Cruising the Massachusetts Coast

The motor vessel Isis, anchored in Oak Bluffs. Photo by Max Hartshorne.
The motor vessel Isis, anchored in Oak Bluffs. Photo by Max Hartshorne.

Edgartown by Sea: Cruising the Massachusetts Coast

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Afternoon on the Isis, docked in Edgartown Harbor. photos by Max Hartshorne.
Afternoon on the Isis docked in Edgartown Harbor. photos by Max Hartshorne.

I spent my summers by the sea. Always, a beach, a dock and a longing to be out in a boat followed me each successive summer as I joined family and friends at our family vacation home in Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, or later, the Jersey Shore.

My grandmother used to belong to the Chappaquiddick Beach Club, and one of the swell things about this club is the big dock that allowed members to come over to the club by small boat.

I sat on that dock for hours, watching with envy as the Boston Whalers and other small motorcraft zipped in and out, piloted by grinning young men or bikini-clad teen girls. Oh, how I wanted to be in that driver’s seat.

An evening activity we used to enjoy was to go out with the Edgartown Yacht Club launch as they picked up passengers in the big harbor at night. They would let us join them as they swooped over to wherever the call cawww cawww cawww sound of the horn came from.

Yachtsmen would signal the launch to come to get them by making three blasts on their air horns.

Fast Forward

Fast forward 35 years, and I’m waking up after spending the night on the bridge of a 42’ Krogen trawler yacht owned by the friends of a friend. When my pal Jack asked me if I’d like to rendezvous with Denny and Laraine and spend a few days on their boat off the coast of Chappaquiddick, it didn’t take me a second to say yes.

The Fast Ferry is indeed fast, going at a 42 mph clip up the coast to Martha's Vineyard.
The Fast Ferry is indeed fast, going at a 42 mph clip up the coast to Martha’s Vineyard.

We debated the best way to get down to Martha’s Vineyard from our Western Mass homes. Jack at first wanted to fly, but after checking the Cape Air schedule and fares, I decided that the $280 roundtrip was a little steep.

Vineyard Fast Ferry

We agreed to take the Vineyard Fast Ferry, which leaves during the summer from Quonset Point Rhode Island, and takes a 90-minute cruise up the coast to the port of Oak Bluffs for about $70 each round trip.

The fast ferry carries 400 passengers and goes at quite a clip — 42 miles an hour. The ride is smooth since the vessel rides above the waves, and in the back two giant jets stream water in a torrent.

It’s a pleasant way to ride, and our course took us between the unpopulated Elizabeth Islands and Martha’s Vineyard, around East and West Chop, and finally, right to the honky-tonk town of Oak Bluffs, where the harbor is lined with people drinking at bars and full of pleasure boats of all descriptions.

We landed here and then jumped on one of Martha’s Vineyards’ reliable and ubiquitous public buses. Two bucks took us all the way over to the former whaling center Edgartown.

Denny and Laraine like docking here, just off the coast of the smaller island of Chappaquiddick, or Chappy as it’s known. Though docking fees are as high as $200 per night at the private docks in town, here, it’s free to anchor and take the skiff into town.

Big boats are docked in the Oak Bluffs Harbor, seen from the deck of the Fast Ferry from Rhode Island.
Big boats are docked in the Oak Bluffs Harbor, seen from the deck of the Fast Ferry from Rhode Island.

We met the captain of the Isis, Denny Wade, and boarded his rubber skiff and rode out to the wooden trawler, anchored about 100 yards off the coast, to begin our days at sea.

Life at Sea

Denny and Laraine live an itinerant life, spending months at a time on this comfortable 42-foot three-level vessel, a boat that’s built on the frame of a fishing craft with a reliable 700 horsepower diesel that does an economical yet steady eight miles per hour.

That’s not fast but it’s far less expensive than similar-sized vessels that consume dozens of gallons per hour when they cruise at higher speeds.

The couple had just returned from cruising down the Maine coast, and this unseasonably cold May was brutal. They had to wear sweaters and run their heaters, and they were still cold. Then came June when it rained every day except for three days, drenching them and causing mold to grow in the cabin. It was tough.

Inside the spacious cabin of the Isis, which was built on the frame of a fishing vessel.
Inside the spacious cabin of the Isis, which was built on the frame of a fishing vessel.

