Circumnavigating Grand Island

In the mid 1990s I purchased a single scull to row around Cotuit Bay. I built a rack for it on the back fence and painted the blades of the two oars with the same green-yellow-white palette used by my grandmother to help my color-blind grandfather pick out my father’s skiff from the rest of the fleet. Every weekend morning when I was home from NYC I would wake up at dawn, put on a pair of rowing shorts that were more likely than not still wet from the last row, slip on some rubber clogs and slip out the back door to lift the boat from its rack and swing it up and onto my head for the walk down Main Street and Old Shore Road to the harbor.

I’d pretend to laugh if someone I knew drove up the hill and rolled down their window to say “Nice hat!”

If I was lucky the tide would be high, otherwise I’d have to kick off the clogs and squish through the primordial clam mud, 40-lbs. and 29-feet of racing shell held high overhead with locked arms, grimacing as I stepped on broken clam shells and the black goo squirted between my toes before I could reach enough water to roll the hull out and down with a splash. The ladies of the Cotuit Rowing Club would wave as they rigged their oars in a four. Fishermen would look at me suspiciously as they backed their trailers down the ramp and checked out the fat guy with the too-tight shorts about to climb onto an impossibly skinny boat.

I’d set off on flat calm waters as the sun topped the pine trees on Grand Island, heading across Cotuit Bay, picking my way carefully out of the anchorage and down the fairway to open water where I’d turn the bow to point down the long straightaway into North Bay, lining up the narrow stern with the steeple of the Masonic Temple next door to Freedom Hall.

Ten strokes, starting with short quarter, half, then three-quarter length slides up and down the tracks on the rolling seat to get the boat moving, settling down to full strokes and lengthening every catch and drive as I started to sweat in the morning humidity. Turn around on the tenth stroke, take a quick snapshot over my shoulder for any obstacles like moorings, channel markers, fishermen cruising out to the Sound without any navigation lights, or other rowers, kayakers or paddleboarders who might not see me paddling away. Then counting off ten more stokes, looking backwards and upsetting the boat a bit, readjusting the course by pressing down on one foot more than the other.

Having plowed a borrowed Alden Ocean Shell double into a moored Boston Whaler, and rowing borrowed Grahame King double head oninto another boat at a regatta on the Charles River, my paranoia of rowing backwards without the guidance of a front-facing coxswain is deep and abiding.

The first leg from the cove at Ropes Beach through Inner Harbor to the Narrows is about 1000 meters. On the ergometer each stroke is typically counted as ten meters, so ten strokes can cover 100 meters. a distance long enough that a backwards glance is only enough to see if the next ten strokes can be hard ones, or if the bow is pointed at a dock and needs to start curving to port on the third stroke to thread the gap between the red channel can and the float at the end of the pier. I stay out of the channel at all times, preferring to hug the shore and find the gap there between any anchored boats and the beach. That way, if I flip the boat I wind up in waist deep water, a good thing if the water temperature is under 50 degrees and hypothermia becomes a fear.

10,000 meters of some of the best rowing water there is.

Then the transit of North Bay, the designated water skiing area, where everyone pushes the throttles down to the deck and relieves the boredom of the 6 mph speed limits in effect everywhere else in the Three Bay estuary. Fast motorboats can generate huge tsunami wakes that come at a rower from the side, lifting you three feet up, oars wildly swinging in the air, rolling you into the trough where the next wave washes over the boat and soaks one’s lower body in green water. Some motorboaters get enraged when a sculler paralleling the channel passes them on the right and pulls away. Once they hit North Bay they want to get away from me like an old lady passing a hedge fund princeling riding his $20,000 Colnago down the middle of Main Street, and take off with a roar and a big fart of two-stroke outboard exhaust for me to inhale on the next stroke.

Still, I catch up to them again within a mile when they leave the bay and hit the channel into Osterville and the boat yards. That’s where careful navigation is needed, threading through moorings off of the fourth hole of the Wianno Club golf course before sliding down the main channel between the boat yards and gas docks. The drawbridge is always tricky because the current accelerates under the span and its best to stay out of the center and take the shoreside arch in case another boat is coming around the corner from the Wianno Yacht Club.

