front of the harbormasters office. Sofie and I pointed the bow of the Colby up the Oyster River. With nearly five feet of draft, this could only be done safely at high water.
There were no engine surprises for this most perilous part of the journey. The narrow channel of the river, which I’ve been cruising for over 45 years, is usually where I’ve picked my way around to find high spots for digging quahogs in my waders. Now I was looking for the deepest water, knowing that if I grounded out when the tide was at full flood I would not be able to get out for almost 12 hours and would need a tow.
Bash curled up next to me in the cockpit, with Sofie on lookout from the bow (my directions being, “If you see the ground through the water, yell”), we made the turn at Barn Hill, then up past the marinas and finally along the oyster grants to the Oyster Pond itself. There, the mooring waited.
The water was warm, deep and familiar as we lowered Bash into the water here for his very first swim. Sofie and hound were ashore before I barely had cast off in the raft. Finally at rest, Colby stood out in the pond. Walking up the hill, this is what I’d wanted. A safe return with my family happy from the experience.
We await the right conditions again for a new destination.