I was Sonar racing with a mentor out of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard in the late eighties. It was a one-day event with fantastic summertime conditions. After the cookout, it was revealed that Mentor had not lined up a place for us to spend the night. Since the forecast called for a big cold front and northwester, it seemed a good idea to beat the rush to the hoist and avoid what promised to be a cold, rough sail back to the Cape. We decided to go back that night to Falmouth Yacht Club where the visiting boats had all launched.
A solid plan… at approximately 10:00, we sailed out of Oak Bluffs Harbor, Falmouth bound. I was steering roughly NNE as we cleared the headland and East Chop Light. Typical of Vineyard Sound, the current was ripping about 2 knots right to left, towards Woods Hole. Mentor had out the Eldridge, a flashlight in one hand and the other on the tiny compass rose to determine a heading, factoring in the flood tide. Being young and fresh, I was confident to say the least. I had always loved sailing at night. The occasional flashlight on the compass showed I was generally within 5 degrees of Northeast, the wind a steady 15 knots.
Overhead was a magnificent sky full of stars, only interrupted by the beam of the rapidly receding lighthouse. The warm air and the delightful sound we made charging along under main alone made it spectacular sailing. After a short bit, Mentor asked, “How fast do you think we’re going?” We could’ve ve asked Bruce Kirby but he was back at the party on the Vineyard. “Let me see the flashlight.” I cast the light down at the water rushing by…”Hmmm, pretty quick.”..Then as I lifted the light to parallel with the water… “Oh, crap.” East Chop Light was gone, and we were in a warm cylinder of fog, about 30 feet in diameter ending just above the mast, leaving a hole where the stars continued to twinkle.
“No problem,” said Mentor. “We’re going about 5 knots and we’ll be in Falmouth in about 30 minutes. Come up to 55 degrees.” I trimmed the main and looked at the compass more often. A very short while afterward, a light appeared above the fog. We pondered it. “A ship or barge?” I asked. “No, we would hear it.” “Yeah, but it’s moving towards us for sure,” I said. ”You kids don’t pay attention…a solid white light alone is not a steaming light, and it’s moving too fast to be an anchor light.”
And as he finished his sentence, and a dog barked, we simultaneously yelled “STREET LIGHT!!!!” and I put the helm down hard. Nothing spins like a Sonar in anger and in a boatlength, we had tacked and were headed back west.
We sailed back into Vineyard Sound for a few minutes while we let our adrenaline levels stabilize. Then we tacked and headed back towards the Cape at half pace until we spotted a flashing green. “Oh! We”re good!” I said, “just need to find the red and we shoot right in through the breakwater.” “OK, steer for the green but be ready.” Within a minute, with the crashing sound of waves hitting a breakwater, a piece of granite emerged from the water to leeward and I put the helm down again, sending the Sonar into another bat turn.
“OK, let me steer and you look,” was Mentor’s new plan. Seemed sound. Younger eyes plus a steadier helm. On the third try, we managed to shoot into the channel in the middle, keeping the granite to either side, and poof..the fog lifted a bit to show an anchorage. “Yeah! We made it. I enthused. “Sure, wherever here is.” Mentor replied, less enthusiastically. “This isn’t Falmouth?” Apparently, we were going faster than 5 knots.
We took a mooring and flaked the main over the boom as a comforter/dew cloth, and went to sleep with life jackets as pillows…(being the 1980s, the life jackets had stayed nice and dry in the cabin during our crossing). The next morning, our beat from Green Pond to Falmouth in the 55 degree, 20-25 knot northwester was a mere two miles. With the boat on the trailer, we were showered and eating egg, bacon and cheese sammies while we watched the fleet hammer their way across Vineyard Sound. It’s great when a plan comes together.
Hear you on the water,
Benjamin V. Cesare