Musings on the beach

The cold snap that swept the eastern seaboard last week finally finished off the flowerbeds. A few brave nasturiums and snapdragons succumbed to the low temperatures, so yesterday I pulled them up put the stalks in the compost heap, replacing them with a few dozen tulips and hyacinths for some April color.

This morning, feeling a little creaky in the lower back, I decided to follow some good advice received here, and go for a walk by myself. Being low tide, the harbor beach seemed like a good route, so I walked down to the town dock and down the beach, ducking under piers with some difficulty but reveling in the strong breeze from the southwest that seemed more full of oxygen than usual.

I realized that it was the first time I had walked that stretch of beach in perhaps 35 years, having spent hours there as a boy, exploring and catching minnows with total freedom. What kept me away for so many years?

One day, while walking along the shore, a shrill voice from the bluff made itself known.

“You! You! Get off that beach! This is private property! I am calling the police right now!”

It was a terrible experience. A new family had bought one of the lots on the shore and built an ugly house on it. They didn’t understand that beach had been walked across by generations of villagers, so they eventually erected an ugly green chainlink fence across the dry part of the sand, making the entire route impassable at high water.

Beach rights and the question of where property rights end on the shore makes for an interesting legal debate. I don’t question that it is wrong for someone to camp out with a beach blanket and cooler in front of someone’s private property, but the laws governing passage — and the precise definition of where a property begins and ends on the interface between land and water varies from one state to the next.

In Massachusetts, passage along the shore is guaranteed to fishermen, hunters, shellfishermen and people engaged in the act of “navigation” below the mean low water mark. Does that mean you can only wade in front of private property? That you can only cross on wet sand and must stay off of the dry sand?

Whatever the definition, some waterfront owners are charitable and post signs that encourage beach walkers, while others erect intimidating no-trespassing signs. I have been in confrontations while clamming or fly fishing when a property owner has belligerently demanded I move own, and I calmly explain the laws guaranteeing my rights to perform those acts. A good conversation has followed. I empathize with someone who pays over $25,000 a year in property taxes for a water view, only to see their beach fouled by beer cans and bait boxes left behind by inconsiderate surfcasters, or pitted with deep holes dug and left unfilled by clammers.

It is a terrible experience to have a simple nature walk interrupted by a confrontation, and I think the situation will worsen as the old timers on Cape Cod move own and are replaced by “wash ashores” who don’t care for the traditions of the past. As the population expands and pressure increases on a very fixed, very valuable resource, the situation is going to get worst, not better.

A number of years ago a very powerful state politician, William Bulger, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, was walking on a beach when he endured one of those contributions I described above. He made it a personal vendetta to change the laws — which are ancient and date back to colonial times — but I don’t think any meaningful reform ever occurred.

As property owners continue to try to improve their lots with piers (which pose a problem for walkers because they are a difficult barrier to duck under), and conservation groups try to keep those piers from being built, the mood is worsening. This is an issue I’d like to get involved with. My great-great grandfather, Thomas Chatfield, was instrumental at the turn of the last century in getting the town to reserve paths and lanes — known as Town Ways to Water — so the public could get to the shore to make their living. Those ways to water are threatened, obscured by property owners who don’t want people walking past their homes, sometimes planted with bushes or covered with utility sheds and swingsets. Identifying them and getting them cleared in the priority of the local shellfishing groups.
At my other online home — Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing, the topic of beach access is a perennial topic.

Here are some background links on the issue:

Stalking the wily quahog

Looks like fried clams are on the menu this weekend. The boat has been out of the water for the past two weekends following the gale of late October, but today I relaunch to catch the best part of the clamming season.

In the low sixties here on the Cape, unseasonably warm, so it would be a shame to spend the day cleaning out the attic or putting the gardens to bed.


“Gunkholing” is the act of exploring the heads of harbors and bays in a small boat, poking one’s bow into the nether regions of an estuary, following channels and streams through salt marshes and shallow water into the “gunk.”

Saturday was the perfect day for such explorations, so with Cousin Pete at the helm, my wife, son and I shot out from Cotuit over glassy waters across Vineyard Sound to Menemsha, a little fishing village on the southwestern corner of Martha’s Vineyard. We ran down the Tisbury coast, running along the glacial scree-strewn shoreline of sand cliffs and slight hills, dotted with cottages and summer homes that must enjoy one of the best views in all of New England.

At Menemsha we were greeted by a crowd of anglers standing on the breakwaters. The annual Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby opened last week and the competition brings out the maniacal side in all Vineyard fishermen. We motored inside, past the red-roofed Coast Guard station and over the bar into Menemsha Pond, crossing over Carribbean-clear water and fields of submerged eel grass. We gunkholed up inside of Nashaquitsa Pond until we ran out of water at the highway bridge.

Ashore we ate a lobster roll and stuffed quahog at Larson’s Fish Market, close by where Steven Spielberg built Quint’s boathouse for Jaws. The hulk of Quint’s boat, the Orca, allegedly lies rotting on the Lobsterville Beach shore.

After poking around the village we reboarded and headed back north along the Tisbury coast, stopping to explore Lake Tashmoo on the northshore of the Vineyard. At the very head of the Lake we found a beautiful abandoned factory overlooking a millpond and I’m still trying to figure out what it was for. We netted some bait (baby menhaden) and tried our luck for fluke (summer flounder) on the rips at Middle Ground, Hedge Fence, and finally, with success, at Succonnesset.

All in all a perfect day.

Thirty Miles East Of Nantucket: Station 44018

NDBC – Station 44018

Here I was at dawn on Saturday morning, three hours after departing Popponesset Bay aboard the Champagne, a 23′ SeaHunter. It was flat calm under a full moon and the air got colder and colder as we left the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound for the deep blue briny of the Atlantic.

As false dawn pinked up the eastern horizon we passed this buoy, a weather station maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — known as the “BB” buoy. It was foggy, but I saw the flukes of a whale’s tail break the surface before we were utterly socked in.

We trolled five lines across the thermoclines (differences in water temperature), hoping to lure a pelagic out of the emptiness and into the boat. I had eagle-eyes and saw bluefin tuna break the surface twice, sightings which gave us hours of false hope. The VHF radio was alive with cryptic chatter between fishing boats: “What temperature is the water where you are?” “Are you fishing where you fished yesterday? If so, I am two miles northwest of you.”

We didn’t see another boat for six hours, yet the radar showed they were all around us. It was like being in a vast sensory deprivation tank. A quarter mile of visibility, grey ocean, grey fog, and the diluted disc of the sun overhead.

We came home at 4:30 in the afternoon. I was exhausted, but it was cool to have been so far out in the ocean. Somewhat frightening when I thought of the possibilities of what could go wrong, but delightful given the calm conditions.