Yesterday, as I rowed into West Bay, I realized the winds had shifted and started to swing back towards the usual southwest direction it blows from most of the summer. The gusts left over from Hurricane Teddy (which passed well to the east of Chatham the day before on its way to Canada) were shrieking in the late afternoon sunshine, kicking up a jagged chop as I popped out from under the draw bridge. Fetch and shadow is the trick to open water rowing. Fetch being the amount of open water that the wind has to work with to churn up any waves. The more fetch there is, the higher the waves. The wind shadow is the calm area in the lee, or downwind side of any land mass, usually extending out five to ten times the height of the land and trees. When transiting West Bay, a shallow body of water bisected by a busy channel, sometimes the trick isn’t to take the shortest line to the head of the bay, but to tough out a few minutes of taking the waves on the beam, the boat rolling a lot in the chop, just to gain the strip of calm water beneath the verdant mansions on Oyster Harbor’s eastern shore.

I was pooped by the time I sculled up to the entrance of the Osterville Cut, the man-made ditch flanked by stone jetties that divides the barrier beach of Dead Neck from the Osterville mainland. A big swell was infiltrating the bay through the channel out into Nantucket Sound, putting the wherry to its first big test since I launched it in mid-August, rolling me around enough to make me a bit queasy as I crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the Seapuit River, a shallow area the colonists called the “Wading Place” because they could drive their cattle across at low tide to graze on the island’s salt hay.

I waited for a couple of motorboats to make their intentions known, then zipped across the Seapuit to Dead Neck, beached the bow and hopped out, ancient bones and sore muscles making me hobble around on the beach while I drank some water and pulled out the pump to empty the wherry (which still leaks a bit, but had been taking an occasional wave over the side as I crossed the bay and took the wind broadside).

The Seapuit River is my favorite stretch in the entire 10,000 meter row. The sand dunes of Dead Neck block the worst of the wind, the river is too narrow for any chop to build up, and this time of year, when the water begins to clear, it’s a pleasure to skim over the shallows near the beach grass and get a clear stretch of water for some hard speed work.

My buddy Steve and I agree the worst part of the row is the end of the river where it enters Cotuit Bay near Cupid’s Cove, the ancient harbor entrance that silted over after the Osterville Cut was built in the early 1900s. On a southwest wind there’s a lot of fetch across lower Cotuit Bay and white caps build up over the shallows before crashing into the shoreline of Oyster Harbors where they bounce back into the next set of waves, creating a vicious chop that has to be transited broadside. I’ve had some dicey moments in my Empacher over the years, filling the cockpit with water and rolling so hard my knuckles would get smashed on the gunwales, but in the wherry the ride was bearable, I just had to grit my teeth and “sky” my blades high in the air during the recovery to keep them from spanking the tops of the waves.

And then, with the end in sight, it was a matter of getting through the Cotuit Oyster Company’s grant, covered with little black buoys, across the main channel, and back into the mooring field off of Ropes Beach.

I pulled ashore next to the boat ramp, pumped out the boat to lighten the load, picked up the stern and set the green hull into the trolley I made out of PVC pipe and wheelbarrow tires. I had circumnavigated the Three Bays estuary for the first time in who-knows-how-long, something I hadn’t realized I missed until I finished it. Ten years ago, when I was competing as a “senior master” in fall regattas from the Green Mountain Head (my favorite) to the Head of the Charles (the most prestigious), I was rowing around the island five or six times a week, timing myself from the drawbridge to home because that’s roughly the same distance as the Head of the Charles course. In those days I could make the entire 9,250 meter row in 40 minutes. It took me over an hour this week. As Charlie Clapp says, “The older we get, the faster we were.”

As I strap the boat into the trolley and make it ready to be dragged up the hill to the house, every time without fail, someone stops their car, gets out and walks down the boat ramp to admire the boat and ask me if I built it, an indication I suppose of the boat’s unfinished condition and people’s fascination with home built boats in this era of plastic kayaks. I haven’t cleaned up the wooden frame since assembling the boat, so bits of dried epoxy and smears of paint need to be chipped and scraped off before I can consider varnishing the red cedar. Right now the wood is protected with a coat of teak oil, but I think later this fall I’ll put some time into finishing the boat properly before suspending her from the rafters of the garage in a kayak/canoe sling I purchased on Amazon.

Every row in the boat is an opportunity to tune the rig a little bit to make it row easier and smoother. I’ve had two Olympic rowers — Charlie Clapp and John Bigelow — take a look at the setup of the riggers, slide, foot stretchers and oarlocks. Both agree I needed to get my weight lower and the oarlocks higher. Once all the adjustments are made and I know I won’t be trimming any wood to get thing exactly right, then I can declare the boat finished and spend some time with a can of varnish to make her gleam.