Laraine spent many years as a school principal; Denny works for himself in real estate, so the two have time to follow their passion, which is the sea. They love being out on the water, and love the life on their ‘RV on the Sea.’

The water temps here in the Vineyard are extremely mild, about 70, though the air is not as warm.

We went ashore and rented bikes to cycle around the island, and popped over to Chappy to visit Mytoi the Japanese garden that’s in the middle of the 5-mile long islet.

The garden has bridges spanning ponds, and small little ‘bus stations’ along the route explaining the fauna. Small fish swim in the pond next to a huge array of flowers and native plants and benches on which to sit and contemplate.

Among the Flowers Cafe, Edgartown.
Among the Flowers Cafe, Edgartown.

In Edgartown, there are two schools of thought about breakfast — either go basic and local or a little bit fancy. We stopped into the tiny Dock Street Coffee House for a basic lunch: sandwiches and ice coffee. It came with a sassy local waitress who told us ‘no substitutions’ and smiled.

For a breakfast with flair, we dined al fresco in the Among the Flowers Cafe, around the corner from Dock Street. Here a bagel with lox, red onion, capers, and cream cheese, along with gourmet coffee, was so good it explained the long wait for a coveted table there among the flowers.

Life in the Harbor

Living on a boat in the harbor entails some elements not all too familiar to the average land dweller. Getting used to the gentle rocking on board at night is one; a second is getting used to the cramped quarters below decks. Showers are quick — rinse, turn off the spigot — soap up and quickly rinse off.

We also learned about how to operate the head — the toilet –holding down a button for a long 20 seconds to flush it into a holding tank while we were anchored in the harbor.

Some of the yachts who were our neighbors for the night had dogs aboard. Denny and Laraine told us about what a pain it was once when they had a dog, having to take the dinghy in to relieve him every few hours. Seeing the many dogs dancing about decks out here made me wonder why owners wouldn’t choose to leave their pets at home.

Stir Crazy

One thing we did experience was a desire to get out and walk or ride on solid ground. To satisfy this desire, we headed for Wheel Happy, a bike shop located on North Water St. in Edgartown where we rented three hybrid bikes.

These people are always friendly and the bikes come equipped with bells, locks, and maps. It cost $25 for a full day rental. We headed out Katama Road to a perfect little spot that I knew would be a good stop.

Nestled among expensive houses on a street called Edgartown Harbor Drive, there is a little path marked as Land Bank property that winds its way past an osprey nest on a telephone pole and opens out into a pebbly beach on the outer harbor. It’s a nice place to take a swim, you can see in the distance the boats bobbing and motorboats passing by.

Little beach on Edgartown's outer harbor.
Little beach on Edgartown’s outer harbor.

Finding a Spigot

A boat like the Isis carries about 300 gallons of fresh water, enough said Denny, to take care of them for about three weeks. In most ports of call, you can find a communal water spigot that boaters can use to refill their tanks.

On our last day in the harbor, we motored into the raft that boats dock next to when refilling water tanks.

One sailboater approached the docks with all manner of jugs and even giant plastic bags to fill since he didn’t have a central tank below decks. We took our time in the bright sunshine, filling the tanks and talking to other boaters who were coming and going.

After a long time, we said goodbye to this lovely whaling village and set a course toward a distant buoy.

Even though our destination, Oak Bluffs, was just around the bend, we sailed straight out toward the buoy and then headed due east to anchor just outside the funky town of OB, as locals like to call it. Boaters don’t just scoot along the coast, they follow charts and navigation because it’s all too easy to get stuck on rocks or in low water.

To the Lookout

It was time for us to head to shore and say goodbye to our seagoing pals. Lunch at one of my favorite Vineyard spots, the Lookout Tavern on Sea View Avenue in Oak Bluffs, was a perfect place for one last meal.

With their famous sushi and steamers and a few beers, looking out over the anchored Isis and the passing ferryboats, we bid farewell and watched them pull up anchor. They were headed to Hadley, a small unpopulated port in the Elizabeth Islands for the night.

They’d be cruising through the Cape Cod Canal and over to Provincetown for that town’s annual carnival. Later in September, they’d pull the boat out of the water for the season.

Seeing my old childhood haunt from the water turned out to be a real highlight, as did the experience of living on the water in the harbor. Until next year, we said goodbye and good sailing.

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